Musical Genres Are the Stupidest Thing Ever: Punk Rock Part 1

sex_pistolsIn 2016, telling someone you listen to punk or punk rock is pretty much about as vague as saying you listen to rock.  Punk has been around now for 40 years… or is it 50 years… or 60?  What is or what counts as punk rock?  Is punk rock just defined by bands with stupid, obnoxious names, who play two to three minute rock songs that consist of a few chords and are played at a fast tempo?  Is punk about having a “don’t give a fuck” attitude?  Is punk the musical front for a leftist/anarchist revolution?

Who are the punk bands bands?  Are the Stooges punk?  The Ramones?  Black Flag? Nirvana?  Green Day?  Sonic Youth?  Napalm Death?  Nausea?  Dropdead?  Richard Hell and the Voidoids?  Cockney Rejects?  Pissed Jeans?  Halo of Flies?  Butthole Surfers?  X-Ray Spex?  Devo?  Oingo Boingo?  Cro-Mags?  Dinosaur Jr.?  Nobunny?  Discharge?

To the average interloper, this may seem like a complete waste of time and trivial garbage.  But, it’s worth noting that, as much as genre distinctions are dumb, even John Derbyshire notes that there is some interest in exploring how there’s very little cultural cohesion, even under what allegedly seems to be the same cultural umbrella; in this case, punk rock.

If I’m not mistaken, the term punk rock was first used to describe the debut album by the Deviants, Ptooff! from 1967.  The Deviants were a group of quasi-anarchists from the bohemian Ladbroke Grove district of London and were led by counter cultural mouthpiece Mick Farren.  Musically the album is a solid mix of Syd Barrett era Pink Floyd and Zappa-style wankery along with social satire.  The term “punk” was used literally to imply “no good jerk” or “asshole.”

The term was used again to describe the self titled debut by the Stooges; as in “the music of punks cruising for burgers.”  Iggy Pop wasn’t too happy about this classification because it implied that he’s dumb, something that tends to happen when your album consists of three-chord garage rock songs with titles like “I Wanna Be Your Dog” and “No Fun”, and has minimalist lines like “1969, okay/all across the USA/another year for me and you/another with nothing to do/last year I was 21/I didn’t have a lot of fun/now I’m gonna be 22/I say ‘oh my’ and ‘boo hoo.'”

The term came up a third time when Jac Holzman of Elektra records and future Patti Smith guitarist Lenny Kaye assembled the Nuggets box set.  They used the term to describe the music of mid-1960s garage rock groups like the Sonics, the Monks, the Seeds, the Count Five, the Zakary Thaks, the Blues Magoos and the 13th Floor Elevators.

By 1974, the term was being used by journalists rather liberally, but without attaching it to any particular sound.  That year a journalist asked Aerosmith if they were “punk rock.”  Were they?  Personally speaking “Rats in the Cellar” tears it up as much as any Ramones, Sex Pistols or Damned song.  But, “punk rock” didn’t exist as such when Aerosmith came out, so they were relegated to “hard rock.”

Retroactively the Velvet Underground, Stooges, MC5, New York Dolls, Modern Lovers and Dictators were labeled as punk, but because they came out before 1976, they’re “proto-punk” or something.  Uncovered recordings by the Electric Eels, Mirrors, Rocket from the Tombs (all from Cleveland), Death (the black guys from Detroit, not the death metal band), the Gizmos and Simply Saucer reveal more music that roughly fits the “punk” category as already defined by the other bands; well, except for the MC5, whose classic debut, Kick Out the Jams, sounds more like the heavy acid fuzz of Blue Cheer, but that’s another story.

Mainstream critics say that “punk rock” truly “started” in 1976 when the Ramones released their self-titled debut.  Did it, though?  By that point the Sex Pistols were already eight months into their existence, and the Saints had been together in some way, shape or form since 1973.  In 1976, if you exclude Patti Smith and Blondie, the Ramones were the only band that really sounded like a punk band as it was later defined.

However, in 1976, there weren’t any other bands out besides the Ramones, so labels threw Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and AC/DC into the punk genre.

