That’s not punk! by underground

What the punk?

Yes that’s right, punk is dead
It’s just another cheap product for the consumers head
Bubblegum rock on plastic transistors
Schoolboy sedition backed by big time promoters
CBS promote the Clash
Ain’t for revolution, it’s just for cash
Punk became a fashion just like hippy used to be
Ain’t got a thing to do with your or me
Punk is Dead – Crass

Punk died in the 1980s. I wish they’d stop trying to resurrect it. I’ve debated this over and over. Punk is dead, kids. Get over it.” Urban dictionary

Punk rock isn’t any more alive and thriving today than psychedelic rock or new wave. As far as the broader culture is concerned, it’s been dead for awhile and it ain’t coming back.J.P. Gorman

Is punk dead? Having now fractured into so many sub-genres, it can be easy to see why people would look back 20-30 years if asked what music is punk. Additionally, considering the only punk music that gets any real exposure is pop punk, with lyrics typically about romance or bratty teenagers, or emo, which I will refrain from attacking, it is understandable that many people would believe the punk ethos to have either died, or to have dispersed elsewhere. However my friends, punk is not dead. It has, however, evolved and thankfully matured from its chaotic and often unintelligent infancy.

Romanticised past

When people think punk, they usually think Sex Pistols, Ramones, the Clash or bands of that era. Each of these early punk bands were products of their time, either as reaction against mainstream music and culture, or social and political movements. The music was honest, straight up and reflected the times.

Really, there was not a hell of a lot intelligent about the Sex Pistols. Anyone who has seen Johnny Rotten in an interview will understand why. That’s not too say they are devoid of meaning. I think the most important thing about that band and other early punk bands was the rejection of the sugar coated pop bullshit that received heavy radio rotation. Although it may appear a bit of a gimmick now, that music was a breath of a fresh air when compared to the clichéd bubble gum tripe that was popular. The Ramones were not a hell of a lot more sophisticated either. Joe Strummer and the Clash on the other hand will far more intelligent and purposeful, lyrically and musically, perhaps this is the reason the band remains more relevant today than many of its contemporaries. Successive bands have combined intelligent thought and the pace and fury of punk, such as the Dead Kennedys, but many earlier bands were simply caustic and that was their charm. All fuck you, no real substantive social and political commentary.

Biology 101

Like humans, music evolves. So don’t expect it to stay the same. Neither should we want it to. If you like early Bad Religion, but don’t like their new stuff, don’t listen to their new stuff. But if you do like their new stuff, you must be able to appreciate their experimental stages, such as Into the unknown or even No substance, that in some way lead to their fantastic Process of belief or New maps of hell. The same goes for the entire genre. If you like the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, UK Subs or Minor Threat, but don’t like Anti-flag, Pennywise, Me first and the gimme gimmes or Rise Against, don’t listen to them. And those who like the new bands and not the old, must be able to appreciate what inspired the bands they love. It is called a progression, get over it.

Punk has matured. Bands can no longer get away with being “anti-establishment” to set themselves apart. The bands that stand out are doing things different, adopting other styles, or singing about diverse topics than the “system”.

Perhaps introduced by the Clash, or maybe a similar predecessor, the introduction of reggae and ska to punk was a revelation. With the addition of upstroke guitars, funky basslines and even horns, punk was able to add elements to its style. As the years have gone on, bands have adopted metal, rap, folk and even polka influences. As simple maths equations it looks like so: Punk + Metal = Strung Out, Punk + Rap = Transplants, Punk + Folk = Bad Religion, Punk + Rock and Roll = The Living End, and Punk + Polka = All American Badass by Mad Caddies, or NOFX’s Theme from a NOFX Album. As a result, the typical three chords poorly recorded DIY sound has departed, but the passion, ethos and integrity still remains.

