Since I was quite young, my search for knowledge and meaning came primarily in the form of music and song lyrics. From my early teens I was an avid music fan, from early electro and hip-hop, as well as rock, metal, and gradually punk and hardcore. By about age 15 my buying of records was a sort of search – I would travel into Manchester every Saturday and spend most of the day looking for the latest sounds, and on the way home read the lyric sheets almost religiously, trying to imbibe the ideas and values the bands were singing about.
At that time the lyric sheets were often accompanied by other writings and even booklets about topics such as animal rights, human rights, ecology, anarchy, anti-consumerism, anti-fascism, feminism – and of course at that time in the late 80’s and early 90’s fanzines were prominent and reflected many of these issues in greater depth in interviews and articles.
Pre-internet days meant any communication was via mail, or in person with people I may have met at gigs or record shops, and finding out about the latest bands and zines was an art which only someone with their finger on the pulse of the underground music network would be able to do.
Back then you couldn’t just ‘Google it’ – you had to take the painstaking route of actually being around the scene and the people and the gigs and events, yet that journey was an integral part of the whole search. To bypass it with a shortcut like an internet search-engine misses the point, which was the effort it took to discover and get hold of the records, tapes or zines meant you actually valued what you had, something which seems to be lacking somewhat now… And that often meant repeatedly playing a poor quality copy of something on cassette tape over and over again until it wore out!
Which also meant going in-depth into the words and meanings of songs, not just superficially hearing them once and then onto the next thing. Which I think helped in imbibing the sorts of ideas that people were speaking about. Of course now it’s much easier to get your message out there, but the question is how many people are really paying attention amongst the avalanche of new bands, magazines, websites etc? A double-edged sword I guess…
I found it a vibrant and exciting time to be around the hardcore scene, as if it was something I’d gradually discovered like a hidden treasure, which was yet to be exploited and trivialised by the mass media and music industry. And while there will always remain an underground element to the scene, at that time it was much more untainted and the ideas were sincere and uncompromised. Only when the almighty dollar comes into play do ideas become watered-down in order to sell more to a wider audience, and it seems that more bands get on board for the wrong reasons and capitalise on the ideas of more authentic ones and sadly become formulaic and with little to say. I’m glad I was involved at a time previous to all that, with an unjaded view which persists to this day – at least for the genuine music scene.
I think one of the first ideas I was exposed to through hardcore music was the idea of animal rights and vegetariansim / veganism. There were a number of bands singing about these topics, and for me I was influenced strongly by bands such as Napalm Death, Youth of Today, Conflict and Citizen Fish. It was an idea that clicked with me almost immediately. Why were we breeding and killing billions of animals for food so needlessly? Surely this was unneccesary, as was proved by the many individuals in bands who happily lived their lives without meat, fish, eggs and dairy.
I truly respected the people that had made that sacrifice and quickly got on board, to the dismay of the school friends and family around me! What made total sense to me seemed very strange for most of them, but despite the taunting I was determined to stick to this, and I think the personalities in bands that were teaching a vegetarian lifestyle were people I looked up to with respect and gave me strength despite the odds. Following on from the issue of animal rights were many related issues such as human rights (humans are of course also animals) and environmental issues, which prompted me to also do things like boycott certain products, use ecologically sound products, consume less in general and speak to people about these things. In general – to become more conscious!
Certainly one of my role models in the late 1980’s was Ray Cappo of the band Youth of Today. He was the energetic singer of one of my favourite bands, drug free, vegetarian, strong and healthy… in fact to someone like me in his mid-teens he was almost like a God! Far more than any of the idols mainstream media would push us to emulate. Whatever he said seemed to make sense, so when I read the now famous Maximum Rock’n’Roll interview in June 1989 with him, even though the topics he talked about were quite out of my grasp, I paid attention.
I was of course familiar with him speaking about vegetarian and drug free lifestyles – something he’d influenced me more than anyone else to practice in my own life, but what he was talking about Indian spirituality was quite left-field to me and I was both fascinated and perplexed at the same time. It seemed a sort of extreme to take on board what looked like a very alien culture, yet the scene had taught me to be open minded to new ideas so I tried to grasp what was said and it too made sense despite Tim Yohannan strongly criticising him for adopting a ‘religion’ – the very antithesis of punk. Yet the scene’s pen mindedness was like a double-edged sword – you had to accommodate other ideas or else you were closed minded and conservative (a fate worse than death almost!), and so the only way to avoid that would be to indiscriminately lump it in with something clearly unpleasant. Religion was certainly such a topic, and I loathed right-wing Christianity as I’d experienced it growing up in England, so I was naturally cautious with my so-called open-mindedness!
