Punk developed in the 1970s as a general culture of defiance, hazily defined beyond its mission to subvert. Exemplified by the infamous integration of the swastika into British punk style, shock value became a staple of the genre. For early punks, everything was an opportunity to offend, even live musical performances.
Stiv Bators, a trailblazer of American punk rock best known for fronting the Dead Boys and, later, the Lords of the New Church, was a connoisseur of provocative performance. His relatively short career was marked by a multitude of outrageous stunts, including a near-death experience or two.
Bators’ prowess as a performer was clear even while the Dead Boys were the new kids on the block at CBGB, New York’s hottest punk club at the time. I argue that his most iconic performance took place there in 1977, mere months after the release of the Dead Boys’ first album, Young, Loud, and Snotty. Halfway through their first song, “Sonic Reducer”, Bators opened his jacket to reveal something unexpected, something utterly haunting: three slices of bologna stapled to his vest in a v formation.
There isn’t any footage of the audience’s initial reaction, but it’s safe to assume they didn’t foresee this. The subtle genius of this moment is easy to overlook since it ranks on the tamer side of Bators’ on-stage antics, but it truly captures the subversive spirit of punk rock.
Punk rock bands have the difficult task of satiating their fans’ appetites for pandemonium. Keeping audiences on their toes doesn’t just mean pushing the same old tropes as far as they can go. The Dead Boys could’ve easily leaned into the audience’s energy and expectations and everyone would have still had a relatively fun time. But, when Bators broke out the bologna, he topped the show off with a new layer of chaos. Whereas punk fans can easily wrap their heads around violence and profanity at a concert, why Stiv Bators was wearing bologna is a question that simply has no answer.
Subversive performances don’t have to be offensive and dangerous—as Bators demonstrates, a little camp can go a long way. If punk bands put themselves in a box by taking themselves too seriously or hyper-fixating on being edgy, their shows can become predictable, jaded, and, not to mention, age horribly. As society advances, perhaps it’s that bologna brand of harmless absurdity that will withstand the test of time and keep punk rock alive and fresh.