A little faster. A little harder. Oh, and so freakin’ good! Tales From the Drop Box Episode #93 brings you another hour (almost) of faster songs approximating punk rock stylings. I recently read (yet again) another opinion by a punk rock veteran that there is no such thing as punk rock left in existence, that is, punk rock is dead. Okay. I disagree.
Unlike the President, I know that words have meaning to people other than himself. “Punk rock” in the general lexicon is a hyper-charged word, largely, I believe, because of the emotions tied to each individuals romanticized view of their punk rock history and experience. As these discussions often generate tons of hate mail, I hope these show notes, are read by you with the understanding that this essay merely represents my good faith attempt to formulate a clear definition of punk rock and then examine whether the term as defined is relevant today. I don’t think that punk rock is dead. Rather, I believe that punk rock is very much alive, evolving, and thriving. Let me explain.
First, you are likely thinking, what makes me qualified to opine on the question as to what constitutes “punk rock?” I believe that I am qualified to opine on the topic having observed, participated in, and experienced the humble beginnings of the punk rock scene from 1974 -1982 in two countries and from two different perspectives – as a concert promoter and as a fan. I am not an expert on the subject because the subject of punk rock does not need special skill or training to describe. Rather, I am giving this opinion based upon my own extensive experience with the goal to add to the discussion and I hope, bring some flavor in the form of an alternate perspective to a subject that was and continues to be hotly debated. Finally, I hope that my description of punk rock and its clarification will give you some insight to my use of the term in these podcasts.
I am also an avid reader of the “perspectives” of others on this same subject and in more than 40 years have witnessed the mental gymnastics of many as they also tried to define and answer the question: what is punk rock? Some of these perspectives come from individuals who were part of the same regional scene I experienced. Some perspectives come from other scenes that arose in the wake of the explosion of bands in the early 1980s as the original punk rock bands traveled from region to region exporting the message and the excitement. There is and should absolutely no doubt in my mind that the bands of that particular period of time that achieved escape velocity (i.e. were able to tour outside of their region) were groundbreaking and sowed the seeds for the avalanche of new participants in the punk rock experience and fostered the spread of punk rock throughout North America. For example, D.O.A., Black Flag, X, Dead Kennedy’s, Bad Brains, Dead Boys, The Replacements, Hüsker Dü, The Dicks, Ramones, Cramps, Avengers, Germs, Weirdos, Screamers, Stains, and the hundreds of other bands who booked tours and traveled throughout the U.S. and Canada from 1978 through 1982 – a magic time in the annals of punk rock – did so largely through the personal relationships they established in their own local scene and with the bands that they met, supported, and played with along the way.
There is also no doubt that the various music reporters i.e. Slash, Rock Scene, Trouser Press, New Musical Express, Melody Maker, Discorder, and the tons of fanzines that flourished in this early period also spread the word, providing “advertising” for the bands, and at times, the scene participants. I think that people forget that fanzines, written by people who themselves were participants, shaped the message and meaning of punk rock. There is no better example of this than Maximumrocknroll a publication that arose from a radio show in Berkeley CA in 1982 – late to the scene – but evolved into a force in the punk rock community largely through a single policy: MRR had a policy of not giving coverage to, nor accepting advertising from, bands that record on major labels. That policy extended to bands that are “produced and distributed” by a major label. The consequence of this policy was that early punk rock bands in both the U.K and the North America did not receive coverage in MRR because almost all of the popular “punk rock bands” prior to 1982 were on a major label. This was the most disappointing aspect of MMR’s no advertising policy and contrary to the original intent of the scene – inclusive, supportive and diverse. Thankfully, other publications were willing to cover all participants. I would have never discovered bands like Really Red, T.S.O.L, Channel 3, Minor Threat, etc. without these publications.
So, given that all of these very different types of bands, with widely varying sounds, styles, subject matter, and political views, from all over the world, were labeled as “punk rock” how can anyone argue that punk rock describes a type of music. For example, all of these U.K. bands were labelled punk rock, all of them recorded for major labels, and all were part of the initial punk rock explosion from 1976-1979: Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Buzzcocks, The Jam, The Damned, The Stranglers, Siouxsie & The Banshees, The Slits, Generation X, Stiff Little Fingers, Adam & The Ants, etc. They did not all sound or look alike.
And that is the point of this exercise – “punk rock” is a label that does not and cannot identify a type of music, although many commentators have tried to hang various musical characteristics on the term. For example, this is the current description of punk rock on Wikipedia:
Punk rock (or “punk“) is a rock music genre that developed in the early to mid-1970s in the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia. Rooted in 1960s garage rock and other forms of what is now known as “proto-punk” music, punk rock bands rejected perceived excesses of mainstream 1970s rock. Punk bands typically produced short or fast-paced songs, with hard-edged melodies and singing styles, stripped-down instrumentation, and often political, anti-establishment lyrics.
Does this description really describe “punk rock?” In my mind, the definition above is inaccurate, imprecise, vague, and truly only accurate in one aspect – punk rock bands, then as now, rejected perceived excesses of mainstream rock.
So, here is my perspective and my description: as utilized at the inception of the punk rock movement, and as I currently utilize and intend the term to mean now, “punk rock” is a shorthand label for “outsider” music, i.e., rock music produced by musicians who reject the imposition of limitations on all aspects of their art however expressed through their music, clothing, political views, interests, and ideas.
I’m good with that description and that description accurately describes the meaning of “punk rock.” This definition preserves the historical underpinnings, is accurate, meaningful, and promotes consistency.
