John Lydon, better known as “Johnny Rotten,” has strayed far from his punk roots. Lydon was frontman of the Sex Pistols, an assortment of truly terrible people. The man who once called the Queen of England a fascist now supports Donald Trump. If nothing else, this is further evidence 1970s punk acts cannot live up to hardcore-punk bands who came after them — like The Dead Kennedys.
Punk is a complex and convoluted ideology just as much as it’s a musical genre. Punk as an idea has been around since the late 1960s, but it had its first heyday in the late 1970s. During this period of success, the same singers ridiculing western politics were parading around in Nazi memorabilia. This is a far cry from the Dead Kennedys’ “Nazi Punks F*** Off,” or Rage Against the Machine screaming, “Some of those that work forces are the same that burn crosses.”
Bands like the Ramones, The Sex Pistols and The Damned didn’t actually care about political theory or progress. They were disilllusioned nihilists going against the grain in any way possible. Take the Ramones’ Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in 2002, when Johnny Ramone capped his acceptance speech by saying “God bless President Bush,” during the Iraq War.
On the other side of the coin, you have bands like Black Flag, Dead Kennedys and Bad Religion, who truly had a vested interest in their political beliefs and remain committed to them to this day. In 1979, while Johnny Ramone was fanboying over right-wing politicians, Jello Biafra of Dead Kennedys was running a somewhat successful campaign for mayor of San Francisco and performing “Let’s Lynch the Landlord.” All of this was to protest the landlord-friendly mayor, Dianne Fienstein.
By the time Ronald Reagan came to power, easily the least punk president of the modern era, the Sex Pistols were non-existent. Meanwhile, the hardcore punks of the ’80s were expressing a true hate for the Reagan administration. Look no further than Reagan Youth, whose whole persona was calling Reagan a fascist, for a prime example of this.
This isn’t to say ’70s punk wasn’t important or impressive, but it was driven by aimless anger and dreams of stardom rather than real praxis like 1980s hardcore-punk.
Unfortunately, all punk music suffered from the same fate as the earlier bands. Not every hardcore-punk band had the dedication of Black Flag. However, the biggest names of the hardcore scene did for the most part. Yes, the Ramones released one of the best anti-Reagan songs of the 1980s and yes, there were plenty of disingenuous figures in the hardcore-punk movement. But the leaders of these scenes could not be more different. By the time the Ramones took a stand against Reagan, they were no longer the center of the punk scene, and their guitarist was voting for him. This is not true of the aforementioned hardcore bands.
Despite all of this, critics will still argue all of these bands “sold out.” It might be strange, but punk music being used by corporations doesn’t change the power of the music. Take it from Henry Rollins, not me. What does change the power of the music is the beliefs of the musicians. “God Save the Queen” might be great, but it can never live up to the power of “Kill the Poor” because one band truly had a passion for the issues they sang about, and the other did not.
In 2020, Henry Rollins, Zach de la Rocha and Jello Biafra are still telling Nazis to “f--- off.” Johnny Rotten is hoping you vote for one.
Noah Wright is a senior studying strategic communication at Ohio University. Please note that the views and opinions of the columnists do not reflect those of The Post. Want to talk to Noah? Tweet him @NoahCampaign.
Correction appended: A previous version of this article contained the incorrect spelling of Biafra in the last sentence. The article has been updated to reflect the most accurate information.