Left musical wave defies the far-right and Brexit

Having worked around the music industry for many years, mainly as an organiser of benefit gigs and now running an online platform, I can say that artists are rightly fearful about what may soon occur. Deal or no deal.

Since one of their income sources (actual record sales) disappeared into cyberspace they’ve pretty much relied upon touring to break even. European audiences represent a huge part of those earnings and reaching them could well become a bureaucratic nightmare. John Baine (AKA punk poet Attila the Stockbroker) has been on the road long enough to remember what life was like before freedom of movement was introduced and he recently explained why, thanks to Brexit, he could stop crossing the channel:

“I am not paying over three hundred quid for a sodding ATA carnet, noting every bloody plectrum, string and date, time and place of purchase of instrument (which I can’t remember anyway) CD, book, record and badge on it and presenting same to some unnecessary bureaucrat having sat in a poxy queue behind a load of lorries for four hours. I’m not unloading a load of musical equipment onto a grass verge just so some petty mainland European official make me to unscrew the nut of my violin bow to check there’s no heroin in there.

“I’m not going to — because I used to have to before 1992, regularly, and the whole completely unnecessary and ridiculously expensive process sucked. Then we grew up, stopped the whole pointless charade, and rock n roll musicians of every conceivable hue, from hard core thrash to the most abject prog, breathed a huge sigh of relief and got on with their work, unimpeded by ludicrous bureaucracy.”

New blood in the waters

The fact that so many young musicians could soon find themselves at the mercy of customs officials could deter many of them from leaving this miserable island. Which would be very sad because right now we are experiencing a renaissance of truly inspiring political tunes in pretty much every genre. As rapper Lowkey said recently: “Music is often ahead of the curve, where music goes society and politics follows.” This is presently being played out, even at the most corporate end of the music business.

Those of us old enough to remember Glastonbury as a haven of beautiful chaos that you could jump the fence into, or get let in free as a traveller, found ourselves giving it a brief approving nod for the first time in well over two decades in 2019. It is still very much what it became in the late ’90s, an exclusive party for posh white people whom can afford the ticket price.

However Stormzy had about 100,000 of them jumping up and down singing “fuck the government, fuck Boris.” which must have really stuck in the throats of those at the top who feel that they own this event and the votes of its participants.

At the other end of the sliding scale our very own techno punks Killdren were catapulted from obscurity to infamy by getting banned from the same festival after a puerile campaign against them by the Murdoch press. They showed up anyway, playing to bigger audiences than they had been originally booked for and have been lapping up the free publicity ever since. Their song ‘Kill Tory Scum’ and its hilarious low-budget video now has its place in music history. Corporate acts would sell their kidneys for this kind of free PR.

The arrival of Trump and his misogyny has energised one of the most exciting developments on the live music scene. For the past few years a new wave of exceptionally talented feminist punk bands have articulated feelings of anger over gender inequality like no one else. Bands like Dream Nails and Pussy Liquor express their rage through a series of brilliant songs and also ensure that their gigs are a genuinely safe space for the vulnerable. Women and non-binary people are invited to occupy the space at the front of their shows ensuring that mosh pits are no longer a place where drunk men can bully and grope.

A boom in promotion

Offstage, new collectives have sprung up to ensure this ethos is pushed into the equally unequal world of promotion. Four years ago musician Cassie Fox launched Loud Women, a London-based organisation that now has a network of contacts across the world and has staged around ninety successful gigs promoting women/non-binary led bands and an absolute zero tolerance to oppressive behavior of any kind. Their recent fourth birthday gig saw several generations of feminist punk celebrated with Hagar the Womb (first formed in 1980) playing alongside The Menstrual Cramps who are presently leading the charge of the new wave.

Further north, Manchester-based record label Hell Hath No Fury are releasing similar music and organising regular gigs and festivals. Their founder Holly recently told us they are “poviding a platform for womxn, non-binary and queer folk within the DIY punk scene. I often get under people’s skin, more often than not from cis men, as to their horror; I very rarely book all cis-male bands. I get called sexist, fascist, discriminatory against straight cis men, a gig saboteur (for being concerned over a band’s safety), oversensitive.“

If a post-Brexit hard-border stops these bands from taking their message outside the UK then the European scene will be a much poorer place without them. In Germany their ethos has long been part of the live music framework. Further to the east sexism and overt homophobia still flourish around the punk scene and local activists and promoters would welcome any intervention to help them get shot of it.

Perhaps the best response that we recently saw to 2019’s installation of an overtly pro-Brexit, racist, sexist and Islamophobic Prime Minister in the form of Boris Johnson was a joyous celebration of musical defiance that occurred the following day. The event was announced on Facebook with:
“Boris will be sworn in as PM on July 24th. We will be ready to greet him. We will be ready to reject him. And we will be ready to reject every single one of his cronies and everything they stand for.

“At the time he gives his first speech as PM, we will hold a street festival celebrating the power of our communities. There will be music and art. There will be noise. Bring your friends + bring the volume – bring rigs, sound systems, portable speakers, whatever you have. We will make ourselves heard – we will not let this man become PM without a fight.”

Blockading on July 24th – Pic: Guy Smallman

An open top double decker bus was sourced for the protest along with a sound system and a competent engineer with experience in mixing for protests. By the time the demo was making its way down to Westminster from Russell Square up to eight thousand people had joined it.

Less than ten extremely nervous cops accompanied the procession down to Downing Street with musical accompaniment being provided DJ Ashman & MC Big Ben. At Whitehall there were live sets outside Downing street (which was now effectively blockaded) from the Female Allstars, AWATE, Peaky and Aruba Red. The gathering remained defiant as the crowd danced and let off smoke grenades in front of lines of outnumbered riot cops.
A perfect reminder of how music has the power to bring people together and focus their anger when combined with grassroots organisation.
The existing racism empowered by the Brexit result three years ago has reared its ugly head in many forms. But we’ve yet to see any cultural breakthrough for either the populist right or fascism. They remain not just isolated by live and recording artists, in their entirety, but also roundly condemned by them.

At the Free Tommy rally last summer we witnessed the biggest fascist-organised mobilisation since the 1980s, largely bankrolled by the US and Canadian far right. But the only song played endlessly on a loop through their speakers as their hate-rally gathered was by millionaire, attention-seeking has-been Morrissey. They’re welcome to him.

No amount of dark money can buy the artistic resources that we have at our disposal.

~ Guy Smallman is a London based photojournalist and edits Final Hours.


Main pic: Grenfell remembered by Lowkey and a sold-out crowd in May, by Guy Smallman

This article was written for the Winter 2019/20 issue of Freedom Journal.