Northern Irish punk rock and anti-racism


This punk rock music video says about itself:

Stiff Little Fingers – Alternative Ulster (Live 1980)

SLF formed in 1977 in Belfast Northern Ireland. This is the 12th track from their debut LP Inflammable Material (1979 Rough Trade) This footage is taken from Rockpalast [in Germany] 1980.

By Louise Raw in Britain:

Friday, December 20, 2019

Still rocking against racism

Louise Raw talks to JAKE BURNS of Stiff Little Fingers about anti-fascism, life growing up in Belfast, mental health and the capacity of music to spread a political message

“Not being an arsehole isn’t actually that hard.”

That was Jake Burns’s no-nonsense response to my Twitter comment that he didn’t seem to have gone the way of so many childhood musical/political heroes.

Not all pull a “Full Morrissey”. but those we have musically loved find numerous ways to disappoint.

So it was nice to discover Burns on social media, sporting a red “Made Racism Wrong Again” baseball cap, still recognisable as the bloke whose band I’d gone to see from the age of 13 (I was the short one in unflattering bondage trousers, getting crushed at the front by the taller, older, cooler people).

I’d have been happy to know then that Burns would remain both untouched by rock-star hubris and as righteously pissed off with the state of the world as when the first Stiff Little Fingers album, Inflammable Material, charted on his 21st birthday.

A US citizen now, living in Chicago since 2004, he took citizenship partly with the goal of being able to vote Donald Trump out of office.

It seems incredible that it’s 40 years this year since Burns and the band (then also comprising Henry Cluney, Brian Faloon and Ali McMordie), played to 20,000 people in the Rock Against Racism carnival.

RAR was inspired by two “pre-Morrissey moments”.

In May 1976, David Bowie was photographed at Victoria station giving what looked like a nazi salute, later telling Playboy magazine: “I believe very strongly in fascism … Adolf Hitler was one of the first rock stars.”

The same year in Birmingham, Eric Clapton told black audience members: “You should all just leave … Not just leave the hall, leave our country … I don’t want you here, in the room or in my country. Listen to me, man. I think we should vote for Enoch Powell … send them all back.”

Leftie activist Red Saunders, until that moment a Clapton fan, wasn’t having any of it. In an open letter to Clapton he wrote: “Half your music is black. You’re rock music’s biggest colonist. You’re a good musician but where would you be without the blues and R&B?”

Rock against Racism was formed. Picking up on traditions of anti-racism established over generations by the blood, sweat and tears of black and Asian activists in Britain, RAR organised an astonishing 500 gigs over the next six years.

On April 30 1978, the Carnival against the Nazis was 80,000-strong — the march four miles in length.

Next September Stiff Little Fingers played at Brockwell Park, Brixton, with Aswad.

I asked Burns how it felt to be a new band and suddenly playing a mega-gig in front of 20,000: “I don’t know that we gave it much thought, to be honest,” he says.

“I’m sure we must have been nervous as it would have been the biggest crowd we had ever played in front of, but we were a very late replacement for Sham 69, so the whole thing is a bit of a blur. We were in the middle of a tour supporting the Tom Robinson Band and had to get to Cardiff after the festival for a show that night.”

He laughs when I ask if he can recall what songs they played: “No! But, it probably would have been the 30 minutes or whatever we were playing on Tom’s tour. The only songs we knew at that stage were what made up our first album, so probably just that, minus Closed Groove, which I know we hadn’t written at that point.”

SLF had hit the ground running just two years earlier. Formed when Belfast-born lead singer Jake Burns was 19, their first single, Suspect Device, was a blistering tirade against British oppression in Northern Ireland.

Louise Raw (LR): Jake, the cover was designed to look like a cassette bomb — is it true one record company had to ask for a replacement, as they’d thrown the first one in a bucket of water?

Jake Burns (JB): We were told that but I think it’s probably apocryphal. I’ve been in a lot of record company offices since then and I’ve never seen a bucket of water lying about the place!

LR: You’d gone from doing covers to a full-on punk band; you’ve credited Joe Strummer and the Clash with that (their lyrics politicised me, as did yours).

