Punk. It has changed from a term labeling a condensed segment of society’s outcasts to that which labels pop culture accessories and commercial music. Heralded Vancouver first wave punk icons, the Subhumans, reignite its reputation with the recent release on Alternative Tentacles, New Dark Age Parade. The album serves as the reuniting element to a band that has been at the forefront of history, a band that had lost a member to imprisonment, and a band that eventually collapsed due to internal pressures and disbanded. New Dark Age Parade sees original members Brian Goble, Mike Graham, and Gerry Hannah team with drummer Jon Card (ex-Personality Crisis/SNFU/DOA/Stretch Marks) in what marks itself as one of the most crucially outspoken anti-apathetic exertions that recalls sincere punk ethics and aesthetics. In this interview the band’s original members all take time to discuss modern day celebrity, modern punk bastardization, and Gerry Hannah sets the record straight on America’s War on Terror.
With the modern expansion of globalization many countries are finding a similar fate to that of America, fighting wars abroad as well as at home. Between class wars and wars of violence the world is an increasingly scary place to live in. If the band were to have released “World At War” in the late '70s would the lyrics have reflected a different story?
Gerry Hannah: Not much of a different story, but things have certainly intensified since then. Obviously globalization, deregulation, and neoliberal economics, which were just starting to take hold back then, have played a huge role in creating poverty and hopelessness on a scale unimagined in the '70s. Of course, the neocons will tell you that you that these processes have created more wealth, but what they won’t tell you is that while they’ve created scandalous amounts of wealth for a very tiny percentage of society, they have actually worked to decrease the ranks of the middle class and vastly increase the ranks of the very poor. Consequently, there are far more people living in desperate circumstances now than there were in the '70s. But having said that, there were plenty of poor people with “no future” back then as well and then, as now, it was completely unnecessary; they could have been housed, clothed, fed, and employed with minimal consequences to our general standard of living. Although, perhaps in that scenario, the stinking rich would’ve had to be a little less “stinking.”
As for military campaigns, yes for sure the world seems to be more at war now and for sure it is scary. In the late '70s, the Vietnam War had just ended and U.S. administrations had learned an important lesson from that war: better to have proxy armies fight your battles for you in secret than to send actual American troops in to do the dirty work. That way no one at home gets upset about American loss of life, the mainstream media isn’t all that interested, and the people doing the fighting for you can be as brutal and merciless as need be without any American ever being held accountable (at least in theory). As a result, for most people in North America and Europe, it seemed to be a relatively peaceful time. For many people in places like El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Chile, Angola, and Zaire (to name just a few) though, the time was anything but peaceful. The violence and cruelty inflicted on them was easily as horrific as what is now being inflicted on the people of the Middle East and the numbers of people mutilated, raped, tortured and murdered was staggering. In El Salvador alone it’s been estimated that approximately 75,000 civilians were killed during this time.
And sure, with the Armageddon generals, the Project for the New American Century and the Zionists currently clamoring for an even larger “theater” of war than the massive, miserable mess that we already have on the go, yeah, the future doesn’t look too damn friendly. But it’s important to remember that in the '70s we had the specter of nuclear annihilation hanging just inches over out heads, ever threatening to turn our dreams into nightmares. That was scary too. (I guess it still is though, with the U.S. possessing the greatest stockpile of WMDs in the world and crazy talk in Washington of tactical nukes possibly being used against targets in Iran.)
“Class of the Intransigents” touches on America’s War on Terror and one of the most emotional moments in the song comes through the lyric “You’re not ‘freedom fighters’ you’re compassion betrayed.” America has now seen more human life lost through this war than through the attacks of September 11 — could you elaborate on the specifics of this song and what you feel can possibly be done to counter these modern atrocities?
Gerry Hannah: First of all, I object to the phrase “War on Terror” being used to describe the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq. It isn’t a war on terror, it is terror. What was obvious to thousands of us a long time ago has finally been admitted to by U.S. spy agencies themselves in an internal document titled, the “National Intelligence Estimate,” namely that the war in Iraq has increased the threat of terrorism and is helping to fuel Islamic radicalism worldwide. Add to that the fact that the war has led to the deaths of between 30,000 – 100,000 civilians (not to mention 10 times that number of permanent, dismembering/disfiguring injuries) and it becomes obvious that we are in fact, talking about terrorism on a massive scale. So no more talk about “America’s War on Terror,” please.
In answer to your question, “Intransigents” refers to both the arch-conservative, so-called “Christians” and Zionists here in the West that believe you can shoot and bomb people into accepting your master plan and the arch-conservative, so-called “Muslims” in the East that believe pretty much the same thing. Both sides seem pretty firmly entrenched in their beliefs and both sides are causing untold suffering and grief through their actions. Both sides claim to have God on their side and that their’s is a merciful god and yet both sides have shown precious little mercy towards the populations they claim to be liberating. Both sides claim to be freedom fighters, but by their actions we can see that they don’t even know what freedom is. You can’t truly believe in freedom and at the same time believe that it’s okay to bully, torture, and murder a people into seeing and doing things your way.
