Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Hell's Angel - Ralph 'Sonny' Barger


Sonny Barger? What a lovely bloke. Of course, I'd never say that to his face as that's probably the last thing the King of the Hell's Angels wants to be told. But really. On reading his autobiography as ghost written by Keith and Kent Zimmerman (who also wrote John Lydon's autobiography Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs) Barger comes across as the kind of bloke you'd like as a friend. Especially if you were in a fight. Which - actually - explains a lot: 'The Angels never changed. Everybody around them changed. Every time we wanted them to act in a certain way, every time the Left wanted them to act as tribunes of the working class, every time the hipsters wanted them to act like hippies, every time the drug cultures wanted to see them as allies, they flunked the test.' - Professor Donald Cosentino, from a 1999 documentary about the Hell's Angels.
Everyone wanted to have Sonny Barger and the Angels as their friends but very few succeeded. The Rolling Stones at Altamont, of course, failed spectacularly.

According to Barger, the Hell's Angels is an elite men's club, and I guess it is. There are certainly no women members, at least. They're also not Nazis, no matter that they once wore swastikas, Iron Crosses and other Nazi war gear. It was for effect, essentially. It was, according to Barger to 'piss people off big-time, which is what we were all about anyway, so we figured, why not?' And I can understand this. Some of the early Punks sported swastika armbands as well for exactly the same reason though that particular fetish was soon dumped. And the same for the Angels. Because of their German charters, they no longer wear anything sporting a swastika or SS lightning bolts because it's illegal in Germany.

The Hell's Angels are an apolitical organization as well, says Barger, but with this I have my doubts. They were doing so well and I was believing what Barger was writing but then they went and spoilt it all by attacking an anti-Vietnam stop-the-draft demonstration. Again according to Barger, Jerry Rubin and all the other 'left-wing peace creeps' were disrespecting America and the Angels wanted to make it clear to them all where they stood on the war: 'We dug it,' Barger tells us.
The peace demonstrators, according to the Angels were 'despicable', 'un-American', 'irresponsible' and 'traitors'. American soldiers fighting in Vietnam were heroes and following the attack upon the demonstration so too were the Angels: 'Little kids came up to us and wanted to touch us, pensioners wanted to shake our hands, and a lot more women wanted to fuck us.'
Inspired by their new-found adulation Barger even wrote to President Lyndon Johnson offering to volunteer the Angels for behind-the-line duty in Vietnam: 'We feel that a crack group of trained guerrillas could demoralize the Viet Cong and advance the cause of freedom. We are available for training and duty immediately.'
Fortunately for the Viet Cong the offer couldn't be accepted as most of the Angels were card-carrying felons so couldn't be allowed to join the Army.

And then the Sixties kicked in fully and with it the Angels' public image was cemented. According to Barger, there was a big difference between the hippies in San Francisco and the anti-war radicals in Berkeley, and whilst the Angels' relationship with Jerry Rubin et al was somewhat strained, there were no such problems with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters lot. In fact, it was like one big happy family having one big happy party. Neal Cassidy, Timothy Leary, Jerry Garcia - they all loved Sonny Barger and Sonny Barger loved them. As for Hunter S Thompson and Peter Fonda, the less said about them the better.

It was Altamont, however, that probably sealed the Hell's Angels' reputation and Barger's take on the event is an interesting one. He let's us know, for instance, that it was actually Emmett Grogan's idea to use the Angels as security. You'd have thought Grogan would have known better but then saying that, you'd have thought the Rolling Stones and their management would have known better too?
Barger tells us the Stones were trying to stage their own Woodstock but they were on a whole other trip to all the other bands at that time and were dealing with forces they really had little control over, one of those forces being the Angels.
We're told that during their set at Altamont, Keith Richards went up to Barger and told him the band wasn't going to play any more until the Angels stopped attacking members of the audience: "Either these cats cool it, man, or we don't play," Richards tells him. So Barger, standing next to Richards on the stage sticks his pistol into Richards' side and tells him to start playing his guitar or he was dead. Subsequently, Richards plays 'like a motherfucker.'

