Hardcore punk and the Anti-Reagan sentiment
My last post looked at the 1970s punk groups and their connection to a group of political and philosophical thinkers and activists called the Situationist International. For this post, we are moving into the 1980s and over to America and the period of the Reagan Presidency. This post will look at the core values and beliefs demonstrated by Ronald Reagan and how the US hardcore punk community responded. This post is more political than philosophical but we will still be looking at ideas and ideology- the conflict between the Christian Conservatives on the right and the punks and socialist activists on the left. What were the core differences in how they saw the world? How did the hardcore punk community resist the actions of the Reagan administration? Was it through the music or more direct action? And who were the Yippies in all of this? Read on to find out!
In 1981, one of the most polarising American Presidents took office, starting 8 years of power that are to this day, lauded by some and vilified by others. Ronald Reagan was a schmaltzy, former Hollywood actor and one time governor of California who spearheaded a real resurgence of Conservative Christian values during his presidency. Starting out as a Democrat who idolised Franklin D Roosevelt, Reagan became a Republican in 1962 and seemingly, never looked back. His Democratic roots largely forgotten, he is now one of the most recognised Republican Presidents of the 20th Century.
For some, he represented everything that was quintessentially American- embodying values and traits that for the more conservative Americans, represented the best of the country. He was nationalistic, comfortable with military intervention, pro Capitalism and business, anti-Communist (and the left in general) and cultivated a homespun image of traditional family values and a drive to ‘restore’ America to former glory.
For his detractors, he was dangerously and callously regressive- anti-feminist, old-fashioned and ‘pro’ all the aspects of life that were anathema to the left wing. It is not surprising then that there was a constant backlash across America- for as much as he gained widespread popularity amongst many corners of American society, he also inspired a generation to take action against him and his policies. Both united fronts and disparate groups took to resisting Reagan on either specific points of his policy positions or the totality of his politics. The hardcore punk community of bands, fans and zine makers were near the top of the list of agitators.
What did Reagan actually do/believe?
For the sake of brevity, let’s just look at an overview of some of his general policy positions, which should give us a good idea of what Reagan was all about:
Pro-Capitalism: As a small government Conservative (i.e someone who felt that the government should have a largely non-interventionist role particularly in relation to economic affairs) Reagan believed in the self-regulating nature of the free market and that this same market would provide solutions to all of America’s issues. He has been credited as saying that the ‘government is not the solution to our problems- government IS the problem’ meaning that he was keen on state’s rights rather than ruling from the Federal government. He didn’t inherit a particularly thriving economy and his actions were to cut income taxes from 70% to 50% for the top tax bracket; deregulate business (reduce the amount of rules and regulations they must comply with) and cut funding to domestic programmes such as Medicaid, Social Security and Food Stamps. Like many Conservatives, he believed in the phenomenon of trickle-down economics- that cutting taxes on big businesses and wealthy individuals would have the effect of eventually benefitting society as a whole as those same businesses and wealthy people would be able to spend, invest and create jobs.
Aggressive foreign policy: One of the reasons for cutting spending on domestic programmes was that Reagan wanted to expand the military and needed to divert money for that. The reason for expanding the military? Reagan’s rhetoric as far as relations with overseas was dominated by an anti-Communist cold war stance- setting up any Communist country or in fact Communist sympathiser (both domestic and foreign) as an enemy of the country. Concerns about a nuclear war were real in the 1980s and many children grew up under the shadow of a potential mushroom cloud as tensions between the America and the Soviet Union remained palpable.
Conservative social values: Being a Republican, it probably would not have come as a shock to anyone that Reagan’s views on social issues would be on the conservative side. However, one demographic that Reagan was keen to covet was the evangelical Christians. As televangelists became incredibly popular in the 1980s (they pre-dated the 80s but really surged in popularity during that time), they formed a formidable bloc of support for Reagan and the two were in sync on many social issues. He was hesitant when backing legislation that would strengthen civil rights as he wanted to give states and businesses owners more freedom. He strongly supported re-instating prayers in school; he was anti-abortion; he was sceptical about acid rain (the climate change issue of its time) and cut funding to the Environmental Protection Agency. He supported the war on drugs and granted over a billion dollars of funding to fight drug use and ensure a mandatory minimum penalty for drug users and he believed the lifestyles of the LGBT community were not ‘something society can condone and nor can I’.
