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The Humble Compilation

April 3rd, 2007 · post by anon · Make a comment

 

At the very centre of the anarcho-punk movement (or DIY community if you prefer) lies the oft overlooked compilation album. The humble compilation as we all know is a collection of bands all appearing on the same release but the compilation is important on a number of other levels. It’s often the starting place for many bands who couldn’t afford to put out their own releases, or just didn’t know how to. It is also often a way for bands to come together and split costs, but more importantly, as we shall see; the compilation is what has actually defined the anarcho-punk movement both culturally and politically. You can, for example, pick up a compilation from another part of the world you know very little about and discover some of the grass-roots activity that takes place there. You could even make contact and get involved or highlight their activities in your part of the world. It is through this type of networking that the international movement we have today gradually took shape.

So let’s take a trip down memory lane and have a look at some of the compilations that helped to define and shape our community. Of course, given the vast array of compilations that are out there, especially those outside the English-speaking world, it is only possible to mention a fraction of them here but I hope it will be an interesting trip and maybe inspire a few people to get involved in doing their own.

My first compilation was “Top of the Pops 1976”, which is irrelevant to this article really but I just wanted to point out that compilations can also be steaming piles of dog turd.

The first compilations of note in the UK were the “Bullshit Detector” series released by Crass Records. The first “Bullshit Detector” came out in 1980 and although it definitely wasn’t the best sound quality, being made up largely of rough demos, it offered an overview of the newly emerging anarcho movement and featured a few bands who would go on to other things such as Amebix, The Disrupters and Alternative.

The phrase “Bullshit Detector” came from a song by The Clash called “Garageland”. The Clash were the original political punk band but their guitarist’s desire for stardom and their subsequent fame in America led many to believe they’d sold out. They wanted to live the ideal rather than shout from a stage or the back of an album cover, but they did however inspire many bands and individuals, including Crass themselves.

The Bullshit albums laid the foundation for the DIY ethic. Anybody can form a band, you don’t need to know how to play your instruments, and anyone who listens to this rough and ready record will know that you can be truly awful and still make it onto an album. Crass invited bands to send in their demos which went straight onto the disc without any studio tomfoolery. “Bullshit Detector Two” appeared in 1982 and introduced the world to Omega Tribe, Chumbawamba, Kronstadt Uprising, Naked, Youth In Asia and others, some of whom went on to greater and better things.

In 1983 Crass released the final instalment titled, oddly enough, “Bullshit Detector Three” which featured Napalm Death, Health Hazard and Verbal Assault among others. The inspiration behind this series should not be underestimated, as many people woke up and realised what was possible, encouraging many individuals, myself included, to set up bands, gigs, zines, venues and most importantly provided a challenging political overview. As the front cover to “Bullshit Detector #3” put it:

“Don’t expect music when the melody is anger, when the message sings defiance, three chords are frustration when the words are from the heart.”

(Incidentally a Swiss label called “Resistance Productions” released “Bullshit Detector 4” in 1994 with permission from Crass.)

Pax Records released the brilliant “Wargasm” album in 1982 which included Dead Kennedys alongside Captain Sensible and Flux of Pink Indians.

With records like these and especially the ideas they contained, the movement began to spread all over the world. Let’s take a leap across the Atlantic to the USA where the burgeoning hardcore movement was about to take off. The Sex Pistols, The Damned and The Clash had played the States in the late 70’s and punk bands were springing up everywhere in reaction, particularly in California and New York which had harboured its own independent proto-punk scene.

Alternative Tentacles was probably the first major DIY label in America promoting a more anarchist slant spearheaded by Jello Biafra and Dead Kennedys. The “Let Them Eat Jellybeans” compilation appeared in 1981. The original release actually came with an insert which mentioned all of the punk bands known to be active in the US at the time thus spreading the idea of community. The record featured the cream of the era including Dead Kennedys, DOA, Black Flag, Bad Brains and the mighty Flipper.

The cover, depicting Ronald Reagan, the extreme right-wing president of America at the time, who’s favourite sweets were said to be jellybeans, revealed the cultural shift against so-called Reaganomics as well as the expansionist foreign policy that was decimating south and central America in that era. It helped influence a generation just as the “Bullshit Detector” records had done in the UK not just towards the DIY ethic but towards anarchist politics and libertarian vision.

