Folk Punk: 45 Years Later
Image by Sam Moqadam from Unsplash.
Let’s hear it for the crusties, tree-huggers, and city rats
I’ve always been a huge proponent of the folk-punk genre. The music industry is absolutely rife with the Car-Seat Headrests, Taylor Swifts, and King Crimsons of the world, but – despite all their rightful success – it’s still the crusties, tree-huggers, and city rats that capture my Spotify page week on week.
Spawned out of the 1980s wave of alt-rock, metal, and punk music, ‘folk-punk’ is the unholy matrimony of the 20th century American folk revival and the counterculture undertow of the punk music scene. Music that takes the rebellious ethos, and rough-hewn rock of punk and adds the haggard mandolins, and acoustic spirit of folk.
Following the 1970’s explosion of the punk movement in America and the UK, the punk community began to absorb a wide range of demographics en masse. Punk’s emphasis on DIY, authenticity, and grassroot venues rapidly drew the attention of the parallel folk farmers and wanderers of the world; people who spruiked nigh identical values.
As bands like the Ramones, Sex Pistols, and the Dead Kennedys defined what the proto punks would be, the mud-caked boots of bands like the Violent Femmes and The Pogues began to replace the electric guitars and drum sets with the accordions, banjos, and violins of their folk factions. Within less than a year these bands, in 1981 and 1982 respectively, had seen substantial commercial success integrating this acoustic structuring into the punk music model.
As punk continued to grow towards critical mass, these bands gave the precedent for the Dead Milkmen, Hüsker Dü, and Articles of Faith to inject folksier sounds into their previously punk rock albums. As you will find with every genre, the folk-punk scene has evolved and changed substantially since those early 1980s roots. The introduction of country and bluegrass influences. The success of bands like the Men They Couldn’t Hang and the Mouldy Peaches. The rise, controversies, and fall of Plan-It-X Records.
Despite everything, it’s still that early 1980s bricolage that has defined the genre even now, 45 years into the future.
Now for my cold take of the day, turns out the modern music industry is just slightly different to the break-out bands and radio star classics of the 80s. And, for a genre so deeply rooted in anti-commercialism and tradition, in an industry hellbent over pre-saves and advertisement, folk-punk should theoretically be hamstrung in the most basic of senses – doomed to die or adapt.
However, in the last 15 years, AJJ has released album upon album with hundreds of concerts now under their belt. The Front Bottoms have seen significant commercial success by blending midwest emo and folk-punk. Days N’ Daze have consistently maintained a stalwart cult following behind them through every band break-up and lull to date.
The only way to survive as a genre not geared towards “gaming” the music industry is to foster an overwhelming sense of belonging and community, and to rely on word-of-mouth advertising within and beyond your circles. Advertising like some smart-mouth fan spruiking it through his university club webpages. So, in that vein, here are my humble suggestions for bands to try out based on your listening tastes.
Violent Femmes & The Pogues
These two bands blazed the path for the genre in the mainstream music industry for America and England respectively. If you’re after 80s rock, punk, or late night WSFM, they’re hard to miss. Violent Femmes drew their influences from the Velvet Underground’s and Ramones of their times, whilst The Pogues fall more in line with the celtic punk and British rock of the late 1970s.
Either way, they’re still definitely folk punk, and they’re just adjacent enough to what they diverged from to act as good introductions to the genre.
AJJ, Pat the Bunny, & Days N’ Daze
These three bands act as the backbone of modern folk-punk for me, and Spotify cannot stop recommending them every single chance it gets. If you want to know where the scene is now, and if you want a good middle ground between folk and punk, then these three are the bands for you.
If you’re only looking for a brief insight into the genre, Rogue Taxidermy (2013) from Days N’ Daze is a highlight.
The Front Bottoms
The Front Bottoms is a surprise to me, but every resource I can find cites their folk punk influences. If you’re looking for midwest emo, bands akin to Modern Baseball, McCafferty, and Sorority Noise, The Front Bottoms are the go to for a healthy dose of folk-punk in your Spotify Wrapped.
Finally, for the two of you reading this who love folk music and have read this far, Railyard Ghosts are for you. Despite the folksy lyrics and strong acoustics, the band integrates a not-insubstantial amount of punk ethos to make this list, another brilliant band to give a listen to.
So where does that leave us now, 45 years later in 2023? The American and British folk-punk scenes have long since merged, and with the emergence of Spotify and the globalisation of the music industry, folk-punk is seemingly doomed to dwindle into nothing, cult following or not.
As pervasive as pessimism may feel today, that nihilistic sentiment fails to recognise the radical heart, soul, and community that I’ve come to love about the genre. It’s tight knit, it’s persistent, and if you know where to look, you know that it isn’t going anywhere.
The Violent Femmes are still making music. The Pogues released album after album for 32 years. Bands like AJJ, Days N’ Daze, and Pat the Bunny have taken the torch. Whilst some swayed back into punk and some swayed back into folk, almost every band that fell into the genre is making and continuing to make music that resonates with the garage performances and word-of-mouth shows of the world.
Everybody needs to find their proverbial “cult classic”, and with beaten boots, torn jeans, and patchwork instruments, folk-punk has and always will be that community for me.
In need of a folk punk intro!? Nathan has curated the perfect playlist just for you: