Punks are doin’ it for themselves

From Zines to record distribution, punk has always been a pretty self reliant genre- that's part of its ethos. Something that philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson would approve of.

Punk, Emerson and self sufficiency

Most agree that the real essence of punk goes beyond the mere music and instead, encompasses a wide range of qualities, beliefs, actions and values that can compliment and influence all areas of life, from our political views to how we treat our fellow humans. Punk Rock Philosophy has been exploring a different cornerstone of punk culture in each instalment and now we are turning our attention to something that punk- even to the uninitiated- is famous for…. the Do It Yourself ethos.

The concept of doing-it-yourself is as key a part of the punk culture as any other idea and in many ways is often used to justify a punk rock label and generate punk credibility where those things maybe questioned. It is a badge of honour to have extricated oneself from the confines of waiting for other people to do things for you. The DIY spirit has been a great source of pride for the punk community since the beginning- an empowering personal and political action that undermines corporate monopoly and hands power back to the people.

The practical application of this idea can be evidenced across the scene –‘zines, record labels and distribution, gig organisation, learning an instrument- all can be taken ‘in house’ and a punk cottage industry can thrive with access to a second hand guitar, a sew-on patch, a photocopier and a dream.

One of the aspects of punk that makes it both accessible and exciting is that there is no expectation that you need to be an aficionado of your chosen instrument. In fact, the opposite is often encouraged- those who have never played before or have only a rudimentary ability on a guitar or a drumkit are told that they can start a band, write a song and play a gig and they needn’t worry that their string plucking or hi-hat technique is going to be scrutinised. For young people especially, this can be revolutionary- the idea that as long as you have the passion and the inclination, you don’t have to wait to be ‘good enough’ by anyone else’s standards- just have a go. That is not to say that there are not proficient, talented, and hardworking musicians in punk, but you don’t have to wait until you get to that level before participating, as Joey Ramone said:

Play before you get good, because by the time you get good, you’re too old to play. 

By keeping an open-door policy for those who were willing to give it a go, punk subverted any ideas of exclusivity and snobbery that could plague other genres. If you are too poor to afford music lessons or not in a position to get the best equipment, it doesn’t matter.    

The Sex Pistols are a well known example of a band for whom mastery of their respective instruments was not seen as a priority and as a result, seeing them play live was a revelatory and aspirational moment for many who realised that they too could do what Johnny Rotten et al were doing.

So now you’ve got a band, what do you do? D-I-Y also applied to promotions. Punk bands are traditionally trying to make themselves heard without the financial clout of a major record company behind them and that means often having to deal with the promotional aspects of their trade by themselves, without a social media manager and marketing department to do all that stuff for them. This could have proved a death sentence for the genre- if you can’t get the word out about your gig or your new release, then you might be stuck in your garage for years or playing to the same select group of pets and teddy bears that you can wrangle into an audience. But the ingenuity, cooperation and creativity that is intrinsic to the punk movement meant that word was spread, and the scene flourished and still does to this day. Whether you are talking about the original wave of punk in the 1970s, hardcore in the 80s, or riot grrrl in the 90s- all relied on zines, mail-order cassettes and CDs, independent record labels and promoters and of course, word of mouth. The riot grrrl scene of the early 1990s sprang up from a vibrant zine culture with many bands being formed through these networks of letters, flyers and homemade publications that had local information meant for a national audience. From Mark Perry’s Sniffin Glue in the 70s to Allison Wolfe’s Girl Germs of the 90s- it showed you did not need major magazines and professional journalists or graphic designers to document and promote your ideas, your experiences and your creative output.

Pre-internet, this meant a vibrant trade of postal ordering- EPs, bootlegs, fanzines, badges, and other punk rock paraphernalia flying through the postal service of every country and landing on your mum’s welcome mat. This dual purpose for ‘zines- disseminating information about bands and records, whilst also discussing political ideas- became even more obvious during the riot grrrl movement of the 1990s. Here, the intersection of music, politics and community became a driving force.

There is a real tangible sense of empowerment in self-reliance and this is possibly why so many people have had their lives changed/improved/enhanced by the strength and confidence they found in punk scenes all over the world for the last 40 odd years.