In Canada the troubled “Vancouver Complication” appeared in 1981 (and has recently appeared on CD for the first time), and was a document of the fledgling scene that was starting in Canada aided and abetted by Joey “Shithead” Keithley and DOA featuring DOA, Pointed Sticks and the Subhumans among others. The following year “New York Thrash” appeared giving an account of what was happening in the Big Apple and introducing the world to the likes of The Beastie Boys and Bad Brains.

Another new label that was to have a major impact was Dischord, set up in 1980 by Ian MacKaye and Jeff Nelson. The “Flex Your Head” compilation came out in 1981 and brought attention to Teen Idles, Government Issue and the highly influential Minor Threat who began the original straight edge movement albeit indirectly. Dischord have maintained to this day a strict DIY approach and been a focal point for the rise of emo and post hardcore sounds. Again you can see the influence of the compilation in the rise of the straight edge movement, a kind of subculture within a subculture (which has shot itself in the foot a number of times over the years but that’s a story for another day).

Other important US compilations of note from the period include “Rodney on the ROQ” (1980), “Rat Music For Rat People” (1982), “Someone Got Their Head Kicked In” (1982) and many others which gave an account of the rising punk scene in a particular city or area and cumulatively revealed to the world the new hardcore punk movement. The sleeve notes to the Alternatives Tentacles compilation “Not So Quiet On the Western Front” (1982), itself a take on the 1930 war movie “All Quiet On the Western Front”, ran as follows:

“The very same community …gradually lost its focus and direction. The hoped-for countercultural revolution didn’t materialize overnight, and people became increasingly bitter about the prospects. With the substitution of cynicism for hope, the replacement of creative activity by drug-induced apathy, the reversion to self-indulgent artistic pretension, and the co-option of the less committed by unprincipled commercial interests, the dream became ever more difficult to sustain. But even in the darkest days, an uncompromising few didn’t give up the spirit…the youth of America may not be rioting in the streets yet, but in greater numbers than ever they’re flaunting ossified social conventions and starting to embrace alternative values, a necessary first step in America’s peculiarly sterile cultural and political context…it’s up to you.”

“Not So Quiet on the Western Front” featured the likes of Crucifix, 7 Seconds, MDC and Flipper amongst others. The music has a particularly political bent which is interesting as by around 1983 the original American hardcore movement was in decline and there was a backlash against the politically minded as the scene split into factions and eventually imploded by around 1986, when Dead Kennedys and Black Flag who helped launch the movement had split up. But this album showed that despite the apathy (which we’ve all come across in all our own scenes at one time or another) a positive, forward looking stance was still more than possible and still vitally important. Thing is scenes come and go for a host of reasons but it doesn’t mean that’s the end. New ones spring up in different places all the time which is why apathy has no place really. If your scene has fallen by the wayside ask yourself why, whether you care and, as Jeff Bale mentioned in the notes quoted above – it’s up to you. The world can be a better place, it’s not going to happen soon but we can all do our bit at the end of the day.

One of the most vital compilations, and the first I ever had from the States was the massive “P.E.A.C.E./WAR” double album released in 1984 by Dave Dictor of MDC/Radical Records in conjunction with Maximum Rock n Roll. What is so important about this release is that it is one of the first major international compilations featuring over 30 bands from outside of the United States and revealing the growing scenes in other parts of the world, particularly Australia, Japan, Argentina, Italy and South Africa. In only a few years the anarchist punk movement had taken on an international dimension.

Here is an example of how international politics begins to cross borders. The original vinyl release of “PEACE/WAR” came with a 72 page magazine which highlighted many of the political problems of the day such as nuclear proliferation and the very real threat posed by the Cold War, South Africa under Apartheid, imperial expansion courtesy of the USA but also the political demonstrations that were taking place against all of this. The album which featured Crass, MDC, Dead Kennedys, Butthole Surfers, Subhumans, Conflict and Negazione among 50 others is a vital slab of anarcho history and was also a benefit for anti-nuke groups. So not only do international politics and ideas begin to cross borders in a time when there was no internet or CD but it becomes possible to raise money for worthy causes. In that respect at least it becomes much more than posturing.

Maximum Rock n Roll’s compilation “Welcome To 1984” again brought a host of bands from 17 countries under one banner and re-enforced the idea of an international community bent on social and political reform. I believe these compilations helped to bolster that community, helped contacts to spread so that tours could be exchanged and political activity undertaken. Icons of Filth from the UK appeared alongside the dedicated B.G.K. from Holland and Rattus from Finland.