That concludes a whistle-stop tour through some conservative talking points.
Based on the above, you can see that Reagan was hardly compatible with a punk worldview. Whilst punk was about freedom of expression, solidarity and support, environmentalism, support for the oppressed etc, there was pretty much no common ground between the two. But it went beyond mere clashes in the minutiae of politics- the support for Reagan and the spreading of his socially conservative doctrine was becoming dominant in the media. Radio, TV and the press (not all of it of course) promoted Reagan’s views as beneficial to America and drew a line in the sand at what was American and what was ‘other’. For punks- falling outside of the standard definition of an American in terms of looks, views, lifestyle etc- made them targets for the press and law enforcement as well as creating an existentialist crisis in the minds of the young. Where did they belong? What was happening to their country and their community?
So, what did the punks do?
The American punk scene was not wholly political in nature from the get-go. In the late 1970s, America had come to develop its own unique contribution to punk with bands like The Ramones, Television, The Voidoids amongst others. The US scene was very much an East Coast thing and more specifically than that, a New York thing. Pogoing around the dance floor of CBGBs and Max’s Kansas City, those New York bands had a similar image- young, fun and nihilistic. The vibe was irreverence and tied to the Avant Garde art and poetry scene and trendy tastemakers of Warhol’s Factory. They tended to stay out of politics in an overt way (at least in the beginning).
But over on the West Coast, the cohort of bands that would come out of that punk scene would be some of the most politically active of the entire genre. Black Flag, The Descendants, Vicious Circle, The Minutemen (and many more) all came from California and spearheaded not just a change in musical direction but a burgeoning political awareness amongst their peers.
And as the hardcore scene flourished as we move into the early 1980s- so there was a lot for them to get angry about. The complete contrasts in position from the young, West Coast scene to the older conservative right would put punks at the forefront of the resistance. And boy did they take to that role with gusto.
Punk resisted Reagan by both deeds and words. Individual bands would record songs that either outright challenged the President specifically or, railed against a particular policy position. The punk scene- fans and bands alike- joined in numerous campaigns to either generally challenge his presidency or mitigate against some of the impacts of his policies.
Punk played its part in the resistance to Reagan in more than one way. Musically, bands output contained a lot of songs namechecking Reagan specifically, with less than subtle messages about what they really thought of what he was doing to the country.
Canadian band D.O.A were supporters of the idea of taking action, with a slogan ‘Talk Minus Action Equals Zero’. In their 1981 EP Positively, the band took aim at the president with the song ‘Fucked Up Ronnie’ which linked the president’s fate to that of the impending nuclear war that everyone was worried about: You’re fucked up Ronnie/You’re not gonna last /You’re gonna die too/ From a neutron blast.
Punk consumed anti-Reagan discourse and regurgitated it into song after song. Reagan Youth’s song of the same name made a clear comparison between Reagan and Hitler; D.R.I (Dirty Rotten Imbeciles) had ‘Reaganomics’ – less than a minute of thrashing noise with the repeated lines ‘Reaganomics Kill Me/Reaganomics Kill You’; Suicidal Tendencies namechecked Reagan in their song I Shot The Devil; Jodie Foster’s Army (or JFA) were named after the motive behind the 1981 attempted assassination of the President; TSOL sang that ‘Reagan Can Shove It’ on their song Superficial Love. The video for the Minutemen’s This Ain’t No Picnic shows the band performing in some neglected, dusty wasteland interspersed with footage of Reagan in actor-mode in some war film.
One of the most politically engaged and outspoken bands of the time (and one of the more widely known from this era of punk) is the Dead Kennedys. They were adversarial to the Reagan administration at every turn. Frontman Jello Biafra believed in a free and fair society, advocating direct action and even shock tactics to galvanise people and shake them out of their complacency. Their songs challenged many aspects of the status quo and took aim at figures from the right- Nazi Punks Fuck Off has a pretty upfront message; We’ve Got A Bigger Problem Now remade their earlier hit California Uber Alles– the two songs being about Reagan and California Governor Jerry Brown respectively.