To be clear, punk rock does not describe a type of music and does not actually describe any of the participants in the experience. Rather, “punk rock” describes a belief system common to participants and not the music. When I was a participant, I understood that punk rock was a “way of life” meaning that the path you took to explore the music was a path of your own choosing. There was a common DIY attitude amongst and between the participants and a belief that you had the freedom to control your expression and express yourself in any manner you decided was appropriate or inappropriate – it was individualism shared in a group setting.
In my experience, the most significant aspects of the punk rock scene had nothing to do with the sounds emanating from the band, the chaos in the pit, the variety of clothing, piercings, tattoos, hairstyle, or even the politics because all of these characteristics were mutable as was any ideology that punk rock was meant to exemplify. The participants in the punk rock scene changed, as did the sounds, but the belief system of the individuals comprising the community did not. What brought us all together was nonconformity and this willingness to be a nonconformist in the face of opposition and despite the efforts of many in the punk rock community to try to try to enforce conformity and apply rules to the scene. How could you be a punk if you didn’t have ______________ or believe in ___________. As you mentally try to fill in those blanks, try to remember that some participants in the punk rock scene were college educated, had long hair, didn’t have piercings or tattoos, didn’t all have left leaning political views, etc. The stereotype of a punk rocker, as imagined by the press, the general public, and later by individuals who claimed to like punk rock, deviated greatly from reality.
There are some of you who will likely argue with the limits of my proposed definition, but if you step back from your own personal attachment to your individual construct of the meaning of punk rock, I think you will find the limits of the definition appropriate. Why? If you examine the lengthy history of bands that came out of the early nascent punk rock scene in any city, I think you will find that the term itself was not self-referential. That is, punks didn’t refer to themselves as “punk rockers.” The only practical application of the term was to describe a local rock scene comprised of very different people, all of whom appreciated the music, supported live performances and bought recordings by artists and musicians who created art and music that was different from what was being promoted by the mainstream. This combination of words conveyed that you listened to music that was outside the mainstream. Punk rock was not a term describing a specific type of music. It was not a genre. Rather, punk rock was a term that described a community of people, explorers, that believed in challenging convention – music, politics, thinking, whatever. This is not to say that some of those identifying with the punk rock community didn’t adopt a “uniform” to distance themselves from the mainstream, or promoted certain lifestyle or political choices that they argued were central to being a punk rocker (e.g. straight edge, anarchist, oi,). These efforts to structure the unstructured also are encompassed the term punk rock because it demonstrated their effort to give shape to music and art outside of the mainstream, the unconventional.
I lived in Vancouver, B.C. and regularly went to shows from 1977 – 86. I attended hundreds of shows during this period at a large number of venues, large and small, including the Commodore Ballroom, Smilin’ Buddha, Town Pump, Teamsters Local 31 Union Hall, New York Theater, Gary Taylor’s Rock Room, Japanese Hall, the Luv Affair, etc. and found myself at a number of basement shows. The Vancouver scene during this period was loud, aggressive, and truly diverse. Compare these legendary early punk rock bands from Vancouver: D.O.A., Subhumans, UJERK5, I Braineater, Dishrags, K-Tels, Young Canadians, Shmorgs, No Exit, Modernettes, Pointed Sticks, Active Dog, Tim Ray and A.V., Enigmas, No Fun, etc.). I saw them all. If you try to define “punk” by the music they all played, you quickly realize that you cannot. There is no common thread connecting all of these bands musically. What ties them together is a common love of music, a geographic location, and people who thrived outside of the conventional.
All I knew and understood at that time was that I could see music played live that didn’t fit in with Canadian commercial radio and was sometimes played on CITR – the radio station of the University of British Columbia which at the time had a very limited broadcast area. Most of the music played by these bands had obvious garage rock roots and was played faster than traditional rock and roll. Some of the music was political, some was not, but what all of the music had in common was that it was all awesome. Punk rock is a label that was rendered meaningless almost immediately to identify a particular type of music. It is similar to indie rock also a meaningless label, but unlike punk rock, indie rock truly describes nothing. Rather, punk rock started as a shorthand label for “outsider” to the rest of the world and “insider” for those who were its participants – fan and musician.
As I reflect on Vancouver’s punk rock scene, it was an exciting time, and if you look at the history of the scene, most of the bands were looking to connect with others – in the U.S., the U.K. and the rest of Canada. It was highly inclusive. So, 40 years down the road, after examining punk rocks’ roots and measuring the bands and the scene’s that exist in various parts of the country, it is clear that not only is punk rock is still alive but still as exciting, vibrant, constantly evolving, and fully encompassing the ideals of the past i.e. a vast amount of outsider music not characterized by a particular sound.
So, here is some punk rock for you.
Here is what you’ll find in Episode #93:
- Sweet Diego – “Super Sadistic” (Kong’s Little Finger EP)
- Itchy – “Knock Knock” (All We Know)
- Muskets – “17 Years” (Chew)
- Youth Killed It – “Fudge” (Modern Bollotics)
- Bondage Fairies – “I Will Never Love You” (Alta Gaga Cp Wifi)
- The Headlines – “In The End” (In The End)
- Smidley – “Fuck This” (Smidley)
- Los VVS – “Be Mine” (Tape 2)
- Boo Hag – “Pop The Clutch” (The Further)
- Silverstein – “Secret’s Safe” (Dead Reflection)
- Trashed Ambulance – “Hangover Drive” (A Dime For Every Time)
- Blood Command – “The Secret Impresses No One” (Cult Drugs)
- Me First and The Gimme Gimmes – “Straight Up” (Rake It In: The Greatest Hits)
- Theatre of Hate – “ Do You Believe in the Westworld?” (Westworld)
- Wedding Camp – “Good To Know You” (Clear Fizzy Things)
From the south on a wind in walked a cowboy the saloon was dry but his guns were well oiled somehow he remembered when he kissed his wife and when he said goodbye . . . lost in a dream I don’t know which way to go.