[Originally presented at the Experience Music Project Pop Conference, April 2008]
By Tobias Carroll
In 1997, Broken Rekkids released Rock, You Sucker, a retrospective compilation of music from the Scottish punk band Political Asylum. The liner notes, written by the band’s vocalist Ramsey Kanaan, ended with an anecdote about a pair of cassettes that the band brought with them on their second European tour in the late 1980s. “The first,” he writes, “had Tracy Chapman’s first LP on one side, and Suzanne Vega’s first LP on the other side. Our ‘quiet’ tape. The second was a compilation made up of tracks from HÃ¼sker DÃ¼, Dag Nasty, Government Issue, fIREHOSE, The Descendents, and Bad Brains. Our ‘hardcore’ tape. We played those tapes a lot. I still think they are all great songs”. [1. Kanaan, Ramsey (1997). Rock, You Sucker! (CD booklet) San Francisco: Broken Rekkids]
Take that in one hand, then: that shared aesthetic that loves both punk and folk rock (for lack of a better term) in equal measure. Political Asylum’s final record, the How The West Was Won EP, had an electric side and an acoustic side. Slide it out of its sleeve and flip it over: you’ll see the slogan that accompanied many a release from San Francisco’s Allied Records: “Music for the Proletariat”. And listen to the stark lyrics of the band’s “I’ve Got a Name”; after an album’s worth of dates and places and realist details, its extension, its universality is haunting. “I’ve got a name/ Stamped and filed away/ Yes that’s my name/ It’s the name of all the others/ It’s the name of those held in captivity.” And one last defiant shout, to end the song: “I’ve got a name.”
Ramsey Kanaan was also a founder of AK Press, an anarchist collective initially based in the United Kingdom, and now based in San Francisco. According to a 2000 interview, AK Press came into legal existence in 1990, but had existed for “several years before that”.[ -Megan Shaw, interview with Craig Gilmore, Ramsey Kanaan, and Craig O'Hara of AK Press, Punk Planet March/April 2000, 59] “We were one of the first groups to make a concerted effort to sell [books] in record and comic book stores,” he said in the same interview, and goes on to give examples of selling books at tables at shows and venues.[3. -Ibid.]
“I got into punk rock and anarchism round about the same time,” Kanaan recalls in a recent interview. “1979, aged 13. To me, they were very connected. Political Asylum started in early 1982 I believe, and lasted for around 10 years. During that time, I was also actively involved in politics, both as an activist, and via AK Press. As one would hope, as I got older, my politics became more sophisticated, and nuanced. And more mature. But certainly more radical/revolutionary. The more I understand Capital, and the State, the more I see the need to destroy them. And certainly, punk rock definitely has its limitations, politically”.
He adds, “I was already distributing (and soon publishing) literature before Political Asylum began, and that just continued. The band was one conduit (selling literature on tour etc) that I could help get stuff out there”.
AK Press continues to table at various events; a trip a few months ago to an event at the New York Center for Independent Publishing found AK Press present with a densely stocked table, just adjacent to Akashic Books, another publisher with a foot on the side of music. Getting ahold of anyone at AK Press in the weeks leading up to the delivery of this paper proved highly difficult, mainly due to their preparations for the Bay Area Anarchist Bookfair, held in late March.
A brief survey of AK Press’s releases over the last few years is comprehensive: new editions of theoretical work by Alexander Berkman and Peter Kropotkin; collections of essays from writers affiliated with the muckraking website Counterpunch; anthropological text; historical accounts and memoirs. There are also no shortage of cultural reviews, including My First Time, a collection of essays on first punk shows edited by Chris Duncan; and Jessica Mills’s My Mother Wears Combat Boots: A Parenting Guide for the Rest of Us. A series of folk records, including work from Utah Phillips and David Rovics, were released in 2005 in partnership with Georgia’s Daemon Records, and spoken-word titles are also available in abundance. AK Press also functions as a distributor of books, DVDs, and music: a recent edition of their catalog cites 3,500 titles from other publishers as in stock.
One AK Press title that spans radical politics, punk, and folk is their reissue of The Ex’s 1936 EP. “In early 1986,” says The Ex’s G.W. Sok, “we bumped into people who were working on a book about the 50th anniversary of the Spanish Civil War. They told us about this enormous collection of photos from the CNT-archives which had only recently had been available to the public. We went to have a look at these photos and were so impressed, that we decided to release a photobook… And since we were a band, we also concluded that there had to be some music there…”.
Along with dozens of photographs, the book also describes the activities of the CNT and FAI, both anarchist organizations, during the Spanish Civil War. One poster, reproduced in the back of the book, boasts the slogan “The anarchist books are weapons against fascism”. On the two discs – vinyl in the original edition, CDs in the reissue – The Ex take lyrics from 19th-century folksongs, interviews with a CNT member, and revolutionary songs of the period and apply propulsive, bass-driven music. At their best, the songs don’t sound timeless so much as out of time, a relic from a nonexistent society.
