How Propagandhi Embodies the Enduring Spirit of Punk Rock in the Modern Era
By: Shiv Bose
Photos: Greg Gallinger
Punk rock transcends genre. It is not merely a subset of rock n’ roll as the name implies, but a culture; the hard-edged espousal of anti-establishment sentiment, equality, freedom, free thought, direct action, protest, and an unwavering dissatisfaction with social and economic injustice. In the 80s, malcontent youth had rejected the over-polished radio rock that represented the opulence of mainstream music’s chart-topping mega-stars. They traded in their Rolling Stones records for those of The Clash or Dead Kennedys; the music that recognized their alienation and spoke to the real conditions of their disaffected lives.
So where is punk today, 20-30 years later? Diminished, but certainly alive. Its' legacy is carried on by a number of kick-ass bands selling out grungy, jam-packed, beer-drenched venues around the world. In a genre diluted by scenesters, angst-ridden pop-punk, and the nauseating bro-antics of “tough guy” hardcore, it is important to remember the deep political and social roots of punk rock. Last week, Winnipeggers had the opportunity to watch their beloved punk legends, Propagandhi, rock The Park Theatre and The Pyramid. As an ardent punk fan, I can say that the spirit of punk rock is still alive and well, and I see it clearly in Propagandhi.
The band is known for their far-left progressive message and lyrics that promote anti-capitalism, anti-racism, feminism, gay rights, and veganism. Radical leftist themes in punk rock were commonplace in an earlier era, from Bikini Kill to MDC to Crass; a plethora of punk acts practicing different forms of the iconic genre raged against authority in ideological solidarity. Now, Propagandhi stands as one of few noteworthy bands taking those in power to task in 2015.
While their message has stayed consistent, their sound has evolved drastically over the decades. After starting as an explosive street punk band in the late 80’s, they have now settled into a progressive, metal/punk hybrid sound.  As I re-listen to their discography, I can see their growth from brash and fiery teenaged rebels to intellectuals and activists. Their music has brought educated leftist perspectives like those of Chomsky or Zinn to blood-pumping, energetic punk songs. Their beliefs have grown immensely, yet still remain within a progressive framework. As a teenager, lead singer Chris Hannah bitterly repeats the mantra “fuck religion,” against the slow, ska-beat of “Haillie Sellasse, Up Your Ass”. Decades later, on the album Failed States, the band repudiates aggressive anti-theism in "Tertium", cautioning us to be weary of binaries, dichotomies, and extremism on both ends of the atheist/religious spectrum. A subtle fuck you to the new atheists, neoconservative hacks, and imperialist propaganda peddlers like Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. Propagandhi have gone from making anti-authority anthems to punk rock polemics addressing nuanced political and social issues.
Propagandhi are progressive visionaries of their time. They garnered serious hatred for their staunch pro-gay lyrical themes in the early 90s—back when being pro-LGBT was not popular and homophobia the norm. The regular mohawk sporting, denim-clad punks could be depended on to rally against the many racists and neo-Nazis that jeered early Propagandhi shows, but the pro-homosexuality stuff seemingly turned everyone against them, even some of the core fanbase. Recognizing the undercurrents of homophobia in the punk scene, they defied the rigid, traditional gender roles so pervasive in male-dominated music scenes and actively spoke-out against the hyper-masculinity and “macho” culture that fosters an irrational aversion to homosexuality. "And your macho shit won’t phase me now / It just makes us laugh, we got your cash, court-jester take a bow” Chris Hannah sings on “Less Talk, More Rock.”
Their snotty, in-your-face attitude and unrepentant progressiveness attracted bigots of all stripes to their shows. Shit-stirrers would come simply to throw bloody raw meat at the all-vegan band. Other times, violent white power groups lurked in the audience, necessitating fans to “guard” the stage. In a biography of the band, Exclaim Magazine's Greg Pratt describes one almost-violent encounter in which armed anarchists and neo-Nazi groups had a stand-off amidst the audience at one of their shows. A hip-hop group that was to play later in the same venue got wind of the neo-Nazi presence and called in their crew for further armed backup! Guns were flashed, heated words exchanged, but luckily no shots were fired. Antagonizing racist assholes was a dangerous but exhilarating activity for Hannah and crew, but the band has long since dropped the active Nazi-baiting in their stage antics. Still, this hasn’t stopped dimwitted skinheads from expressing their discontent.
Their 2011 tour of Australia earned the ire of white nationalist groups. Offended by the band’s political views, they ran to their white supremacist message boards to share their hurt feelings. Punknews.org reports one white nationalist saying, “We should get as many people as possible to do an anti demonstration, buy tickets and jeer amongst the crowd, fight for them to want to never return here. These homos are from Canada and it figures…they come up with this sort of rubbish since Canada is up there with the most politically correct nations in the book!”
