On April 29, Green Room, the new film from indie up-and-comer Jeremy Saulnier, hit national theaters. The movie features an all-star cast — including Patrick Stewart, Anton Yelchin, and Imogen Poots — and tells the story of a struggling punk band, The Ain’t Rights, who mistakenly take a gig at a neo-Nazi skinhead bar in backwoods Oregon.
When one of the band members witnesses the aftermath of a murder, they are held captive in the club and forced to fight for their lives.
Green Room is an atmospheric escape flick, at once disturbing and beautiful, and has received constant critical acclaim since its debut at the Cannes Film Festival last year. Most have highlighted the film’s craft and staggering visuals, particularly its heavy use of the color green.
But Saulnier’s film is interesting for another reason. By staging a battle between punks and skins it poses broader questions about the genre and its politics, shining a light on a longstanding battle between left and right strains in punk.
Rock Against Racism
In its early years, punk was pretty much a political wild card. While many of the early bands flirted with political signifiers — think the Sex Pistols’s evocation of “Anarchy in the UK” or the Ramones’s occasional allusions to Nazi Germany in songs like “Blitzkrieg Bop” and “Commando” — these were done largely out of provocation, not out of any affiliation with actual movements.
The ambiguity of such messages was matched in their music, which did little to clarify punk’s commitments through sound. Minimalist rock, aggressively played, was a catchall for any number of social values.
While the saying that punk is “angry, young, and poor” isn’t necessarily false, it is also vague: angry about what? And with whom?
By the end of the 1970s, these questions were receiving conflicting answers.
In Britain, prominent forms of both left- and right-wing punk had emerged simultaneously, catalyzed by the rise of the far-right National Front (NF). Founded in 1967, the party gained prominence during the seventies by capitalizing on economic insecurity and anti-immigrant sentiment.
They deployed racist rhetoric, blaming Indian and Caribbean minorities for Britain’s problems. One of their lines, adorned on banners, read: “Stop the Muggers. 80 percent of muggers are black. 85 percent of their victims are white.”
At the decade’s close, the NF had attracted nearly twenty thousand members, run over a hundred candidates in British elections, and organized dozens of street marches.
Left organizations like the Anti Nazi League — founded in 1977 with support from the Socialist Workers Party — sprang up to combat the ascendant group.
Music found a prominent place in this movement through the Rock Against Racism campaign (RAR) — a loose network of musicians and organizations that mobilized after Eric Clapton drunkenly expressed support for the right-wing politician Enoch Powell and warned that Britain was becoming a “black colony.”
RAR encouraged dozens of bands to speak out against white supremacy. Many who did were affiliated with the nascent punk movement, including the Clash, X-Ray Spex, and Sham-69. RAR supporters founded a record label and a magazine, and also organized a number of high-profile concerts and other events featuring punk and reggae artists.
RAR’s peak came in 1978, when it co-organized (with the Anti Nazi League) a London concert and rally that included a march from Trafalgar Square to Victoria Park and drew an estimated eighty thousand people.
Of all the bands that participated, the Clash was the period’s most emblematic. Rivaled only by the Sex Pistols and the Ramones in their iconicity, the Clash set themselves apart from contemporaneous groups with its explicit political orientation.
Lead singer Joe Strummer was a particularly outspoken champion of progressive causes. Performing in Victoria Park, he donned a shirt supporting Italy’s Red Brigade and a centrally placed Red Army Faction (RAF) logo. It was just the first intimation of a link between punk, antiracism, and the far left.
Perhaps even more important was the Clash’s role in linking these values to the sound of punk itself. Setting lyrics addressing racism, poverty, and imperialism to reggae grooves and guitar-driven hard rock, the Clash cast left rhetoric in musical form.
Many fans probably first came to punk through the Clash’s songs. And hearing the outspoken leftism of “London’s Burning,” “I Fought the Law,” and “Revolution Rock,” it is easy to mistake punk for an inherently left-wing movement.
But the right-wing backlash that RAR quickly inspired points to the Janus-faced nature of punk. Before long, the National Front organized the Young National Front, an attempt to link white nationalist issues to teenage interests like sports and music. This gave rise to a new banner: Rock Against Communism (RAC).
Far-right punk had been born.
This punk counterrevolution continued through the 1980s. RAC grew into a large, decentralized network of white supremacist musicians, fans, and even a record label, White Noise Records.
Many right or right-sympathizing punk bands were intimately tied to the punk subgenre Oi!. Though not formally part of RAC or even necessarily right-wing, the genre had a strong white-working-class bent and skinhead affiliations that often bled into white nationalism.
The most prominent of these acts was Skrewdriver, a band that would go on to become the best-known white supremacist group in history. Skrewdriver started in the seventies as a fairly typical punk group, performing alongside the Police and The Damned in clubs like the Roxy.
After a short hiatus, lead singer Ian Stuart Donaldson (generally referred to as Ian Stuart) rebranded the group in the early eighties with a new right-wing skinhead image. Their second album, Hail to the New Dawn (1984), released on the German label Rock-O-Rama Records, introduced explicit neo-Nazi themes into their music.
By the end of the decade, Skrewdriver had a worldwide following. Their 1983 song “White Power,” which came out as a single on White Noise Records, is now an anthem for right nationalism.
The song presents the mythology of the far right in miniature, featuring a straightforward summary of British right-nationalist views on the verses — “once we had an Empire, now we’ve got a slum” — and a memorable chorus:
White Power! For England
White Power! Today
White Power! For Britain
Before it gets too late
Stuart went on to found the organization Blood and Honour in 1987, taking its name from the Hitler Youth’s motto “Blud und Ehre.”
Affiliated with the violent international neo-Nazi group Combat 18, Blood and Honour became perhaps the most important promoter of white power music worldwide.
The explosion of right-wing punk didn’t go unnoticed — or unchallenged. Throughout the 1980s and 90s there was a concerted push on a number of fronts to stamp out racist punk.
In 1981, a crowd of mostly Asian youth protesting skinhead racism firebombed a concert by the Oi! band the 4-Skins. The attack set a fierce precedent, warning groups not to fencewalk when it came to racism.
Stuart faced constant harassment from the Left through the decade, before dying in a car crash in 1993 (many of Stuart’s supporters maintain that he was assassinated).
The anti-right resistance took musical forms as well.
Following in the footsteps of the Clash, UK acts like The Angelic Upstarts, The Oppressed, and The Exploited all criticized racism, Thatcherism, and imperialism, often professing explicit socialist or anarchist views in their lyrics.
The Oppressed’s Roddy Moreno developed into the public face of antiracist skinheads, or SHARPs (“Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice”).
Though not really a formal organization, the SHARP designation pushed back against racism in the skinhead movement and remains a prominent identifier for leftist skinheads to this day.
The Exploited’s “I Believe in Anarchy” and “Hitler’s in the Charts Again” — the latter a warning about the lingering influence of Nazi views in the UK — became anthems for a powerful punk left.
Groups such as Conflict, Flux of Pink Indians, and Chumbawamba (yes, that Chumbawamba) melded an edgier sound with a more ardent leftism.
The UK bank Crass was central to guiding this radical outburst. Formed in 1977, they spearheaded the transition from classic punk to the more politicized, aggressive form it took in its second decade.
The group used imagery that mocked British authority and lyrical content that blurred the line between song text and political speech; one of their numbers consists of the phrase “fight war, not wars” being chanted over a single snare drum.
Crass’s controversial reputation — their song “Asylum” was so strident in its criticism of the British church that the police investigated the group — helped stitch punk to the Left, an affiliation that has become paradigmatic today.
In the United States, the left turn in punk was more subtle, the political divisions less pronounced. But there were many exceptions, as exemplified by the Dead Kennedys. The Bay Area band’s most famous song is probably “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” (a song so famous that Saulnier has The Ain’t Rights perform the song in Green Room).
By the end of the 1980s, as competing variants battled for the soul of punk, the genre had been transformed from an urban, Anglo-American subculture into a worldwide phenomenon with dozens of subgenres.
But the growing popularity of left-wing punk didn’t crowd out right-wing punk. Starting in the mid-1980s, the sound of RAC began to spread around the world, morphing into a general code word for white supremacist music of all types.
Also known as “hatecore,” RAC has come to encompass a range of genres with right-wing sympathies, from punk and hardcore to “ballads” — essentially, far-right folk music.
Even with RAC’s contemporary diversity, however, punk remains at the center of this musical world. Along with the heavy metal subgenre National Socialist Black Metal (NSBM), RAC is the definitive sound of a broad, international community of white supremacists.
In this milieu Ian Stuart remains revered, celebrated with memorial concerts and laudatory biographies alike.
