How UK protest punk flourished off the back of political turmoil
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Five thousand miles or so away from America lies an island in turmoil. In September, Queen Elizabeth II was laid to rest after a lavish state funeral watched by millions the world over, but some found the opulent pomp of it all hard to stomach when they were weeks away from facing a crippling increase in their gas and electricity bills. Coupled with soaring inflation, it’s created a cost of living crisis that’s forecast to push millions into poverty, forcing individuals, in some cases, to choose between heating their homes over the winter and putting food on the table. It’s not a problem unique to the U.K., but what is unique is the comparative lack of support its government has provided compared to other countries, sitting on its hands until begged to freeze the maximum rate energy suppliers can charge their customers. The summer also saw a wave of strikes from rail workers, barristers and postal workers, demanding a raise in pay in line with inflation so they wouldn’t be left financially worse off during the winter.
The cost of living crisis is just the tip of the iceberg. The U.K.’s political and economic climate was bleak even before energy bills and inflation started rocketing. Despite being in power for 12 years, the ruling Conservative Party has remained in a state of upheaval, with four Prime Ministers resigning in the space of six years. The latest politician to leave, Liz Truss, inspired little hope, somehow believing what the country needed was tax cuts for the rich and a removal of the limit on bankers’ bonuses. (The former policy was so unpopular it was abandoned within days). More troubling, however, is the party’s gradual slide further to the right, with Home Secretary revealing it was her “obsession” to send asylum seekers crossing the English Channel from France in dinghies on a one-way flight to Rwanda. Transphobia is rife, disguised with phrases such as “sex-based rights.” Last year, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 was introduced, curtailing the right to protest by threatening harsher punishments on those who participate in disruptive demonstrations.
As dire as these prospects seem, they have provided fertile ground for protest punk to flourish yet again, with some of the underground’s best-loved bands enjoying a surge in attention and popularity. Bob Vylan’s second album, The Price of Life, for one, broke into the U.K. Top 20 last spring, becoming the only self-produced, self-mixed and independently released record to ever do so. The album’s accompanying tour was played to audiences of around 300-500 per venue, but they capped off the year with a headlining show at Camden’s famed Electric Ballroom, which holds 1,500 people. Elsewhere, Kid Kapichi signed a deal with Spinefarm, a major subsidiary of Universal, broke into the U.K. Top 40 with their new album Here’s What You Could Have Won and got a song about robbing the supermarket onto daytime radio. Chubby and the Gang immediately caught the attention of the U.K. music press, both mainstream and alternative, for their on-point pub-rock songs about gentrification, worker’s rights and government failure, while Nervus and Petrol Girls encountered perhaps more attention from the U.K. press than ever, with the latter’s recent album Baby also receiving a glowing review from YouTube critic Anthony Fantano. They’ve afforded angry, disenfranchised music fans an outlet for catharsis, a chance to find community among like-minded people, but most importantly, their presence is a reminder that someone gets it.
Glitchers, made up of vocalist/guitarist Jake and drummer Sophie, bring their pro-resistance, anti-capitalist punk music to U.K. high streets and city centers, having started playing outside when COVID-19 shuttered music venues. They’ve amassed a sizeable following on TikTok and have won favor playing “after-party” gigs outside venues as the fans leave, even being invited to do so by Frank Iero when My Chemical Romance played Stadium MK in Milton Keynes. “People are just so angry and fed up,” Jake says about the political situation in the U.K. “They’re finding that the punk scene almost has some answers. It might not have all of them, but it’s got some alternatives. They can see a community that actually wants to help. I think what it’s about now is using art to show the public that we can do things differently. I spent time in politics as a local counselor and realized that unless loads of us infiltrated, you can’t change it from the inside. I was like, ‘You know what? Let’s do something from the outside instead.’”
Punk providing an alternative in this way is even more vital when there is a shortage of strong, radical left-wing voices speaking out against the Conservatives, or the Tories as they’re commonly known, in the House of Commons. The leader of the opposing Labour Party, Keir Starmer, is perceived as lacking a strong vision for the country and not putting his foot down hard enough in response to a party that’s seen as incompetent at best and dangerous at worst. “There is absolutely no opposition,” Kid Kapichi frontman Jack Wilson says. “There is no one to hold that torch for us and say, ‘This is the direction we should be moving in. This is how we should be moving forwards.’ It’s a scary time, and I think that’s why this music is really flourishing at the moment.”
Indeed, these bands are speaking about issues that mainstream politics ignores, or especially in the case of the right, dismisses as “woke nonsense” — class war, poverty, police violence, the failings of the prison system, femicide, systemic racism, the violence of borders. Many of them have proclaimed, within their music or outside it, their support for meeting the violence of oppression with violent resistance. In comparison to the more moderate ideas put forward by leftwing commentators in mainstream political discourse, these seem like radical sentiments, but in reality, it is a matter of perception.
Bob Vylan’s music speaks of anti-racist resistance and tales of the brutality of poverty, and they express their ideas in colorful, provocative and often humorous terms. The Price of Life contains lyrics about exhuming Margaret Thatcher, throwing statues of Winston Churchill in the river (echoing the moment during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests where protestors in Bristol did that very thing to a statue of slave trader Edward Colston) and the idea of cheap, unhealthy food as a weapon of class warfare. “I don’t necessarily see our perspectives as radical,” frontman Bobby Vylan asserts. “It’s just that some people have the luxury of not having those perspectives because of the lives they have lived and live.”
Neither is the punk underground getting progressively more radical, though it may seem that way when the bands that are perceived as such are becoming more visible. “People talk about resurgences of punk, but it’s never died,” Petrol Girls frontwoman Ren Aldridge reasons. “[This sort of] music breaks the surface of the mainstream in waves. It might seem like it’s gone away again, but it hasn’t.”
After all, even though the state of affairs might seem more depressing than ever, things in the U.K. haven’t exactly been rosy for a while. The Tories began their time in power in 2010 by bringing in austerity measures to make up for the level of government spending during the 2008 recession, cutting and restricting spending to the detriment of NHS, schools and youth services, while a simmering undercurrent of xenophobia led the U.K. to vote to leave the EU — colloquially known as Brexit — in 2016, making it harder for foreigners from Europe to enter and settle in the country and making imports to Europe more costly. Even before COVID-19 took a bite out of individuals’ finances, the years leading up to it were marked by slow economic growth and increasing use of food banks, thanks to a squeeze on wages.
“The thing that I always find funny is when people always seem to be like, ‘Oh man, politics right now is worse than ever,’” Chubby and the Gang frontman Charlie Manning-Walker says. “Although I think it’s fucking dogshit right now, the ’70s and ’80s were fucked as well. I don’t think people have had it really sweet, and then now it’s shit. Certain cross sections of society have had it fucking terrible for a long time. It’s always been bad.”
Em Foster of Nervus agrees. “There’s always been crap, but it’s always been crap for fewer people, and those fewer people are more marginalized people,” she explains. “Now I think there is a lot more crap for people who aren’t typically marginalized in times of, say, economic prosperity. [There’s been a] shift in the material conditions of a lot of people who maybe hadn’t been affected by those issues before as well, with COVID and with Brexit, and with the continuing Conservative policies we’ve been living with since 2010. It’s always been bad, but the amount of people who are affected by it has increased.”
This is just one reason why people have become more receptive to what these bands have to say. COVID gave them a reason to stop and think, if not because it made them face a harsher reality than they ever had done before, but because it afforded them the time to properly investigate the issues they might have previously avoided exploring. “Lockdown helped people become more open-minded to things as well as [give them time] to think and look into stuff,” Glitchers drummer Sophie reckons. “I think a lot of this stuff gets lost because there’s so much news nowadays, and people go to work or college or uni, they get home and they don’t want to hear more crap.”
COVID shutdowns also coincided with several eye-opening political movements. The first of these was the Black Lives Matter protests following the murder of George Floyd, but the early months of 2021 saw a huge outcry at the threat of the implementation of the aforementioned Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts bill, with Kill The Bill protests erupting across the country. Around the same time, a woman by the name of Sarah Everard was kidnapped, raped and murdered by Wayne Couzens, a serving police officer, while walking home at night from a friend’s house. It started vital conversations about women’s safety and gendered violence, but also the institutional corruption within the police, particularly in London. It hit home in a visceral manner when the police attacked women who were holding a peaceful vigil for Sarah in a park. An especially striking photo making the front pages afterward featured a woman, later identified as Patsy Stevenson, being pinned to the floor by four police officers.
In 2019, Nervus released their third album, Tough Crowd, which featured “They Don’t,” a song about the failures of the police to keep people safe, oftentimes doing quite the opposite. “People weren’t necessarily expecting us to be quite so direct, and I think there’s a lot of messages on there that people didn’t quite connect with at the time it came out, probably based on their experiences,” Foster recalls. “A couple of years down the line, people started to get Tough Crowd a bit more.” After Black Lives Matter and Sarah Everard, the refrain of the aforementioned song, “They don’t keep you safe,” began to resonate on a deeper level. Indeed, when Nervus released their most recent album, The Evil One, last June, it was received much more warmly. “People are more ready to hear [those messages] now.”
Time will tell how long it’ll be before things start looking up. The next General Election must happen by Jan. 23, 2025, though there are calls for it to happen earlier, and Labour have remained consistently ahead in the polls as the country grows more frustrated with the Tories. Then again, the question remains as to how much they are willing to change, and whether they can make good on their promises.
The theory goes that when there are bad times, great music comes out of it, but the situation with the U.K. music scene has proved just a little different. In this instance, when times are bad, people look up and realize that the voices expressing their frustrations, and imagining better, were right there all along. For those bands, 2022 may well have been the making of them.