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Behind the Music: The Bathroom Bolsheviks

August 3rd, 2017 | 9 min read

By Susannah Black and Jake Meador

Critic: The first time I saw The Bathroom Bolsheviks live was in 1877. It was unlike anything I or anyone else had ever seen.1

Audience Member: When Trotsky came out on stage, the crowd went crazy. And then when their first song ended, he took the payday loan industry and lit it on fire. I… just couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

Critic: The real genius of the band was the rhythm section though—Acton on bass, Hayek on the drums. They held it all together. It didn’t matter if Trotsky had just called for a worker’s revolt or Engels completely misrepresented Aristotle. They just kept going.

This is the story of The Bathroom Bolsheviks, a neglected band from New York City’s punk rock heyday in the early 1880s. Today we know the Ramones, Television, and the Talking Heads. But the Bathroom Bolsheviks paved the way.

(cut to commercial)

(camera pans over a mountain in southern Appalachia, the side of the mountain has been blown away by dynamite)

A voice begins in a slow southern drawl, “Even while I dreamed I prayed that what I saw was only fear and no foretelling…”

(commercial ends)

John Dahlberg-Acton [takes a long drag on his Camel]: It started in our dorm room in the middle of the nineteenth century, I guess.

Leon Trotsky: You know how it is. You’re lying around listening to old-school stuff, mostly vinyl, Stones and Dylan and Hegel, and you just get inspired.

Acton: I think it was one of the Freds who said it first. Hayek, probably. Engels was never really the idea man.

Trotsky: Engels was the best of us with lyrics though. He could make that dialectic sing.

Acton: Yeah, Hayek was the one to come up with the name.

Trotsky: I was complaining to him about how rough my hands were. Made a joke about how Acton the bougie capitalist insisted on buying the cheapest soap at the store.

Acton: Hey, we can’t all afford to be revolutionaries running off with our friends and overthrowing tyrannical regimes that have exploited the masses for centuries. Some of us actually have to work.

Trotsky: I told Hayek that if Acton wasn’t careful the sheer state of the bathroom was going to make a Bolshevik of me.

Hayek: And I smiled at him and said “You’ll be a bathroom Bolshevik.” And the name stuck.

Narrator: Their first big hit came early on.

Acton: Trotsky was sitting in the window, looking forlornly out into the street. A friend of ours was over—Tommaso Maria Zigliara. Great guy, kinda odd. He was working on this thing with a couple of other guys, a concept album called Rerum Novarum. He read some of it to us and Trotsky just got this look on his face like I’d never seen. He started picking out some chords on his old acoustic and mumbling to himself.

Trotsky: It was… man, I don’t even know. Like, that rush you feel the first time you help inspire the proletariat to revolt and overthrow the bourgeoisie, but so much more.

Engels: I was down the hall in the double I shared with Karl when I heard this sound coming from Acton’s room. I didn’t really know Trotsky yet. So I came in, heard Trotsky playing and then got to talking with Zigliara. And that was how I wrote “The Bread You Store Up Belongs to the Hungry.”

(cut to commercial)

(commercial ends)

Acton: It hasn’t always been easy. Travelling, being in each other’s faces all the time. And then there was that weird thing with the Webbs. We thought they were going to be great additions, Beatrice had a hell of a voice on her, but then they just announced one day that they were going to start the London School of Economics. That hurt.

Trotsky [snorts]: Gradualists.

Narrator: Other hits followed. “The Opiate of the Masses,” “Move Fast and Break Things.” During the Summer of ‘81,”To Each According to His Need” got up into the top ten and stayed there for three weeks. And then, right when they were hitting their stride, Acton came up with the lick that would be the basis for one of the most loved, hated, and imitated songs in the whole history of economics.

Hayek: I remember when he played it first. Just a simple chord progression, but it was electrifying. “What are you calling that?” I asked.  And he said, “Power Corrupts.” Boom. I don’t even know where he got that. He’d been reading Augustine, so… I sat down that night and wrote most of the lyrics in the hotel room. And then the next morning we all went to a Waffle House and had a big stack of flapjacks and polished up the chorus.

Narrator: “Power Corrupts” was the band’s first real mainstream hit. But it was also the beginning of the end.

(cuts to commmercial)

(commercial ends)

Narrator: Tragically, the Bathroom Bolsheviks were not only susceptible to the cruel and uncaring forces of a market-driven late capitalist society. They also had their own inner demons that some of them never could overcome.

Acton: Engels was the first to go down. He seized the means of production. Was never the same after that. He told me he could handle the power. I knew he couldn’t.

Narrator: After Engels left the band, Trotsky soon followed.

Hayek: The last we heard from Trotsky, he said he needed to take a break. Was planning to move to Mexico. I hope he’s OK.

Critic: The band wasn’t the same after Trotsky and Engels left. Sure, they still had a gifted rhythm section, but you need more than that. People didn’t come out to see Hayek keep the beat. They wanted to see Trotsky chuck the cotton industry out the window.

Narrator: When Engels and Hayek asked Deng Xiaoping to join the band as lead singer and guitarist, everyone knew the magic was over.

Engels: Xiaoping was a poser. He toured with Mao, sure, but he never got over how Mao kicked him out of the band. I think he obsessed over it so much it rotted his brain.

Audience member: I knew something had gone wrong when the Bathroom Bolsheviks started touring with Lee Greenwood. What was that song they did with Xiaoping? “Manipulate the Currency”? Man. Talk about depressing.

Narrator: And so the Bathroom Bolsheviks became a cautionary tale for any band that aspired to radicalism. Even the best intentions can fail in the end. It turns out the only thing worse than not having power might be actually having it.

But the music that the Bathroom Bolsheviks made during that golden period continues to inspire. What would modern economics or rock and roll be without such classic tracks as “Expropriate the Expropriators,” “Appetite for Deregulation,” “[Just Another] Five-Year Plan,” “Enclosure,” “Negative Externalities,” and of course “Creative Destruction?” Young economists and musicians still cut their teeth on the sound of those good years. And after a couple of decades of relative obscurity, the influence of the band is once again on the rise. Who knows what the results will be– for popular music, for the global economy, for the world?

Feature image via Threadless

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