You’ve never sounded derivative, though I suppose your use of direct, unpretentious, sometimes funny lyrics is quite Clash-y. What sort of music do you think you’d be making if punk hadn’t influenced you early?

JB: I was, and remain, a huge Rory Gallagher fan. So, that was the road I was headed down. Although, just prior to punk “happening”, like a lot of people I had started to tire of the endless guitar solos by bands like Deep Purple etc.

I’d started paying more attention to the songwriting side of things, listening to people like Graham Parker and Bob Marley etc. I was also a big Dr Feelgood fan, so when punk arrived, I was a pretty easy recruit, although I did need to be convinced of its staying power and relevance beyond shock value.

That was where the Clash came in. A song like Career Opportunities really opened my eyes to the possibilities in the music.

LR: Was punk your biggest political influence (as well as life in Belfast presumably)?

JB: Growing up in Belfast at that time, politics was unavoidable. It wasn’t just something that was on the news or in the papers. It was everyday life in a way that it wasn’t anywhere else in the UK. So, you couldn’t help but be influenced by it, even if you weren’t overly aware that you were being.

LR: What were your parents’ political views/backgrounds?

JB: My dad was a socialist. A machinist in a textile machinery factory/steel foundry, he was a shop steward and always stressed the importance of a union.

That was something that was impressed on myself and my sister from an early age. My mum was a seamstress. What was interesting about both of them, in the sectarian hotbed that was Northern Ireland at the time, was that they were both implacably opposed to hatred of any kind.

Sectarianism and racism were both railed against whenever the subjects came up and my dad in particular was a great proponent of the argument that working-class folks would be better served fighting for better conditions together rather than apart.

LR: You once said your mum was a bit worried about you touring with Tom Robinson because he was (then) a gay activist — was she socially conservative, and if so, how did she take to having a punk rock star son?

JB: I wouldn’t say she was socially conservative — she simply had no experience of meeting gay people, so it was “fear of the unknown”, I suppose.

And you have to remember that homosexuality was illegal in Northern Ireland at the time, so on some level, she may have thought I was about to go hang out with a criminal!

I honestly don’t know, and sadly she has long passed away so I can’t ask her. With regard to what we were doing and however successful we became, I think like most mums, she was concerned that it wasn’t a “real” job. She only ever saw us play once. A “triumphant” return to the Ulster Hall in Belfast.

She came backstage afterwards and I was expecting at least some praise, but instead I got a clip round the ear for “swearing so much” on stage!

After the break-up of SLF, Burns formed Jake Burns and the Big Wheel — Burns on vocals and guitar, Steve Grantley on drums, Sean Martin on bass guitar and Pete Saunders on keyboards.

JBBW’s 2002 single She Grew Up was a rather lovely reflection on post-punk life — “I’d met her before somewhere, I knew the face /But she had green spikes in her hair, back in ’78/ Now the plastic bin liner skirt and the safety pins /Have given way to a zip pocket shirt and designer jeans.”

LR: It’s nice that the lyric of She Grew Up just muses on the passage of time rather than looking down on this woman for “selling out” as some rock stars would. Was it based on an actual incident?

JB: My songwriting partner, Gordon Ogilvie, wrote that lyric. I’m not sure that he had any one person in mind, more a reflection on changing times, I think.

LR: You moved to Chicago in 2004. You were pro-Obama — but disappointed by him in the end?

JB: Yes. He was such a breath of fresh air compared to what had gone before. Suddenly, it seemed like there was intelligence in the White House as opposed to the perceived buffoonery of George W.

My problem with Obama was he didn’t push as many social reforms through initially as I felt he could have. When you see the way Trump attacked the presidency, having control of both houses, and moving like gangbusters through his “reforms”, I felt Obama could have done that.

However, he was much too conservative (with a small ‘c’) for my liking. But then, any mention of socialism here gets you branded a communist, as Americans can’t seem to distinguish between the two schools of thought.

It’s endlessly frustrating talking to someone who will agree with everything I say in terms of the bettering of their situation and then say: “Yeah, but no-one will go for it, because it’s communism.” It’s what will always dog Bernie Sanders, for example.

LR: Instead of Trump driving you out of the US, you said you were applying for citizenship just so you could vote him out. Have you ever thought of moving back?

