The Legal and State Repression of the 1970s European Punk Movement

Lily Murphy

Patrick Devlin argued in 1965 that the law should serve as a tool with which to enforce the norms of a society’s culture.[1]In 1970s Europe, no subculture presented itself as a challenge to these norms with such boisterous pride as punks. As a movement, punk can be difficult to define, largely due to the pluralism of identities and political aspirations associated with it. Since its emergence in the 1970s, punks have adopted a wide variation of symbols, clothing, and ideologies to express their oppositional and anti-conformist views. Kevin Dunn states that punk is best understood as a set of social practices, which in tandem function as resources for empowerment against establishment status quo.[2] This rebellious attitude, linchpin of the subculture, is why, as punk gained popularity throughout the 1980s, it came under the scrutiny of European authorities. Official reactions to punk were ambivalent. In the United Kingdom, punk’s perceived violent degeneracy kickstarted a media-fuelled, moralising panic. Meanwhile in Eastern Europe, Soviet authority consensus was that punk was a product (and proof) of capitalism’s failings. This essay examines how state laws were used or developed to suppress the European punk movement of the 1970s and ‘80s.

In November of 1976, many in the UK received their first introduction to punk with the release of the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the UK”. The snarling lyrics were “a call to arms”[3] to those who felt disenfranchised amid the economic downturn of the 1970s, and the proudly declared affinity for anarchism irreparably sowed in the minds of listeners punk’s violent nature. The subsequent controversy and popular outrage surrounding the release of the iconoclastic “God Save the Queen” during the celebration of Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee, was enough, in 1977, to bring the topic of punk to the attention of parliament. Here, an official consensus was solidified among the top echelons of government, on both sides of the political spectrum: punk was neither music nor culture, but a deliberate provocation of violence.[4] In spite of Parliament’s disapproval of the culture, the Home Office was hesitant to introduce new legislation to regulate ‘music and dancing’ for fear of inciting ‘political controversy’.[5] Subsequently, no official legislation was newly introduced to suppress punk in the UK, it was instead left to the discretion of local councils to use powers granted under the Public Health Act of 1890 to regulate places of music and dancing.[6] This permitted local authorities to ban punk bands from playing in their towns over concerns regarding ‘social disorder’.[7]

When comparing legal perspectives between Eastern and Western Europe, a key difference to note is how great a threat punk was perceived to be by authority. The fact that there was no mass, sweeping suppression of punk in the UK was largely due to the belief that, though crass, violent, and degenerate, punk was not a political threat.[8] Concerns over punk in the UK were moral and aesthetic.[9] Of course, this varies substantially from the perception of punk which was held by Soviet authorities behind the Iron Curtain. From the first moment that punk music began to make its way into the Eastern bloc, authorities tried to understand, appropriate, and mainly to censor it.

Following WWII, popular culture in the Soviet Union was hyper-politicised, done to facilitate the recovery of cultural life. Soviet policy and law oversaw culture. As rock and roll eventually made its way across the Wall in the 1960s, the Central Committee of the East German Communist Party established new laws for music and band licensing. To work as a professional, musicians would now have to study music and audition in order to receive a license permitting them to play in public.[10] Strict categories of approved music were upheld: ‘serious’ music, which was thought to uplift culture, and ‘recreational’ music, which facilitated entertainment and relaxation. In the eyes of the Soviet states, punk fit into neither category.[11] Furthermore, in certain Soviet countries, such as Poland, punk emerged seemingly in lockstep with the rise of labour unions in the 1980s.[12] The atmosphere of crisis and dissent was sufficient in the eyes of communist government to declare martial law in 1981. Under this regime, punk, along with many other aspects of cultural expression, were strictly monitored and censored. At the Jarocin rock festival, an event seen by authorities as a ‘safe’ outlet for restless youth, performing bands were expected to submit their song lyrics for inspection.[13] If their content was deemed overtly anti-establishment, they would be removed, and the bands themselves could be suppressed following a 1984 security report for the Division of Culture advising the “prevention and elimination” of punk.[14] Such was the case with the band Brygada Kryzys (Crisis Brigade), who saw their shows routinely raided by police, and who would eventually be banned and forbidden to leave the country.[15] Anti-punk policy was even more stringent in areas such as Ukraine, where the punk movement was so heavily suppressed it was forced entirely underground,[16] and in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), where authorities were troubled by the punk’s Western influences. During punk’s naissance in East Germany, Stasi forces would arrest or detain young punks for minor infractions, from loitering to ‘asoziales Verhalten’. This was the crime of antisocial behaviour, understood as failure to be productive to the regime.[17] Stasi authorities sought to keep punks out of public view; any punks they encountered in public could be subject to interrogation, and there was a ban put in place in bars, restaurants, and youth clubs preventing their entry.[18]

Punk, from its inception, presented itself as contrary to the status quo. Its passionate anti-establishmentarianism provided tools for self-empowerment, as well as space for expressions of political resistance. While its boastful anti-conformity won it many followers and adherents among European youths, European authorities were more sceptical, even threatened. Law was one apparatus used to suppress the movement, particularly within the Eastern bloc. Despite establishment attempts to quash the movement, punk remains forty years on an important facet of Europe’s cultural narrative.

[1] Patrick Devlin, The Enforcement Of Morals (1st edn, Oxford University Press 1965); Robert Post, 'Law And Cultural Conflict' (2003) 120 UC Berkeley Public Law Research Paper.

[2] Kevin C. Dunn, Global Punk: Resistance And Rebellion In Everyday Life (Bloomsbury Academic 2016).

[3] 'The Wisdom Of Malcolm Mclaren' (NME.COM, 2010) <>.

[4] Raymond A. Patton, Punk Crisis: The Global Punk Rock Revolution (Oxford University Press 2018).

[5] John Street, Matthew Worley and David Wilkinson, '‘Does It Threaten The Status Quo?’ Elite Responses To British Punk, 1976–1978' (2018) 37 Popular Music.

[6] Raymond A. Patton, Punk Crisis: The Global Punk Rock Revolution (Oxford University Press 2018).

[7] John Street, Matthew Worley and David Wilkinson, ‘Does It Threaten The Status Quo?’ (2018)

[8] Ibid.

[9] Patton, Punk Crisis (2018)

[10] Tim Mohr, Burning Down The Haus: Punk Rock, Revolution And The Fall Of The Berlin Wall (Dialogue Books 2019).

[11] Patton, Punk Crisis (2018)

[12] Balázs Apor, Péter Apor and Sándor Horváth, The Handbook Of COURAGE: Cultural Opposition and Its Heritage in Eastern Europe (Courage Registry 2018).

[13] Jacek Skolimowski, 'Anarchy In The E.U: The History Of Punk In Poland' (Europavox, 2017) <> accessed 1 March 2020.

[14] Patton, Punk Crisis (2018) 157

[15] Dunn, Global Punk (2016)

[16] Apor, Apor and Horváth, The Handbook Of COURAGE (2018)

[17] Mohr, Burning Down The Haus (2019)

[18] 'Punk Persecution: How East Germany Cracked Down on Alternative Lifestyles - In Pictures' (the Guardian, 2019) <>

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