Comrade – a band name that will ring familiar to historians of European Oi, especially those of a left-wing persuasion, but to few others. Formed in 1986 in the Belgian town of Antwerp, they went on to perform music based on classic British Oi, but with socialist sloganeering and ‘red’ imagery, across European stages until 1990. Last year, Mad Butcher Records released a retrospective compilation – but, although their former vocalist Klaas Vantomme remains a skinhead at heart, he has apparently mellowed out a lot politically, and reunion gigs seem to be off the cards. Girth spoke to him, and Matt Crombieboy sent him a couple of follow-up questions.
Girth: Hi Klaas – first of all, how did you get into the skinhead scene initially?
It all started with The Specials 7-inch Gangsters. When it came out in 1979 I was instantly hooked on ska – the music and the style. Researching it a bit, it turned out that it was all linked to rudeboys, and then one thing led to another. I bought the Sham 69 LP Tell Us the Truth in a record shop in Antwerp. Later I discovered 4-Skins, Cockney Rejects and especially got into Angelic Upstarts. It was because of the latter that I began to look at the world critically, and it was they who laid my foundation of anti-racism, which is something I still hold close to my heart.
I’ve never been a punk – always a skinhead. We were skinheads of the 70s and 80s. We didn’t have the money or possibilities to buy the ‘proper’ fashion brands. Now skinhead has evolved into the right brands, into a fashion… We were just street kids with no money.
Girth: You started the band up in 1986. What were the initial ideas when you formed?
We lived in Antwerp at the time and went to see a lot of gigs. The mecca of that era was a venue called De Waag. Every weekend some band would play. But the punk scene was mainly focused on hardcore and US punk, and there was no Oi. At some point, after a Conflict gig, a few of us decided that instead of continuing to wait for ‘good’ music to reach our shores, we would make it ourselves – DIY! We had no experience and didn’t know how to play our instruments, but we believed it would work. The first song we could play, because it’s so basic, was ‘Work Together’ by The Oppressed.
Girth: How was the scene in Belgium back then – was the Antwerp scene different to other cities? For example, not so long ago Moloko seemed to be openly putting on dodgy bands without much trouble.
In the late 80s, punk was not a fashion. We were kids with a lot of problems, no money, trouble at home, and there was a lot of violence and drugs. It was a tough time, and only friendship saw us through. Skinheads and punks became enemies, and most Belgian skinheads were on the wrong side. These skinheads, who had largely been punks first, followed the RAC trend from Britain. The whole White Noise movement caused a lot of division and led to plenty of violence in the punk scene. Antwerp was an exception, though – thanks to our band and our supporters, a strong redskin movement emerged there. We dissociated ourselves from racism from the outset. When SHARP was founded, we immediately got involved.
The Bruges scene was different – the wrong bands got all the attention there.
Girth: Were there any other bands in Belgium you felt close to?
The Agitators are our favorite – I was their manager once. The Agitators have done everything we had only dreamed of doing with Comrade. Great band, nice people.
Matt: There was a very early skinhead/Oi band from Brussels called Buzz Buzz and the Common Oi!, who were around from 1980 till 83. Were you aware of them at the time?
This year is the first time I ever heard of them. One thing you should know is that Belgium is divided by language. In the north you have Flanders, where we speak Dutch, and in the south there’s Wallonia, where they speak French. The punk and skinhead scene is divided along these lines as well. I know more English people and bands than I know either French or Walloon people. We oriented ourselves more towards the UK.
Girth: You didn’t release that much stuff back in the day, apart from the What About the Children 7-inch on Mad Butcher Records…
We simply had no money to go into a studio. Our demo was just recorded with a four-track machine in our rehearsal place and later released by Mike [Mad Butcher] as a 7-inch. We never recorded anything else, but we used to play live every week.
Girth: In fact, you played all over Europe in the late eighties and early nineties – any particularly memorable gigs, for the right or wrong reasons?
I still remember our first gig at the EX-Club in Berlin fondly. That night, 500 skinheads came out to see us. The silliest incident occurred at an Oi festival in Belgium, where we were playing with Boisters. Our performance was cut short by a fight only two songs in. We jumped off the stage and confronted the boneheads – and then the bouncers didn’t allow us back on stage.
Girth: You released a compilation LP of all your tracks on Mad Butcher last year: Oi! This Is Antwerp (The Best Of Comrade 1986-1990). How did that come about?
After our split in 1990 we received a lot of requests to play, to do something. We basically split before we had any success. But when similar anti-racist Oi groups began forming all over Europe, our name was often dropped, and we went to see quite a few of them. Finally, in 2020, 30 years after the split, someone wanted to put us on a stage in Germany, and we decided to go for it. But covid decided otherwise…
At that time Mike from Mad Butcher was very eager to put some of our stuff on record. He’s the one who published our demo in 1995, by which time we had been defunct for five years. Mike has always believed in us as a band. We also felt it would be a good idea to present the old songs on a quality format and for a larger audience.