JB: Not because of Trump, no. It’s true that the night he got elected, I made up my mind to take citizenship. I’d already been living here for about 11 years at that point and I guess being in a liberal city like Chicago, I’d gotten lazy regarding my civic duty.

The election of Trump changed all that and I felt I needed a voice again, beyond railing on record albums. Of course, Chicago will probably always be staunchly Democratic, but that doesn’t mean I can’t make myself heard.

In 2009, Burns formed Chicago punk-rock super group The Nefarious Fat Cats to raise money for local charities. Apart from five years in the 1980s when they were completely broken up, he’s also kept Stiff Little Fingers alive and continued to add to their legacy, rather than impersonating his younger self.

Members have come and gone — the band now features guitarist Ian MacCallum and drummer Steve Grantley, who’ve been part of the act for two decades now, and bassist Ali McMordie, who was with Burns as part of what’s considered the classic line-up, and has come back to the band after leaving for much of the ’90s.

While SLF are not too proud to play the old hits, Burns takes pride in keeping them current, too.

“Obviously at this stage of the game being 40 years into it there’s an element of, “This is one we wrote back in 1970-whatever,” he has said, “but it’s always important to us that we moved forward and didn’t live off past glories — basically fight the temptation to become a cabaret act.”

Appropriately, SLF’s last studio album was 2014’s was called No Going Back.

LR: Jake, you struggled at first with that balance of past and present, and scrapped a load of material at the last minute? Why?

JB: The songs felt too “formulaic.” Like “writing by numbers.” They didn’t reflect where I was as a 50-year-old man.

I was still trying to write like I did when I was 20. So, I needed to change some of the subject matter and challenge myself a bit more with regard to melody and structure within the songs. (Doesn’t sound very punk rock, does it?)

Of course, within that, I also had to try and make the songs exciting. When I’d finished the writing and listened to the songs back, my first thought was: “Shit. Who’s going to want to hear a late middle-aged man moan on about being depressed and not being able to pay his mortgage?”

As it turns out, quite a few people. I’d always tried to stick to the old adage of “write what you know”, and by reflecting my life, it turned out I was reflecting quite a few of our audiences lives as well.

LR: I’d always assumed the reason you didn’t write love songs was that you were too cool for it — love songs were too cheesy, too pop. But you said in a later interview it was actually because you found it hard to write personal lyrics?

JB: Yeah. They always came out sounding like bad sixth-form poetry. You know how every year the Guardian awards a Bad Sex Award to an author who has written a particularly awful description of a passionate encounter? That’s how my “love song” lyrics always seemed to me.

So, rather than wait for a national newspaper to give me an award for bad writing, I decided I’d self-censor and not bother writing them in the first place.

LR: But then came My Dark Places, definitely not a love song, about your own depression. Did you hesitate to write something so personal?

JB: I did hesitate. Not to write it, but to record it. I didn’t think it was a particularly strong song, it has a very simple chord structure, for example. But, the rest of the band, Ali in particular, were very keen that we play it. Three chords and the truth, you know? It works.

LR: Is depression something you’ve had for a long time, or did it hit in later life?

JB: I think it started after my divorce. I thought I just felt guilty about that but it obviously triggered something much deeper and that something is still there. Not every day. I’m lucky, insomuch as I’m not at the suicidal end of the depressive spectrum, but I am prone to periods when everything seems futile and I’d rather hide away and not speak to anyone. Hide away and rock back and forth. It’s definitely a physical pain as well as mental.

LR: You credit friends for helping you through, and presumably family too. How did that work for you? Did you have to learn to honestly express your feelings (some blokes do) or were you always able to do that in your private life?

JB: No. Like most men, I bottle things up. I talk about that whenever we play the song live. I know it’s the wrong thing to do, but it’s still my, and a lot of men’s, knee-jerk reaction.

LR: The first time I spoke in Belfast as a historian, I had a long talk with some people in their sixties afterwards who spoke about collective, untreated PTSD from the Troubles. Do you think that played any part in your own depression?

JB: That’s an interesting point that has just come up recently. I was talking with my sister about it earlier this year. I think everyone who lived through that period carries some form of “hangover” from it.

