Faster, higher, stronger … punker? The Olympics and the Clash

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Once again, radio waves are jammed full of Olympics hype, leading the news and displacing regular programming. But the 2012 Games come with theme music from the canon of punk rock.

CBC Radio One's national network is giving over seven minutes of every hour of weekday programming to Olympics reporting for the duration of the London Games. As a back-in-the day punk and critic of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, I was nauseated to hear the opening chords of the Clash's classic punk anthem 'London Calling' accompany these breathless London updates.

The song was also part of the Official Opening Ceremonies, which included offerings from the Jam, the Specials and Sex Pistols. Historical artifacts now perhaps, but back in the day the same authorities that are holding this spectacle would have banned such music.

Joe Strummer is surely spinning in his grave. The gentrification, heavy-handed policing and corporate profiteering that epitomize the Olympics are the antithesis of what the Clash and punk were all about. This is not just a catchy tune with "London" in the chorus. It actually means something.

The lyrics, "London calling, see we ain't got no swing / Except for the ring of that truncheon thing," seem unintentionally apropos, given that every recent Games is accompanied by an occupying army of intelligence snoops, security and law-enforcement personnel in the tens of thousands. Locals are eyed with the same suspicion usually reserved for terrorist threats conjured by the fevered imaginings of Republican candidates.

The Games are like a two week-long high school pep rally, full of jocks who traditionally beat up the punks and certainly never listened to the music now making the Oly Top 20. But this is the new millennium and our allegorical student council realizes their pep rallies need a cool, green, progressive makeover. But some punk hearts still don't glow with the requisite school spirit, no matter how principal Jacques Rogge exhorts us to "go for the gold."

Just because I was a pale, skinny nerd doesn't mean I am marshalling arguments against sport. It's not about that. In fact, on Friday evening, London police cracked down on cyclists. The Critical Mass bike ride, a long-time mobile venue of punk and alternative culture, was subject to mass arrests for venturing too near Olympic sites. According to one of the 182 arrestees, even bystanders were scooped up by over-zealous cops, to be held overnight in busses and a police garage, for the crime of engaging in unsanctioned sport in public.

The Clash recorded 'London Calling' in the summer of 1979, at the dawn of Thatcherism. Across the pond, I played the grooves out of my vinyl copy, started cutting my hair funny and realized I was not alone in feeling like the 1980s world of mutually assured destruction and conspicuous yuppie consumption I was to inherit was not at all right.

London was the founding city of the punk counter culture, and Hackney one of its historic epicenters. I used to live in that northeastern London neighbourhood and went to gigs at the Albion. Now Hackney is the epicenter of Olympics development, ancient flats topped by missile batteries, whole geographies overwritten by Games venues, where tickets are far out of reach of displaced residents and lampposts bristle with surveillance equipment. Significant parts of Hackney marsh, a rare urban wetland, have given way to Olympic development. The gentrification that follows the Games as surely as tattoo follows piercing is clear-cutting the cultural landscape and evicting Hackney habituals. For an urban archaeology of what has been lost, read Ian Sinclair's Hackney: The Red Rose Empire – A Confidential Report.

Using punk anthems to promote one of the most established of spectacles, simply obfuscates the Games' real agenda: land grabs, public subsidies and profit for a consortium of Fortune 500 corporations and the politicians that pose for photo-ops in the reflected glow of alcohol-fueled nationalism and athletic achievement.

Not faster, higher, stronger but bigger, louder, greedier.

In 2010, nearly 20,000 cops from dozens of law-enforcement and intelligence agencies occupied Vancouver. They spied on and intimidated local social justice activists. The city was wired with surveillance devices. Billions were spent and the promised numbers of social housing units have yet to materialize. In order to satisfy sponsors and create the right image on the word stage, Vancouver's city council passed bylaws restricting free expression. London is even worse, drowning in security apparatus, perhaps the most surveilled city in the world.

As part of the opposition to the Vancouver Winter Games, I learned that the debate about the Olympics is not entirely rational. There is an emotional, herd mentality at play, where the otherwise thoughtful and socially-minded take leave of their senses and like moths to Olympic flame, join drunken mobs of flag-waving fanatics. This is why politicians of all stripes, including some of the 20th century’s most reprehensible, have found the allure of the Games irresistible.

The tradition of punk is to resist or, at the very least, ridicule such spectacle and oppression. My band, Legally Blind, performed 'No Olympics on Stolen Land' to appreciative dozens. A few even sang along. Punk rawk author, Chris Walter published Wrong, a fictional characterization of the collision course of the Winter Games and characters from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

During Vancouver's EXPO '86, an earlier round of gentrification and evictions, cultural communities and independent musicians debated playing the world's fair. Many artists boycotted the event. DOA put out a 7” called 'Expo Hurts Everyone.' But some accepted the gig. Most memorable was Slow, whose singer striped naked on stage, thus bringing an abrupt end to the showcase lest any of the genteel fair-goers be offended at the brazen sight of unencumbered punk schlong.

The Olympics are shoved down our throats every couple of years. We see our airwaves, neighbourhoods, civil liberties, tax dollars and cultural space handed over wholesale. But please, is it too much to ask that they not raid my record collection for the enterprise?

I never felt so much a like a like a like.


Garth Mullins is a writer, long-time social justice activist and three-chord propagandist, living in East Vancouver. Follow him @garthmullins on Twitter.

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