Punk Adjacent: Nazis, Jello, and Politics

Punk: (noun) a worthless person; a genre and subculture of music /// Adjacent: (adj) next to or adjoining something else /// Punk Adjacent: (column) Where we discuss the stories, legacies and surroundings of one of the most important artistic movements in the modern world

By: Ammar Mooraj

The punk and post-punk movements in their inception were somewhat inherently anti-conservative. It was a movement made up of anarchists, drug addicts, LGBTQ+, and minorities. People who were bullied in high school and rejected by society at large found their home in punk. Yet over the last twenty or so years, we’ve seen a slow unfolding of this as old punks and post-punks, like Morrisey of the Smiths, John Lydon of the Sex-Pistols, and Johnny Ramone of the Ramones, are coming out in support of conservative political leaders and movements. The dominant narrative explaining why we’re seeing this is that these individuals were either posers all along or that money and success changed them – but I’m not convinced by this. In this week’s installment of Punk-Adjacent, I want to propose a counter-narrative.

See, punks and Nazis have a complicated history. In the beginning, it was adversarial. Pretty much every punk and post-punk band has at least one story of a time when a group of Nazis has tried to hunt them down. For many bands in the American hardcore scene, that was just part of their daily life. When I say ‘Nazi’ I’m not doing so derogatorily, these were actual siege-hailing white supremacists. In the 1980s, during the hardcore movement, it gets a little more complicated because even though the music got more explicitly politically progressive, Nazis began to take the sound, the language, and the aesthetic of punks. They often either tried to co-opt or assimilate into the hardcore scenes.

It was in this increasingly dangerous, racist, and toxic environment that Jello enters our story. Not the delicious fruit-colored dessert, but rather the legendary punk artist Jello Biafra – lead singer and songwriter for The Dead Kennedys. The Dead Kennedys were probably the biggest explicitly political band from the 80’s hardcore punk scene, most well-known for their songs “Holiday In Cambodia,” written about the bombing of Cambodia by the US, and “Nazi Punk Fuck Off.”

“Nazi Punks Fuck Off” was written as a response to what Biafra perceived as the encroachment of white-supremacists, Nazis, and ‘red-neck punks’ onto the hardcore scene. All most people hear when they listen to the song is screaming, but if you’re able to make out any of the actual words you’ll notice that it’s a clever biting analysis of how fundamentally punk ideas and Nazi ideology are at odds with one another. With lines like “punk means thinking for yourself, you ain’t hardcore ‘cause you got spiked hair,” “when you ape the cops it ain’t anarchy,” “the real Nazis run your schools,” and “in a real fourth Reich you’ll be the first to go,” the song posed an existential threat to the Nazi punks. The song’s lyrics underpin the narrative that the old, regressive punks we see now must either have been posers the entire time or have actually changed.

The issue I take with this narrative is it seems too convenient. It’s easier to simply call these far-right individuals posers than to contend with why the punk movement and its descendants may have attracted them, especially considering some of these people were formative to the scenes they belonged to. To simply dismiss them as posers because their ideologies seem contradictory to some of the central ideas of punk is like saying it’s un-American to be racist because the Declaration of Independence says “all men are created equal”; the muddier truth is that while freedom and oppression are contradictory ideas, they are both still heavily embedded into the fabric of America. The same is true for punks.

The issue I believe with this commonly told narrative is that it assumes punk’s inherent anti-conservatism is the same as being inherently progressive. Punk, as I’ve stated before, was a scene for rejects. This means it must be innately against conserving the status quo as its members did not fit said status quo. But the right-wing ideas that underpin the movements and politicians we see punks engage in, like Brexit and Donald Trump, are not conservative in the traditional sense of conserving the status quo. They wish to be active but just actively regressive. The thing about an entire movement based on rejects is that some rejects aren’t anti-authority or oppressed, forgotten minorities; some rejects are rejects just because they’re fucking fascists and lunatics. It can be hard to accept that when sometimes those lunatics make really good music.