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As all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned...

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Punk hippies don't wear black.

As mentioned previously here, Rich Cross is working on an ’anarcho-history’ of anarcho-punk to be called ‘ The hippies now wear black’ - see

In April, Rich reviewed George Berger’s ‘Story of Crass’ and Ian Glasper’s ‘ The Day the Country Died’ for Freedom (anarchist mag). He has just posted the reviews on his site. I have cut and pasted samples below.

Rich is also asking for help with the book (also below).

I am in two minds about Rich’s project. To focus on the ’anarcho’ and ’politically engaged’ aspects rather than the ’punk’ and ’popular music history’ aspects is a very worthy aim. But, as I hope readers of greengalloway have noticed by now, when I look back at the ‘anarcho-punk’ period 1977-1984, I see it as part of the tangled and confusing his’n’her story of the British (English?) counterculture.

Sure, you can chop it up into separate pieces, can (for example) treat 1976 as a Year Zero beginning and the Sex Pistols last gig - 14 January 1978 at Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco- as an ‘end’ of punk, with everything which followed as ‘post-punk’… but only by dissecting, dismembering and vivisecting the actually lived lives of most people who called themselves punks.

The picture I have slowly been piecing together is one of many countercultural strands or currents which came together/ became entangled in and as ‘punk’ in 1976 and which then began to diverge/ disentangle again in the mid-eighties. Feminism is one such strand or current, part of which passed through punk and out the other side. But there were many (most?) feminists who never connected with punk/ anarcho-punk at all. The anti-nuclear/ peace movement was another. (These two strands/ currents connected independently of punk/ anarcho-punk at Greenham in 1981/2, but there were anarcho-feminist- punks at Greenham Common where there was also a Stonehenge Free Festival/ Peace Convoy connection in 1982).

And to state the bleeding obvious, there was an anarchist counterculture current which preceded and postceded anarcho-punk. This anarchist current ( as represented by Stuart Christie/ Albert Meltzer/ Cienfeugos Press/ ‘Black Flag’/ Persons Unknown version rather than its ‘Freedom Press’/ Whitechapel version) overlapped with anarcho-punk and Crass/ Poison Girls in 1979/81 to create the Metropolitan Warf/ Wapping Autonomy Centre… but there was no ’meeting of anarchic minds’.

I can speak from personal experience here. In 1978 I signed up (and paid a monthly fee) to Stuart Christie’s Orkney based Cienfuegos Press and received in return a collection of classic anarchist books like Kropotkin’s ‘Mutual Aid’. In 1979 I moved to London and was invited to Ceinfuegos Press / Black Flag readers meetings, which overlapped with Persons Unknown Conspiracy Trial Support Group meetings. Here I met Stuart Christie and Albert Meltzer, as well as Ronan Bennett and Iris Mills- two of the accused ‘Persons Unknown‘. It was Ronan and Iris who suggested setting up a London ‘anarchy centre’. The possibility of UB40 financing this via a ‘benefit’ record was suggested by Ronan. (He had met the brother of a UB40 member whilst in prison awaiting trial).

The last of such ‘non-punk’ anarchist meetings I can remember attending was held in the Library of the Conway Hall (Red Lion Square, central London) in late 1979. This meeting discussed an alternative to the UB40 record idea - that Crass and the Poison Girls would finance the ‘Anarchy Centre’ via a benefit record. This idea was actualised as Crass’ ‘Bloody Revolutions’/ Poison Girls ‘Persons Unknown’ record, the profits from which were used to rent space for an ‘Autonomy Centre’ at the Metropolitan Warf building in Wapping, east London.

But here the paths diverge. According to Albert Meltzer

Iris Mills and Ronan put a tremendous amount of work into funding, finding and then building and decorating the place. Ronan, possibly misled by the backing the Persons Unknown [record] had received, which numerically might have been about the same as that of the Republican Clubs of Belfast, not unreasonably thought at least one club on those lines could be established. In some capital cities on the Continent there are up to a dozen anarchist clubs or centres.

But the amount of committed support was limited. Ronan decided to appeal for support from the punk anarchists, then a new phenomenon, saying the punks would pass anyway and would be useful for the time it was around. The punk support, especially from followers of Crass and Poison Girls, was substantial. Punk has lasted a couple of decades, long outlasting the proposed club. With the punks' money came the punks, and in the first week they had ripped up every single piece of furniture carefully bought, planned and fitted, down to the lavatory fittings that had been installed by Ronan from scratch, and defaced our own and everyone else's wall for blocks around. In the excitement of the first gigs where they could do as they liked, they did as they liked and wrecked the place. Loss of club, loss of money

What happened next - March 1982 - is that the ’ anarchist ‘ punks set up their own Anarchy Centre in west London, at the Centro Iberico. This was an old school on the Harrow Road which had been squatted by refugee Spanish anarchists (some of whom were veterans of 1936 ).

The Spanish anarchists lived upstairs, the punks took over the ground floor assembly hall where they (we?) built a stage using old gas cookers from the school kitchen. And then put on gigs. Crass refused to have any part in this new project, as did the Persons Unknown/ Black Flag anarchos. So we had to do it ourselves…

So far as the personal is political, my memories of the Centro Iberico are of it being more fun than Wapping. Wapping was closed in and intense, cold and dark, more an ending than a beginning.