The book’s afterword characterizes revolution in part due to its relationship with the creative process. While its authors do cite the CNT and FAI’s “effort to destroy once and for all the damned class of boots, ties, and crucifixes,” their target is something more abstract. From the booklet: “This attempt to revolution saw an explosion of creativity which only takes place when you’re finally able to conceive of something and follow through on it – to arrange your own life without hate and greed, without competition and oppression”.[4. -The Ex, 1936, AK Press/Allied Recordings, AKA010CD/Allied No.92 CD]
In 1997, the 1936 EP was reissued by AK Press in conjunction with the band’s own Ex Records. “Somewhere in the late 80s,” Sok recalls, “we had already met Ramsey at the Chumbawamba residence in Leeds, when AK Press was still based in the UK only. By that time the book was out of print, and while it was rather expensive to make, being a 140-page book with two 7″ singles, we didn’t really consider the reprint Ramsey suggested. Years later, when CDs replaced vinyl, we got interested again in a reprint…. Since Ramsey had been dropping us the occasional line about the book, we finally got in contact with him and came to an agreement. And the rest, as they say, ‘is history'”.
When asked about the effect of anarchism on The Ex’s evolution in the late 70s and early 80s, Sok responds, “It was more by instinct than by theory, I guess. We didn’t really read the books… We grew up in an Amsterdam where there was a lot of activism, squatting, anti-imperialism… and we became part of that because we felt the same as these other people, trying to right the wrongs of society and somehow make the world a little bit better place for everybody to live in”.
“What we tried to do in Amsterdam was not an isolated thing,” he continues. “We noticed that people all over the place were trying to do the same. For us this was proof that it worked, both locally and internationally. It still feels as the best way to do things: as honest as possible, step by step, all the way”.
Sok does point out that The Ex “never liked to be labeled as ‘anarchist band’… We express our opinions and ideas through our music and through the way we work together, but basically we are a band. We do not make ‘anarchist music’… We try to live as free as possible, and we make free music, so to speak, so obviously there is a clear connection to anarchism. But what happened was, the anarchopunks thought our music wasn’t punk enough, and other people simply assumed we would be too punk for their taste. Such a shame for everybody”.
At roughly the same time, a few hundred miles away, early work was being released by two British bands that took the idea of a collective[5. -Simon Reynolds, Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984 (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2005), 181] in vastly different sonic directions. Scritti Politti drew inspiration from both sociopolitical theorists and the do-it-yourself scene of the time – specifically, as cited by Simon Reynolds in Rip It Up and Start Again – the Desperate Bicycles[6. -Ibid, 183]. Yet despite the experimentation and aesthetic, Scritti Politti’s early singles don’t necessarily fit into a rough “punk” categorization. Reynolds points out that one of those singles, “Skank Bloc Bologna”, has a guitar sound “closer to folk rock than punk rock”[7. -Ibid, 182].
Listening to CRASS, who were founded as a collective in 1977, is an entirely more jarring experience.1978’s The Feeding of the 5000 is a harsh, atonal blast of punk energy, and the group’s subsequent work became even more cacophonous and immersive, subverting traditional song structures and becoming even more confrontational in their politics. Members of the collective have gone on to release a large number of books since the group came to its end in 1984, including Penny Rimbaud’s The Diamond Signature, released in 1999 by AK Press.
Where theory, literature, and music overlap, collectives can take still different forms. In Winnipeg, the publishing house Arbeiter Ring is operated under the principles of parecon, or participatory economics. Among its founding members is one John K. Samson, best known as the singer and guitarist for The Weakerthans, a band whose lyrics reference Foucault and Derrida and whose music falls somewhere in the center of the folk/punk continuum. In an interview with Samson last year, he said that he was “not certain that [Arbeiter Ring] has much effect on the lyric writing part of my life”. That said, one of the most affecting songs the band has written is entitled “Pamphleteer”, and its lyrics seem directed towards anyone involved with art or politics that doesn’t entirely conform to expectations.
Winnipeg was also the home of G7 Welcoming Committee, a record label whose catalog also included a number of spoken word titles, including one from Howard Zinn, and a compilation, Return of the Read Menace, released in conjunction with AK Press. Said label, also organized around parecon principles, made a shift towards releasing music in digital form only last year[8. -Daniel Sinker, interview with Derek Hogue of G7 Welcoming Committee Records, Punk Planet 80, July/August 2007, 24-27]. As of earlier this month, however, the label has announced its closure. The announcement on their website ends with a hesitant declaration: “Watch for Chris’ forthcoming retrospective on the history of G7 from AK Press next year?”[9. -G7 Welcoming Committee Records, "Tuesday, April 1st, 2008: Class dismissed," http://www.g7welcomingcommittee.com/news (accessed April 8, 2008)]
Longstanding Bay Area independent label Alternative Tentacles has released a number of spoken-word albums in conjunction with AK Press. “I think that Jello Biafra’s early spoken word albums helped pioneer the connection between punk rock and the spoken word genre,” says label publicist George Chen, “so it seems like a natural progression to release other people’s [spoken word] records”.
