Category: Art of Punk

Toppling Rock Icons like Confederate Statues

On Nov. 3, 2021 the New York Times published Can We Separate the Art From the Artist?, an opinion piece by their regular columnist Jennifer Finney Boylan. It compared classic rock performers like Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis to the statues of Confederate generals, implying it was time to topple classic rockers for their politically incorrect behavior. Boylan put it this way:

“The past several years have seen a reassessment of our country’s many mythologies—from the legends of the generals of the Confederacy to the historical glossing over of slaveholding founding fathers. But as we take another look at the sins of our historical figures, we’ve also had to take a hard look at our more immediate past and present, including the behavior of the creators of pop culture. That reassessment extends now to the people who wrote some of our best-loved songs.”

Boylan declared yet another front in the ever expanding culture war. Bring out the long knives, were going back to the 50s, 60s, and 70s to find objectionable lyrics and horrid deeds committed by long dead performers so we can expunge them from history.

I do not entirely disagree with Boylan’s opinion piece, just 99.99% of it. The cloaked advocation of censorship intimates that defacing and toppling statues is a very good thing. That alone makes the statement odious to me as an artist and defender of the First Amendment to the US Constitution. Artists should be well aware of how detrimental censorship can be, not just to individual artists, but to society as a whole. America is supposed to be the land of liberty, not the land of purges, repression, and censorship.

Free Speech Movement marchers carry “Free Speech” banner on the Berkeley campus, Nov. 20, 1964.

Free Speech Movement marchers carry “Free Speech” banner on the Berkeley campus, Nov. 20, 1964.

I was eleven-years-old in 1964 when the Free Speech Movement began at the University of California, Berkeley. As a kid I admired the bravery and high-mindedness of those students. The movement electrified my generation, and made an everlasting impression on me. I was propelled into a lifetime of advocating and defending human and civil rights.

Back in 1964 leftwing students carried banners emblazoned with the words, “Free Speech.” But today’s leftwing students have burned placards reading “Free Speech.” I have a sneaking suspicion Boylan stands with the latter, but uses less inflammatory language to describe the position.

Free Speech sign burned by anti-Trump protester in Berkeley, March 4, 2017.

Free Speech sign burned by anti-Trump protesters in Berkeley, March 4, 2017.

Boylan asserts we have seen a “reassessment” of “the generals of the Confederacy” and “slaveholding founding fathers.” But what does removing Abraham Lincoln as the name of a public school in San Francisco have to do with this reassessment? How do “activists” defacing the Shaw 54th Regiment Memorial in Boston Commons with anti-police graffiti have anything to do with taking “another look at the sins of our historical figures”?

Black Lives Matter supporters in Wisconsin tore down a bronze statue of Norwegian-American abolitionist Hans Christian Heg, decapitated it, dragged it through the streets, and tossed it into Lake Monona. Heg was an anti-slavery activist who joined the Union Army to free the slaves. As the colonel of the all-Scandinavian 15th Wisconsin Volunteer Regiment of the Union Army, he was killed in 1863 fighting the Confederates at the Battle of Chickamauga. Yeah, dragging the broken memorial statue of Hans Christian Heg through the streets was an essential “reassessment.”

Shaw 54th Regiment Memorial in Boston Commons, defaced by BLM activists June 3, 2020. Graffiti reads: "ACAB" (All Cops Are Bastards), "F**k 12" (a codeword for police is “12”), “RIP George Floyd” & "#BLM."

Shaw 54th Regiment Memorial in Boston Commons, defaced by BLM activists June 3, 2020. Graffiti reads: "ACAB" (All Cops Are Bastards), "F**k 12" (a codeword for police is “12”), “RIP George Floyd” & "#BLM."

Perhaps Boylan and followers think the destruction of the Hans Christian Heg bronze statue was merely “collateral damage.” This so-called “reassessment” has defaced, toppled, and destroyed dozens of historic public sculptures that had nothing to do with Confederates or slave masters. Nevertheless, you can’t build a better world without breaking a few eggs, eh Boylan? Welcome to the struggle for “a more just society.”

When Jennifer Finney Boylan wrote of being appalled by the private lives of Elvis Presley and other “disgraced musicians,” I thought of a 1979 punk rock concert flyer in my collection. The cheap xeroxed leaflet announced a gig at the new Masque punk club that operated in smoggy old Los Angeles at the time. Two of the most notorious punk bands in California played the Masque musicale, the Germs and the Dead Kennedys (referred to by fans and foes as the DKs).

Xerox flyer announcing January 13, 1979 punk concert at the Masque annex, featuring the Germs and the Dead Kennedys.

Xerox flyer announcing January 13, 1979 punk concert at the Masque annex, featuring the Germs and the Dead Kennedys.

The Dead Kennedys had just released their first single, it was titled California Über Alles. It might be said the song was an attack on the type of liberalism represented by Boylan. The ornery song attacking liberals put the DKs on the map, but it might also be the kind of song guaranteed a place on Boylan’s personal list of wrongthink. Apart from the fact the DKs performed a deliriously berserk version of the Elvis song Viva Los Vegas, Presley’s face was featured on the 1979 Masque leaflet in mockery of his “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll” status.

First single by The Clash released March 1977.

First single by The Clash released March 1977.

Consider the very first record released by The Clash in March of 1977, it presented two songs; White Riot and 1977. Today’s liberals would condemn White Riot as a “white supremacist” song: “White riot, I wanna riot, white riot, a riot of my own.” 1977 was one of the songs that kicked off the punk rebellion, its refrain was “No Elvis, Beatles, or the Rolling Stones in 1977.” Yet the Clash were not calling for censorship of their musical foes, they were saying, get out of the way.

I attended that riotous 1979 Masque shindig, and between the nihilistic caterwauling of the contentious Germs, the frantic histrionics of the DKs, and the ghostly apparition of the pompadoured dead King, those at the Masque were all shook up. If only Jennifer Finney Boylan had been there.

In the heady days of the late 1970s when punk music was brand new and truly provocative, it received almost zero airplay on commercial radio in Los Angeles, and it got even less attention in the press. At one point nearly all venues in LA closed their doors to punk; this was in essence a form of censorship. But let us skip to 1985 for another long forgotten example of censorship.

In Sept 1985 the US Senate held hearings designed to censor pop music. The hearings were under the aegis of the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), a group led by liberal Tipper Gore, co-founder of the PMRC and wife of Democrat Sen. Al Gore. The PMRC released a list called the “Filthy Fifteen,” enumerating some of the performers or bands who had released “objectionable” songs. Prince, Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, AC/DC, Black Sabbath, and Twisted Sister were on the list.

Fully backing the censorious PMRC in the august body was liberal Senator Gore, who testified in their favor. Gore badgered heavy metal rocker Dee Snider of Twisted Sister in a Q and A after the rocker’s testimony. Readers should listen to Snider’s spirited defense of the first amendment, along with the eye-opening anti-censorship statements given by folk singer John Denver and composer extraordinaire Frank Zappa. Those three really understood what was at stake, the same cannot be said of Jennifer Finney Boylan.

Boylan’s Can We Separate the Art From the Artist? presents an age old, and frankly tiresome argument. However, the NYT columnist did offer an untried, newfangled twist to the dispute. Instead of targeting offensive lyrics, Boylan went after the personal sins and immoralities of individual performers. Wow, just think of all the musicians that can be purged for having deficient morals! The gossip blogs will be so busy. But wait, this is not being carried out by someone on the fundamentalist religious right, Jennifer Finney Boylan is a liberal Transgender activist.

Jerry Lee Lewis concert poster, 1958.

Jerry Lee Lewis concert poster, 1958.

In the opinion piece Boylan attacked Johnny Cash, Eric Clapton, Gary Glitter, the Rolling Stones, Don McLean, as well as Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis.

But why stop there? I am certain at least a hundred names could be added to the registry of the persona non grata. The list of classic rock songs from the 50s, 60s, and 70s construed to be “sexist” or “racist” is too long to cite here.

Figuratively speaking, Boylan fired so many flaming arrows at Don McLean in the opinion piece it almost made me like his American Pie ballad… well, almost.

Boylan recounted the arrest of McLean for suspicion of domestic violence and seemed forlorn the singer was not drawn and quartered in the public square. Let me be clear, I have no sympathy for McLean, that is my 0.1% agreement with Boylan.

Still, the columnist’s telling of McLean’s trouble with the law ends with the snide remark, “His iconic song still plays on the radio,” implying no one should ever hear American Pie again, as if hearing it will cause a male listener to commit sexual violence. Many sophisticated intellectual types—yeah, that automatically excludes me, consider McLean’s American Pie a masterwork.

Album art for “American Pie.” 1971.

Album art for “American Pie.” 1971.

But don’t shoot me, I’m only the piano player. You can take up the wickedness of McLean with the National Endowment for the Arts, which claims American Pie is one of the 20th century’s greatest songs—and the Library of Congress, which chose the song for preservation in the National Recording Registry. So, when will progressives blitz those institutions for not being, well, progressive enough?

And what about today’s dominant rap genre, is there a more misogynist music out there? Snoop Dogg, the heavyweight champ of sexist degrading lyrics once rapped: “Bitches ain’t shit but hoes and tricks, lick on these nuts and suck the d**k, gets the f**k out after you’re done.”

Snoop now has his own wine label, Snoop Cali Red, made in partnership with Australian vintner 19 Crimes (apt name). The wine can be found in grocery stores serving bourgeois cliental. Even CNN recently raved about original gangster sommelier Snoop Dogg and his stinking inferior plonk. Don’t even ask me about Cardi B and WAP. Where is Boylan’s critique?

The best way to handle music you find abhorrent and loathsome is… do not listen to it, do not purchase it, ignore it. The same goes for visual art, literature, movies, and any other creative endeavor. We still live in a free society—even though it’s looking rather threadbare these days, so behave like you are autonomous and unfettered. A free people produce and consume whatever cultural output they like.

Boylan’s opinion contained this gem: “I want to live in a world where I can be moved by art and music and literature without having to come up with elaborate apologies for that work or for its creators.” Oh for goodness sake Boylan, grow up will you.

Humanity is imperfect and flawed. The history of the world is replete with composers, painters, writers, and many other creative types who struggled with a dark side—some even nurtured it. The Italian Baroque painter Caravaggio was a street brawler who carried a sword and murdered a man in a fight. German composer Richard Wagner was an anti-Semite who changed the face of Western music. America’s virtuoso jazz trumpet player Miles Davis beat his wives. Should we burn all of their works? We will never live in the utopian world Boylan longs for. It would be more profitable for the columnist to begin a new career writing those “elaborate apologies” for the world’s ill-natured artists and their errant works.

The biggest problem confronting Boylan comes in identifying potential wrongdoers. I mean, aside from bad press or arrest, how do you single out a miscreant musician? Remember, lurking behind grandiloquent lyrics one might find an evildoer. Boylan’s opinion piece ended with this meditation on the problem of reprobate musicians: “Maybe reconsidering those songs, and their artists, can inspire us to think about the future and how to bring about a world that is more inclusive and more just.”

“Reconsidering” songs and artists my foot. This ain’t the Age of Aquarius pal. The people of the world are being silenced through censoring, deplatforming, and shadow banning by tech oligarchs who think they are delivering us to a “more inclusive and more just” world, and you are just fine with that. Except, instead of cruising to paradise we are being coughed up to dystopia.

The Soviet Union knew how to help artists create a “more just” world. By 1932 artists were required to join the communist’s Artists Union, that is, if they wanted to work and exhibit. Artists were vetted on whether they possessed the proper loyalty to communism and displayed a zealotry for uprooting old reactionary ideas. If so, they were allowed to join the union, if not they were forbidden to create, display, or sell artworks. Socialist Realism, a genre that extolled workers and communist leadership, was the only allowable art in the one-party state. The communists did not worry about coming up “with elaborate apologies” for trouble making artists who preferred the old ways… they just sent them to the gulag.

This scheme to bring about a “New Socialist Man” by silencing social democrats, conservatives, nationalists, and religious types who opposed communism, was applied to the Eastern Bloc, the Soviet satellite states of Bulgaria, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Czechoslovakia. Let me tell you a tale of artistic freedom that took place in Soviet occupied Czechoslovakia.

Original Czech 1968 graphic protesting Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Artist unknown. The poster depicts a Soviet Red Army soldier in 1945 as a liberator, then as an oppressor in 1968.

Czech graphic protesting Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Artist unknown. Image depicts Soviet Red Army soldier in 1945 as a liberator, then as an oppressor in 1968.

On Jan. 5, 1968, Alexander Dubček became the head of the Communist Party in the Soviet satellite state of Czechoslovakia. He initiated the Prague Spring reforms that relaxed the communist stranglehold on art, speech, media, and travel. The Soviets feared the reforms would undermine the Communist Bloc, so on Aug. 21, 1968, the Soviet Red Army and allied Warsaw Pact troops invaded Czechoslovakia with 2,000 tanks and 200,000 soldiers and crushed the Prague Spring.

A few weeks later a scruffy group of Czech hippies started a band in Prague named The Plastic People of the Universe; the moniker came from Plastic People, a song by Frank Zappa. The Plastic People were not activists or politically orientated, they just wanted to play their music.

The Soviet installed regime wanted musicians to dress well, keep their hair short, and sing the praises of socialism; rock was thought to be part of decadent capitalist society. The communists viewed the Plastics as a bad influence on youth and revoked the band’s musicians license in 1970, which denied them the right to perform in public. The Plastics began playing secret gigs at pubs or homes. They released an album in 1974 titled Egon Bondy’s Happy Hearts Club Banned, a reference to the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Bondy was a Czech poet banned by the communists, who also wrote lyrics for the Plastics.

The Plastic People of the Universe, circa 1968.

The Plastic People of the Universe, circa 1968.

The album was dark and disconcerting, reflecting life under a humorless totalitarian regime. It mixed Gothic psychedelic rock with freeform jazz, using electric violin and theremin for highlights. In 1976 the regime arrested the Plastics and put them on trial for “organized disturbance of the peace.” Four of the defendants received prison sentences. This heralded, not the demise of The Plastic People of the Universe, but the communist regime. Which brings me to the following point.

The trial and imprisonment of The Plastic People galvanized Czechs against the Stalinist brutes that ruled them. Czech intellectuals viewed the needless repression of the band as a major assault on artistic expression; notable Czechs of different convictions and professions gathered together to write a statement on universal human rights they titled Charter 77. Published on Jan 6, 1977, one of its initial 242 signatories was the avant-garde playwright Václav Havel.

What the communist regime said of Charter 77 might sound familiar to readers. The document was called “anti-state” and “anti-socialist,” and its signatories were slandered as “traitors and renegades.” Those who signed were hounded by secret police, and basically forced into internal exile. Copies of the charter were circulated by way of samizdat, self-published texts written by hand or typewriter—itself a crime against the state.

Finally, on Nov. 17, 1989, the Czech “Velvet Revolution” began; it was a massive non-violent upheaval of all sectors of society. After huge protests for democracy and a national general strike for the same, the leadership of the Communist Party resigned; days later the party was dissolved. A new government was sworn in on Dec. 10, and Václav Havel was elected president on Dec. 29, 1989. The hippie band won the day while the commies bit the dust.

With few caveats, I always held the position that we must separate art from its creator. Often times sublime art springs from debauched or unsavory characters. That is the miracle of art. Over the decades I have treasured paintings, literature, and music created by people I did not like or agree with. On rare occasion, if I was confronted with something I found truly detestable, I did what I previously suggested, I would not purchase it. I would ignore it. I have never advocated censorship, which I consider to be positively un-American.

The Avengers Open Your Eyes

Penelope Houston, lead singer for the Avengers, 1978. All dressed up in cellophane and tape with nowhere to go. Photo by James Stark.

Penelope Houston, lead singer for the Avengers, 1978. All dressed up in cellophane and tape with nowhere to go. Photo by James Stark.

Wild-eyed and frantic as she dressed for work early in the morning, my wife Jeannine caught me stumbling out of the bedroom sleepy-eyed, scratching my head and trying to remember a dream. She flung herself at me, grabbed me by my arms, and staring me square in the face, excitedly yelped: “What’s that punk song where the girl sings ‘Open Your Eyes, Open Your Eyes!!” Yup, just another day in my household.

I shook my head of dream shards, and paced a bit as I mumbled under my breath: “open your eyes… open your eyes.” The words were forming out of my drowsiness: “they tell you lies… and… you… sing… along.” I prodded myself, it was too early to play a question game, but, “I know this song, what is it?”

Suddenly it came to me, I felt like a kid getting knocked down by an ocean wave at any one of California’s polluted beaches. “AVENGERS! That’s it!!” The minutiae surrounding the song suddenly filled my head, names, dates, places, histories. Out of convenience I turned to the dreaded abyss of YouTube, typed “Avengers, Open Your Eyes,” and up popped the defiantly rebellious punk rock anthem from 1978.

The work-a-day-world preparations ceased momentarily as my wife and I eagerly listened to the punk rock oldie. Amazingly, that musical cry from the past summed up the problems of the present; it shrieked back against all the malfeasance, crookedness, venality, and depravity of today’s daily news—including contempt for the media itself. This was much more than teenage angst. Listen to the furious song and feel the indignation:

At first I thought you were dead, but now I see you’re one of the rest
they drugged you with muzak and TV sedation, you’re one of the blank generation

(Refrain) Open your eyes, open your eyes, you don’t see what’s going on
come on, open your eyes, open your eyes
you watch TV to find out what’s right and wrong
yeah, open your eyes…well they tell you lies and you sing along
open your eyes, to what you respected
open your eyes, you can reject it

I want to upset you, want to make you think, but you eat all their s**t
it makes your breath stink, gonna get a job, and join a f**king union
that way, you know, nothing’s gonna happen


Like lemmings you run, towards destruction
you can’t see the stream of corruption
oh I see, you’ve been blind
you better make up your mind


Think of this post as a time capsule of sorts. It holds a flyspeck cache of evidence that—once upon a time, art and culture, under the guise of punk rock, mounted a last gasp defense of liberty.

It is genuinely astonishing that the Avenger’s Open Your Eyes, a song of rage from America’s punk outburst of the late 70s, so effectively voices what millions of normal Americans are ruminating over in 2021. “Fake News”? Bah! Phfftt! In ’78 punks were shouting about the corporate media, “they tell you lies and you sing along!”

Granted, punk was an amorphous body of misfits; musicians, artists, writers, photographers, and guttersnipe philosophers. Mostly working class outsiders, we were a different breed of individualist oddballs unable to paint by the numbers. Down through the ages such eccentrics left in their wake inscrutable miscellanea—songs, writings, objects. This is no less so for punk. Social historians, or those who simply wish to nullify conformity and its ugly twin named obedience, should shift through the wreckage punk wrought. There are secrets to be found there.

Children’s protest against toxic waste contamination held in the Love Canal neighborhood, circa 1979. Photographer unknown.

Kids protest toxic waste contamination in the Love Canal neighborhood, circa 1979.

A case in point, Love Canal. That was a suburban community in Niagara Falls, New York. It was a neighborhood with higher than median income, access to schools and shopping areas, in many ways it epitomized the American Dream.

But no one ever told the people who purchased Love Canal homes that the community was built upon a massive toxic chemical dump. Around 200 tons of highly toxic dioxin had been dumped there. By 1975 eighty-two deadly chemicals—11 being carcinogens, leached into the top soil and groundwater to poison the population. High rates of miscarriages and birth defects were reported, and cases of epilepsy, asthma, migraines, and kidney disease soared.

In 1980 you could turn on commercial radio and hear hits like Magic by Olivia Newton-John, Do That to Me One More Time by Captain & Tennille, The Rose by Bette Midler, and Heartache Tonight by the Eagles.

“Flipper, Adolescents, Wasted Youth” 1981 xerox flyer for punk concert at The Vex punk club in East Los Angeles. The top strip shows a child with radiation burns in Hiroshima 1945, a Chinese baby burned in a Japanese bombing run, Aug. 1937, a young Vietnamese girl burned in a napalm attack, 1972. The flyer featured a boy with birth defects from thalidomide toxicity, late 1950s.