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The term “punk” was also used to describe an early Suicide gig, even though Suicide is an electronic duo.  “Punk” soon began to describe a scene when John Holmstrom, Eddie “Legs” McNeil and Gedd Dunn, three pussy chasing, drug using, degenerates, started the magazine Punk in 1975 after listening to Go Girl Crazy by the Dictators that Summer for the same reason most people started magazines at the time; free gigs, free booze and free records.  Back then the world wasn’t saturated with people who cheaply assemble xeroxed zines in order to receive gimmedats.  And, while Go Girl Crazy! is considered an early punk classic, it’s actually more of an early mix of punk and metal and has lots of crazy leads from soon to be Manowar guitarist Ross the Boss, along with humor to boot.  I can’t imagine a band today getting away with releasing songs with titles like “Back to Africa” and “Master Race Rock.”  Google the lyrics before you throw a fit.

Of course Punk magazine was hardly a “zine.”  It was printed on glossy stock and mass produced, not photocopied and sold to a few record stores who were in the know.  You know what was though?

 

heavy_metal_digest_iggyMeanwhile, in London, the Sex Pistols had garnered enough of a following of their weirdo, freak fans, who whore bondage gear, swastikas, torn clothes and spiky hair, that people felt a movement was in progress.  When they first formed, the only bands on the local club scene were called “pub rock”, which was more or less a cross of rockabilly and 70s boogie rock – Kilburn and the Highroads, Dr. Feelgood, Ducks Deluxe, Bazooka Joe, the 101ers (who featured Joe Strummer when he was in rockabilly mode) and Eddie and the Hot Rods – essentially revivalist music, and the Sex Pistols wanted none of it.  Their first show was supporting Bazooka Joe, who featured Adam Ant on bass.  When the music started to go in the Pistols’ direction, a few “pub rock” bands, mainly the Stranglers and the Vibrators, sped up and toughened up their songs and became “punk.”  In punk’s first few months of coverage by the underground press, Eddie and the Hot Rods were included under the punk umbrella as well before being unceremoniously jettisoned.

In New York in 1975, there was something resembling a cohesive underground music scene as well.  There was of course the Ramones, the Heartbreakers – featuring former New York Dolls Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan and former Television bassist Richard Hell; NOT the Tom Petty band – Television, Patti Smith, Blondie, Wayne County and the Back Street Boys, Talking Heads, Suicide, the Miamis, the Mumps, the Shirts, the Tuff Darts, Mink Deville, Sun, Steel Tips and Sic Fucks among others.  By 1976, there would be Richard Hell and the Voidoids (after Hell left the Heartbreakers) and the Dead Boys.

The Ramones were of course the big boys on the scene and signed with Seimore Stein’s Sire label in the Fall of 1975, releasing Ramones in April of 1976.  To the mid ’70s rock crowd, who were used to longer songs by well trained “musos”, the album was really left field.  The group performed 14 basic songs in under a half hour with barely a guitar solo on any of them.  The lyrics are about beating up annoying kids and similarly annoying girlfriends, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, sniffing glue and Nazis.  And the album cover photo has the guys on the front looking less like a band and more like a group of derelicts who’ll mug you outside the liquor store… in an era of arty prog rock with elaborate cover paintings of fantasy landscapes, who wouldn’t listen to that?  In hindsight, it seems as the though Ramones, with its all down strummed bar chords and similar sounding two minute songs, had less of an impact on the groups that immediately followed and more of a direct influence on the hardcore punk and thrash metal bands of the next generation.  Although Ramones songs still had the 1-4-5, Chuck Berry and Eddie Cochran style riffs that other punk bands used and plenty of oldies-style pop melody, there was a stridently, aggressive, militantly metal approach to Johnny Ramone’s playing; he even admitted that he copped his entire guitar style from the “da-da-da” approach of “Communication Breakdown” by Led Zeppelin.

It’s almost ironic then that this 28 year old Republican was a direct influence on a bunch of antisocial 15-18 year olds of the soon to exist American hardcore punk scene, but that’s another story for another post.  Since there wasn’t a wide circuit of underground venues for the Ramones to play, for their first tour, they were forced to bring their loud, fast and primitive sound to the audiences of bands like Boston and Blue Oyster Cult.  Needless to say the crowd reaction in most cases wasn’t great.  However, when they played London on July 3rd and 4th of that year, the who’s who of the punk scene attended their gigs.  They were originally set to play before their Sire label mates, the Flamin’ Groovies, who first decided it would be best if the Ramones headlined, then changed their minds at the last minute.  Needless to say, the Ramones performed in front of 3,000 people at the Roundhouse, and the Flamin’ Groovies performed in front of a nearly empty house.  For the historically obsessed, the Stranglers opened the gig.

