Punk Rock: Thirty and Still Kicking
Punk has turned the big three-O. It's echoed in the cover of Spin, in the Halls of Rock n' Roll Fame, even in the actions of the Sex Pistols, who are getting together for (yet another) round of reunion shows. In a way it's scary to see the music that seems to exemplify rock n' roll's live-fast-die-young ethos turn into an adult. On the surface, however, that's exactly what's happened. Looking at the Fallout Boys and My Chemical Romances now holding up the spikey-haired scepter, it's easy to write punk off as thoroughly sterilized, bought-off and ready for the dust-bin of history.
As usual, though, that's not the whole story. Look hard enough in any city, and you are guaranteed to find the kids with the mohawks and chains; those who rightfully view modern society as its own trash heap stripping people of their dignity and individuality. They have sneering disdain for the way the mainstream music industry passes off "emo" as punk rock-a way of making it safe for consumption.
It's a simple law of physics that every action will cause a reaction. A society built on disposability will breed alienation. Alienated people will search for an alternative, and when that alternative isn't good enough, they will break it down and attempt to build their own. Which may be why we hear the mantra "punk's not dead" so often; as if to reassure ourselves that as long as there are artists pushing the envelope, then that spirit of loud and raucous rebellion can survive.
Indeed, no genre has been declared dead and revivified quite so much as punk. Many music journalists were confused with its initial rise during that first summer of '77. Writers like Dave Marsh and Lester Bangs had already been using the term to describe everything from the lo-fi sound of ? and the Mysterians to the raucous rhythms of the MC5. "I was a little confused at first," said Bangs in an article on the Clash, " because as far as I was concerned punk rock was something which had first raised its grimy snout around 1966 in groups like the Seeds and Count Five and was dead and buried after the Stooges broke up and the Dictators' first LP bombed."
The raw confrontation that would come to a head when "God Save the Queen" was prevented from reaching Number One had a long gestation period before it threw London into a tizzy. When the cat was out of the bag, though, it was clear people were absolutely ass over heels for it on both sides of the pond.
That year, 1977, became iconic for punks. Ten years before, it had been the Summer of Love. Now it was the Summer of Sam. The revolution promised by the bands of the hippie era had failed. All they had left in their wake was recession, unemployment, violence, and a fake, pretentious, arena-rock that was about as relevant to the times as Gregorian chant.
Punk put the guts back in. As the "two sevens clashed," the pent up anger young people were feeling exploded in one cathartic scream. There was little doubt that '77 would represent a rejection of everything being shoved down their throats. It would be the year, as the Clash would put it, of "no Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones."
Finally there was music that sounded how people felt. Brash, angry, loud. It's no exaggeration to say that authorities were scared. Punk shows were shut down by local governments and broken up by the police. "Most of these groups would be vastly improved by sudden death," according to one British Councilor Bernard Brook-Partridge, "I'd like to see someone dig a huge hole and bury the lot of 'em." It ran that deep.
The Pistols, the Damned, Blondie, the Ramones, the Clash: all came roaring onto the scene with all the brilliance of a supernova. And yet, within two years, it seemed to burn out just as quickly. The Pistols split, Sid Vicious died of smack, both Blondie and the Clash were experimenting with sounds some classified as consummately "un-punk." Few people seemed as ready to put the first nail in the coffin as Johnny Rotten: "It became acceptable, absorbed back into the system." It wasn't long before "punk" became "new wave," and that just about says everything.
In the deep recesses of "the underground," though, punk wasn't going anywhere. It was just changing (or rather mutating) to suit the times. On the other side of the pond, in that other disintegrating metropolis, New York City, the kids had embraced punk with as much fervor as their British counterparts. Indeed, four boys from Queens, who all apparently had the last name "Ramone," had played a big part five years earlier in motivating the bands that had sent the BBC reeling. What had germinated there took off as the seventies drew to a close.
As the dawn of the Reagan-Thatcher years warned of hard times to come, punk's loudest and fastest had crystallized into hardcore. Punk had become even more manic, more aggressive, more of a scourge on the face of a wasted nation.
If the punks couldn't produce a convulsion violent enough to shake off Reagan, then at least they could make music that sounded like it. They wanted even less to do with the mainstream than the previous generation. Hardcore shows were like tribal gatherings where kids could lash out against the insanity of a world addled by Wall Street and synth-pop. If they were to be repressed in their daily lives, at least they could let it out for a few hours a week. There's no doubt hardcore shows were violent, but that wasn't the main reason they were frequently busted by the cops.
Hardcore's self-imposed insularity ended up taking a toll. By the mid-to-late-eighties hardcore had painted itself into a corner dominated by violence and machismo. Nation of Ulysses' Ian Svenonius would describe it: "Soon the limitations of hardcore and its own contradictions forced the form to mostly disintegrate, and it was eventually shunned, even by its progenitors, as being uninteresting, simplistic, and dumb." It would seem that punk's second attempt had also failed.
