[This is a column about lyrics as texts, not a history of music column. Through close readings of album titles, song titles and close readings of lyrics, we will listen toward the microcosm of the album, and the macrocosm of Youth Culture in the ‘70s, ‘80s and more recent decades.]
Are you ready for nine minutes of hardcorest D.C. punk music? Check out Legless Bull, the first e.p. by Government Issue, released in 1981. When punk music first arrived on the District of Columbia music scene in 1979, the city was impoverished and regimented into strict racial ghettos, making it difficult to travel from one side of the city to another. But D.C. had also a steady stream of upper-middle class government workers, educated and intelligent–the children of whom would soon become the lyricists of bands such as the Bad Brains, Minor Threat, Void and Government Issue.
With D.C. Hardcore music, gone is the freakout-for-the-sake-of-freakout of the New York and U.K. scene, as well as the obsession with chemical intoxication of the West Coast. The Straight-edge movement of Youth Culture has remnants still today, with Youths tattooing black Xs on the back of their hands, indicating they cannot be served alcohol.
The album Legless Bull goes straight to its most direct critique, with the rhetorical voice of condemnation. First targets for Government Issue’s lyricist, Stabb, are Evangelical Christians. “Send us money, and you’ll be saved/ pretty soon you’ll be our slave/…Religious rip-off/ Gospel scam/ Ernest Angeley, Billy Graham/ Upside-down cross is what you should wear ” Track three, Rock and Roll Bullshit, advances the satire of drug culture, as well as corporate acts such as Van Halen, Super Tramp and Rock’n’Roll Camp.
Then comes the lyrical highlight of the album, Anarchy is Dead. In the 90’s, the Sex Pistols’ lyric, “Anarchy in the U.K.” became the immediately identifiable cry of the poser, but Government Issue tackles the hard truth of governmental necessity in 1981. Which leads us to the Chomsky-Foucault debate.
Broadcast in 1971 on Danish television, and published in book form, 1974, Michel Foucault and Noam Chomsky met to debate innate human traits and political realities. The second half on politics is most interesting to punk rock analysis. Chomsky states, “I believe… that a fundamental element of human nature is the need for creative work… without the arbitrary limiting effect of coercive institutions… This means… the elements of repression and oppression… must be overcome and eliminated.” It is a classic Marxists argument of tearing down the capitalist systems-that-be, albeit taken to a libertarian extreme. In particular, Chomsky supports protest of the Vietnam War. Can punk music accomplish this protest?
Foucault, interestingly enough, disagrees with Chomsky. For Foucault, government is not really the concern, at least far from the most pressing concern. He argues, “the custom [is]… that power is centralized in the hands of government… administration, the police the army, and the apparatus of the state… But I believe that political power also exercises itself through… institutions which look as if they have nothing in common with the political power.” He then gives examples of institutions with hidden political power, “family… the university, and in a general way all teaching systems… are made to maintain a certain social class in power; and to exclude… another social class. Institutions of… medicine, also help to support the political power. It’s obvious, even to the point of scandal, in certain cases related to psychiatry.” For Foucault, the decision making powers of government are minimal next to the powers that create ideology and instill society with belief structures and codes of ethics. Protesting the Vietnam War becomes a meaningless endeavor for Foucault, the immediate action necessary is exposing the true powers at work in Neo-Liberal Capitalism.
What does this mean for punk rock lyrics? Do intellectual punk lyrics accomplish Foucault’s mission? What does his criticism of obsessive medical health/sickness binaries mean to ‘80‘s punk rock, where sickness and homelessness are almost relished?
The album comes to an energetic climax with I’m James Dean, 17 seconds of Stabb screaming “I’m James Dean,” over power chords and speed drumming. The title of the album then is explicated with another powerful condemnation of people who… wear cowboy hats. I suppose that’s a system of power, fetishization of a large hat, penis replacement, like a small man with an overly large truck. But the point of the song, the people under critic ride a bull with no legs, creating the pun on a novelty bar ride, and a crock of bullshit that hasn’t a leg to stand on.