If You Had Ears, You Could Not Ignore It: Mainstream Responses to Punk

[15 April 2012]

By Dave Bloom

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In 2012, the historical shorthand is still that 1970s punk was a one-sided challenge to a hopelessly outdated rock’n'roll establishment.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.

Clones, Clues, and Party Girls: Punk Appropriation and Mimicry in the Mainstream

Perhaps it was the pressure of staying relevant in a new decade. In 1980 alone, the market was practically flooded with “punk albums” by established artists aligned with other genres. Few of these stylistic turns held in the long term, but many functioned as turning points of sorts.

By the turn of the decade, Jamaican-born New Yorker Grace Jones had modeled for Warhol, played bit parts in movies and on Italian television, and released three disco albums on Island Records. Even with some unusually arty conceits, like discofied versions of “La Vie en rose” and “Send in the Clowns” and a side-length medley to kick off each album, she’d managed to score some hits on the dance charts. By the time she’d released the last and most ambitious album of the three, Muse, in 1979, however, disco had lost its steam, and Jones set out to reinvent herself. Dance music and punk were hardly antithetical at the time, but most notable attempts at hybridization had come from the punk side of things, with the commercial-minded Blondie hitting paydirt with “Heart of Glass” and No Wavers like James White and the Blacks, Lizzy Mercier Desclous, and Material releasing groundbreaking “mutant disco” on ZE Records. Unlike these artists, Jones wasn’t interested in subverting or recontextualizing dance music. She was already an iconic figure-in-the-making and ended up making punk work for her on her own, idiosyncratic terms.

Her 1980 album Warm Leatherette, takes its title from Jones’s cover of the 1978 single by The Normal, aka Mute Records founder Daniel Miller. Miller’s version of “Warm Leatherette” is spare, dissonant, and thoroughly electronic, an appropriate tonal match for the song’s lyrical evocation of J.G. Ballard’s Crash. In Jones’s hands, the song becomes organic funk, all smooth edges with lively bass, piano fills, and multiple cowbell parts. If Miller’s version affects Ballard’s cold, precise prose, Jones’s tells the story from the perspective of the novel’s characters, obsessed with the sensuality of cars and the sexual excitement of collision. Miller ends his recording with the ominous invitation to “Join the car crash set”, while Jones follows through on the implications of doing so, as sirens blare and guitar chords whine like gears grinding in orgasmic pleasure.

Grace Jones - “Warm Leatherette/Walking in the Rain (live)”

Elsewhere on the album, a slick collection of synth-infused pop, reggae, and electronic funk, Jones covers the Pretenders’ “Private Life” and Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ “Breakdown”, songs by rock traditionalists who had essentially been branded punk or new wave by default. Interestingly, despite Jones ostensibly using these songs as hip signifiers to remove the albatross that disco had become, her versions now sound considerably more innovative — more punk, if you will — than the originals. She would continue developing this sound for her next two albums (as well as on an electro-reggae cover of Joy Divison’s “She’s Lost Control”, released as a b-side), recording them with many of the same musicians, including guitarist Barry Reynolds and rhythm section Sly and Robbie, at Compass Point Studio in Nassau, Bahamas.

In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Compass Point, founded by Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, was practically a nexus of punk, new wave, and postpunk artists with pop aspirations (Talking Heads, B-52s, U2) and pop artists with punk, new wave, and postpunk aspirations. Like Jones, Compass Point regular Robert Palmer had already scored a few minor hits by the time he was bitten by the punk/new wave bug. In fact, in 1980, he’d just recently had his biggest chart success with “Bad Case of Loving You (Doctor, Doctor)”. Still, despite the buttoned-down image Palmer would later cultivate as a simply irresistible certified love addiction counselor, Palmer wasn’t uptight about changing his sound, having already explored New Orleans funk, reggae and Caribbean styles.

On 1980’s Clues, he went right to the punk/new wave sources, enlisting Talking Heads’ Chris Frantz for drum duties and covering Tubeway Army’s Gary Numan on one track and collaborating with him on a new song. The mix of hard rock guitars and chilly synth, particularly on the Numan tracks, gave off just enough new wave cool to make Palmer’s dabblings sound fresh without taking him off of the pop map.

Robert Palmer - “Clues Album Preview”

Palmer kept the synth sounds, but dialed back the aggressive guitars for his 1983 album, the reggae-tinged Pride, prior to joining the supergroup Power Station and finding his greatest solo success in the mid-‘80s. But, as certain performances suggest, he continued to keep an ear on the underground.

As Palmer discovered, Gary Numan was a compelling, punk/new wave-signifying model for established artists. It makes sense. Asking a band of seasoned musicians to lay back on the proficiency or the engineer at the top-of-the-line studio to make a recording sound like a home demo would look like obvious contrivance. Laying some extra electronics on top of precise rock, though? That’s just staying current.

