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Up Yours! The Black, Queer, and Feminist Artists That Revolutionized Punk

Paying dues to the artists who have succeeded in the genre despite the circumstances being stacked against them

Outsiders In Punk
Illustration by Steven Fiche
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    Consequence’s Punk Week continues with an essay on the “outsider” artists who have succeeded in and revolutionized the genre, despite the odds being stacked against them. Keep checking back throughout the week for interviews, lists, editorials and videos — it’s all things punk, all the time.

    Flip through the annals of punk history, and consider the bands often cited as icons: The Clash, Sex Pistols, X, Black Flag, Fugazi, Ramones, Green Day, Rancid, blink-182. These artists certainly deserve their lofty status and every plaudit thrown their way, although you might notice that these acts (largely) feature lineups dominated by straight, white, cisgender men.

    On the surface, this seems counterintuitive. Punk is often positioned as a reaction against the mainstream, a way to include marginalized voices that don’t fit in other places. Not to mention, Black musicians created rock ‘n’ roll and reggae — two genres from which punk evolved, especially in the UK.

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    However, much like the history of rock ‘n’ roll, punk history has been both whitewashed and viewed as male-centric. That’s partly due to association; for a multitude of reasons, rock ‘n’ roll itself became quite segregated as the genre evolved. For far too long, women who played rock music were seen as a novelty; openly queer musicians were also rare in any genre, much less rock music.

    Genres that start out with revolutionary intentions often become reactionary — and the acts within the movement either start to resemble (or even become) the centrist mainstream. In fact, it’s not surprising that the systemic racism, homophobia, and misogyny linked with rock ‘n’ roll can also apply to certain facets of punk rock or cropped up in lyrics.

    Yet despite punk history being homogenous (and, at times, problematic), punk musicians have always been diverse — certain gatekeepers just weren’t necessarily willing to listen until now. It’s taken decades of social and cultural progress to get punk to a more diverse and inclusive place.

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    Credit a new generation of historians and critics who are willing to interrogate — and correct — prevailing historical narratives, while admitting where past movements fell short. And credit younger, more open-minded generations of music fans, who don’t have the same biases (or black-and-white worldview) as previous generations.

    “We Didn’t Fit in at All”: The Rust Belt and Proto-Punk

    Like punk, proto-punk is a nebulous term, with a somewhat amorphous timeline stretching from the 1960s through the mid-1970s. You had Krautrock, garage rock, psychedelic pop, and bands that favored music somewhere in between, such as The Velvet Underground (featuring drummer Mo Tucker) and the polarizing trash-glam band New York Dolls. Then there’s the Rust Belt, which arguably served as ground zero for American punk rock.

    From the late 1960s through the mid-1970s, Michigan produced the MC5, Alice Cooper, The Stooges, and a trio called Death. Brothers David, Bobby, and Dannis Hackney drew on the musicianship they developed playing together in a funk band, combining airtight arrangements and taut dynamics with throttling proto-punk verve. Comprising demos dating from the mid-1970s, Death’s seminal …For the Whole World to See collection is an adventurous blend of hard rock, jazz, and psychedelia.

    They were also very ahead of their time. “We didn’t fit in at all. The rock bands that we identified with… we didn’t hang out with those guys,” Bobby Hackney told NPR in 2010. “Being in the black community and having a rock band, people just looked at us like we was weird. After we got done with a song, instead of cheering and clapping, people would just be looking at us.”

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    “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!”: Feminist Punk in the UK

    Starting in the mid-1970s, the UK boasted punk pioneers and a fierce inclusive streak. Actress and singer Jayne County, an American who was in Warhol’s orbit and is regarded as the genre’s first out transgender musician, led Wayne County & the Electric Chairs, who brought a much-needed theatrical-glam edge to the genre.

    On the political front, punk bands such as The Slits — a reggae-inspired band from London — teamed up with The Clash to unite against nationalism and xenophobia. “Punk shows were bringing people together,” DJ and musician Don Letts told The Guardian. “The Clash were doing Rock Against Racism concerts. The Slits were doing gigs with Aswad. We were all cheering each other on. No racism in our bubble.”

