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The politics of punk

Joe O'ConnellThe punk rock years have taken on an almost mythical status in the history of UK popular music. As well as giving young people the opportunity to rebel against the norms of the day, the genre was also a voice for many against Thatcherism, the establishment, racism… and the 10-minute prog-rock guitar solo.

Joe O’Connell, a trained instrumentalist who first came to Cardiff to study clarinet, before coming to Cardiff University, is dedicating his PhD to punk and the politics of the bands, and people who followed them.

“I’ve always had an interest in popular music and politics, and the time the two came together in a way as never before was during the post-punk era,” says Joe. “While initially punk wasn’t political, some punks saw the potential for political discourse and activism within the genre, especially with the rise of the National Front.”

“Rock Against Racism was a grassroots musical protest movement formed in 1976, and between then and 1979 almost 800 events took place under the RAR banner, including two carnivals that drew crowds of up to 100,000 in Manchester and London.”

At its peak the National Front became the fourth largest political party in the UK, successfully stirring up tensions between minority and white working class communities. This fascist organisation’s popularity was boosted by notorious speeches by Enoch Powell, while musicians such as David Bowie and Eric Clapton seemed to play to these views.

“Some interesting field work has included interviewing members of a punk band called Alien Kulture. This band, which was formed after members went to a RAR gig in London, comprised three first generation British-Pakistani members. They saw Rock Against Racism as a natural home when many around them seemed to be questioning their right to be in this country. Interestingly, although Alien Kulture were firmly against the establishment at the time, two members of the band have gone on to work in the financial services in London!”

And what about today – is there still a strong association between popular music and politics?
“In the late 70s the Labour and Conservative parties were about as far apart politically as it was possible to be. Nowadays there doesn’t seem to be that fragmentation to the same extent, perhaps that has meant young people don’t feel the need to rebel through music. However, a song such as ‘Ill Manors’ by Plan B shows there’s still anger with the system, and that gets played on BBC Radio 1.”

Thank you to the University's Alumni Network for permission to reproduce this article which originally appeared in the Winter 2012/13 issue of the Cardiff University Magazine.