Since people love to compare the Ramones with the Sex Pistols, the Pistols’ songs are all longer and slower than those of the Ramones. Johnny Rotten might have had the more brash, snotty and typically “punk” voice with his “nyeah-nyeah”, overly anunciated sing-shouting, but Steve Jones was a much better guitarist than Johnny Ramone, Paul Cook is a tight and solid drummer and, for cryin’ out loud, Glenn Matlock tried to teach the rest of the Pistols Beatles chords; Sid Vicious was a talentless joke and was rarely even plugged in when he played live, but hey! Listen to anything by the Pistols and tell me they’re not a tight, hard rock band. And no, the band never sang about being on the dole and they weren’t “assembled” like a boy band; they were an organic band who wrote and performed their own songs. If you’re looking for “assembled”, that would be “jail bait rockers” the Runaways. Malcolm Mclaren seemed too stupid to ever manipulate people the way Kim Fowley did.

Thanks to the Pistols and, spefically Johnny Rotten’s spiky hair, torn up t-shirts and blazers, safety pins and snotty delivery, by late 1976 the 100 Club became punk central and London now had a number bands that mimicked the Pistols in either look or sound.  The Clash copied the sound of the Ramones, threw in some Who riffs and spewed Marxist drivel.  The Damned played fun party songs about well… I still have no idea what “Neat Neat Neat” is about!  Summer of 1976 in England was considered the “Summer of hate” by some.

Manchester featured the Buzzcocks, Slaughter and the Dogs and the Drones, and the Saints were imported from Brisbane Australia after their self-released, debut single “(I’m) Stranded”(b/w “No Time”) caught the ears of EMI.  While merely a curiosity in the States, in the U.K., punk “went viral” in December of 1976 when the Pistols appeared on the Today Show with Bill Grundy, and guitarist Steve Jones cussed out the talk show host for his gross, drunken behavior.  Next day the Pistols were public enemy number one, and all but three of the group’s nineteen U.K. dates with the Clash, the Damned and Heartbreakers were cancelled.

As for independent labels vs. major labels, my thoughts on this are as follows: as mentioned before, the Saints put out their first single themselves, and it lead to a deal with EMI.  In the States, the dinky Ork label released the Richard and the Voidoids EP Another World and Devo released their first single “Jocko Homo” (b/w “Mongoloid”) on their own Booji Boy label, so I’m still stumped as to why the Buzzcocks get all this credit for spearheading “D.I.Y.” with their first release, the Spiral Scratch EP; especially since they soon signed a major label deal and other bands had already released their own singles or had been on independent labels.  Hell, in the States the art-pop performance group the Residents had always released their albums in limited runs on their tiny Ralph label.  It’s also worth noting that, while technically the Ramones were a major label band, that’s only because Sire was bought by Warner Bros. almost immediately after they signed the deal.  Prior to that Sire was actually a pretty small label that handled garage and bubble gum music.

By 1977 “punk rock” was being marketed by bands, labels and ‘zines such as Sniffin’ Glue as the new genre/movement that the kids were into.  The Ramones toured as support for the Talking Heads, who Johnny Ramone hated because he thought they were wimps.  The Dead Boys toured the States and the U.K. with the Damned, the Clash toured with Richard Hell and the Voidoids and the Stranglers with the Dictators.   And sooo many excellent records were released in punk’s halcyon days.  Here are a bunch you should buy or steal:

Leave Home – Ramones
Rocket to Russia – Ramones
Road to Ruin – Ramones
Never Mind the Bollocks… Here’s the Sex Pistols – The Sex Pistols
Damned Damned Damned – The Damned
Music for Pleasure – The Damned
Machine Gun Etiquette – The Damned
Rattus Norvegicus – The Stranglers
No More Heroes – The Stranglers
Black and White – The Stranglers
The Raven – The Stranglers
L.A.M.F. – The Heartbreakers
So Alone – Johnny Thunders
Young, Loud and Snotty – Dead Boys
We Have Come for Your Children – Dead Boys
Pure Mania – The Vibrators
V2 – The Vibrators
Manifest Destiny – The Dictators
Bloodbrothers – The Dictators
Marque Moon – Television
Adventure – Television
Pink Flag – Wire
Chairs Missing – Wire
154 – Wire
Blank Generation – Richard Hell and the Voidoids
Talking Heads ’77 – Talking Heads
More Songs About Buildings and Food – Talking Heads
Fear of Music – Talking Heads
The Modern Dance – Pere Ubu
Dub Housing – Pere Ubu
(I’m) Stranded – The Saints
Eternally Yours – The Saints
Prehistoric Sounds – The Saints
Radios Appear – Radio Birdman
Aspirations – X (Australian band)
The Clash – The Clash
London Calling – The Clash
Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! – Devo
Duty Now for the Future – Devo
All Skrewed Up – Skrewdriver
Another Music in a Different Kitchen – Buzzcocks
Love Bites – Buzzcocks
Singles Going Steady – Buzzcocks
A Different Kind of Tension – Buzzcocks
Live at the Witch Trials – The Fall
Dragnet – The Fall
Real Life – Magazine
Public Image/First Issue – Public Image Ltd.
The Scream – Siouxsie and the Banshees
Cut – The Slits
Do It Dog Style – Slaughter and the Dogs
Germfree Adolescents – X-Ray Spex
Can’t Stand the Rezillos – The Rezillos
Crossing the Red Sea with the Adverts – The Adverts
Tell Us the Truth – Sham 69
The Feeding of the 5000 – Crass
Another Kind of Blues – U.K. Subs
The Undertones – The Undertones
Inflammable Material – Stiff Little Fingers
999 – 999
Separates – 999

