In its four decades, punk has meant many different things to many different people. Its relationship to fascism, the specter of which has stopped rattling its chains from history books and re-appeared in the West, is one of the most complicated examples of how aesthetics and philosophy can appeal to both anti-authoritarian and deeply repressive positions. You can find it in punk’s beginnings, as a reaction to the cultural forces of generations prior, the long shadow of World War II among them. Ron Asheton of the Stooges collected and wore Nazi memorabilia to signify his bond with his father, a former Marine Corps pilot. Sid Vicious’ swastika was a fuck-you to his parents’ generation, and largely orchestrated by the (Jewish) Malcolm McLaren. And the electric eels just wanted to piss everyone off equally.
Look no further than the formation of Rock Against Racism (RAR) for a sub-story that contextualizes just how thin the line can be when it comes to manipulating fascist symbolism. In response to a growing National Front presence in England during the mid-’70s, RAR united rock and reggae subcultures (and more importantly, black and white folks). The organization was closely affiliated with the Anti-Nazi League, a public effort of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party; the strict party line embedded in its core philosophy felt suffocating to some. In the case of peace-punk band Crisis, a RAR favorite, bassist Tony Wakeford (who had been a Socialist Workers Party member) and guitarist Douglas Pearce (who had been involved with the International Marxist Group) began to feel so alienated that they formally split from RAR. Wakeford and Pearce went on to form neofolk group Death in June, which began its career playing with the aesthetics of paramilitary fascism (Nazism in particular) as satire—stances that became much muddier from there. Wakeford got the boot from the group in 1984 for his relationship at that time with the National Front, which lasted less than a year; these days, for his part, he is publicly critical of the far right. But Pearce, who keeps Death in June active still, continues to court controversy.
Similarly, the splintering of both the UK and U.S. labor movements, under pressure from Thatcher and Reagan during their tenures, brought about both racist skinheads and skinheads who reacted by speaking out against racism. All this ongoing friction and subsequent reaction, embedded in punk’s formation and carried through along multiple veins to the present, has also created some of the best and most relevant music to directly critique fascism in its many iterations. Here, we present just a few, shying away from many of the more obvious and well-known choices here (Dead Kennedys’ “Nazi Punks Fuck Off,” Oi Polloi’s “Bash the Fash,” etc.)
Johannesburg, South Africa, 1977: National Wake, “International News”
Following the 1976 Soweto uprising, in which students protesting apartheid were murdered by state police, Ivan Kadey and brothers Gary and Punka Khoza did what countless others have done when feeling helpless and frustrated, in need of a voice: they started a punk band. They mixed Stooges-esque garage, the repurposed disco structures and acerbic political analysis of bands like the Pop Group and Gang of Four, two-tone ska, reggae, and African polyrhythms into one heady setlist. But more on the rowdy and raw hard-rock end of things, “International News” took aim at the role of the international media in perpetuating both apartheid and the atrocities of the Angolan War of Independence with sensationalistic reporting. Unsurprisingly, National Wake found themselves the subject of state police surveillance and censorship, making it difficult to secure spaces to play. The pressure eventually split the band apart, but they hadn’t been forgotten; preserved through tape trading and Kadey’s own record-keeping, their recorded material is now available in its original, uncensored condition thanks to Light in the Attic.
Belgium, 1977: Basta, “Abortus Vrij de Vrouw Beslist!”
Those who have never had their reproductive systems regulated by the government may wonder why a song about abortion rights appears on a list of anti-fascist punk songs; those who know the danger of electing Mike “Burial or Cremation for Aborted and Miscarried Fetuses” Pence to one of the highest offices in the land may not. This 7-inch was Basta’s only release, and one of the first Belgian punk releases of any sort. Beyond this significance, the song is incredibly catchy, with a saxophone line reminiscent of Lora Logic’s dissonant contributions to X-Ray Spex and Essential Logic, and a shouted chorus that was a common phrase at pro-choice protests (essentially meaning, “yes, abortion for women!”). Belgium was actually one of the last countries to legalize abortion (not until 1990!), which made Basta’s urgent-sounding record even more significant: the sleeve listed clinics where abortions could safely be obtained.
Rotterdam, Netherlands, 1978: The Rondos, “Which Side Will You Be On?”
The Rondos were Maoist punks, leftist militants who provoked everyone from the Dutch Communist CPN party to (closed-mindedly) Rastafarian culture to Crass, who held the Rondos at least partially responsible for the violence that often characterized Crass shows starting in 1979 (when the two bands played together) onward. From the Rondos’ own biography: “Were we really communists? We assented to it half mockingly and half seriously. In the beginning, our lyrics were non-political or generally ‘anti.’ Wayward, anyhow. Over time we became more serious about our communist image. More fanatical too, due to pressure from the outside.” They had their own magazine (Raket, or Rocket) and alternative bookshop (Raketbase), a hub for the early Dutch punk scene. “Which Side Will You Be On?” was an urgent pogo and a call to action to do something, rather than sitting around talking endlessly about strategy. One cannot, after all, fight fascism by words alone.
