How The Proletariat Became One Of the Most Incendiary Bands in Reagan’s America

With Marxist politics and fractured guitars, a group of kids from leafy Massachusetts were one of the most important bands in the early US hardcore scene.

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Sep 5 2016, 3:29am

Like most of Apponequet High School’s graduating class of 1977, Richard Brown, Peter Bevilacqua, and Frank Michaels, were listening to a lot Aerosmith, Black Sabbath and the Rolling Stones. But the soundd of the Ramones, Sex Pistols and the Clash were also creeping into their musical diet and by the time they graduated from the school, located in the leafy suburbs of Southeastern Massachusetts, 45-minutes from Boston, the three were ready to start a punk band.

Hooking up with the younger Tommy McKnight, they formed The Proletariat who in their short time would become one of America’s most politically charged and lyrically incendiary bands of the early 80s.

Led by Brown’s British-sounding vocals, the band was characterized by drums militaristic steadiness while guitars alternated between jarring upstrokes and overdriven chords.Though they appeared alongside Jerry’s Kids, The F.U’s and the Freeze on the legendary This Is Boston, Not L.A, compilation, there’s was punk not in the fast and furious style being employed by other US hardcore bands of the time.

For a young band straight out of high school calling themelves The Proletariat and their first album Soma Holiday (after an Aldous Huxley reference) was both ambitious and audacious. But the band held their own. Released in 1983, the same year that Reagan’s federal budget saw a 20% increase in military spending, a heavy anti-militarism theme runs through the album and songs dealt with social issues and economic and class inequality.

Thirty-three years after its release, the album will be be reissued in its original format on S-S Records.

We caught up with Rick Brown to find out more about the album. Read below and watch a premiere video for the track “Events/Repeat".

Noisey: Did you get much flak from the Boston punks for calling yourselves The Proletariat?
Rick Brown: Not for our name or the album title. There was an element that truly hated our politics though. A lot of the "Crew" members hated our music, our lyrics, our politics, heck they hated everything about us. But there were some that came around to us when all the bands they idolized went metal and we were pretty much the last punk band in town.

You were often likened to Gang of Four both musically and ideologically. Had you been listening to Entertainment and Solid Gold?
We were likened to a lot of British bands of the day--the Fall, Wire, Mekons and Gang of Four-- we had never really listened to the Fall, Mekons or Wire to that point. Gang of Four, however, were always one of our favorites, especially Entertainment---which is my favorite album ever recorded.

Many have mentioned your ‘non-hardcore sound’ so your appearance on This Is Boston, Not L.A. is unsual. You were coming from a different place than Gang Green!
I think our sound had elements of hardcore but it also had more traditional punk trimmings and, this might sound crazy, some funkiness. I have been told that we were included on BNLA because we were "similar" in sound to the young hardcore bands, but mostly because we were "further along" musically and had a small following outside the hc scene.

Soma Holiday probably had more in common with early Dischord records then what was happening in Boston at the time. As Boston bands were adding metal to their sound you were adding progressive pop. What do you think of the album listening back to it now?
I am pleasantly surprised at how well it has held up. A lot of the issues we sang about are still "issues". People are hungry, people are poor and poverty is not a choice...the industrial/military complex is bigger now than in 1983, the policies our government has instituted for the last 50 or 60 years have resulted in the issues we are dealing with today in our streets and on the world stage.

Looking back would you say that although US hardcore brought radicalisation to the music but not much in politics?
While our music and that of other political HC/punk bands may not have had an immediate effect on the politics of our time, I still hold out a glimmer of hope that within a generation or so it just might. Numerous people--some as young as 25-30-- have contacted me with the news of the reissue and told me that our songs "molded" their political views, that their parents had Soma playing in their homes and that they themselves were looking forward to purchasing the reissue. We had always talked, as a band, that we weren't going to tell anyone what to think/do, we just wanted to expose the issues and problems and hopefully as a society, we correct them...let's see.

It’s been suggested that Tom Morello who was studying at Harvard in 1983 would have been listening to The Proletariat and Mission of Burma at the time.
I never 100% bought into that theory. He may have been at Harvard, and may have listened to Burma and the Proles, but unless we spoke with him we would never know. I see some musical/lyrical similarities between us and Rage and Against the Machine...they had a message and they got it out and I think they did a good job doing it.

Had the NYC /Boston rivalry kicked in by 1983? I don’t imagine lyrics like “stripes on the arm, obedience allegiance” and other songs questioning nationalism and patriotism would have gone down too well with some of the Lower East Side punks of the time.
The Boston/NY rivalry got pretty heated around late 83-85. But we were never involved in it. We only played NY area once back then and it was just a regular show. The "crew" I guess raised hell in NY a few times and the NY guys returned the favor. The idea of punk on punk crime/aggression is idiotic. You can't preach "unity" and then crack open another punk's skull because he's from a different scene.

You played with Husker Du, Bad Brains, Black Flag, Stiff Little Fingers, Minor Threat, even GG Allin. Who was the best band you played with?
There were so many great bands that we got the opportunity to play with. My favorite show was the 1983 Burma farewell show and they remain one of my favorite bands ever. As far as non-Boston bands the Husker Du show at Mavericks was fantastic and the DKs in Waltham at some gigantic hall would probably be my favorites.

The Proletariat's Soma Holiday LP will reissued Oct 21 by S-S Records.