BANDSPEAK, BOSTON/NE BANDS

Proletarian Punk: An Interview with the Proletariat’s Richard Brown

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Formed in 1980, the Proletariat were one of the most interesting bands of the early Boston hardcore scene. Three of their songs were included on the now legendary 1982 This Is Boston, Not L.A. hardcore compilation. Often compared to Gang of Four for their art-punk style and Crass for their political lyrics, the Proletariat were, in fact, highly idiosyncratic. Stylistically, they were often more unpredictable than the post-punk bands they were grouped with and their politics were far more explicit than early anarcho-punk, most likely due to their Marxist bent. The Proletariat recently re-formed and recorded a new album, entitled Move. I spoke with vocalist Richard Brown about the band’s career, their music, and their politics.

 

Jackson Albert Mann: Before we start, I’d just like to apologize for being a little star-struck. I listened to the This is Boston, Not L.A. compilation as a teenager so this is sort of a dream-like experience for me.

Richard Brown: Of course. How old are you, by the way?

 

JAM: I’m 25. 

RB: (Laughing) Oh, wow!

 

JAM: I’d like to begin with the origins of the band. What was it that inspired you to form a political punk band? 

RB: In terms of the musical origins, we were very influenced by bands that I think many people at the time were trying to distance themselves from. For example, David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, and Aerosmith. That’s what we [Brown and guitarist Peter Bevilacqua] were listening to until 1977, when we graduated from high-school. It wasn’t until later that we heard the Ramones and the Sex Pistols, as well as local bands like the Neighborhoods, La Peste, and Real Kids. Peter was actually the one who formally started the band. We had just seen Cheap Trick together and he wanted to sneak into a show to see The Neighborhoods and La Peste. We didn’t end up sneaking in and instead decided to form our own band. We went through a few different guitarists at first. Eventually, our friend Frank [Michaels], who’d initially been reluctant to play, agreed to join. As far as the left-wing politics of our songs goes, that can mostly be traced back to The Clash and the political themes in their music. Their stuff always urged you to do the right thing and that had a real effect on us. 

 

JAM: Definitely. The Clash’s involvement with RAR (Rock Against Racism), the ANL (Anti-Nazi League), and their pretty open support for the Sandinistas was really influential for a lot of young people at the time. 

RB: I also had a few teachers that influenced my personal politics. In high-school, Peter and I had a class with a teacher named Bruce Stark who taught Literature of Protest. This really got you into a different mindset. We read so much, from Catcher in the Rye to The Stranger. It exposed you to everything. Then I went to UMass Dartmouth, where I majored in history with a focus on Latin America. Learning about political movements there and the heavy CIA involvement in their repression was eye-opening. 

 

JAM: Eduardo Galeano’s book Open Veins of Latin America was immensely educational for me regarding the history of political struggles in Central and South America. Was there anything in particular you were reading that affected you?

RB: You beat me to the punch. What was also influential for me was learning about the life of one of my professors at the time, Professor Giffon, who had grown up in a few different places in Latin America. He would talk about his childhood and how chaotic it was. I couldn’t even begin to imagine growing up in the situations that he would tell us about. It was my first exposure to international politics and showed me how different the rest of the world was. 

 

JAM: I was recently in Guatemala for a few weeks during their presidential elections. That was interesting in itself, but what was even more so was hearing Guatemalans speak about the election within the context of the country’s violent history, so much of which was due to US intervention. 

RB: Yeah. You don’t learn anything about that growing up in the US. And if you do learn about it, it’s almost impossible to imagine. It’s grim.

 

JAM: Eventually, y’all decided to focus on the band full-time, which led you to drop out of UMass Dartmouth and start working regular jobs. Some articles on you from the ‘80s imply that the decision to leave school and take up working-class professions was a conscious one. The idea that artists need to be embedded in… or at least experience the conditions of the working-class in order to create effective political art wasn’t new at the time. It’s in left-wing currents like Maoism, Italian Workerism, etc. But was this actually a deliberate choice?

RB: At that time I was working as a truck driver. Peter started working at Shaw’s Supermarket, where he still works to this day. He’s put, like, forty years in. By that point, Tommy [McKnight, drummer] was in the band and he worked at a gas station. Frank wasn’t working so he became our de facto manager, making all the phone calls and doing the booking. At our shows, we would often be interpreted as, sort of… straight-laced and un-radical. The typical view of punk rock then, before the big explosion of hardcore, was dyed hair and spiked leather. But we didn’t have a uniform. Instead of dressing up to go play, we would just perform in our work clothes. The Phoenix even commented on how it made more sense for us to do this because the image connected with the idea of us making working-class music. But a lot of this is retrospective because at the time we weren’t doing it deliberately. It was just how we were. 

 

JAM: Your song ‘Options’, which was on the Boston, Not L.A. compilation, is a really great example of this type of working-class expression. The lyrics present the pretty bleak choices, i.e. options, that many working-class people face in their day to day lives. It was also, by far, your most popular song. To the point where people would constantly scream for you to play it at gigs. What do you think accounts for that tune’s popularity?