Meanwhile hundreds of compilations mostly in cassette format had begun to appear all over the world. Some were merely a collection of bands from a particular city or part of the world, others were benefits for any cause you might care to mention, or some had a particular message or idea to put across such as the anti-war ethos central to anarchism and punk.

In 1984 the French label New Wave Records released a series of compilations starting with “The First Sonic World War” featuring Les Cadavres, Angry Rats and Los Tereros. Although most of the bands were French later installments featured bands from further afield such as Poland and Yugoslavia. In Brazil the “Ataque Sonoro” compilation appeared in 1985 which included the powerful Ratos de Porao. A cassette compilation called “Brave New World” was put out by Twisted Red Cross in the Philippines in 1985. By the mid 1980’s the anarcho-punk movement had become an international political movement. It is this achievement that helped it rise above the notion that it was merely another youth subculture.

Back in the UK a number of important compilations were issued by Conflict’s label Mortarhate. The first of these was “We Don’t Want Your Fucking War” from 1985 which was in a way another response to the Falklands debacle as well as what was going on in Northern Ireland and elsewhere. Belfast’s Toxic Waste and Stalag 17 appeared along with Lost Cherrees, UK Subs and the inspirational Liberty (who have an excellent new EP on BBP Records by the way). “We Won’t Be Your Fucking Poor”, “We Don’t Want Your Fucking Law” and “We Won’t Take No More” followed giving reference points for the militant ideology of Conflict and the Mortarhate stable. “We Will Be Free” issued in 1986 was an important compilation of the Belfast scene and a benefit for the Warzone Collective, a DIY anarcho centre that had been organised by local punks (Warzone never got any money but that’s another story). The Mortarhate compilations featured local and international, feminist and gay bands and were a major influence in the 1980’s.

“We Won’t Take No More” from 1987 and “This is the ALF” from 1988 did much to highlight the resurgence of the animal rights movement. Hunt sabbing was particularly big around the mid 80’s and it was albums like these that had an important impact. While Crass had literally started the movement, aided and abetted by Poison Girls lest we forget, Conflict and Mortarhate took it a step further and made the movement more belligerent, aggressive and in some ways less tolerant.

In the sleeve notes to “This is the ALF” Robin Webb, the ALF Press Officer, wrote:

“The ALF has always had a triad of policies within which anyone could claim responsibility as an activist under its umbrella and get the backing of the ALF Supporters Group if unlucky to be caught.

1. To liberate animals from suffering or potential suffering and place them in good permanent homes or, where appropriate, release them into their natural environment
2. To damage or destroy property and equipment associated with animal abuse
3. To take all reasonable precautions not to endanger life of any kind

As popular as these policies had been and despite the powerful effects wrought against animal abuse it became clear… that the third ALF policy was becoming strained”

Tellingly from this point onwards animal rights activity became decidedly more militant leading to arrests and a “terrorist” image garnered by media in the public eye, but this also reveals the power of the humble compilation to affect ideas and in most cases much more so than an individual group could do. Perhaps it is the coming together of so many groups under a particular banner that can help to define a movement.

Another revival movement had taken place in the UK in the early 1970’s when members of Crass and others helped to launch the Stonehenge Festival. By 1985 the festival would have become legal following an old English Law that dictated that an event which took place on 12 consecutive years could become legal. Thatcher sent in the troops to attack and smash the Free Festival movement before that law could take effect at the infamous Battle of the Beanfield in 1985. Despite overwhelming revulsion even from mainstream media, there would be no successful prosecution for police brutality. The 1988 compilation “Travellers’ Aid Trust” on the Flicknife label featured ambient anarchists Hawkwind, Culture Shock and Hippy Slags among others in a bid to set up a bust-fund for Travellers facing police or other legal harassment, as well as highlighting the movement itself as a group of anarchists trying to live outside the system.

The anarchist-punk movement gave birth to some great independent labels over the years, many of whom put out compilations of the bands that were on their respective rosters. These albums also often revealed what was going on in a certain city at a certain time and place making them historical snapshots as well as introductions to the output of the labels. “Open Mind Surgery” came out in 1987 and was a showcase of the bands on Bluurg Records including Culture Shock, Instigators and Civilized Society, while “Fuck EMI” released by Chumbawamba’s Agit Prop label satirised the record company of the title which was involved in arms manufacture at the time. With the advent of the compact disc, many labels released compilations of their back catalogues for the digital age. Crass Records released the “A-Sides” compilation of the assorted singles which had appeared on the label in 1992.

