Punk Rockers use popularity to rouse political consciousness
By Christy L. Breithaupt / The Detroit News
DETROIT--The words "Punk Rock" stir up a bevy of visions of mohawks, safety pins and combat boots.
But punk rock is more than clothes and music. It is a political party set to its own beat. And this weekend's Vans Warped tour, which hits the Pontiac Silverdome parking lot Sunday for the eighth year, is more of a punk rock carnival and a rally than a concert.
Bands such as the Suicide Machines, Pennywise and S.T.U.N. will not only perform but also use their popularity to educate audiences on politics.
"The older we got the more we saw what was going on in our government and the world. It's not like we go up there and preach to the crowd, we just give them a bit more to think about in between songs," says Fletcher Dregge, guitarist for Pennywise, which has been educating its audiences on social politics for more than a decade.
The band's lyrics address government corruption in the United States and what they call the misuse of Iraq and military powers.
"We've gotten a lot of backlash on the Web site (www.pennywisdom.com) from a lot of people who say they won't listen to our music anymore because it's not American," Dregge says. "If they are stupid enough to think we are anti-American, then they're too stupid to listen to Pennywise."
While rousing people to ask more questions may not be popular with most Top 40 groups, it is a big push for musicians in the punk rock realm.
Last month, Detroit-based Suicide Machines, a popular punk group, released its new album, "A Match and Some Gasoline," which combines fast tempos with a pumped-up lesson on the band's view of U.S. foreign policy. The band contends Iraq is being used as a foothold by the U.S. government to control the oil supply.
Lead singer Jason Navarro sees nothing wrong with sharing his political beliefs.
"I believe in myself as being a patriot," he says. "I have spoken my opinion, and as an American I have that right."
When the Dead Kennedys exploded into the public eye in the late '70s, its acidic lyrics attacked the government, and its outrageous stunts lead singer Jello Biafra ran for mayor of San Francisco in 1979 appalled and attracted listeners.
Lyrics such as "Well you'll work harder with a gun in your back/For a bowl of rice a day," from the song "Holiday in Cambodia" (1980) set the tone for the band's future songs.
But even after the Dead Kennedys' demise in 1986, Biafra produced spoken word albums cleverly bashing corruption in democracy, and he continues to try his hand at mainstream politics with the occasional run for government. He once found that the New York state Green Party had nominated him for president.
"I left my name on the ballot hoping to inspire other people who were down where I'm at to get off their butts and register and show up and vote," Biafra says.
Ali Moossavi, drummer and lyricist for local hardcore punk band Death In Custody, says his draw to punk rock and its politics began when his older sister brought home a Dead Kennedys album.
"It's a very political type of entertainment. It's not mindless fun. You can't be detached and be punk rock," Moossavi says. "We're a minority scene because we're too ugly and too real for people."
When Biafra introduced Ice-T's band, Body Count, at Vans Warped Tour in California this summer, he was not surprised to have full 12-ounce pop bottles whiz by his head as he shared his views about corruption in the U.S. administration, he says.
"It seemed to be a whole festival for the commercial mall punk audience. The ones who would rather go to Hot Topic (a trendy alternative clothing store) than go to a demonstration against the Bush mob," Biafra says. "But of course, a lot of the people there were really young and may turn into tomorrow's agitators."
You can reach Christy L. Breithaupt at (313) 222-2402