The Unsung Jewish Roots of Punk

Punk was 'the next generation of Jews who went around putting sticks in the eyes of the older Jews in the music business.'

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The Jewish roots of punk music is the subject of a roundtable discussion that will wrap up Jewish Book Week in London on Saturday.

Punk veterans, including independent label bosses Geoff Travis of Rough Trade and Mute’s Daniel Miller and journalist Charles Shaar Murray, will join so-called "professor of punk" Vivien Goldman in pondering how and why punk and Jewishness intersected.

The Independent newspaper quotes Norman Lebrecht, whose series "Music and the Jews" begins on BBC Radio 3 next month, saying: “There’s a lot of circumstantial evidence that pop music begins in a conversation on a hot day in New York between the sons of people who fled the pogroms in Russia, and the sons of others who’d fled from the horrors of the slave field in the Deep South, and this common affinity that young Jewish people and black people find for certain rhythms and blue notes, and a legacy of oppression. And commercially, the American music business was founded by Jews, working with black musicians.”

According to the Independent, "punk rock’s transatlantic fuse was lit" when Sex Pistols founder Malcolm McLaren saw musician and punk fashion icon Richard Hell in New York in 1975. At the time, McLaren, from a Jewish background in the East End rag trade, was running the King’s Road boutique, Sex.

Hell, whose original name was Richard Lester Meyers, was wearing a black leather jacket, torn, safety-pinned T-shirts and short spiky hair. With his former band, Television, Hell had recently opened at CBGB. the punk hothouse in the Bowery , which was run by Hilly Kristal, another Jew.

Unmentioned Jewish roots

In both London and New York, punk had substantial, if rarely remarked, Jewish roots.

The Clash’s Mick Jones and the band’s manager Bernie Rhodes, original Clash and PiL guitarist Keith Levene, Joey and Tommy Ramone and their manager Danny Fields; Blondie’s Chris Stein, the Patti Smith Group’s Lenny Kaye and most of The Dictators - all were members of the tribe.

Punk, says Lebrecht, maintained several long Jewish traditions. “It was McLaren and the next generation of Jews who went around putting sticks in the eyes of the older Jews in the music business,” he says. “McLaren was taught by his family that it is good to rebel. It was a combination of the iconoclastic outsiderhood which is innate in the culture of the Jewish minority, and wanting to be a little bit more cool than just making shirts.”

The use of swastikas by Siouxsie Sioux, the Ramones (two of whose members were Jewish) and even Johnny Rotten provokes different reactions among Jewish punks. “I thought it was dumb and infantile,” says Charles Shaar Murray, one of the panelists in Saturday's discussion.

Daniel Miller, whose Mute label helped forge synthpop and the careers of Nick Cave and Depeche Mode in punk’s aftermath, begs to differ. “I thought the use of the swastika was a positive thing, completely depending on the context," he says. "I knew the difference between Siouxsie Sioux and a member of the NF with a swastika tattoo.”

John Lydon of Public Image Ltd. performs in Indio, California in this April 16, 2010 file photo. Credit: Reuters
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Facade of legendary punk club CBGB in New York.Credit: Wikimedia Commons
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John Holmstrom, an American underground cartoonist and founding editor of the defunct Punk Magazine.Credit: Wikimedia Commons
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Mick Jones, playing with the Clash.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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