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Cordon Sanitaire

  

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Action Pact: The Punk Singles Collection (Captain Oi!, 1995)

Remember roots-rock? The Long Ryders, Green On Red, and of course Jason and the Nashville Scorchers? Neither does anybody else. But if Tortoise can make Spirogyra hip to a new generation of people with disposable income, you know it’s only a matter of time before every forgotten rock subgenre becomes somebody’s cool hermetic influence. Except early eighties British hardcore. This music will never be cool. The aroma of secondhandness sticks to it like the smell of McDonald’s special sauce on Clinton’s trousers. The funny thing is, this was also true of California hardcore for a long time. Go back and check out the Village Voice’s music pages from the early eighties; Cali and Brit hardcore are constantly lumped together as the music of teenage lunkheads, too out of it to realize the action had moved on to the Mudd Club.

Ten years later, though, something happened. With the advent of Nirvana and the mass-marketing of (formerly) indie rock, Cali hardcore now stood as the venerable ancestor of the new classic rock, Robert Johnson to Cobain’s Eric Clapton. The shit was now canonical. Compelled to figure out where this stuff came from, to set up a lineage for it, rock critics revised their take on hardcore, at least in its American incarnation. What had seemed like the frantic scrawlings of a caged animal now looked like a diagram for genuine rock auteurdom. In a bizarre final twist to the rehabilitation of the original, tenth-generation Cali hardcore itself became a respectable genre with the success of Green Day, Offspring, et al. Now we get to read these retrospective pieces in rock mags and books about how we all know how seminal Black Flag and the Germs were, when in fact those same canon-makers were writing stuff well into the eighties depicting hardcore as terminal, the punk rock equivalent of a rabid mule. Luckily it couldn’t breed, they thought. While American hardcore led eventually to the creation of several important industries (though Puffy’s gonna wipe ’em all out soon) British hardcore led nowhere. The music retains its stigma as a dead end. Few critics are willing to appreciate it on its own terms. (They’re not willing to do that with its early eighties peers in Cali either, but that stuff they can look at through the lens of the stuff it influenced, which is what they really like to do anyway, which is why everything they write about it comes off canned.)

What sucks is that the best of this music which has been so blithely written out of the history books not only rocked like mad, it also tells us something about the history of its own time in a way you won’t find anywhere else, tells it so that if you let yourself into its world you’ll never forget it. Its world was the beginning of our world, the world of neoliberalism and expendable people. That may have something to do with why Brit hardcore left no survivors. American hardcore was oriented toward the personal, almost private angst of its audience; it conjured an ineffable horror stalking the nation’s suburbs, too vague to pin down and too immense to attack directly; it hatched its millennial schemes through the cracks in the walls of anonymous houses, behind dumpsters in the alley, hidden in the tall grass surrounded by chain link fences, occasionally darting out to commit acts of incomprehensible vengeance. It was like the smoke from a fire somewhere off-camera. What We Do Is Secret! As a result, it was left to its own devices for a decade, mutating in a thousand different directions. Brit hardcore, by contrast, saw itself as the vanguard of a young British working class determined to confront the forces of order and defeat them. It drew much of its inspiration from the memory of 1977, when punk appeared to have genuinely spooked respectable folk in a way it never did elsewhere. More relevant, though, was the Brit hardcore generation’s own experiences.

While London kids flirted with a “New Romanticism” of synthetic luxury, virtually the entire under-25 workforce of Liverpool was unemployed.