A cursory listen will reveal that “punk” was pretty darn diverse, and while some might take exception with me throwing the Talking Heads or Television into the list because they’re “art rock” or Public Image Ltd., Magazine and the Fall because they’re “post-punk”, I feel the Fall are sufficiently punky, especially since I’m including Wire and Pere Ubu, who are in the same “art-garage” wheelhouse, and I focused on the “punk era”, which falls between 1977-1979, not the strict “punk genre.”  Also what if a band like the Slits started as a punk band, but became “post punk”?  It’s clear that some bands thought of punk as a throwback to 50s rock ‘n’ roll with edgier lyrics, some thought of it as a springboard into the future and some didn’t consider themselves punk at all, but had no problem scoring points with the spiky hair set.  Some bands, such as the Saints and the Clash could be classified as punk on their first albums, but then moved onto something else entirely and began to establish new audiences and/or lose their old ones.  I also deliberately excluded the second Clash album, Give ’em Enough Rope, from the list because, frankly, it sucks.

As mentioned, while punk seemed to make a splash in England, it didn’t mean shit to the average American, who would rather buy albums by Pink Floyd, Foreigner, the Bee Gees or Fleetwood Mac.  Independent labels, major labels?  It really didn’t mean much to the average music consumer in the late 70s, and later the Damned bitched that they didn’t make a single cent off of their first album, which came out through the tiny Stiff label.

By 1979, it became clear that punk was going NOWHERE as far as the record buying public was concerned.  The only hits that came out of it were mainstream crossovers like the Patti Smith/Bruce Springsteen duet “Because the Night” and pop/disco hits by Blondie.  The college art crowd dug the polyrhythms and African inspired, new wave funk of later Talking Heads albums like Remain in Light, while Devo scored a hit with “Whip It.”  The only other thing that came out of punk was mainstream power-pop.  To the average American, the Cars and the Police were punk bands.

The Sex Pistols U.S. tour in early 1978, where they only toured the South until they hit San Francisco, made some good copy, but it caused the average American, who tuned into Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, to think that punk was nothing more than a sick joke imported from the U.K., a second British invasion, but one where they wanted to send the invaders back.  It also didn’t help that, after seven concerts, the Sex Pistols broke up, causing labels to lose interest in promoting American punk bands.  The Ramones were kept on Sire until 1992 more or less as a tax write off.

By 1979, as far as American labels were concerned, the punk rock “movement” that they helped foster in the traditional way was dead.  Of course, what’s dead in the mainstream grows and festers in the underground.

 

 

Did Reagan and Thatcher Really Keep Punk Alive?

reagan_punk_flyerIn the opening scene of the the 2006 documentary, American Hardcore, which was adapted from Steven Blush’s 1999 tome, middle-aged, bald Vic Bondie from Chicago based hardcore punk band, Articles of Faith says something to the effect of, “Reagan was saying it’s morning in America.  It’s fucking MIDNIGHT, MAN!”  This was his way of saying that, in November 1980, when Ronald Reagan was elected President of these here United States, EVERYTHING changed!

It was like Germany 1933 all over again.  Only THIS TIME, there would be REAL opposition to the Nazis in the form of a bunch of 15 – 18 year old kids with crew cuts, combat boots, black denim and cutoff band t-shirts idiotically slamming into one another while a band of middling talent provided the loud, fast, aggressive soundtrack.  Sure a few casualties were rounded up in the form of split heads and severed ears – Jack Grisham of T.S.O.L. admits to slicing kids’ ears off with the spur of his engineer boot – but this was the sound of the YOUTH, a true left-wing opposition to the rising tide of Reaganite fascism.