So with this anecdote Barger informs us that he had a gun on him at Altamont. We also know his fellow Angels were armed with pool queues, billy clubs, baseball bats and knives. We also know that Meredith Hunter, the guy murdered at Altamont, was also armed with a gun. So how many other people at Altamont were armed? Which begs the question, how many people went to Woodstock armed with guns? It being America it may well have been a fair few? Who knows? Or was it just Altamont? The point being: who goes to a concert armed with guns, knives, baseball bats and pool queues anyway? And why would you?
Were the Stones blissfully unaware of these ingredients in the mix? If they anticipated thousands of people coming to Altamont, why was the stage only three-feet high? If they had known violence was in the air (as evidenced by if nothing else one of the members of Jefferson Airplane being knocked out by an Angel earlier in the day) why did the Stones sit in their trailers until finally deciding to come on stage only once night had arrived, by which time the crowd was agitated, drugged, drunk and a just a little crazy having been in the sun all day?

Barger tells us that Meredith Hunter pulled out a huge black gun and rushed the stage so the Angels bravely moved quickly toward him so as to incapacitate him - Angels style. They were, after all, the security. Barger also tells us that Hunter shot a Hell's Angel but because the Angel was a fugitive at the time, they couldn't take him to a doctor. It was only a flesh wound anyway. It was lucky that Hunter didn't shoot even more people, says Barger, including the Stones.
For all this, the Angels took the blame.
"Flower people ain't a bit better than the worst of us," Barger declared on a radio phone-in show the next night "It's about time everybody started realizing that... I didn't fucking like what happened there. I didn't go there to fight. I went there to have a good time and sit on the fucking stage. And that Mick Jagger, he put it all on the Angels. He used us for dupes. As far as I'm concerned, we were the biggest suckers for that idiot that I could ever see."
Barger finishes off by telling us 'All that shit about Altamont being the end of an era was a bunch of intellectual crap. The death of Aquarius. Bullshit, it was the end of nothing.'

Sonny Barger is a living legend but he's also a bit of an enigma even after having given us his autobiography. And it seems that just because someone can be violent it doesn't mean they cannot also be a lovely bloke. And funny with it: 'Skip (a fellow Hell's Angel) called up the Oakland clubhouse pretending to sound all freaked out. He claimed he had been taken prisoner by a bunch of women. "I've been kidnapped," he yelled into the phone "and they're fucking the shit out of me. And they want a ransom, man!" Yeah, right.'
And then consider this from him where he's talking about his time at Folsom prison: 'I actually found murderers to be okay people.' Either Barger's going for comic effect, he's being serious, or he's simply cultivating his personal public image. Or maybe all three? Whatever.

Sonny Barger, against all odds is still with us, alive and kicking. And he's even on Facebook. Maybe I should send him a friend request? Maybe we all should?
John Serpico

Monday, 1 January 2018

Thursday, 28 December 2017

As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning - Laurie Lee


You can tell a book is going to be good when it immediately evokes memories, thoughts and feelings from the well of your being, and As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee is one such book.
Just a few pages in and I'm reminded of setting off for the Stonehenge Free Festival one sunny morning and at the bottom of my street bumping into a school friend who was on his way to his apprenticeship at the local factory. "Where are you going?" he asked me as he eyed-up my rucksack and sleeping bag. "I'm going to the Stonehenge festival," I told him. And the look he gave me was one of incredulity and envy, as if to ask 'How is such a thing possible?'
I'm reminded of when I was but a boy at school and my first experience of a riot. The police had for some reason invaded the council estate where I lived and were having bricks thrown at them by local youth. I was in amongst the crowds watching the goings-on when a large brick arced through the air and landed full-square onto the windscreen of a police riot van, causing it to cave-in with an almighty bang and smash into a thousand cubes of glass. The crowds roared their approval and I suddenly thought - my god, this isn't vandalism, or a criminal act, or anything bad in the slightest, my god - this is an act of freedom.
I'm reminded of J18 in the City of London years later - pre-Seattle - and devastating the Square Mile, smashing the banks around the Stock Exchange and raining bottles and bricks down upon the police. Knowing that day we were finally free of trying to win arguments or of spreading any message and even of the whole idea of 'protest'. This time round we were simply on the attack and destroying what we hated. We were on a whole new road... to freedom.
I'm reminded of when as a teenager and living as a traveller on Crete, sleeping on beaches and on mountains, and one day talking to a Greek boy who said "I want to be like you, Johnny. I want to be free."

