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The Freakout Over Politically Incorrect Punk

When the punk rock thought-police targeted the New York City band Agnostic Front.

In September 1984, the widely read punk zine Maximum Rocknroll published its review of Victim in Pain, the debut album by the New York City band Agnostic Front.

"I'm approaching this band with caution," the reviewer warned. "Unfortunately, much of the narrow-mindedness, fanatical nationalism, and violence that has destroyed the New York punk scene seems to have revolved around AGNOSTIC FRONT."

The author of that review was Maximum Rocknroll founder and editor Tim Yohannan, a 40-something ex-Yippie who thought that punk music should march in lockstep with left-wing politics. As Ray Farrell, a punk veteran who worked at the independent record label SST (run by Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn), told Steven Blush, author of American Hardcore: A Tribal History, "there was an ideological development at Maximum RockNRoll, making everything move towards a Socialist bent."

In effect, Yohannan appointed himself as the grand inquisitor of the punk rock thought police, scouring the scene for any signs of deviation from the left-wing script. "If it's just 'good sounding' music you want," he admonished readers in the March 1985 issue, "then punk is no alternative at all. For me, what makes punk different is the intelligence and commitment behind it."

Agnostic Front quickly became one of Yohannan's primary targets. As he asserted in one 1984 issue, "the N.Y. Skins apparently have embraced the British National Front's racist and nationalist attitudes." Yohannan rarely missed the opportunity to depict the band's members as the equivalent of goose-stepping goons.

Now one of those band members, Agnostic Front singer Roger Miret, is out with a gripping new memoir that tells his side of the story.

"A writer for this crappy but influential fanzine, Maximumrocknroll, started talking shit about us and calling us a bunch of fascist skinheads," Miret writes in My Riot: Agnostic Front, Grits, Guts & Glory (co-written with Jon Wiederhorn). "The crazy thing about Timmy calling me a fascist is that I was an immigrant Latino kid dating a Jewish girl, and she never accused me of being a Nazi sympathizer."

Lesser Gods BooksLesser Gods BooksBorn in Cuba in 1964, Miret came to the U.S. as a young child after his parents fled the Castro regime. He grew up rough in "the slums of New Jersey towns like Passaic and Paterson." From there he found his way to Manhattan, where the loud, fast sounds of bands like the Stimulators, the Bad Brains, and Reagan Youth were blaring out of clubs like Max's Kansas City, A7, and CBGB. After hanging around the scene for a couple of years, Miret joined Agnostic Front in 1983.

Agnostic Front has "never put down any other races or ethnicities," Miret writes in his memoir. "From the start we welcomed anyone who wanted to be a part of what we were doing. I was Cuban for Christ's sake—far from the image of the blond-haired, blue-eyed Aryan Übermensch." Miret has nothing but contempt for those "privileged, politically correct" punks that slandered his name.

Unlike some punk acts, Agnostic Front never offered any sort of coherent political message. But the band did sometimes express right-of-center views in their songs and interviews. Their 1986 track "Public Assistance," for example, was a harsh attack on the welfare state. Sample lyric: "Uncle Sam takes half my pay so you can live for free."

Miret didn't write those lyrics. He outsourced the job to Peter Steele, the leader of the Brooklyn metal act Carnivore, who would later go on to fame as the frontman for goth-rockers Type O Negative. But Miret stands firmly behind the sentiment. "I was a minority kid whose mom was on welfare and I saw all the time how other people in our neighborhood abused the system," he writes in My Riot. "Public assistance was designed to help people better their lives and move on, not to enable the families that used it. Those are the people the song was aimed at."

Miret and his bandmates also voiced support for President Ronald Reagan's foreign policy. "We have to stop Communist aggression," guitarist Vinnie Stigma told the zine Guillotine in a 1984 interview. "I think [Reagan] has guts," Miret later added. Statements like that definitely ruffled a few mohawks.

Did Agnostic Front sometimes promote conservative or right-wing opinions? Yes. But were they fascists? Nazis? Not unless those terms are drained of all meaning and used to smear any right-leaning point of view.

"To say Agnostic Front were a bunch of Nazis in a skinhead gang was ridiculous. I was there, and no one united NYHC [New York hardcore] like Roger Miret," Youth of Today guitarist John Porcelly once told the journalist Tony Rettman. "I used to tell Tim Yohannan what great guys [Agnostic Front] were. He would never believe me."