It may be something as simple as a sense of unease walking home late at night that your companions who didn’t grow up there don’t feel. Or it could be something much more traumatic. But I do think we all carry something, whether we’re aware of it or not.

LR: You haven’t given up political songwriting — Trail of Tears is about brutal immigration enforcement in south-western America. I think your old songs stand up, too, which is quite something — I was playing Alternative Ulster to my son recently and the raw anger of the vocal still connects. What do you feel when you hear it now — do you feel close to “that” Jake Burns?

JB: Well, I did have some help! Gordon and I wrote that song together although I did do the lion’s share on that one.

I’m not a person who does “pride”, I’m not comfortable with it. But, I’m pleased that the song has lasted this long and that people like it and take something from it.

As far as feeling close to the 20-year-old me … I can still see him in my head. He was a determined little bugger, and I still have a lot of that left in me.

I ask Burns what he would say to young bands and acts thinking of getting involved with anti-racism; in an interesting echo of Red Saunders’s admonishment to Clapton 40 years ago, he replied: “Why wouldn’t you? The chances are extremely high that your music is influenced by another culture at some point in its evolution. Why wouldn’t you want to include as many people as possible in your music? It’s pretty simple as far as I can see.”

Indeed, those who have long proclaimed the death of effective political music may have been hasty — in recent years we’ve seen Grime for Corbyn, and this year Stormzy’s support for voter registration had a huge positive effect.

On the third of this month, the R3 sound system and Stand Up To Racism/Unite against Fascism turned the London anti-Trump demo into a virtual rave with thousands of young (and not-so-young) demonstrators dancing in Trafalgar Square.

I watched groups of bemused fascists circling, and though a few made the token, cowardly and strongly rebuffed gestures of trying to kick over the SUTR stall and threatening a female steward, the average age of the audience (as well as tight security) were almost certainly factors in them slinking away defeated afterwards.

Also in the crowd that evening was none other than Red Saunders, who tells me: “At 73, I still really enjoyed the thumping contemporary DJs and their anti-racist music.

“The big issues don’t change much. The central aim of RAR was to put black and white bands on stage together to break down people’s fear of one another — to make rebel music, music of its time.

“One of my slogans of the time, ‘Love Music Hate Racism’, is today’s manifestation of the spirit of RAR.”

Paul Sillett of Unite against Fascism agrees: “Jake Burns, Stiff Little Fingers and everyone involved in Rock against Racism made a massive difference, shifting young people away from racists and fascists, who were trying to recruit them.

“The National Front and British Movement are history now but sadly, racism and fascism aren’t. Today’s political acts like Stormzy can and do help in the fight. Rock hard!”

British Home Secretary Patel, punk rock parody


This 29 July parody music video from Britain is called Sacked Patels – Priti Vacant (lyric video).

It is a parody of Pretty Vacant by the Sex Pistols.

It is about Priti Patel, the new Home Secretary in Boris Johnson’s Conservative government.

It says about itself:

Why did Priti Patel, our new Home Secretary, have to leave her previous ministerial role? Find out on “Priti Vacant” by her Sex Pistols tribute band, Sacked Patels, fronted by the iconic Priti Rotten.

LYRICS:

There was no point in asking the Foreign Office
Because Boris Johnson was out on the piss
If anyone asks, yes they did have a hunch
That Netanyahu and I went out to lunch

Oh I’m so Priti, I’m so Priti
I’m vacant
I met with Bibi, met with Bibi
On vacation

Don’t ask about the meetings ’cause I wasn’t there
Okay, there were a couple, but just that – I swear
Alright, I confess, there were a dozen or so
I said we’d send them money
Don’t tell the FCO

Oh I’m so Priti, I’m so Priti
I’m vacant
I met with Bibi, met with Bibi
On vacation

German secret police spying on punk rockers


This live music video, recorded on 28 February 2015 in Hamburg, Germany, shows a concert by punk rock band Dr. Ulrich Undeutsch.

The word ‘Undeutsch’ in the name of the band, meaning ‘un-German’ was what nazis during the Hitler era called opponents of nazism.