From his village in the Cotswolds via Southampton, Laurie Lee walks to London where he acquires a job on a building site. This, for a boy with limited experience of life beyond the confines of family and village is an adventure in itself but he doesn't stop there. When the job comes to an end he decides on a whim to hot-foot it over to Spain, choosing to go there of all places in the world because he knows the Spanish phrase for 'Will you please give me a glass of water'.
All very well, you might think but what's so interesting about a story like this? Well, it's the fact that it's based on his own life, the fact that it's beautifully written but above all, it's the fact that it all takes place in the Spain of 1935, one year before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War.

There's a hint of what's to come when Lee first arrives in London and the only address he knows is that of an old girlfriend from his village whose father lectures him on the theory of anarchy and the necessity for political and personal freedom. Apparently, the father is a Left-wing agitator who'd recently fled from America having been involved in 'some political trouble'. Unfortunately it's not made clear who this might have been in real life.

On arriving in Spain, Lee spends a year traversing the country on foot, encountering Spanish peasantry, fellow foreign travellers, ex-pats, vagabonds, madmen, angels, beggars and idiot savants, as well as witnessing stunning beauty and horrific poverty. It's the poverty and inequality, however, that in the scheme of things turns out to be the most important, as Lee explains:
'Until now, I'd accepted this country without question, as though visiting a half-crazed family. I'd seen the fat bug-eyed rich gazing glassily from their clubs, men scrabbling for scraps in the market, dainty upper-class virgins riding to church in carriages, beggar-women giving birth in doorways. Naive and uncritical, I'd thought it part of the scene, not asking whether it was right or wrong. But it was in Seville, on the bridge, watching the river at midnight, that I got the first hint of coming trouble. A young sailor approached me with a 'Hallo, Johnny', and asked for a cigarette. He spoke the kind of English he'd learnt on a Cardiff coal boat, spitting it out as though it hurt his tongue. 'I don't know who you are,' he said 'But if you want to see blood, stick around - you're going to see plenty'.

It's not clear whose blood the sailor is referring to and it's only later on in the book that the subject is returned to when Lee is working at a hotel and he gets to talking to his Spanish waiter friend:
'He talked about the world to come - a world without church or government or army, where each man alone would be his private government. It was a simple, one-syllable view of life, as black and white as childhood, and as Manola talked, the fishermen listened, bobbing their heads up and down like corks. Their fathers had never heard or known such promises. Centuries of darkness stood behind them. Now it was January 1936, and these things were suddenly thinkable, possible, even within their reach.
But first, said Manola, there must be death and dissolution; much had to be destroyed and cleared away. Felipe, the chef, who liked food and girls, was the pacifier, preaching love and reason. No guns, he said; they dishonoured the flesh; and no destruction, which dishonoured the mind. Everyone knew, all the same, that there were now guns in the village which hadn't been there before.'

As the book ends, the Civil War begins in earnest only for Lee to be whisked back to England by a Royal Navy destroyer sent out from Gibraltar to pick up any British subjects who might be marooned on the coast. The Spanish villagers whom Lee has been living with all urge him to go with the ship, viewing it as the King of England himself sending for Lee and that he was the most fortunate of men for this.
On board the ship, Lee sees a German airship passing over in the sky above, a swastika black on its gleaming hull. Back in England, looking at the Civil War from the outside in he begins to understand the scale and the implications of the war, with Germany and Italy lining up to militarily support Franco and the Spanish Fascists whilst England and France busied themselves by advocating appeasement and non-intervention. The Spanish anarchists and their fellow citizens that Lee had come to know so well during his travels were being hung out to dry by the democratic powers and left at the mercy of the Fascist powers.
For Lee there is only one thing to do, and that is to return to Spain to join the International Brigades. And there the book ends with Lee crossing the Pyrenees and re-entering Spain - with a winter of war before him.