I started work on my first compilation in 1989 on the fledgling Front Cover Productions, the label/publishing house I set up around 1987. It was called “Turning Inside Out” and was a benefit for the Anarchist Black Cross in 1991. It featured Internal Autonomy, Oi Polloi and Bleeding Rectum among others. The ABC has existed for many years and was revived by anarchists in the early 80s to help those of us who found ourselves in prison or had to pay hefty fines because of our political activities, something that should be further encouraged in this day and age! It was an easy thing to do in many ways, even though it took a while to come together. A lot of bands will gladly offer material if they are approached. Many are keen to help with any number of causes or benefits, others just for the chance to appear. As I said before anybody can do it and it’s never been easier in this computerized age.

In 1994 Epitaph, the label started by Bad Religion, began a series of compilations called “Punk-O-Rama” which would run for the next decade to 10 volumes and was a showcase of the pop-punk era they had helped to advance. A lot of the music isn’t my cup of herbal tea and along with Fat Wreck Chords they are probably responsible for the latest generation of punk sensibility. However with the advent of MTV and the commercialisation of many of the DIY bands of the earlier eras, many punks of today do not have the political dimension that is the hub of punk, and I’ll probably come back to this a little later.

1996 saw AK Press launch its first benefit compilation in collusion with Epitaph. AK Press is a worker’s co-operative selling a huge range of radical literature, audio and video. “Better Read Than Dead” featured Propagandhi, Chumbawamba, Tribes of Neorot, J. Church and a lot of well-known acts. The liner notes offer a quote from Noam Chomsky:

“If you assume that there’s no hope, you guarantee that there will be no hope. If you assume that there is an instinct for freedom, there are opportunities to change things, there’s a chance you may contribute to making a better world. That’s your choice.”

For me the mid 90’s was a period when politics certainly was no longer the centre of the ideology. Safe-as-houses pop bands played punk guitar and shouted designer lyrics at an MTV generation who were brought up with every gadget under the sun in a culture that decried individuality. Some old bands reformed and jumped on the nostalgia bandwagon and anarcho punk, at least in the western hemisphere, was becoming redundant.

There were however quite a number of bands, groups, labels and individuals who continued (and still do) to offer an alternative idea of what society might be and as I mentioned earlier if the scene seems like it’s died in your part of the world it only takes a few people to start it again. Cynicism and apathy are direct consequences of the television generation and are a sign of weakness in an individual unable to stand against the brutality of the current regimes in the Western world. (Try saying that after a white cider and tequila slammer standing on one leg and jumping about to “This Is Two Tone”)

In 2000 Dischord Records released a 20 year respective compilation with, of course, Minor Threat, Dag Nasty, Government Issue and Henry Rollins’ first band State of Alert among an impressive list of others. What is remarkable about Dischord is that Ian MacKaye has managed to maintain the DIY ethic to this day despite major label machinations. MacKaye also insists on playing all-ages shows as he did in his days with Fugazi, and quite often appears in church halls and the types of venues where alternative viewpoints are needed most. Again if like me you’re not really into the music you can hopefully still see the fundamentals of taking such a stance.

Many people feel like giving up their struggle towards a better world, and sometimes it can drive them mad. In that case the 2001 compilation “Mad Pride: Nutters with Attitude” might be a good place to start. That album has all sorts of loonies on it from Alternative TV to Citizen Fish and offers vital information to anyone who finds themselves in the crazy clutches of psychiatrists and pharmaceuticals.

Back across the Atlantic, Fat Wreck Chords had been set up by Fat Mike of NoFX in the early 90’s and began releasing a series of compilations starting with “Fat Music for Fat People” in 1994. Fat Wreck Chords only sign bands for a one-album deal giving them the choice to stay or move on or keep their artistic control in light of appearing on other labels, which major labels just do not do. But they have also managed to keep a political dimension despite being one of the biggest independents in the country.

“Punk bands, musicians, and record labels have built a coalition to educate, register and mobilize progressive voters. Something needs to be done to unite the youth vote and bring real activism back into our society. Punk rock has always been on the edge and in the forefront of politics. It is time to energize the majority of today’s disenfranchised youth movement and punk rockers to make change a reality.”