This of course paralleled the opposition to the equally fascist government of Margaret Thatcher in England, where much more fashion conscious, mohawk wearing punks like the Exploited didn’t waste a moment to call Margaret Thatcher a “cunt.”

By the mid-80s, metal bands like Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax and Megadeth heard the rallying cry of the punks and joined along.  Now the anti-oppressive, anti-fascist message would have better distortion, longer songs and more guitar solos!

By the end of the 80s, the U.S. elected a moderate, slightly less fascist President in George Bush, and, in 1992, fascism was finally crushed – at least, until 2000 – when MTV rocked the vote and President Clinton was elected.  The remaining hardcore punk bands, those that hadn’t broken up, were forced to scratch their heads about what they could possibly sing about.  They had the duel challenge that their righteous, anti-fascist message was now being sold to MILLIONS of people thanks to commie, rap rockers Rage Against the Machine and the fact that, well, Clinton wasn’t a Republican.

So, THANK GOD, that, in 2000, George W. Bush was elected and the bands could get righteous again.

I got the inspiration for this piece when I read Gavin McInnes’ article about how comedians hate Donald Trump and, without him, they’d have a dearth of things to mock, as if the dysfunction of their own lives isn’t good enough.  This same line of reasoning has been parroted about punk rock and, especially its louder, faster offshoot hardcore punk; the 70s might have had some problems, but with the election of Ronald Reagan, now they REALLY had something to complain about, or as the Dead Kennedys sang, “We’ve got a bigger problem now.”

That’s of course if you think music, and punk rock especially, is something more than just a form of entertainment, a loud, fun, raucous way to “get the lead out.”  And unfortunately, for a bunch of free-loading, smelly Anarcho/crust punks, this is the case.

Although there were precursors to punk, bands such as the Velvet Underground, the Stooges, the MC5, the New York Dolls and the Modern Lovers, the general rule of thumb is that the first modern sounding punk rock album was the self titled debut from the Ramones, released in April of 1976.  Johnny Ramone was a Republican who felt that his often copied, down-strumming, “da-da-da” approach was meant to mimic the shooting of an AK-47.  A hippie he was not.

With the exception of maybe the MC5, who largely disavowed their pro-Maoist views, left-wing style revolution was never the first thing on the minds of any of these bands.  Punk, in general, was predicated upon bands who made their stake at being fuck-ups with catchy songs.

By 1977, the major labels gambled on these lovable miscreants and officially called their music “punk rock.”  These new rock groups had funny, sometimes indecent names like the Sex Pistols, the Dead Boys, the Dictators, the Saints, the Clash, the Damned, the Ruts, the Boomtown Rats, the Buzzcocks, the Heartbreakers (not the Tom Petty band!!!), the Vibrators, the Stranglers, the Adverts, the Rezillos, X-Ray Spex, Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Slits and Richard Hell and the Voidoids.

They wrote fuck-up songs for fuck-up kids about fuck-up topics, or, as Johnny Ramone said, “we just want to write about sick topics.”  Punks sang about serial killers, Nazis, rapists, horror movies, beating people up, boredom, juvenile delinquency and, well, being a fuck-up, while bashing out wonderfully juvenile, short and catchy songs that hearkened back to 1950s rock ‘n’ roll, albeit with much louder distortion and snottier vocals.  They also wore funny clothes, making “anti-fashion” statements with torn t-shirts, spiky hair, safety pins, smeared makeup, leather jackets and even swastikas.  Many disguised their attempts at obnoxiousness as “artistic statements.”  Some on the mainstream saw them as a threat; many more saw them as just the new thing the kids are into.

Occasionally a band like the Clash would sing about being on the dole, working in a factory or rioting against “the man.”  Occasionally a group of so-called Anarchists such as Crass would try to make you feel bad for everything you enjoy.  Leather jacket?  That’s made out of an animal!  And soon a movement based upon their principles emerged, saying that punk could no longer be about having fun being a fuck-up. NOW punk had to have a message!

Meanwhile, in the United States, by 1979, major labels like Sire (actually Sire was a much smaller label, but it was bought by Warner Bros., bumping it up to major status) had grown tired of their fuck-up bands.  The Ramones, the Dead Boys and Richard Hell and Voidoids weren’t selling millions of their fuck-up records to millions of fuck-up kids like they had hoped.  Instead, the majority of Americans prefered Animals by Pink Floyd, Rumours by Fleetwood Mac or the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack.