There’s an irony of sorts to Alice Cooper’s position in the intersection of punk and pop. The teenage John Lydon famously secured his place in the Sex Pistols with a convincing lip-synch to Cooper classic “Eighteen”. By the time Alice Cooper got around to seeing possibilities in exploring punk for himself, styling himself as proto-punk a la Lou Reed or Iggy Pop wasn’t in the cards. It had become clear that punk’s commercial future was in guys like Numan, not Johnny Rotten. It’s thus no surprise that the best tracks on his first foray into punk/new wave, Flush the Fashion sound like particularly muscular and straightforward Tubeway Army songs. There’s still plenty of guitar riffing in evidence, but “Clones” sounds very little like classic Cooper and more like one of the best songs Numan never wrote.

Alice Cooper - “Clones (We’re All)”

Even well-entrenched soft rock acts had entries in the aggressive punk rock/new wave career rehab efforts of 1980. Carly Simon’s tentative step into semi-loud guitars and bleeping keys, Come Upstairs, is perhaps justifiably remembered most for “Jesse”, a fairly traditional-sounding Simon song, rather than “Them”, her almost Numan-esque exploration of suburban heteronormativity via alien invasion metaphor (seriously!). A supposedly punk-inspired Billy Joel released Glass Houses, a still-popular album in his catalog that holds up relatively well as pop, if not punk even in the loosest sense. As Stephen Thomas Erlewine writes in his AllMusic review, “It may not be punk — then again, it may be his concept of punk — but Glass Houses is the closest Joel ever got to a pure rock album.”

Linda Ronstadt, of all people, may lay claim to the best album of this class of soft rock/new wave crossovers, perhaps by virtue of her understated ambitions. On Mad Love, she followed up on her prescient, if infamously lightweight, 1978 cover of Elvis Costello’s then-new “Alison” with three more radio-ready Costello songs, “Party Girl”, “Girls Talk”, and “Talking in the Dark”, but maintained some distance from the notion of the album being anything but a collection of good songs. In a 1980 Playboy interview, she acknowledges Costello as her favorite contemporary songwriter, but refuses to assign him punk or new wave status even as the interviewer implies it, gets a Talking Heads song title wrong (“In Time of War” aka “Life During Wartime”), and dismisses the B-52s as “Ohio housewife dancing — very white”. She also recognizes her own limitations and interests: “A lot of the avant-garde stuff isn’t the standard form — verse, chorus, verse, chorus. Groups like the Talking Heads are doing real interesting stuff, but for me, I still need a song that works in a verse, chorus, verse, chorus format . . . To adopt a new musical style just for the sake of it is like putting on a chicken suit - it looks ridiculous.”

This ambivalence towards punk and new wave works to her advantage on Mad Love. Less concerned with playing dress up in new wave fashion than she might have seemed at the time (in the interview, her new close-cropped hair is even implicated as a concession to trends), she simply treats Costello’s material as great pop songwriting, alongside an obligatory Neil Young cover, her hit version of Anthony & the Imperials’ “Hurt So Bad”, and some strong original contributions from Mark Goldenberg, member of forgotten L.A. power-pop band the Cretones (not unrelatedly, there’s certainly precedent for late-‘70s/early ‘80s American power pop sharing space with punk and new wave recordings [cf. Rhino’s punk-focused early ‘90s D.I.Y. compilation series, which devotes two discs each to early American power pop]).

Linda Ronstadt - “Party Girl”

What’s admirable about Ronstadt’s new wave moment is that, like Jones’s, it doesn’t seem grounded in anything other than the desire to play some new songs. As good as Palmer and Cooper were at approximating Gary Numan and others, their attempts do come across as dress-up to a degree, as if the artists felt they could capture the zeitgeist through stylistic gestures alone.

Ultimately, what the spate of 1980 punk/new wave albums demonstrates is just how far the definition of punk had broadened in only half a decade. Mainstream artists could now adopt small stylistic touches for their own purposes, as if ordering a la carte from a seemingly endless menu of sounds. “Punk” could be anything from Robert Quine’s strangulated guitar to the Human League’s chilly electronics, from the Gang of Four’s Frankfurt School seriousness to Blondie’s pop art come-ons. It’s understandable, given punk’s complex genealogy from the formally experimental New York bands, some of whom had already reoriented themselves towards forward-thinking pop, as well as the parallel emergence of the more politically-minded and subculturally coherent UK punk, to say nothing of the steady stream of emerging postpunk innovators in both sound and lyrical concerns. This open-ended nature allowed for a multitude of “punk” approximations, perhaps culminating in Chipmunk Punk, a 1980 (of course) collection that included covers of songs by The Cars, The Knack, Queen, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, and, naturally, Billy Joel and Linda Ronstadt.

