In his impassioned, hilarious keynote at 2012’s South by Southwest Festival, Bruce Springsteen gave a history of rock ‘n’ roll through the prism of his career. In one notable bullet point circa the 1977 recording of Darkness on the Edge of Town, he cited the influence of the Sex Pistols: “They were brave, and they challenged you, and they made you brave. And a lot of that energy seeped its way into the subtext of Darkness.”
Coming from Springsteen, one of the only longstanding rock artists for whom the term “mainstream” is more neutral descriptor than value judgment, this still sounds a little jarring, no matter how many times you’ve heard his Clash and Suicide covers or his collaborations with Social Distortion’s Mike Ness and punk-influenced neo-Bosses like the Gaslight Anthem and the Hold Steady, or even read critical characterizations of some of his own work as punk. In fact, Pitchfork Editor Mark Richardson has raised legitimate questions about Springsteen’s veracity when it comes to his professed early love for the Pistols (and his status as VHS early adopter as is suggested in the liner notes to his collection of Darkness outtakes, The Promise). But possible truth liberations aside, Springsteen has long been a mainstream artist willing to look to the fringes for inspiration.
In 2012, the historical shorthand is still that 1970s punk was a one-sided challenge to a hopelessly outdated rock’n'roll establishment. We follow it along to the inevitable moments of punk “breaking” and being absorbed into the mainstream of UK and U.S. music largely through crossover success of punk and punk-influenced bands, and the subsequent generations of commercially successful new bands for whom punk and postpunk are simply second nature. It’s a predictable thesis-antithesis-synthesis pattern. What’s less discussed is this process from the perspective of artists like Springsteen and his peers in what might be considered the establishment. As he continued in his speech, “... if you had ears, you could not ignore it. And I had peers that did, and they were mistaken. You could not ignore that challenge.”
Those who chose to take up the challenge constitute a diverse group: traditionalist guitar heroes like Springsteen himself, disco divas, prog experimenters, and pop visionaries and opportunists alike. Their respective attempts to respond took the form of energized recommitments to their own existing styles; direct inspiration in the form of imitation; and formal experimentation inspired by punk and postpunk’s disregard for the musical status quo.
Breaking Out and Burning Out: Punk Meets the Guitar Hero
Whether you choose to read the Sex Pistols influence into Darkness on the Edge of Town or not, it’s somewhat less controversial that Springsteen was among the earliest and most eager mainstream artists to get on board with punk, in general. In fact, some might argue that he was there all along. In Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever, Will Hermes strings Springsteen’s early forays as a bandleader together with the first wave of New York City punk through common gigs at Max’s Kansas City and positive reviews of Springsteen’s work by Patti Smith Band guitarist Lenny Kaye. It makes sense that some critics of the time would see him as akin to New York City punks. His early work even reflecting similar thematic concerns—just like The Dictators’ Handsome Dick Manitoba, Springsteen’s protagonists lived for cars and g-g-g-g-girls.
In one of his most famous interactions with punk, after reaching stardom with 1975’s Born to Run, Springsteen collaborated with Smith on her biggest hit, “Because the Night”, perhaps not coincidentally penned originally for Darkness. Since then, critics have continued to periodically grant him punk cred. In 1992, Greil Marcus memorably called Springsteen’s folky, home-recorded collection of hard luck tales, Nebraska, (along with Elvis Costello’s King of America and “Pills and Soap”) one of the quietest and truest punk records ever made, a “[negation] as complete and unflinching, in [its] way, as hard and cruel, as any of the explosions in ‘God Save the Queen.’”
In terms of sheer sound, Springsteen has never skirted the fringes of punk as closely as he did during the writing and recording of Darkness on the Edge of Town. On one of his greatest unreleased songs, “Break Out” (inexplicably absent from The Promise and his earlier collection of outtakes, Tracks), you can hear the lyrical raw material of “Badlands”, “Prove It All Night”, and “The Promised Land” condensed and spat out at Buzzcocks speed. Although not exactly “Anarchy in the UK”, it’s a close relative of the UK pub-rock/punk crossroads that yielded Joe Strummer, Graham Parker, and Costello (“Break Out” is rendered only slightly less a revelation when you hear how naturally Springsteen’s early “Growin’ Up” translated into a cover by pub-rockers Any Trouble in 1979).
