Crust Never Sleeps: 8 Anarcho Punk Essentials

D.O.A. / Photo by Don Denton

Punk rock has played fast and loose with anarchic rhetoric and imagery, at least since “Anarchy in the U.K.” — maybe earlier still, if you count bands like the MC5 and England’s Deviants — much of it appropriated outright from Dada and the Situationist International. But a certain self-conscious and self-righteous strain of anarcho punk has mapped out its own story over the decades, railing against vivisection, all-star charity pop, and the American dream under a Circle-A, a brand logo for kids who hate brand logos. And drum circles or no, the Occupy movement just might be this music’s legacy. Here are eight albums that helped us get here.

The Crass
Stations of the Crass (Crass, 1979)

It was only a matter of time before a communal collective of hard-left, anti-globalist, anti-consumerist, anti-misogynist, animal-liberation militants would come along and label the Clash and Sex Pistols as traitors to the punk cause. Theoretically, Crass were leaderless squat-enablers who seemed to put at least as much time into their harsh black-and-white graffiti-collage album art (and their tube-station-and-billboard culture-jamming graffiti) as they put into their actual anti-musical screeds. They weren’t exactly humorless — their most memorable single, 1982’s “Sheep Farming in the Falklands,” concerned conjugal relations with farm animals after all — but you’d be forgiven for thinking so. On this sprawling second album — originally four vinyl sides, one live — they vary their often incomprehensibly accented extremist rants with just enough dub, art disco, poetry, and scatology to keep things interesting. And Crass’ arguments sometimes still ring true: “They’ve buggered this old world up / Up to their necks in debt,” according to their best-known song, “Do They Owe Us a Living?” Well, do they? “Of course they do!”

The Ex
Singles, Period: The Vinyl Years 1980–1990 (Touch and Go, 2005)

“Apathy Disease,” “Stupid Americans,” “Money,” “Weapons For El Salvador,” “New Wars 2,” “Constitutional State.” These Amsterdam agitproppers say in the liner notes that they considered their singles to be “pamphlets, statements, political comments on current situations.” Starting in 1979, in a serrated, rhythmic place somewhere between the Gang of Four and Minutemen, they consistently came up with uncompromising ways to branch out. History Is What’s Happening, they titled a 1982 album; an earlier one was Disturbing Domestic Peace. In 1986, they celebrated the half-century anniversary of the Spanish Civil War with four songs and a 144-page booklet loaded with archival photos of rioting Barcelona anarchists. “When Nothing Else Is Helpful Anymore,” from 1983, provided Molotov cocktail instructions. The lyrics came off as dogmatic, sometimes bullheadedly so, but feel more prophetic as history marches on. The music, which eventually took in folk rhythms from Africa and Central Europe, never stopped breaking rules.

Bloodied but Unbowed: The Damage to Date 1978–83 (CD Presents, 1983)

Dead on Arrival got together in Vancouver in 1978, 11 years before the Adbusters Media Foundation — the Wacky Pack–style “subvertisers” who eventually dreamed up Occupy Wall Street — formed in the same city. In 1980, fellow western Canadians Loverboy seemingly named a song after them. Their second album, Hardcore ’81 , is frequently credited with naming a genre. They were formalists without being purists: They covered antiwar songs by Motown funker Edwin Starr and reggae toaster Ranking Trevor early on, and their punk rock always had a certain populist Canuck lumberjack muscle to it (the better to throw bricks or Nazi skinheads through windows with, perhaps), confirmed when they covered BTO’s “Takin’ Care of Business” with Randy Bachman in 1987. The sides on this early best-of are less explicitly buffalo-burger rock, but don’t skimp on the shout and hockey brawl. In 2011, they helped occupy Vancouver, somehow completing the circle.