The freakout over Agnostic Front's politically incorrect punk came to a head when Miret, Stigma, and bassist Rob Kabula agreed to be interviewed for Maximum Rocknroll's January 1985 issue by punker Dave Scott.

Scott sent his questions by mail and the band mailed back their answers. But Yohannan thought the interview was too friendly, so he sent a batch of his own questions, focusing on the "disturbing aspects to these nice guys' philosophies" and "their admittedly nationalistic outlook." Miret, Stigma, and Kabula replied again.

Yohannan then edited the whole correspondence together, littering the Q&A with a final round of his own commentary. He literally gave himself the last word on his most contentious exchanges with the band.

It was an ugly and heavy-handed piece of work. Yohannan revealed his own intellectual insecurities by doing everything in his power to stack the deck in his favor. He clearly did not trust his own subscribers to read the original interviews and then make up their minds for themselves. Even left-wing punks were embarrassed by his performance.

Regrettably, echoes of Yohannan's approach can still be heard today. When Tony Rettman's great oral history, NYHC: New York Hardcore 1980–1990, was published in 2014, New Yorker critic Kelefa Sanneh took a cheap shot at Agnostic Front that came straight from the Maximum Rocknroll playbook. "Agnostic Front all but dared listeners to assume the worst, and Yohannan wasn't the only one who did," Sanneh wrote. "Agnostic Front shows attracted a certain number of white-power partisans, and the band occasionally had to pause, mid-set, to censure an audience member for Sieg-Heiling in the pit."

I've been attending punk, hardcore, and metal shows since the age of 12, and I've encountered white-power partisans in a variety of locations, including performances by the multi-racial ska punks the Mighty Mighty Bosstones; the multi-racial post-hardcore group Orange 9MM; the multi-racial rap-rockers Rage Against the Machine; and the multi-racial death metal outfit Suffocation. None of those bands "dared listeners to assume the worst," and yet the Nazi wannabes still showed up. The reason they showed up is because racist thugs don't care what band happens to be playing on a given night. They come out to cause trouble.

One particular experience comes to mind. Around 1994 the great New York City hardcore punk band Murphy's Law played a show in Tampa, Florida. Much like Agnostic Front, the members of Murphy's Law had had their names dragged through the mud by Maximum Rocknroll back in the 1980s.

I saw a whole lot of neo-Nazi boneheads at that show. What happened? The members of Murphy's Law got into a massive fight with the racists and sent several of them to the hospital. Then the band finished playing its set. In the pages of My Riot, Miret recounts similar anti-fascist exploits at Agnostic Front shows. New York hardcore may not have been sufficiently left-wing for the likes of Maximum Rocknroll, but that didn't stop New York hardcore musicians from being antifa before antifa was cool.

Today Agnostic Front's debut album is justly recognized as a genre landmark. When Victim in Pain turned 25 in 2009, The Village Voice said it "deserves to be ranked within a stage dive's distance of Velvet Underground and Ramones classics on any list of important and influential New York records."

Speaking of the Ramones, their guitarist, Johnny Ramone, liked to describe himself as a "Nixon Republican." According to the scolds at Maximum Rocknroll, that means Johnny fails the punk rock ideological purity test. But if a founding member and principal songwriter for one of the greatest punk bands of all time can't pass the test, doesn't that prove that the test itself is total bullshit?

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  • Sevo||

    '...For me, what makes punk different is the [lefty sentiments] behind it....'

    Fixed.
    Did this guy intern at Rolling Stone?

  • SIV||

    Ha! I read every issue back then. MR&R did have one non-commie columnist, Mykel Board. It was a useful resource that was available in any town with an independent record store. It was easy to discern the political from the aesthetic opinion of the writers. Like ignore the reviews of some guy who wrote "I like every kind of music except for Kkkountry"

  • GILMORE™||

    "Old man was once cool: film at 11"

  • Ska||

    That's all some of us have now.

    Not me, of course.

  • Brandybuck||

    Ska used to be cool too. Then Madness sold out and it's never been the same. Might as well be listening to political correct punk.

  • ||

    I played in a punk back in the mid-80s.