We in the West can help to avoid these atrocities by only going to war as an absolute last resort and by keeping known war-mongers and corporate henchmen out of office. The war in Iraq was never about keeping people in the US safe and secure; it was about maintaining U.S. hegemony in the world, providing U.S. oil companies with access to oil and greater ability to set oil prices, providing billions in profits to U.S. defense contractors and last but not least, giving Saddam Hussein one on the chin for pappy Bush. There were no WMDs and there was no link to Al-Quaeda. The U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee has said so in its report issued September 8, 2006 and come on, it was pretty obvious even before the invasion. As well, it’s clear that Bush and his cronies were itching for a fight with Iraq long before 9/11. Yet people voted for him anyways. They either didn’t know about it or didn’t care about it.
As for people in the East, I don’t really feel too comfortable lecturing them as to what they might do to counter these modern atrocities as they are clearly having far more atrocities inflicted on them than we are here in the West. I guess if I were to say something to them it would be, look, please remember that there are tens of thousands of people in the West that do not support the actions our leaders are taking against people in the Middle East. In fact, there are tens of thousands of us who deplore these actions and are actively working to try to stop them. Please try to remember that when deciding what actions to take and against whom in response to the senseless horror that is being inflicted upon you. Governments in the West, as in the East, often do not act according to the people’s wishes.
How have years of outspoken protest helped fuel the thoughts portrayed in “Nowhere to Run?”
Gerry Hannah: To be honest, not so much. The song describes more of a personal struggle with depression, anger, and a fear of failure. It’s a song about how easy it is to keep making the same mistakes over and over again when one is afraid to make the necessary changes in one’s life to become a whole person. It often seems easier to run away from the fear and pain one feels inside, but eventually (hopefully), one realizes that you can’t run away from something you’re carrying around inside of you. You have to deal with it. You have to understand it and to meet it face to face in order to eventually be free of it. I guess I use my personal experiences with this problem to speak to others who may also be struggling with these issues, other “wounded people” (as John Lydon calls them in The Filth and the Fury), in an attempt to present a possible solution.
“In Good Company” and “Celebrity” are blatant cries for the demonization of modern celebrity. Though examples of gross misuse of privilege are far too abundant to begin discussing, do you have any heated examples that directly spurred these songs?
Gerry Hannah: Actually, “In Good Company” is more a message to disenfranchised, alienated people everywhere telling them that they’re not alone, it’s a message to people who are sick to death of the greed, hatred and violence in abundance all around them. It’s a message saying, hey, we’re sick to death of it too and there are lots more like us all over the world (even though mainstream society would have us believe otherwise).
Mike Graham: Well, Ms. Hilton and Mr. Jackson were both in the news a lot when I wrote “Celebrity,” but when are they not? That kind of person and the mis-focused attention they receive were the starting point for that song, but the onrushing stream of celebrity celebration is so pervasive that it’s almost impossible to pick out single examples. It all just mushes together into a stew of unpleasant detail.
The broader point of the song was that the notion of celebrity is metastasizing, spreading from the Hollywood entertainment world until it’s a general model for the culture. Journalism, politics, and business: everywhere you look there are cults of personality, deliberately created to dazzle us and keep our thoughts away from actual issues. We’re encouraged to view those who wield power as personalities of various levels of attractiveness, which effectively ends any discourse about the wielding of power itself.
In relation to the band’s songwriting, past and present, have you found that there are topics or opinions that you’ve distanced yourself from that you had previously stood for or held?
Mike Graham: I don’t think my opinions on anything I’ve written about have changed that much over the years. There are a lot of things I’ve found out about that I didn’t know in 1979, but the general shape of the world hasn’t changed that much, and the political or social issues that found their way into some of my songs still provoke pretty much the same reaction from me. There are a few things I wrote that I wish were expressed better – but there are things I wrote yesterday that I wish I’d expressed better. Fortunately, the two-hour punk rock opera that I wrote in praise of Ronald Reagan during the late 1980s during my brief flirtation with authoritarian capitalism was never actually released (ha, ha). (Not all of our songs are topical, by the way…)
“Modern Business” questions something that I hold very close to heart, that being the internal struggle once deals with when facing such a push towards mass consumerism. In your opinion how has consumerism and Corporate America affected punk since its inception?
Brian Goble: I suppose that the idea put forth in the song modern business could be applied specifically applied to punk, but I think that that would be limiting the scope of the far reaching effects of the phenomenon I was trying to convey in this song. What I see that has happened to punk music specifically, is the loss of credibility, the corporate control of direction and the categorization of punk into a neat little genre that can be safely marketed and processed for maximum profit. Of course that only applies to the mainstream bands that have the sound and the image, as there are millions of relatively unknown bands that will never qualify to make the megabucks and will have their short lived output and fade away. I guess the line in the song that says “reaping the crop from the culture called pop” best sums up my feeling of the way punk has been affected by the Modern Business approach; it has been neatly absorbed into pop culture.
As you’ve played with this band, what is your reaction to the words concerning the Bad Brains reunion, including HR, at CBGBs this fall?
Mike Graham: I haven’t really been following their later career. They were a powerful band back in the day, and one can only hope they still are.
Do the Subhumans have any plans for a tour coinciding with the release of New Dark Age Parade?
Mike Graham: We’re touring Canada for three weeks starting October 13, and perhaps people in the U.S. can drive up to the border and cock their ears northward over the top of the barbed wire, guard towers, and patrolling Minutemen.
If the band had one final show to play, who would you most like to share the stage with?
Mike Graham: A tasteful modern dance troupe who would interpret “Death to the Sickoids” and other songs with a fluid and yet challenging vocabulary of motion and the liberal use of colored silk banners. Either that or a small thermonuclear warhead.