Austin, Texas, 1980: The Dicks, “The Dicks Hate the Police”
A blatantly Communist band fronted by an unapologetic fat gay man in Texas released their first single, in which said singer barked in the voice of a violent cop hell-bent on abusing his power against the marginalized... to impress his parents. The song contained few words and fewer chords, and yet, with an arch sneer, the singer—Gary Floyd, a genuine punk hero deserving of recognition beyond the underground—communicated the essence of state power deployed in its most wretched everyday form. “The Dicks Hate the Police” is, at least to this writer, one of the greatest songs of all time, punk or not. Innumerable covers—chief among them Mudhoney’s most famous one—support this theory.
Essex, England, 1980: Poison Girls, “Bully Boys”
Over 40 and differing from the traditionally attractive frontwoman archetype, Jewish refugee Vi Subversa found herself beloved by Crass and friends upon starting up her first punk band. Inspired by the wryness and hookiness of the Buzzcocks, Subversa brought a delicate balance of thoughtful consideration and pummeling ferocity to the burgeoning peace-punk movement. Her history of real-world activism also helped to accomplish some actual work against nuclear disarmament, among other causes. “Bully Boys” was a remarkably catchy little ditty, all buzzsaw guitars, throaty vocals, and punchy drums in service of implicating the role of machismo in National Front violence. The band said that the track, along with “The Bremen Song” (about the Holocaust), led to racist skinheads attacking them at gigs and at home. Subversa’s lyrics were less “the personal is political” in the sense of isolating her experiences as being characteristic of grander political trends, and more “the political is personal,” focusing on how political systems manifest themselves in everyday life.
East Berlin, 1983: Namenlos, “Nazis Wieder in Ostberlin”
It’s unsurprising that East Germans struggling through the stultified economic conditions of the state-controlled Soviet German Democratic Republic found the crudest impulses of anti-authoritarianism in punk aesthetics to be an effective way of voicing their protest—and that the government responded to them as a direct threat. State harassment, police beatings, and apartment raids were regular parts of punk life, forcing many street kids into churches for sanctuary, where they became politicized, mixing with varying civil rights and environmental activist groups who also needed that protected space to meet. Namenlos were among this newly, ferociously politicized breed, employing wiry rock’n’roll riffage and direct lyrics with appropriate seriousness given their environment. The government doubled down on state repression rather than loosening it, and “Nazis Wieder in Ostberlin” (“Nazis Again in East Berlin”) landed three members of Namenlos behind bars. They were held in jail for six months without full charges while being interrogated, and were eventually sentenced to 18 additional months in Stasi prison for their “anti-government lyrics.” Even public support for Namenlos could land punks in jail for months on end. And yet the fire started by mixing disenfranchised street kids and politically savvy strategists couldn’t be extinguished once it’d been set: an organized youth protest movement, punks included, was no small part of the political rebellion that eventually toppled the Berlin Wall.
San Pedro, California, 1984: Minutemen, “Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing”
So dig this big crux: Think of Mike Watt and D. Boon as the blue-collar socialist punk versions of Bert and Ernie. Friends since age 13, the duo’s oscillating heartbeat is what makes Minutemen so beloved and still relevant today. While the lyrics to this avant-garde punk classic are the least didactic on this list, they are no less direct than any others, and no less evocative (“Me, naked with textbook poems spout fountain against the Nazis”). How do we assert our politics through song, Boon asks, making sincerity a strength rather than a weakness. A crucial question for anyone who’s ever made an impassioned argument and thought, “I must look like a dork”—particularly at a time when neo-Nazis rely on chaotic disdain for anyone who cares too much as provocation meant to disarm.
Santiago, Chile, 1984: Los Pinochet Boys, “La Música del General/Esto Es Pinochet Boys”
At the most repressive point of the Pinochet dictatorship, Daniel Puente Encina formed an explicitly anti-fascist punk band with his friends and called it Pinochet Boys. Their first single? “Music of the General.” This was not the kind of punk danger most Americans are familiar with; it was not even a Green Room-type scenario. This was treason against a fascist state. With every show a secret, risking shut-down by military police, Pinochet Boys gigs were places for young, emerging activists to meet and strategize. The youth movement would become a crucial part of the revolution that led to the Chilean national plebiscite in 1988, a referendum that finally forced the Pinochet regime from power and paved the road for democracy. “This machine kills fascists,” indeed—though Encina and the other Boys were exiled in 1987. From a purely musical standpoint, the song was half classic sing-along punk-band-name-as-anthem and half bizarre, zippy new wave outer-space transmission, one of the weirdest and coolest earworms around. Even if it hadn’t played a historically documented and practical part in actually bringing down a 16-year dictatorship, it’d be worthy of inclusion here.
Mexico City, 1990: Massacre 68, “Sistema Podrido”
Named for those murdered in 1968 while peacefully protesting the repressive Díaz Ordaz government (as part of the Mexican Dirty War), Massacre 68 were fairly straightforward thrashers with lyrics bluntly critical of the government corruption and state violence surrounding them. In 1988, a rigged election declared the Institutional Revolutionary Party the new ruling party, though with phenomenally low voter turnout due to a “crashed” system—a cover that was later revealed to have been the result of corruption and burned ballots. Massacre 68 directly critiqued this election in “Sistema Podrido” (“Rotten System”), off their first LP, 1990’s No Estamos Conformes. These are perhaps the most ripping solos committed to a record about horrendously corrupt voter fraud. But stateside listeners didn’t get hip to Massacre 68 until L.A. label Huarache Records re-released their material in the early 2000s, right around the time documents were finally revealed detailing the Mexican government’s role in both the ’68 murders and the ’88 election fraud.