So lets put this “giving up” in context. As anyone that know’s me or who’s read anything I’ve ever said about punk in the past will know it “changed my life”. How about that for a cliche? In truth punk didn’t so much as change it, I grew up with punk and so it nudged me and influenced me, who knows what I might have become without it! The music of The Ruts, The Damned and The Dead Kennedys rocked my world and brought me great joy, but the words sung and typed on the records of anarcho-punk bands opened my mind to ideas I was barely aware of or could only imagine. Thirty years on and I still love punk music, I still go and ‘dance’ at gigs on occasion (one of the highlights of my entire life was seeing Slime play two nights in a row in Berlin only a few years ago) but the sad truth is the anarcho punk scene now disheartens me more than it inspires.
There is an old adage that meeting your heroes is never a good idea. I have found that often to be true but I refused to treat the folks from bands I was inspired by as “heroes’ “ and never considered myself a “fan”. Those terms were not just “naf” but represented a culture of celebrity and deference that is surely at odds with anarchist ethics. If punk was about breaking down the roles of pop stars and punters by "doing it yourself" then anarchist punk took the idea to a further level of equality… in theory . I started distributing anarchist literature because it meant so much to me and the bands like CRASS and Zounds that inspired me urged one to read texts that were not so easily found. I also realised that whilst these bands were important “now” they may not be in twenty years whereas the writings of Kropotkin and the story of Emiliano Zapata would still be inspirational in another hundred years or more. Active has been at the forefront of anarchist distribution and identified with anarcho punk for 25 years or more. I have often related how inspirational the anarcho bands of the 80’s were. Inspirational because unlike say the New Model Army’s or John Lennon’s of pseudo revolutionary music they actually lived the life. They weren’t "in it" for the money….they released records as cheap as they could……they weren’t "in it" to become famous…….they shunned the mainstream media…..they put in practice what they preached……you’d see them at as many demos or actions as you would at gigs. The Clash sang about being Bored of the USA and then signed straight to CBS and did their final tour over there! The two strands of punk rock became quite distinct, There were those in it for fame and fortune - and by that I mean those who just hoped to "have a laugh", to get more cash than the dole offered and “pull”- and then there were the bands who were there to protest and provide an entertaining outlet for the anger and boredom of the age as well as promoting an alternative. I have found few things in life more exciting and stimulating to my own sense of anger and frustration than the rage, rhyme and rhythm of such classic tracks as Conflict's To a nation of Animal Lovers, the Subhuman's Great British Public or Crass's So What. Simple, rough, passionate and sounding sincere. The most real and relevant that any of these three songs sounded to me was when the Subhuman's successors Culture Shock were playing at the make shift Stonehenge festival encampment to a minuscule audience pursued by coppers and without much in the way of a PA. But, my belief in the conviction of Conflict began to wane as soon as I experienced their exaggerated self importance as an dis- organisation and as a band always looking to play the biggest venues with big hair do's! So what? Became rhetorical and meaningless to me when I saw Crass logo spotlights follow the lead guitar poses of Steve Ignorants puppet show reunion at the Shepherds Bush Empire.
The Poison Girls were especially important to me for getting me to question personal issues around sexuality, being normal, being aggressive, competitive, questioning myself. It was a joy to meet up with them in the late ’80’s and find them to be as welcoming and relaxed as you could wish for. Many years later when I discovered that Cooking Vinyl were about to do a second pressing of the Poison Girls box set without the lyric booklet - that was in the first edition, I printed my own version to go in the several hundred copies that Active distributed. The words, the message, to me were paramount. Many punks recall early years listening to John Peel late at night after they’d been told to go to bed. Anarcho punx have an extra memory, that of the first time they played a CRASS LP, opened up the huge poster cover and read the lyrics and diatribe that went on forever (and left you feeling both enraged and bemused but essentially that here was an idea that “spoke to you” that gave us a name and eloquently expressed ideas with four letter words that we struggled to elucidate but felt passionately - or was this only for me?