“Flipper, Adolescents, Wasted Youth” 1981 xerox flyer for punk concert at The Vex punk club in East Los Angeles. The flyer shows a child with radiation burns in Hiroshima, 1945. A Chinese baby burned in a Japanese bombing run, Aug. 1937. A young Vietnamese girl burned in a napalm attack, 1972. A boy with birth defects from thalidomide, late 1950s.

I was listening to Love Canal in 1980, the first single released by the San Francisco terror noise punk outfit named Flipper. While acceptable pop celebrities were busy racking in the bucks with endless insipid love songs, Flipper was skulking about in underground venues wailing lyrics about the horrors of Love Canal: “We set sailing, drifting down the love canal. We seem strange, our bodies are breaking down.

And so forever shall it be, the elites will bring you distractions and illusions, while the noble artist will alway bring you reality and truth—no matter how disquieting.

Yes, punk music made you squirm and twitch, either from delight or disgust. It delivered its uncomfortable message in a purposely excruciating, frenzied, and discordant way. It was meant as a musical slap to the face (“Open your eyes!”). Punk was always itching to fight, metaphorically speaking of course, but dominant culture gatekeepers thought it too contentious to be given a seat at the table of mainstream culture. Which is why you never heard of the Avengers or Flipper. The multitudes must be “drugged with muzak and TV sedation.”

I saw the Avengers play BACES Hall on April 18th, 1978 with the Flyboys and some neophyte band listed on the flyer only as “guests.” Turned out to be the Go-Go’s, like I said, dabblers. BACES was one of the few venues in LA that allowed punk concerts. The Avengers were a train blazing down the tracks to fly off the rails, their convulsive sound blasting through the sweaty horde of punks. A 1978 film captured a live Avengers performance; it is incorrectly labeled a performance at CBGB’s in New York City. The Avengers existed from 1977 to 1979, and the original band never toured beyond the West Coast. The film likely shows a gig at Geary Temple in San Francisco.

As with everything in Los Angeles, nothing is as it seems. In 1947 the Bulgarian American Cultural Education Society (BACES) was a non-profit corporation that promoted the culture and history of Bulgaria. The group rented a concert hall facility at 1530 N. Vermont Avenue in Los Angeles which they naturally enough named, BACES Hall. The group held classical music recitals, lectures, and readings that integrated Bulgarian traditions into American life. That early history has been entirely lost, in fact BACES Hall was torn down years ago and replaced with, what else, a Mini Mall.

“Avengers, Flyboys, Go-Go’s.” 1978 xerox flyer for punk concert at BACES Hall, Hollywood, California. Collection of Mark Vallen.

“Avengers, Flyboys, Go-Go’s.” 1978 xerox flyer for punk concert at BACES Hall, Hollywood, California. The gig was sponsored by the Masque, LA’s first punk venue. Collection of Mark Vallen.

Way back in 1978 I found out about the Avengers gig at BACES Hall in the same way all the underground weirdos learned of the next riot, err, I mean “concert.” I happened upon a xerox flyer. And so, the last bit of this screed will briefly deal with the other component of the punk aesthetic that always mesmerized me as an artist, the do-it-yourself, primitive, and inexpert xerox flyer.

I have always been fascinated by the simple sketchy images intended to convey unorthodox ideas. The harsh imagery of the German Expressionists and DaDaists of the 1930s invariably got my attention. I was also heedful of the psychedelic graphics from the 1960s, particularly in the way they were distributed via posters and flyers. But the punk aesthetic hit home in a different way.

These were modern black and white images of nihilistic despair, sometimes comical, often cynical, always engaging. Riotous hodgepodges of news photos ripped from magazines and newspapers, combined with hostage letter fonts and juxtaposed with inane advertising images. Pretty near all the flyers were cheap xeroxes, heightening the critique that mass culture was fabricated and counterfeit. I appreciated that most were created by anonymous artists. I created a few myself.

“Avengers X Bop.” 1979 xerox flyer. The original bass player for the Avengers, James Wilsey, designed this severe, bloodcurdling graphic.

“Avengers X Bop.” 1979 xerox flyer. The original bass player for the Avengers, James Wilsey, designed this severe, bloodcurdling graphic.

Some of my favorite punk flyers utilized singular images, some of them hand drawn, crudely or otherwise. They were artfully artless. Of late, social media has made the digital meme the sovereign of humorous if not troublesome graphics. I find some memes amusing, but there’s just something different about a handbill handcrafted by the human hand. Xerographic flyers do not rely on censorious High-Tech Overloads for distribution, and best of all, they can be left anywhere to intervene in daily life.

Perchance this essay will be taken as a crucial gift to seekers of esoteric knowledge and inspiration in dark times. On the other hand, I am tickled to death at the thought of those searching for the Avengers of Marvel Comics superhero fame… finding this essay instead.

CRIME: San Francisco’s doomed—just like L.A.


CRIME, San Francisco's first punk rock band. Left to right: Frankie Fix, Hank Rank, Ron "The Ripper" Greco, and Johnny Strike. Photo/James Stark.

It was 1976 when they took the stage costumed as policemen in black uniforms. The sound of pre-recorded police sirens wailed as they began their aural assault, a clamorous, frenzied skirmish of jangly guitars, rumbling bass, and bone crunching drums. Half-snarling, the lead singer howled: “Baby you’re so repulsive, honey you’re so sick.” Welcome to the world of CRIME, the original punk rock band of San Francisco.

In September of 2018 CRIME’s guitarist Johnny Strike succumbed to cancer, dying at the age of 70. Numerous movers and shakers from the original California punk scene have given up the ghost, so in part this article is a tribute of sorts. It was Strike’s passing that prompted me to write this essay; in the year between his death and this essay’s publication, other punk notables shuffled off this mortal coil. But this is not an obituary for an individual, or more tragically, a eulogy for a group of souls linked by their creativity.

This artist and native born Californian salutes the outsiders that spawned punk rock in my state—it was the last gasp of rock in the late 20th century, and the end of the cultural dissent I was part of.

Frankie Fix (left) and Johnny Strike. Photographer unknown.

Frankie Fix (left) and Johnny Strike. Circa late 1970s. Photographer unknown.

CRIME was co-founded in 1976 by Johnny Strike (guitars, vocals) and Frankie Fix (guitars, vocals). By mid-1976 CRIME released two songs on their self-published 45 single, Hot Wire My Heart and Baby You’re So Repulsive. It was the first American, West Coast punk-rock release. When I heard Repulsive in 76, I knew their baleful guitar noise was for me. The original line-up included Strike and Fix, Ron “the Ripper” (bass), and Ricky Tractor (drums); in 1977 Tractor would be replaced by Brittley Black, then by Hank Rank. Tractor, Fix, and Black all met the choir invisible prior to Strike’s passing.

That CRIME is not hailed like other notorious big-name punk bands of yesteryear is lamentable but unsurprising. Late ’70s Punk was, if nothing else, known for its disobedient and nihilistic attitude, and CRIME wielded that posture with far too much authenticity to guarantee commercial success. In other words, they were a band after my own black heart.

Frankie Fix of CRIME at Mabuhay Gardens, San Francisco, 1976. Photo/Bruce Conner (1933–2008). Conner contributed photos to the San Francisco punk magazine Search & Destroy in the late '70s. In 2017 he was given a retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. © Conner Family Trust.

Frankie Fix of CRIME at Mabuhay Gardens, San Francisco, 1976. Photo/Bruce Conner (1933–2008). Conner contributed photos to the San Francisco punk magazine Search & Destroy in the late '70s. In 2017 he was given a retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. © Conner Family Trust.

CRIME became infamous for dressing in police uniforms and the film noir attire of hardboiled detectives—costumes that buttressed their nom de guerre.

I recall the San Francisco Hall of Justice formally requesting of the group that they abstain from wearing police uniforms; it was too close to impersonating police officers. I don’t know what actually became of that request… most likely it was simply ignored.

In 1976 CRIME, along with The Nuns, laid the groundwork for San Francisco’s punk scene. Singer and keyboardist Jennifer Miro co-founded The Nuns with Alejandro Escovedo and Jeff Olener. Along with CRIME, The Nuns became regulars at the Mabuhay Gardens, a Filipino restaurant that hosted punk concerts.

In 1978 The Nuns opened the show for the last Sex Pistols concert, held at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. After breaking-up in ‘79 The Nuns released a self-titled album in 1980 on Posh Boy records, it remains a testament to a once brilliant scene. Miro died in 2012 from cancer—she was 54.

In June 1977, SLASH, the first punk magazine on the U.S. West coast, introduced Southern California to CRIME. Editor of the zine, Claude Bessy, aka Kickboy Face, reviewed CRIME’s first single: “Where do they come from anyway? Where have they been hiding? They look like neo-Nazi perverts, and they sound like your average terminal speed-freak nightmare. Truly dangerous anti-music. This must be the trend that is scaring everyone right now.” Then Kickboy administered the coup de grâce: “If these creatures keep it up they gonna start banning rock music all over again, which means they must be doing something right. Not too sure what it is yet (it can only be taken in very small doses, you know!) but it could be the next big menace to civilization.” [1]

Poster announcing March 16, 1977 CRIME concert at Mabuhay Gardens, with the Nuns. Artist/James Stark. Photo collage and drawing.

Poster announcing March 16, 1977 CRIME concert at Mabuhay Gardens, with the Nuns. Artist/James Stark.

In his review of CRIME’s single, Bessy gave a proper definition of punk rock; alarmingly shocking, dangersome, and somewhat incomprehensible—a far cry from today’s non-threatening groups that are marketed as “punk.”

I first saw CRIME in Nov. 1977 at the world famous Whisky a Go Go on the Sunset Strip, a club that had fallen on hard times and was booking punk bands (for a brief time) to keep its doors open. Less than fifty scruffy punks showed up to hear CRIME and the Dils.

In its August 1977 edition SLASH had asked the band why they called themselves the “Dils,” guitarist Chip Kinman replied: “Because it does not mean anything, it’s really nothing. That’s why it’s perfect.”

Founded in ‘77 by brothers Tony and Chip Kinman, the Dils were a controversial trio even in the disputatious punk scene; they were one of the first punk bands to emerge in California.