Although Reagan became the iconic boogeymen for left-wing youth of the time, it wasn’t just about Reagan as a man. It was about the values that were embraced throughout the country in an era that was defined as enriching for the few and challenging and devastating for those groups left behind. If punk has always been an outlet for rage then there was plenty to go round at this time in America- the general angst of being a young man or woman and finding your way in the world, as well as the very real issues to get angry about such as war, poverty, health inequality and the erosion of fundamental rights.
And what the punks were fighting against wasn’t some abstract legislations made in the White House- the war on punk was brought right to their door with Police raiding punk shows, attempting to shut down zines (the FBI threatened to shut down Destroy LA zine) and attempting to crackdown on the re-recording and sharing of tapes (which Reagan considered a black market economy).
Punk bands put both their time and effort where their mouths were and performed in benefits that raised money or awareness (or both) for community causes. Rock Against Reagan concerts were organised across the country in 1983 to showcase music’s opposition to the current occupant of the White House. Punks in San Francisco raised money for striking coal miners and railroad workers; punks stood in solidarity with the Asian American residents of the International Hotel who were evicted in order to demolish the building; bands protested against Proposition 6- an initiative that sought to ban gay men and women from working in schools. Jello Biafra even ran for Mayor in 1979 (alas, he was not elected).
One group who played an integral role in the whole action against Reagan was the Youth International Party (commonly referred to as Yippies) formed in 1967 by a group of activists who had come from the free speech and anti-war movements of the 1960s. Their politics were revolutionary and radical and their tactics for getting their message across were theatrical and obnoxious, using absurd gestures to highlight corresponding absurdities or redundancies in the status quo. In one memorable stunt, they put forward a pig- Pigasus the Immortal- as a Presidential candidate in 1968.
Some of the hardcore bands were more actively and officially involved with them than others, but whatever the direct level of connection, their tactics and ethos was incredibly similar. Advocates of direct action (especially if it was shocking in some way); using irreverent humour to take down the powers that be; also using humour when addressing complex or difficult topics (a la Dead Kennedys)- punks and the Yippies were kindred spirits in many ways.
The Yippies were anti-war. They believed in creating alternative organisations and provisions such as food kitchens, squatting, communes and free clinics. They were against the prison-industrial complex and wanted to create a New Nation. The group said:
“We are a people. We are a new nation. We want everyone to control their own life and to care for one another … We cannot tolerate attitudes, institutions, and machines whose purpose is the destruction of life, the accumulation of profit.”
So, on the above basis, you can see how the Yippies and the punks had a lot in common with each other as both found themselves stood in opposition to Reagan’s way and the direction of the country as a whole, motivated by a sense of social justice.
The Yippies believed that the peace movement of the 1960s- and how it was structured and expressed- had grown boring and non engaging. In order to gain publicity, attention and support from likeminded people, they needed to inject some energy, spontaneity and silliness into their actions. This is another parallel with punks who were certainly anything but boring. Hardcore punk shows were notorious for enthusiasm, physical participation and unpredictable antics and it was this change in energy that made the scene so alluring to so many young people- just as the Yippies would predict.
Similar to the relationship between the SI and the punks of 1970s, the connection between the two groups is more than just a concrete connection and who -knew-who or who went to what meeting or gig. The Yippies widespread political shenanigans and presence in the political discourse of the local area contributed to a politically aware community and provided a jumping off point for the bands in the hardcore movement to express their political views on their own terms.
The bands of the hardcore era were dismissed by the media as thuggish, mindless, violent idiots and vilified by the likes of Serena Dank and Tipper Gore as degenerates. In fact, the punk community were compassionate, intelligent, well read, informed, creative and willing to put themselves out there and spread- what were at the time- controversial messages that expressed solidarity for all those being left behind by Reagan’s onward march to a new America.
We will end with a quote from Tony Nineteen of the Dils, a California punk band who split in 1980, just as hardcore was taking off
“Punk has to move from a stance of mindless, stupid outrage to a threat. . . . It’s not good if it doesn’t challenge anything and change anything.”
And it certainly did change things- a generation of Americans knew what it was to belong to a community, to engage with the world around you, to empower yourself and your friends to be the best human you could be.