Three Chords and a half dozen clichés

I will not deny that a large part of the appeal of punk is its accessibility, in that, anyone can play it. Being able to play the songs when I learnt guitar was part of what got me into the genre. Embracing the DIY ethos, punk can be played and has been played by anyone with minimal musical ability. But for me, this is not intrinsically virtuous, because in all likelihood, the least capable musicians are going to make the least audibly pleasing music. Some skill, at both writing lyrics and writing songs is required to make good music. And for this reason, much of the romanticised punk of the 1970’s and early 1980’s was rubbish. Yes, the Sex Pistols and the Ramones made some great songs, songs that adequately reflected the societies they wrote about, but how much of it was honestly unintelligent and immature. I liked it when I was 17, but aged 24 it has lost its charm. It strikes me as thoughtful as a 15-year-old anarchist, who has no idea of the details of the social theory; they just like the idea of “fucking everything up”! Hell, chaos appealed to all of us at that age. It’s the kind of music you listen to after coming home from an afternoon school detention after swearing at the principal, and then abusing your parents for telling you can’t go out that weekend. And I think bands that try reflecting the attitude and utter simplicity of the songs from that era now (I’m looking at you early Anti-flag!) look a bit pathetic, uninformed and not very articulate.

Not too say that simplicity is necessarily a bad thing, but I don’t believe it is the meaning of punk. Bands such as the Living End (although mainly their earlier stuff!), Strung Out, Propagandi, Anti Flag or Rancid are retain the punk ethos, reflected in their lyrics, but each play technical musical, either with complex guitar riffs, exceptional basslines or unbelievably quick drummer. No three chords, and no clichés.

Lyrically, modern punk bands are arguably far more intelligent than their predecessors, incorporating thoughtful ideas and passion. Propagandi’s lyrics read like essays written by politics and history doctorates. And then there’s Bad Religion’s Dr Greg Graffin, whose lyrics are where poetry meets science, philosophy, theology and politics.

Vocally, singers like Tim from Rise Against or Thomas from Strike Anywhere are without parallel in any genre as the most passionate musicians around. From their stereo to the stage those guys, among others, come across sincere, dedicated and serious about the messages they are conveying. The motivation and passion that is heralded as a relic of a bygone era is arguably more present now than ever before.

Sure protest bands like Anti-flag or Pennywise can be horribly simple and blunt, applying the same clichés as their forefathers, but they do back it up with more complexity of thought in other songs. And sometimes it is nice to say, “Fuck authority” as simply as possible, but I don’t think it is the best that punk has to offer. And some bands still sing about the “scene”, what the hell is that all about?

If three chords and an attitude are all you are looking for, might I recommend Green Day or Blink 182.

Don’t take yourself so seriously

Some punks are Doc Martins, leather jackets and Mohawks; some are DC’s, hoodies, jeans and wallet chains. Some punks take it more seriously than others. Some live the message, follow the politics, or mix in the “scene. Some are straight-edge, others just like the music.

Some punk bands get their message across through sincere and passionate, others opt for satire and humour to spread the same message. Two bands that immediately come to mind are veteran punkers NOFX and Australian band Frenzal Rhomb (who need to tour New Zealand again!). NOFX have mastered the art of bad puns and other plays on words, and hide their political and social commentary behind metaphors and crap jokes. Sometimes their songs reach moments of genius such as the “Idiots are taking over”:

There’s no point for democracy when ignorance is celebrated, political scientists get the same one vote as some Arkansas inbred”.

Realising the paradox that punk is, Frenzal Rhomb declared themselves the “punkest” band in the world. Songs such as “Guns don’t kill ducklings, ducklings kill ducklings” tackle issues like animal rights and the fallacy of hunting as a sport (“It is not a sport if the other team doesn’t want to play!), but opting for humour rather than the more preachy tact taken by others (or shock tactics!!!). The message is still there; just the bands have fun spreading it. Because it is ok to have fun.

Or apparently not! I found myself having to make a case for the gimmes the other night, in the face of the accusation that they had no point to them, because they just do “bad” versions of other people’s songs. I had previously thought the gimmies were the one band that even people who don’t like punk usually can get into. My dad loves the gimmes. He’s also got a sense of humour and loves the way they take the piss out of clichéd ballads and soppy pop songs. I suppose you could call it musical satire. Well perhaps the joke is above some people.

“What’s the point? They only play covers. They don’t even write their own songs!”

Which must be the most ridiculous criticism one could make. So they don’t write their own songs, so what? Most pop groups do not write their own songs. Many of the originals of the songs the gimmes so masterfully cover, were not written by the artist that performed them! Hip-hop artists are forever taking backing tracks from other genres before recording an egotistic rant over the top. Techno is notorious for messing with other people’s music. What do you think a sample is? But as soon as a punk band decides to renovate a classic, out comes the hostility.

