Sunday, April 11, 2004

Punk Rock

Another story on conservative punk rockers today. I wrote about this before, but this article manages to get a lot wrong, mostly in propagating liberal political values.

The story contains the writer's opinions and quotes someone:
Punk musicians on the left, however, argue that although punk rock has championed anarchy and scorned the establishment, its roots were always more radical left than conservative right.

"Punk rockers want change in society - that's what punk rock is all about. That's the exact opposite of conservative," said Mike Burkett, also known as vocalist Fat Mike for the band NOFX. "Conservative punk is really kind of an oxymoron."

Burkett is the founder of, an unabashedly anti-Republican Web site composed of punk bands, record labels and fans that seeks to organize youth punk rockers. The site has a specific goal: to mobilize more than a half-million punks to kick Bush out of office in November, said Scott Goodstein, political director of

"It's supposed to engage and enrage punk voters to take a stance," Goodstein said. "We're doing our part to make people understand that the Bush administration is out of touch with what's going on in our lives."

I'm old enough to remember when there wasn't even any punk rock. When the New York Dolls, with their heavy makeup, androgynous appearance and spandex flashy clothes were considered gay as all hell and regularly got beat up. Long before hair metal made it fashionable and popular.

I was in high school in the mid-Seventies and was deeply into music. At the time, that was mostly British rock and progressive rock (though not Yes, for some reason). I was also an Aerosmith and Kiss fan long before anyone I knew had even heard of them. One of my brothers and his friends used to come listen to what I was playing and joke, "We want to know what we'll be listening to in a couple of years." OK, they weren't joking.

I first heard about punk from a magazine called Trouser Press, a bible of independent and obscure British music. They were picking it up from early Patti Smith, Television, Blondie, Talking Heads, Devo, the Dead Boys, Pere Ubu and the Ramones. Many of you just read that list and had a "huh?" moment, didn't you? But that's how diverse the very earliest punk was -- small bands across the East Coast and Midwest rediscovering the joys of simple songs played with enthusiasm, if not competency. These were folks who placed a premium on just getting up there and playing, over the technical proficiency that was the standard of the day.

There had been scattered antecedents: Suicide, the New York Dolls, Iggy Pop and the Stooges, the revival of Sixties garage rock. A generation was coming of age that was stifled by what had come before and the template that was laid over them. Radio of the day sucked pretty bad -- lots of California rock, "soft rock," singer-songwriters and pop. Disco was just bubbling up. (BTW, I actually did love a lot of disco. Get me started on the seminal influence of German technocracy and Donna Summer's "I Feel Love," which is one of the most awesome songs ever. But that's another post.) There had long been a pendulum in radio that swung between pop and rock; it was ready to start another swing at this point. (This swing has gone on in rock and roll since the beginning. Today, we're in a pop phase and nearly ready to swing back to rock. We just came out of a rock phase -- grunge. There's also another, seperate pendulum related to the influence of black music with pop & rock, but that's another post.)

The big media completely ignored this bubbling up for the longest. I was a semi-regular reader of Rolling Stone and a rabid reader of Creem. The latter magazine was quicker to catch on, but they still lagged Trouser Press by a long shot.

Anyway, Britain's two major music mags, NME and Sounds were always on the lookout for the next big trend, in order to hype the bands and fill up pages, and attract readers. They heard about the Ramones in New York coming to Britain for a tour in late '75 or early '76 (can't remember exactly as I type this) and played up the "new punk rock sound" big. When audiences, mostly art-school college kids, went to see this band they were stunned to discover just how primitive, raw, unglamorous and basic they were. These goofs were big American stars, as their music mags said? Scores of kids across the nation said, "Oy! I can do that!" and did.

Within months, bands were popping up like weeds -- Sex Pistols, Buzzcocks, the Clash, Wire, Joy Division, the Damned, the Jam, and a thousand more. It's one of the most amazing things since...well, since the British discovered American blues in the Sixties and sent us the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stone, et al. But where in America the growth of punk was organic, coming up spontaneously and individually in small pockets often unaware of each other (like the slightly-behind West Coast scene), in Britain the Ramones were the archetype that all started from. Short simple songs, boisterous enthusiasm over technical polish, and direct lyrics spoken in the everyman language. The scruffy apparel that seemed plucked randomly from all over the fashion landscape was a British innovation, where their art school roots made image a necessary component of the band. In America, there was little concern with clothing. Look at pictures from the early American era and you'll wince at how dorky most punks of the day looked, versus their flashy British cousins.