The Centro Iberico and nearby Meanwhile Gardens gigs felt like a beginning of a new phase, a new current. One which led to Stonehenge Free Festival, to other squatted venues, to the Black Sheep Housing Co-op - to beyond the black clad certainties of ‘anarcho-punk’: to goth, to Stop the City, to acid house raves, to road protests…; to the whole confusing mess which is the present.

Oh hell, I don’t know. Which makes it difficult for me to challenge the neat and simplistic version of ‘anarcho-punk’ Rich Cross seems hell bent on constructing.

So it goes. Here is what he has to say. If you disagree with his version our reality, please let him know…

In recent years, cash-savvy publishers have pumped out innumerable coffee-table books rehashing the history of commercial Pistols-authored punk (of alarmingly variable degrees of quality). Very few amongst them have made any effort to accurately represent the history of anarcho-punk: the one manifestation of the sub-culture genuinely convinced that punk should (and could) give life to the movement’s irresistibly subversive logic. The burying of the specifically anarchist strand of punk within the historiography of punk rock is not simply the outcome of a nefarious conspiracy amongst retired rock journalists – although that conspiracy does exist, as much fuelled by ignorance and arrogance as by malice. Mainstream eulogisers of punk always face great difficulty in trying to incorporate anarcho-punk’s searing critique of punk orthodoxy into their own reassuringly-familiar Bromley Contingent narratives.

At the core of Berger’s narrative lies an unarticulated assumption that the ambitions of the anarcho-punk were so unattainable (and the punk vehicle for their realisation so completely inadequate), that Crass should have been willing to negotiate compromises the better to secure goals that were within the movement’s grasp. If, in the end, anarcho-punk has to be accepted as little more than an interesting musical distemper, such a view would appear as less than heretical. Those who rate anarcho-punk’s revolutionary merits higher than this will be disappointed that this first biography of Crass is so keen to suggest that, in refusing to compromise its autonomy, anarcho-punk was its own worst enemy. Despite these and other tendentious conclusions, Berger’s book remains an essential read for anyone interested in the headline history of anarchist punk.

Although light on context and analysis, what the collection hints at throughout is the extent to which – within a militant anti-war, anti-work, ‘anti-system’ framework – the perception and priorities of the movement’s activists differed: something the movement’s critics (who were always keen to deride the uniformity of the ‘Crass punks’) rarely understood. Above all, even though Glasper’s attention is fixed firmly on the subculture’s musical output, The Day the Country Died cumulatively illustrates how simplistic the myth is which insists that Crass simply ‘led’ an anarcho-punk movement that dutifully ‘followed’ its directives. Incomplete as both these books might be, they serve as clear evidence that – not before time – a recuperative counter-history of punk is at last beginning to be written.

If you’re interested in learning more about this project - or better still, sharing ideas, recollections and archival material from the time - please do use the email form below to make contact. Once I hear from you, I’ll get back in touch to explore things further.
If you are interested in helping with the book, you only need provide very brief details here, but it would be useful to know the kinds of things that you might be interested in sharing or offering your thoughts about. (Please do double-check the spelling of your email address before posting so that I’m able to get back in touch).

Of the many things that it would be useful to access are the following:
Insights, memories, opinions and reflections from those that were involved in the work of anarcho-punk in any way; or who were critical spectators of it
Perspectives on what anarcho-punk meant; how significant or otherwise it was; how important the politics and practice it promoted proved to be
Copies of flyers, posters, handouts and - in particular - fanzine interviews with anarcho-punk bands
Copies of photos and other visual materials, from 1977 to 1985 especially

If you might be interested in helping with research for the book, please do get in touch. I can’t promise to include all the information that is received, but all material that is supplied will be carefully and very gratefully reviewed.


Blogger Transpontine said...

Rich Cross wrote an article in the journal Socialist History, 'The Hippies wore Black', presumably the book is an extension of this. Like you I hope it doesn't end up too Crass-centred (though they deserve their dues). I also think that simply describing Crass as hippies misses the mark - I think Penny Rimbaud/Jeremy Ratter had as ambivalent a relationship with the free festival/70s 'hippy' scene as he did with 80s anarchists. Andy Worthington's excellent book 'Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion' suggests that he was unhappy with the confrontational stance of Stonehenge festival organisers after the death of Wally Hope

10:55 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi again Alistair

Regarding your comments on the book proposal you’ve seen for The Hippies Now Wear Black. You may not be surprised to hear that I don’t accept how I can possibly be described as "hell bent on constructing" a "neat and simplistic version of anarcho-punk".

Yes, you’re right – punk was one expression of an ongoing counter-cultural continuum. Yes – absolute beginning and end dates along that continuum are ultimately deceptive; things are less definitive than any inflexible ‘Year Zero’ account can possibly allow for. Yes – anarchist activity preceded anarcho-punk (evolved with, through and against it), and developed long after it. Yes – more recent expressions of the counter-culture echo in complex ways some of the experiences of anarcho-punk (just as anarcho-punk itself echoed some of what had gone before). And so on…

All of this to me is self-evident…

I’m sure there could be aspects of anarcho-punk history that we disagree vehemently about (I suspect that we may not agree about which aspects of the movement were the most significant and valuable) – but I’m yet to be convinced that there’s much argument to be had around your initial ‘concerns’. You’ll have to judge for yourself, when there’s a book to read. In the meantime, I’d welcome your input as I research and write it.

9:39 pm  
Blogger Nuzz Prowlin' Wolf said...

My lasting memory of 'thee anarcho scene' was that something so liberating turned into something so oppressive.

6:39 pm  

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