Nothing says protest quite like buying their tickets and filling up their venues! Although I find the criticism of “political correctness” amusing, as I have always admired Propagandhi’s ability to never shy away from their radical message, regardless of how that might offend or shock people. I know first hand that the staunch pro-veganism in their lyrics has certainly alienated some fans, but that does not phase them. Hannah infamously bellows “you cannot deny that meat is still murder and dairy is still rape!” on their second major release (it’s always curious to see their largely meat eating fan base go wild and enthusiastically sing along to that line). They satirically mocked foodie Sandor Katz for his endorsement of 'humane meat', in their song “Human(e) Meat,” in which they reverse the roles, and described Katz being put down, flensed and prepared as meat for human consumption. Suffice to say, Katz was not happy with this, and interpreted the song as an actual threat on his life.
Their frankness has certainly put them in some contentious situations. Propagandhi was formerly a part of famous punk label Fat Wreck Records. Fat Mike, lead singer of NoFX and record label owner and founder, was impressed with their talent and signed them on to his new label. He released their breakthrough album, How to Clean Everything, their best selling record to date. It’s hard to deny that much of Propagandhi success and exposure is owed to Fat Mike, yet they have not shied away from attacking him, even while on his label. In “Rock for Sustainable Capitalism,” Hannah sings “I fuckin' love that one rock video where / that fucking jack-ass mohawked millionaire / prances around by far the worst sausage party on earth … When did punk rock become so safe? / You'll excuse me if I laugh in your face / as I itemize your receipts / and PowerPoint your balance sheets … Anyone remember when we used to believe / that music was a sacred place and not some fucking bank machine?” This put a big strain on their relationship, as Mike was unsurprisingly hurt by this seemingly unprovoked criticism. Propagandhi’s frustration with Fat Mike can be traced back to the “Rock Against Bush” incident, in which Fat Mike and several other punk artists composed a compilation album rallying against George Bush.
Propagandhi saw this as an implicit endorsement of John Kerry, and consequently an endorsement of America’s broken oligarchical two-party system. Propagandhi was asked to feature on the compilation, and so they offered a song that attacked both candidates, which was contrary to the solely anti-republican message of the album. Still, Fat Mike acquiesced and accepted the track. Ultimately, Propagandhi withdrew from the project after Fat Mike asked the band to remove a line from the liner notes criticizing George Soros, a shady corporate figure involved in arms-selling who also happened to be a prominent figure in the anti-Bush movement. Fat Mike rationalizes this by claiming he did not want to create enemies in the movement.
"The tragic irony of contemporary punk is that the originally anti-consumerism, DIY subculture has been entirely commercialized, packaged, and sold as a trendy aesthetic."
Propagandhi’s frustrations with contemporary punk rock are justified. In the infancy of punk, social justice and political protest were trademarks of the genre. Propagandhi rose to prominence in an era where punk was defined by rebellion, a culture of defiance that contradicted the docility and conformity of our corporatized world. Their sound and message is informed by DOA, Subhumans, Corrosion of Conformity, and the plethora of other politically minded punk legends who championed the pressing issues of their times. Nowadays, Propagandhi seems to be the one of few remaining notable bands in the genre with a socio-political message. Punk has been reduced to a fashion statement in many ways; hollow posturing that purports an image of hip rebelliousness without any actual rebellion. To the uninitiated, the genre is associated with Green Day, Rise Against and other terrible bands whose neutered and sanitized brand of pseudo-punk offers nothing substantial. The tragic irony of contemporary punk is that the originally anti-consumerism, DIY subculture has been entirely commercialized, packaged, and sold as a trendy aesthetic. What began as a reaction to the mainstream has been appropriated by the mainstream, exploited by corporate monoliths to increase profit margins, and rendered a hollow shell of its incarnation in a prior decades. (“We stand for something more than a faded sticker on a skateboard,” sings Hannah on Anti-Manifesto). That’s not to say all punk has to be socio-political (I adore the Descendents and the Misfits), as some of the greats haven’t been, but it’s disheartening to see the values that punk were founded on are barely visible (and in some cases, outright contradicted) in its contemporary artists.
Their authenticity is what keeps me revisiting their albums, as the themes they explore continue to be relevant in a rapidly changing society. Propagandhi not only makes incredibly rad, bangin’ punk tunes, but they also make very important music. In a world where megalomaniac fascists are seen as viable presidential candidates, abortion clinics are shot up by right-wing terrorists, ecosystems and animal life are ravaged by corporate greed, and third world countries are plundered by our western governments under false pretenses; it is vital that we have uncompromising voices of reason like Propagandhi. Their music depicts a society teeming with injustice, and although they’re really fucking angry about it, their impassioned outrage is pervaded by strident overtones of hope for something better than we have now, a fury grounded in unbounded human empathy and genuine concern for every creature on this planet. Ontario metal outfit, Protest the Hero, a band strongly influenced by Propagandhi, encapsulate my feelings well in their Propagandhi tribute song, “The Reign of Unending Terror,”: “Each word bitten every fuck is pronounced/ With conviction written in justice announced / And every hand that feeds is bitten if it steals from hungry mouths / Convention be damned I know who I am/ and some words are just too fucking loud they can’t be ignored.”
In a world where megalomaniac fascists are seen as viable presidential candidates, abortion clinics are shot up by right-wing terrorists, ecosystems and animal life are ravaged by corporate greed, and third world countries are plundered by our western governments under false pretenses; it is vital that we have uncompromising voices of reason like Propagandhi