Punk. Yeah, right on, punk. Am I, in fact, the only person in the multiverse who gets just that faint, niggling hint of annoyance and suspicion every time I hear that word nowadays? Who picks up the undeniable whiff of pretentious airs and graces when that word is applied to anything outside the late ‘70s? Who boggles at the audacity of those who would casually self-apply this word to themselves and what they do?
Why? Why would I feel like that? Well I suppose it’s to do with the perceived status of the word. Punk is about the only musical genre whose credibility is simply beyond question. Words like jazz, metal, techno, hip-hop, country, rock, pop, reggae, d’n’b, “electronica”, indie, house – even funk, for funk’s sake – are perfectly capable of being sneered out as a derogatory pooh-pooh, and happily suffixed with words like “nonsense”, “rubbish” and “bollox”. But you just don’t do that to punk. Well, you can, but people will look at you like you were a) born in the 1800’s and probably listen exclusively to Yes and/or Dire Straits b) a pre-teen girl who idolises Justin Biebles or Jedwank or One True Voice or whatever fresh-faced-clean-living-non-threatening-pop-fodder is spewing out of the corporate mangle at this precise moment. Which is strange; because it’s not like punk has any more consensus on whether the music was actually good or not than in any other genre. Plenty of people don’t like punk. But nobody under 60 – nobody – questions its authenticity. Everyone knows that punk is visceral, angry and nihilistic – punk doesn’t care if you like it or not, in fact it practically wants you to hate it, which is why it’s so cool. It has none of the pomp, pantomime and geekery of metal, none of the self-satisfied corporate cock-suckery that soured hip-hop’s reputation, and seems to have somehow side-stepped the culture-based incomprehension that causes people to refuse to even try to understand, say, reggae, or most electronic dance-based music. Most genres of music are associated with types of people: Your typical fan, who is eminently open to ridicule. Think of a genre and you can always think of a particular kind of worst-case pathetic specimen who likes to listen to it, even if you know this is an unfair stereotype – the stereotype exists. Yuppies. Chavs. Hippies. Red-necks. Teeny-boppers. 18-30 clubber dregs. Jazz-pseuds. Emos and goths (ahh, bless). It’s guilt-by-association – you get enough silly or dull or pretentious or, in whatever way, reprehensible people listening to a type of music and that’s it – its credibility, in the minds of non-fans, is done for. Tainted.
So how has punk escaped this? Well, your typical punk fan is – well, a punk. And only a punk, nothing else. And punks are scary. Not that some hip-hop gangtas and muscles-n-hate metallers can’t be scary - but all punks are scary; it doesn’t matter if they’re weedy or moronic or 14 years old, because they’re all livid, unhinged, self-destructive nihilists who are as likely to nut your face, gob in your chips and knife you in the kidneys as say “Hale-and-well-met, good-fellow”. They “want to destroy passer-by”. That’s what Mr. J. Rotten said. Poor old passer-by. Except that this isn’t true, is it? It’s utter, utter, B.S. – very, very few punks were ever really, fully, 24-hours-a-day like this, by most accounts. Most of them wanted people to think they were. But, like goths, it was an affected pose, a lifestyle fashion choice, like any other pop-culture fad. Punks were just people – hyperactive, speed-fuelled, stroppy, sneery, yoof people, maybe, but still just people all the same. It wasn’t the end of civilization after all. But somehow the stereotype persists that punks really are just like that. Where other genres’ stereotypes have grown familiar and cosy or broadened to incorporate multiple kinds of everyday folks, the punk stereotype has retained its initial shock value and specificity, somehow. Why? Almost certainly because it was so short-lived. We never had time to become familiar and cosy with the punk, or with the kind of general public who listened to punk as a simple matter of personal taste. Whilst the impact of punk had massive pop-culture reverberations, pure punk was a flash in the pan – it was all over, really, by about 1980. Pure punk was non-sustainable. You can be a life-long hippy. But you can’t be a truly anti-everything anarchistic punk and still hold down a day job. Really you need to be dead by your mid-twenties, or you’re just not punk enough. If you survive, you had better be in a state approaching Shane McGowan.
