Trump-Era Agitprop

Screenshot from the Proletariat's Move video.

Even viewed from a distance, the underground scene in Boston and eastern Massachusetts in the late 1970s and early 1980s was one of the most vibrant in the country. The city and its environs produced more than its share of blazing, straight ahead thrash acts, including the likes of Gang Green, Jerry’s Kids, the F.U.s, SS Decontrol, and DYS.

But then there was Mission of Burma, one of the oddest products of US underground scene in any of its locales, and the Moving Targets, who took MoB’s sonic fury and wedded it to a driving, melodic wall of sound with a rhythm section pulsing like a beating heart.

And then there was the Proletariat. They really didn’t sound like anything else in the United States. They were similar to Mission of Burma, but only to the extent that, back in those days you would listen to them and find yourself asking, “where the fuck did that come from?”

Where they came from was southeastern Massachusetts, not that that told one very much. They were one of those bands that you only had to hear about ten seconds of before you knew who it was, or at least that they had created a sound all their own.

The Proletariat were political in a way that few bands were in those days. Most of the big Boston acts limited themselves to bemoaning the condition of being a teenager in privileged, suburban, white America.

That was fine, as far as it went, but it didn’t really require much in terms of raised consciousness. The Proletariat, by contrast, laid it all on the line, and in a way such that you could hear the words, as if those words were important, which they were.

Vocalist Richard Brown sounded like a socialist provocateur at Hyde Park Corner, haranguing a crowd, demanding that they look at exactly how fucked up things had gotten, daring them to do something about it.

In “Options,” an early cut that came out on the This Is Boston, Not L.A. comp in 1982, Brown succinctly described the condition in which the bulk of Americans found themselves:

Catch my eye
A new slogan
Tell me the options
Tell me the options

Military service
Factory employment
Welfare assistance
Tell me the options

Brown’s delivery was clean, angry, and urgent. It sort of sounded as if he had a British accent, which made his words seem that much more radical. Everybody knew there were actual, unapologetic socialists in Britain, and the Clash had sung about politics in a way that few American bands did.

Even more political than the Clash were the Gang of Four, hailing from the industrial north of Britain.

Far away from the London heartland of UK punk, the Gang of Four had developed a stark, minimalist, feedback-drenched amalgam of punk and funk that sounded like nothing else going.

They were one of a small number of bands (the Slits, the Pop Group, maybe Wire) that broke away from the rock and roll atavism the bands that had come out of the pub rock scene to create new and novel sounds.

You couldn’t necessarily say that they were direct precursors of the Proletariat, but they created a space within the underground inhabited by people who might lend an ear to something that broke the mold.

You could look at the Gang of Four, with their weird, angular rhythms and repetitive structures and would be justified in seeing a similarity. But the Proletariat’s songs had a linear quality, and a more direct aggression that gave them a specific vibe and identity, not better or worse, but all their own.

The Proletariat gave up the ghost in 1985, having released two LPs, plus the Marketplace/Death of a Hedon 7” and some comp tracks. At that point, they’d already created a body of work head and shoulders above most of their contemporaries.

From anthems (Homeland ), to buzzsaw punk (Religion is the Opium of the Masses), to stark post-punk (Marketplace), the Proletariat had shown a willingness to develop variety within the structure of their style. If that had been the end, it would have been fine.

But it wasn’t the end. And perhaps now might be the moment to observe that the reunion of long-dead bands is generally a mixed blessing at best. Without naming names, this is often a case of people wanting to squeeze a bit of cash out of the post-Green Day punk environment.

For fans, it can often be an opportunity to see long beloved songs performed (frequently by subsets of the original members) that one couldn’t see in the day due to time or distance, or the lack of Youtube. All too rarely is it a case of a band that still has something new and vibrant to offer.

The release of the Proletariat’s new disc, Move, is one such case. The nearly three-decade layoff has cost the band none of its urgency and aggression.

Richard Brown is still angrily speaking truth to power. This was timely in the 1980s, and just as much so now in what you might call the down-market version of Reagan’s America.

Stylistically, not that much has changed. The songs are still direct, still clean, still angular. The band now consists of three original members: vocalist Richard Brown, drummer Tom McKnight, and bassist Peter Bevilacqua.

Guitarist Frank Michaels has been replaced by Don Sanders, formerly of the early Providence hardcore band Idle Rich. Sanders integration into the band is seamless, and the product could be a direct continuation of the band’s original incarnation.

But the production values are noticeably better. This is not to say that their earlier recordings sounded bad. Even to the degree that they sounded a bit raw by comparison to more mainstream music, that rawness contributed to the power of their sound.

Move has richer recording values. Sanders’ guitar sound is thicker than that on the original Proletariat recordings, and McKnight’s drums have a depth and power that make the earlier recordings sound slightly tinny.

The record kicks off with “Incarceration Incentive,” opening with a heavy, funky, damped lick that lets the listener know that what is about to arrive is of a piece with what came before. “Indian Removal Act” sounds like a cross between the Gang of Four and Big Black, with a mid-range drum track pounding out a background to a guitar like dripping with harmonic overtones.

The sixth cut, “Bomb Throwing Practice” is a more rollicking cut, showing that the band’s punk rock chops are still very much present and correct.

There is a lot to love about this record. First of all, there is a lot of it. At thirteen songs and 40 minutes, it’s clear that they waited to record until they had enough material. They are also just as topical as they ever were.

“The Murder of Alton Sterling,” the cut that was released a few months ago as a teaser, offers a refreshingly critical and topical take on the judicial murder of an African American man by police in Baton Rouge. Brown reprises his original persona, a prophet crying from the wilderness at 150 decibels.

What Move makes clear is that the Proletariat have as much to say to the current situation as they did back in the day. It’s easy to get soft as you get older, and to resign yourself to just keeping your head down and getting by. As the country slides toward authoritarianism, this is a band the reminds one of how important and powerful art can be in the struggle against oppression. They have something important to say, and the have the guts to get out and say it. Opposition is based on the refusal to acquiesce and the readiness to speak unpalatable truths aloud.

The Proletariat is agitprop for the age of Trump, telling truths in the face of unapologetic lies. But it is also fun. The songs here are catchy to the point of infectiousness.

This is a release that has real political power in the sense of combining groove and content without sacrificing either aspect. This is a band that we needed in the 1980s. It’s a band that we need now, more than ever.

Screenshot courtesy of The Proletariat. All rights reserved.