The Spanish Civil War has been called "the first battlefield" and can now be seen as a rehearsal for the Second World War where the triumph or defeat of conflicting ideologies was at stake. It was one of the few times in history that Anarchism and a genuine will to freedom lived and flourished only for it to be crushed by the superior fire-power of the supporters of Fascism.
If only that freedom had been supported and defended by Britain and France in the same way that the Fascists were supported and defended by Germany and Italy then the course of the world could have been altered and the blood bath of World War Two perhaps averted.
Ultimately, the lessons of the Spanish Civil War are glaring and relevant even to this day and age. Particularly, even, to this day and age.

As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning is about freedom; the dream of it, the sense of it, the quest for it, the grasping of it, the fighting for it, and the defending of it. It's about the idea of how life could and should always be. It's about other worlds that are not only out there already but other worlds that are not out there but are possible.
Laurie Lee had no other choice but to return to Spain because within him already was a flickering spark of freedom that he fanned by him upping sticks and walking to London but which then burst into fire by his travels through Spain. And once that flame was lit there was no extinguishing it.

As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning is a very beautiful and very special book indeed.
John Serpico

Monday, 18 December 2017

Obsolete Communism: The Left-Wing Alternative - Cohn-Bendit


What has May '68 got to do with anything these days, you might ask? Where exactly is the significance? Well, if you have to ask you'll never know, as they say. The Paris Commune of 1871? The Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917? The Spanish Revolution of 1936? The Hungarian Revolution of 1956? Are these all just meaningless dates and events to you?

Daniel Cohn-Bendit and his brother Gabriel were two of the great agitators around the events of May 1968 in France and their report from the front-line - Obsolete Communism: The Left-Wing Alternative - written shortly after those days makes for essential reading for anyone who takes their revolutions seriously.
There are lessons to be learned here, for sure. The first being who not to trust at times of great social upheaval, that being - as famously demonstrated during the Spanish Civil War and the Russian Revolution - political Parties of any stripe but particularly those who profess to be the vanguard. Remember Krondstadt? There are always those who in the name of revolution will betray the revolution, and that's pretty much what happened in France.

The students had taken over and occupied their factories (as in their universities) and were urging the proletariat to do likewise - and the proletariat were taking heed. The country had ground to a halt, the barricades were up, and the Gaullist government was on the ropes. It wasn't just a pay rise or some such similar demand that was being sought at the time either. No, the students of France were seeking the complete overthrow of the capitalist system - and the proletariat were agreeing. They were being reasonable - they were demanding the impossible for they knew that under the paving stones lay the beach and that those who make half a revolution dig their own graves.
But then into the breach stepped the French Communist Party and the assembly of Trade Union leaders who brokered a deal leading to all the workers abandoning their strikes and heading back to work. Without the support of the workers, the student revolutionaries were left isolated and soon the whole uprising crumbled. The streets were swept of the rubble thrown during the riots, the universities were reclaimed, and much to the relief of the bourgeoisie, life returned to as it was.

So, another lesson to be learned from the Cohn-Bendit book is that for any revolution to succeed it must be a many-headed hydra so that if one head is cut off, there would be others in its place. The students knew that without the support and participation of the working class, their own struggle would be brought to heel, being either crushed or bought out with concessions.
It's here, however, that a paradox comes into play. Cohn-Bendit insists that revolution can only spring spontaneously from the proletariat and cites the failure of Trotsky and the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution of 1917 to keep pace with the masses as a good example of this. Cohn-Bendit argues that Trotsky was actually one step behind the proletariat when the revolution was instigated and only once the masses had started to move of their own accord did the Bolsheviks take over.
Trotsky, of course, would deny this and say that the revolution didn't come from nowhere and that it was his Party's influence that started the whole ball rolling: "Those nameless, austere statesmen of the factory and street did not fall out of the sky," as Trotsky put it "They had to be educated." By his Party, obviously.
With the Bolshevik take-over, the revolution was centralised leading to every subsequent action being for the benefit and preservation of the Party rather than for the actual furtherance of the revolution. The masses were hamstrung and any attempt at reigniting the original aims of the revolution such as by the sailors at Krondstadt and by Makhno's army in the Ukraine was repressed with extreme force.

