[WARNING: contains foul language and offensive concepts.] In their early days, The Who’s live performances would sometimes culminate in the band destroying their instruments. Guitarist Pete Townsend would hold his six-string aloft and proceed to smash it against the stage. Earlier this year, Californian indie star Phoebe Bridgers attempted a similar feat on Saturday Night Live. At the climax of her song “I Know The End”, Bridgers started bashing her guitar against a monitor. A few sparks came out, but nothing actually broke. She later tweeted that she had asked the guitar company’s permission before trying to trash their kit and assured fans that the monitor was a prop. Outrageous behavior.
Off the back of performances like that, it is easy to see why some people think punk (and other forms of protest music) is dead. The majority of musicians today seem to be terrified of controversy (or are simply now part of the status quo or paid off to not inhibit “progress” which most of them agree with anyway). Most of those who have anything of any substance to say keep quiet or dilute their message to ensure the flow of money. But towards the fringes, there are plenty of musicians who are unafraid to speak their political (typically left-wing) minds. These feisty players call out conservatives; engage in protest; and rebel against those whom they consider to be crooked politicians. Here are ten bands and artists that prove the spirit of punk is still very much alive.
10 Fat White Family
Fat White Family is one of the most outspoken bands around today. The south London rockers seem to thrive on controversy, especially in their early days. First emerging in 2011, they made a name for themselves touting a confrontational blend of transgressive art, nihilism, and brazen drug references.
Their debut album, Champagne Holocaust, featured frontman Lias Saudi singing about “fifteen-year-old tongue” and throwing out such lines as “Hell hath no fury like a failed artist. Or a successful communist.” Fat White Family has gone on to release songs such as ‘Bomb Disneyland’, ‘Vagina Dentata’, and ‘Goodbye Goebbels’, a tongue-in-cheek love letter to the infamous National Socialist politician.
The band first made headlines in 2013, following the death of former British PM Margaret Thatcher. The day the Iron Lady died, Fat White Family members scrawled the words ‘The Witch is Dead’ onto a banner and joined the hundreds of people out partying in Brixton to celebrate Thatcher’s demise.
The notorious shock merchants have since found themselves at the center of various controversies. There are rumors of band members stripping naked on stage and covering themselves in poop. US music site Pitchfork criticized Saudi, who has Algerian heritage, for using the term “sand nigger” in a satirical Twitter post. In 2020, the band was attacked online after Saudi wrote a damning treatise against Bristol punk band Idles.
Despite that madness, the band finds their antics to be fairly innocuous. “It’s not like we’re breaking any boundaries or anything, y’know?” they told reporters back in 2015. “People got naked and covered themselves in sh——t on stage like thirty years ago. It’s nothing new… I don’t think we’re doing anything unique or special.”
9 Sleaford Mods
Sleaford Mods are another British group raging against the establishment with their pro-vegan and socialist viewpoint (missing the irony of wearing a Cartier watch . . . oops). Originating in Nottingham, the duo soon earned a formidable reputation for their in-your-face live shows. During performances, frontman Jason Williamson howls obscene lyrics of Brexit-era Britain at the audience. His partner in crime Andrew Fearn stumbles about behind him, loading up angry, jagged instrumentals for Williamson to rant over.
“I’m sick of trying to hold it down,” he rages. “I just want to get f——cked up all the time. I wanna leave work, go pub, buy drugs, and f——cking spit at people.”
Sleaford Mods released their latest record, Spare Ribs, at the start of 2021. The album features tracks like ‘Shortcummings’, a piece about conservative political advisor Dominic Cummings, and ‘Out There’ which the NME described as “a perfectly tragicomic painting of our Plague Island.”
8 Goat Girl
When band members give themselves names like L.E.D, Clottie Cream, Holly Hole, and Rosy Bones, you know they mean business. London-based Goat Girl is a band with extremist political intent (as is pretty much every band or form of “entertainment” these days).
