25 Up: Punk's Silver Jubilee: Aesthetic Anesthetic: Liberating the Punk Canon
Let's gob on the punk canon and see what happens.
Photo credit: Ray Stevenson
The year is 1975. Mancunian dreamer Pete Shelley was busy promoting a groovy Krautrock album called Sky Yen. Declan MacManus fronted a moderately exciting pub-rock band called Flip City. John Lydon auditioned for Malcolm McLaren's latest rock'n'roll circus by yowling "I'm Eighteen" as if his life depended on it. Lemmy Kilmeister, recently kicked out of Hawkwind, began bellowing hoarse and speedy anthems to Brit bikers. The thirtyish Bruce Gilbert decided he wasn't too old to learn to play guitar. Mark E. Smith was working at the docks around Manchester, thinking about auditioning as a heavy metal vocalist. Within the next sixteen months all of these scrabblers, art students and queers would be part of the third cleansing tidal wave of the rock'n'roll era: punk rock. Buzzcocks, Sex Pistols, Motörhead, Wire, the Fall -- these bands and many others gave the world a new musical anti-aesthetic to play with. Punk rock in the U.K. was raw, cacophonous, mostly asexual, politically charged, populist, funny-looking, and brave. Many of its practitioners left behind a brilliant body of work. Some thumbed their noses at posterity and recorded some of the shittiest tunes of the modern era. But they all knew they were part of a revolution.
As Trotsky noted, "revolutions are always verbose". The punk revolution has allowed itself to be scrutinized by academics and intellectuals, so that there is now a bona fide Punk Rock Canon with Seminal Singles and Legendary Gigs that must be cited and dissected while pop music remains captive to the market. Punk's silver jubilee is as good a moment as any to pause and reconsider punk's moldy canon as conceived by the eggheads.
Gobbing -- hurling nasty mucilaginous hunks of phlegm at the band -- was the punk rock sign of approval. But it pissed off the band and often made them just quit the stage. So let's gob on the punk canon and see what happens.
If you paid the slightest attention to the music press in the early seventies, you could sense something big on the horizon. You could see it when Lester Bangs gushed over Black Oak Arkansas in Creem, when Robert Christgau gave the New York Dolls an A-plus, when the New Musical Express published a giant multi-page profile on Roogalator. All the best critics were hankering for something new and strange, something to purge the dead weight of Zeppelin and Yes from the scene. And they grabbed onto whatever they could find, from NYC poetasters to washboard-wielding southern boys, to zany ex-pat funk. Punk rock was made for rock critics. The punks hated all the same things that the critics hated (prog-rock, drum solos, hair metal, etc.). Raw, loud, and simple, the punks embodied something like the "original rock'n'roll spirit" so beloved of critics. And the punks were strange.
The standard story is that punk was a reaction to the bloated prog-rock of Yes and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, as well as a repudiation of the decadence of disco. It's a good story, but what was the punk audience grooving to the day before the first punk single ("New Rose" by the Damned) was released in October 1976? Maybe the critics were off: maybe it's a story of continuity rather than change. Loud, fast two-chord rock'n'roll thrived during the seventies, even despite its small audience. Dynamite artists such as Hawkwind, Ted Nugent, Aerosmith, Can, the New York Dolls, Iggy Pop, AC/DC, and Slade were creating a nifty little undertow that dragged rock and roll back to its simple and sexy depths. Punk rock just took out the sex, added some zany theater, and seduced the press. They also sped things up a bit (though don't check Never Mind the Bollocks for evidence on that point). Musically speaking, it wasn't much of a revolution, more like a divestiture of power. The rock dinosaurs bowed out quickly and the punk mole rats took over the land.
Brit punk was a gushing waterfall fed by two streams: British pub-rock (Dr. Feelgood, Eddie and the Hot Rods, Chilli Willi and the Red Hot Peppers) and American art-punk (Stooges, New York Dolls, Ramones). Pub rock generated the audience (angry and working-class), while art-punk generated the aesthetic (simple, offensive, anything goes). The American strain of punk had several fine literary works devoted to it: Bangs, Christgau, and Marcus were scribbling away with demonic hagiographies of terrorists like Lou Reed and Iggy Stooge. On the other hand, any critics who wrote think-pieces on pub-rock might as well be living in a cave. What gives? My theory is that critics like Lester Bangs, Greil Marcus, and Robert Christgau had their eye on literary posterity, and posterity can be granted by defining an aesthetic, not working up an audience. Sure, punk rock attracted a small audience of belligerent dole-queue yobs, as well as bright and bored art-school oddballs. But it seduced rock critics even more quickly, and it was the critics who expanded the audience, reified the punk aesthetic, and generated the canon that we have to grapple with today.