RAC has been especially powerful in continental Europe, where white supremacy plays an increasing role in contemporary politics. European white supremacists — eager, early consumers of British RAC — have readily enlisted music to promote movements from neo-Nazism to right-wing paganism, Norse mythology, and Odinism.
This is especially true in Germany, where the far right is on the upswing. The country has dozens of active right-wing groups, including Preussen Standarte (“Prussian Standard,” named for the state that served as the capital of the German Empire), Sleipnir (named for Odin’s horse in Norse mythology), and Alocer88 (named for a demon and the number 88, a common neo-Nazi identifier).
Nor is the RAC’s influence confined to Europe. RAC has expanded in the US through a broad network of white supremacist organizations. Record labels like Panzerfaust and Resistance Records (formed during the 1990s) release and distribute RAC and NSBM recordings.
Many maintain active ties to white supremacist groups; Resistance Records itself has been listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
US-based RAC most recently gained media attention in the wake of the 2012 Sikh temple shooting in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. After the massacre, investigators discovered that the perpetrator, Wade Michael Page, was a white supremacist who played with a RAC band, End Apathy.
While their message is ambiguous, the group deploys a number of common white supremacist and neo-Nazi tropes in their music. Their name itself is telling — phrases like “end apathy” or “Öffne Deine Augen” (“open your eyes”) are common euphemisms for prodding people into taking up white nationalist causes.
In an era when white supremacists use the Internet as a recruiting ground, sites like Hammerskin Nation and Stormfront make RAC music instantly accessible. Many websites host exhaustive discographies, interviews with RAC artists like Stuart, and other promo materials for white supremacist rock.
One site, Hammerstorm, features almost every “classic” early release, alongside numerous of albums from recent years (including End Apathy’s demo).
Hammerstorm has dozens of records from this year alone. While newer releases continue to deploy styles and rhetoric that date back to early RAC, white supremacist groups have stayed alarmingly current.
A number of recordings on the site address the ongoing European migrant crisis and espouse anti-Islamic politics. The compilation Hammerstorm Vol. 5, posted on April 20, features a range of international artists and includes songs with titles like “Mosque Burner” and “We Honor The Swastika, The Symbol Of Our Aryan Pride.” The cover image of the record depicts a brown hand as it reaches out to smother Europe.
Islamophobia has been a galvanizing force for RAC music as much as it has been for white nationalism more generally. One group, Kill Baby, Kill updates RAC’s slogan for a new era, entitling a song “Rock Against Islam.” This dovetails with a banner commonly used online, replacing hammer and sickle with crescent moon and star.
Which Side Are You On
The punks-vs-skins trope has gained purchase in recent years as left-wing punk continues to grow. The legacy of pioneers like Crass and Conflict persists through a number of subgenres, including anarcho-punk, peace punk, and crust punk. These and others make left views not just part of, but central to, punk’s lyrical content.
Such groups continue RAR’s original project of opposing right nationalism. They’ve created new anthems to replace old ones, including Nausea’s “Smash Racism,” Disrupt’s “Smash Divisions,” and Aus-Rotten’s “Fuck Nazi Sympathy.”
Many current artists, labels, and venues contribute to a loose network of left-wing, antiracist punk. The Minneapolis-based record label Profane Existence is a beacon for this music, and a number of left-leaning acts — like Appalachian Terror Unit, Krang, Silence, and Contravene — have current releases on the label.
Their songs address traditional crust themes of anarchism and antiracism, but left groups have also been responsive to the times.
Appalachian Terror Unit’s most recent full-length album, We Don’t Need Them contains songs addressing environmental destruction (“Banners Over the Wasteland”), sexual assault (“Casualties of a Rape Culture”), and the prison-industrial complex (“Officer Down/Warehousing Prisoners”).
However, despite the importance of this work, active left punk groups are often harder to locate than right-leaning ones. While many bands continue to oppose racism, the RAC banner forms a far more coherent and dangerous platform than a leftism that is often presumed but unstated.
While a quick search for RAC yields easy access to a near-complete library of white supremacist rock, RAR more often conjures up memories of the good-old 1970s, a golden moment before punk lost its innocence.
Left punk has remained a persistent check against the Right. But outside the clever camera angles and mood lighting of art house cinema it’s not clear whether punk functions best as a voice of the Left or a recruitment tool for the far right.