    That cross-pollination eventually spurred the development of post-punk, while also ensuring that early punk bands (including Edinburgh pogo-punks Rezillos and the minimalist Au Pairs) had their own style. Few acts stood out more than London’s X-Ray Spex, the ultimate feminist punks. “Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard,” Poly Styrene says coolly at the start of the group’s debut single. Then comes the song’s titular uppercut, shrieked in a blood-curdling voice: “But I think, ‘Oh bondage, up yours!'”

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    With that line alone, Styrene established the X-Ray-Spex mission statement: They weren’t interested in conforming to anyone’s stereotypical worldview. (For more reading, a new documentary on Styrene’s life, Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché, further makes the case for her brilliance and impact.)

    The United States of Punk

    During the 1970s, New York City’s punk scene thrived due to clubs such as Max’s Kansas City and CBGB, which booked new bands and gave space for icons such as Blondie and Patti Smith, as well as Talking Heads bassist Tina Weymouth. However, when compared to the UK, the scene wasn’t nearly as open-minded: In 1979, the critic Lester Bangs wrote a Village Voice piece, “The White Noise Supremacists,” that started off with a friend of his tossing off a casual racial slur — and went on to challenge the idea of the NYC punk scene as some inclusive Utopia.

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    Much more diverse was the West Coast US punk scene. “In the early days of punk rock, it was very well integrated with women, African-Americans, and Chicanos,” the musician Alejandro Escovedo, who was in early punk band The Nuns, said in 2019. “But rock in general — as far as the corporate rock-n-roll world — was sort of void of that sort of integration.” Escovedo’s younger brother, Javier, happened to play in The Zeros, a punk band featuring “four young Chicanos from San Diego,” as he noted.

    The Zeros were in good company: San Francisco also boasted the Avengers (led by the commanding Penelope Houston), while Los Angeles had X’s howling poet Exene Cervenka and The Go-Go’s. While the latter were known for their pop hits, there’s a great argument to be made for them as pop-punk pioneers; Belinda Carlisle was even in Germs for a brief moment. All of these groups put a fresh spin on punk, driven by sometimes-surprising influences (for example, X liked the Doors) and sonic approaches informed by iconoclastic, genre-spanning worldviews.

    One of the more (still) underrated LA punk bands is Bags. Like many late-’70s punk artists, the group released very few songs during their time together, although what music they did issue — a 7-inch featuring the jazz-tinted fury of “Survive” alongside the melodic power-riff gem “Babylonian Gorgon” — mutated punk’s DNA. (Leader Alice Bag has released a string of uniformly excellent solo albums in recent years that underscore her punk bona fides and influence on movements such as riot grrrl.) Back in the ’80s, Bag also appeared on a song by the abrasive electropunk act Nervous Gender, an early influence on queer punk.

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    Punk very quickly spawned the offshoot genre hardcore; in fact, Southern California had one of the most active scenes in the US. Plenty of early ’80s hardcore hasn’t aged well, as many songs come across as whiny and entitled today. One major exception to this rule is the music that poured out of Washington, D.C. — namely, Bad Brains. Driven by the charisma of vocalist H.R. and the thrashing virtuosity of guitarist Dr. Know, the band whipped up churning hardcore punk with a positive edge — and then bent eardrums further by introducing elements from jazz, reggae, and metal into the melee.

    “I’ve recently discovered that the role of Bad Brains in music is as unifier of all genres and sounds,” bassist Darryl Jenifer said in 2019. “We represent fearless creativity, void of race, creed, color — all the isms.” Unsurprisingly, Bad Brains were also one of the best live punk bands — they could switch between tornadic punk and laid-back reggae on a dime — and were known for pointed lyrics, from the true-life “Banned In D.C.” to the social critique “Big Takeover.”

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    In modern interviews, band members continue to call out how diverse their influences really were. “I consider myself a multi-styled instrumentalist, known for a brief encounter with punk rock as a teen,” Jenifer added. “When I discovered punk rock, I was attracted to it because it was free in every way. I was a shy youth — maybe I can play without even being seen on stage. I like to say I pioneered progressive punk: high-energy, precise, passionate riffage.”

    Bad Brains’ wide-ranging approach to music is seen especially in the LA funk-punk-ska band Fishbone. If you’re toasting to the apocalypse, you could do a lot worse than throwing on the group’s six-minute epic “Party at Ground Zero,” although Fishbone is interested in far more than just serenading the end of the world. Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, they took a patchwork-quilt sonic approach to music — songs also dabble in metal, soul, even acoustic rock — to provide a soundtrack for any occasion.

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