Hailing from Carlsbad, San Diego County, California, the band was to have enormous presence and influence in both San Francisco and Los Angeles. Overtly leftwing, they wrote songs like Class War, Mr. BigI Hate the Rich… real top 40 stuff. All the same, I viewed the band and their music as pure Americana, and years later my opinion would be vindicated.

Handbill announcing the Clash, Bo Diddley, and the Dils at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, Feb. 9, 1978.

Handbill announcing the Clash, Bo Diddley, and the Dils at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, Feb. 9, 1978.

I attended the first Clash concert in L.A. on Feb. 9, 1979. They played the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium with the legendary Bo Diddley, and the Dils, who opened the show. In their heraldic battle-cry of a song, 1977, the Clash sang “No Elvis, Beatles, or the Rolling Stones in 1977,” and punks readily sang along, convinced they would outrun, overtake, and overthrow all of the dinosaur rock oligarchs. I’m still waiting. The Clash were well on their way to becoming rock gods themselves, as they had signed with Columbia, a major commercial record label—but I digress. Though they performed with as much fury as the Clash, the Dils disbanded in 1980.

In 1981 the Kinman brothers took another path altogether by forming the “cowpunk” band Rank and File. After that band’s demise they formed Cowboy Nation in 1996. Their mission? Keep cowboy music alive, pardner. Listen to their version of Shenandoah and tell me this all-American band fell short of their goal. Sadly, the baritone voice of guitar hero Tony Kinman fell silent when he lost his battle with cancer on May 4, 2018; he was 63-years-old. Joe Strummer, co-founder of the Clash (which crashed and burned in 1983), died of a heart attack on Dec. 22, 2002, he was 50-years-old.

Poster announcing Dec., 1977 concert with CRIME, Dils, and UXA at Mabuhay Gardens, San Francisco. Artist/James Stark.

Poster announcing Dec., 1977 concert with CRIME, Dils, and UXA at Mabuhay Gardens, San Francisco. Artist/James Stark.

While punk music was always intended as a discordant affront to polite society, the visual language of punk was no less transgressive. The foreboding graphic flyers of CRIME certainly got my attention. The band formed a relationship with photographer James Stark, who had already made his mark in the 1960s with photos of New York street life. Stark designed promotional flyers for CRIME; those leaflets fortified the punk aesthetic as well—some illustrate this article.

As an artist I began collecting California punk flyers in 1977, and over the years I built quite a collection; I also generated a few anonymous flyers myself. The graphic style of xeroxed punk leaflets exuded anger, humorous absurdity, and biting social commentary, plus, they set the standard for bad taste.

Flyers from CRIME fit right into this genre. Their leaflets thematically focused on the lawless as well as those who enforced the law. They could feature a Roy Lichtenstein-like image of someone thrusting a revolver in your face, or just as easily show cops beating a lawbreaker into submission.

Poster for Aug 1977 CRIME concert at Mabuhay Gardens, San Francisco, with Novak, and the Avengers. James Stark created this photo collage using a still of James Cagney from the 1935 film "G-Men."

Poster for Aug 1977 CRIME concert at Mabuhay Gardens, San Francisco, with Novak, and the Avengers. James Stark created this photo collage using a still of James Cagney from the 1935 film "G-Men."

One CRIME poster made use of a movie still showing American actor James Cagney sitting in the back of a car cradling a .45 caliber Thompson submachine gun. That photo came from the 1935 Warner Bros. film “G-Men,” where Cagney played a heroic FBI agent battling criminal underworld mobsters.

One of my best-loved songs from CRIME’s roughneck repertoire is the 1978 San Francisco’s Doomed. In retrospect it’s an extraordinarily prescient anthem:

San Francisco’s doomed, just like L.A. San Francisco’s doomed, all the kids say. San Francisco’s doomed, it’s all in the air. San Francisco’s doomed, and we don’t care.

Today’s San Francisco is awash in used hypodermic needles, human feces, urine, and garbage. In fact, the amount of human excrement on the streets led the city’s Public Works department to create a “Poop Patrol” to clean-up the boulevards.

The open use of heroin is now so pervasive that narcotized junkies are commonly seen passed-out on the pavement. In May 2018 videos uploaded on YouTube showed dozens of junkies shooting-up in the Bay Area Rapid Transit station—many were unconscious. The staggering amount of used drug needles and human waste found on the city’s fetid avenues has only increased. Ah… and to think, previous generations used to sing “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”

However, the lyrics to San Francisco’s Doomed also included the words… “just like L.A.” In November 2018, downtown Los Angeles became a “Typhus Zone” when armies of rats feasting on mountains of uncollected garbage become bearers of typhus carrying fleas. The rodents and their fleas came in contact with the legions of homeless people sleeping on downtown L.A. streets, and presto… the city developed a typhus outbreak.

Around nine people contracted typhus in downtown Los Angeles from July through Sept., 2018. One deputy city attorney contracted the disease while working at the rat infested L.A. City Hall. Rodents took up residence at the L.A. Police Department’s downtown Central Division headquarters, and two officers were diagnosed with suspected typhus. The Democrat politicians that run the city promised to clean-up the garbage that attracts vermin (why is that so hard?), but Los Angeles—at the time of this article’s publication, still has no rat abatement program. The rat empire thrives and spreads across the sunny megalopolis of Los Angeles. Some experts even fear an outbreak of bubonic plague is close at hand.

Yeah… “doomed, just like L.A.”

CRIME played San Quentin California State Prison in Sept., 1978. Left to right: Ron 'the Ripper' Greco, Frankie Fix, Hank Rank, Johnny Strike. Photo/James Stark/Solar Lodge Records.

CRIME played San Quentin California State Prison in Sept., 1978. Left to right: Ron 'the Ripper' Greco, Frankie Fix, Hank Rank, Johnny Strike. Photo/James Stark/Solar Lodge Records.

One of the most deliciously ironic episodes in all of punk history was the Labor Day concert CRIME played at San Quentin California State Prison in 1978. The band performed in police uniforms on the prison exercise yard before some 500 inmates, as armed corrections officers watched from their guard towers and walkways. Drummer Hank Rank told the press: “We knew we’d be playing for a crowd that was really into crime.” Rank also said “the window of the cell where Sirhan Sirhan was in solitary was directly opposite where we played, and I’d like to think that our show was the worst punishment of his life.”

The Stardust Ballroom in Hollywood, California, circa late 70s. Photographer unknown.

The Stardust Ballroom in Hollywood, California, circa late 70s. Photographer unknown.

CRIME played at the Stardust Ballroom in Hollywood on July 3, 1978, as the supporting act for two of my favorite Los Angeles bands, the Screamers and the Weirdos.

The Screamers were an “art punk” band sans guitars that relied on synthesizers and the powerful theatrics of frontman Tomata du Plenty to paint a dystopian vision—impressions that in time, became our present. Tomata died of cancer in 2000 at the age of 52. As for the Weirdos, well… they were a deranged DaDa painting that some mistook for a wall of noise.

The Stardust had a storied history, and it began with Orrin Tucker, an American big band leader and singer who found fame in swing music during the 1930s and ’40s.

Tucker and his orchestra recorded over 70 popular records and continued performing into the ’90s. In 1975 Tucker leased an old roller skating rink on Sunset Blvd. near Western, transforming it into the fabulous Stardust Ballroom, a venue for big band music where Orrin Tucker and his orchestra were top billing.

Alas, big band music was no longer popular, and Tucker began renting out his musical palace to others; as disco seized the spotlight, the likes of a newly-minted Disco Diva named Cher played the venue. Then came the recession; millions in America lost their jobs, the Arab nations of OPEC halted oil exports to the U.S., gas rationing and long lines at gas stations became common… suddenly Stayin’ Alive by the Bee Gees—”I’m going nowhere, somebody help me”—sounded more like a death knell than a disco hit. That’s when punk moved in for the coup de grâce.

Poster announcing July, 1978 concert with CRIME, Weirdos, and the Screamers at the Stardust Ballroom in Hollywood. Design/Paul Lesperance.

Poster announcing July, 1978 concert with CRIME, Weirdos, and the Screamers at the Stardust Ballroom in Hollywood. Design/Paul Lesperance.

I attended the Stardust concert where CRIME, Screamers, and the Weirdos played; it was certainly evidence that Orrin Tucker’s world had long ago disappeared. I saw packs of fellow harum-scarum spiky headed punks bopping across the cracked concrete flooring of the dilapidated ballroom—bruised, sweaty, clothes torn; stark stage lighting provided the only illumination in the dark hall. It looked and sounded like the end of the world. It was a miracle someone actually filmed the CRIME scene, most likely using one those newfangled personal video cameras just introduced in the late ’70s. Viewing that film is like peering into an opaque, foggy, incomprehensible past.

The Stardust Ballroom closed its doors forever in 1982 when Orrin Tucker made his escape from L.A. and fled to Palm Springs. The once proud venue continued its decline, until finally, ignominiously, it was torn down and replaced with a Home Depot store. Such is Los Angeles, where history is disregarded and buried again and again. Orrin Tucker died on April 9, 2011 at the age of 100.

On March 23, 1978 CRIME played the Mabuhay Gardens with a band named Levi and the Rockats, who were part of the rockabilly revival movement. A few L.A. punks fancied the rough and tumble rockabilly of the 1950s, the chief attraction being a desire to return rock to its roots. I saw the Rockats perform at the new Masque in Los Angeles, Feb. 3, 1979. Oddly enough Levi and the Rockats appeared on The Merv Griffin Show in April 1979, which at the time was produced and filmed at the TAV Celebrity Theater in Hollywood, California.

 Poster announcing Aug. 31st and Sept. 1st solo CRIME concerts in 1978 at Mabuhay Gardens, San Francisco. Artist/James Stark.

Poster announcing Aug. 31st and Sept. 1st solo CRIME concerts in 1978 at Mabuhay Gardens, San Francisco. Artist/James Stark.

While the Rockats tore up the new Masque, they were far from being hair-raising or dangerous—nor were they particularly original. Punks like myself were seeking more sinister sounds, like the demented “psycho-billy” of The Cramps, who I also saw at the new Masque.

Cramps frontman Lux Interior died in 2009 from heart trouble, he was 62. Nick Knox, the bands original drummer, died in 2018 at the age of 60.

The new Masque was located in an old brick and stucco building near the intersection of Vine Street and Santa Monica Blvd. At the time, the ungentrified district built in the 1920s and ’30s was crumbling, it was a ghost of its former self—even the palm trees were wizened by L.A.’s smog.

At the intersection stood the California Surplus Mart (still standing today), where punks bought some mighty strange clothing. The only other thing of note in the area was a shabby gas station. The new Masque served as a punk venue from 1979 to 1980, I practically lived there; it had no bar, running water, toilet facilities, and no mirrored Disco ball. It was simply an empty space with a concrete floor. Today, the former punk dive is a refurbished retail space that sells house paint.

The Germs opening for the Cramps at the new Masque in Los Angeles, Feb. 24, 1979. Pictured: frontman Darby Crash and bass player Lorna Doom. Photo/Ladd McPartland.

The Germs opening for the Cramps at the new Masque in Los Angeles, Feb. 24, 1979. Pictured: frontman Darby Crash and bass player Lorna Doom. Photo/Ladd McPartland.

Funny how you memorize a place or event. The aforementioned concert by The Cramps happened at the new Masque on a Saturday evening, Feb. 24, 1979; it included the Germs, Dead Boys, and Wall of Voodoo as support acts, but it wasn’t the cacophonous music I would remember. During the evening gig I needed a breather, and so I stepped out of the club and into the dead of night. Raucous Germs music at my back, I crossed the street to the neon glow of the gas station where three long-haired station attendants were glaring at the nightclub; it surely must have been quaking and shaking like a jackhammer.

The service station men eyed me suspiciously and raised their eyebrows at my severe short hair, black leather motorcycle boots splattered with Day-Glo green paint, and my black boiler suit coveralls stenciled with large white letters reading “Satisfied Die.” Nodding towards the club, one squinty-eyed attendant asked me, “What’s going on over there?” With the caterwauling of the Germs hanging in the air, I answered “It’s a concert.” The three scowled at me incredulously and with a raspy voice one growled: “That doesn’t sound like any concert I’ve ever heard.” That cinematic moment described the atmosphere around the new Masque, as well as the public view of the punk bizarros walking amongst them.

Poster announcing Feb. 16, 1978 concert with CRIME, Novak, and Tuxedo Moon at The Keystone in Berkeley, California. Artist unknown.

Poster announcing Feb. 16, 1978 concert with CRIME, Novak, and Tuxedo Moon at The Keystone in Berkeley, California. Artist unknown.

In March of 1979 CRIME embarked on their “Fun Bus Tour.” Once again they would bring their music to the polluted megalopolis of Los Angeles. On the eve of the bus trip, someone filmed the bon voyage party that took place somewhere in the Bay area. The shindig was a typical affair, with besotted punk youth waiting for the end of the world—the latest album by synth-noise terror band Chrome, Half Machine Lip Moves, was blaring away in the background.

Those attending the soirée included Margot Olavarria, original bassist of the Go-Go’s when they were still a punk band, and Terry Graham, drummer for the Bags. After the party almost everyone piled onto a bus to invade Southern California, where CRIME would play three clubs, the Troubadour, Squeeze’s Place, Madame Wong’s (just before CRIME arrived, that venue banned them), and a final gig at the Vanguard Gallery.

In late ’70s Lost Angeles, terrified music venues had largely closed their doors to punk bands, I never figured out why. With our black leather jackets, razor blade earrings, weird haircuts colored red, blue, or green, chain belts, bondage gear, combat boots, spiky bracelets, and bad attitudes, we were such an adorable coterie. Sure, on occasion we would riot inside a venue, letting loose a barrage of beer bottles, even hurl fireworks, patrons and furniture out of broken windows—but on the whole we were quite civil and genteel. Reacting to venues closing their doors to us, L.A.’s punk partisans went deeper underground, renting abandoned spaces and other hole in the wall dives for fly-by-night concerts.

Poster announcing May 12, 1979 concert with CRIME and The Mutants at Mabuhay Gardens, San Francisco. Artist/James Stark.

Poster announcing May 12, 1979 concert with CRIME and The Mutants at Mabuhay Gardens. Artist/James Stark.

At some point during the LA Fun Bus Tour, CRIME was interviewed by the so-called “Mayor of the Sunset Strip,” Rodney Bingenheimer, whose “Rodney on the ROQ” show was broadcast on Pasadena’s then fledgling rock station, KROQ.

To be blunt, I never cared much for Rodney. Foppish and obsessed with celebrities, he was also painfully timid—making him almost childlike. That aside, I credit him for almost single-handedly putting punk before a national radio audience in the U.S. During the late ’70s not a single radio station in the country would broadcast the punk rock Bingenheimer regularly beamed over the airwaves. Listeners to his show would hear the likes of local L.A. bands like the Flesh Eaters, DeadBeats, Alley Cats, Eyes, X, and many others. In that context Bingenheimer awkwardly interviewed CRIME.

As I recall, the most featherbrained comment from Bingenheimer in the interview was his saying punks “had a lot in common” with law enforcement officers—because, he averred—punks and cops both liked violence and they wore black leather jackets.

He also made jest that CRIME dressed like cops, whereas “new-wave” darlings The Police did not. Years later, after Bingenheimer helped turn KROQ into a radio leviathan, the big-wigs at the station unceremoniously fired him in 2017. He almost immediately joined Little Steven’s SiriusXM’s Underground Garage show, hosting a weekly broadcast I have yet to hear.

Poster announcing CRIME concert at Mabuhay Gardens, San Francisco, June 24, 1978. Artist/James Stark.

Poster announcing CRIME concert at Mabuhay Gardens, San Francisco, June 24, 1978. Artist/James Stark.

One last note regarding the Fun Bus Tour party. Darby Crash of the Germs dropped in with a dead ringer for Lorna Doom, bass player of the Germs. Both sported black leather jackets and black armbands emblazoned with the band’s blue circle logo (armbands were a punk anti-fashion thing at the time). An ardent Germs fan, I attended their last concert at the Starwood nightclub in West Hollywood on Dec. 3, 1980. Four days later Crash committed suicide at the age of 22, intentionally overdosing on heroin and effectively ending the Germs. Lorna Doom would die of cancer on Jan. 16, 2019, she was 61.

There are those who say Crash was a “genius.” Though he displayed flashes of brilliance, anyone who uses heroin is far from being an Einstein. Crash’s suicide was a tragically stupid act. And speaking of tragedies, in 2006 the bandmates of Crash made the grotesque error of reactivating the Germs, replacing their deceased boy wonder frontman with an actor named Shane West, perhaps best known for playing a doctor on the medical TV show, ER. The faux Germs willingly transformed what was once the most authentically fierce and nihilistic punk band, into a postmodern simulacrum of rebellion—starring a TV actor.

The imitation Germs followed in the footsteps of those who defiled the legacy of the renowned 60s band, the Doors; Jim Morrison, legendary lead singer and songwriter of that band died in 1971. In 2002, former members of the Doors Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger, reformed the group as “The Doors of the 21st Century.” They replaced Morrison with Ian Robert Astbury, singer for the post-punk band, The Cult. Yeah, that worked as well as the ersatz Germs. In 2005 the surviving Doors drummer John Densmore, along with the Morrison estate, won a permanent court injunction preventing anyone from using “The Doors” as a band name. “The Doors of the 21st Century” changed their name to “Manzarek-Krieger”—that band ceased to exist when Manzarek died of cancer on May 20, 2013 at the age of 74.

Poster announcing "Punks Against Black Lung: A Benefit Concert for Striking Coal Workers," held at Mabuhay Gardens, San Francisco. March 1978.

Poster announcing "Punks Against Black Lung: A Benefit Concert for Striking Coal Workers," held at Mabuhay Gardens, San Francisco. March 1978.

If a new wave soothsayer had warned CRIME to “Beware the Ides of March,” they probably wouldn’t have listened. I don’t remember who organized the March 1978 “Punks Against Black Lung: A Benefit Concert for Striking Coal Workers,” but it was a huge event at the Mabuhay Gardens that garnered national attention—at least in punk circles. Someone had the bright idea of raising funds for the miners, convincing a number of bands to play a two evening gig at the Mabuhay.

The circumstances that inspired the benefit revolved around the 1977-1978 national coal strike in the United States. The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) negotiated a contract with the coal companies; a good portion of mine workers rejected the contract, and so militant workers conducted a work stoppage without union authorization—a “wildcat strike.” After 110-days, the bitter labor action ended on March 19, 1978… the eve of the Mabuhay benefit concert.

CRIME was asked to play, but they refused. The press quoted the band as having said, “Mine workers are just assholes who drive around in Cadillacs.” The band claimed they were misquoted, but months later guitarist Frankie Fix told the Berkeley Barb newspaper the miners “would never go dig for an extra week so we could get out our new record.” [2] When it came to his assessment that coal miners didn’t give a fig about punk rock, Fix was absolutely correct; but then, no one cared about punk rock except the punks.

Somehow the miners benefit show went on without CRIME—fourteen punk bands like Negative Trend, the Nuns, and Tuxedo Moon ended up playing the two evening concert that took place on March 20-21, the door price per night? $4.50 (wow, the good ‘ol days). Search & Destroy Magazine filmed the benefit, and captured the beautiful noise and artlessness of UXA, Dils, Avengers, Sleepers, and the Mutants on film.

Handbill for the Sept. 11, 1978 "Nix on 6—Save the Homos Benefit" concert at the Mabuhay Gardens, San Francisco.

Handbill for the Sept. 11, 1978 "Nix on 6—Save the Homos Benefit" concert at the Mabuhay Gardens, San Francisco.

Before you start bellyaching about CRIME being politically incorrect creeps, consider this. Six months after refusing to play the miners gig, CRIME headlined a Sept. 11, 1978 benefit concert at Mabuhay Gardens in opposition to the Briggs Initiative. Officially known as California Proposition 6, the initiative sought to ban gays and lesbians from working in the state’s public schools.