The Chipmunks - “My Sharona”

Walking a Thin Line: Punk-Inspired Formal Experiments from the Mainstream

Where Springsteen and Young found frustration given voice and a continuation of rock’s spirit, and the pop/new wave crossover class of 1980 sought reinvention through imitation, others found rich territory to explore in punk’s questioning of rock and pop orthodoxy. It wasn’t about the answers that punk provided, but the questions it posed. If rock can sound like this, what else can it sound like? As Lindsey Buckingham explains in a 2006 interview in Uncut, “Although punk had a fairly huge impact on me, its influence on Tusk wasn’t so much on the music but more that it gave me a little room to deprogram and reaffirm things.”

Fleetwood Mac released Rumours in 1977, the very year in which Springsteen purportedly found himself incapable of ignoring the Pistols. While the marvelously unconventional aspects of Rumours have probably been understated over the years in light of its massive success, its combination of studio slickness and heartbreak still provide a fairly sharp contrast to the inspired amateurism and political concerns of punk. When it came time to record the follow-up, Lindsey Buckingham resolved to acknowledge the cultural sea change and not re-make Rumours. As he explains in the Uncut interview, “I was inspired by the honesty, integrity and sensibility of bands like The Clash and Gang Of Four.”

Buckingham rethought the sound of his songwriting from the ground up, favoring abrasive textures and unique arrangements over standard pop formulae. He followed through with unorthodox recording techniques, kneeling and singing into a mic taped to the floor, using Kleenex boxes as drums. As Buckingham admits, the influence of punk probably wasn’t strongly reflected in the sound of Tusk, but the furious thud of “What Makes You Think You’re the One” and even the massed harmonies on “Walk a Thin Line” also don’t sound anything like Brian Wilson, his other stated inspiration for his studio experimentation. Buckingham’s tracks are about as idiosyncratic as pop music gets, the structures turned inside out, with rhythmic skeletons exposed and the percussive strum of strings often given priority over the chords being played on them.

Lindsey Buckingham recording at home during the Tusk sessions

Fleetwood Mac - “What Makes You Think You’re the One (Tusk Tour Rehearsals)”

Ultimately, Buckingham’s urge to take the band into experimental pop territory on Tusk was tempered with more traditional, if strong, songwriting contributions from Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie. The compromise ultimately works in the album’s favor, lending it a delightfully varied, if schizophrenic, appeal. Ironically, while Buckingham’s initial inspiration may have been derived from punk, and his decision to record some of his tracks at home exemplified a D.I.Y. ethic of sorts, the recording process was long and costly, with Tusk assuming a decidedly un-punk designation: the most expensive album ever made at the time.

Like Buckingham, Peter Gabriel also felt the punk bug in the late ‘70s, but responded only obliquely at first. The first indication came on his 1978 self-titled second album produced by King Crimson’s Robert Fripp, who was similarly scaling back on prog rock excess. Gabriel’s album, conceived by Fripp as a companion piece to his own album Exposure and Daryl Hall’s Fripp-produced solo debut Sacred Songs (not released until 1980), retains some ornate moments, but is considerably more restrained than his Genesis work and his first solo album. The tellingly-titled “D.I.Y.” also gives some indication that he was keeping up.

Gabriel would take things further on his third album, also self-titled, released in 1980. As with Buckingham, Ronstadt, Cooper, and others, the musically accomplished Gabriel would have sounded ridiculous attempting to approximate the Ramones or the Clash. In Spencer Bright’s authorized Gabriel biography, Gabriel admits to being won over by Johnny Rotten’s provocative nature at the early shows he attended, but not being impressed by the Sex Pistols’ music as such. By 1980, however, there were more punk and postpunk musical styles to draw inspiration from, many of which could complement Gabriel’s high-concept compositions. As Simon Reynolds mentions somewhat derisively in his online liner notes to Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984, “Peter Gabriel III is faux-postpunk from its lyrical vibes of paranoia and nervous tension right through to the singer’s banning of cymbals and hi-hats from the sessions in order to achieve that stark, ‘modern’ drum sound as heard on records by Joy Division, The Comsat Angels, and Random Hold.”

Peter Gabriel - “Intruder”

“Faux-postpunk” though it may be, the sound of Gabriel’s third album seems intrinsically tied to the mental patients, amnesiacs, and assassins in the songs. If much of Gabriel’s subsequent work would increasingly emphasize world music and an emerging interest in pop and soul styles, his third album is a career highlight that nonetheless feels natural in his discography. The postpunk influence doesn’t come across as superficial bandwagoning in the same way that the Gary Numan appropriations of 1980 do, so much as a well-considered application of new sounds. Gabriel also got explicit and tacit endorsement from punk and postpunk names, with the Jam’s Paul Weller contributing guitar to “And Through the Wire” and producer Nick Launey modeling the drum sound on Public Image Ltd’s Flowers of Romance after Hugh Padgham’s groundbreaking work on Gabriel’s album.