In fact, with the collection LP I wanted to show people what we stood for. Many regarded Comrade as a ‘red’ band or communist propaganda group. That’s not what we stood for. We were just four friends who wanted to play music together. We were anti-racist, and were pushed into the left corner without it really being about that. If you weren’t right-wing, you were automatically left-wing. We believed that for a while too, but now we know better.
Our foundation is anti-racism. As for all the rest, everyone chooses who or what they want to be – just don’t try to force your opinion on others. We’re no teachers, no pastors, no gods… just four street kids.
Matt: Given your lyrics, the Bolshevik-inspired artwork of your 1990 tape, and of course the band name ‘Comrade’ with the clenched-fist logo, it’s easy to see why people would get the impression that you were a ‘red’ band, though… Let me quote from one of your songs: “Now they say that Marx was wrong, and that capitalist democracy is the only light, but does it shine for everyone? What about the children that die every day for the glory and supremacy of the capitalist way?” Even your anti-racist songs went quite a bit further than generic liberal anti-racism – e.g. ‘Com’on Palestinians’ (“under the flag of the PLO, build a country of peace and unity”) and ‘Apartheid Ain’t History’.
Our whole attitude and our choices weren’t always straightforward. We were very anti-racist. That was our starting point and foundation. But we also liked being a bit provocative. We did want to make a clear statement with our name and logo – to the outside world, a left-wing skinhead was a peculiar thing to be. But were also into being provocative when we went to play at left-wing festivals. That’s when we’d show up wearing Condemned 84 t-shirts…
We were pushed into a certain corner, and at that time we also believed in the left-wing narrative. We also started to take a stand due to the environment we found ourselves in. What’s more, I must admit there were quite a few beautiful girls among the socialist and communist youth. Talking to them convinced us of their views rather quickly.
When I read back our lyrics from that period, they first and foremost strike me as very naive. I would never write like this again. At the end of the day, our English was not very good, and there was no cliche that we left out.
Matt: What about today – have you made your peace with capitalism and all the other things you were singing against?
At the moment I try not to get too involved in politics. I don’t really trust any of them. Each party chooses its own truths, but both choose money. Left and right both suffer from the same defects. I don’t really believe what we’re told and led to believe.
On the Palestinian question, my point of view has evolved as well. Neither of the two parties is right. They both want to destroy each other. In my opinion, that isn’t right. I don’t trust Israel, but I no longer trust the Palestinians either.
Girth: Do you feel sometimes anti-racist bands sing about one topic so much that it waters the message of anti-racism down?
I saw Billy Bragg, one of my childhood heroes, at Rebellion this year – preaching to the choir was all he did. I couldn’t take any more, so I left halfway through the set. I’ve really had it with being right and especially with forcing that on others. So, I understand what you mean – I’ve probably done it myself. Let me put it like this: don’t follow leaders, think for yourself. No god, no master. Enjoy your friends, enjoy your family, enjoy life.
Girth: How do you feel about the scene nowadays?
At the moment, the size of the punk and skin scene in Antwerp and in Belgium generally is very small. You still have some individuals who keep going, but the movement is well past its prime now. Of course there are still gigs, but not like back then. At festivals, the old names still draw plenty of punters. As for ourselves though, we’re a bit older now, so it might just be that our enthusiasm faded with age.
Girth: So what music do you listen to today?
I mainly listen to ska and soul nowadays – Dr Ring Ding is still my favorite. But Mighty Mighty Bosstones remain my all-time favorite.
Girth: What do you and the rest of the band do nowadays – and is there any chance of the band reforming and gigging again?
Joost is a secondary school teacher, George is a plumber, Tommy works at the railways, Piet sells solar panels, Han is a journalist, and Lenie works in London as a secretary. I work in the port of Antwerp as a welder. As I mentioned earlier, we were meant to play in 2020, but covid decided against us. To answer your question, though, we have lost the momentum, and we’ll never go on stage as Comrade again. We’re too old.
Girth: Do you guys still dress skinhead or have you left that behind too?
I’m not into fashion. I mainly wear what I like to wear. I still feel like a skin, but I don’t always wear the right brands. And my hair length sometimes exceeds 1 cm…
Girth: Do you feel skinhead will always be written off as nazis by the general public, and does it matter?
I no longer listen to what the media is saying about skinheads and I don’t care. I know what my friends and I stand for. Of course, skinhead is a strange phenomenon in the eyes of the public. But we also have to be honest: skinheads aren’t pussies. We won’t shy away from violence. We come from the working class, and our fists speak louder than words.
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Great interview, I discovered the band on “Oi the Revenge” mixtape (which I think Trev HAGL put out) in the early 00’s. Comrade weren’t the greatest but they had balls and this interview made me like them even more. Also “I mainly wear what I like to wear but still feel like a skin” sums it up perfectly for me. Cheers, fine stuff as usual.