The Punk Orthodox Saved My Life

When the Ramones released their eponymous debut album in 1976 it wasn’t so much a stovepipe to the back of the head of mainstream rock music as a complete evisceration of it, spilling its guts to expose once and for all the rancid, festering stench of a long- moribund art form.
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When the Ramones released their eponymous debut album in 1976 it wasn’t so much a stovepipe to the back of the head of mainstream rock music as a complete evisceration of it, spilling its guts to expose once and for all the rancid, festering stench of a long- moribund art form.

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Punk wasn’t some kind of revolutionary musical year zero dynamiting the past. It was part of that past, a stillborn relic, and a manifest demonstration that rock music had no future. Punk was just one more thread in a seemingly endless continuum of the same predominantly white, male, heterosexual rock band tropes that have been knocking around from the very earliest days of rock'n'roll through to the current crop of thrusting young turks and execrable wannabees, for whom their record labels have created a simulacrum of authenticity through internet grassroots-fakery and subtle campaigns of media manipulation every bit as micro-managed as the release of a million-selling star’s latest album.

That punk was not a definitive break from, and was indeed simply another facet of, the tired old clichés that preceded it is undeniable. Whilst many of their NYC contemporaries like the New York Dolls and Johnny Thunders & the Heartbreakers desperately wanted to be the Rolling Stones, the Ramones had been perfecting their 60s bubblegum pop since the early 70s and when Phil Spector produced their End of the Century album it made perfect sense. Punk evolved in the UK from similarly traditional forms, springing up from the pub rock scene which, though in many ways a reaction to the superficial pomp and bluster of the mainstream, was in fact very much cut from the same cloth; deeply conventional blues-based rock music, albeit stripped back and played at frenetic pace – not really all that different in essence, when you think about it, to bands like Mud and the Sweet who were among the more prominent chart-botherers in the mid-70s.

Deciding that rocknroll and not society was the spectacle Malcolm McLaren appropriated Richard Hell’s whole look and stuck his new boy band into safety pins. They certainly looked the part (though in the Pretty Vacant video Steve Jones appears to be wearing what can only be described as a knotted handkerchief on his head. A sly satirical swipe at the stereotypical male on holiday perhaps, but ridiculous nonetheless), but the hopelessly regressive nature of the music rendered the lyrics of songs like God save the Queen about as seditious as the Monkees singing Pleasant Valley Sunday. The idea that conventional musicality can perhaps act as a Trojan horse for subversive lyrical content is a fallacy, and very few bands understood the fact that a revolutionary message requires a revolutionary medium. Of those that did only perhaps the Pop Group still sound innovative and fresh today, while Gang of Four oddly do not.

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There were of course other exceptions to punk’s empty macho rock posturing, and in very different ways both the Slits and the Raincoats managed to subvert punk’s formal traditionalism. Elsewhere Crass combined that traditionalism with other more Dadaist techniques such as tape manipulation and the use of found sounds to promote their radical agenda. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, Crass’s influence has been cultural rather than musical, and as early adopters of strategies like culturejamming, as well as being enthusiastic proponents of direct action their influence can be seen in modern anti-capitalist movements, although it should be said that much of punk’s cultural legacy was largely a buy-in from the 60s counterculture. (It’s worth watching the Crass documentary “No Authority But Yourself” just to see Steve Ignorant moaning in a pub about a fashion house nicking the Crass symbol without paying them for it and how David Beckham was photographed wearing a diamond-encrusted Crass t-shirt. It’s both extremely depressing and utterly hilarious, and for the same reasons).

In the late 70s and early 80s in New York a short-lived group of bands showed what punk could, and perhaps should, have been. Eschewing standard time signatures and chord progressions bands like Mars, Lydia Lunch’s Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, Theoretical Girls with Glenn Branca and, in particular, DNA deconstructed the rock dynamic as far as it could go and produced startlingly abstract works of claustrophobic compression and thrilling dissonance. It’s worth noting that at this point in the States punk was morphing into the baby fascism of hardcore, a form so ludicrously orthodox in it’s supposed purity that an apotheosis of sorts was reached with Ben Weasel’s unintentionally hilarious criticism of Sonic Youth. The contrast between the No Wave bands and their hardcore counterparts could not be more marked.

The UK post punk years produced music that was unarguably more interesting sonically and sometimes structurally than the narrowly conformist rock of punk, and whilst it may well be true that many of these bands took their inspiration from German experimentalists like Can and Neu, the default musical fall-back position was the same as it had been for the past 30 years.

But there were pockets of resistance. In the north of England in the mid-80s there were a number of like-minded bands who viewed the Membranes’ slogan “death to trad rock” as a call to arms and operated in the narrow, febrile hinterland that stretched somewhere between the Fall and Captain Beefheart. Big Flame and A Witness from Manchester, Bogshed from Hebden Bridge and Preston’s Dandelion Adventure all played a provocative, bass-heavy, angular music, largely untroubled by past musical crimes. But these pockets were few and far between.

Unable to escape the tyranny of 4/4 time and conventional formal structures, both punk and post punk were wedged in a creative dead-end, an infinite feedback loop helplessly recycling stale old ideas, Just as their forebears had done and their descendants would continue to do, right up to the present day. Despite a few honourable exceptions rock music was finished as a medium for innovation almost as soon as it began. When asked why he had thrown a television set out of a hotel window when it had been done a thousand times before, Liam Gallagher replied that he had never done it before. Each new generation thinks it has invented the wheel.

And yet I can say, with only a slight exaggeration for dramatic effect, that as a miserable 13 year old growing up in a dreary post-industrial northern town punk rock saved my life. And perhaps that’s all it takes, maybe that visceral thrill you get when you hear 2 or 3 chords being played very fast and very loud on an electric guitar is, in the end, all you really need. Gabba gabba hey.