The Kids Divided

Stephen Duncombe and Maxwell Tremblay Eds., White Riot: Punk Rock and the Politics of Race

Verso, 336pp, £14.99, ISBN 9781844676880

reviewed by David Renton

Punk is responsible for some of the most compelling and the angriest music of the past forty years. Punk, at its best, became a shorthand for a whole family of artistic expression, oppositional and accessible (speeding up, decades before the net, the transition from audience to producer), both musical and visual. Escaping from its original settings in London, Manchester, Leeds, and other English cities, punk crossed the Atlantic and defined a counter-culture of innovation (the Dead Kennedys, US Rock Against Racism, Suburbia). Finally, as the later sections of this book show, punk has in recent years escaped its original Western roots, and has taken on a new lease of life in Mexico, Brazil, Indonesia and elsewhere.

At its start, punk defined itself as the music of dispossessed young white artists. It took on this identity because popular music (for all sorts of reasons emerging throughout the history of the US) has historically been a racially segregated art form. White artists singing reggae – in the 1970s Clapton, later Sting – sounded inauthentic and ridiculous. Many of the early punk acts were shaped by friendships with black musicians, such as the DJ Don Letts. They knew and loved Caribbean music, and engaged with it not by simply copying it but by trying to generate a parallel and allied, but different musical aesthetic, rooted in their own, different, urban experiences.

A central theme of this book is to ask whether the ‘whiteness’ of punk music makes it innately racist, or indeed for that matter, anti-racist. The Clash sang ‘White Riot’, but also covered Junior Murvin’s ‘Police and Thieves’. Siouxse in her days as a Sex Pistols groupie wore swastikas; three years later, with the Banshees, she was singing ‘Metal Postcard’, a tribute to the anti-fascist collage artist John Heartfield. One undoubted truth is that this approach enabled some white artists to take a militantly anti-racist (‘race traitor’) stance. Punk therefore had the potential to be more dynamic and more interesting than most Western art forms, in which white experience was simply assumed to be the only experience.

But it is equally obvious that the whiteness of punk enabled its appropriation by some determined racists. In a few cases, punk even acted as a solvent, dissolving initial anti-racist positions – as in the case of the Marxist punk band Crisis, who in the 1980s gave birth to two further groups, Death in June and Sol Invictus, both of whom played slower and heavier, bombastic music (where Crisis’ music had been spiky and engaged), and who were, in both cases, obsessed with images of Nazi Germany. Today’s Neo-folk scene - which, if not neo-Nazi in its core politics, is certainly a space in which Strasserite, nationalist and racist images thrive - stems from their music.

This book is a collection of articles by musicians, fans and academics. It neither romanticises nor attacks punk, portraying it essentially as an interesting package of positions on race, rather than as an unproblematic anti-racist aesthetic. The book includes interviews with racist musicians, such as Ian Stuart of Skrewdriver. A very large part of the book is given over to the North American punk experience. The editors seek to hold the ring between the ‘race traitor’ position, and those who emphasise its limitations. The tension is nicely expressed by the editors’ summary of Jimmy Pursey, the lead singer of Sham 69, who sang at the first Rock Against Racism Carnival in Victoria Park, despite having a large neo-Nazi fan base:

‘Pursey has a very explicit understanding of the political intentions of his work, to play for working-class and poor kids, to get them to ask questions of themselves without giving them any easy answers ... [He] refuses to reject his racist fans in the name of the “kids” being “united”, but also campaigns against racist violence and describes a personal intervention he made with a blatantly racist fan ... His position regarding racism ... approaches “oppositional whiteness” from a place of empathy and solidarity in opposition. At the same time, however ... we need to ask to what extent such an idea leaves one too apologetic for certain kinds of racism.’

My own view is that Pursey grasped anti-racism more keenly than his editors, and fought bravely for anti-racist positions, at the cost of his own band’s destruction. That reservation aside, this is a rich collection of disparate voices. For those seeking an introduction to punk’s racial politics, there is no better place to start.
David Renton is a barrister and the author of CLR James: Cricket’s Philosopher King.