As all ‘80s kids will remember, the punk movement in Malta was relatively strong at one time. Nowadays a coloured Mohawk is somewhat of a rare sight but the movement is still alive and kicking somewhere, as the recent punk festival Festahwid proved. I spoke with one of the most locally known punk veterans, Ray Schembri, known as Il-Baħri. All photography in this interview is by Michelle Sullivan.
I myself remember when “punks” were somewhat scary. As a teenager discovering Paceville in the ‘80s for the first time, I was always fascinated by the older teens sitting on the kerb opposite the former Roulette, with their brightly coloured mohawks, multiple piercings and safety pins. I’d sneak a couple of glances and then look away fast. This was when I was still young and naive and anything different to the norm freaked me out bigtime.
A couple of years passed and I realised that people who dressed differently weren’t necessarily criminals. I can’t say that I was ever into the punk scene, but both the historical aspect and the music did intrigue me enough to attend Malta’s only punk festival, which was held recently in Paceville. There was also the bit where I couldn’t quite believe that the movement was actually still alive and kicking on our island. And yet, this punk festival – called Festaħwid – has been going strong for eight years, so there must be something in it.
I met up with Ray Schembri (more known in the scene as Il-Baħri), who together with B.N.I. frontman Miguel Debattista, is the brains behind the whole festival. The festival is made possible also thanks to the guys who run V-Gen in Paceville and who provide a location for these alternative events.
Ray is active in a number of bands and has been involved in the local scene from the very beginning. His girlfriend, who goes by the stagename Patti Pattex, is also well-known on the scene both in Malta (through R.A.S.) and Germany (through Cut My Skin).
“My band R.A.S started back in September 1995. At the time I used to hang out with friends at the park in Paola; I’d take my acoustic guitar, we’d jam a bit and in this way I introduced them to some punk bands. Slowly I started to build up a following and R.A.S was born; We started gigging in Paceville and around different venues and we did go through some line-up changes. Reception to our music varied. We had those who criticised us for using explicit language; yes, we do use explicit language but so do most of the top MTV stars who get regular airtime during the day. How this is considered fine, whereas our music is called ‘shameless’ remains a mystery!”
R.A.S. are in fact known for their use of cutting, satirical lyrics. Since the line-up has stabilised, the band – together with B.N.I – is considered as one of the main movers of punk in Malta.
“We came up with the idea years ago and at first it was considered as strictly for
punks. However we later decided to open up to other possibilities, mainly because people involved in other genres of music liked what we were doing. In true punk fashion, Festaħwid represents the freedom to do and to say what we like – but of course, freedom comes with responsibilities, which everyone has to carry.”
When I ask him about the origins of punk, Ray starts out by explaining that Malta was influenced both by the UK and the American punk movement, with both developing simultaneously across the two continents.
“Back in 1975, the people who started the original punk movements – or who supported it – were considered outcasts by mainstream society. We’ve all seen the video clips: they were rejected, discriminated against and generally suffered from a very poor perception. Maybe it was a question of class, who know. However, those who still think that the punk was a movement dominated by the underclass… this was a huge misperception,” he tells me.
In actual fact, punk brought together “outcasts” from every class, from the real hooligans to artists, gays, radicals, intellectuals and teenage runaways. More than a question of class, it became a question of ideology and of lifestyle.
“Britain was still struggling to come out of World War 2. The music industry had become very commercial, with bands like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones becoming richer by maintaining their suburban status quo. The hippy lifestyle and fashion ruled Europe, with bright colours and flares. Suddenly, during the mid-70s popular culture started experiencing a U-turn; punk, with its distinctive fashion and music, had arrived,” Ray remembers.
Ray describes how in Europe, the movement found its origins in London’s King’s Road, with designers like Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood creating the “DIY” punk look while they managing the music shop Let it Rock. The shop later changed its name to Sex, much to the shock of London society at the time.