When she took office in 1979, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher enacted brutally stringent fiscal austerity measures to curb inflation and strengthen the position of British finance capital. The unemployment rate skyrocketed, particularly among youth, far beyond even the critically high levels of 1977 immortalized in songs like the Pistols’ “Seventeen.” Thatcher had known this would happen, and probably thought it would have a salutary effect on the ungrateful little bastards, but they had a surprise for her. A confrontation between skinheads and Pakistani teenagers in South London in the summer of 1981 erupted into a night of youth rioting that left entire city blocks charred and emergency rooms full of wounded cops. No sooner had the fires gone out in London, however, than youth mobs in Manchester attacked the Moss Side police station, leaving nary a stone standing. It went on like that for about a week, spreading through most of Britain’s major urban areas: Youth rioting would die down in one city only to explode in another. All told, it was Britain’s most severe urban unrest in well over a century. With the exception of the initial South London clash, the rioters directed their fury not at other kids but at the cops and (with varying degrees of explicitness) at those who stood behind them. The rioters were a cross-section of the country’s races and subcultures, united by their youth and by the tactical obtuseness of the police, who attacked white and black, punk and Ted alike, thus giving them a common enemy. Brit hardcore songs referred to the riots again and again, as proof of British kids’ unity and power, proof of the inevitability of their victory over their common enemy. (“This is our answer/To your laws!” sang the vocalist of the Violators in “Summer of ’81,” calling out one by one the name of each city scorched by the riots.) Even the pro-Thatcher press thought the Iron Lady was finished.

But now it was the punks’ turn to be surprised. Thatcher used the royal wedding of 1981 and the victorious Falklands War of 1982 to drum up patriotic support for her government. The rivers of finance capital conjured up by Thatcher’s economic policies generated an economic boom in London and the south of England. At the same time, the economic situation in the North, already seemingly at rock bottom, went from bad to worse to awful beyond belief. British youth split along this regional divide just like everybody else. While London kids flirted with a “New Romanticism” of synthetic luxury, virtually the entire under-25 workforce of Liverpool was unemployed. The Brit hardcore constituency had been dispersed, one half snapping pictures of Duran Duran for The Face, the other snapping strangers’ necks for a fix. Thatcher’s landslide reelection in 1983 just drove the final nail into the movement’s coffin; by 1985 it had all but vanished. Brit hardcore drew its power from the conviction that it stood for a united, indomitable community of insurgents; as that community vanished, so did the voice. There were various routes of retreat before the final surrender: bleary-eyed fraternal pub-chants, rural utopianism, formless rage. But a few intrepid souls recorded what was happening to them with that same strange compulsion that makes people stare at twisted bodies in a car wreck. Eventually history disintegrated them along with the rest, but they left these documents behind, and when you listen to them you hear voices calling from a world that no longer exists, warning you about a future which is now your own present. This is what Action Pact was about.

The group formed in London in the riot summer of 1981. The members were all in their teens; singer George (female, name notwithstanding) was all of sixteen. In the fall of that year, they released their first single, the rumbling, generic and altogether wonderful “London Bouncers,” which only hinted at the greatness to come but established the leitmotif of Action Pact’s music: Instead of looking at “politics” as something abstract and external to your own experience, figure out the larger political significance and implications of the everyday life (in this case the way the “scene” mirrors the very social institutions it was supposed to be fighting against). “Don’t accuse me of being petty,” snarls George, seemingly anticipating the argument that, with the smoke of the riots still hanging in the air, there were more pressing concerns than London bouncers. With a voice like George’s, though, credibility cannot be doubted. I should say something about this voice, perhaps the strangest, most remarkable instrument in Brit hardcore. It stands quite apart from the Pauline Murray-on-crank persona that was the standard mode of the genre’s female vocalists (such as the singer from the Expelled, whose single “Dreaming” is still Brit hardcore’s most chillingly beautiful moment). It sounds like a speaking voice even when it’s carrying a tune, passionate but sensible, with a delightful mocking edge to it; but sometimes George’s entire person seems to erupt convulsively, as if she’s a bottle with something so volatile inside her that the cork keeps popping off.

The voice was used to even better effect on the band’s next single, “Suicide Bag,” a rant against glue-sniffing and social despair released in July ’82. The song’s jagged, white-hot music hits the listener like a chain of explosions—its own kind of testimony to the thrill and power of engagement and anger. The band alternately barrels through a line of roaring power chords like some irresistible force and gets locked into a sputtering, frothing holding action, with George’s voice exploding all over the place as she and the band drive the beat through the wall. Erratic, compulsive, uncontainable, “Suicide Bag” radiates the sense of confidence and adventure Brit hardcore kids like Action Pact got from riot summer, the surprise and thrill of discovering their own power. (“Suicide Bag” is also available, along with “Summer of ’81” and much else, on Punk and Disorderly III—The Final Solution [Anagram, 1994], which also features a hilarious cover collage of bobbies executing punks firing-squad-style in front of 10 Downing Street as Thatcher applauds demurely in the background.)

