One summer three years ago, I found myself in a dark, cavernous music hall in Tottenham, north London called T Chances. Several bands performed that night, throwing out everything from upbeat reggae and ska to frenetic thrash and punk, each song punctuated by a wall of roaring cheers. Those in the crowd stood arm-in-arm, dancing and shouting along to the music, dripping in sweat while swilling booze from cans. But something about this gig was different: I didn't recognise the bands on the bill, or the beers at the bar, and I couldn't understand the words anyone was singing. It was a Polish punk night – and one of many that have cropped up in the UK recently.
Punk first erupted in Poland in the 80s, soundtracking the country's crescendo towards political change. These days, though, much of its legacy lives on in the Polish ex-pat community in the UK, as bands such as Perma War, Low Rollers, Radioactive Rats and Pro Publico Bono make a similar – albeit marginally less urgent – scene of their own. The sound of this new wave of Polish punk mixes a raw, relentless energy that borrows as much from 80s DC and New York hardcore as from the brash British sound many of us know and love. And with its penchant for shouting back in the face of fascism, it's become a locus of community at a time when anti-immigrant sentiment has swept through the country like a particularly nasty bout of the clap, pushing communities even further away from each other.
Although it may be rooted in different history, the Polish punk scene doesn't feel separate from its British counterpart; many Polish bands jump on the bills of veterans such as Culture Shock and The Restarts – but in recent years, it's really started to blossom. "There's definitely something happening," says 'Moscow', vocalist in a Polish punk/crossover band Low Rollers, when I gatecrash one of their rehearsals at a now-shuttered rehearsal space under some east London railway arches. "It was never an intentionally Polish thing, that's just how it worked out. But it's definitely a 'scene' because Polish people do go out to see the Polish bands." Peppered in tattoos and sporting a buzzcut and knee-high boots, Moscow chats casually about music and his life in London. Back inside the practice room he's transformed, as he and his bandmates plough through their set list with a passion that hurls riffs at the walls and crashes around the inside of my skull.
Even before Poland joined the EU in 2004, and people like Moscow could move more freely around the union's member states, building a scene abroad wasn't easy. Dezerter, who formed in Warsaw in 1981, are a band from the Polish punk scene's early days, and they still play shows today. "In the 80s, it was not possible for any band to leave Poland," remembers their guitarist Robert Matera. "We didn't have our passports because they were controlled by the government – they didn't want citizens to know what life was like in the 'rotten West'."
Back then, punk soundtracked the chaotic, tense years that led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The bands at the time were anti-communist – or at least against totalitarianism – and criticised the hypocrisy of the communist government. The jagged and angular-sounding Tilt, for instance, channelled the energy and political irreverence of young punks in the country, whereas bands like Dezerter adopted an incredibly raw, abrasive sound, born out of the unforgiving Polish winters and the growing poverty of the time. You can hear the grim, grey backdrop in which these bands existed, and the stark architecture that surrounded them, seeping into the very foundation of their sound.
Under Soviet martial law, punk bands – like Brygyda Kryzys, for example – were prohibited from playing public shows due to their names or lyrics. In his book Speak The Culture, Andrew Whittaker explains that artist's had to have every lyric checked by a government censor before they were allowed to enter the recording studio. "Many bands simply altered their lyrics for live shows," he writes, "aware that the security services in attendance at most gigs would have little understanding of what they were singing. Audience members would record the shows and then circulate illicit audiotapes."
Although punks were widely seen as "enemies of the People's democracy", the scene swiftly began to thrive underground, and before long, fans moved punk zines, vinyl and tapes around the country, passing them from hand to hand at a time when shops refused to stock them. With bands such as Sedes emerging from towns like Wroclaw, punk music – and later new wave – spread nationwide. Soon, young people across Poland started engaging in politics in a real way, adding to the momentum leading up to the country's first free elections in 1989 and the tumbling fall of Communism.
By the time the 90s swung around, many of these bands were ready to take their sound abroad – but not without some push-back. On Dezerter's first UK tour in 1993, Matera tells me they were stopped by immigration officers in Britain, locked in a cell, and then promptly deported to France. "They thought we were moving to the UK to find [illegal] work; we had no way to defend ourselves and no one wanted to listen to what we had to say." The stamps on their passports caused issues for a decade, but since then, they've been able to gig regularly in the UK – and in the time since they first toured in the 90s, Britain's seen a sweeping change in both the numbers of, and reactions to, Polish arrivals.
There are currently around 826,500 Polish-born nationals living in the UK, according to 2015 estimates. So many people have looked for work abroad since Poland joined the EU in 2004 – and struggled with the shift from a central to market-based economy – that the Warsaw government has put in place a Powroty (Returns) programme, to lure skilled Poles back home from countries like Germany, France, Italy, Ireland and the UK. On the flipside of that coin, you've got the sense that anti-immigrant feelings are brewing in the UK, spurred on by fears over access to public services and resources, and grossly sensationalised in the tabloid and rightwing press. The link between music and politics often comes up as I chat to various bands – the two subjects had become culturally interwoven over the years in Poland, as they often are in Britain, too. "In the 1980s, punk rock was kind of a lifestyle for many young people," Renata Obrycka, of Pro Publico Bono says, somewhat wistfully. "It was manifested against the communist system and social inequality."
Fast forward to 2017 and there's a frightening rise in right-wing authoritarianism to contend with. In Poland, group Obóz Narodowo-Radykalny (National-Radical Camp) – named after an anti-Semitic movement from the 1930s – attract tens of thousands to marches through Warsaw, and they have reportedly formed alliances with other far-right groups from elsewhere in Europe, such as the France's National Front. From this, small but loud factions have brought their hate overseas, such as in 2014 when Polish neo-Nazis attacked a music festival in Tottenham, leaving one man stabbed not far from T Chances, the north London venue that kicked off my introduction to the Polish punk scene in the first place.
Charity-run T Chances describes itself as an "organisation set up by the community for the community, specialising in the arts, music, theatre and community projects". It's home to everything from children's birthday parties to grindcore festivals, yoga classes to Irish folk nights. "We first got approached about four or five years ago to host Polish nights," manager Kyle Potter says. "Since then, we've had loads of [Polish] nights and Polish friends running the venue and working here. They've become part of the venue." Charity Tottenham War Services set up the venue, he tells, and the money from the bar – which (surprise!) mainly sells Polish lager – goes towards helping the homeless and underprivileged young people in the area.
But what about perceived links and presence of the right? "Venues sometimes have a stigma against the Polish, especially in the punk scene," he continues, "because they think they're Nazi skinheads or whatever. But Polish bands are [often] more against all of that than most people are." When I put this to Moscow, of Low Rollers, he's quick to distance his band from murmurs of right-wing activity at gigs. "We don't get any problems like that at our shows, no political violence or anything," he says. "Never in London or when we play gigs in Poland. We're not into that stuff."
Instead, this is a scene built on what sounds like cloying togetherness but really manifests as a firm sense of unity. "I think punk music from all over the world is connected," says Ewa Zablocka from the Nottingham-based Radioactive Rats, who's lived in the UK for three years after forming her band in 2003. "It changes with the world around it." In this case, a scene's been quietly building up in the UK over the past decade, amassing itself a brilliant example of the sort of multiculturalism that would leave your neighbourhood UKIP-per frothing at the mouth. The bands I spoke to didn't seem particularly fazed by the anti-immigration attitudes parroted around the country, and would likely have to deal with the plight of vulnerable independent venues being forced to close more than anything else. That said, if the scene can thrive and survive through military rule in the 80s, it can probably get through anything.
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(Lead image of Radioactive Rats performing by Mariusz Fratczak)