A punk canon? The dominant culture -- a greedy and manipulative realm dominated by pecuniary rock mags like Rolling Stone and well-paid rock critics -- has bestowed upon us some solemn tablets upon which are inscribed the Greatest Albums of All Time. Thus, relatively dull albums like The Clash and Never Mind the Bollocks are exalted while exciting sing-along artifacts like Tell Us the Truth and Crossing the Red Sea with the Adverts are pushed to the periphery.
So how do we reconceive this received canon? Do we just kick over the statues and dig up some rotting obscurities for further worship? Unless we dive into some Hegelian nonsense -- in which the revolutionary punk ethos generates its own synthesis that's absorbed into the dominant culture -- we have to reconceive the punk canon on its own terms. We have to slag it.
Unfortunately, the punk canon continues to conflate historical significance with musical quality, and future historians will continue to snooze over the Sex Pistols MP3s clogging up their research files. The debut LPs of the Pistols and the Clash are the essential consumer durables of the movement -- but to my ears they should be of interest only to sociologists. Yeah, "Janie Jones" is brilliant, but they should have released that as a single instead of the silly "White Riot" (b/w "1977" -- you know they're self-conscious revolutionaries when they start predicating songs on Year-Zero nonsense). Never Mind the Bollocks sounds like a slow metal album with a madman singing over it. "Anarchy in the UK" and "God Save the Queen" have become so ubiquitous and obvious that it's difficult to find anyone (other than Greil Marcus) who will admit to being profoundly influenced by them -- sorta like saying you were influenced by "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and "Satisfaction". And then there are yuppie "punk" artists like the Jam and Elvis Costello who are often considered at length before anyone bothers to mention Sham 69 or Motörhead.
Mick Jones, John Lydon, Joe Strummer, Sid Vicious. Two bands and four blokes. The Punk Stonehenge. Safety pins, swastikas, and Sid. But punk was a beast with many faces, and the canon shouldn't focus on the sitcom stereotype the Pistols and the Clash so conveniently provided. Really, the punk canon today is a sticky gob of misinformation and disappointment. AC/DC might have been more dangerous, funny, and revolutionary than the Pistols in 1976 if Malcolm McLaren got his hooks into 'em. And the Clash shoulda been blacklisted right off the bat just for signing their cozy deal with CBS records, which still keeps them from appearing on nifty Rhino punk compilations (not that we're missing out on much of anything). Punk rock should be transgressive, elusive, simple, and weird -- like some Hermes trickster buzzing your ear and rewiring your synapses. Punk is not made for hoary Harold Bloom types frowning over historical theories, nor is it made for hep semiotics wankers looking for a bricolage of noise and significance.
What created the punk canon? The normally irreverent and hilarious Lester Bangs wrote his longest, dullest, most sanctimonious essay, "The Clash" while transforming himself into a tedious Clash groupie on tour in winter 1977. Robert Christgau -- he of the album-grading Consumer Guides at the Village Voice -- seemed to misapprehend everything punk except the obvious hyped stuff (Clash, Pistols, Jam, Vibrators). The well-intentioned, amazingly comprehensive, canonical Trouser Press Record Guide waxed authoritative on matters such as whether Eater and the Nipple Erectors were any good. But their crimes pale in comparison with Greil Marcus, who nearly destroyed the meaning of punk by writing one of the most pretentious books of all time, Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century (Harvard University Press, 1989). This isn't a secret history in the Howard Zinn sense, but a zany heap of grad-student nonsense from French Situationists to an extended exegesis of Jonathan Richman's "Roadrunner". And, yes, lots and lots of Johnny Rotten. In fact, the book is the literary equivalent of an Emerson, Lake, and Palmer album: bloated, boring, and servile.
All of these critics were aware of the range and sweep of their influence, and knew exactly what they were doing. But intellectualizing punk just kills it. Richard Meltzer put it best: "I don't give a ding dang doodle if these blockheads ever stumble on some remote semblance of the True, or accurately peg the Good and/or the Beautiful -- the smutch of their imperialist intentions will contaminate anything they touch, their seal of approval rendering LESS ACCEPTABLE the goods of its unfortunate recipients". Imperialism! Well, a quarter century on, let's try our best to liberate the canon from the imperialist running dogs.
"During our heyday, it was the arty-farty lot -- the socialites and trendies -- who would come to the gigs. I especially liked the working class bit creeping in. That didn't appeal much to Malcolm McLaren and his friends because they were pushed to the back of the hall very quickly. Those were chaotic days". That's John Lydon talking about the Sex Pistols gigs, though he may as well have been talking metaphorically. Unlike, say, hip-hop, punk immediately had to fight its way past a battalion of critics and arty elitists before it could reach its necessary audience. It had to retrain the ears and eyes of working-class blokes who might as well have bought the latest Saxon or Thin Lizzy album.