So, the fuck-up bands either had to break up or change their approach for commercial appeal, giving us the closest to punk crossover hits with the Patti Smith/Bruce Springsteen duet “Because the Night”, catchy as hell pop songs by Blondie and “Whip It” by Devo.  Meanwhile, the underground was bubbling with activity and new labels such as Slash and Dangerhouse emerged with new fuck-up bands with names like the Weirdos, the Germs, X, the Bags, the Deadbeats, the Controllers and the Dils.

But, just being a fuck-up with really great songs wasn’t good enough.  The Dead Kennedys formed in 1978 in San Francisco and their singer, agent provocateur Jello Biafra had a real message to sell to the kids.  Punk rock wasn’t about fun!  We have to change the world, man!  We have to take the world back from its evil obsession with capitalism.

The irony is that the first Dead Kennedys album, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, released in 1980, primarily attacked limousine liberals like Jane Fonda (“Kill the Poor”), rich black people who claim they have a connection with ghetto black people (“Holiday in Cambodia”), shady landlords (“Let’s Lynch the Landlord”) and ultra-liberal San Francisco governor Jerry Brown (“California Uber Alles”).

With the exception of maybe “Chemical Warfare” and “When You Get Drafted”, one could make an argument that Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables was just politically ambiguous satire with no leftist agenda.  Hell the track “Holiday in Cambodia” has the line “bragging that you know how the niggers feel cold/and the slums got so much soul” before bashing Pol Pot, the Communist dictator of Cambodia.  The track “I Kill Children” is just supposed to be shock punk with no message and “Your Emotions” is just Jello telling some broad, “your emotions make you a monster.”

The point?

By 1980, with the death of major label interest in “punk rock” and the rise of “new wave” and “power pop” or the so called skinny tie bands, a younger, angrier, MUCH more antisocial wave of punks hit the scene.  Anorexic, heroin addicted, twenty-something art school types, who spiked their hair up and wore torn blazers with safety pins, were replaced by line-backer sized, beer guzzling, suburban surf jocks, who shaved their heads and wore black jeans with chains for belts and engineer boots.  Safe pogoing (jumping up and down to the beat) was replaced by vicious slam dancing (or the mosh pit, if you will), and hardcore punk was born.

Does any of that sound like the beginnings of a leftist political movement?  None of the music on any of the records by Black Flag, Minor Threat, Circle Jerks, the Misfits, Fear or Bad Brains had a single mention of Ronald Reagan.  Personal turmoil, angst, self-hatred, hatred for society and, in the case of the Misfits, horror movies, were typical themes.

Were there leftist bands?  Sure.  Following the election of Reagan, the Dead Kennedys sang several songs about “cowboy Ronnie forking out his tongue at human rights”, D.O.A. sang “Fucked Up Ronnie”, D.R.I. did “Reaganomics” and Suicidal Tendencies even sang “I Shot the Devil”  about shooting the man, a rather tasteful statement considering the recent attempt on his life (to be fair, the song also talks about shooting Anwar Sadat and John Lennon).  Other bands, with names like Reagan Youth, Corrosion of Conformity, Millions of Dead Cops, the Dicks and the Crucifucks, sang more generic leftist lyrics, typically bashing war, politicians, cops, Christians, teachers, jocks and heavy metal bands; basically anyone that didn’t adhere to their narrow minded view of life.

As a side note, I talked with Paul Bakija of Reagan Youth at a gig they did in Cleveland, and you best believe he collected a princely sum for selling their song “Degenerated” to a Hollywood studio to use in the 1994 comedy film Airheads, starring Brendan Fraser, Steve Buscemi and Adam Sandler as members of a goofy punk metal kinda band called the Loan Rangers.

But, it was mainly Tim Yohannan, an ex-Yippie, who was essentially the Saul Alinsky of the punk scene, that tried to fashion hardcore punk into some sort of left wing opposition movement.  His magazine, the ultra popular, Maximum Rock ‘n’ Roll deliberately bashed any bands who didn’t adhere to a strident leftist way of life and, as the 80s progressed, punk rules got more stringent;  being “true” and not being a “sellout” or a “poser” became more difficult with each passing generation, to the point where you have bands today who have the strictest of attitudes of what constitutes “punk.”  Punk isn’t about music, man!  It’s a way of life!  I actually got yelled at by some punks for listening to Bad Brains because, in the 80s, they referred to openly gay bands like the Big Boys and the Dicks as “bloodclot faggots.”  “You just think it’s about if you like the music and don’t care at all what they stand for?”  I’m not kidding.

