Weird History
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How Underground Punks In The '80s And '90s Took Their Scene Back From White Supremacists

April 1, 2020 16.5k views12 items

While some softer offshoots of punk shy away from activist anthems, political punk has always been a part of the niche. The punk anti-establishment subcultures of the '70s and '80s offered working class punks frustrated with their circumstances a place to exorcise their anger. But these young punks weren't the only ones mad at the world.

Punk politics got hairy in the '80s and '90s as skinheads infiltrated the scene, wreaking the type of havoc not indicative of the true punk ethos. Bands like Black Flag, Minutemen, and Bad Brains weren't ready to stand for the hate, so they took action. The antifa punk movement still inspires activists today.

  • Early Underground Punk Bands Sported Fascist Imagery For Shock Value

    Video: YouTube

    As the punk scenes of New York and London cross-pollinated and grew through the '70s and '80s, some rockers pushed the envelope with their sartorial choices. Punk icons like Siouxsie Sioux of Siouxsie and the Banshees and Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols wore shirts and jackets with nationalist and sometimes satanic connotations. This imagery would sometimes be combined with elements of BDSM culture as well. 

    The use of nationalist symbolism as an anti-establishment statement has always been controversial, but many assert that the punks who sported these symbols meant no ill will. The trend caught on, and fans started wearing anything that was against the norm. According to punk historian Tricia Henry's Break All Rules! Punk Rock and the Making of a Style, kids showed up to Sex Pistols concerts wearing, "plastic trash bags, bondage wear... [Third Reich] regalia, slashed clothing held together with safety pins, multicolored hair spiked up with Vaseline, lurid makeup, and... safety pins worn through flesh."

  • Photo: Mantaray100 / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Early Nationalists And Punks Shared A Disdain For Authority And Mainstream Culture, Drawing Them To The Scene

    As underground punk bands started gaining both notoriety and fame, they drew the eyes of another subculture who carries a disdain for authority and the mainstream: skinheads. Punks danced and slammed into each other in the pit, threw beer bottles, and hurled chairs and other fixtures during shows.

    These antics attracted neo-nationalists to the scene, and in a way, fostered the hateful subculture's growth. As Jack B. Moore outlines in his book Skinheads Shaved for Battle, "The punk link proved for a time fortunate for [skins. They] shared sometimes the important medium of... unpopular popular music, anti-authoritarianism, a penchant for violence... and the accepted, fairly heavy use of [substances]... with many of the punks." 

  • Bands Like Black Flag And Oi Polloi Had Issues With The Scene Newcomers Early On

    As nationalists started to infiltrate the punk scene, bands started to notice a shift in the tone of their shows. Black Flag's Henry Rollins told GQ that at points the aggression was even backed by local police:

    In the Black Flag days, we had Skinhead problems in the lower half of America. Florida, especially. One night in 1986, they mugged our soundman, kicked his head in and cut the lines to our PA. The cops came, shut the show down, and told us we were the problem and we had an hour to get over their county line. 

    Oi Polloi lead singer Deek Allen started noticing disturbances even earlier in his band's career. When Oi Polloi started in 1981, the nationalists were already showing up at concerts and causing unwanted chaos.

  • By The ‘80s, Punk Crowds Adopted A More Aggressive Form Of Dancing We Now Know As Moshing

    Naturally, as nationalists continued to infiltrate the punk rock scenes of the US and the UK, style - both sartorial and dancing - started to mesh. Doc Martens boots, which are now a punk rock wardrobe staple, were notoriously associated with nationalists before they entered the punk scene. They also brought a new level of volatility to the dance floor.

    Jello Biafra explained the transition to GQ, saying, "Pogoing became slam-dancing, now known as moshing, and some of 'em didn't seem like they were there to enjoy the music, as much as they were there to beat up on people - sometimes in a really chickensh*t way."