Skip to content

Billy Barton: Living Punk, 24-Fucking-7.

October 3, 2013

BillySmall01Text by Beth Ann Downey. Images by Michael Bucher.

Billy Barton is about to play a punk show in South Philly. He’s standing in a parking lot across from JR’s Bar, off of West Passyunk Avenue, drinking with his band, The Charley Few, before they play a tribute to Oi! show as part of the lead up to the annual Philly Punx Picnic. A green bandana is tied around Barton’s Mohawked head and he wears no shirt underneath a jean vest covered in patches.

The parking lot crowd has grown to 20 or more by the time his band’s set rolls around. That’s when it’s time for Barton to roll their amp across the street, plug in his bass and sound check. Before they start, Barton is sure to carefully hang a black cloth that spells out “SPP” in white masking tape. The acronym for the South Philly Punx, this matches a patch on Billy’s vest, and is the scene which most in the room identify themselves as a member.

Barton has become, rather inadvertently, a champion of this scene, and in turn, a preserver of punk, after a letter he wrote this past February to the Philadelphia City Paper was made public. It called out a writer for, as someone from Barton’s background would see it, mislabeling the band Pissed Jeans as a punk band.

BillySmall02“That story was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” he says. “There’s a long history in Philly music journalism about being very lazy, and making statements that no one is going to call you on. I just got sick and fucking tired of people calling shit punk that isn’t punk.”

The letter never ran in City Paper but was forwarded to Philebrity and was soon splattered across Facebook pages and Twitter timelines. But upon reading it, there is an obvious theme of punk being more about the community than the genre. Barton calls the true Philly punks those who “will continue writing songs and making art and playing benefit shows and being loud and scary in order to wake up this completely wrong American society and tell you cowards and consumers to unite and fight the bastards for the better of us all.”

Barton himself is a little bit loud, maybe a little bit scary to a select crowd. He grew up in upstate New York with older brothers listening to Suicidal Tendencies, Anthrax, Metallica and Misfits. He’s been living in Philly for more than seven years.

Barton searched for a community, and finally found one through the SPP. Now, he sees punk through their eyes.

“Once I came to Philly and saw there are like 100 people who consistently go to shows, do shit, play music, have bands,” Barton says, “that’s when I was really radicalized by DIY punk. I just threw myself full-force into doing my own thing and contributing my own way.”

Not everyone in JR’s tonight looks like Billy. There are tattoo-less girls in short miniskirts clutching Kenzingers and guys in khaki shorts and collared shirts who arrive late, like they’re coming from a business meeting. There are people who mosh during The Charley Few’s set but not to the disruption of others who stand still, peacefully bobbing their heads.

Are they punks? The answer to that seems to depend on each individual’s commitment.

“Every person you talk to here is going to have an opinion of what punk is,” Barton says. “I’m just giving you my opinion. There’s not much to explain. You either get it or you don’t. You’re either living it 24-fucking-7 or you don’t. It’s not like what kind of shirt you wear or what kind of band you’re into or where you go. That has nothing to do with it. We fucking cook food together, we work together. A lot of us are in the service industry – bartenders, bar backs, servers and whatnot. We hang out together. We help each other. There is no affectation, there’s no presumption. This is what we do.”

Leora Colby, one of the organizers of the Philly Punx Picnic, says the “x” that the South Philly Punx took on signifies a way of life.

“I think punk music is the anthem of the lifestyle,” she says. “So the lifestyle, you commit to it. Of course, the music is popularized and exploited in a lot of ways in the media and stuff. A lot of times, punks will say music loses its punk status once it comes to a certain level of popularity. But when you’re talking about punk as a lifestyle, it’s a totally different entity, which I think is why, over the years, we’ve kind of taken on the “x” in punx. That kind of implies a whole subculture beyond what might be on the surface.”

Colby says that Barton’s argument that the DIY punx subculture is a “totally different world” is a valid one. But the fact that the masses are quicker to name Green Day or Rancid as punk bands rather than Combat Crisis, Nightfall or Bucketflush really isn’t such a bad thing for the SPP, she adds.

“What a popular magazine or periodical like City Paper sees is on the surface,” Colby says. “What’s on the surface are bands that are playing Kung Fu Necktie, bands that are playing the TLA and the Trocadero. Those are the ones that are on the surface, those are the ones that you’re going to see and those are the ones that are going to define it for the popular culture. I think what frustrated Billy is that they weren’t seeing what was underground. But that’s because it’s underground and that’s where it needs to be. That’s how it exists in it’s purity. Once you start pushing it beyond the underground and try to push it up to the surface, it starts to get diluted.”

Ryan Maroney, or Ryan “Unpatriotic” as he is more widely known, started his own zine to ensure that SPP happenings were better documented. Called If The Kids Are United after the Sham 69 song, Maroney drops five or six issues a year around the city.

Zines like his that highlight the local scene are what make up for the lack of coverage in the bigger publications, Maroney says.

“If they go and look in the right places, I think the Philly punks do a good job of posting stuff up in the city,” he says. “I can think of half a dozen places off the top of my head where there’s always local punk show posters and activities hung up. The Philly punks, they do a good job of promoting from within.”

And they must be doing something right – punks from Baltimore, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts and even Japan made it out to some of this year’s five-day Philly Punx Picnic. Though outsiders were present and evident, Colby says there are no qualms with expanding the community for those who belong.

“I feel like what punk always was, always is and always will be is a home for the outsider,” she says. “It’s kind of an oxymoron for it to become popular culture because we’re here to accept those who aren’t accepted by popular culture. So a certain part of it needs to exist in its subculture, in its underground world for it to exist in the true form that it needs to be – the home for everyone else.”

The last song The Charley Few plays during their set is called “All We Have.” It starts out with a sweet bass line from Barton and erupts into a gang-vocal anthem about the SPP community, stating “All we have is ourselves in the end /All we have is our love and our friends.”

This is what Billy Barton’s punk is about, and he wishes we all understood without him having to explain it.

“We need this,” he says. “We love this. This is our life. This is not like, ‘Oh, this is what I’m going to do for a few years.’ These are all highly creative people who live for their art. It keeps us from homicide and suicide, and we’re all fucking friends, and we live for this shit. I really don’t know what to say. It’s like trying to explain eating a steak to a vegetarian or trying to get a Soviet peasant to fight for democracy. If you don’t get it, that’s fine because very few people are going to get it. That’s why it’s a subculture, it’s a small thing.”

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: