Emanating from Boston, MA The Proletariat fused articulate Left Wing polemics with some of the most unique music to originate from the early 80s American Hardcore scene. The band called it a day after only two albums and a handful of EP appearances but have reformed after a 30 year hiatus, and are about to drop their long awaited 3rd album ‘Move’. Mass Movement caught up with enigmatic vocalist Richard Brown to get the low down.
Interview by Ian Pickens
MM: Can you give us a brief history of The Proletariat and bring us up to speed with the current line-up?
RB: The idea to form a band was hatched by Peter (Bevilacqua/bass) probably in 1979-1980. Initially the band was a three piece with several different guitarists, Peter on bass and myself, Richard Brown, doing vocals and playing a stand up snare drum ala Stray Cats. We pestered our friend Frank Michaels to join as our guitarist and found Tommy (McKnight/drums) through Peter’s cousin and current manager Patrick Norton. We played our first gig Valentine’s Day 1981 at the Lafayette Club in Taunton, Massachusetts – a cheesy rental hall with a bar full of old men. We then got really lucky – we caused a small riot at an outdoor concert in Providence, RI, made the evening news and then started getting offers to open up for some of the biggest touring punk bands around—Black Flag, Circle Jerks, Dead Boys, Johnny Thunders…within the first six months of our existence – we were so effin lucky.
Our current lineup is ¾ of the original with old friend Sanders (who previously had played in Idle Rich and Medicine Ball) replacing Frank on guitar. We reformed in late 2016, played all over – Seattle, Portland, Philly, Pittsburgh, NYC, Boston, Montreal, etc… we released a single ‘The Murder of Alton Sterling’ b/w ‘Push Back’ on Bridge 9 and this week 4/5/2019 we will be releasing a 13 song album titled “Move” on Radiobeat Records.
MM: The band has a completely unique sound, as well as a very strong left-wing lyrical position that made it stand out from the other Boston Hardcore bands such as The FUs, Gang Green, Jerry’s Kids etc.; was there always an intention to make The Proletariat as different as possible from the other Hardcore bands from that period? What were your influences when you started out?
RB: There was never a conscious attempt to come at things from a different angle than our contemporaries, it just happened that our views and the message we wanted to convey was way different from theirs. We weren’t Straight Edge, so Gang Green’s drug/booze thing never bothered us, and I always thought that the FUs were “playing” right wing, in a HC version of Stephen Colbert sort of way. My musical/cultural influences at the time were pretty much The Clash, Mission of Burma, Camus, Burroughs/ Patti Smith, Dylan, etc…
MM: I’ve always thought that musically you were more influenced by bands such as Gang of Four, Wire etc. rather than the traditional punk bands that influenced your peers; would that be correct?
RB: Before we started playing out we listened to everything from the Pistols, Buzzcocks, Ramones, etc… then drifted into GoF, Wire, Burma…and then the whole USHC thing exploded and again we were in the right place at the right time. Al from SSD used to put on a ton of HC shows and he included us in a lot of them because we broke things up a bit. We stylistically had a lot more in common with say Wipers and Flipper than your typical HC bands,
MM: The original members reconnected in the mid-90s, but as a new band Churn rather than as The Proletariat; why did you decide to do a new project and why didn’t it work out? What’s different this time around?
RB: At the time punk in the states had gained a commercial foothold with bands like Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., all those Seattle bands along with poppier faire like Rancid and Green Day were all breaking big. I guess in a way we tried to jump that train and we never fit in or were never really comfortable doing so. We didn’t want to rest on our laurels, I guess and decided to simply start over. We quickly realized that it was a mistake to try that. This time we reunited initially to play a few shows in conjunction with the reissue of our debut LP ‘Soma Holiday’…it went so well we decided to keep at it this time.
MM: The Trump Victory in the US, Brexit vote in the UK and election of Populist leaders in Eastern Europe indicate that the political and social world have shifted once again to the right. Has this surprised you? Why do you think this has occurred after Obama steered the US out of the 2008 recession more successfully than most countries? Do you think this swing towards populist politicians and ideologies will continue or is it a blip?
RB: Surprised??? More like shocked, stunned, sickened. Never in a million years would I think that these things could ever happen. I guess I was naïve in a way. I always knew that there were segments of the population that were backwards and easy targets for hate groups like the KKK. But I never imagined that so many “normal’ folks could be swayed by a racist, sexist, homophobic crackpot. The old “country club’ conservatives may have privately held similar beliefs, but would never be so brazen and seemingly proud of being associated with hate and bigotry.
MM: Has the concentration of private ownership of the media rendered it so biased and manipulative that it’s now more of a threat to liberty and democracy than a useful tool of information?
RB: Whether these media outlets lean left or right, they all manage to play to their base. The rise of the Tea Party crippled the legislative process for most of the Obama years and the polarization of our politic has basically made compromise a thing of the past.