But the concept of self sufficiency did not start with the punk movement by any stretch. And one of the most influential philosophers who spoke in this area, harks way back to the early 19th century- enter Ralph Waldo Emerson.  A lot of things he said and believed in are very compatible with the ideals of punk.

His ideas were pretty radical for their time, and this is a good starting point in terms of common ground between this unitarian minister and the punk scene. Emerson urged people to follow their own individual will and their own inner voice rather than conforming to the conventions of wider society and taking direction from other powerful social sources such as the church. He supported honesty and self-reliance and the idea that people should develop their own culture and practices from the ground up, rather than follow rituals opposed from the top down. In his essay Self Reliance, he argued that society can be constricting and an antithesis to growth and only true freedom allows each person to achieve their potential. For society to thrive, we all need to work on ourselves to ensure we have the attributes to take on the responsibility that this freedom will bestow. It is all about trusting and accepting yourself.

When we look to the radical social rejections that took root in the first wave of punk- challenging the commonly held conservative beliefs around expression, morality, gender roles, hierarchies and justice- this was Emerson’s plan come to life. A mass withdrawal from the influence of the church and state, and instead people trying to find their own path and their own culture that they can believe in.

Although potentially Emerson’s approach may seem very inward looking and focusing on each individual, there is arguably a societal level benefit if everyone is beavering away trying to be the best ‘them’ they can be. If we are all top of our game and fulfilled, then we are less likely to be motivated by things like envy and greed and surely that will elevate society by default. We then focus on creating rather than imitating. And this focus on creativity and a natural by-product of freedom is something punks from Strummer to Biafra, from Hanna to Lydon would likely endorse.  

Emerson was born in 1803 in Boston, Massachusetts and studied at Harvard. He was anti-Colonialism;  a slavery abolitionist, and acknowledged the ‘chains of religious superstition’. However, he was no atheist, in fact,  he was a Unitarian minister. It is just that he felt God was in all things which demanded a less centralised, hierarchical approach. He did eventually resign citing the fact that he did not believe in the special divinity of Jesus and thus couldn’t oversee the sacrament of communion. So he was no hypocrite.

In 1836 he published Nature- a text that catalyzed the Transcendentalist movement in New England. For Transcendentalists, they hold a core belief in the inherent goodness of people and nature, and while society and its institutions have corrupted the purity of the individual, people are at their best when truly “self-reliant” and independent. Now, I’m not sure whether all punks would agree with the premise that all humans are inherently good however, the solidarity and activism that has been demonstrated throughout subsequent waves of punk- anti-racist action in the UK in 1970s; campaigning for the homeless in California in 1980 and marches for bodily autonomy in DC in 1990s- certainly demonstrates that people and their rights are worth fighting for.

There is also a whole host of self-organised, grassroots activities that take place within the punk movement that operate independently of mainstream politics. Punk has always been quick to respond to local issues- raising money for striking workers, anti-racism campaigns, homelessness, and food banks etc.  Seeing members of the Sex Pistols in the middle of a scene of marauding children at Christmas whilst putting on a party for the children of striking firefighters is an example of the kind of thing that is second nature to the punk movement. It is a combination of DIY and solidarity- if you want to support people then do not wait for someone else to do it- do it yourself. If the system Is not providing for people adequately then the community will.

This is the often-unsung part of punk. Even now, punk bands across the UK are out there lending hands and bringing in cash. The annual one-day punk spectacular and love-in that is Wonk Fest in London has collections for local food banks and women’s shelters. Loud Women publicise a vast number of gigs that are raising money for women’s causes around the country. In my hometown, I have been to punk gigs raising money for the homeless; for refugees; for cancer charities…. the list is endless. And it is something which we should loudly proclaim from the rooftops- this punk trait of tirelessly trying to make the world a better place than we find it. As Joe Strummer said:

In fact, punk rock means exemplary manners to your fellow human beings.

The Do-It-Yourself attitude has been both a practical necessity and a statement of intent throughout the punk movement. Although the mail order catalogues and fan clubs may have been replaced by the internet and social media, the intrepid spirit of organising and collaboration are just as active now as they were in 1979, ensuring that punk- and all it stands for- lives for another day. Emerson would approve and be first in the pit.