“McLaren and Westwood were one of the first to begin to use studs in their clothing and to write slogans on ripped jeans and t-shirts. The short cropped hair and the spiky, multi-coloured hair was also part of the punk culture. Of course, McLaren was motivated by extreme leftist politics, much like Jamie Reid, the artist who created the notorious Sex Pistols image, complete with ransom note graphics.”
In the States, there were another set of people who had already started pushing for a full punk movement as early as the ‘60s. Starting with Andy Warhol and his factory. Warhol was considered a major proponent of gay and lesbian rights and used his connections with artists and performers to raise public awareness. Working with musicians like The Velvet Underground, Lou Reed, Richard Hell, The New York Dolls, Patti Smith, The Stooges,MC5and the Ramones, his influence legitimized the movement within American society and paved the way for a more “accepted” punk scene that evolved differently from that in Britain .
“Not that the scene was completely clean, even here. Drugs still played a major part in the States at that time, although many years later a sub-genre of punk called Hard Core – consisting of straight-edge people who didn’t drink, smoke or take drugs – was born. But in Britain the scene was never about the drugs and the drink; it was always about politics and about rebelling against the establishment,” Ray remembers.
Things did threaten to get out of hand at times, particularly when punk evolved into another sub-genre called anarcho-punk, which is pretty self-explanatory. The main instigators in this movement were bands like Crass, Conflict, The Mob, Karma Sutra and others. But it’s impossible to write about punk without mentioning names that today are considered classics: Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Damned, The Buzzcocks… all these contributed to the flourishing of the scene in the UK.
“Just for the record, on April 4 of 1976 the Sex Pistols played at El Paradise, a strip club in Soho managed by a Maltese gangster called Vince. The band played a brilliant show and made £150 from the door – no mean sum, in those days!” Ray says with a chuckle.
When I ask him to describe what punk means to him, Ray thinks about it for a while and then says that his feeling is that it was “an attitude, a nihilistic one to be sure, that found its expression mainly in music and clothing. Punk revolted against the establishment and challenged the status quo by being radical in all aspects of life.”
He adds that before judging, we have to remember that social conditions across Europe at the time were pretty horrible. The hippie attempt to change the world, Ray reminisces, had failed and musically the Rock industry was in total control.
“Suddenly you had a situation where life philosophy was changing drastically. The punk genre was a dilution of 60’s rock’n’roll coupled with some reggae, fuelled by angst and energy to create the rawness of the music. The mods and the skinheads also played their part during the formation of punk, the latter group also being part of the reason why the movement was frowned upon. However the skinhead bands later joined the SHARP movement – skinheads against racial prejudice. The anarchy aspect slowly started evolving into a better message, with the music addressing issues of social problems, justice and the environment to name a few.”
Today the scene is unrecognisable from the political extremities that led to so many fights outside club and to right-wing punk policies such as racial prejudice. So how relevant is punk nowadays given that the current political climate is hardly conducive to the ideologies that initially shaped the movement in the ‘60s and the ‘70s?
“Nowadays punk bands around the world support different causes like the ALF (Animal Liberation Front), other bands campaign against the ongoing strife between countries, while others use their energy to organise the masses against the effects of over-globalisation. Most punk bands do benefit gigs for people in need or to help political prisoners. Others help Greenpeace raise awareness about environmental issues. The whole ideology has evolved so much!”
On of the bands that Ray is involved in, R.A.S., has a song that maybe encapsulates the whole punk ethos: called Punk’s Not Fashion, it’s all about how society marks out punks by their image and choice of clothing. However, it really is not about the clothes: many “real” punks, Ray tells me, dress casual in “normal” clothing.
“What I’m trying to say is that there are people who use punk for their own ends, or just to look cool. Towards the beginning fo the ‘90s, for instance, the fashion world began to steal traditionally punk haircuts and clothing style and dressing up skinny top models in studs and chains, ripped jeans and torn t-shirts. Needless to say, this is hardly the soul of punk. And this is why I can’t respect the fashion industry, for taking an ideology and transforming it into a style.”