CRIME’s drummer Hank Rank told the press the following about Prop. 6. “This Briggs issue hits closer to home than the miners’ benefit. People have always suppressed us as individuals and as a band. We’re against suppression of any kind, and we think Briggs and his supporters are ghouls for bringing this dead issue to life. Who cares about sexual preference any more, anyway?” Frankie Fix told the press; “It’s 1978, I can’t believe we’re even talking about being gay. It’s like how black people used to be talked about and discriminated against. People are real slow. We’re all sexual beings and that’s all there is to it.” [2]

CRIME had an unlikely ally in their opposition to the Briggs Initiative. Former state Governor and soon to be US President, Ronald Reagan, also opposed the measure. The Briggs Initiative was defeated by voters in Nov. 1978.

Poster announcing Feb. 2, 1977 CRIME concert at Mabuhay Gardens, San Francisco. with VKTMS and Situations. Photo/James Stark.

Poster announcing Feb. 2, 1977 CRIME concert at Mabuhay Gardens, San Francisco. with VKTMS and Situations. Photo/James Stark.

I could go on telling true CRIME stories, but I’d have to write a book instead of an essay. CRIME and the other uncontaminated bands of punk’s initial detonation were like proverbial canaries in a coal mine, but few heard the caged birds singing. Listening to the strains of today’s “alternative sounds”—pop, hip hop, rap, I know those canaries kicked the bucket a long time ago. Bernie Sanders producing a campaign video with the moronic Cardi B only proves my point. Today’s commercial music is entirely disposable. A cursory glance at the Billboard Hot 100 makes you wish the music industry really was dead, but it’s a reanimated corpse that just keeps shambling along.

The left leaning news magazine The Week, published an article on Aug. 31, 2019 titled “The coming death of just about every rock legend.” Detailing the moribund state of rock, the piece opened with the following words, “Rock music isn’t dead, but it’s barely hanging on.” That was the exact message punks delivered to the world over 40-years-ago, albeit with slightly more force, along the lines of: “We’ve come to bury rock, not to praise it.” Glad to see everyone’s caught up.

Do you think a genre of music like rock can’t fade away and take flight from public memory? Tell me, where is American Big band music today? Born in the early 1910s from the world of jazz, it completely dominated popular music in the 20s, 30s, and 40s (it’s zenith), and remained influential in the 50s and 60s. Then suddenly, full stop—it became passé. What does your average millennial know about Big band music? Do they prize Orrin Tucker and his orchestra?

Do you think I exaggerate about the demise of rock ‘n roll? Mike Kaplan, program director for ALT 92.3 (WNYL-FM), the ONLY “contemporary rock station” in New York City said the following: “We don’t even say the word ‘rock’ on the radio station—we’re New York’s new alternative.” He went on to blather, ”I don’t think there’s a big win in using the word ‘rock’ today. The raw, guitar-rock sound is really… I don’t want to say it’s done, but…” This station is in New York City of all places. CBGB? Fuhgeddaboudit. And those phenomenal New York rock bands like the Ramones, Richard Hell & The Voidoids, Television, the Dictators, the Misfits, and the Patti Smith Group? Just odds and ends to be swept away. In Kaplan’s words; “If there’s anything polarizing that I see in music, it’s a no-go.” So, that’s the future of rock, eh?

Poster announcing Halloween, 1978 CRIME concert at Mabuhay Gardens, San Francisco with Pearl Harbor & the Explosions, and Dead Kennedys. Design/James Stark.

Poster announcing 1978 Halloween CRIME concert at Mabuhay Gardens, San Francisco, with Pearl Harbor & the Explosions, Dead Kennedys, and the Next. Design/James Stark.

Speaking personally—and I know this will upset my contemporaries who still flail and wail about in their punk uniforms like it’s the 1977 Summer of Hate, but I view punk as a moment frozen in time. It was an anomaly from the late 1970s and early ’80s that grew from a particular set of circumstances; it eventually entered the annals of history. You can make history, but you can’t relive or alter it, and you assuredly cannot superimpose it over other conditions as a solution.

In ‘77 punk was a jagged stone violently thrown into a placid body of water; we’ve been watching the ripples slowly dissipating on the pond’s surface ever since.

Examining the lyrics of CRIME and other punk bands from the period, one quickly realizes the millennial “woke” crowd of today would decry the words as politically incorrect—triggering anxiety about sexism, racism and ’sensory overload.’

The noose on free expression draws ever tighter.

As a point of personal privilege—I can’t imagine people at a FEAR concert reacting with “jazz hands.”

If you were caught on the streets of Los Angeles in 1977 with blue hair, you would likely have been pummeled by an angry crowd of normals. In present-day Los Angeles… the normals have blue hair.

It has been said that “the moving finger writes; and, having writ, moves on.” I have no more interest in dressing up in ’80s punk gear than I do in wearing a black turtleneck sweater, donning a beret, and carrying bongos in the hope people will think I’m a ’50s beatnik. Back in my late ’70s punk heyday, I didn’t envision a future of endlessly replayed songs by domesticated house pets like Green Day and Billy Idol—but that’s where we’re at presently. Long ago punk became just another set of ossified rules; one might as well go to a Grateful Dead revival concert.

CRIME and many of their compatriots are dead, literally, and so with them punk itself. Yet the spirit of punk, ephemeral and wraith-like, lingers—waiting to infect. All the motives we had for throwing ourselves into punk, a rejection of conformity and a thirst for creativity and radical inventiveness—still exist. All that’s needed is a new skin and the necessary accoutrements. Punk was much more than a black leather jacket, a beat-up electric guitar, and a weird haircut; it demanded untamed freedom and creativity, a philosophy to be applied to all human endeavor.

I just hope the virus finds those who have not been inoculated.

———————————– # ———————————–

[1]  SLASH Magazine. Vol. 1 #2 June 1977
[2] Berkeley Barb. Sept. 8-14, 1978.

Gang of Four—They Fail Us Now

Gang of Four button-badge, circa 1979.

Gang of Four button-badge, circa 1979.

This essay is a contradictory tale of brilliance and entropy, inspiration and disillusionment. It is a story about a once dazzling rock band I discovered in 1978, a group I formerly thought to be indispensable. My commentary refers to the punk, funk, political, rhythm machine from the UK known as Gang of Four.

Politically speaking, what I loved most about the band was this, their onslaughts were aimed at institutions and systemic failures, never individuals.

During the 70’s and 80’s there was an endless cast of real life brutes and reprobate politicos to be identified, but the band never spoke their names. Instead they targeted the debased social situations we accepted, the ruin we internalized and embraced, and our gullibility as we traversed boundless media landscapes of deception and manipulation. The poetry of their words and rhythms were an attempt to crack open ideological facades; what more can an artist do?

Given the abysmal state of public discourse today, their laudable stance of long ago was really extraordinary, and paralleled my own belief that ideas should be fought rather than people. Yet, the newfangled Gang of Four in 2018 have abandoned their former attitude, and have now disparaged by name a famous American individual using graphics and a musical cudgel. However, before Quietus sacks the Gang of Four, please first allow me to praise the past glories of the British rockers.

"Vehemently criticize the monstrous deeds of the anti-Party clique of the 'Gang of Four' in trying to wrest power from the Party." Chinese propaganda poster, 1978. Credit: International Institute of Social History/Stefan Landsberger.

"Vehemently criticize the monstrous deeds of the anti-Party clique of the 'Gang of Four' in trying to wrest power from the Party." Chinese propaganda poster, 1978. Credit: International Institute of Social History/Stefan Landsberger.

I couldn’t help but notice the death of Chairman Mao on Sept. 9, 1976; he died just two days after my 22nd birthday. Mao’s demise threw China into turmoil. The Chinese Communist Party was split between “moderates” who wanted to develop the economy and radicals who wanted to further Mao’s revolution.

The leader of the radicals was Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing. In October of 1976 the moderates staged a bloodless coup, arresting Qing and three other party members. Dubbed the “Gang of Four” they were tried and convicted of anti-party activities, receiving life imprisonment or lengthy prison sentences.

Along comes 1977 and four young men in Leeds, England needed a name for the band they just formed. “Despairing Working Class Blokes” might have sufficed but instead they choose Gang of Four. It was unquestionably the perfect name for a coterie of young proles determined to make left-wing political music you could dance to. I was immediately won over by the group’s jagged, distorted sound, and their subversive lyrics that undermined conceptions of leisure activity, mass media, and the limits and excesses of political power.

Still from Charlie Chaplin's 1936 silent film "Modern Times."

Still from Charlie Chaplin's 1936 silent film "Modern Times."

I can metaphorically describe their sound. It was the imagined noise of the leviathan Factory Machine from Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 silent film Modern Times. That hellish engine drove Chaplin insane with its repetitive cadence; it swallowed him whole and crushed him in its tremendous cogs. The grinding, pulverizing, hammering cacophony of such a dynamo found its equivalency in the steamroller drumming and frangible guitar playing of Gang of Four.

When performing, the four never cracked a smile. Singer Jon King ran about the stage in a state of confusion, stopping only for panicky, exaggerated bouts of spastic dancing. Guitarist Andy Gill blankly stared at the audience while furiously strumming at his guitar, only to pluck a string one out of ten times. Dave Allen turned his bass guitar into a jackhammer, while drummer Hugo Burnham pummeled and clobbered everyone into line with the most disciplined, precision drumming I have ever heard in rock music.

Gang of Four, circa 1978. Photographer unknown. Clockwise from top left: Andy Gill, Dave Allen, Jon King, Hugo Burnham.

Gang of Four, circa 1978. Photographer unknown. Clockwise from top left: Andy Gill, Dave Allen, Jon King, Hugo Burnham.

Above all else where the lyrics. Fashioned from imbecilic news headlines, advertising jingles, and bourgeois moral codes, they were Situationist barbs that caused the listener to question the nature of… well, everything about hyper-consumerist society. From the commodification of sex, to favored opinions and even alienation being the result of systemic conditioning.

This may sound frightfully boring except that Gang of Four were not a faction of glassy-eyed Leninists browbeating you with Marxist jargon, they were a dance band—not a funky dance band, but a dance band in a funk. And while they cheerlessly delivered their woebegone, crestfallen messages, their austere but infectious beats made you tap your feet and move your body.