RB: In my opinion, the lyrics, which are pretty repetitive, have less to do with ‘Options’ popularity. I’ve listened to the instrumental track without vocals and I think it’s the catchiness of the riff that people like rather than the lyrical themes. Also, the tightness of the band and the crisp production in ‘Options’ stand out in the context of the other songs that were included on the compilation. For instance, on ‘Allegiance’ we were just trying to play as fast as possible. And on ‘Religion is the Opium of the Masses’ there’s that whole quasi-jazz meltdown interlude. 

 

JAM: It’s almost like a free jazz section. 

RB: Yes, exactly. Also, the reason people would push us to play ‘Options’ at gigs was actually two-fold. Obviously, there was a huge contingent of people who wanted to hear the song because they liked it. But, ‘Options’ was usually towards the end of our set. So, the crew, who couldn’t stand us, would try to get us to play it so that our set would end earlier. (Laughing) Basically, they would join in with the fans so that they could get us the hell off the stage. 

 

JAM: I’ve read a few times that there was a bit of antagonism towards the Proletariat in the Boston hardcore scene. Do you think it was in reaction to your more experimental style? Because you were very much against the trend of “louder, faster” that was typical of the time. Or was it the politics? Or maybe a combination of both? 

RB: Initially, it was an issue with the style. Also, at the time ‘straight-edge’ culture was enormous in Boston. Bands that weren’t explicitly straight-edge would catch grief. Gang Green, like us, weren’t straight-edge but they played so lightning-fast that they weren’t bothered by the straight-edge people. And, to be honest, most of the time, despite the fact that we weren’t straight-edge, that our music was very left-wing, and that our style was more art-punk than hardcore, we were left alone. Eventually people started getting bored with the same type of loud, fast hardcore anyway so we were seen as a nice stylistic change in the often static line-ups of typical hardcore bands. Also, by the mid ‘80s that whole conflict had completely disappeared since many famous hardcore bands had done the crossover thing and were playing a style that was more metal than punk. The metal crossover stuff also changed the way our own style was perceived in the scene. I can’t be totally sure about the genesis of this, but after the success of Soma Holiday [the Proletariat’s second release and first full-length album] and towards the end of that initial period of hardcore our fan-base started to grow. I think it’s because we began to be seen as one of the bands that “stayed punk.”

 

JAM: I’d like to talk about the new album a little. You deal with a bunch of issues ranging from labor organizing to police violence. One song in particular stuck out to me because it deals with a theme that was present in your early music as well: settler-colonialism. In the tune ‘Indian Removal Act’ you accuse people in the US (and notably you include yourself by using the pronoun ‘we’) of willful ignorance regarding the subjugation and near-total destruction of manifold indigenous cultures during the construction of this country. How do you relate to this topic and why is it so prevalent in your music both then and now? 

RB: We should just call what happened what it is: genocide. And I think the reason this topic often appears in our music is because it relates to one of the early preoccupations of the band as a whole. History is written by the winners. And unfortunately, growing up in the US, that’s the only narrative we’ve ever heard. With the Proletariat we wanted to provide an alternative to that. The ultimate screw-job in the history of the world is what we did to the Native Americans. Everything here belonged to them. And now we won’t even allow them the dignity of truly owning the few pieces of land we let them keep without putting a pipeline through it. It just continues and continues.

 

JAM: In your earlier song on this topic, ‘Trail of Tears,’ you talk about the history of exploitation and violence against indigenous people perpetrated by the US. But in ‘Indian Removal Act’ you’re far more urgently accusatory. And it’s pretty obvious why you’ve evolved an angrier tone. It’s been almost four decades since you first wrote about settler-colonialism and, as the #NODAPL protests you mentioned have shown, Native Americans are still treated like nothing by our government and, frankly, our culture. 

RB: We’ve not once done right by them. 

 

JAM: I was struck by the musical style of this new record. Your material from the ‘80s is known for its experimental sound. Many critics compared you to the post-punk and art-punk bands that were then in vogue in the UK. However, on Move the style is far more orthodox. Was this the result of Don [Sanders, new guitarist] bringing a different approach? Was it something that was discussed before the writing and recording of the album? 

RB: We had originally decided to reform to do a handful of shows in support of the reissue of Soma Holiday on vinyl in 2016. While we were rehearsing for that we decided to write a new song, which ended up being ‘Scab,’ and from there we began writing the other tunes. There was never any discussion during this process regarding the style. Don definitely has a more full sound than Frank, whose style was always very spare. I also think that much of the feel of the record was due to the production by Lou Giordano. Lou was the producer on all of our material from the ‘80s. He went on to do sound for Hüsker Dü and produce the Goo Goo Dolls. With all that experience he was able to really fill out our sound. Don, Lou, plus all the new technology that’s appeared in studios over the past few decades really affected the style of the album. 

 

JAM: So, any shows coming up? 

RB: Our next show is on September 21st at the Narrows Center For The Arts in Fall River, MA and we’ll definitely be stringing together a few shows soon after that as well.

 

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Jackson Albert Mann is an activist, writer, and musician from Boston, MA. He is an Adjunct Professor of Music at Bunker Hill Community College and a Teaching Artist at Berklee College of Music’s City Music Program.

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