One of the most interesting hybrids of publisher and record label is the Crimethinc. Ex-Workers’ Collective, now twelve years old. Heading to the “music” section of their site turns up an even wider range of genres than most: the expected punk and folk releases, yes, but also some headways into jazz. As an anonymous member of the collective explains, “most of [the books and music] proceed from the same cultural milieu. At closer inspection, many of the books and records could be seen as efforts to go beyond simply promoting abstract radical ideas, in favor of manifesting radical content via aesthetic and structural innovations. Music is arguably less abstract than writing, so it might be said that by and large the records capture emotional expression tied to radical politics, while the books explore the political aspects more thoroughly”.
Elsewhere on Crimethinc.’s site is a twenty-five-page pamphlet and free download entitled Fighting For Our Lives. “You may already be an anarchist,” it declares on its early pages[10. -CrimethInc. Ex-Workers' Collective, Fighting for Our Lives: An Anarchist Primer (Olympia, WA: Crimethinc. Free Press, date unknown) PDF e-book, 5]. “If your idea of healthy human relations is a dinner with friends, where everyone enjoys everyone else’s company, responsibilities are divided up voluntarily and informally, and no one gives orders or sells anything, then you are an anarchist, plain and simple”[11. -Ibid.].
“The root of anarchism,” the pamphlet states, “is the simple impulse to do it yourself: everything else follows from this”[12. -Ibid.]. Which, when it comes down to it, doesn’t seem too far removed from the Desperate Bicycles’ cry of, “It was easy, it was cheap – go and do it!” at the end of their song “Smokescreen”.
In recent years, Ramsey Kanaan has begun making music again as part of a Bay Area group called Folk This!. Marcus Duskin, also of the group, writes in the liner notes for their debut of the unifying effect that playing traditional folks songs can have. “The singers and musicians on this CD vary widely in age and political background. We ourselves are veterans of the anti-war movement and the anti-WTO Seattle protests – we are anarchists, feminists, Marxists, trade unionists, community organizers, animal rights activists. It is the music which has brought us together”[13. -Marcus Duskin (2005), Banks of Marble (CD booklet)]. And throughout the album, that sense of a community is achieved through its use of multiple vocalists and an interesting use of vocal harmonies.
Kanaan himself is no longer directly involved with AK Press. “I left AK in November of 2007,” Kanaan explains, “to focus on PM Press. Similar sort of stuff, different set of initials…though one of the exciting things for me about PM is the ability to do a wider variety of stuff, whether it’s art, fiction, music etc”. PM Press’s initial list of releases includes anarchist-themed novels, political documentaries on DVD, and music – in this case, a pair of albums from Chumbawamba. When asked to identify a common thread, Kanaan’s response is concise: “That they have something to say, as such”.
In music today, the influence of both anarchism and anarchist music remains tangible. Gainesville, Florida’s Against Me!, a group with one foot on each side of the folk/punk divide, invoked anarchism on their debut full-length, Reinventing Axl Rose, with tongue-in-cheek titles like “Baby, I’m an Anarchist!” giving way to something more sincere in the actual lyrics – in this case, references to the Spanish Civil War and 1999’s anti-WTO protests.
Earlier this year, New York-based antifolk musician Jeffrey Lewis released 12 Crass Songs, in which, well, 12 CRASS songs are rearranged for strummed acoustic guitar and jovial vocals. “[I]n this point in time,” Lewis explained in an interview with Jessica Suarez on Paper Thin Walls, “that genre that [CRASS] created for themselves has reached that audience, and it’s now more of a barrier in these songs reaching a further audience”[14. - Jessica Suarez, interview with Jeffrey Lewis, Paper Thin Walls, January 28, 2008, http://www.paperthinwalls.com/singlefile/item?id=1310 (accessed April 7, 2008)]. CRASS and Chumbawamba were also sampled on Ted Leo’s 1999 solo debut. More recently, Leo has begun covering, to powerful effect, Chumbawamba’s “Rappaport’s Testament: I Never Gave Up” – a song itself inspired by the Italian poet Primo Levi[15. -Jeff Gerhard, "I want to believe", http://monodrone.org/?p=64 (accessed April 8, 2008)].
The circular dialogue existing between music, literature, and politics is a vital one, exposing music aficionados to new ways of thinking and helping followers of divergent political philosophies find a common ground. Kanaan comments that “[t]hey (print, music, audio, film etc) are just different mediums (and genres – fiction, history etc), through which to transmit ideas. I think they are all valid, and all vital”. Sok echoes this: “I believe that in some way all forms of expression are somehow intertwined… partly because all forms of art are ways of communication, and because of that they cannot exist without interaction. And partly I think it would become pretty boring when one would focus on only one discipline”
Turn, The Ex’s 2004 double album, opens with “Listen to the Painters”. Its lyrics read like a manifesto for anyone with a serious interest in art that crosses disciplines. “We need poets, we need painters… Narrow minds are weapons made for mass destruction”. For this band, art doesn’t simply exist for its own sake: it acts as a force for positive change in the world. More specifically, the absence of art can be viewed as a warning sign, an indication of a disaster soon to occur. The presence of an anarchist philosophy running as a slim but dedicated thread through certain avenues of contemporary music creates constantly renewable opportunities for a more egalitarian structure and the expression of radical alternatives to contemporary politics.