This Friday’s event & the movement in Malta
“My interest in punk started early 1980’s when me and my mates would hang around regularly in the squatted fortress of Tigne’ point in Sliema. There I befriended a guy who was known as Erich Il-Punk and the band Abstrass. Erich gave me a good insight into what punk was all about, however I also built my own ideology, because I did not fully agree with everything he believed in. I took it upon myself to continue what he had started in Malta’s underground music scene back in 1979.
As you can imagine, the scene in Malta was very primitive with only four bands that could be classified as such: Abstrass, The Unemployed, the Rifffs and Davey Jones, who played Ska and new wave punk. Regrettably, the small crowd of people who were into punk at the time shared the same attitude as their British counterparts and there were some spectacular fights between ‘the Ted’s’ and the ‘New Romantics’.
Some of us really did the whole drill: we squatted and we occasionally slept in the streets or at the fortress. We had our hangouts at Sliema front, the Valletta lazy corner, on the Triton Fountain or at the Imperial Cafe’. At that time there were only a handful of gigs happening.
Unfortunately around the mid-80’s apathy took over and the veterans from the scene died, left the country or went into hibernation so the punk scene vanished and if it was not for Abstrass doing their occasional gig, I doubt that the scene would have survived. I joined Abstrass in 1987 and it took us 25 years to release our only CD, entitled Hard to understand !
Towards the mid-‘90s things started picking up again, mainly thanks to two bands: B.N.I and to R.A.S. who revamped the punk scene. Other bands started cropping up and eventually, after a series of gigs, Malta’s first punk festival, Festaħwid, was born. In keeping with the international punk trend, most local bands regularly take part in charity concerts and protests with a good cause. B.N.I was the first local punk band to release a Maltese punk CD, titled Ilsien Pajjiżi and it took fifteen years for an official R.A.S CD, named 15 Years Of Kaos to become reality.Pretty soon the scene had grown enough that we actually had a mixture of punk styles, including hardcore, ska, street punk and anarcho.
I myself have played with a variety of bands. I still have a soft spot for Subculture. With this band we released four CDs in various genres that range from melodic anarcho-punk to rock. One of the CDs was completely focused on raising awareness about animal rights; the CD led to an actual animal rights organisation and at present we have a full-blown campaign trying to educate school-children about treating their pets well, about the problem of strays and rescue shelters. We work with a lot with the various animal rights organisations and more recently we organised a whole event called Subkultfest, where a good number of bands took part to help us raise funds for this cause.
Some people are still wary of us, maybe because of what they read about the first years of punk and all the drugs and violence issues. But nowadays most punks are in solidarity with other people in need. We are not outcasts, most of us are very well-educated and we use our time to strengthen the arts scene.
When we revived the punk scene in Malta we received all lot of negative feedback from the media and the clubs. Some clubs refused to give us access because of the way we dress or because our hair was spiked and coloured. Nowadays this is quite ridiculous. But this didn’t dishearten us and today our philosophy is simple: ‘Don’t let anyone tell you what to do, use your own brain. Do what you want to do – but harm nobody’.
Is punk still alive? Yes and no. The first generation punks like Sid Vicious are no longer with us. But the second generation of punks in the early 80’s kept the flame burning by starting a sub-genre that was more fast and aggressive. The third generation consists of more recent bands like Green Day, Rancid, The Offspring, NOFX… these all played a big role in the global punk revival. Punk remains the only music that dares question the establishment and the failures of capitalism.
Catch Subkultfest, an event bringing together metal and punk bands in aid of various animal associations, at V-Gen in Paceville on Friday, January 13. X-Vandals, Forsaken and Shadowborne will be among the bands performing. For more info click here.
This interview appeared on The TV Guide (The Times of Malta).