“Don’t know what I want but I know how to get it”
There’s a whole section of punk rock called anarcho-punk that evolved after the Sex Pistols name checked the 19th century anti-authority political ideology. And if you’ve heard the Sex Pistols song Anarchy in the UK, it’s hard to say “I am an Anarchist” in a normal way without doing the Johnny Rotten “I am an An-ar-kyst” thing, isn’t it?
The bands Crass and Poison Girls played a major part in the creation of anarcho-punk by bringing political ideals to their music, lifestyle and business which were all commonly shared without hierarchy. Some girls and women did get involved in making anarcho-punk music – The artist Gee Vaucher in Crass, Zillah Minx in Rubella Ballet and Karen, Ruth and Stephanie in Hagar The Womb, for example – but anarcho-punk was largely a male movement. For our printed zines, we’ve interviewed these women who continue to be politically astute and still involved in music, art, film and writing.
Back in 1978, when we formed bands at school, we thought that anarchy was shorthand for ‘Don’t worry what anyone thinks of you; just do whatever weird things take your fancy’. Of course what took our fancy was doing the same punky stuff that everyone else was doing at the time – writing angry songs, being girls in a band, wearing jumble sale clothes and duplicating posters and fanzines on a borrowed banda duplicating machine. We would flypost our respective towns with gig posters but still be home by 9pm as Mum had instructed.
This ‘doing punk’ thing didn’t prepare Vim for later sharing a house with actual anarchists. They didn’t produce their own publications, they read translations of Italian pamphlets and sat up all night kicking around ideas about responsibility, self-discipline and direct action. They were very very serious and austere compared to typical 1980s young people. To every “but what about … ?” question, they had a feasible answer for how the world would run with anarchy in place, whether we asked about electricity, diseases, marriage. The guys were very sure that anarchy would mean not being tied to one partner, or having any kind of old-fashioned sexual commitment.
The people who brought anarchism to punk – Lydon, McLaren and Westwood did so in a playful way, to irritate and spark interest. The theory and practice of anarchy was not important; its glamour and shock-value was. In a 2012 interview, John Lydon said that he’d never been an anarchist and declared that anarchy is:
“Mind games for the middle class.”
McLaren, who died in 2010, was more of a situationist – challenging and disrupting for the sake of art. Of the three, Vivienne Westwood is the one who still speaks about changing the status quo, with her support for environmental causes and her 2016 fashion collection featuring ‘Politicians are criminals’
Hagar the Womb initially formed in the ladies toilet of the Autonomy Centre – also known as the Anarchist Centre – which was housed in a London docklands warehouse. Crass had helped to set up this centre using proceeds from their Bloody Revolution single, and the venue combined serious meeting groups for old-style anarchists with gigs for the newly-emerging anarcho-punks. When we interviewed Hagar The Womb, in Spring 2021, they explained that they wanted to bring more fun, colour and pop sensibilities to the scene that seemed to consist of earnest young guys with ‘meat is murder’ on their minds.
Karen: What I loved about Wapping Anarchy Centre was it was like a very cheap youth club but also we were seeing our friends in bands and that’s what made us think we could be a band too.
Ruth: Anarcho-punk was supposed to be all about issues … but there was a regimentality about anarcho-punk, you know; wearing all black, needing to scream your words out. There was a certain identikit-ness about anarcho-punk.
Stephanie: You can be political and still have something to say and have a good tune at the same time.
Although it was only in existence for just over six months 1981-2, the Autonomy Centre had a big impact on many of its young people. Punk bands were created and some individuals took on board the personal politics and direct action of the movement. Forty years later, there are still anarcho bands that play various festivals – Hagar The Womb still has the same line-up – and there are still activists who can trace their politicisation to Crass and the Autonomy Centre.
But the ideals of self-discipline and respect at the core of anarchism weren’t always evident in the Anarchy Centre itself, with theft and vandalism being frequent realities. The zine site Kill Your Pet Puppy tells many of the stories linked with anarcho-punk and the Anarchist Centre. However, it’s clear that a brilliant alternative scene was formed, which challenged the music industry’s high prices and profits.
In a great exclusive interview with punkgirldiaries, Gee Vaucher, member of the Crass collective talked about her stunning artwork and design for the band, as well as reflecting on ways of protesting and challenging the system now in the 21st century.
“It doesn’t occur, especially to young people, to rent one big house and try sharing the expenses. Learning how to live with people is an essential ability, learning to respect another’s space, learning how to listen, forgive and talk about things is a powerful way of changing the world we live in … It’s not a matter of fighting; I just continue to face the hypocrisy, the unfairness and the ignorance around and do my best with it through my work. I’m more interested these days in trying to undermine the foundations.”
The anarcho-punk bands still playing today tend to be from previous eras – Rubella Ballet, Discharge and The Levellers all have upcoming gigs. But more politically active groups now seem to focus on the action rather than writing songs about their ideology. Extinction Rebellion favours choirs, chanting, drumming and samba bands rather than amplified rock music so maybe anarcho-punk is out of time?