A Punk Collage in the Spirit of Walter Benjamin

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.”

Rombes pinpoints the problem. The Clash hectored with slogans, but “politics always suggests ‘right ideas,’ doesn’t it? And punk, at its dirty heart, was always about escaping the tyranny of authority, the tyranny of right ideas, the tyranny of those who would say, Here is how you are supposed to think.” The Jello Biafras and Joe Strummers of the scene forced the message above the medium. Songs suffered.

Rombes’ argument filters through dozens of his hundreds of entries. What I highlight here is the tone I tuned into. It remains one among many channels upon which this book broadcasts, in an alphabetized playlist of subjects. I scoured these pages as I once did — and still do — scrutinize my Wire, Suicide, PiL, the Fall, Throbbing Gristle, Gun Club, Buzzcocks, Undertones, Husker Du, or Joy Division records. That is, in this best music that for me does not date itself, I seek meaning. Punk rants by lyrical fragments, snippets of rage, passages from pain and raves into ecstasy.

Rombes mixes in his own reactions to his own favorite records. These spin into imaginary tales, autobiographical reminiscences, and critical exegeses. This seems right. Fans respond similarly to punk, for it reminds them of a time when a stack of vinyl and a lonely room more likely meant more than a club or a scene when, scattered across the world desperate for bits of information about releases, what to hear next, who to seek out, its community depended on fanzines, a radio show or two, the common interests with another malcontent out of a school of hundreds or at a college among thousands.

I plowed straight through, but sampling this compendium may be equally rewarding. I note, sharing as I do his profession (if at a less lofty level), that he has a couple of verb usages that may have passed his spellcheck but not my grammatical detector. Small slips surface: for example, William Hurt appeared in “The History of Violence” not “The End of Violence,” but given the range of Rombes’ references and devotion to detail, errors proved few.

Illustrations, in monochrome, capture the photocopied, cut-and-pasted aesthetic, but artists such as N.Y.C.’s Legs McNeil and John Holmstrom and L.A.’s Raymond Pettibon merit their own examples, alongside the welcome inclusion of Linder (Sterling) who created iconic record sleeves for the Buzzcocks. The illustrations chosen often seem random. While this adds to the ambiance, for a reference work, I expected more substance. I’m not sure if everybody will enjoy Rombes’ short stories, but they enrich this eclectic book’s expansion into art, poetry, novels, politics, and films. Rombes offers a treatise on cultural theory that avoids jargon or snobbery.

As the author of a book on the Ramones, Rombes notes in one entry on them: “great/trivial.” I lean towards the latter, but to be fair Rombes addresses their prominence as a case study. Did punk need to shout its message as a political one or an aesthetic one? What happens when, as with the Clash, you mix the two intentions into a single delivery? Does the song wilt, or does it rise above?

The alternative to ’60s-inspired consciousness-raising emerged from entertainers. Rombes incorporates totally obscure Midwestern garage bands. He champions with his Detroit loyalties the heartland’s response as subtly Calvinistic, as if those Cleveland cadres knew that their “third-gen” rock revision would be overrun by a New York-led label, a marketer’s remake, remodel. Seymour Stein of Sire Records peddled the “New Wave” category circa 1978 to widen the appeal of his punkier, artsier roster for that Middle America, that cautious heartland.

Why did punk burn out, and not fade away like the hippies? The Clash reacted against punk, “reintroducing the old ’60s notions that music needed to be politically engaged.” For the Sex Pistols, Slits, or Wire, Rombes asserts that “a tyranny of sound” allowed “no room for the old ways of thinking.” Punk rallied against politics. As with the Jam, punk attempted to reclaim pop melody, a purity of motive before “Going Underground” by 1980.

What replaced this brief breakout? Hardcore took over the dispersed U.S. scene. L.A. spread the Germs; Henry Rollins from D.C. hoisted Black Flag. Hardcore, birthed by the violent sound inherent in the American reaction to punk-as-New Wave, nullified the New York-art school or London polytechnic aesthetic. It substituted rigor and conformity for gender-bending and sonic experimentation. “It is both anarchy and fascism, freedom and control.”