In 1977 I was already deeply involved in the Los Angeles punk scene when I read about the Gang of Four in the English music press. I promptly bought the band’s debut single when it was released in October, 1978. The 7” vinyl record presented three difficult songs that would forewarn of the Gang’s future output; Damaged Goods, Armalite Rifle, and Love Like Anthrax. In fact two of those songs appeared on the band’s premiere 1979 album, ironically titled Entertainment!

The title song Damaged Goods had a double meaning, the obvious one a story of failed romance, but the innuendo was how to extricate oneself from a fruitless political situation. “Damaged goods, send them back. I can’t work, I can’t achieve, send me back. Open the till, give me the change you said would do me good. Refund the cost, you said you’re cheap but you’re too much!”

Cover art for premiere single “Damaged Goods.” 1978

Cover art for premiere single “Damaged Goods.” 1978

Armalite Rifle was about the armed conflict between the Irish Republican Army and the British Crown in the 1970s. Specifically the song focuses on the Armalite AR-18, a select-fire rifle that was used by the British police and the IRA. “Armalite rifle, police and IRA. Armalite rifle, use it everyday. A child could carry it, do it no harm. Armalite rifle… and the holy Trinity, used against you… like Irish jokes on the BBC.” The jab at the British Broadcasting Corporation was one of many cutting remarks the band leveled at media over the years. As one might imagine, the song Armalite Rifle had a driving martial quality to it. One could say the song was pacifistic. You might well think that. I couldn’t possibly comment.

Love Like Anthrax was an anti-love song I used to play when I wanted to frighten my hippie friends. A whirlpool of churning feedback and caustic lyrics, most everyone I played it to in 1978 would wrinkle their nose in disapproval. “And I feel like a beetle on its back. And there’s no way for me to get up. Love will get you like a case of anthrax. And that’s something I don’t want to catch.” As singer Jon King intoned the dour ode, guitarist Andy Gill recited a deadpan monologue on the ubiquity of love songs in pop music. “I don’t think we’re saying there’s anything wrong with love, we just don’t think that what goes on between two people should be shrouded with mystery.”

Cover art for premiere album “Entertainment!” 1979

Cover art for premiere album “Entertainment!” 1979

In the summer of 1979 I saw the Gang of Four perform at the world famous Whiskey A Go-Go on the Sunset Strip. That may sound romantic, but it wasn’t. Yeah, it was a real warm welcome from the people of Los Angeles; there were only 50 slack-jawed people in the dark shabby club watching the amazing performance. The boys blazed through At Home He’s a Tourist, Armalite Rifle, and the rest of the songs from their just released Entertainment! album, but when a sweaty Hugo Burnham stepped out from behind his drum set to sing the feminist descant It’s Her Factory, the world stopped.

“Item: Daily press, views to suppress. Subject: Story on the front page… suffering from suffrage. Title: Unsung heroine of Britain, position to attain, housewife heroine, addicts to their homes. It’s her factory, it’s a duty.” Dave Allen’s bass line penetrated the thickest of skulls, Jon King’s stark melodica playing gave an etherial bent to the dirge. “Paternalist, journalist… he gives them, sympathy… because they’re not men, scrubbing floors they’re close to the earth, in a man’s world, they’re not men, in a man’s world, because they’re not men.” In the background King wailed, “It’s a factory!”

I was thunderstruck… most of us were; the song ended abruptly with the words, “A little, of a lot, keeps them happy. Avoid the answers, but keep them snappy. That’s all.” While the crowd was inordinately small, that didn’t vex the band, who gave a momentous performance.

I should note that in 1979 the BBC’s music television program Top of the Pops, censored At Home He’s a Tourist for being too risqué. “Down on the disco floor, they make their profit, from the things they sell, to help you cob off, and the rubbers you hide, in your top left pocket.” The BBC wanted the word “rubbers” replaced with the word “rubbish.” The band refused to sing a censored version of their song and so walked out of the performance.

Back cover art for the album “Solid Gold.” 1981

Back cover art for the album “Solid Gold.” 1981

Fast forward to 1981 when Gang of Four released their mirthfully titled second album, Solid Gold, an arresting collection of danceable diatribes. All the songs were imposing, but Paralysed stood out for its disconsolate air and plodding lilt. “Blinkered, paralysed, flat on my back. They say our world is built with endeavor, that every man is for himself, wealth is for the one that wants it, paradise, if you can earn it. History is the reason… I’m washed up.” The song dies, then starts again. “My ambitions come to nothing, what I wanted now just seems a waste of time. I can’t make out what has gone wrong. I was good at what I did. The crows come home to roost, and I’m the dupe.”

That same year the group released the single, To Hell With Poverty!, a song with the energy of an out of control train about to run off the tracks; the compelling lyrics contain a double meaning from the boys. “In my arms, we shall begin, we’re not on the rocks, well there’s no charge. In this land, right now, some are insane… and they’re in charge. To hell with poverty, we’ll get drunk on cheap wine. To hell with poverty. The cheque arrives, it’s in the post again. To hell with poverty. The cheque arrives, it’s in the post again.”

Meaning? The worker declares his resistance, takes his pay, and squanders it on cheap plonk, all the while believing he’s rebelling. This parable of a song got me through rough times in the early 1980s and it continues to resonate. It’s especially applicable for today’s booshwa rebels à la mode.

Cover art for the single “To Hell With Poverty!” 1981

Cover art for the single “To Hell With Poverty!” 1981

The flip side to To Hell With Poverty! was the song Capital, It Fails Us Now. I will never forget playing it for a friend of mine, who at the time was the news director of an independent radio station in Los Angeles.

He didn’t think much of punk music; as a jazz aficionado he endlessly regaled me with stories on the majesty of Charles Mingus, Sun Ra, Art Ensemble of Chicago and the like.

My pal knew jazz, a form I fell in love with as a 15-year-old when I first heard John Coltrane play My Favorite Things. But my amigo did listen attentively to the Gang of Four song; he pricked up his ears at the deadpan vocals delivered by Jon King: “The moment I was born, I opened my eyes. I reached out, for my credit card. Oh no, I left it in my other suit! Capital, it fails us now. Comrade let us seize the time. On the first day of my life, I opened my eyes. Guess where, the superstore. Surrounded by luxury goods, I need a freezer, I need a hi-fi. No credit, no goods. Call my bank, I said. They say we’re bankrupt.”

When the song ended my colleague turned to me and said exuberantly, “Vallen, that song is a Marxist critique of society!” Since I loved to playfully rib my friend I befuddled him with: “No, you’re wrong. The band is saying that Capital, the treatise on communism written by Karl Marx, has failed us!” Given the dark sarcasm of the Gang of Four, whose to say my “alternative facts” were wrong?

Cover art for the single “I Love a Man in a Uniform.” 1981

Cover art for the single “I Love a Man in a Uniform.” 1981

In 1981 Gang of Four released their song I Love A Man In A Uniform. The next year it was released in the United States. The song took on alienation, sexism, and militarism in one fell swoop: “The good life was so elusive. Handouts, they got me down. I had to regain my self-respect, so I got into camouflage. The girls they love to see you shoot. I love a man in a uniform. I love a man in a uniform.”

In 1982 the BBC banned the song from the airwaves, saying it was inappropriate to broadcast when Britain’s armed forces were fighting Argentina in the Falkland Islands war. In the U.S. the song received considerable radio airplay, even from stations that never played punk music. The song was more upbeat than most Gang of Four numbers, but something about it was amiss. I was perplexed by the public’s reaction; the song was thought to be a sexy dance party song—and a pro-military one at that. Yobs especially fixed on the line The girls they love to see you shoot. I always thought the Gang of Four erred in the making of this song, artists doing political works must always strive for absolute clarity.

Cover art for the album “Songs Of The Free.” 1982

Cover art for the album “Songs Of The Free.” 1982

In September 1982 I saw the Gang of Four in concert at the Country Club in Reseda, California. It was part of the band’s “Songs of the Free” tour in the U.S. to promote the album of the same name.

The group nearly filled the 1,000 person venue in sunny Southern Cal. Naturally, the evening’s fare would come from the Songs Of The Free album. Call Me Up was served with an extra helping of scornful derision; the irony was so thick you could cut it with a knife: “Children of the pleasure culture, who must be grateful for what we’ve got. Happy smiles in sunny climes. So don’t upset the ice-cream cart. Having fun is my reason for living. Give me a break!”

I had the feeling the songs from that night were written just for us mutant Angelenos packed into that nowheresville club. Life, It’s A Shame said it all: “Talk of corruption is to preach insurrection. Elected to power men suspend self-interest. You and I, we are satellites, it’s a shame. You and I, we are satellites, it’s a shame. Life! Making money is making sense. Making money is making sense. It’s a shame.” Some of us will always remember that concert, it was matchless, the perfect encapsulation of where society stood at the end of the 20th century.

The Country Club, now forgotten, began as a venue for country western music in 1980. However, the owner soon started to book punk bands and the place garnered a reputation as an alternative performance space. During this period I saw the Jamaican dub poet and musician, Mutabaruka; he scorched the place with his fiery political reggae music. But all good things must come to an end; in the late 1990s the Country Club shuttered its doors for good. Reflecting the colossal shift in demographics taking place all over Southern California, the space reopened as a Spanish language Church for newly arrived Latinos.

I must point out that it’s almost useless to look up Gang of Four lyrics online. Popular lyric archives have mangled the group’s lyrics to the extent that one begins to think it’s a conspiracy of some kind. Found everywhere on the internet, including on Youtube, these wildly inaccurate transcriptions radically gut the meaning of the quartet’s songs. A case in point would be the lyrics of the song, Outside The Trains Don’t Run On Time, which addresses authoritarianism.

“He’s become nostalgic, wants to own tomorrow. Discipline, is his passion. Now,  he says there’s none. Outside the trains don’t run on time. He believes it’s no coincidence. He thinks some blood will drag him down. Home, it’s no castle. He wants his wife to run, and fetch. Order, he’s obsessed with order, order.” The incorrect lyrics found all over the internet read: “Keeping up nostalgic, want to own tomorrow. Discipline, is his passion. Now, is enough. Outside the trains don’t run on time. He believes it’s not coincidence. He thinks the blood will run them down. Hold, it’s no castle. It’s once it’s white to run and fetch. Order his obsession, order, order.”