MM: Did this change in the political landscape contribute to the band reforming in in 2016?
RB: Strangely enough, no. As I said above it was the reissue of ‘Soma…’ that gave us the shove. Prior to the actual election someone had joked that it would be a boon to our song writing if Trump were to win…we laughed…then. What I did notice is that immediately after Trump was elected that a ton of bands from the Reagan era that were NOT political at all, all of a sudden became “political” ( I won’t name names)—no more songs about their cars or their parents or their parties—they were suddenly activists—it made me sick.
MM: Do you think Capitalism has entered a new, more dangerous phase in light of the replacement of Traditional Capitalism by the more Libertarian Silicon Valley Tech companies?
RB: Yes I do. Like a snake that has been cornered, it is striking out at anything that moves. It is truly the twilight of capitalism. There is always a tipping point, with everything, and with the ever widening gap between the rich and the poor, it is only a matter of time before it explodes. Forget left/right, black/white, straight/gay it will ultimately come down to the haves vs the have-nots. Here in the states the Right attacks on unions, and those seeking a living wage are a clear indication that we are indeed in the early to middle stages of class warfare. They have forgotten that the main reason the United States became the world’s largest economy was because there was a middle class that could buy the goods and products made in our factories that were made by workers earning a living wage in factories owned by some of the wealthiest people on the planet. When they pinched the margins they killed the golden goose.
MM: Where do you think the opposition will come from? The Political Left seems to have been systematically demonized by the media to the point that, to quote Disposable Heroes of HipHoprisy, “Socialism means Un-American”…
RB: On Socialism being un-American: One of the reasons that that mentality even exists is that our schools have selectively “forgotten” historic events that a) show our government/ ancestors to have been wrong b) decided that the concepts championed by FDR, like social security, Medicare, wpa are/were a burden on our economy….or rather a speed bump in the road of “progress”. Stock market numbers rising through the roof do NOT necessarily mean the economy is robust, it means that the rich are doing quite well and that’s it. The economic inequality in America US currently worse that it was just prior to the depression, but how can we learn from our past mistakes when they gave Vern conveniently erased from our schools curriculum
MM: Unlike many other 80s (and 70s) Hardcore & Punk bands that have reformed The Proletariat seemed keen to release new material rather than rehash a ‘Greatest Hits’ package; was this an emphatic condition of the band reforming? Was it difficult choosing which songs from ‘Soma Holiday’ and ‘Indifference’ to feature in live sets?
RB: The new material came together so easily and we were very comfortable with the song writing process we used – Sanders, Peter and myself would write and record songs with a drum machine, send the rough tracks off to Tommy who would put in his part and send it back – it should be noted that three of us live on the east coast and Tommy lives on the west coast – anyway, we turned out new songs quickly and as a result our sets went from 14 old songs, 1 new song and 2 covers—to 7 old songs, 7 new songs and a cover. So far covers have included Janie Jones, two Cheap Trick covers, and a Sonic Youth song yet to be played.
MM: Interesting choices – which Cheap Trick/Sonic Youth songs are you doing?
RB: We did ‘He’s a Whore’ and ‘Auf Wiedersehen’…we’re doing ‘Youth Against Fascism’ by Sonic Youth.
MM: Has Punk and Hardcore become the ‘New Nostalgia’?
RB: As far as the nostalgia thing… since day one we have tried to not fill our bills with other 80’s/90’s HC bands – and it has been difficult trying to convince promoters that this is actually what we want to do. We have managed to get new, younger, diverse bands on our bills – and it’s great – our audience sees bands that they would never go see and the younger bands for the most part, appreciate that we not only want them on our bills, but truly love what they are doing. There have been a ton of newer bands that we have played with that totally blow me away – Providence’s Hairspray Queen are unbelievable as are NYCs Material Support and there are so many, many more
MM: The band’s first post-reformation release was the “The Murder of Alton Sterling” on Bridge Nine records; what was it about this specific event that made you want to bring it to the public’s attention?
RB: Alton Sterling was murdered by the Baton Rouge, La. Police because he was selling videos and dvds from the trunk of his car – he was one of many black men killed by police in the US within a very short period of time for “crimes” that did not require the use of deadly force. Being black in America today has to be scary as hell.
MM: The topic of racism has been a mainstay in Punk/Hardcore/Reggae/Hip Hop lyrics for pretty much their entire existence as music genres; but your lyrics cover a lot of diverse topics from the use of the prison system as means of generating money for private business, Native American land rights, strike breaking etc.; do you feel it’s important to highlight a diverse range of topics rather than stay on the ‘safe’ topics a lot of Punk and Hardcore bands. Do you feel artists should self-censor lyrics that could be misconstrued or misinterpreted in a negative way?
RB: Black males in the US are incarcerated at a rate of 5 times the rest of the population. Some archaic drug laws still exist in the south, the old “3 strikes” rule that allows some states to increase prison time for minor marijuana offenses. After three convictions sentences can be boosted anywhere from 20 years to life …just for possession. In turn these longer sentences mean a captive work for e for American corporations. It’s not a case of jobs going overseas, it’s a case of jobs being created within the prison system. I don’t think every band, every political band, has to diversify its topics. There may be only one or two issues that a band is willing to take a stand on and that’s fine, it’s still more than most bands even attempt. I also think that bands have to walk a fine line and realize that if you’re going out on a limb, you had best be prepared to defend that position. So as a rule of thumb, I write lyrics about topics that I’m not only passionate about, but that I know I can defend without compromising my principles.
MM: You’ve been working on a full length album which is due for release in 2019; can you tell us anything about it? Will it be released on Bridge Nine? Is there a European release scheduled?
RB: The full album is out—today 5/4/2019 to be exact. It’s titled ‘Move’ and is out on Radiobeat Digital. There are 13 new songs recorded at Mad Oak studios in Allston, Mass by Benny Grotto and produced by legendary producer Lou Giordano. Initially it will be available on CD and digital formats, with an American and a European vinyl version available soon.
MM: Can you give us a track by track breakdown of the album?
RB: INCARCERATION INCENTIVE: In the US many prisoners are forced to “work” while serving their sentences. If they are “paid” for this work it amounts to no more $.50 per hour – nearly $8.00 under the minimum wage. The companies that benefit from the work these prisoners do range from Lockheed Martin to Boeing to Victoria’s Secret. While the corporations boost their bottom lines because of the incredibly cheap labor costs they are incurring, the effects on workers in manufacturing in the US is devastating – factories and shops are closed because it’s cheaper to have prisoners do the work.
INDIAN REMOVAL ACT: Every person living in these United States (unless they are indigenous) is living on stolen land. None of it belonged to us or our ancestors. The Indians were slaughtered by Europeans, forced to move west and then further west and then “granted” land by their conquerors…and now they want that land too to ease the cost and expense of moving an oil pipeline 5 miles east.
SCAB: My entire working life I have been a trade unionist. It was trade unionism that led to the establishment of a strong middle class – a middle class that purchased goods from the wealthy owners of factories…without a robust middle class there would be no one to purchase these products and line the pockets of the super-rich. There are scabs in my place of employment and they are snakes, rats and takers.
SOFT TARGETS: While we have been conditioned to fear anyone “different” than us – it is those that look like us that are the biggest threat. White males are involved in nearly every domestic terror act in America.
BOMB THROWING PRACTICE: Since the 2016 elections there have been various marches protesting the Trump administration here in the states. And while I support the causes they march for, they for the most part do not pose a serious threat to the government. In others the government doesn’t take them seriously because they do not fear them.
THE MURDER OF ALTON STERLING: See above.
SHALE: Since the US is basically a petroleum junky, we are at the mercy of the world’s leading oil producers. With a finite amount of oil in America, oil companies have come up with a dangerous and environmentally disastrous method of extracting oil from slate- – the process is called fracking and involves high pressure and high temperature fluids blasting into the ground, heating the slate and harvesting the petroleum that oozes out. It destroys, forever, any area of land it is done in.
MOVE: 1985 Philadelphia police bombed the Move complex killing 11 people, 5 of them children. The fire that followed destroyed 60 surrounding houses. I strongly urge everyone to read up on the Move organization – this is truly an American tragedy.
REACH EXCEEDING GRASP: This is the first song I’ve ever written that is autobiographical. My father worked hard, provided for my mother, sister and I, to his friends he was always funny and wisecracking. But he was a racist, sexist, and homophobic, everyone on welfare was a fraud and a rip-off artist – I decided very early on that I would never be that way.
WEALTH OF NATIONS: Is basically a song ridiculing Adam Smith’s economic theories, which he spouted in his “Wealth of Nations”. His theories were garbage then and nothing has changed since.
TROPHY KILLS: Trophy hunters are a vile and disgusting breed…no more needs to be said.
VULTURES: While President Nero, errr Trump fiddles away all that was good about our government our “once” enemies are cozying up to him and circling around us as we slide into mediocrity.
CONSUMPTION: Think Black Friday shopping mania – we
stand in line for hours to be able to dump our hard earned wages in to the
coffers of Macy’s, Walmart… or sit all comfy cozy in our homes, in front of our
laptops and buy billions of goods from the world’s richest man
MM: Are there plans to tour the US or further afield following the release of the album?
RB: Right now we are planning US dates only for 2019—but we definitely would love to come over.
Thanks for taking the time out to do this Richard. Good luck with the new album and tour.
Find out more about, and keep up to date with, The Proletariat here
Order Move here