Within a year, Britain's music scene had been transformed.

Back in America, it was slower going. Major labels still were slow to pick things up, though I remember buying the first Cheap Trick and Ramones albums together in Spring 77. The magazines began to take their cues from Britain. What in America was a diverse and sprawling scene was called punk, but for most in the press the British version was the true punk. Back here, punk diverged into two strains: punk and New Wave. Punk kept the scruff and the attitude; New Wave was its more flashy cousin. Blondie and Talking Heads, though originally as punk as anyone, found themselves drifting into the New Wave category.

All long in America, punk was apolitical. It was far more about the generational shift, rejecting previous received values and finding your own. The world that punk came from was apocalyptic, consumerist, pre-determined; punk was a reaction against all that. There was a real sense then, nearly fogotten nowadays, that nuclear war was a very likely thing and we'd all die soon. So we might as well die laughing and dancing our asses off! The precise dynamic that launched rock and roll in the Fifties was at work in the birth of punk in the Seventies, and would come again in the Nineties with grunge.

Britain was a more complicated case. Class politics play a huge role there, and punk rock for them became much more rejectionist and "lower classes putting the finger up the upper classes." Thatcher was trying to privatise the socialist system and was bitterly hated, as the young felt they were having something taken from them. Race riots began to happen in mixed neighborhoods, which thoroughly frightened Mr. and Mrs. Average Briton (even though the non-white population of England was less than 5% at the time!). When the punk youth came along, looking like some nightmare vision and trashing the very social order that most Britons stood for, they provoked a far more hysterical reaction than American punks did. At least until the more violent and in-your-face California punk rockers came along in the early Eighties.

Remember, punk rock came about in the post-Nixon and Jimmy Carter years. Days of hippie protest were waning and such trappings of druggie loserdom came to be mocked by punks of the day. Same with the escapist disco culture. Reagan wasn't seen politically so much as socially -- the reassertion of old, rejected values meant to stifle the creativity and freedom of youth. It wasn't until the advent of the Dead Kennedys that punk became overtly political and the Left became welded with punk rock.

Look around in the catalogs of early American punk rock and you just don't see many political songs. There are some political critiques masked under metaphor, but nearly no direct statements. American punk rock was markedly politics-free, even to interviews. The second wave of American punk was pretty much the same: next-generation New York, Athens, the larger Midwest and Ohio scenes, the glorious explosion finally in California. Heck, the original article I mentioned above talks about the Ramones, but of the hundreds of songs they wrote, a mere handful concern politics at all.

Even British punk from the late Seventies was largely apolitical, mostly being anger at the Government, the stifling social order and the ruling classes. The Clash would be a major exception, of course, and not the only one. But even there, you'd find a lot more bands like Crass, who were flat-out Marxist anarachists, than you'd find regular pro-Liberal sympathies.

I can't speak to the punk rock of today, as I stopped listening to music that devotedly in the late Eighties. I can tell you about its roots, though, as I was there and paying attention. Record stores used to love to see me, as it wasn't at all odd for me to drop $40 to $100 on music every visit, especially on the more-expensive import stuff. Punk rock marked a decided turn in my musical taste, which perusing my record collection will clearly show. It still informs me today. I much prefer music like the Vines, White Stripes, YeahYeahYeahs, and those kinds of bands, even neo-revivalists like the Hives and Interpol, to post-grunge, numetal, rap-metal and what's called heavy metal today. (Though I do like some of it. Don't get me wrong.) Give me short, simple, fast, clever, and catchy as all hell, any day of the week. I like music that lifts me up and makes me want to bounce around.

Punk rock was the joy of playing, of just getting up there and banging out your songs. It morphed into New Wave, became successful and hit the mainstream alongside disco. Music became pop again, more a celebration of the artist and singer and song than the sheer exuberance that is rock. Formalist versus protean, if you will. Then grunge came along and it was punk for the next generation. Grunge was quickly absorbed by the mainstream this time, in marked difference with the reaction to punk. Now it's the era of boy bands and pop idols again.

Punk is the sense of reinvention and rediscovery, blowing off the rocco artifice that always accretes to get at the pure heart of music: joyful expression of the exuberant energy of youth. It's not the music industry category. It is just around the corner, always, waiting to be reborn.

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