Musically it was also a cul-de-sac, a dead-end. Whilst it may have been a searing blaze of fresh, raw, jettison-the-bullshit energy, what most people seem to forget is that punk was massively conservative and intolerant. It sneered and gobbed at anyone who used anything other than 3 chords on anything other than guitar, bass and drums. Anyone over 25 was too old. And god-forbid you wheel out a synthesizer. When Joy Division, always slightly apart from the pure punk crowd and more accurately described as “post-punk”, did this, Ian Curtis’s girlfriend – the one who wasn’t his wife – allegedly accused them of “sounding like Genesis” (Genesis were the prog-rock enemy to the angry punk-influenced yoof at the time). Needless to say, that’s f***ing absurd; but it amply demonstrates attitudes to variety and experimentation in those punk-drenched times. The Damned got away with early keyboard usage, but only because Captain Sensible made a point of playing three reedy notes shambolically and knocking the stand over at the end of the gig. But their second album was produced by Pink Floyd's (prog/psychedelic) Nick Mason and that was met with howls of derision and seen as a shocking faux-pas that nearly finished them off - despite the fact that any resulting changes to their sound were utterly minimal - a negligible, shoulder-shrugging smidgen more polished and melodic, which would have inevitably been the case whoever produced it. The likes of The Stranglers, despite being in the midst of the punk scene when they started out, playing all the same venues with all the same bands, and clearly sharing much in common in their sound and attitude, were never properly accepted as punk – they had a synthesizer, three of them were too old, two of them could play too well and two of them had facial hair. No chance. This despite the fact that Joe Strummer reportedly split the 101er’s (who often shared the bill with the early Stranglers) after telling Hugh Cornwell “My band is shit, Hugh – I want a band like yours!” – and next week joined The Clash. This conservativism was also a lie – many punk icons from John Lydon (née Rotten) to Rat Scabies later admitted to liking all kinds of diverse musics that they would never have publicly admitted to at the time. In fact, as it turned out, the first wave of UK punk acts did have a broader appreciation of music and more catholic influences that became clearer as they developed: The Clash's London Calling experiments; the Buzzcock's 60's bubblegum pop and repetitive, angular kraut-rock touches; the inherent psychedelia in The Damned and Siouxsie and the Banshee's later goth stylings. Rather it was the music press, the fans and the second-wave copyists who did most to petrify punk into rigid standardisation. Pure punk was such a narrow and inflexible genre that it literally had, to quote Mr. J. Rotten again, “No future” (clever that, see). Those that survived had to veer away from the narrow template. Those that didn’t, imploded. Punk’s lasting legacy was via post-punk – where punk mutated into something else and other genres were infused with some – but only some – elements of its energy, aesthetic and ethos. That stuff had legs, because it was open to endless variation and diversification. Pure Punk wasn’t – it was simply a cleansing fire, a stubble burning sweep to make way for fresh new growth.
So: Let’s return to where I started – why does use of the word “punk” when referring to things nowadays, annoy me? Well, first of all, “punk”, in the pure sense, is as time-locked as ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll – and as such any modern act that claims to be pure punk, without adding any modern spin, should reasonably expect to viewed in the same vein as Showaddywaddy – novelty retro throw-backs. It seems a bit of a conceit to claim to be full-on punk unless you were a) there in ’76-’79 or b) are accepting that you are simply describing your sound as mimicking that of original punk. But more annoying than this is the way the term seems to be bandied around willy-nilly in a way that can seemingly mean whatever you want it to. Sadly, perfectly good acts such as Mogwai, The Prodigy and Sepultura have at some point claimed that they were “punk”. Needless to say, they sound nothing like each other, and none of them would even have come within Walking Distance (that’s a Buzzcocks song. Clever, see?) of being recognized as punks back in ’77. They’d have been laughed out of Bromley. There isn’t even really any identifiable thread in common between them; because it depends which element of punk influence you are talking about: Are you referring to a certain visual style aesthetic? To a lo-fi, amateur do-it-yourself ethos (as if punk was the only genre ever to use this)? To an anti-establishment politicised outlook? To a generally rebellious, bratty, obnoxious demeanour? To an iconoclastic hatred of the “old”? To a genre-based style-template for making records? Or to a commitment to stripped down simplicity (no solos)?
Referring to such elements as “punk” is fine if it’s done knowingly and lightly, but when it’s said in utter po-faced seriousness I just want to tell the speaker to f*** off. I have no problem with a term like “punk-influenced”, but when people insist something vaguely punk-influenced IS punk... oh, right. Spare me, huh? Having pink hair does not make you a “punk” any more than having a synthesizer makes you Genesis. The media do this all the time when talking about the likes of P!nk or Avril Lavigne (who went on record to tell them to stop calling her punk because she didn’t know what that was supposed to mean – good for her!) This is chronic enough, but when people deliberately call themselves “punk”, that’s when my nose really wrinkles with disdain – because not only is it pungent bullshit, a bogus claim; it’s also a really obvious conceited grab at credibility, as if you can somehow summon all of original pure punk’s livid anarcho-political anti-establishment rage, unhinged youthful energy and unimpeachable authenticity simply because you play a cheap instrument badly or have a tongue piecing. Piss off. Punk.