The failure of the revolution of May '68 is laid firmly at the door of the French Communist Party and the bureaucrats of the Trade Unions. It was they, argues Cohn-Bendit, who cut off the head of the proletarian uprising. It was they who betrayed the will of those they were meant to represent. The problem being, however, that if the proletariat are the only ones able to instigate and drive forward a revolution, then they are also the only ones able to allow that revolution to be taken over by those who would ultimately betray it. Why then in France (and in Russia too) did they allow the supplanting of one hierarchy for just another whose concern was to preserve a system maintaining (for them) either political, administrative or economic domination - or even all three? Why, after going for revolution were the proletariat unable to take the next logical step: to run the economy by themselves as free and equal partners. To run their own lives without bosses and bureaucrats. Or as Makhno put it: to live without authorities, without parasites, and without control. Or as written on the walls of Paris: to live without dead time.

Cohn-Bendit goes on to say that what might appear to be ideological submissiveness and servility in the proletariat must not be condemned, which serves no purpose, nor deplored, which helps to engender a moral superiority, nor accepted, which can only lead to complete inaction - but that it be fought by an active and conscious assault, if necessary by a minority, in every sphere of daily life. Confidence must be engendered but as a proviso adds: "The revolutionary cannot and must not be a leader. Revolutionaries are a militant minority drawn from various social strata, people who band together because they share an ideology, and who pledge themselves to struggle against oppression, to dispel the mystification of the ruling classes and the bureaucrats, to proclaim that the workers can only defend themselves and build a socialist society by taking their fate into their own hands, believing that political maturity comes only from revolutionary struggle and direct action."

In other words, the revolutionary must encourage the workers to struggle on their own behalf and show how their every struggle can be used to drive a wedge into capitalist society. The revolutionary must act as an agent of the people and not as a leader.
As Marx declared: "The emancipation of the workers must be brought about by the workers themselves."
And that, comrade, is the truth as shared by Cohn-Bendit in this book and the lesson to be learned.
John Serpico

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Suspect Device - Edited by Stewart Home


He's joking, right? He's got to be fucking joking. Someone please tell me that he's joking. I'm talking about Stewart Home, the person responsible for editing this collection of short stories published under the title of Suspect Device.
The cover's eye-catching and the title's good also, bringing to mind Stiff Little Fingers and their song of the same name, of course, and that's no bad thing. The contents, however, are a whole other kettle of fish that leaves something to be desired to put it politely. I mean, for fuck's sake. Did Home actually get paid for compiling and editing these stories? Did the publisher Serpent's Tail actually give credence to Home's judgement regarding what qualifies as 'hard-edged fiction'? Is it just me? Is it just that I don't recognise great, cutting-edge writing when I read it?

So what have we got? Well, it starts with a story entitled Blind Date about being bound up in rubber and fucked up the arse, and then progresses from there really. Bound up in rubber and fucked up the arse? Hmmmm, nice idea, you might think? Except when it reads as though it's been written with all the wit, flair and insight of a thirteen year-old boy.
Then there's some horse shit of a story entitled Vegan Reich, about a Khymer Rouge-style group of eco-terrorists who kidnap a bunch of bands at a music festival and ceremoniously burn them alive like in the end scene of The Wicker Man. Hmmmm, yummy, you might think? Same as before, however, except this time it reads as though it was written by a sixteen year-old? Maybe it was?
Then there's The Suicide Note, about some bloke who climbs down into a sewer to kill himself with an overdose of whisky and codeine, and it's at this point I just about give up on the will to live myself. Like the trooper I am, however, I persevere thinking it can't get any worse, can it?

'At last he'd found something that could approximate the alienation he felt from late capitalist society' it declares in the story Zyklon B Zombie, regarding the story's main protagonist. And that was? Throbbing Gristle's Second Annual Report LP. Really. And then the story Tradesman's Entrance which as might be guessed involves more anal sex but with added vomiting.
Fuck it. Out of twenty stories in total they can't all be rubbish can they? And indeed they're not. Law of averages, I guess. Three of them (to my mind, at least) are actually quite good and I'm happy to name them: St Andrew's Arena by Berholt Bluel (which I suspect might actually be Iain Sinclair writing under a pseudonym), Pig! by the late, great Steven Wells, and Last Train Home by John King. I must admit also that bits of Stewart Home's own piece are quite amusing as well.