Released in 1979, Marianne Faithfull’s Broken English may be the quintessential example of a mainstream artist finding inspiration in punk without relying extensively on it for formal cues. After enjoying early chart success in the ‘60s and attracting ongoing media attention for her relationship with Mick Jagger, Faithfull had largely fallen off the musical map in the early ‘70s. Hooked variously on heroin and cocaine, occasionally homeless, and vocally unrecognizable as the clear-voiced ingénue who sang “As Tears Go By” in 1964, Faithfull had attempted several folk- and country-inspired comebacks throughout the ‘70s, but nothing stuck. By 1976, she’d begun running with London’s young punks, sharing a dealer in common with Sid Vicious and marrying Ben Brierly, bassist for the Vibrators. “It was punk nerve that fed right into the rage of Broken English,” she writes in her autobiography.

Musically speaking, Broken English shares some qualities with Grace Jones’s Warm Leatherette, including major contributions from guitarist/songwriter Barry Reynolds and a smooth exterior tinged with clean synths and understated reggae grooves. But while Jones’s album is essentially a pop album that allies itself with punk through canny cover choices and in contrast with her own past in disco, Faithfull’s is a postpunk-inspired sonic reinvention that’s as unnervingly confrontational as Never Mind the Bollocks…. The skillfully chosen set of Faithfull collaborations and covers highlight her mature rasp, as do the arrangements.

The synth line that drives her version of Shel Silverstein’s “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan” embodies the soulless suburban setting as Faithfull finds a sort of dignity in the titular housewife’s deteriorating mental state where others (including Dr. Hook and Lee Hazlewood) had only managed pity. In Faithfull’s hands, it functions as a feminist-informed critique of contemporary living that a Raincoats or Gang of Four fan could get behind.

Marianne Faithfull - “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan”

Nearly all of the songs on Broken English have some shared lyrical or musical virtue common with punk and postpunk, from the political disaffection and relentless synths (courtesy of no less than Steve Winwood) of the title track to the stark bass throb of her take on John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero”. But if anything situates Broken English as punk-derived, it’s Faithfull’s brutal delivery of Heathcote Williams’ poem, “Why’d Ya Do It”. In what’s possibly the most harrowing domestic dispute ever embodied in popular music, Faithfull plays both roles in a an infidelity spat with such mean-spiritedness and disdain that cheater, cheated upon, and mistress (not present) are all reduced to their respective sexual organs, acted upon and discarded in turn. In its bodily disgust, it’s akin to the Sex Pistols’ “Bodies”, with marital discord standing in for abortion.

Conclusion

In Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past, Simon Reynolds discusses a 1980 article by then-disillusioned punk journalist Julie Burchill that sets up a dichotomy: rock fans can either adopt a tunnel vision that accepts only a narrow array of vital artists (to Burchill’s mind, the Sex Pistols and Tamla Motown) or buy into the myth of “rock’s rich tapestry”, a “dead at heart” metanarrative that allows us to conveniently roll punk up into a larger tradition or even ignore it entirely. Reynolds suggests that institutions like the Rock’n'Roll Hall of Fame reflect our acceptance of rock’s rich tapestry, a history “with the battle lines erased”.

Isn’t this how history always works, though? Whether it’s just a matter of time or the effect of storytellers like Springsteen looking for the narrative hook, we like it when the past hangs together coherently. But more to the point, even if reflection and revisionism have granted continuity to what may have once appeared as distinct breaks, the battle lines were regularly crossed even at the time. This wasn’t limited to the chart successes of Parallel Lines, Combat Rock, and the postpunk-originating New Pop acts that Reynolds documents in the second half of Rip It Up and Start Again (in which he does mention Jones’s turn from disco to postpunk). The new guard didn’t dethrone the rock and pop establishment, but it did challenge it, as Springsteen suggested in his speech. The response may have been stubborn conservatism in some cases, but it was also the punk-energized mainstream rock of Darkness on the Edge of Town and Rust Never Sleeps, the absorption of punk and postpunk styles on Warm Leatherette and Mad Love, and the punk and postpunk-inspired formal experimentation on Tusk and Broken English.

Despite the profile picture, Dave Bloom is not much of a guitarist. He's a decent rock drummer, though, and sporadically writes about other people who hit things at http://drumtumblr.tumblr.com. He writes about music, culture, politics, librarianship, and other stuff at http://davebloom.tumblr.com.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/157067-if-you-had-ears-you-could-not-ignore-it/