Photo by Wayne Valdez, courtesy of S.S. Records
Boston hardcore in the early 80s was synonymous with intense violence, extreme straight-edge fanaticism, and, to some extent, right wing politics. The Proletariat was a prominent part of this scene, and was even featured on the seminal This Is Boston, Not LA comp. But the members were nothing like their peers. For one thing, the group's jangly songs weren't very hardcore sounding. The four-piece had more in common with Gang of Four and Wire than Minor Threat.
Perhaps making them stick out even more than their sound were their socially conscious, left wing politics. Members were routinely called "commie fucks" by punk kids. Despite their outsider status, they did earn a loyal fanbase that knew every lyric to every song. But singer Richard Brown also recalls burning a lot of energy explaining to kids that his band "didn't hate America."
The members' non-participation in the straight-edge movement put another wedge between them and the other bands. Minor Threat may have put the whole straight-edge fetish on the map, however inadvertently, but Boston punks took it to new heights. Steven Blush described it beautifully in his genre-defining book American Hardcore: "Boston was the birthplace of straight-edge enforcers. For the first time in rock history, some holier-than-thou asshole would come up to you and knock your beer out of your hand. That stupidity began in Boston HC."
While bands around them were busy singing about the evils of alcohol and what idiots their parents were, the Proletariat was talking about politics on a macro level with intelligence. Brown's lyrics are simultaneously politically charged and poetic: "Paint a rosy picture/serve it to the children/ they will soon discard it" or "Every war has two losers, though one claims victory/when they divide the spoils, they plant another seed" or "Your right to freedom of speech depends on what you have to say/could your name be on file? Can the blacklist be far away?"
I chatted over the phone with Brown, a kind-hearted, thoughtful man, now an employee of the United States Post Office. He gave me the scoop on his old band, who will be reissuing the debut 1983 album Soma Holiday on October 21 via Sacramento-based label S.S. Records. To celebrate the release, the Proletariat is playing a string of East Coast shows in late October and early November. These shows will be their first time stepping on stage in nearly three decades.
Noisey: The original lineup hasn't played since 1984. How's it been playing again?
Richard Brown: We've been rehearsing since April or May. The first few rehearsals, I was kind of nervous. It was awkward. Then you get into the part. Three to four rehearsals into it where it's like, "Jesus, this is tiring. I forgot how hard this was." My ears are ringing.
You don't seem anything like the other bands in the Boston scene. What was the experience like for you?
It was almost like we were on the fringe of the Boston scene. We were in the same kind of boat as Missions of Burma. The scene kids respected us. They didn't necessarily like us, but they were okay with us. Al [Barile] from SSD used to put us on bills. And I asked him once, "Why do you do this? Because most of your guys aren't crazy about us." He's like, "I can't listen to four to five hardcore bands in a row. I need something to break it up." I guess we were close enough that we broke it up somewhat without sticking out like a sore thumb.
The kind of left-leaning politics in your songs were pretty much non-existent in the Boston hardcore scene. How did you come to be so political?
We were all in college at the time. I studied US history, history of Latin America, and history of the Soviet Union. We took stuff from there. I got infatuated with the whole revolution thing, the inequalities in the West. Come to find out years later things weren't much better. At the time, the gap between the rich and the poor was pretty big. It's even worse now. But that's when I started to notice it. Just seeing at the time, that the US and the Soviet Union had their noses everywhere. Everyone was trying to grab a piece of this country or that country. It was like a chess match. And the countries in Latin/Central America were pretty much pawns. It's very shadowy and shady. The bands that we really liked a few years before that were Gang of Four, the Clash—they all had a political bent to them. And we leaned that way. The Boston crew, a lot of them hated us for our politics. A lot of them hated us for our music. A lot of the bands were right wing-leaning. DYS especially. The F.U.'s—even though we weren't sure if they were joking or not, and SSD. They were considered right wing. There was always kind of a divide.
A lot of the scene did love you guys, or at least gave you respect. But not everyone. What kind of overt negative reactions would you get?
Jake Phelps from Thrasher hated us. They'd do stuff like kick mics into our faces, especially when Peter was singing background. They'd take the set list so we couldn't see it. They'd unplug cords. They just wanted us off the stage. I have no idea why he hated us. And it never ended. The worst show for them being shitheads to us was the show with Minor Threat, SSD, and us at the Gallery East. It was tough. The crowd, for the most part, liked us, but that handful made our life miserable. I get it, you like SSD, you like Minor Threat, you want them to be on. But then they'd show up at a show when we were opening for Flipper, which I'm sure probably wasn't their favorite band. They'd still start shit there. He never liked us, and we never liked him. Eventually, it seemed like all those kids that hated us, all the bands that they were following went metal. All of the sudden, we were one of the few punk bands around in Boston, and they started to like us.