The thing about Stewart Home is that the Richard Allen books of the 1970s that he emulates and parodies are actually far better than his own books. When they were first published, Allen's pulp chronicles of skinheads, boot boys, knuckle girls and suedeheads found their way out onto Council estates throughout the country where they were eagerly devoured by working class kids. So popular were they and so controversial at the same time that schools banned their pupils from reading them, or at least bringing them into school and reading them. Home's books have never found their way out onto Council estates in the same way and we all know they never will.
Richard Allen's books didn't pretend to be anything other than what they were. Stewart Home's books, on the other hand, are Richard Allen parodies with a wink, as if to say "Yes, we know this is sub-pulp fiction and because we know, it means it's art".
Richard Allen's books, though written in a supply and demand manner, were honest. Stewart Home's books (or if not all then a fair number of them) are dishonest because they're pretending to be something that they're patently not. They're trying to be brutal, they're trying to be extreme, and they're trying to be clever all at the same time but they fail and miserably so. As do seventeen of the twenty stories Home has selected for publication in Suspect Device but then I guess that's no surprise because if Home's own work is a reductive imitation of Richard Allen's, then any story emulating Home is going to be nothing but a pale shadow of that reductive imitation. Which means they're going to be even worse than Home's own stories. And that's the case (as I shake my head despairingly) with this book.
John Serpico

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Kiss This - Gina Arnold


On the 14th January 1978 at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, Gina Arnold's universe suddenly opened up. It was the Sex Pistols' last ever gig and Gina was there in the audience and - as she describes in her book, Kiss This - it was like the moment when you learn to read, or when Dorothy steps out of her house in the Wizard Of Oz.
For the next 17 years years Punk Rock ruled her world until 1996 when it dawned upon her that Punk had become by then a meaningless philosophy; her epiphany being the announcement that the Pistols were to reform. So begins Gina's reckoning with the forces that had once so inspired her.

To Finland she flies to catch the Pistols on the first date of their comeback tour, then on to London and the Finsbury Park concert where she sees them being welcomed home like prodigal sons. Back in America, Gina considers Lolloopazola and various other mega-festivals where sponsorship deals are the order of the day. Beer companies, chewing tobacco companies and snow boarding companies are all chasing the young, white male market and there are no ends to where they'll go and what they'll do for it, from sponsoring concerts and festivals to sponsoring established and even unsigned bands.
Where did it all go wrong, Gina ponders, as she casts her eye upon the remnants of the Grateful Dead fan base still cluttering Haight Ashbury and all still buying into a lifestyle that is well past its sell-by date? Bought out, sold out and burnt out by capital and the death pickers of corporate America. Punk, in Gina's eyes, has gone exactly the same way as has Grunge and every other off-shoot of supposed teenage rebellion.
'History repeats itself,' she quotes Marx as saying 'The first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.'

From here, Gina goes on to contemplate Green Day, Rancid, the 924 Gilman Street project, Bad Religion, and the Epitaph label; and if these names mean less than nothing to you then her book is obviously not for you but then this begs the question: Just who exactly is Gina's book for? Who exactly is she talking to? Well, I would suggest that Gina is essentially just talking to herself, that Kiss This is just one long navel gaze more suitable for an essay or an article rather than a whole book.
Essentially, there's nothing startlingly original or insightful about any of her concerns and there's nothing much really to be gained from her observations. For example, suggesting that Rap music is more DIY and in many ways more punkier than Punk is hardly an original thought. A turntable and a microphone are in all likelihood going to cost less than a guitar and an amp, and are going to be more accessible to a teenager in the Bronx or in Compton than all the paraphernalia required for starting a band.

So is Rap better than Punk in terms of what it has achieved? I suspect it might be but at the end of the day we're talking about musical taste, style and form, and it's what you choose to do with and and use these things for that actually counts. If turning a profit is the aim then whether it's through Rap, Punk, or Albanian nose-flute playing it doesn't really matter as it's all just means to an end. The same goes for more loftier aims such as, for example, creating a political or cultural stir, or even if the aim is simply to provide entertainment. Style and form are just ways and means and not ends in themselves. The medium is not the message.