Their self-titled debut album was described by singer and guitarist Clottie Cream as being “about gentrification and the wealth gap that exists in London, which is insane.” On ‘Burn The Stake’, ¬she implores the listener to “Build a bonfire. Build a bonfire. Put the Tories on top. Put the D.U.P. in the middle and we’ll burn the f——cking lot.” It is a fierce track lambasting Britain’s ruling alliance between Boris Johnson’s Conservative party and the Northern Irish right-wing.
7 Amanda Palmer
Journalists have called Amanda Palmer a pioneer of crowdfunding, a DIY musician adored by fans the world over. In 2013, the former Dresden Dolls member found herself in the tabloids after a minor onstage wardrobe malfunction. Palmer claims that The Daily Mail wrote an entire article about her nip slip but failed to mention anything about the performance itself. Instead, the journalist focused solely on the fact that one of Palmer’s breasts had apparently “escaped her bra”. She says the Daily Mail published photos of the incident under the title “Making a boob of herself!”
Amanda Palmer is no stranger to nudity. As she pointed out, if the newspaper had put in the slightest bit of effort to look her up they would have found far more salacious images online. Palmer found the experience to be so odd that she performed a song about it at the Roundhouse in London. “It’s so sad what you tabloids are doing,” she sang as a waltz to an audience of devoted fans. “Your focus on debasing women’s appearances devolves our species of humans”.
Halfway through the tune, the acclaimed songwriter stripped off completely in protest at her treatment by the British press. In video footage, she can be seen tossing her kimono to the side and completed the song wearing nothing but a pair of black gloves. “It’s just a naked woman,” she told her whooping audience with a wry smile, before finishing the song with a rousing cry of “Dear Daily Mail, up yours.”
Michael Ebenezer Kwadjo Omari Owuo Jr, better known as Stomzy, is one of the most popular rappers in Britain today. But in 2018 he used his position as a well-known musician to attack the government. At that year’s Brit Awards, the grime MC criticized then-prime minister Theresa May in an impassioned performance.
“Yo, Theresa May where’s that money for Grenfell? What you thought we just forgot about Grenfell?” In June 2017, the residential Grenfell Tower block went up in flames. The blaze killed 71 people and left hundreds more without a home. “You criminals,” he continued, “and you got the cheek to call us savages. You should do some jail time. You should pay some damage. We should burn your house down and see if you can manage this.” Stormzy went on to win Best British Male and Best Album at the ceremony.
Noname is another hip-hop artist continuing the tradition of political rebellion. The Chicago rapper is known for her songs on race, sex, and identity, all of which inform her politically focussed lyrics. Although she started as a self-declared poet, she soon turned to rap music, collaborating with her Chicago peers like Chance The Rapper and Saba.
Like Chance, Noname refuses to sign to a record label. Instead, she is an independent artist who finances her own projects and is proud of what she calls her “fight the man mentality.” Noname used the money from her 2016 mixtape Telefone to pay for her debut album Room 25.
Over the last few years, Tyron Frampton has become something of a national sensation. Born in the English town of Northampton, the rapper is known for his no-nonsense attacks on the British government.
In September 2019, Slowthai performed at an awards show holding an effigy of Boris Johnson’s severed head. He walked on stage at the Hyundai Mercury Prize with a decapitated dummy of the British prime minister, shouting, “Fu——k Boris Johnson, f——ck everything, and there’s nothing great about Britain.”
Some social media users were quick to criticize Slowthai’s stunt, but the rapper was having none of it. “Last night I held a mirror up to this country,” he wrote on Twitter “and some people don’t like its reflection. Yet this is exactly where we’re being taken, cut off and at all costs. The people in power who are trying to isolate and divide us aren’t the ones who will feel its effects the hardest.”
3 Pussy Riot
For the last ten years, Pussy Riot has been fighting back against the alleged human rights abuses of the Russian government. The musical outfit is known for its outrageous, attention-grabbing stunts. Several members have been jailed for criticizing the Kremlin.
Formed in Moscow, the group staged its first performance in November 2011. The band clambered up scaffolding, ripped open pillows, and threw the feathers onto the subway below. Other early outings included a show next door to Moscow Detention Center. In another, called ‘Putin Z——ssa’ aka ‘Putin Has P——ssed Himself’, they let off a smoke bomb in the Red Square.
Global notoriety came in 2012 when they demonstrated against the re-election of Vladimir Putin. Putin won the vote amidst accusations of rigging the ballot (much like the US and Joe Biden recently). Five Pussy Riot members in colored balaclavas staged a protest in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. They leapt around the altar singing their anti-Putin anthem ‘A Punk Prayer’ under the slogan “Sr——n Gospodnya” (“sh——t to the Lord”).
Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova were jailed for their role in the stunt. Both women were sent to gulags hundreds of miles from their families. After their release in 2014, the band started playing more conventional gigs. They described them as a “subversive mix of activist art and live set.”
But in 2018 Pussy Riot made headlines once again when they invaded the final of the Russian World Cup. Four members ran onto the pitch of Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium dressed in police uniform. The band demanded that the Russian government:
• Free all political prisoners
• Stop arrests at public rallies
• Allow political competition in the country
• Stop fabricating criminal cases and jailing people on remand for no reason
The stunt took place during the second half of the France v Croatia match, in which France won 4-2.
After the pitch invasion, Tolokonnikova’s ex-husband Pyotr Verzilov fell ill and was taken to hospital in serious condition. Doctors strongly believe that he was poisoned.
2 Grup Yorum
Grup Yorum is, without a doubt, one of the most rebellious bands that have ever existed. The Turkish folk group (who are really punk in spirit only) has battled against state repression since they formed in 1985. The founding members created the group as students at Marmara University. They were inspired by the left-wing Nueva Cancion cultural movement of Latin America.
Despite changes in the band’s line-up, Grup Yorum has kept its firm “progressive” stance. The band performs folk music shaped by centuries of traditional Turkish culture. But Grup Yorum is not stuck in the past. Their songs also explore themes like the killing of teenager Berkin Elvan by state police, the Kurdish liberation struggle, and women’s rights.
The Turkish government has responded by banning their live shows, arresting many of their members, and raided their cultural center in Istanbul on several occasions. They accuse the band of being part of the Marxist-Leninist group DHKP-C. But state repression could not kill the band’s popularity. In 2015, Grup Yorum held a free concert in the western city of Izmir. Over a million people are said to have turned up.
After the attempted coup in 2016, the Erdoğan regime stepped up its attacks on the group. Six members were announced as wanted terrorists as placed on the government’s “grey list”. Two fled to Europe, while another five were arrested and sent to prison. In May 2019, they made the decision to go on a hunger strike.
On April 3rd, 2020, after 288 days without food, singer Helin Bölek died. She was 28. Mustafa Koçak, a supporter of the band who joined them in their hunger strike, died three weeks later. Bassist İbrahim Gökçek also passed away, aged 39, on May 7th. All three died fighting for the right to perform and demanding their freedom of expression.
1 Kunt and the Gang
Kunt and the Gang is rebellious irreverence at its very best. Despite the name, the act is made up of one man, a foul-mouthed synth player from the British town of Basildon. Kunt started out in 2003, playing provocative comedy hits like ‘A Lonely Wank in a Travelodge’, ‘Jimmy Saville & The Sexy Kids’, and ‘Sh——tting On A Picture of the Queen’.
Then, in December 2020, Kunt and the Gang released his first big single. ‘Boris Johnson Is A F——cking C——nt’ is less than a minute long, but it is clear in its message. The novelty protest piece made it to number five in the Christmas charts and went on to become the twentieth best-selling song of that year. Clearly, it must have captured something in the psyche of the British progressive public.