Perhaps there are two remarkable things the gimmes do. Firstly they make older songs accessible to a new audience. Taking songs from so many genres; country, pop, show tunes, and punking them up to share with them with new listeners. This has highlighted for me just how bad the lyrics to a lot of old songs are. Again, I think this is a case of old “classics” being romanticised. Like they say on their live album, “we took a bad song, and made it great!”

Secondly, the gimmes have a laugh. Anyone who has seen their live show or heard their live album “ruin Johnny’s Bar mitzvah” know these guys don’t take themselves too seriously. And neither does the crowd. Their show earlier this year at Galatos was attended by perhaps the most diverse crowd I have seen at a punk show. A lot of people who otherwise would not get into punk experience the music and have a good time. Then they go home and download the Decline (I mean, buy the Decline on vinyl!) The exclusive elitists of the scene won’t think that’s a good thing, but who gives a shit about the elite, right?

It was claimed that Me first and the gimme gimmes was merely a money making exercise for the members of other bands to cash in on other people’s songs. The ridiculousness of this idea was not apparent to them, because they did not account for royalties, which would huge considering the whole album is written by others, their tickets are not particularly overpriced (Galatos show in January only $40.50 in what is a relatively small venue) and they only release an album once every few years. I struggle to imagine huge profits there, although feel free to prove me wrong, if anyone knows exactly how much they do make from the side project.

Perhaps the Gimmes and the Sex pistols are alike, in that they fly in the face of the commercial music scene. What is more punk than unwrapping those carefully packaged processed parcels and producing the antithesis of the original product?

Music that matters

The way I see it, music should be one, or both, of two things. Firstly, it is a vehicle for ideas. Secondly it is a vehicle for getting people to let go and go crazy.

For me, punk ticks the boxes. I appreciate the ideas, how many other genres are defined by their approach to politics in the way punk is? Other genres may often deal with political ideas on occasion, some more than others, but along with perhaps folk and political protest music of the Vietnam era, punk by definition is about challenging the status quo, resisting established cultural notions and asking questions of authority. But then it doesn’t have to be so hard core all the time, it can be satirical or just plain fun, whilst still being subversive. It can adopt other genres, it can take examples from the old, or it can create new.

If you don’t have anything to say, don’t say anything. If you have something to say, don’t muck around, just say it. In preferably two minutes!

Punk is generally genuinely sincere. When most punk vocalists say something, they mean it and they say it share a message. Punk is often well ahead of the curve. Before bashing George W Bush was popular, punk bands had been criticising the President’s father. And Live Aid? When do those bands otherwise make a stand an environmental issues? Punk bands have been singing about the environment for decades. It appears as though many musicians jump on the bandwagon, adopting causes in a desperate profit driven search for CD sales. Yeah, some punk bands are definitely guilty, but many bands focus on issues long before it gets cool.

There is nothing like a punk show. In our fast paced individualistic society, the moshpit is a sweaty burst of fresh air. Sure, everyone is running around like crazy, smashing into each other, but there is a certain camaraderie. When someone goes down, everyone gives them a hand up. People can dive into a crowd of strangers and (on most occasions) be caught and carried across the crowd. You can sing “no control” with someone twice your age you have never met before. You can go absolutely crazy when the first chords of the “Decline” are struck, and know that 1000 people are just as stoked as you are. You can release the frustration of another week of nine to five monotony with a group of like-minded people. Nobody gives a shit what you look like, nobody cares what you wear. You can be yourself. (unless the “scene” punks turn up!)

Hell, I might be wrong about punk, feel free to tell me I’m full of shit. But don’t be alarmed when I tell you you’re living in the past and not to be so god damned precious!


4 Comments so far
Leave a comment

[…] response to the question in the previous post of whether punk is dead – in many ways it is. In many ways it died the day it was born. But at […]

Pingback by This could be my great awakening … « Undergroundnetwork



Comment by Shithead vinny

Thanks for the comment, although you have clearly not read the post. Idiot.

Comment by underground

hey i know you wrote this a while ago but this a great article. I hate the “scene punks” that i talk to that think because i dont have a mohawk and dress like a punk i cannot be a punk and you help me explain to people how just because the bands today dont sound exactly the same as the ones before them, they are still just as much punk. Once again, great article and thanks for writing it

Comment by rob

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: