Music Rags: The punk politics of people power


For 35 years, Joe Keithley and D.O.A. have been bringing politically charged, socially aware punk music to the masses. An entirely new genre when Keithley entered the realm, punk grew from the same base that fuelled another genre closely aligned with the struggles of the un-rich.

“A lot of people don’t see this, but one of my arguments is that punk rock, when it came along, was really a natural extension of folk music. Folk music by definition was the tale of the local people — the people of the region and their struggles, what they were going through,” says Keithley, talking to me from his home. “I think folk music and punk music are really kind of joined together, although neither side will admit it. There’s a lot of stuff that’s really cool about punk rock — it’s a uniting thing, just like folk music.”

Like the folk troubadours before him, Keithley was inspired by politics and the world around him when he was younger.

“I was about 16. The American military was testing nuclear weapons on the Aleutian island chain . . . Greenpeace, back in ’72, was organizing things where kids from the high schools in the Vancouver area where I grew up would leave their schools and march downtown and march around the American consulate with various slogans and signs — ‘No Nukes’ and that kind of thing. It was an eye-opener. I knew a little about what was going on in the world at the time, but that sort of opened up my eyes to politics.”

Through his time with D.O.A., Keithley helped affect change through his music, something that people are often told can’t happen. “We did this thing in 1989 to try to raise awareness about the pollution coming from the pulp and paper mills in B.C. We certainly didn’t change the law, but we changed public opinion about this pollution from the plants. Not long after that, the government went into action. They changed the laws and tightened up on the pollution.” It was just one of the many times D.O.A. was able to affect real, positive change in the world. “It was [a] really cool, direct effect you could see,” he says.

The time has now come for Keithley to not just force the government into action, but to become part of the government himself and influence change from the inside. He is running to become the NDP candidate for MLA in the Coquitlam/Burke Mountain riding and hopes to win not only the party’s nomination on March 3, but also the seat in this May’s provincial election. “I feel like politics is a natural extension of what I’ve been doing with D.O.A. Some people may not see it that way. But I’ve been an activist since I was 16 years old and really worked on it pretty hard in my career with D.O.A.”

While people may question Keithley’s credentials, a closer look at his ideals and at the music he played a crucial part in creating suggests that he may be streets ahead of the tired politics plaguing our political arena. “The biggest thing about punk in society was the adoption of the DIY (do-it-yourself) ethic. We figured out that we could get stuff done for ourselves — start our own record labels or fanzines or whatever,” says Keithley. “We didn’t have to deal with big companies. We could create jobs. We could create the small businesses that would perpetuate, and people would be happier working there. I think that’s the biggest impact: people realizing they can take control of their lives.”

Keithley is hopeful that the democratic spirit that informs what punk has become can carry over to locally based politics. “This is kind of the big thing I’ve been talking about with [politics],” says Keithley. “What I’m interested in promoting is this grassroots approach to politics, rather than thinking that the decisions should come from politicians, big business and big media. That’s like having the tail wag the dog. As far as I know, it doesn’t work — at least, [not with] the two dogs I have in my house.”

The time has come for us, the people, to wag our government tail and get involved. Keithley hopes he can be a catalyst that continues to inspire people to do good in the world, just like he has for so long with D.O.A. “It really is up to you. If you don’t like what’s going on, you should be approaching your mayor, your city council, your school trustees, your MLAs, your MPs, your prime minister, because you, the people, are the ones paying their freight, their wages,” says Keithley. “Good ideas start right in your neighbourhood. This is grassroots democracy — people power is what I call it.”


D.O.A. Farewell Tour
Jan. 27 @ 8 p.m.
Club 9One9 (919 Douglas St.)
Advance tickets $13