Why did punk implode so rapidly? Why did its bands flare up and fade out? And how did this movement resist yet revamp the hippies they rushed to replace?
In A Cultural Dictionary of Punk: 1974-1982 Nicholas Rombes, a professor of English, assembles a collage in the spirit of Walter Benjamin, a “montage and passageway of quotes” alphabetically arranged. He integrates primary sources, illustrations, his own fictional and factual stories. He constructs an alternative history: “In your dream, punk stayed a secret forever.” He emphasizes punk’s ephemeral arc, which failed to sustain its own outbursts of anger, shards of melody, and frustration with the malaise of the “post-Watergate, pre-Reagan” years when its earliest audience grew up.
Punk’s outbursts reacted to the failure of the ‘60s. Asked in 1977 “What do you want?” Johnny Rotten replied: “Freedom, I think they call it. The hippies used to call it that. But I bet there’s a better word for it.” Rombes stresses the split nature inherent in those born slightly too young for the Aquarian Age. This cohort resented the idealism turned commodification and complacency of the hippie era, but it yearned for the period prior, the clean nostalgia and pop sensibilities of the ‘50s. The cartoonish poses of the Dictators and Ramones signaled this reversion to melodic, aggressive, and funny messages. These bands, Rombes suggests, produced songs that spoke for TV-party, couch potato slouches: “that’s me.” However politically charged bands such as Avengers or Gang of Four challenged the listener to wonder: “maybe that could be me.”