It made an indelible impression on me what Ray had said, and though I could in no way forsee myself adopting what sounded like a monastic and barren life in a temple in the mountains somewhere (I didn’t know at that time he was visiting a temple in New York City!), I sort of held a respect for him doing that even if it wasn’t for me. It was the following year that the 1st Shelter album came out, and I was unaware of it’s release except for the fact a friend bought the vinyl and brought it around to my house to borrow and copy. I was missing new Youth of Today material, and saddened the band had split just after I narrowly missed seeing them play in Liverpool in 1989. Though Shelter sounded quite different, I liked them. I never narrowed my listening down to any one style, playing all kinds of music alongside punk / hardcore, and even in the scene then there was quite a diversity of bands who I liked in different moods. And beyond the music, the lyrics always inspired me to think about and act upon different ideas, and this was certainly no exception. I can still remember to this day being in my parent’s kitchen and hearing the song ‘Society Based on Bodies’. Wow I thought! Now there’s an interesting concept. Our society truly IS based on the external bodies, and that one fact seems to underlie so many issues such as racism, sexism, specieisism…. in fact it seemed like the solution to all the world’s ills, in one sentence!
Of course I know now that it’s just the very preliminary knowledge of any spiritual path, that we’re not the external material body but the conscious being within. It seemed so very simple, yet how come through school and college I’d never encountered this way of looking at things? It certainly started me thinking about things a little differently, and I recall looking at the clear night skies at times thinking about the origin of existence and the purpose of it all – concluding that there must be some sort of ‘force’ controlling everything. Surely it can’t just all be chance, yet I wasn’t ready to entertain any notion of a person in charge. The narrow idea I had of ‘God’ at that time was ludicrous to me, so I came to a conclusion that was impersonal.
Not long after there were more bands talking about this sort of thing, some directly and some more indirectly. There was a certain mystique about the Krishna’s that I had and others seemed to share. It was like nobody really knew much about it, yet because prominent personalities were involved it had a sort of coolness about it, even if it meant the external imagery like Shelter’s chakra logo, or the wearing of wooden neck-beads which became quite popular with probably nobody knowing the significance of it.
Admittedly, it was a fashion – a fad, which without a deeper understanding just passes as soon as the next one. For some vegetarianism and veganism was also a passing phase, and many people fell by the wayside without the deep conviction to stick to the principles. Straight-edge was quick to go, for better or worse. By the early 90’s it was certainly no longer cool to be edge, and I know only of one friend amongst us that indeed stuck to it regardless. But the idea of a spiritual side to life was a growing one in the hardcore scene, and even though a section of people vehemently opposed it, it never seemed to go away.
From early NYHC bands like Inside Out and their absolutely seminal EP ‘No Spiritual Surrender’, to ‘Searching for the Light’ by Supertouch on the NYHC compliation on Revelation Records, not to mention the Cro-Mags lyrics and artwork and other lesser known bands. Of course Bad Brains had always been hugely influential and clearly had connection with Rastafari – something which again seemed to gain respect without people knowing a great deal about it. Then gradually in the mid 90’s there were bands like Farside and Sensefield who clearly had a spiritual side, although not tied to any particular path.
Alongside the growth of these kinds of bands there grew a whole scene which was loosely labeled ‘Krishnacore’ – a sub-genre of bands that incorporated ideas from the Krishna Consciousness movement which had come from India in the 60’s and 70’s in what was their period of rebellion and alternative lifestyle. The hippies had a lot in common with the punks in the sense they both rejected traditional societal values of materialism and seeked a better way, though the hippie scene was more peace and love whereas the punks were a bit more anger and protest – although I think in both camps these ideas existed side by side. Which is possibly why many people in the hardcore scene became interested in the teachings of Sri Krishna – because they paralleled what they already held true, especially the straight-edge adherents. The tenets of straight edge were uncannily close to those of the Hare Krishna devotees: no intoxication, no meat-eating, no gambling. Even casual sex was frowned upon by most, although the interpretation of that was a bit looser and less defined than the teachers of Bhakti-yoga (the technical term for people following Krishna’s path). So a union was formed between the two, and despite some differences, seemed to inspire many and give added strength and wisdom to stick to a path in life that was otherwise often quite difficult and very much against the grain.
Though the main bands could be named on one hand, there were countless other bands and zines all around the world that had either direct or loose connections with Krishna Consciousness, in the most surprising of places. Especially in South America and parts of Asia such as the Philippines a huge following of Krishna punks grew from the early 90’s through to the present day almost. And while the heyday was probably in the USA in the early to mid 90’s, the idea has been carried on with equal passion in other areas of the globe, and forged ties with people of similar ideas such as Christian and Muslim straightedge, vegan and animal rights groups etc.
The teachings are meant to be universal and non-sectarian, although from the externals people may be forgiven for thinking that Krishna Consciousness is a kind of sect or even ‘cult’ – yet in no way conflict with other spiritual teachings in some kind of we’re-right-you’re-wrong mentality. Teaching real compassion beyond all external boundaries such as race, gender, religion, species – is what the essence of the teachings contain, as well as deep knowledge of our identity with the source of existence which is beyond the temporary identities we are often so wrapped up in, and which cause ceaseless conflicts around the world.
Getting to the root of the problem is what’s required, single issues can never bring about a permanently peaceful solution to problems as they are too numerous to deal with, yet we address the issues of the day in a relative sense while keeping an eye on the goal which is the complete liberation from suffering of all beings. Admittedly, a very lofty ideal – but the bands that sing about and spread any part of these teachings all play an important part in gradually ushering in a better world for everybody, riding on the strength of a time-tested wisdom from an age when people knew the true value of life beyond the dollar signs and superficial identities. Long live the Krishna punks!