There was a time when the rebellion at the base of punk rock was real.
Back when bands like the Sex Pistols, the Clash, and the Ramones were exploding musical verities, the music was raw, challenging, and oddly forward-looking. By screaming an exultant “no” (or “fuck you!”) into the stultifying atmosphere of a stale musical establishment, the punk pioneers helped carve out an alternate direction for popular culture, injecting it with aggression and energy at a time when those commodities were in short supply.
Fast-forward 30 or so years. Punk rock has become nothing more than a musical style, a sound. It no longer is an act of rebellion or ferocious attitude. Punk, under the most current definition, is guitar rock played fast, loose, and loud, with often angry shouts for vocals, unless it is an energetic, but traditional ska band tripping staccato horn bursts into the ether.
That’s not to say that punk rock in the first decade of the 21st century cannot be fun, enlightening, or exciting. Mainstream bands like Green Day will occasionally put out a record like American Idiot, a powerful, if wildly overrated punk opera, and the pop-punk, emo, and skater bands can be counted on for the periodic one-off hit.
More to the point, there are plenty of interesting punk bands floating around the margins of the music business, screaming their anthems to a small but loyal following. But they are not breaking new ground, not altering the direction that popular music is taking in the 21st century.
Many of these bands have found a home at Hellcat Records. The label, a division of Epitaph, is home to an array of punk and ska bands and was Joe Strummer’s musical home when he succumbed unexpectedly to a heart attack in 2002. The bands run the gamut from cult favorites like Rancid and the Dropkick Murphys to the lesser known, like the South Central Riot Squad and the 12 Step Rebels. The music made by these bands — featured on the recent Hellcat compilation Give ‘Em the Boot IV — can be raw and violent, or infused with an anarchic sense of fun or outrage. What it isn’t, however, is groundbreaking or edgy in a way that the best punk rock has been over the years.
The disc opens well, with an unreleased song by Rancid, “Killing Zone,” that burns hot with anger, and moves through several interesting throwbacks, such as the dyspeptic ska of the Aggrolites (“Dirty Reggae”) and the Slackers (“Propaganda”), the restrained rave-up of Tiger Army (“Atomic”), and the angry aggression of Die Hunns (“Marshall Law”).
Politics is at the core of the best songs here. The Slackers’ “Propaganda” offers an angry reggae response to one-sided news coverage, a response that connects with the greatest elements of the reggae tradition. It has a sly groove that gets under the skin, tricking out movement from the sedentary, dragging the unsuspecting to the dance floor even as it rails about conspiracies: “Propaganda, it’s everywhere I go / Propaganda, it’s on my radio”.
“Let There Be Peace”, a song by Chris Murray, sounds as if it could have been recorded in the late 1970s by Jimmy Cliff or Peter Tosh, a plea for peace (“Let there be peace from the bombs of hatred / Let there be peace in the hearts of man”) set atop steady, rolling reggae.
The best cuts on the disc are the unreleased tracks by Rancid (mentioned above), the Dropkick Murphys, and the late Joe Strummer. The Murphys take an unrecorded Woody Guthrie lyric — “I’m Shipping Up to Boston” — add a bit of Irish whimsy, turn the volume up, and drive it home with electric guitars and vocal shouts.
As for the Strummer cut, it can stand as a commentary on the entire enterprise. The song, “Junco Partner”, was originally recorded by the Clash and released on the massive reggae-punk masterpiece Sandanista! in 1981. It is a typical great Clash cut, not its best song, but a biting bit of reggae-influenced commentary on the few options available to the poverty-stricken, here recorded by Strummer with his band the Mescaleros on his final tour in 2002.
Strummer’s cut points out the basic flaws with the disc. Too many of the songs seem an attempt to copy Strummer and Mick Jones’s work, but without the context of the music business at the time that the Clash were first recording. In many ways, the Clash and the Sex Pistols and the Buzzcocks and all of the original punk bands created the space within which the Ducky Boys (whose “Break Me” is a highlight of the disc) operate. The problem, however, is that the best of these songs — Murray’s reggae, Rezurex’s Latin punk (“Dia De Los Muertos”), the HorrorPops’ “Where They Wander” and even Rancid’s song — do not take the punk genre in new directions or challenge the current pop music orthodoxy. In many ways, they only reinforce the stereotypes.
This is contrary to the original spirit of punk. Think of the Sex Pistols, a band as raw as they came, who used the unrelenting harshness of masterpieces like “Holiday in the Sun” or “Bodies” to cut through the crap and nonsense on the radio at the time to lay bare the falsity of popular music and pop culture. The Sex Pistols, the Clash, Elvis Costello, Blondie, and the New York art bands were about busting boundaries and exploding musical stereotypes.
Two other basic problems exist. First, there are too many songs like South Central Riot Squad’s dull rant “S.C. Drunx” and the Roughnecks’ “Lost Paradise”, off-putting speed-metal raves with grunting vocals that are nothing but pure aggression. Songs like these — and F-Mius’ “Caught in Between”, “Dead Bodies” by Necromantix, and several others — are loud, fast and harsh and lack the grace and commitment that the best punk has at its core. Nearly a dozen cuts fall into this category.
More importantly, there is a stultifying sameness to the disc that makes me wonder if we’d be better off putting the punk label away, consigning it to history, and moving on.