My friend Edwin has a favorite statistic, one he brings out whenever the subject of punk rock and authenticity comes up: The Sex Pistols' Never Mind the Bollucks Here's the Sex Pistols did not go platinum until 1991. It wasn't until college kids-lots of 'em, and with money-started thinking punk was cool that its founding album sold. For those who may not remember, 1991 is also the year that Nirvana happened, and the year that Pavement released Slanted and Enchanted. Somewhere in that year Sebadoh released Smash Your Head on the Punk Rock. According to Rolling Stone and other, only slightly less dubious sources, 1991 is "the year that punk broke".
Those who are actually concerned with authenticity in the true, hardcore sense will note that none of the aforementioned bands, not even the Sex Pistols, comes close to what punk means today. Today's punk (and yes, it is a marketing gambit, sorry) is just as likely to be vegan as straightedge, and the politics may be less indie or socially focused (a la Fugazi) and more directed towards multinational corporations or international human rights (a la Rage Against the Machine). Richmond, Virginia's Strike Anywhere is an excellent example of how one might negotiate punk's contradictions and absurdities in 2001. It may even be true that after a decade or so languishing in the delayed response to the Sex Pistols, punk has begun to reinvent itself.
While we're on the subject of authenticity -- and you pretty much can't escape it, when talking about punk -- I should add a few disclaimers of my own. I was less than a year old during the Sex Pistols' nine-month heydey. I like Elvis Costello, punk's most famous defector, better than Johnny Rotten. My "coming of age" music was mostly what they'd call postpunk -- the kind of early '90s stuff that I read Strike Anywhere kind of bashing in a number of online interviews -- Husker Du and Pussy Galore and the Pixies and whatnot, probably even Nirvana.
I lived with a girl just after college who was really into the whole Virginia vegan punk scene, and once there was a concert and some 20 teenage vegans stayed on our floor that night. They were all really earnest, nervous kids who cleaned up after themselves and spent a long time in the bathroom. That's about as close as I've come to having any direct participation in this very community-based music.
Most of the music my roommate liked was fast and boring. Of course, with punk the medium is the message -- or rather, the message is the medium. Musicality and melody have never been part of this operation, whose original aesthetic was antithesis. Later, when bands like Minor Threat began channeling their rage into straightedge sermonizing and vaguely leftist politics, the aesthetic devolved into simplistic sloganeering over the traditional three-chord strum. But Strike Anywhere's first full length album, Change is a Sound, is actually not boring or preachy at all, despite its obvious self-righteous rage and political alliance to veganism. (Sorry, I'm sort of fixated on the vegan thing. I just think it's so odd they incorporated that particular piety into the ethos! Gives new meaning to the old Minor Threat adage, "don't drink don't smoke don't fuck at least I can fucking think." I mean does animal fat addle the senses? If so, I'm really going to enjoy my next cheeseburger. What about honey? What about anorexic punk rock chicks? Aren't they just getting the easy way out?)
So how did Strike Anywhere manage to make a record that both seethes with umbrage and hooks you in with melody and rhythm? Durned if I know, but they seem to be well read and intelligent boys, by the interviews. And they obviously don't think it's anti-punk to learn how to play, or even practice your instrument. That's one thing I like about punk's political arm; they always have this weird combination of belligerence and smarts, like they're idiot savants or something. It reminds me of some of the more contemporary Christian movements, who seem always to be using the Devil's enticements (rock music, television, eye makeup . . .) to make Christianity seem more fun. But punk rock is a more worthy cause as far as I'm concerned and intelligent but straightforward lyrics like "We are not the images we speak!" go a long way towards artfully capturing both punk's nihilism and its idealism.
I particularly enjoyed "You're Fired", and the last few cuts off the album, most of which showcase Strike Anywhere's particular knack for melody and passion. "You're Fired" is really interesting rhythmically, another unusual thing in a genre almost uniformly devoted to bash bash bash-style percussion. And, the rhythmic blurps and shudders always coincide with moments of purest melody, as if to unsettle any sense of sublimity. Thus form and content are beautifully merged on this album, which is why it may not be a keeper for those whose punk tastes are limited to that one Green Day ballad. Nor for the faint of heart.