Arise + 2 (Alternative Tentacles, 2000)

Even more than fellow travelers like Discharge (who inspired a largely Swedish offshoot subgenre known as “D-beat”) or crooked-riff miniaturists like Rudimentary Peni, the Dumpster-diving doomsday burnouts of Amebix were where anarcho leanings (they debuted on a Crass-curated comp) met the low-rent, early-’80s new wave of British heavy metal. Hippie-haired, wearing biker denim and leather, and passing joints to each other in the booklet of this expanded reissue of their 1985 second album, it’s easy to see why they’re considered godfathers of abandoned-building-invading crust punk. Their despairing, hardscrabble nuclear-winter mulch took Armageddon cues from Motörhead and Killing Joke; and their influence lives on everywhere — from the punk band Iceage to the metal band Neurosis to, just maybe, every grindcore band ever.

Rubella Ballet
Anarchy in the U.V. (Overground/Voiceprint, 2008)

Seemingly ignored in the States by everybody except, briefly, sometime anarchism fan Greil Marcus (who called their 1985 “Money Talks” single a “crankish, irritated, melancholy, no-future, sentimental refusal”), this goth-poppish coed outfit had all sorts of anarcho-punk connections — a drummer from Flux of Pink Indians, bass and guitar siblings whose mom sang for the Poison Girls, plus they opened for the Crass a lot. But visually and sonically, they rejected the genre’s internally enforced military-surplus drabness for something much more colorful, almost glam, and yes, ultraviolet — something you could imagine supporters of, say, We’ve Got a Fuzzbox and We’re Going to Use It embracing. Which might seem like a dead end, but possibly one (judging from some early-’80s tracks compiled on this best-of) that inspired later dead ends — for instance, maybe, the German anarchist “digital hardcore” of Atari Teenage Riot.

The Proletariat
Voodoo Economics and Other American Tragedies (Taang!, 1997)

Progressive in more ways than one, the Proletariat were working-class eastern Massachusetts artcore Marxists who pledged allegiance to the Gang of Four and Wire but who — especially on their second album, 1986’s Indifference — seemed to have absorbed their share of ’70s prog rock as well. Especially Rush, though it’s unlikely Rush’s Ayn Rand disciples would ever affirm, as the Proletariat do in “Marketplace,” that “It’s not envy / Or petty jealousy / That makes me despise this lifestyle / Of decadence and wealth.” Take that, 1 Percent! A double-disc named after George H.W. Bush’s nickname for Reagan’s trickle-down delusions, Voodoo Economics, ropes in both of their albums, single sides, and everything else they waxed.

Pictures of Starving Children Sell Records (Agit Prop, 1986)

Easily the only band here to wind up with a Top 10 single and triple-platinum album (1997’s “Tubthumping” and Tubthumper, obviously — partially inspired by Emma Goldman!), Chumbawamba started out squatting in the Leeds footsteps of the Mekons and Gang of Four. Like Amebix, they first showed up on one of the Crass’ Bullshit Detector samplers; like their sometime collaborators the Crass and Ex, their liner notes weighed a ton. Protests to the converted ran the gamut: homophobia, National Front fascism, miners’ strikes, apartheid, poll taxes, you name it. Their ridiculously titled first album, Pictures of Starving Children Sell Records, set out to skewer Live Aid. But even the band’s clumsy smugness hid music-hallish new-wave hooks, ages before they wrote a drinking song ingenious enough for flyover-country frat parties.

Today’s Empires, Tomorrow’s Ashes (Fat Wreck Chords, 2001)

When somebody claims “adbusters is to activism what good charlotte is to punk rock [sic]” on the message board, it’s slight hyperbole. But switch out the pop punks with these guys, or Anti-Flag, or maybe Leftöver Crack, and you might have a point. Like Adbusters magazine, these blue-collarish bands operated under the radar through the ’00s, but not that far under — if you were a suburban teenager radicalized into hanging out in anarchist bookstores in the wake of 1999’s WTO-smacking Battle in Seattle or 2003’s Iraq War demonstrations, odds are good you latched onto all four of them. Propagandhi, unsurprisingly, come from western Canada (Manitoba, to be exact), and by their third album they were turning a bit more metal, thrashing at the Pope and Purina and border laws. And, of course, at punk selling itself out. Some things never change.


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