The Anti-Canon series is a collection of short essays focusing on writers less well known, positioned outside of the literary mainstream or simply deserving more attention. An alternative (but by no means definitive) list of works that have influenced the writers at Influx Press, offering a different perspective to what is, and what is not, considered ‘important’, and hopefully giving you some new books to read into the bargain…
Political finesse has never been punk's strong point. Its DIY ethos has always been inherently political – you don't need anyone to help you form a band, you don't need a distributor to start putting out your music, you can do it yourself. But the lyrics, even of the most 'political' punk bands, have often seemed like exercises in sloganeering.
And fair enough. Good sloganeering is a skill in and of itself. I'm as big a sucker for vague rhetoric as much as the next wannabe revolutionary. Screaming “fuck the pigs!” repeatedly in a room full of others also shouting “fuck the pigs!” is, let's face it, pretty ace. The fact that some individuals don't enjoy doing this in a suffocatingly hot room, being crushed by dozens of punks and coated in sticky beer and sweat utterly baffles me.
So punk needs its rowdiness: to be the hooligan, the gobshite, the splatter of Special Brew and baccy-tinged phlegm on the pavement. Sometimes all we need is a brashness to lift spirits and give chutzpah to rebellion. And while getting pissed and getting your bum out in the street can be ruddy fun, it's probably not an effective weapon against oppressive forces in our society.
What can be effective weapon, however, is being challenging and thought-provoking. And while punk has rowdiness in spades, it's this level of perception that it often lacks.
Enter, then, please, Dick Lucas. Lead singer and lyricist of anarcho-punk legends Subhumans, Culture Shock and Citizen Fish, Lucas is a purveyor of radical noisiness mashed up with wit and sharp insight. He is one of the finest lyricists the genre's ever produced.
Even at his bluntest, such as the song 'No' (it's opening lines: “No/I don't believe in Jesus Christ/My Mummy died of cancer when I was five”), he concentrates on moving away from empty rhetoric and embedding his ideas in real life.
But Lucas is smarter and more sophisticated than this. Songs such as 'Nothing I Can Do' are sympathetic to the alienation and disempowerment that we all feel when we see the world crumbling around our knees. In 'Waste of Breath', he observes this in the punk community, criticising the misdirected rebellion that substitutes alienation. Probably the best, most poetic example of Lucas' analysis is the song 'Fractured'. He describes feeling “fractured – dashed up on cracked foundations of a civilisation” and “[desiring]... heights unknown, yet knowing it's all manufactured”. Here, Lucas is describing not just alienation but the normalised madness created when illusory dreams are offered with zero alternative.
Lucas is interested in politicising the minutiae of life. In a personal favourite, Citizen Fish's 'Can't Complain', he aims his considerable annoyance at a society where stifling politeness is favoured over a free exchange of ideas. Lucas here shows off a great ability to take the smallest gestures, pull them apart and extrapolate them into a wider political context. Its lyrics are worth quoting at length:
“A fear imposed by those who say that rituals in life
are needed to sustain the draining off of inspiration
so no one ever dares complain about their situation.
Imagine what the change could be if what was thought so constantly was said,
not kept locked up inside our heads.
Too many people thinking,
'No one thinks like this. What if no one else agrees?
It is too much of a risk'.
A nod and half a glance contain
the contents of a super-brain or for all we know,
he could be insane,
but its hard to tell cause he looks the same,
and anyway, he didn't say his name,
not that anyone dared to ask.”
His observations are acute and grounded, and even more remarkable for their accessibility. I recall writer Stewart Home remarking in an interview once that communicating your ideas in simple, easily understandable language is a true sign of intelligence, and by this measure Lucas is one of the most intelligent lyricists around.
I got into Subhumans and other anarcho-punk bands pretty late on in my life, maybe in my early 20s. I'd listened to plenty of the aforementioned 'political' punk bands singing vaguely about freedom, about revolution, with little background analysis and a misguided assumption that everyone listening shares the same values (clue: they don't). I'd stupidly accepted this as enough political analysis. Lucas' words were a revelation, a clear and precise wake up call, and utterly essential to my interest in radical politics.
A few years later, as I took up writing and performing, Lucas was always in the back of my mind. He reminded me to analyse and think through my ideas fully, rather than fall back on the comfort of buzzwords. Lucas knows why he's angry, but he's never dogmatic. He's fully aware that real life is messy business and easy answers take the piss.
Paul Case is a writer and spoken word artist who performs under the pseudonym of Captain of the Rant. You can download live recordings and two dub poetry EPs, which he recorded with Hair Explosiom, at http://captainoftherant.bandcamp.com