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Tom Hodgkinson: Want to feel inspired? Look to the punks


Sometimes you need to get out of your own country to be reminded of your own history. I spent last weekend in Brno, a city in Moravia in the east of the Czech Republic. I was speaking to 500 vaguely alternative young parents at a parenting conference organised by a group of radical political activists. On the day I left, the organisers were taking part in a demonstration against government plans to ban home births.

This was all great. But what really blew my mind was the punk-record collection of Filip, the 36-year-old social worker and activist I stayed with. A real punk expert, he had hundreds of cassette tapes and vinyl records neatly catalogued. He has also written a book on the history of Czech punk under Communism, from 1977 to the revolution year of 1989. It is a sign of the power of the punk movement, and the courage of the young Czechs, that despite Czechoslovakia's isolation from the West, and despite a police force that actively cracked down on decadent counter-revolutionary music, dozens of punk bands played underground gigs and recorded tapes, taking their inspiration from smuggled bootlegs.

Filip also had a great collection of US and UK punk records, plus books on the bands which followed the pioneers, from the Clash to the Damned. There was anarcho-punk, a fiercely political movement spearheaded by Crass, an odd collection of artists and angry young men. I'd forgotten how massively influential Crass were. They spawned a whole movement of similar bands – Flux of Pink Indians and the Poison Girls to name but two – and started their own record label. One of their bands was called Kukl and featured a young Icelandic singer called Björk.

A distinguishing feature of these punks was their strict moral code. Generally vegetarian, pacifist, anti-fascist, pro-feminist and, like William Blake, sympathetic to the oppressed, they kept a close eye on each other for ethical lapses, such as the ultimate crime of "selling out". They adhered to an anti-authoritarian DIY ethic, putting on their own shows and producing their own fanzines and records. In the States, a movement called "hardcore punk" emerged. Again, some of the bands, such as Minor Threat, were almost monkish in their habits: no smoking, no meat, no alcohol; even no sex in some cases. These bands were known as "straight edge".

The music was very fast, very aggressive, very loud, with very short songs. I myself played in a hardcore punk band at university. It was actually an exciting period in music: we liked UK underground bands such as Napalm Death and the Stupids. We even ended up with two tracks on a 1989 compilation of UK hardcore punk called Spleurck, although with our largely upper-middle-class backgrounds, it was difficult to summon up the righteous rage that characterised the proper punks.

This period in music was followed by rave, which was ultimately merely hedonistic, and then Britpop. Looking at Britpop now, it's striking how devoid it was of political content. Blur, Oasis, Pulp, Supergrass: did any of them sing about anarchy and peace? Did any of them rail against the ruling class? No. And not coincidentally, Britpop was actually approved by the authorities. While punk and rave had been seen as a massive pain by our rulers, Britpop – punk without the attitude – was embraced as a profitable UK export. We all remember Noel Gallagher's trip to Downing Street.

I also read a pile of Filip's fanzines, including the venerable Maximum Rock'n'Roll, a punk monthly produced in San Francisco by a collective (no editors, just "co-ordinators"). MRR, as it is known, has been going since 1977. Its tagline is "By the Punks. For the Punks". It publishes long earnest letters about the scene from moralistic teenagers.

What emerges from these magazines is one simple fact: punk thrives around the world. And it has been kept alive by its very physicality: while there are plenty of downloads and blogs in the movement, much preferred are old-fashioned formats such as vinyl, books and real fanzines made of real paper, which can be passed around and last for years.

Now, being a 43-year-old parent, I am completely out of touch with contemporary underground music. But my experiences in Moravia led me to ponder the idea of putting on some punk gigs under the aegis of The Idler. And, inspired by the punk spirit around me, I got up on stage in Moravia on Saturday night with the Ukulele Orchestra Jako Brno and played "Anarchy in the UK" by the Sex Pistols on the uke (ind.pn/rhXIYU). Punk's not dead!

Tom Hodgkinson is the editor of 'The Idler'