By 1984, Brit hardcore bands were breaking up left and right, their records no longer even cracking the indie charts.

Even as “Suicide Bag” hit UK turntables, however, the ground was shifting beneath the boots of the Britpunk army. Action Pact’s March ’83 single “People” captured the growing chill in the air. “There is no such thing as society,” Thatcher had so notoriously announced, “only individual men and women.” This was the code of the London yuppiedom that Thatcher’s policies were generating—a milieu, as it happens, that was attracting many of the London kids punk had claimed to speak for. “People” was Action Pact’s reply. The jagged rhythms of “Suicide Bag” are gone, replaced by a steady midtempo throb of thick guitar-bass buzz, relentless and inescapable like a curse. George’s voice has gotten steadier, without losing any of its power. When she sings “Tread on those you leave behind,” the horror and outrage in her voice cuts through the music like a laser. George wants the proto-yuppie she’s talking to to see the invisible human wreckage around him—the cause and consequence of dismissing society. “People! People! People!” she snarls as the band bears down on the chorus, like anything more elaborate would be a capitulation: We are human, you bastards, and you’d better treat us as such! This threatening undertone (George warns her target he better be always looking over his shoulder) and the sullen churning rage of the music suggest that resistance is still possible, but the song also tacitly acknowledges that Thatcherism has prevailed.

Two months later Thatcher was reelected in a landslide. Action Pact’s next single, “A Question of Choice,” attempted to make sense of what had happened, to find a hole in the net closing in around England and slip away to a place where criticism and action were still possible. Every line ends with a question mark, as if George isn’t sure anymore that she can shock people into seeing a thing by sticking it in their face (“People!”); maybe they really can’t see it, so if not, what do they see? As George ticks off the questions her voice drifts back and forth with the melody, flat and conversational. The music is more circumspect, too, patient and precise as it outlines the argument via repetition, the guitar no longer a roar but a steady buzz. George’s questions form piece by piece into a picture of the desperate fragmented hopes and fears driving England’s strange changes. As her voice gets steadier and stronger you can almost hear her start to smile: I know what this is now, and I know I can talk them out of it. But nobody was listening anymore. By 1984, Brit hardcore bands were breaking up left and right, their records no longer even cracking the indie charts. What should have been Action Pact’s last single, “Yet Another Dole Queue Song,” is the sound of people who know this may be their last chance to say the words that matter the most, to say something that needs terribly to be heard. The music is still force beat guitar-buzz punk rock but it’s earnest, even tender, with a guitar lead that flows through the song like an open vein.

I picture the band busking on a street corner in London: People are going home from work, it’s nearly evening now and pale blue light is coming down from the sky above the new glass office towers and there’s a chill in the air, which is odd because George’s face feels hot, and she wonders whether she should go up to one of these passersby and tell them this terrible thing, they have to hear it, so she grabs this woman by the arm and says, look, I know you’ve heard this before a million times and I know how depressing it is, but I have to break the silence, thousands of us, they’re taking it all away from us, everything we love, everything we are, and we can’t, we can’t ignore it much longer, because…. The woman wrenches her arm away, gives her this look, storms off. George watches people walk past and words start rolling out of her mouth again, she can’t help it. You don’t think it affects you, right? You think I’m crazy for talking like this, don’t you? Listen, they’ve written off half of the country, do you understand what that means, how awful it is. We can be so much better than this, we used to know how, just three years ago, don’t any of you remember? How can you just walk away like this?

Action Pact did release another single, but “Yet Another Dole Queue Song” was really their end, and the end of Brit hardcore as well. Action Pact was unwilling to accept the legitimacy of neoliberalism and its values to any extent, thus ensuring their rapid extinction; but they also knew what the new order meant and what kind of future it would bring. When I listen to them it seems to me that music is much poorer, more timid and compromised today for the loss of that crude intransigence.

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