Bruce Springsteen - “Break Out”
But Springsteen seemingly backed off on approximating the sound of punk through speed and raucous energy, instead filtering personal and political dissatisfaction through the more deliberate, technically accomplished sound of E Street. By the time Springsteen decided on the final track listing for Darkness, “Break Out” didn’t make the cut, but neither did the countless lighthearted, romantic songs he’d recorded in the years since Born to Run. As he writes in the liner notes to The Promise (perhaps as calculatedly revisionist as his keynote address, but let’s just go with him on this): “My musical path had been chosen, but the uncompromising power of these [early punk] records found its way onto Darkness through the choices and themes of my material. I culled my music to the toughest collection of songs I had, songs that still form the philosophical core of what we do today, swept the rest away and headed out.” Springsteen may have built “Badlands” on a riff lifted from the Animals, as he revealed in his keynote, but punk is a ghostly presence guiding the class struggles and defeats at the soul of Darkness.
Neil Young was similarly smitten with punk early on and, like Springsteen, saw it not as an utter break with rock’s past, but simply a new stage in its history, something to be inspired by and, perhaps, chronicled. “The King is gone but he’s not forgotten / Is this the story of a Johnny Rotten?” he famously asks in “Hey Hey My My (Into the Black)”, the song that the punk-aware of the time might have viewed as a brazen authenticity grab had the sound of the song not been so thoroughly anticipated in Young’s previous work. Young didn’t try to sound particularly punk, but he pondered his role in light of it, made use of its iconography and the rupture it created in the pop landscape to reassert himself as an aware and vital presence.
Perhaps most surprisingly, the lyrical name-drop in “Hey Hey My My” doesn’t hint at Young’s closest associates in the punk milieu. He may have been singing about the Sex Pistols, but, in 1977, he was touring and collaborating with Devo, as immortalized in the bizarro Neil Young vehicle Human Highway, released in 1982. In fact, according to Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh (quoted in Jimmy McDonough’s Shakey: Neil Young’s Biography), a Young jam session with Devo on “Hey Hey My My” inspired the classic Crazy Horse recording, as well as the title of the 1979 album it concluded, Rust Never Sleeps, the title of which is a direct quote from Mothersbaugh. Despite Young’s punk-era companions and influences, though, his primitivism on Rust isn’t grounded in Devo’s theories of devolving humanity or in affected amateurism picked up from the Pistols. It’s intrinsic to the Young and Crazy Horse partnership.
Devo playing “My My Hey Hey (Into the Black)” from Human Highway
With Springsteen’s geographic and stylistic ties to the New York punk scene and Young’s iconoclastic reputation (even Johnny Rotten later claimed to be a fan), neither of them truly took the brunt of punk’s direct criticisms. This fell on showier, more bombastic acts. In a quote infamous among prickly Led Zeppelin diehards who take Stephen Davis’s contentious Hammer of the Gods at face value, the Clash’s Paul Simonon once said of the band, “I don’t need to hear the music. All I have to do is look at one of their album covers, and I feel like throwing up.” Veracity of the quote and overall sentiments of the Clash aside, the members of Led Zeppelin recorded their mini-response, “Wearing and Tearing” in 1978 (released on the posthumous collection Coda in 1982). The band was understandably less inclined to celebrate punk than Springsteen and Young were, instead resorting to a “let’s show the kids how to do it” ethic. It resulted in one of their liveliest late-era recordings, but not one that would have given Simonon much reason to look over his shoulder.
None of these acts made much of an attempt at replicating the punk sound. The E Street Band and Zeppelin were simply too accomplished to reasonably sound like the Pistols or the Ramones (although Springsteen did later write “Hungry Heart” with the latter in mind), and Crazy Horse had established their own brand of ragged glory years before. But as popular conceptions of punk became more diversified, and porous-boundaried sub-genres like “new wave” and “postpunk” began to sprout up in its wake, polished and proficient mainstream artists felt increasingly free to retool their musical styles without scaling back to three chords.
Some chose to go about this in the most direct way possible, channeling punk by sounding like punk or one of its related sub-genres and covering songs by artists with punk, postpunk, or new wave bona fides.