By Martin Nowak in Germany:

Punk band files lawsuit against surveillance by German intelligence agency

20 June 2019

Last week, the German punk band Dr. Ulrich Undeutsch filed a lawsuit against the Saxony State Office for the Protection of the Constitution (the German domestic intelligence agency at the state level, LfV). The injunction seeks to ensure that the 2018 intelligence agency report, which lists the band in the category “left-wing extremist music scene”, “can no longer be published in this form.”

The band, based in the eastern German state of Saxony, justified its lawsuit by arguing that it was not clear “how our music infringed on the freedom of art and made us enemies of democracy.” The band also states in its press release: “What is obvious, however, is that this classification criminalises us and will be used by the authorities to make it harder for us to obtain venues, hosts and concert promoters.”

The press release refers to the disproportionate deployment of police at the band’s concerts and the fact that organisers are pressured on a regular basis to cancel concerts by Dr. Ulrich Undeutsch, or concerts are cancelled for no good reason. This took place most recently in Leubsdorf, near where the band is based in Grünhainichen, when the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) mayor canceled an entire Alternative Rock Night concert.

The LfV has included the “left-wing extremist music scene” in its reports since 2015. In the current report, eleven bands are named. Dr. Ulrich Undeutsch was first mentioned in 2017. The LfV in Bavaria also listed the band for the first time in its 2017 report, although it has only played two concerts in the south German state.

The Saxon “constitution protection” report for 2018 had already hit the headlines prior to the punk band’s lawsuit, after it accused the organisers of an anti-Nazi concert, attended by 70,000 people in Chemnitz following riots by far rightists, of giving left-wing “extremists” a platform to spread “their extremist ideology to non-extremists.” The report cited as proof for its claims shouts by the crowd of “Alerta, alerta Antifascista.”

In a similar manner, the report indicts Dr. Ulrich Undeutsch for its anti-fascist stance, its opposition to repression and its alleged “rejection of the democratic constitutional state.” The report offers as evidence lyrics from the song “Punk” from 2017 (no longer on the market) which ended: “I hate the system. I hate this state.”

“Upon closer examination of the individual who is president of the Saxon State Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Mr. Gordian Meyer-Plath”, the band writes, “it quickly becomes clear why above all in Saxony, there is alleged to have been an above-average growth of left-wing extremist music. The former undercover agent in charge of the NSU [neo-fascist National Socialist Underground]
Carsten Szczepanski, alias Piatto, remains up until today one reason why a thorough and proper review of the NSU murder series seems almost impossible.” Between 2000–2007 the National Socialist Underground carried out a series of ten murders and numerous bank robberies under the noses of and possibly in collaboration with German intelligence agencies.

The fact that the LfV president Meyer-Plath is also a member of the Marchia fraternity, which until 2011 was affiliated to the far-right umbrella organisation, German Fraternity, the band points out, demonstrates that he “is not exactly a democratic role model.”

The public prosecutor in Potsdam is currently examining whether to take action against the Saxon LfV president for making false statements. Meyer-Plath, who had previously worked for the Brandenburg state intelligence agency, was interviewed in April 2018 by the NSU investigation committee of the Brandenburg state parliament regarding his role in the case of neo-Nazi and undercover agent Szczepanski.

The Left Party chairman of the investigation committee, Volkmar Schöneburg, accuses Meyer-Plath of having helped the neo-Nazi, who has been convicted of attempted murder, to produce a magazine for the militant Nazi scene while in prison. Meyer-Plath denied the claim that he had exchanged mail with relaxed safety rules with “Piatto”. Schöneburg told the Tagesspiegel newspaper that Meyer-Plath’s version of events had been refuted by documents and statements by prison staff.

Szczepanski, a former functionary of the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party (NPD), also participated in establishing the Ku Klux Klan in Germany. Meyer Plath is alleged to have passed on information to Szczepanski relating to weapons procurement and raids planned by the NSU terror gang. In order to protect his undercover agent, Meyer Plath allegedly did not forward this same information to the police.

The action undertaken by the state office of constitution protection against Dr. Ulrich Undeutsch is an attack on basic democratic rights and, above all, on the freedom of expression and art. The band’s lawsuit should be supported.