    In my experience, all punks are fascists. That's what drove me away from punk.

    "Antifa before antifa was cool" is an apt description. The constant purity tests and obsession over minute details of whether such-and-such style of leather jacket is "punk enough" went beyond self-parody in the 80s. Use a fourth chord and you'd sold your soul to The Man.

  • Arizona_Guy||

    As a friend of mine would joke:

    "Hey guys, lets all rebel the same way."

  • Fuck You - Cut Spending||

    One could say the same think about 60's hippies, outlaw country, and gangsta rap. Every one of those has a handful of great artists and a shitload of hacks.

  • spark76||

    i've always been a fan of the similar sentiment- "don't conform, be like us!"

  • Mark22||

  • SIV||

    Did Agnostic Front sometimes promote conservative or right-wing opinions? Yes. But were they fascists? Nazis? Not unless those terms are drained of all meaning and used to smear any right-leaning point of view.

    Anti-communist=fascist has been the rule since the 1920s except for the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact hiatus.

  • ||

    And some people think the reverse also holds true: anti-facist = communist.

  • Azathoth!!||

    No, it's antifa = communist.

    There's a difference.

    I'm against fascism. Therefore I am anti-fascism.

    Antifa are fascistic communists--the worst of all the leftist fever swamp in one vile wad.

  • SIV||

    Wait, Tampa skins in '94? That was big back in '84. Was there some kind of retro nostalgia thing going on?

  • Damian S||

    Nope. It's true. But around the time of this incident, a lot of skinheads adopted a 50's greaser look. I guess to distance themselves from the skinhead stigma with a cool and less-menacing look, but one that is still somewhat rooted in old timey "values" and white-bred Americanism.

  • ||

    Rancid is rabid about free speech. And they still rock. Green Day thinks Billy Joe should get to decide who is allowed to say what. Grrr...

  • ChipToBeSquare||

    God Rancid is amazing. I don't care that "...And Out Come the Wolves" is the same damn song over and over. That one song is really good!

    I think they're left leaning, but it's good to hear that they care about free speech

  • Brandybuck||

    I don't like punk rock. I don't understand punk rock. But I know enough to know that punk rock is outside the mainstream, is deliberately alternative, and was created in response to the fake liberalism of the 70s.The idea that punk rock has to conform to mainstream progressive groupthink is fucking bullshit.

  • JeremyR||

    Punk rock hasn't been outside the mainstream since Green Day.

    It's part of what killed rock music.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    40-something ex-Yippie

    Whhhat?!!! What, was he a yippie in 1994?

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Oh, sorry, I missed the year at the beginning. This happened in 1984. Carry on.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    But if a founding member and principal songwriter for one of the greatest punk bands of all time can't pass the test, doesn't that prove that the test itself is total bullshit?

    No, it proves that the litmus test is more important than ever.

  • CANDOKNOWHOW||

    .."more important than ever" Really?
    Oh, and WHO makes the "rules" then, and better yet.. WHO enforces them? And how??? Nothing could be more statist in my book, and really rings more like the very same Nazis it's aimed at!

    Johnny was loved by everyone in the scene back then including the likes of Lou Reed, Joan Jett, Darby Crash , and PATTI SMITH (& that list goes on and on) Everyone had differing opinions and MOST had differing opinions from him, but it would usually lead to respectful intellectual discourse more often than not.

    If you wanna oust peaceful people from a music scene like that then you're really just doing your best to recruit for the polar opposite, especially if you're flexing muscle.. then you can just expect it to be flexed right back at you by the army you're building against yourself.

    So what if Johnny was a right winger, the fact that he spent his entire life on tour with a band mate who was bi and turned tricks for smack in NY says a lot more about his tolerance than anyone trying to push "litmus tests" on anyone else they meet.

  • Arizona_Guy||

    I'm trying to find a cite, but Johnny Ramone said something to the effect of:

    Punks should be right-wing or apolitical. If you're left-wing, you're just a hippy in punk clothing.

  • Arizona_Guy||

    I saw Jello Biafra and his new band in concert a few years ago. (Not DK)

    It took him about half a song to complain about GWB. He, of course, said nothing about BHO doing a bunch of the same stuff.

    He also complained about Reagan, and Thatcher. You know, dead people.

    The original version of "California Uber Alles" was about Jerry Brown. So you'd think his updated version would also be about Brown. Nope, he complained about Schwartzeneggar.

    And he said, without irony, that CNN was "right wing propaganda."

    In my experience, there has always been a leftist orthodoxy in punk.

  • ||

    Biafra has been an open Brown-supporter since 1992. In fact, it really didn't take long at all for him to turn partisan Democrat.

    Something something "punk's not dead but it deserves to die . . ."

  • CANDOKNOWHOW||

    How funny that he now rants like a blue dog forwarding their statist Orwellian agenda on the rest of us. Sounds like Obama falling through on his campaign promises to promptly pull out of Iraq & Afghanistan didn't phase him a bit. Nor his doubling down on the overseas atrocities by drone bombing schools, weddings, hospitals, and funerals.

    He turned his back on the whole legalize cannabis crowd, and even called for the head of Snowden after blatantly abusing the Patriot Act he was previously critical of when he was campaigning for votes.

    Instead, he chooses to be in silent support during his ragefest on stage, instead of calling them ALL out on their statist BS. What a shill, just another propagandist of a different flavor of state oppression.

  • ChipToBeSquare||

    I love Jello in DK. But holy crap is he an idiot once you let him go off. It's shocking how many punks hold him up as an intellectual because he got himself a stunningly useless degree and ran a joke campaign for mayor

  • jabster||

    Biafra became self-parody as soon as he sang that "punk means thinking for yourself". Oh, really?

    I'm not sure who the bigger whore-out is, Jello becoming a Brown supporter and loyal Dem or Dee Snider being an Algore (Mr. Tipper PMRC Gore) supporter.

    As soon as punk/hardcore became a mouthpiece for the Left I asked for the check.

    Anyone left after about 1984 was either a commie or a proto-Cobain, or they just wanted to get laid.

  • JeremyR||

    Punk is basically spoiled kids wanting the government to take care of them like their parents did.


    Duke: The lights are growing dim Otto. I know a life of crime has led me to this sorry fate, and yet, I blame society. Society made me what I am.

    Otto: That's BS. You're a white suburban punk just like me.

    Duke: Yeah, but it still hurts.

  • Fuck You - Cut Spending||

    I loved punk rock records back in the day but I sure hated punk rock shows starting around 80-81. Seemed like enough people were there solely because Fight Clubs didn't exist yet - their only reason for showing up was the exhilaration of getting in a fight. The assholes looking for a fight started doing Nazi salutes because nobody would pick a fight with them if they just wore a Che shirt. The fights never lasted more than 15 seconds, but that "no rules" element sure attracted a few exploiters. But once punk started having "rules" it began a slow, agonizing death.

  • Qsl||

    Eh, it was give and take.

    While certainly leftist ideas dominated (mostly from the influence of early anarchist), there was a mix to be had. For all the complaints against Agnostic Front, none of it mattered once Cause for Alarm was released. Ideology matters less when the sound is just leveling everything in its path.

    Even leftist leaning bands complained that MRR was too ideological (re: Rhythm Pigs). While MRR was certainly an important voice in the scene, it wasn't the scene.

    The same complaints of ideological purity can be leveled against mainstream libertarianism with regards to left-libertarianism. Welcome to the marketplace of ideas. It's messy and at times ugly, but the fact even Christian punk bands exist means the hegemonic claims are largely overblown.

  • ChipToBeSquare||

    I never experienced it, but I only hear bad things about the scene in the 80s. The early 2000s had their own political correctness with NOFX turning the Warped Tour into an advertisement for socialism, and the emo-influenced bands of today are pretty open about their SJW credentials and support for Bernie, but the violence of the 80s hasn't been recaptured. You just get shamed forever if you have a mosh pit and don't speak out for trans rights (but holy fuck are they quick to shame)

  • Curmudgeon44||

    Antifa. Huh.

  • RockLibertyWarrior||

    People forget Agnostic Front's "Victims in Pain" had a huge metal/crossover influence. In fact, when I first listened to this record without knowing anything about the band I thought Agnostic Front was a crossover thrash band.

