Know Your Roots: 5 Overlooked Punk Rock Pioneers
By Nathan Leigh
July 12, 2017
We all love Bad Brains and Death but there are so many other, often overlooked, Black punk pioneers that we couldn’t help paying tribute to some of our favorites!
Check them out below and let us know who you would have added to the list.
As the DJ for the Roxy during punk’s first wave, Don Letts was directly responsible for the reggae-punk connection (for better and for worse if you’ve ever paid $5 to watch a quartet of white teenage boys put on horrendous Jamaican accents in a VFW on a slow song midway through their set of Green Day covers). In between band’s sets, Letts would spin reggae, dub, and ska imports, almost singlehandedly birthing both ska/punk and post-punk with one spin of a 45. The love went both ways, with Bob Marley recording “Punky Reggae Party” in 77 after Letts introduced Marley to the scene. Don Letts later went on to define the punk music video with his work with The Clash and his classic documentary The Punk Rock Movie. After Mick Jones was ousted from The Clash, the two went on to form Big Audio Dynamite in 1984. It’s impossible to imagine either the visual or musical aesthetics of modern punk rock without the contributions of Don Letts.
Anticipating the riot grrrrl movement by 15 years, X-Ray Spex’s leader Poly Styrene kicked off the band’s career with the ferocious feminist anthem “Oh Bondage Up Yours!” The band’s classic full length Germfree Adolescents issued a battle cry against consumerism, sexism, and capitalism. The album skewers the white suburban ideal of the sanitized individually wrapped homogenized life with songs like “The Day the World Turned Dayglo” and “Genetic Engineering.” Though Poly Styrene’s health struggles kept the band operating only in fits and starts until her death of cancer in 2011, Germfree Adolescents remains one of the best and most uncompromising records from the early days of punk.
Though he found his biggest success with the most 80’s movie theme of all time (“Feel the Heat” from the Sylvester Stallone vehicle Cobra), Jean Beauvoir first came up as the bassist for Wendy O. Williams’ pioneering shock rock act The Plastmatics. His bleached mohawk made him an instant icon of the nascent NYC punk scene, while his playing and songwriting chops helped elevate The Plasmatics beyond mere spectacle. After leaving The Plasmatics, Beauvoir went on to a successful career as a producer, producing and co-writing one of The Ramones’ greatest singles, the antifascist protest song “My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down (Bonzo Goes to Bitburg).”
Rip Rig + Panic
If you haven’t heard Neneh Cherry’s Raw Like Sushi, then I really can’t help you. But her early work with post-punk band Rip Rig + Panic often goes overlooked. 10 years before she kicked off her solo career, Neneh Cherry squatted her way through London singing in a string of punk bands, including a stint with The Slits. Her greatest early triumph though was fronting the post-punk innovators in Rip Rig + Panic who expanded the sonic palette of punk rock without losing one ounce of its combustibility. When many post-punk acts were flirting with more commercial sounds and toning down the chaos, Rip Rig + Panic created some of the most ambitious and anarchic music to come out of the scene. Listening to their debut God foreshadows the next 20 years of experimental DIY music.
A pioneer of queer zine culture and the queercore movement, Vaginal Davis took the name as a tribute to Angela Davis. Davis founded the band Afro Sisters in 1978, releasing a string of records, all of which are now tragically out of print. The live show merged punk rock and drag ball culture in ways that defied and expanded both. Meanwhile, Davis published the zine Fertile La Toya Jackson from 1982 to 1991. Though Vaginal Davis continues to be a prolific musician, writer, and filmmaker for 40 years, little of their output has been digitized. Save a few EPs with Black Fag and Robespierre much of it is out of print. You’d be forgiven for not having ever heard any of Vaginal Davis’ bands, but today’s vibrant queer punk movement would be impossible without them.