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20 June 2023

Street Punk Legends The Exploited Play Tbilisi, Yerevan and Istanbul

Punk legends The Exploited have been touring Eurasia crossing geopolitical fault lines with concerts in Turkey, Armenia and and Georgia. Onnik Krikorian met the band after their Tbilisi show and reflects on what it means.

Street Punk Legends The Exploited Play Tbilisi, Yerevan and Istanbul

Text and Photos by Onnik James Krikorian

A lively crowd of passionate fans eagerly gathered outside Elektrowerk, a repurposed Soviet-era factory in Tbilisi's Isani district, last weekend. They were here to see[ME1]  punk legends, The Exploited who had come from delivering electrifying shows in Yerevan and Istanbul just days earlier. Now they were bringing raw energy, rebellious spirit, and a dose of punk-infused chaos, to the Georgian capital.

Their arrival was only fitting. Georgia pioneered the regional emergence of punk in the early 1990s and even though recent fashion has seen the electronic music scene dominate the contemporary cultural space, there are signs that punk might be attempting a comeback

Though the country is often host to a number of big name musical acts, this concert was the biggest in its genre since The Prodigy played Batumi in 2016. Bringing The Exploited to Tbilisi was down to Igor Tonkikh, a music promoter since 1986 and the former managing director and founder of Moscow’s ГлавClub. A week after Russia’s further invasion of Ukraine last year, Tonkikh moved to Yerevan and stayed there six months before again relocating to Tbilisi. 
Why was Azerbaijan was omitted from The Exploited regional tour? Simply because Tonkikh lacked the necessary local contacts there, he says, and is more familiar with those locations where he has lived. Tonkikh had previously organized 1997 shows for  The Exploited in Russia where a bomb-hoax caused a temporary audience evacuation. 

Formed in 1979 in Edinburgh, Scotland, The Exploited are synonymous with the second wave of British punk and part of the street punk movement, a working class sub-culture. Their first album, the 1981 Punks Not Dead, was a response to critics claiming the opposite, labeling the genre a faded fad. Their music was political and socially-conscious too. But it was the band’s ferocity on stage that attracted fans.

The Exploited influenced Metallica while Slayer and ICE-T have performed covers of their songs. Long gone, however, are the days when an Exploited gig did literally erupt into anarchy and chaos. In 2003, for example, some Exploited fans, nicknamed The Barmy Army, rioted in Montreal, Canada, after a gig was canceled when the band was denied entry to the country. Eight Police cars were set on fire, over five times as many other cars were damaged, and shop windows smashed. 

Just in case, one young Georgian anti-fascist was tasked with standing outside Elektrowerk to identify any neo-Nazi teen gang members who might try to infiltrate the audience to pick a fight with the Exploited fans who are politically poles apart. The emergence of such movements has been on the rise in recent years but there are few if any attempts to counter the problem of radicalisation among disaffected youth by the government and local civil society alike. 

It’s a problem that Wattie Buchan, The Exploited’s frontman, knows only too well with the band sometimes incorrectly linked to the Oi! punk subculture in the late 1970s and early 1980s. White supremacist bands such as Skrewdriver, formed in the Oi! Scene in 1976 but disbanded in 1993 after its vocalist died in a car crash, are still radicalising youth the world over today, including in countries such as Georgia where neo-Nazis still listened to the band.

Buchan says The Exploited were never Oi!. Instead, he says, one of their tracks was included in a compilation album but they stayed away from the movement itself because of its perceived links with the National Front, a far-right fascist political party in the United Kingdom. “I didn’t want to be associated with any of that,” says Buchan and nor do most Georgian teenage punk fans more concerned with socially aware lyrics and their own future amidst increasing economic and political uncertainty. 

“Perfect,” says Buchan in a thick Scottish accent when asked how the shows in Istanbul and Yerevan went. He can’t remember when The Exploited first performed in Turkey, but thinks it was about 18 years ago. Armenia and Georgia were a first for the band, however, and a day before Tbilisi band members shared photographs visiting the pagan temple of Garni in Armenia before their Yerevan show. 

“This time was fantastic,” he says. “Armenia – I’ve never been there before or here [in Georgia] but I knew it would be good because we’ve been to Russia and Ukraine and they’ve always been great gigs. Coming here – the people here are crazy up for it. Tonight there’s so many young kids here all screaming. I could be their grandad so it’s absolutely fantastic. Really good.”

Buchan turns 65 years old in July and is very much a survivor.