  • RockLibertyWarrior||

    Punk became irrelevant to me once it became a leftist, hive mind movement. Any deviation from the left wing agenda and your a "fascist". Punk, when it started, questioned and hated both sides, it rebelled against everything. That changed and in my opinion for the worst, punks are "anti establishment" like they claim to be, their for establishment on steroids.

  • Mark22||

    So, the old rebels... same as the new rebels.

  • Damian S||

    I was at that Tampa show when Murphy's Law went up against the skins. It was scary as hell the way that room blew up. Found out the next day that my shirt had someone's blood on the back of it. To this day I mention that show to ML's old guitarist Todd and he still recalls it. That's how nuts it was. It didn't matter that ska bands were also on the bill. Back then, the boneheads would show up to any big gig and try to run things.

  • Azathoth!!||

    Hey Damon-go fuck yourself. We were never antifa, not "before it was cool", not ever--'cos it was never cool--not now, not ever.

    All the fucking DC assholes and the California shitheads coming in and demanding that everyone be a commie--fuck that shit.

    And the leftover hippies--desperately trying to stay cool and young with their greying ponytails and sad music

    They killed it. Turned everything into leftist stupidity--into hippies with spiked hair--what do they call them? Crusties? CBs is dead, The Rock Hotel is dead. The Pep, Gildersleeves, the Mudd Club, A7 all dead.

    Crassholes and boneheads are all that's left. No punks, no skins, just hippies wearing our faces, making everything that was great into tried old lefty bullshit.

    You know when it was best? When the show was over and all you fuckers went home--back to Jersey or Long Island of Queens--back to your safe suburban lives and left the city to us. That's when it was good. Punk wasn't a show, it wasn't music, it was how we lived. Hard and fast and jangly. It was piling out of a van at 2 in the morning to swarm the Central Park playgrounds. It was waiting for Vinnie and having his grandmother feed you because we were all always 'too skinny'. It was C-squat and Tompkins Square--it was 'Alphabetland', not 'Alphabet City'.

    It was great. And leftists destroyed it--the same way they destroy everything they touch.

  • UnrepentantCurmudgeon||

    Punk isn't worth anything unless it is politically incorrect, raging against whatever is foisted on us as "the correct thing to believe" by whoever, whether Hillary Clinton or Henry Rollins. When punk stops smashing whatever is in its way, loudly, it stops being punk. period.

  • SHARPSkin||

    Sorry, Demon. You could not be more wrong about Agnostic Front. They may pretend they were never connected with the White Power skinhead movement, they may no longer BE white supremacists, but they definitely WERE associated with that thread of hardcore.

    I came of age in 1980s NY at the A7, Downtown Beirut, And CBGB and, among those who cared, it was well known where AF's sympathies lay.

    A quick google search will turn up fanzine interviews where they pledge themselves as "white pride" and at least one photo of Vinnie Stigma wearing a "Rock Against Communism" t shirt. I want to be clear that "Rock Against Communism" was the record label and concert series promoted by the British neo-fascist National Front. EVERYONE in the scene knew what wearing an RAC tshirt meant.

    So what if Roger is Cuban? There were plenty of South American Nazi sympathizers.

    With all that said, I DO agree that conservative voices are a legitimate and long standing part of punk rock - from Johnny Ramone through Fear. They ought not be delegitimized because of it.

  • Mark22||

    A quick google search will turn up fanzine interviews where they pledge themselves as "white pride" and at least one photo of Vinnie Stigma wearing a "Rock Against Communism" t shirt.

    I'm not much into punk, but piecing this together, White Pride and Rock Against Communism seem to have been typical absurd anti-establishment messages against the prevailing left-wing dogma. Of course, such messages also tend to attract some of the wrong kind of followers who are actual fascists. But if people follow a punk band in hopes of supporting fascism, it seems to me they are as confused as people cheered to YMCA hoping it was about Christianity among young men.

  • Trollificus||

    And here I am listening to music that doesn't even have drums.

    But I still got two fingers out for "The Establishment" and conformity (except for what I adopt as camoflauge).

  • HWE||

    "New York hardcore may not have been sufficiently left-wing for the likes of Maximum Rocknroll, but that didn't stop New York hardcore musicians from being antifa before antifa was cool."

    Antifa never has been, and never will be cool.
    They're the most cringe worthy bunch in the country.

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