By 1986, there was both a political and musical backlash; political in the form of New York Hardcore bands like Agnostic Front, Cro-Mags and Murphy’s Law, who blatantly supported Ronald Reagan and musical as hardcore bands moved away from their core sound and tried other approaches.  Black Flag became sludgier and helped invent grunge, the Meat Puppets became a sort of country punk hybrid, Husker Du turned into a melodic rock band, the Replacements became the Tom Petty of the underground. Early bands like Misfits, Minor Threat and Negative Approach broke up so that their singers could form more expansive, experimental bands.

How much of this had anything to do with Ronald Reagan?  I’d say none of it, but I’d be lying, because, in Reagan America, that awful, fascist place where people were oppressed, these bands had the freedom, the wherewithal, the extra capital from lower taxes and the chutzpah to launch their own labels, their own scene and their own little world apart from the major label and corporate/liberal media.  To be fair, labels like SST and Alternative Tentacles were started in 1978 and 1979 respectively, but, at very least, Reagan didn’t prevent these labels from functioning.  They were examples of capitalism at its finest.

The irony is that, in 1986, the Dead Kennedys’ career wasn’t killed by Ronald Reagan and his “oppressive”, right wing regime, but by Tipper Gore, wife of Al “An Inconvenient Truth” Gore, a Democrat, who felt that the insert for their 1985 Frankenchrist LP, the H.R. Giger painting, Landscape XX, a supposed metaphor for corporate America’s alleged fucking of its workers, was obscene.  In other words, it was the leftist liberal Democrat who killed the art.

Punk: The Early Years (1998)

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Also keep in mind that this four “iron crosses” rating is mainly for people who’ve seen literally every other movie that exists about punk rock (which I have!  Thank you very much!).  I saw some pretty negative Amazon.com reviews stating that the Generation X footage isn’t synced up or that there’s too much interview footage with a Seditionaries employee and not enough Pistols live footage.  If you’re looking for that sort of stuff, check out the brilliant The Filth and the Fury or, if you’re looking for an overall gloss over of 70s punk, there are plenty of VH1 style documentaries on youtube.

Now that we’ve “separated the wheat from the chaff” as they say, let’s get down to business.  Punk: The Early Years was originally shot for a British TV program in 1978. The movie captures the feel of being right in the world of these events as they’re happening.  We get live footage from the Slits, Generation X (not synced up, wah-wah), X-Ray Spex, the Adverts, Eddie and the Hot Rods and Souxsie and the Banshees along with interviews with all members of Gen X, the Slits, the Adverts, Polly Styrene from X-Ray Spex, Marc Bolan from T. Rex (regarding his recent tour with the Damned), the writers of the Sniffin’ Glue zine, random punk rockers on the streets, some nobody punk bands from other countries (one guy even has an early mohawk!), Jordan, the painted up Seditionaries clerk with liberty spikes and various major label execs.

The interviews are pretty insightful.  The A&R guy at CBS all but entirely dismisses the politics of the Clash by saying, “eh, they’re young and naive.”  It’s such a trip hearing the label exec using outdated record industry lingo when describing a punk band.  Marc Bolan, while showing respect for the new groups, alleges that the Pistols and the Clash would eventually use strings (“aggressive strings”) on their albums.  He was right about one of those!  Other interview highlights include Polly Styrene discussing the meaning to “Oh Bondage Up Yours”, the Sniffin’ Glue guys talking about the hypocrisy of British clubs and authorities for banning the Pistols, Jordan of Seditionaries talking about how punk has helped break down gender barriers and Siousxie Sioux defending herself against accusations of fascism.

On one hand, the film functions as a time capsule of how much stuff has changed; in less than a year after the doc was made, punk would evolve/de-evolve into multitudes of different sub-genres that its original creators could never have dreamed of and hardly any major labels would touch punk anymore giving rise to the independents.  On the other hand, it shows how much hasn’t changed; the live footage in the dingy clubs (or are they clubs) looks exactly like dingy basement/club/VFW shows that you or I have attended all our lives!  You can practically see kids  that you’ve seen at those shows right in this video before you realize, “hey, wait a sec, this footage is from 1977!”