How did you navigate the extremity of the straight-edge fascism in the scene? It seems like it would be tough to have to deal with guys self-righteous enough to knock beers out of the hands of other people.
We weren't straight-edge. Our whole thing was, we don't want to tell anyone what to do, or anyone how to think. All we want to do is start a dialogue. Here's what we think. What do you think? And the people that liked that, I think really appreciated that. The people that hated us didn't get it. They wanted to be part of something, and they got caught up in it. And there was some strong personalities in that scene that was a little easy for kids to latch onto. It was always negative. It was always about tearing things down and just plain fucking violence. We lacked a strong personality. We were so anti-violent. We were like pacifists or hippies, but it was never part of our scene. When there'd be a hardcore band playing, the place would be crazy up front. We'd go on and the girls would come up front. It was a less violent pit. Ours was more of a give-and-take with the audience. We didn't dictate and force people to do this or whatever. It just happened.
Hardcore is often simplistic in its message. Was there ever a problem with kids at your shows misunderstanding the more nuanced political discussions in your lyrics?
I had a kid come up to me once and say, "Oh Proletariat. Oh, you guys are Nazis." I'm like, "No it's the complete opposite. Like 100 percent the other direction." He said, "You guys are singing about how the poor costs us." It's like no, it's not what we're singing about at all. Basically, we were singing about class war. It was going on, even then. That's what we sang about. We're anti-war, anti-racist. The whole "my country, right or wrong." Crazy.
We have some freedoms in the country to say things to try and change things. You can't sit there and say everything this country's government has done is right. It isn't. Kids would come up, and they'd be really confused. "You guys are political, so you hate this, and you hate that." Or we'd get it from the other way, "Oh you're anti-American." No, I'm not anti-American, per se. There are things our government does that I'm against. That's part of the system. You should have a say. People thought that "Splendid Wars" was a pro-war song. No, it's tongue in cheek. There are no splendid wars. There's no such thing. That was probably the lyric that got the most incorrectly interpreted. Some kids sat down and talked to us. When I put out that they were re-issuing Soma, a bunch of people wrote me, and they were like, "Hey, do you remember talking to me at the time? At the time, I was listening to a lot of really right wing music, and you guys let me see that there's something out there, because I wasn't into that. I just went along with it."
What was the thought behind using the Brave New World reference in your album title?
When Reagan was President, the country as a whole was drugged. I don't know what they were pumping through the air vents, but people would sit there and be like, "Yes, yes." He had that whole grandfatherly thing. In the meantime, he was basically cutting every federal program for the poor, destroying everything like that. Everyone was just nodding their head. Especially in the first couple years. Jesus Christ, this guy is telling you that we're cutting the school lunch program, people are saying, "Yeah, great." He'd tell people that ketchup was a vegetable. He'd say, "Oh the lunch program, they're getting vegetables, they're getting ketchup on their burgers." They tried to take everything back from the middle class. And they took everything that was left from the poor. They wanted it all. He was basically the standard bearer for class war. We're doing these things so that our rich captains of industry can get even more money, and they can build more factories, and eventually the money will trickle down to you. It never did. The attack on unions, to the air traffic controllers on. I work for the post office now. From the Reagan years on, we were not allowed to strike. We would be put in jail. If you look back now, it was violent the things he did to society. It was insane. He was a perfect foil for it. Like, everything's going to be fine.
The This Is Boston, Not LA compilation has stood out as one of the quintessential hardcore compilations. Do you think it represented the scene accurately?
I was talking to someone the other day, and I was like, "Do people even know who we are?" They were like, "You're from Boston, Not LA. Everyone knows Boston, Not LA." I always thought it was a nice little compilation. I didn't think it was as big as it was. It was early, and it was kind of a springboard. I think if it had come out a little later, it would have been better. I think they thought these shows are drawing, let's get this thing out. A lot of the bands just started. So they didn't have much material. The material was a lot different than what they were doing six to seven months later. Ours was, for sure. I think if they had waited a little bit, it would have been a better album. As far as getting put on the compilation, someone told me that the reason we were put on there was because SSD wouldn't do it. And that really wasn't the reason. It was because we were similar and we had a following outside of the hardcore scene. Maybe the record could sell outside of that scene. I don't know how much it did.
A lot of people thought the title implied some sort of rivalry you had with LA, but that wasn't the case was it?
I just talked to Clif [Hanger] recently. He'd always said, "I wasn't ragging on LA. I was telling people in Boston, look, that's LA. This is your scene, do something different. This is Boston, not LA." Not that we were better than them. But you're not them. So do something original. Do something on your own.