Punk Voter was set up largely to try to bring down the George W Bush administration in 2004, and Fat Wreck Chords released the “Rock Against Bush” compilations featuring some awful pop punk bands alongside some great ones including Jello Biafra with DOA, Sick of it All and Operation Ivy. The idea was that seeing that 30% of eligible voters do not vote what would happen if they did and could they, if nothing else, bring down Bush? Even though Bush did get back in (although seeing as he never won the first time round it is debatable whether he won second time round as well) he lost both the Senate and Congress in 2006 as the anti-war movement finally began to gain momentum.

You could argue the old anarchist line that voting only maintains the government, but it can also be argued that some forms of government are better than others. If voting meant the difference between war and diplomatic solution, it is appreciable which course is the preferable option. Secondly if punk voter didn’t help to bring down Bush, it at least helped to politicise the new generation in America and elsewhere.

The Bush Administration’s war against everything supported by prime liar and arse licker Tony Bliar also saw the rallying of the old anti-war movement and the new with the release of the “Peace Not War” compilations in 2003. These compilations were not punk as such, though members of Crass, Chumbawamba and Conflict were involved. It also revealed that protest does not have to come from punk. But nor does it have to come from sanitized pop world of Live8 where career is more important than politics and tokenism helps record sales.

Recently one of the best series of compilations to appear has been the anarcho-punk retrospective series put out by Overground Records. “Anti-War”, “Anti-State”, “Anti-Society” and “Anti-Capitalism” have all been released in the past few years featuring the movers and shakers of the original anarcho-punk explosion alongside many of the unknown and smaller bands who never released a record. This essential series is also a reminder of what was done in the past. Quite often what is done nowadays is not protest but comfortable rejection, and this series points to the days when heartfelt (and occasionally naïve bands) made a very important contribution to making a change.

And there you have it – how the humble compilation tells the story of the international DIY movement. I know that I’ve missed a lot out but as I said in the introductory paragraphs, it’s impossible to mention them all so I apologise if yours didn’t get a look in. What I will say is that it’s easy for anyone to put something together with local bands in their area and maybe raise a little money for a good cause. International compilations are much harder to organise. The last compilation I did around 1996 saw me wait months/years for bands from the other side of the world that never bothered to reply.

Nowadays with computers and CDR’s it is a relatively simple process. Send an email out to some bands and put your compilation together. Print up some artwork to go with it and it really is as easy as that. It should be possible to release a CD for less than £3 per unit. It is better I think to try and make a decent product, so aim to get good sound quality recordings. It’s also possible to remaster recordings with all the software there is available nowadays. Make a decent booklet to go with it especially if you’re trying to promote a cause. If you want to sell your compilation it is always a wise move to approach some of the more well-known bands. A lot of people will not buy a compilation unless they know one or two of the bands on it as the capitalist economy has conditioned us towards the familiar product! Diversity is always important like the “Peace Not War” comps I mentioned or G7 Welcoming Committee’s brilliant “Take Penicillin Now” from 2005 which featured a whole host of musical styles from folk music to ambient to all out thrash.

Some of the music, bands and labels mentioned in this essay are not really what I’m into but I wanted to use a diverse series of recordings to reveal how our movement has grown politically and how political action is central to what it’s all about. In this day and age when the West is heading rapidly towards totalitarianism, war is seen as inevitable and civil rights are falling by the wayside it is important to politicise people in whatever way we can by becoming our own media. Society is rapidly becoming paranoid and it is within such a political vacuum that you will see the likes of the extreme right climb back into power. I kid you not.

Of course sticking out an album will change nothing. If the album is diverse and inspiring and most importantly has the integrity to go with it, then it might make people think. It has done so in the past. Thoughts do lead to action and anyone who still thinks music cannot inspire people should have another glance back over the last 25 years. We have an ever-growing international network, a network of peoples who want to see a better world, and even if many fall by the wayside disillusioned, there will always be others to take their place. As Penny Rimbaud of Crass wrote in the sleeve notes to “Anti Capitalism” in 2006:

“Clearly then it is up to us to write our own histories and document our own achievements. What we did then (and what many of us continue to do) was enormously impressive. We were all part of a movement that radically changed the way people think – which, in the most positive way, is to change the world we live in…I am again impressed by the degree of commitment shown by everyone involved in that revolution of mind. I’m still surprised by the diversity, shocked by the intensity and inspired by the memory. However, more importantly I’m overjoyed that people…are still at it.”

back2front_danny@yahoo.co.uk

(Many of these compilations are still available – if there’s something you can’t get give me a shout)

© Anti-copyright Front Cover Productions 2007 – Reproduce at will but quote the source

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