07.12.2016 12:00 AM

In this week’s Hill Times: punk rock, Brexit and Laura Jane Grace

Punk: anarchy, class warfare, contempt for political institutions, right?
Not quite, maaaan.
Punk rock, like all youth subcultures, possessed myriad internal contradictions. It decried racism (as did Joe Strummer of the Clash) whilst some of its proponents (like Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols) wore swastika T-shirts. It angrily scorned the upper classes (as did the Clash and Iggy Pop) and then later licensed their songs to serve as soundtracks to Jaguar and Audi commercials (as did the Clash and Iggy Pop, respectively). Punk rockers loudly extolled anarchy (as did the Pistols, notably) and then ran for public office (as did the Dead Kennedys Jello Biafra, DOA’s Joey Shithead, and NDP MPs Charlie Angus and Andrew Cash, among others). 
But the biggest punk double-standard, probably, was always this: the punk ethos was always about individualism and doing-it-yourself, to the extent that “DIY” became the predominant philosophy among punks on both sides of the Atlantic. But punks, at the centre of their gritty, grimy tattooed hearts, have always been collectivists. They fiercely promoted individualism – but, at the end of the show, always agreed that a lot more can be achieved by working together.
“If the kids are united, they will never be divided,” Sham 69’s Jimmy Pursey sang way back when, and all of us agreed. We didn’t know anything about politics or unified action, but in places as far-flung as London (for Pursey et al.) or Calgary (for me and my punk friends) we came together to organize gigs and rallies, for causes ranging from Rock Against Racism to Rock Against Bush.
And, along the way, we sort of became internationalists.
In its essence, punk rock was always anti-racist and pretty progressive, so our willingness to go along with something like the European Union shouldn’t have surprised anyone. Besides: if we could piss off isolationist conservative types like Margaret Thatcher – who infamously hollered “No no no!” to increased powers for the EU in 1990, in a House of Commons speech that ultimately precipitated her downfall – well, then so much the better. If Messrs. Reagan and Bush were against something, we punks were generally always for it.
So what, then, do punks think about the decision of a majority of British citizens to leave the EU? Not much. It indisputably represents a triumph for the angry old white folks we thought we had beaten back in then bad old days. And it is a shocking loss for us, the punks who championed gay, lesbian and minority rights around the time of the very first Pride parades.
“Coming out would be like going back to Little England,” said the Pistols’ drummer Paul Cook, a few days before the Brexit vote. His band mate, singer Johnny Rotten, was similarly unenthused, after the vote: “It is not a good idea to lose all the friends we have made in Europe. I am not satisfied.”
Nor, apparently, is Laura Jane Grace, the lead singer of Florida punk giants Against Me! – and one of the most listened-to voices in punk rock today. Having just completed a memoir – and finished a record and a tour with her band – Grace sat down to talk in Toronto, and expressed despair about the Brexit result.
“I always felt like the world was getting more liberal,” she said. “And then something like this happens. And it’s a swing to the Right, no question….Racism, too, I think is at the heart of it.”
While the economic and political implications of Brexit have been mooted at length in the media, Grace agrees that the cultural significance of it all remains elusive. “As an artist, there’s nothing wrong about writing about your feelings or whatever. There’s nothing wrong with that,” says Grace, who is known for writing deeply-personal songs – about race, gender and religion – for the band she started in Gainesville in 1997. 
“But to me, coming from the punk scene, it’s always important to be part of resistance culture. There’s always a need for music that is protest music. It’s a way to rally people, it’s a way to educate people.”
In the Trump and Brexit era, she says, some people are dearly in need of education. “We need art that shakes people out of their comfort zone,” she says, adding that she still believes Trump could win the White House. Against Me, she says, will be doing that at their shows, and on their next (as-yet untitled) album.
“It’s a frightening time,” she says. “So artists need to subvert that. They need to revolt against that. They need to create change.”
The stakes, she says, are too high for any of us to be apathetic, and to just stay home.
“People,” she says, “need to start paying attention.”