It’s 2013 and punk rock has been defined, redefined, analyze to death and turned into a cartoony parody of itself.  In the words of Mudhoney, it’s “overblown.” There are countless articles, books and TV specials out.  There are so many different factions, it’s hard to believe they’re all under one genre umbrella – how did garage rock, arty post punk and macho bro-core all have roots in the same-ish music genre?  Punk: The Early Years takes us all back to a more innocent time.

But why trust me?  See for yourself!

Public Image Ltd. – First Issue (reissue)

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I know I’m not going to win any friends with this review but you all like honesty, don’t you?  Light In The Attic has reissued the first Public Image Ltd. album and I’m a fan of their reissues; beautiful fetish objects loaded with liner notes, photos and other assorted memorabilia – if you haven’t picked up their reissue of the Monks’ Black Monk Time, stop reading this now and go get it!!!

The reissue for First Issue or Public Image – First Issue or whatever it’s called is no exception.  Light has released it in several packaging options including one with a bonus b-side to the “Public Image” single called “The Cowboy Song” and a 56 minute long BBC interview.  Also, considering that the original album was never officially released in the states and that the only CD issue is from 1986, the album was due for a retooling.

However, and I say this as a pretty big PiL fan (I have the dang logo tattooed on my inner fore arm), Metal Box/Second Edition is the only album by the group that I find satisfying all the way through.  They have some pretty awesome material but, unfortunately, upon revisiting the album, I don’t find it musically enjoyable from start to finish.

Look, I’m not one of those music philosopher guys who thinks the Pistols “separated the world of pop music into a then and now” or care about situationism or feel any need to discuss Malcolm McLaren’s involvement with the band.  They were awesome and looked cool and Never Mind the Bollocks… Here’s the Sex Pistols is one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll albums ever made and that’s that.  After Lydon bid adieu to the stagnating Pistols – as in they entirely stopped writing new material – he hooked up with former Clash guitarist Keith Levene, old buddy and bassist John “Jah Wobble” Wardle and Canadian import drummer Jim Walker and started PiL.

But we’re not here to talk about music history; we’re here to talk about songs.  The first PiL has eight of them and of those eight, I really only enjoy five.  So let’s get to the nitty gritty.  “Religion 1” isn’t even a song.  It’s John Lydon reciting the lyrics to “Religion 2” without any musical accompaniment.  Sounds exciting?  Well, it’s not.  So there’s two minutes you can shave off the album.  Next we have “Attack.”  Well, for a guy who “hates rock ‘n’ roll”, it sure as hell sounds like a rock ‘n’ roll song or rather a poorly written Sex Pistols song.  Don’t believe me?  It’s mid-tempo punky rock with three distorted chords only it’s recorded really poorly and the lyrics go something like “Attack-attack-attack-attack-attack-attack” – real clever, huh?  And, lastly we have “Fodderstompf”, which predicts the bass driven, dance grooves on the next album but, when Lydon and co. repeat the same “be bland, be boring” joke over and over, the song becomes bland and boring.

Now let’s talk about the good stuff!  Opening track “Theme” might have seemed unusual at the time but now it’s a delightful nine minute drone of hypnotic, dub bass lines and “metallic” guitar scrapes with a similar tone that The Edge would use a couple years later.  The lyrics are just vague free association about not being a cliche and surviving and he repeats “I wish I could die” a lot.  “Religion 2” is fun if a bit repetitive since it only has two parts but man is that a cool angry bass line and the drums pound hard and John Lydon trashes the Catholic church.  No deep meaning there.  Next we have the energetic, mid-tempo punky rocker “Annalisa”, which according to the Pitchfork review is about an exorcism gone wrong.  They call the song “harrowing” but I call it bouncy and fun.  And of course last but, most certainly not least, are the pair of bright, shiny pop songs!  “Public Image” and “Low Life” are cut from the same principle cloth of basic but catchy, two-note bass lines and cheery, non-distorted jangly chords.  The former became Lydon’s initial calling card as he tells his former manager, “hey man! you don’t own me, man!”  The latter I guess also trashes McLaren or something.

I know, I’m supposed to drool all over myself because it’s back but I’ve been listening to this mofo for years even if it’s on a poorly mastered CD.  Oh, that’s right!  “The Cowboy Song” is like a cowboy song with galloping drums.  And what info can you glean from the 56 minute BBC interview?  I don’t know.  I haven’t listened to it. I’ll just wait until someone posts on youtube.  I’m more looking forward to the Devo reissues of Hardcore vol. 1 and 2, which will be hitting my doorstep soon.  Until then, see ya!