The Socialist Equality Party (SGP) is suing the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, which illegally classified the party in its 2017 report as “left-wing extremist” and therefore subject to surveillance. The criminalisation of antifascism, criticism of capitalism and state repression, as the SGP writes, is “a component of government policy that is increasingly based on authoritarian forms of rule and the reliance on right-wing extremist forces so as to enforce militarist policies, the strengthening of the repressive state apparatus and attacks on social spending, and to suppress all opposition that emerges.”

Germany’s Verfassungsschutz Secret Service was abusing its “constitutional role in a legally impermissible manner” when it “stigmatises criticism of the capitalist system and the advocacy of its overcoming as ‘anti-constitutional’,” declared a legal brief submitted to the Berlin District Court by the German Socialist Equality Party (SGP) on 30 July: here.

Fukushima, Japan, nuclear plant disaster news update


This 18 August 2014 live punk rock music video by Japanese band Scrap, consisting of Fukushima disaster survivors, is their song Fuck TEPCO; about the corporation owning the Fukushima disaster nuclear plant.

The tune is based on the song Rockaway Beach, by the Ramones.

From Al Jazeera, 20 February 2019:

Fukushima operator told to pay over 2011 nuclear disaster

A court in Japan has awarded nearly $4m in new damages to 152 residents forced to flee their houses after the Fukushima nuclear meltdown eight years ago, the world’s most serious nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986.

The Yokohama district court on Wednesday ordered the government and Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) to pay 419.6m yen ($3.8m) to the residents, a court spokeswoman told AFP news agency.

Triggered by a magnitude 9.1 earthquake, a tsunami crashed into the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station in March 2011, overwhelming reactor cooling systems, causing multiple meltdowns and sending radiation over a large area that forced tens of thousands of people to evacuate.

Nearly 19,000 people were killed or went missing and 160,000 lost their homes and livelihoods in the massive earthquake and tsunami.

Presiding judge Ken Nakadaira said the government and TEPCOcould have avoided the accident if they had taken measures” against the tsunami, according to public broadcaster NHK.

The verdict was the fifth time the government has been ruled liable for the disaster in eastern Japan.

In March last year, a court in Kyoto, western Japan, ruled that both the government and TEPCO were responsible and ordered them to pay 110m yen ($992,300) to 110 residents.

However, in a separate case in September 2017 in Chiba near Tokyo, the court ruled that only the operator was liable.

Around 12,000 people who fled after the disaster due to radiation fears have filed various lawsuits against the government and TEPCO.

Cases have revolved around whether the government and TEPCO, both of whom are responsible for disaster prevention measures, could have foreseen the scale of the tsunami and subsequent meltdown.

Dozens of class-action lawsuits have been filed seeking compensation from the government.

Is life in Fukushima really getting back to normal? — The Washington Post: here.

[Japan’s] Prime Minister Abe uses the Tokyo Olympics as snake oil cure for the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdowns — Fairewinds Energy Education: here.

San Diego judge dismisses U.S. sailors’ Fukushima radiation lawsuits, rules Japan has jurisdiction — The San Diego Union-Tribune: here.

Japanese man marries robot girl


This 21 December 2013 punk rock music video from Scotland says about itself:

The Valves – Robot Love

Live at Edinburgh Liquid Rooms

The Scottish band The Valves wrote this song much earlier, in 1977.

However, now something happens not in song lyrics, but in reality.

From the New York Times, 19 January 2019:

Do You Take This Robot …

When Akihiko Kondo, a 35-year-old school administrator in Tokyo, strolled down the aisle in a white tuxedo in November, his mother was not among the 40 well-wishers in attendance. For her, he said, “it was not something to celebrate.”

You might see why. The bride, a songstress with aquamarine twin tails named Hatsune Miku, is not only a world-famous recording artist who fills up arenas throughout Japan: She is also a hologram.

Mr. Kondo insists the wedding was not a stunt, but a triumph of true love after years of feeling ostracized by real-life women for being an anime otaku, or geek.

‘Jingle Bells’ music by animals, by punk rockers


This 19 December Christmas music video is the song ‘Jungle Yells‘. It is really Jingle Bells, but sung by animals of Amersfoort zoo in the Netherlands: a young elephant, tigers, flamingos, chimpansees, prairie dogs and others.

This 1979 punk rock music video is the same song, mixed with We Wish You A Merry Christmas, as A Merry Jingle; by The Greedies.