But once again, looks can be deceiving. Bands like Fugazi and the Minutemen deconstructed and reassembled punk into a sound that was at times austere, even by hardcore standards, yet was simultaneously sophisticated, and recognizably punk. Back in the UK, "post-punk" groups like Gang of Four laid down jerky rhythms underneath left-wing sloganeering that embraced punk's Situationist roots.
If the eighties were a time of a glossy and polished mainstream that hid sinister and cut-throat agendas, then the nineties were a time when the veneer would start to crack. The Soviet Union's Evil Empire has collapsed, and gave way for the US' empire to consolidate itself. The first Gulf War, the IMF and World Bank tightening their grip, slashing of welfare in the US and the Poll Tax in the UK. The steamroller of Anglo-American TINA was clearly ready to mow over anything that got in its way.
Remember physics, though. The rebellions in the 90s against war and racism were potent. Past the outwardly political, it was obvious that kids were profoundly fed-up with the supposed opportunity so lauded by the mainstream. When grunge took hold, it seemed clear that many of its roots were firmly planted in the hardcore and post-punk scenes. The rebellion, the DIY ethic that the record companies swooped in to destroy, and of course the volume were signs that discontent couldn't be bottled or shunned.
The advent of grunge opened the gates for punk's revival in the 90s. Green Day, Rancid and the Offspring became household names. It's easy to look at these bands with cynicism. Indeed, that all of them eventually did sign with major labels inevitably raised the hue and cry of "sell out" from the purists. Nonetheless, their contribution went far beyond whatever decisions they made.
I can most certainly include myself in those kids profoundly affected by punk's "second wave." My friends and I had embraced grunge as the only kind of rebellion open to us in our pre-adolescent days. We knew who the Ramones and Sex Pistols were, but didn't pay them much mind; and we had certainly never heard of Crass or the Exploited. But within a year of hearing Green Day, we had raided the record stores for anything with the label "punk" on it. It was an attempt to go further with our rebellion, however unclear we were on exactly what we were rebelling against.
Soon, the spit-polished rock-stars being spewed from MTV held no interest for us. Even Green Day had faded into the back of our minds. We had become enamored with the alternative to "Alternative." It was our way of saying no to the existence that had been planned for us as another batch of cubicle drones. Not all of us were poor. We weren't unemployed or living in council flats, but we were sure as hell pissed off. The frantic confrontation coming out of our CD players seemed to confirm the panic we felt inside of turning into another cog in the wheel. Punk promised rebellion; a way of breaking out, at least for a little while, from the doldrums of daily life.
For me, punk was my introduction to thought independent; my invitation to question the logic of a world that seemed to have little common sense. I was a kid growing up in the stultifying suburbs of DC, trying to fight the creeping sense of dread that came from knowing that the cookie cutter lifestyle surrounding me might one day be my fate too. I collected, bought and swapped records voraciously. By then, it was easy to get access to the people making the most interesting music. NoFX, Swingin' Utters, Fugazi, the Bouncing Souls, Operation Ivy. The loud, fast and manic sound they exposed me to was cathartic. It was a kind of liberation, however temporary, from the doldrums of daily life.
It's really no wonder that so many people who became punks in their youth would end up committed activists. The rebellion in our minds was unfortunately no hallucination. That such rebellious music, or the offshoots of it, may keep forcing its way into the mainstream is proof positive that there is something very wrong with the system.
There is no doubt that it is hard to swallow most of the MTV/Clear Channel version of punk rock. Conversely, it's easy for the naked eye and ear to interpret all of this as the long-delayed death rattle.
That would be a mistake. Some of the most sage words about punk came to me from author Antonino D'Ambrosio: "Punk isn't about a sound or a style. It's about an attitude; an attitude of rebellion." As long as there is a reason to rise up and rebel, then punk has no reason to kick the bucket.
"People who say 'punk's dead,' I always say, like, it's such a selfish concept, because [it's] as if they own the definition of punk rock. That's nonsense. Punk is un-definable, so therefore it can never be dead. You can't kill something that doesn't really have a single definition."
These were the words of the legendary Ian McKaye in Susan Dynner's recent documentary Punk's Not Dead. His statement gives real weight to the idea that beneath what the all-powerful record execs have to say about what we will and will not hear, there is something uncontrollable about the music that we create. That is punk's greatest legacy. And as long as there are people willing to buck the trend and reject what their being sold, as long as there is some kid in a basement willing to pick up a guitar and speak their mind, there is a reason to believe. Punk rock, thirty years old, and with a few kids hanging around, will still yet find a few walls to kick over.
***** Alexander Billet is a music journalist and activist living in Washington, DC. He is a regular contributor to Znet and Dissident Voice, and has also appeared in CounterPunch, Socialist Worker and MR Zine. He is currently working on his first book, Sounds of Liberation: Music and Social Change in the 21st Century.
His blog, Rebel Frequencies, can be viewed at http://rebelfrequencies.blogspot.com, and he may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org