Gina then goes on to cite Homocore as the only true form of radical Punk being made at the time of her writing, which is a debatable point. Whilst an openly gay Punk Rock band such as Pansy Division are brilliant, I fear they might mostly be viewed more as a novelty band than anything else. Not that there's anything wrong in being a novelty band, of course, but it doesn't make you a Punk Rock saviour as what Gina seems to suggest. And whatever Pearl Jam get up to in their spare time certainly doesn't make them Punk Rock saviours either, which is what Gina suggests also. The same goes for the Fastbacks who Gina declares to be 'the best Punk Rock band in America', and it's at this point that I lose interest. After 198 pages of wavering and shooting off at tangents, the point of her book has somehow been lost and has ended up as a Fastbacks tour diary. 'The best Punk Rock band in America' indeed. Ahem.

Listen, I used to believe that Punk was the most special, the most brilliant thing and I'm sure I'm not the only one who felt like that. My perception of the meaning of Punk evolved and changed over the years though it didn't take me too long to understand that it had very little to do with a style of music or a dress code but more to do with an attitude and a state of mind and even then it was a multi-faceted state of mind - like a diamond.
Who was I to dictate, for example, that Punk wasn't about getting drunk and falling over (and believe me, I witnessed an awful lot of that and in fact it even seemed at one point as though this was what it was all about and nothing else) but then I also knew that anyone can get drunk and fall over whether they were Punk or not.
No, Punk contained an idea, a notion that no other movement, genre or scene possessed. There was something unique within Punk though for all the talk of Year Zero I later discovered it had been inherent within Hippydom as well. I admit that for a while I did indeed believe Punk was an end unto itself and it took some time for me to realise that it was instead and in actual fact a stepping stone or a springboard to other things. An important and special springboard but a springboard none the less.
Inspiration gave them the motivation to move on out of their isolation, as a young Anarcho Punk Rock poet once wrote. Punk was an inspiration, an energiser, an urge, a way of saying 'No' where we'd always said 'Yes'; and in saying 'No' we were subsequently saying 'Yes' to a better life and the possibility of a better world.

Is Punk now dead, as Gina asks in her book? I don't really know but then nowadays - who the fuck cares?
John Serpico

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Play Power - Richard Neville


If any magazine could be said to be seminal then it would surely be Oz, the hippy Underground publication brought to the attention of a mainstream audience due to it being at the centre of a controversial prosecution case in 1971. Oz was a thing of beauty; its multi-coloured, psychedelic pages incorporating text, photography and innovative graphic design in a genuinely unique and inspiring fashion. Unlike a lot of other Underground papers and magazines of that same period, Oz wormed its way into the hands of an eager readership previously unbothered by such publications, introducing a whole slew of radical ideas and attitudes to virgin minds.
Was it the sex, the drugs and the rock'n'roll that caught the attention of a wider audience? Most probably but these were essentially trojan horses used to smuggle and convey concepts of flower power, black power, gay power and what editor Richard Neville termed 'play power'.

'Revolution must break with the past, and derive all its poetry from the future,' Neville quotes from the International Situationists. And then from John Sinclair, of MC5 and the White Panthers: 'Our programme is cultural revolution through a total assault on culture, which makes use of every tool, every energy and every media we can get our collective hands on... our culture, our art, the music, newspapers, books, posters, our clothing, our homes, the way we walk and talk, the way our hair grows, the way we smoke dope and fuck and eat and sleep - it's all one message - and the message is FREEDOM.'
So Neville takes us by the hand and through his book, Play Power, leads us on a guided tour from the beginnings of hippy culture to the heart of the vision of the new world that Oz was very much a part of.

Pop! Bang! Pow! The words and names come thick and fast, conjuring up images, thoughts and ideas like a grand firework display lighting up the sky. Many of the sayings, words, and ideas he recites are old hat nowadays, of course, and many as might be expected are positively antiquated as viewed from a 2017 perspective. Many others have been forgotten with the passing of the years and come as a joy to exhume:
'Carry on motherfuckers!' - What does that conjure up nowadays? Barbara Windsor with a tommy gun?
'Youthquake' - So that's where Pete Burns of Dead Or Alive got the name for his album.
'The militant poor' - Plebeians on council estates, high on a heady cocktail of Sixties idealism, Eighties radicalism and Noughties existential austerity.
'A gathering of the tribes' - Memories of free festivals before everything turned a little too corporate for a lot of people's liking.
'Growing your own' - Allotments?
'Doing it in the road' - Tarmacadam burn?
And so on and so forth.