The original song lyric was stripped of its pro-Woman message. The only reliable transcriptions of the group’s lyrics are found printed on the record sleeves of the original vinyl records. Ah, the digital age! And you don’t believe in “fake news”?

Bassist Dave Allen left in 1981, beginning the never ending “musical chairs” of new band members. Drummer Hugo Burnham and lead singer songwriter Jon King left in 1983. I lost interest in the group and totally ignored their sans Allen/Burnham disco sounding fifth album, Hard, save for the ever so slightly redemptive Woman Town. American music journalist Robert Christgau wasted no words, “This record is damn near dead on its feet.”

For me the band’s tenuous last hurrah was their fifth studio album, the 1991 Mall; it was released as President George Herbert Walker Bush unleashed Operation Desert Shield on Iraq that same year. With songs like World Falls Apart, Cadillac, and FMUSA, the band attempted to mix memories of the Vietnam war with missives about the growing conflagration in Iraq. Not being a fancier of saccharine love songs, I found the decidedly non-sugar-coated and ethereal Satellite the most memorable song in the collection. While I leaned towards liking the album, it didn’t hold me spellbound like the band’s previous offerings. After Mall my love affair with the group was on hold.

Many lifetimes later, I heard that guitarist Andy Gill—the last remaining original member of the group, had become the “frontman” for a reconstituted Gang of Four, and that the band had released an album titled What Happens Next.

The new Gang of Four were a little too reconstituted for me, they had become a simulacrum. In fact, What Happens Next was a mud pool of computerized synth doodles enveloping humdrum vocals and lyrics. Despite being mud, when thrown, it would stick to nothing. If Gill had released this recording under his own name that would have been one thing, but he messed around with the legacy of Gang of Four, and that’s quite another matter.

Imagine for a moment that the psychedelic rock band The Doors, in the wake of Jim Morrison’s death, continued to tour and record new albums, and then… oh wait, that actually happened.

After Morrison’s death, band members Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger wanted to tour and record under the Doors name—they also wanted to sell the rights to Doors songs for use in advertising. But drummer John Densmore, understanding Morrison to be the irreplaceable heart and soul of the Doors, fought and won a lengthy court battle preventing use of the name “The Doors.”

As the last original member of the Gang of Four, there’s a lesson for Andy Gill waiting in the “strange days” of The Doors… you too are replaceable, and in a time to come there may very well be a Gang of Four with no original members. Nevertheless, not even the improprieties of Gil can torpedo the legacy of those early works by the real Gang of Four.

Cover art for “Complicit.” 2018

Cover art for “Complicit.” 2018

Which brings me to the Washington Post, you know, where “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” On April 5, 2018 they published an article titled, Ivanka Trump is featured on the cover of a punk band’s new ‘Complicit’ album. Now guess who that unspecified “punk” band might be. Yup, its Andy Gill’s ersatz Gang of Four, otherwise known as the Gang of One. It’s illuminating that the Washington Post has written so little on the original Gang of Four over the decades. A puny concert review they published in 1979 was not only indicative of mainstream press coverage of the band, it was hilarious in its cluelessness:

“The Gang of Four, the London band that opened the show, had one leaden foot stuck in the punk tradition and the other dangling in concept art. The band tried to fuse disparate musical elements—ominous and militia-like, drums, dissonant and choppy fragments, and toneless chanted vocals—into something new and compelling. At their best, in “At Home He’s a Tourist,” they were riveting. At their worst, they sounded like a Metroliner derailing in Union Station. Mostly they were perplexing.”

Perplexing eh? Ah! But now the Washington Post just loves the Gang of Four, because… you know, the racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, Islamaphobic, orange Cheeto nightmare, warmongering Nazi dotard Trump!

Andy Gill made a curious statement to regarding Ivanka (Things You Can’t Have), which is of course the second track on the Complicit EP. It was an atypical comment from Gill about the media:

“When we think of ‘the media’ everyone has lots of ideas about what we mean. It could be social media, where hundreds of memes crisscross the world; informing, misinforming, beginning or reinforcing ideas that may last a lifetime and beyond. Ideas about Jews, Muslims, or, say, the World Trade Center or perhaps, the criminality of certain American politicians. And then there is the receding traditional media with disappearing jobs like ‘journalists’ and ‘fact checkers.’ That’s the media the Trump family despise.”

Gill’s comment can only be read as a frontal attack on President Trump, as well as a full-throated defense of traditional media. That will surely thrill Trump’s detractors (which is obviously the point), but Gill’s remark is inconsistent. The Gang of Four have a history of lyrically zeroing in on the ways media have created unhealthy social-political landscapes, and otherwise adversely bending and shaping public consciousness.

When I saw the Gang of Four at the Country Club in 1983, fifty corporations owned 90% of all media in the United States. By 1993 that number had fallen to twenty. Today, as the Gang of Four inflicts Complicit upon the world, there are only six corporations in control of America’s media. That means just six companies hold sway over 90% of newspapers, magazines, radio, television, movies, and music in the U.S., including distribution outlets. Put another way, a tiny minority has a stranglehold over the news and culture consumed by Americans, but Andy Gill wants you to worry about Trump hating the media.

Gill’s mention of the “journalists” and “fact checkers” of the “traditional media” is a laugh. Is he speaking of how the “newspaper of record,” the New York Times, helped take America—and the world—to war in Iraq in 2003? The paper published repeated headlines and reports about Saddam Hussein possessing weapons of mass destruction and having connections to al-Qaeda. It was all based upon lies and fabrications provided to NYT reporter Judith Miller by Iraqi Ahmed Chalabi, who was heavily funded by the CIA and the US government. So Gill, your “traditional media” was nothing but a mouthpiece for the war mongers. And the “fact checkers,” well… they were simply on an endless vacation.

Or maybe Gill was talking about the traditional media in 2011, when President Obama decided to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi by bombing Libya. The Prez said he didn’t need Congressional approval, because it wasn’t a war, it was a “kinetic military action.” He said the War Powers Act didn’t apply. But the war effort required Cheerleaders, so the traditional media with its journalists and fact checkers stepped in to convince everyone a democratic uprising was underway. The democratic “rebels” turned out to be mostly Islamic fanatics, and after they murdered Gaddafi Libya didn’t become a Jeffersonian Republic, it became a bug light for al-Qaeda and ISIS. The “fact checkers”? They’re duteously counting the Libyan refugees flooding into Europe.

Over the years the Gang of Four cultivated a reputation as radical provocateurs, conceivably for the theatrics of it. Finding an article about the band that doesn’t refer to their “Marxist” “Socialist” or “left-wing” leanings is not an easy task. But at this point, their Complicit publicity stunt points in another direction. In their present Gang of Four 2.0 form they have become political opportunists. Don’t be surprised if you see Andy Gill wearing an “I’m With Her” T-shirt.

In 1988 Noam Chomsky wrote a book tilted Manufacturing Consent. He argued that mainstream media proved to be “effective & powerful ideological institutions that carry out a system-supportive propaganda function.” Wow, that sounds like a Gang of Four lyric! For years leftists accused “corporate media” of being a threat to democracy by actively “manufacturing consent” with broadcasts and articles. In the late 1980s the American left referred to journalists as “stenographers to power.” Left-wing journalist David Barsamian used that phrase to title his 1992 book on “media and propaganda.

Of course all of this ceased when Mr. Trump invented his own variant of the terms “manufacturing consent” and “stenographers to power.” Vulgarian that he is, Trump just calls it “Fake News.” Now the left is backpedaling, no more criticizing the propaganda functions of the corporate media, no, it’s time to take your place on the barricades because “Trump is deliberately undermining the First Amendment!” You’re liable to find Andy Gill atop one of those barricades, and if you’re nice he might sell you a copy of Complicit.

"You’ve got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?" Gang of Four have run out of luck.

"You’ve got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?" It seems Gang of Four have run out of luck.

Even the rebooted Gang of Four are peddling bargain-basement Russophobia these days; the cover art for Complicit displays the Russian translation of the title in parentheses (замешанная). The EP contains four songs, Lucky, Ivanka (Things You Can’t Have), I’m a Liar, and Lucky (10 O’Clock Chemical Remix). I dared a listen to Lucky, released in advance as a slick marketing trick, except, cleverness has nothing to do with it if what you’re selling is subpar. Forgive me but, to the ears of this once hard-core Gang of Four fan, Lucky is unlistenable.

SPIN had an April 4, 2018 review of the Gang’s new effort that is likely the only honest critique you’ll find on the internet. It reads in part:

“Unfortunately, Lucky, the first single, is really not very good at all. With some squelchy bass, brittle fuzz-tone guitar, and a tepid vocal from whatever lead singer Andy Gill is working with these days, it sounds more like dance punk revival also-rans (and recent Gang of Four manifestation) the Faint than any of the Gang’s classic era material. But we’re posting it anyway, just because of that awesome cover art. I guess you could say we’re… Complicit.”

So there’s your standard of criticism when it comes to today’s music. SPIN could not have been more honest had they written: “The song is execrable but we’ll promote it despite our better judgement since it’s against Trump. Oh yes, and we’re Complicit.” True enough, scheming right along with the Washington Post, Newsweek, and the slippery mucky mucks of the DNC.

I have read comments from people who have never heard of Gang of Four, or from those who are marginally familiar with their music but don’t care for it. These types have said they will buy Complicit, not because they have been swept off their feet by the Gang of Four, but because they hate Trump. Congrats boys, I don’t think you’ve ever attracted such a following before. Funny, you used to critique commodification, but now apparently you fully embrace it.

Then there are those open-minded, supposed aficionados of Gang of Four, who insist Andy Gill’s Complicit is not a case of “jumping on the bandwagon to cash in on being anti-Trump.” They’ll also buy Complicit, pointing to Entertainment! and Solid Gold as proof that Andy Gill “has been consistent for over forty years,” as if all the fuss over the decades has been about Mr. Gill. Don’t ignore the fact that the band that created those albums exists in memory only.

It has been reported in certain quarters that Complicit will be released on April 20, 2018. Workers, remember, you can declare YOUR resistance by taking your pay and squandering it on cheap plonk! In the meantime, if you hear the words “Making money is making sense. It’s a shame” rattling around in your head, there may be hope for you yet.