Music

Uncovering The Origins of Punk Rock in Indonesia

It took nearly 20 years after the birth of punk for Indonesians to embrace the genre.

by Alvin Yunata; translated by Jade Poa
20 January 2020, 4:13am

An article about punk rock published in the Indonesian magazine Aktuil. Photo via the author.

This article originally appeared on VICE Indonesia.

Last year, Jakarta-based artist Agan Harahap sent me an old portrait of a punk rock kid with the caption, “I found this cool pic, our president in his younger days.”

I was skeptical, so I did some research. President Joko Widodo graduated from Gadjah Mada University in 1985, but I was pretty sure punk rock didn’t gain traction in Indonesia until the early 90s.

Even though the young man in the photo turned out to be a lookalike, it set me on a journey to discover the origins of punk rock in Indonesia, starting with sociologist Fathun Karib’s thesis The History of Jakarta’s Punk Community.

He identified the influence of punk in four facets of life: music, fashion, community, and social movements, all of which emerged separately. Indonesian music journalist Wendi Putranto also noted that throughout the 80s, the hardcore music scene was dominated by thrash metal.

The only palpable punk element in Indonesia before the 90s was fashion; antagonists in movies were often portrayed as Joey Ramone-esque punk rock misfits. Punk Modern Band, which was active in the mid-80s, utilised punk imagery but mostly performed Rush and Duran Duran covers, not punk rock.

“The 80s were a pre-punk period; Indonesians weren’t ready to appreciate punk to its fullest,” Herry Sutresna, Indonesian musician and punk rock pioneer, said.

Punk rock was the antithesis to the then-popular progressive rock genre. In an interview with Windi Putranto, Andi Julias, the late founder of the Indonesian Progressive Society, said the musical complexity of progressive rock helped to shape the Indonesian youth’s musical standards. But when pirated copies of The Clash’s self-titled album hit the Indonesian black market in 1978, the response was underwhelming.

In Jakarta, it was the metal scene that helped launch punk rock to a wider audience. Thrash metal bands like Roxx, Adaptor, Mortus, Sucker Head, Painful Death, and Rotor became a sort of ‘gateway’ to punk. Fathun Karib said the South Jakarta bar Pid Pub was instrumental in launching punk rock to the masses.

Pid Pub gave rise to bands like Antiseptic and The Stupid, the first generation of Indonesian punk bands. Young Indonesians studying abroad brought home punk rock cassettes, allowing the scene to slowly grow in the 90s.

Many of the founders of Indonesia’s earliest punk rock bands studied in the United States. When they returned home, they brought with them the gritty, anti-establishment spirit of punk. They also began to play alternative music in Jakarta clubs that, at the time, only played disco.

Although Indonesians didn’t fully embrace the spirit of punk until nearly 20 years after its birth in the West, local underground media began exploring the genre in the mid-70s. Bandung-based music magazine Aktuil put punk rock on young Indonesians’ radar far earlier than many would think.

In 1976, Aktuil featured a review of Patti Smith’s Horses and a short blurb about the Ramones:

“Compared to THE DOLLS, New York rock fans welcomed THE RAMONES more warmly. They often play at the rock club CBGB (When will YAN MUFNI write about this downtown Manhattan club? We’re waiting!). They call their music ‘punk rock’ and hope to soon gain national recognition that surpasses even that of THE DOLLS.”

A November 1976 edition of Aktuil featured a piece by London-based writer Stephen Lim, who broke down the essence of punk rock in two pages. At the end, Lim included a list of suggested listening that included the Sex Pistols, The Damned, The Clash, Eddie and the Hot Rods, The Buzzcocks, Subway Sect, Eater, and the Vibrators.

“This music might be hard to come by in Indonesia, but if you can get your hands on it, give it a listen!” Lim wrote.

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Archival article from Aktuil about Patti Smith. Photo via the author.

The magazine also released an article titled "Punk: In Pictures and Briefs," featuring punk trivia in alphabetical order. Throughout the second half of the 1970s, Aktuil featured punk rock tidbits in nearly every edition, but the content was largely surface-level.

Perhaps the only “serious” punk article published by Aktuil was a 1978 thinkpiece about The Clash titled “Forms of Tyranny Running Amok,” which discussed the band’s political views.

It seems that throughout the 70s and 80s, punk rock was a novelty with a limited fanbase in Indonesia. Amidst strict censorship and repression of students that lasted until 1998, few Indonesians turned to punk.

Punk even became a subject of debate among Aktuil’s readers. In 1978, reader Budi Herdianto wrote to the editor expressing his love for punk rock, while most other readers dismissed the genre. Only one other reader jumped to Budi’s defense:

“If Aktuil published Punk Rock cassettes (as Budi has suggested), I would definitely buy them. Are Budi and I the only two people in Indonesia who like Punk Rock? I’m waiting on the Sex Pistols’ ‘Holiday In The Sun.’ - Marzuki M”

Like many other Indonesians at the time, I discovered punk rock through cassettes brought from abroad. My friend’s cousin brought back a copy of The Exploited’s Punks Not Dead from America in 1993. Physical copies of music were passed around from person to person, from community to community.

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Archival article from Aktuil. Photo via the author.

In 1994, local punk collectives organised the legendary Hullabaloo 1 concert with a lineup of local punk talent, including Hellburger, Live at Pawn, The Chronics, Full of Hate, The Wave, Morbus Corpse, Pure Saturday, Antiseptic, Ritual Doom, and Alien Scream. A poster for the event read, “If you hate the commercial bands, support your local underground bands!”

Previously scattered punk communes began merging with one another, creating spaces for like-minded individuals to express themselves artistically.

Once punk had become recognised as a genre and social movement, bands like Runtah, Turtles Jr, Jeruji, and Keparat arrived on the scene. Some of these bands are still making music today.

The local punk scene also began collaborating with zines and record labels from abroad. When France-based Tian An Men 89 Records released the compilation album Injak Balik! A Bandung Punk/HC in 1997 , punk became known to a wider audience in Indonesia.

This article originally appeared on VICE ID.