Can I Clear My Throat — Punk Rock Flyers and the Missing Subversion in Today’s Music Advertising

Punk rock music and the lifestyle that accompanied it has always held a distinct place in American culture. Taken and fostered from the disaffected youth who were repelled by the standards and ethics of current society following the Vietnam War era, whether it be the Reagan era of conspicuous consumption and materialism, a rejection of the confinement of middle-class suburbia (specifically the “morning in America” conservative suburbia of Orange County, California), or a distrust of establishment institutions.

Various contrasting images including a smiling authority figure in the guise of a policeman, a child spray painting graffiti on a wall, a young girl who resemble the radical Patty Hearst and an androgynous figure hugging the policeman.
Contrast the Black Flag Flyer with current punk band State Champs and their advertisement for future club dates.

Many youth used music as an outlet for their frustration and from their music came the punk rock flyer. Pasted on telephone poles and walls, these flyers were used to advertise upcoming shows or impending albums. What places the flyers apart from traditional advertising and what ensures its place in American art and culture were the images and message placed within the design of the flyer.

Most punk rock flyers touched upon certain themes relevant to punk music of the time: rejection of authority in the form of government institutions, religious institutions and more specifically symbols of law and order such as local, state and national law enforcement agencies. And lesser institutionalized symbols such as authority figures in the form of parents, teachers and older people. The better flyers were always the ones that subverted common images, specifically those associated with institutions, into a collected image of mutilation and perversion. Shock value was a premium in the flyers — any way to severely offend the non-punk viewer was the goal.

A Psychotic Fungus flyer shows a picture of Ronald Reagan in a frame with half of his face as a skull. Former Beatle and singer George Harrison holding a reel of film coming out of Richard Nixon’s head.
Current punk favorite We Are The In Crowd advertising on their web site.

The flyers were ostensibly to advertise upcoming shows but they were more about expressing the attitude of the band or bands advertised. The specific flyers shown here from the 1980’s were not the birth of the movement. It was a natural extension of the anti-establishment movements born in the 1960’s against the Vietnam War. “The counterculture of the 1960s and early 1970s generated its own unique brand of notable literature, including comics and cartoons, and sometimes referred to as the underground press. In the United States, this includes the work of Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton, and includes Mr. Natural; Keep on Truckin’; Fritz the Cat; Fat Freddy’s Cat; Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers; the album cover art for Cheap Thrills; and in several countries contributions to International Times, The Village Voice, and Oz magazine. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, these comics and magazines were available for purchase in head shops along with items like beads, incense, cigarette papers, tie-dye clothing, DayGlo posters, books, etc.” — Wikipedia,

A muscular figure in a toga with a smiley face holding the head of Ronald Reagan.
Current hardcore band Sleeping with Sirens advertising their new tour.

The Punk subculture has always expressed its ethic in a variety of ways “in terms of clothing, hairstyles, cosmetics, tattoos, jewellery and body modification. Early punk fashion adapted everyday objects for aesthetic effect, such as T-shirts, leather jackets (which are often decorated with painted band logos, pins and buttons, and metal studs or spikes), and footwear such as Converse sneakers, skate shoes, brothel creepers, or Dr. Martens boots. Hardcore punk fans adopted a dressed-down style of T-shirts, jeans, combat boots or sneakers and crewcut-style haircuts.” — Wikipedia,

Raymond Pettibon, who designed most of Black Flag’s artwork and flyers with an image of Elvis on the cross.

Even today, when the viewer is so accustomed to sharp computer-assisted graphic design, the 80’s punk flyer composition disturbs and repels at the same time. The collage of cut and pasted random and frightening images, familiar objects yet distorted, makes each flyer a unique symbol of the particular band. The art form it represented is unique even today when we’re bombarded with images that have desensitized our consciousness.

Bands today advertise on the internet with simple dates and venues. Even with the constant tweets and Facebook messages from bands, the impersonal aspect of today’s message seems mass produced and indifferent when compared to the flyers of the 80’s and 90’s. Although the punk rock flyer may be dismissed and ridiculed by more mainstream criticism and appreciation, the flyer has and will always be an important and relevant part of American culture and stand as a symbol of a part of the American consciousness within an important segment of our society.
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