Active grew from being a record distro with a few books to being a book distro with loads of CD’s. With t-shirts, posters, cards, stickers, zones, badges, videos and DVDs along the way. We disspent with vinyl a decade ago when it became impossible for us to move in our flat for lack of space. We found CD’s a lot easier to handle and besides there were plenty of so-called DIY record distros about but hardly anyone else left doing literature. I now find that Active has once again grown to the point that our council flat and the few other places we store stock can no longer cope. We need to expand our premises (!) or reduce our stock. Expanding means paying rent somewhere and that means making money from Active to give to some landlord and we lose our absolute not for profit status, which I treasure. So I looked at what we do and what is important to me and I realised that the music has become less and less relevant. This is mirrored in the decline of the genuine DIY anarcho punk scene. There are exceptions and there are many new bands who I would and will be happy to support, but the anarcho punk scene that I grew up with is defined by the ethics and practice associated with the bands of the early 1980’s and there are precious few of those bands in existence today that have not sold out on the things that gave them integrity and stood them apart from the rest of punk or indeed pop music. I have been privileged to know and be friends with many folk from some of these bands and so I’m not going to go through each and every band or individual but I am going to speak of what I know first hand direct from the bands mouths or what I have experienced. There are bands reforming all the time and as yet hardly any of them have done so for the same reasons they got together in the first place. This may seem reasonable given the decades that have past in between. The problem is that much of the relevance of these bands was the politics of the times and their position as protestors, immediacy of the fear of nuclear war being the best example. So when these midlife crises sufferers attempt to relive their youth and engage in the ego massaging that performing on stage inevitably brings, the only spirit in the music is often now alcohol rather than anarchy. The goals are now sell more tickets, let's use ticket agents! Shift more merchandise, who's the cheapest promo company? And get free holidays in hotels in far off lands aka touring the USA! This is taken to it’s zenith by bands that play in huge commercial venues like the Shepherds Bush Empire. The spirit of anarcho punk span in its grave as they strutted across the stage with spotlights and cock rock posturing. Almost every band that has reformed and those who never went away have played at the oh so cynically named Rebellion festivals. These festivals are a tribute to nothing more than the money making opportunism of the promoters and the willingness of the bands to go along with compromising all thoughts of DIY integrity to the excuse of “big is beautiful”! Rebellion, is a meat filled, nazi friendly, local government friendly, capitalist free for all that exploits the little bands and the punters alike and offers nothing that could be genuinely considered as rebellion. All credit goes to the very few bands that have resisted the lure of this farce and the others like it. The sad thing is that Rebellion and other such sham events would have no pull if the anarcho punk scene was still active enough to create its own festivals. We used to have the free-festival scene, not just the Stonehenge festival but many smaller often totally illegal and unregulated festivals self organised by bands, travellers and activists. Are these “impossible” to do under todays conditions or have we just lost the imagination to try? Equally the squatting scene has failed to provide venues for festivals, or have bands failed to support it by selling out to commercial “safe” spaces. I remember a conversation I had with a well known anarcho band from the late 80’s about the venue’s they were playing. The gig we were at was a nightclub in Newport and I questioned why? They explained that whilst they preferred to play the benefit gigs in alternative spaces, squats etc they could not afford to never get paid anything. I resolved from then on to always pay bands what they needed at the benefit gigs I helped organise over the next 20 years. (Didn’t mean I wouldn’t haggle with them though, just in case!) Then there have been bands playing charity benefits for spurious causes like cancer charities that sponsor animal research and others for “mens rights”. There are bands reforming to play birthday gigs - pretty harmless - that then go on to play stag night events for junkie celebrities getting married to anorexia promoting, fur wearing, fashion models! Then there are the reissuing of records that were perfect reflections of the time with a rough and raw anger searing out of the sound and artwork remastered and repackaged as arty and “as it should have sounded” , I don’t think so. I am only aware of one of the old anarcho bands that has reformed that bothers to communicate with the audience directly with flyers. Remember those? I thought it was so great, when I saw CRASS in 1984 they were walking around giving out handouts and talking to us, It showed they cared that we didn’t go away from the gig with nothing but the joy of entertainment, they were very aware of the dynamic that a gig can impose, that of performers, leaders and punters, passive acceptors who dance to the tunes without any cognisance of the message. Many other bands gave out flyers or offered zines for sale too.
Nowadays our anarcho punk heroes (sic) are more likely to be writing their signatures on fans t-shirts or record covers than anything of relevance. This dilution of the DIY ethos is sadly not just in the realm of records and gigs. The books that have come out of late championing the wonders of anarcho punk have been equally flawed in my humble opinion. Some have been printed digitally with Amazon,s online publishing service. Amazon surely now represent what EMI did in the 80's as the epitome of life destroying multi national capitalism. Another much regarded book that claimed to be "the truth of revolution" an in depth look at the important players of the Anarcho punk scene gave voice to the notoriously unpopular boss of the record label that once championed anarchist punk but has for many years done its best to do nothing than squeeze what profits it can for itself and its favoured stars and screwed the little bands and the websites that they did not control. Congratulations to Anthrax for standing up to them and re-releasing all their stuff themselves. This book also championed the soft porn fashionista entrepreneurs of Vice as having "taken the idea of anarchy to a new level" !! a new depth perhaps. The publishers then proceeded to sell photographic prints of the "stars" featured in the book for a mere £20 a pic, deconstructing the spectacle of society in some fancy art nouveau detournement that's beyond me I'm sure. Or maybe just too much "wank" and the final reason why I said no to distributing this book.
I have listened to all sorts of music since I got into punk back in the late 1970’s. Since I got computerised my iTunes has played as much anarcho punk as anything else, it has helped keep my anger focused, it has fuelled my fury as my own fire dampened with the onset of middle age. But now I find myself regularly unclicking the tracks of anarcho bands that once meant so much to me. Now these bands have relegated themselves to being no better than cover bands of their former selves ("they sounded really good” but they said less between songs than even The Ramones used to) I prefer to listen to bands that did do not represent capitulation to capitalism. I might as well just enjoy The Clash at least we always knew they didn’t mean it when they sang of revolution and they always had better tunes. So we have one more confirmed music release to do and maybe another if the band ever get it together and that's it for Active as a music label. As far as distribution is concerned we have a lot of stock to sell off, look out for some serious bargains and mail order customers have started to get surprise freebies! But we are not restocking or taking in any new titles. We have "discovered" a few discs that we have forgotten or failed to add to the website so they appear as 'new'. We will continue to do books and zines about the anarcho punk scene but we will also cease to do badges of bands and a scene that we no longer feel an affinity with. There are many factors I haven't mentioned, many terms, contradictions and vague lines in the sand I could discuss. I am well aware of the imperfection of all ideology, of all human endeavour, I just wish to lessen the stain of betrayal. There are also many bands and anarchist punks that I still respect. But for simplicity's sake the best way I can some up this decision is this: I no longer feel that the anarcho punk flag is one I want to fly.
Sincerely Jon active