Jimmy Pursey and Sham 69 are the ideal example of why we have to look at this another way. Sham 69's debut album, Tell Us the Truth is a punk classic, devoid of both sensationalism and tact. Half-studio and half-live, it's brimming with catchy sloganeering, charisma, and speed. "Borstal Breakout", "Hey Little Rich Boy", "We Gotta Fight", "Ulster" -- terrific songs that are rarely cited as punk classics. Yes, it sounds like a football match at times, which is exactly why it's more menacing than the goofy threat of Sid's useless bass crashing on your head. Critics dismissed them then, and they still do. Unlike the Pistols, where you had to stare at Johnny and Sid, Sham 69 were as much about the audience as the band. Not too many arty-farty types at Sham 69 gigs. Further, they invented the punk genre that mutated into the notoriously misapprehended Oi! movement of the early eighties. Why hasn't Jimmy Pursey been canonized? I figure it's because he was just a bloke who never conceived himself to be an artist or genius. There is no "secret history" of the twentieth century that could produce Jimmy Pursey, and critics just couldn't grasp the camaraderie and fun of pumping fists and chanting slogans. So Sham 69 got flushed down the critical toilet, which only made their fans doubly proud. I think we should take another look.
Another example. The self-produced debut single by Stiff Little Fingers -- "Suspect Device" b/w "Wasted Life" -- easily beats both "White Riot" and "Anarchy in the U.K." as one of the most seminal and quintessentially punk singles of the era. Lead singer Jake Burns growls and spits out words with a surly, unique voice that rivals the menacing inventions of Johnny Rotten. The guitar riff sounds like a rusty barrel fulla bayonets rolling down the streets of Belfast. The refrain invents a new and belligerent form of stuttering that obliterates both "My Generation" and "You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet". Both songs evince a chaotic life in Ulster, shot through with justified paranoia. "They play their games of power / They mark and cut the pack / They deal us to the bottom / But what do they put back?" Whereas Johnny Rotten just makes transcendental bug-eyes at you, you know that Jake Burns really is not to be messed with. If we free ourselves from the bonds of canonical history, I think it's easy to rate "Suspect Device" as a better, more righteous, angrier, more punk single than "White Riot".
Hell, I could go on and on. Two Manchester punk EP's -- the Buzzcocks' Spiral Scratch and The Fall's Bingo Master's Breakout -- were electrifyingly amateurish examples of noise-over-fashion. Motörhead 's eponymous 1977 LP sped things up at the same time as it grunged 'em down, and baked 'em in the oven of Lemmy's narsty vox -- so sui generis that metalheads thought it was punk and punks thought it was metal. "Oh Bondage, Up Yours!" by X-Ray Spex and "Don't Dictate" by Penetration are not just rainbow-coalition reminders that punk was not a boys' club, but classic singles in themselves. 999's stunning single "Emergency" is simultaneously spacious and claustrophobic, a tightly sprung anthem that sneaks up on you quickly and then skimpers away. "Never Been in a Riot" by the Mekons was one of the earliest and most right-on punk backlash singles, a response to the Clash's ubiquitous "White Riot". In fact, it's also the earliest attempt to liberate the punk canon: the Mekons could see the Clash playing Judas with the punks earlier than most. All this is great stuff -- not too obscure, yet still peripheral. And there's lots more out there. A wheelbarrow full of scrap punk is probably a better introduction to the genre than the carved stone tablets we get from Greil Marcus.
Nonetheless, I root for Crossing the Red Sea with the Adverts as the best cohesive Brit-punk album, hands down. Anthems like "One Chord Wonders" and "Gary Gilmore's Eyes" may never be used in a PBS documentary, but they're often more exciting than any Janie Jones rat-a-tat you want to toss our way. T.V. Smith possesses a nasal, loud, threatening voice -- a voice that refuses to growl or jabber or scream, yet remains a punk sound to die for. Gaye Advert did El Sid one better by standing motionless during the Adverts gigs, like one of the corpses from Carnival of Souls. Unfortunately, the Adverts went post-punk much too quickly, and their second album Cast of Thousands (which added a keyb player from the Mike Oldfield band!) was a dull mess. Hell knows, maybe that's why they're always pushed to the periphery of the punk canon -- they shot their wad too soon. But isn't that what punk was all about?
So far I'm just counting the records that were released at the time. I'm sure there are countless obscure bootlegs and reissues which -- if anyone but hardcore fans sat down to listen to 'em -- would create a whole new recontextualization of what punk was all about. Maybe someone should get an oral history project going. These are just my own ears talking, of course. The best way to liberate the punk canon is to be punk about it. Slag the canon, and take the DIY approach to figuring out the story. Don't feel that you have to like the Clash or the Jam or whatever -- some of that stuff just sucks. If, as John Cage said, "any training in art is at least a partial training in anarchy", you can rest assured that the reverse is even more true. And punk ain't about art.