Punk wore itself out. As early as late 1976, critics lamented its demise. Rombes muses why journalists appeared so determined to write off the nascent movement, and why his fellow scribes still seem so clueless as to understanding its tensions. He reasons that punk sped up the cultural and musical pace faster than the hippies did. It sold itself out within a few years, as Sire Records shows. Black Flag rejected “hippie softness” as did their predecessors from “classical punk,” ca. 1975-77. Rombes accounts for their psychotic reaction: a dogmatic negativity. What happened to punk by the early 1980s? Rombes defines the backlash as “an almost militant orthodoxy enforced, dutifully and sometimes pitilessly, by its fans.”

Perpendicular to this hardcore assault against non-conformity, the Clash refashioned their image. On the cover of Combat Rock (1982), they dressed as if in the fifties. Rombes tries to explain why. Not that the Clash’s Sandinista! agitprop changed, but even they courted a broader pop audience. While Rombes speeds past the rockabilly spin-off from punk (he also overlooks the nascent goth movement’s reclamation of the subversive ambiguity within the middle-class audience’s confrontation with the postmodern, the macabre, and the technological), he does court attention by a provocative claim.

“What matters and is worth saying is that Reagan had things in common with the punk imagination: a return to the basics; a rejection of the excesses of the counterculture and the hippies; a mastery of performance; a do-it-yourself work ethic.” This clarified, if at long remove, some of my own unstated but persistent ambivalence about coming of age in the Ford-Carter years, when America’s political and military power had been weakened, and in which the somewhat more socialist alternatives of Britain and Western Europe faced their own attacks by discontented youth, full of confusion and restive for answers neither leaders nor gurus, rock stars nor mystery trends, could provide.

If the hippies could not solve the world’s problems by the 1970s, their little brothers and sisters, the punks, failed to come up with a better plan. In their impotence and in their intensity, they did forge a weapon of sound, image, and fashion with which to bludgeon, for a few years scattered around the world, a brutal, but puritanical manifesto of reclamation, revenge, and renewal. Perhaps in both the 1960s and 1970s, the tender, yearning, stalwart visionaries suffered.

Rombes cites surprising predecessors. Richard Hell sent a letter in 1970 to Robert Bly: “still bewildered by the death-machine.” In 1962, Anne Sexton to Tillie Olson’s cited: “I waste hours keeping my soul out of the cauldron, but near enough the edge to hear any important messages.” In 1978 at the Sex Pistols’ show at San Francisco’s Winterland, Rotten spoke the final words of their final concert: “Ever feel you’ve been cheated?” The intellectuals and the street poets agreed: the odds were stacked against the counterculture, clawing out of and then slipping back into the grasp of boredom.

Like the hippies, the punks hurriedly broadcast themselves as the avant-garde. This couldn’t happen today, Rombes insists. When families share the Net and crowd the same media (and I can attest to this as an hour ago my teenage son told me about, via a click to Pitchfork, the upcoming releases for my favorite, some once classified as “alternative,” bands), cultures cannot evolve out of the mainstream, more slowly, to gain subcultural traction. The public can leap upon a trend and turn it viral overnight, without time lag. Because punk could stay ahead of pop as the subcultural vanguard, it represents the last avant-garde.

Rombes asks “what social threat does alt-country pose? Or lo-fi? Or trip-hop?” My older son, nearly 18 and raised on my record collection, thinks that electronica’s the future, not rock. My slightly younger son listens to hip-hop; few of his urban classmates here in L.A. bother with rock at all. They may hear “new wave” via Judd Apatow’s archly chosen soundtracks or reruns of Freaks & Geeks.

The thudding thump of hardcore, as Rombes hears it, pummeled literate misfits. Rombes digs out unheard music from basement tapes that the most obsessive of fans has never heard. He credits each player from each unsung band. His humanism infuses this work, half-reference to complement Jon Savage’s England’s Dreaming or Clinton Haylin’s studies, like his own compendium half-fan letters to this genre.

Rombes’ tone softens as he looks back 30 years. I closed this book wondering what Professor Rombes would make of American Idiot by Green Day in its Broadway run. I suspect, like many of those who love punk as our older friends do the hippie efflorescence we were too young to fully enjoy or mock, that he’s an idealist despite himself. “That’s Entertainment” by The Jam earns this plaudit: “Like the best punk-era songs, this one is, at its heart, old-fashioned and tinged with regret.”

RATING 7 / 10