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Where is Lester Bangs When We Need Him This Campaign Season?

Watching Trump’s victory speech after winning the Michigan primary, I could not help from feeling a strange sense of deja vu all over again. Not despite but precisely because of his perpetual mugging, off-color remarks, and anti-establishment behavior, I finally understood what is going on. Not only is this campaign a populist upsurge that is creating a schism in the duopoly, it is as if the wider political economy is now going through what rock music went through four decades ago when punk hit the scene and threw all caution to the wind. What a shame Lester Bangs is not alive to see this!

The basic narrative is that around 1975, poor kids with a love of old school rock n’ roll who were tired of the mega-opera status quo of mainstream music decided to get some junky musical instruments and play heavily sped up power chords while the crowds danced insanely. In America, this was perhaps best exemplified by the Ramones and in the UK by the Sex Pistols and The Clash. That is certainly a tremendously simplified summary that will probably create paroxysms amongst the readers who were there, but allow me to create the analogue here for a moment.

The Ramones were a politically-amorphous group, lead singer Joey Ramone was a man of Left politics while Johnny Ramone was a man of the Right. This could very well describe the populist upsurge supporting both Trump and Sanders, the angst in the land is not necessarily support for either candidate, although I do think there are extremists in both campaigns who think their candidate is the augury of something far greater, as much as an expression of discontent with the status quo of both political parties. Does that necessarily mean the ravages of neoliberal economics that have caused this anger are akin to the banality of mainstream disco? Well, it was not I who called evil banal…

Now consider the ultra-Left Clash and the ultra-nihilistic Sex Pistols. It is absolutely vital to recall the social coordinates both came out of, the so-called Winter of Discontent where in the British social democratic welfare state began to break down. There was blatant racism in the mainstream towards Asian, African, and West Indian migrants. The unions were caught in a public relations fiasco because of fights over wages that led to chaos, epitomized by a sanitation workers strike that led to mountains of garbage building up on London roadways. The Trots were championing around this time an entryist strategy where they intended to join the Labour Party and turn it towards revolution. As such, both bands were a political hand grenade that dared the status quo to be better. The Clash were in favor of liberation and fighting back against what ended up becoming Thatcherism. One of their original album’s songs seems like a poem that describes our own populism today:

Career opportunities are the ones that never knock
Every job they offer you is to keep you out the dock
Career opportunity, the ones that never knock

Whereas Joe Strummer was digging on the synthesis, the Sex Pistols were digging oblivion. Sid Vicious, the ne’er do well bassist who actually didn’t know how to use the instrument, would die an ugly, sad death involving heroin after he (probably) stabbed his equally-high girlfriend Nancy Spungen. Their classic Anarchy in the UK was completely berserk. Whereas Strummer was calling for Bolshevism, the Pistols were saying burn it all away.

What is so interesting still about Anarchy is that, in a sense, it is the perfect rendition of anarchism itself. At its best moments, in Spain during the 1936-1939 civil war, anarchists became a vanguard in opposition to fascism and created a revolutionary economic system that has features that are still instructive to our world. At its worst, it can be a galling miasma of bickering nonsense that places fantasia above reality, a jaw-droppingly naive mess whose anti-Communism, as noted by the great historian Paul Preston, has allowed for a series of tacit alliances with the Right to prevent working class unity, as exemplified by how Cold War liberals and conservatives both used Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia as a red-baiting cudgel. And so it is with Anarchy in the UK, a snapshot of an angsty teen-aged political middle finger that spawned both Left progeny (The Pogues, The Specials) as well as Right children (Screwdriver). That description almost perfectly describes the followers of Sanders and Trump.

Punk rock has a far more complex history than this analogy, perhaps best summed up in the excellent oral history Please Kill Me by Gillian McCain and Legs McNeil. There were antecedents dating back to the 1960’s, including the MC-5, Velvet Underground, and Iggy Pop. Yet I think it is likely also Trump and Sanders supporters are veterans of a Ron Paul revolution or perhaps were members of the Run Warren Run PAC. The genre fizzled out within five years because of the shifts in musical tastes, whereas I doubt Trump and Sanders supporters are going to change their politics as easily as you change a record. But in terms of long-term staying power, I think the Republican Party has been forever unmade by its own stupidity. The Democrats are going to use Trump as a justification for voting Clinton and, despite the power-madness of Party Chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, I can envision Commissar Bernie instructing the Sandernistas to follow suit and elect Hillary. Those who doubt this are simply insane. Whether this results in a similar collapse within the Democrats as Trump has caused for the Republicans is yet to be seen. If the Democrats somehow pull out of this one without a schism, they may hold out for another decade or so.

But when the political scene gets raucous again after that grace period, American politics are going to forever change when the Nirvana equivalent of progressive politics takes the scene. Will it be the Green Party? Could we see a brawl within the halls of power not unlike both a mosh pit and when Preston Brooks beat Charles Sumner with a cane in 1851 over slavery? Is there going to be as much speed this time?

Lester Bangs where art thou?

More articles by:

Andrew Stewart is a documentary film maker and reporter who lives outside Providence.  His film, AARON BRIGGS AND THE HMS GASPEE, about the historical role of Brown University in the slave trade, is available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video or on DVD.

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