It's probably unfair to read and judge Play Power from the vantage point of 2017 but then how else is it meant to be read? It's a bit difficult not to, really. The problem being, is that it highlights a lot of huge clangers of political and social acceptability. For example, at one point Neville writes 'It's time traditional Marxists realised that their textbook revolutionaries - the workers - are inevitably reactionary, conformist and authoritarian because they are sexually repressed.' Which is a bit of a generalization, to put it mildly. Maybe back in the late Sixties and early Seventies there was some evidence to base such a claim on but if so, then surely the same could be said of the middle and upper classes?
For sure, from my personal experience there has always been a swathe of 'workers' who (in public, at least) are indeed sexually repressed. They're fully liberated (and far more liberated than other classes) when it comes to an issue such as violence, for example, or when it comes to speaking their minds but when it comes to something like pan-sexuality, you might as well be talking about something only fit for aliens from another planet. For some, monogamy is the only order of the day and the man should always be on top. Having said that, however, some of the most weirdest and perverse sexual antics I've only ever heard tale of (ahem) on council estates. And I don't mean the kind of things that Richard Neville lets slip about himself in the book regarding fourteen-year-old 'chicks'.

And there's a thing: the word 'chick'. It's a word I've always had a problem with because of its demeaning and sexist connotations but a word fully associated with hippydom just as 'man' is. It's always made me wince and still does whenever I might hear it being used to this day.
Maybe it's due to the time that Play Power was written in but it's interesting when Neville writes about the Rolling Stones concert in Hyde Park following the death of Brian Jones that he doesn't bat an eyelid when recounting the part about master of ceremonies Sam Cutler ordering the press section down by the stage to be emptied out a bit.
'There isn't enough room for everyone,' Sam Cutler announces 'So chicks will have to leave... Angels (as in Hells Angels), get rid of them.' From a 2017 perspective, of course, such an announcement is staggering in its sexism but for someone as so say liberal as Neville it goes unnoticed. And not because he's unaware of women's issues either, because he's by that time already read the SCUM Manifesto by Valerie Solanas though he admits that what the manifesto asserts is 'hopefully a minority viewpoint'.

For all that and for all its other faults, the hippy vision that Neville describes in Play Power has its positives that actually out-weigh the negatives. In describing Paris '68, for example, he writes 'For thousands, one night behind the barricades proved a more effective political education than fifteen years in the library.' And he's absolutely right. Just as he is when describing Abbie Hoffman's and Jerry Rubin's Youth International Party - better known as 'the Yippies' - and the battle of Chicago in '68: 'A chimera without any political tradition or ostensibly, any coherent philosophy, operating from a dilapidated New York office, without financial resources, without a network or even a branchline of brother organizations, without a master plan or a master - helped mobilize not only the thousands who poured into Mayor Daley's city in August, but indelibly branded the imaginations of millions who experienced Chicago second hand. The secret weapon? Understanding media. Unlike most radical groups, eschewing the press or issuing them with dry facts and pompous resolutions, later wondering why they're not published or complaining of distortion if they are, the Yippies relied upon that distortion, and exploited it; comprehending its myth-making potential and resolutely weaving a seductive spell of fiction and fantasy which, by the very act of publication, gained a compelling credibility.'
It's a lesson that years later groups such as Class War would come to learn and demonstrate and one that any present day revolutionaries - no matter that we now have social media - would do well to learn also.

Richard Neville passed away in September of 2016. Hippydom went on to splinter into a million different ways of life and careered off down a thousand different roads, one of them being Punk that itself subsequently splintered into another thousand different ways of life. Who now might be the holder of the torch and where next it might flare up is anyone's guess but if history teaches us anything it is that the torch will without any doubt flare up at some point again. What potential benefits might be derived from it when it does can only be speculated on but one thing that can be for sure is that if we fail to remember the past... then we will be condemned to repeat it.
John Serpico