  1. patrick says:

    The British, deep down, are elitist class driven snobs shackled by the not so distant past of their now buried empire. “Hail Britannia” might bring tears of remembrance of grander time, not so much for their colonies of course, but that’s a different topic, and a false pride and delusion about Britain’s position in the world. It is a self delusion that the rest of the world finds to be a joke. Europe is a reminder that Britain is now just another nation, no more or less significant than any other state in that Union. It is easy to imagine how galling it is for a large swath of Britain, no matter what strata that swath has been born and bred in, to feel they are subjected to the whims of those beneath them, (or at least used to be). Add in xenophobia, the fear of terrorism, a stagnant economy and the surprise is not that Britain is leaving the Union, but that the vote was a close as it was.

    • Frank says:

      Lol, Utter TOSH!! How about some hard facts instead of the usual the whinging narrative?
      Italy has an unemployment rate of 11% and its banking sector is in crisis. Its government’s debt is second only to that of Greece.
      Yesterday’s papers it was announced that Italy’s banks suffered heavy losses as the EU insists Italy can only provide banking aid that is legislated for.
      The IMF’s forecasts that the Italian economy will only return to pre-2007 levels in the mid-2020s and its growth is likely to be less than most of the other Eurozone countries.

      Switzerland is not a member of the EU but pays into the EU, so it is an “associate” member with access to the “single market”.
      In 2014 it had a referendum which voted to reduce immigration. This directly contradicted the bilateral agreement it signed with the EU in 2007 allowing freedom of movement. Worse! the vote got through with a 50.3% majority (ie. Only 19,526 votes more!) The deadline for implementation of the referendum is February 2017 so the Swiss Govt has spent the last two years trying to come up with an immigration measure which complies with the referendum and will not mean cancellation of its bilateral agreement with the EU. This is virtually impossible but made even harder as the EU now won’t discuss with Switzerland as wants to focus on Brexit.

      The EU says that when it negotiates with Britain freedom of movement is not negotiable and has to remain. This is rich considering that it won’t talk to Switzerland about it’s immigration policy and last year Austria went againts Schengen and re-opened checkpoints along its Borders in order to slow down immigration. Meanwhile Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic also want to close down the migrant’s route through their lands and Hungary has built a fence along its border with Serbia and Croatia. Do you see the irony?

      The Greek debt; It’s well known that until the debt is written off or greatly reduced Greece will need regular bail-outs. This will be hanging over our heads for God knows how long.

      France has an unemployment rate of about 10% and a youth unemployment rate of 24%, It has run a budget deficit every year since the early 1970s.
      In mid 2012, the French government debt was equivalent to 91% of its GDP ! In 2012 France was downgraded by Moody’s, Standard& Poor’s, and Fitch and in December 2014 it was further downgraded

      The EU budget cannot be verified and signed off by it’s auditors because everybody is bending the rules, mis-reporting,and fudging figures. Basically the members lie.

      Spain. Actually not doing badly in comparison with the others but watch the Catalonia time bomb ticking away.

      Germany. Merkel is on dodgy ground. It’s only a matter of time before the German people get upset they are paying way more than everybody else and and shelter more migrants. Plus the fact they are getting wise to the fact that the actual EU leaders are not good enough, and are arrogant and lack vision.

      Perception is one thing, reality is another. The EU is doing it’s best to appear solid and strong… but it ain’t really.

      • patrick says:

        I agree with you. I think it is mostly economics and a feeling of powerlessness, lack of jobs, security, etc that has fuelled much of the leave Europe feeling in Britain. I think it is the tendencies that I have mentioned above that has made Britain the first to leave. Really, incomplete thoughts at 3 in the morning when you can’t sleep should remain incomplete. FurtherIt the anger is the same one that is fueling a babbling incoherent like Trump and a socialist like Sanders. We are being lied to by the people we have elected to serve us and society may have reached a tipping point that is fed on by extremists.

  2. Peter says:

    So, to the Brexit voters’ xenophobia, poor education, irrationality, nostalgia and anger, we can now add an underexposure to punk? I have to wonder what Vicious and Rotten would make of all this cozying up to the beautiful people.

  3. Luke says:

    On a completely unrelated note, I offer a prediction that today, Clinton and Sanders announce that he will be her running mate. I thought I’d put that out there in case I end up being right about my inkling.

  4. Frank says:

    Lol, still blaming”racism” for the 17,500,000+ Brits who voted “Leave'”. Now, the Remainers instead of accepting thier massive and unexpected loss with good grace, are throwing everything but the kitchen sink at the situation; “the rascists won”, “it’s unconstitutional”, “we won’t have free movement”, “there’ll be a brain-drain”, “but what about our young people?” and my favorite, “we’re disrespecting ‘Jo’s Values’ (Jo Cox)”. The Guardian ran a great piece on the meltdown in the Remain strategy and how thier strategists hopelessly and emphatically misread the public’s mood. Maybe bad EU management, arbitrary economic decisions, failure to follow their own rules on the refugee crisis, a plethora of busy-body and invasive regulations had something to do with it?
    Lol, “punks” coming out for the ‘Establishment’? I suppose I’ll listen to “….we mean it, maaan” with a new sense of irony now.

    • Vancouverois says:

      Yep. I find it ridiculous that the Remainers try to pretend the Leave vote demonstrates nothing but racism and imperialist nostalgia, when financial headlines since 2009 have often been dominated by the ongoing Euro debt crisis.for example.

    • Peter says:

      That’s a terrific article that I’ve linked to here. Kudos to the very pro-Remain Guardian for rising above this after-the-fact narrative about how the Leave voters were whipped up into a frenzy of racist paranoia at the last minute. The Remainers went into the campaign knowing full well how Eurosceptic much of the public had been for years and in time-honoured EU tradition set out to overcome them with scary repeated warnings from bien pensants and experts. For those too busy to read the whole thing, here’s the punchline:

      No one on the remain side fully anticipated an emotional groundswell of contempt for the very idea of political authority as dispensed from a liberal citadel in Westminster. The remain politicians found themselves besieged by an angry insurrection, channelling grievances that were well known. They stood for a cause that became emblematic of a system that was alien, arrogant and remote – and they had no answer.

  5. The Doctor says:

    If I were a Brit, I would have voted to Remain. That said, this blanket portrayal of Leave voters as racist, retrograde idiots and Remain voters as enlightened, progressive heroes is just stupid. It’s polarized politics at its worst. And as some have pointed out, it’s a tad hypocritical for Canadian lefties to be dumping all over Leave voters for their nationalist, independent leanings, when left-leaning Canadians tend to be virulently nationalist themselves when it comes to the USA, FTA, NAFTA, etc. — cf. for example Maude Barlow and the Council of Canadians.

    • doconnor says:

      While they can be Anti-American they don’t appeal to nationalism when criticizing free trade agreements. They say the agreements are bad for workers in all countries involved and mainly benefit corporations.

      • The Doctor says:

        Umm, I call BULLSHIT on that. Jesus, all you have to do is read any of the Council of Canadians’ xenophobic rants to quickly come across cartooonish Anti-Americanism, claims that Canada is being invaded and conquered by the evil Yankee imperialists, claims that Canadian sovereignty is being destroyed by NAFTA, etc. etc. Like, those aren’t appeals to nationalism? Gimme a break.

        Apparently you never saw that famous anti-FTA TV ad that the Liberals ran in the 1988 election that showed evil white men in business suits erasing the Canada-US border. No hyperbolic appeal to Canadian nationalism there, eh?

  6. Rob says:

    You’ll not find a bigger Against Me! fan than me but I think Laura’s wrong here.

    Leave/Brexit, whatever you call it, was the punk vote. It was two fingers to the establishment. It was a vote against the elite, the politicians, the bankers, the ruling classes and the status quo. It was a vote for change, it was subversion, it was revolt.

    Whether or not ,as a result of Brexit, it will get any better is a different question.

  7. Lee Hill says:

    Brexit was a series of own goals on a spectacular scale. The more you contemplate the scale of poor decision making from the lazy, uninspiring campaign fought by David Cameron to Remain to the myopic xenophobia of many Leave voters (and then the sheer cynicism of the key Leave campaigners, all any sane person wants to do is contemplate a life of quiet exile in the South of France c. 1924. Or invest in a stockpile of chocolate flavoured valium.

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