Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Chapter 1: Riding with the New Church

I’m riding with the new church.
Relying on the new church,
And a new word. – The Adverts

It’s not ... yesterday ... anymore. – Talking Heads

Look at me, I’m in tatters! – The Rolling Stones
When I was six years old, my elder and more musically gifted brother, already a decent rock and roll guitarist at age 14, finally caved to my unwavering pleas for him to “teach me to play something.” He showed me how to finger the low E string in such a way as to mimic the opening riff of the Rolling Stones classic, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” I worked on the riff until it sounded, sort of, like what I heard on my brother’s record player.

I’m not certain of this, because it was so long ago. But I think it was at that moment that I became a true believer. I think that is when I decided that when I grew up, I would be a rock and roll star.

That inkling of a dream lay dormant until I reached puberty, when I again became enchanted with the notion of playing guitar for some great rock band. By the time I turned fourteen myself, the fantasy had blossomed into adolescent urgency; I had to get my own guitar. I discovered a scuffed and beaten acoustic with a severely warped neck at a garage sale. I plucked down ten dollars, earned from mowing neighborhood lawns, for the purchase.

My goal was to learn to play Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” and see where that might take me. I purchased a book of illustrated guitar chords, and listened to my record albums – a couple by the Beatles, the Who’s Quadrophenia, Led Zeppelin’s fourth album (my favorite at the time) and assorted other rock bands, like Boston, the Steve Miller Band, Reo Speedwagon, Thin Lizzie and KISS. The year was 1975, and nothing truly exciting seemed to be happening in the pop/rock music world. I spent my time studying my rock history and learning to mimic the rhythm chords of George Harrison.

By 1978, I had graduated to a Yamaha classical I had purchased from a girl in the neighborhood who had already given up on her dreams. By then, I had the rudiments of rhythm guitar down, and was starting to learn the acoustic stylings of some of the popular progressive rock groups of that time – bands like Yes, Kansas, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer. It was complex, complicated work for an amateur who did not read music, who had learned mainly by ear and a book of chord illustrations. I had not yet achieved my dream of imitating Jimmy Page. For such a mediocre rhythm guitarist, this kind of picking – the intricate, soaring solos, tricky chord changes, the art of midrange – was simply light years beyond my abilities. This was the case, despite my full devotion over three years of diligent, self-taught effort. Sadly, I came to realize that if I were to ever become a rock star, I had to learn to play like Page – or at least like Ted Nugent, Boston’s Tom Scholz or Gary Richrath of REO Speedwagon. That is what I expected guitars to sound like. That was the conditioning I received from the church of progressive rock, where I reluctantly worshiped.

I was deaf to any alternative voices. I was a prisoner of seventies-era guitar rock, which had progressed from the simpler styles of the fifties and sixties. (Hence the name progressive rock.) Even so, I sensed in my gut something that I could not yet articulate: that the guitar gods were merely dumb idols – talented, to be sure, but also propped up by expensive equipment and multimillion-dollar stage shows. Despite my visceral distaste for the music, I remained faithful to the Way of rock and roll. I grew up with rock and roll. It was my voice, my soul, my therapy. Rock and roll was my religion.

I wanted desperately to believe. But despite my most sincere efforts, I came away frustrated. Like the man in the song, I couldn’t get no satisfaction.

Shattered
Many people have said that discovering punk is like receiving the answers to life-changing questions you didn’t even know you were asking. – Andy Greenwald
By the time I’d purchased my first guitar, a musical revolution was under way that would soon alter the shape of rock and roll. At the time, I had no clue. Within a couple of years, however, I would hear rumors of this revolution – rumors, carried on the evening newscasts, of a new wave of raucous British music, called “punk,” crashing upon our shores. It would take some time, in the pre-Internet age, before the revolution actually trickled into the heartland, where I was.

My formal introduction to punk rock occurred one evening in 1978, in the living room of a young married couple. They were latter-day hippies who hosted nightly drop-in parties a few blocks from my grandmother’s house in Moberly, Missouri. Steve and Sharon were in their early twenties. I was a senior in high school who lived with my grandmother because of a series of family situations: the disintegration of my parents’ marriage, my mother’s death, my father’s struggles to raise my sister and me in a decent, Ozzie and Harriet family way. Steve and Sharon’s doors were open to any bored, alienated kid who wanted to drop in, smoke a joint and let the music work its magic. They were the neighborhood tribal elders for a band of wandering youths. Most nights I would stop by on my walk home from work at a fast-food place. A few tokes and some tunes took the edge off of the stresses of my angst and eased the boredom of teen life in the Midwest.

There was always a crowd at Steve and Sharon’s – people passing joints around and listening to Fleetwood Mac, Bob Seger or the Eagles. I was seventeen and bored, with no car, not a lot of money and little interest in anything other than rock music and marijuana. Steve and Sharon’s house was a refuge from the boredom of school, work, home and life.

The night I discovered punk, seven or eight of us were sitting in a circle on the living room floor. We were listening to the usual tunes – probably Rumours, the new Fleetwood Mac album, which Sharon loved. Steve, kicking back in his hand-me-down easy chair, asked us if we wanted to hear “something different” and produced from his peach crate of LPs a garish yellow album cover adorned only with amateurish block lettering and a strip of Pepto-Bismol pink. “NEVER MIND THE BOLLOCKS,” proclaimed the block letters at the top. Just below, in smaller and different type, was presumably the subtitle, “HERE’S THE SEX PISTOLS,” with the band’s name, “Sex Pistols,” printed ransom-note style, cut from newspaper headlines, across that blaring pink bar.

Steve slid the disk onto the turntable and cranked the volume. What I heard blasting from his Pioneer speakers was amazing, unthinkable, and disturbing.

And thus was my first communion in the “New Church” the Adverts sang about – the church of punk rock.

No satisfaction
Music was and always will be the great escape from when there is too much reality. – Sky Saxon of the Seeds
I was an uneasy and reluctant convert. I thought I knew something about rock and roll, and where it was heading. The youngest of five children, I grew up listening to my elders’ music – British Invasion groups like the Beatles, Rolling Stones and the Dave Clark Five and, later, guitar virtuosos like Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton. My older brother passed on to me a lust for the six-string.

If the devil had all the good music, as Christian singer Larry Norman once proclaimed, then even Lucifer’s well of inspiration seemed to have run dry by 1976. The rebellious, rockabilly edge of fifties rock, the Mississippi Delta blues-inspired British invasion, Phil Spector’s “wall of sound” productions, the idealistic hippie folk-rock of the sixties, all of which fueled much of rock’s contumacious spirit – it had all been washed away after Watergate. Everything just sounded trite and tired.

The world of music, politics and pop culture had gotten weird. The United States elected a peanut farmer/Sunday school teacher for president. Soul and funk had morphed into disco. The biggest rock band of the era, the Eagles, released a record called Hotel California that, if many of the rock critics were to be believed, would be the salvation of rock and roll. Reviewers labeled it an instant classic, and a lot of my friends believed and bought the record. But when I first heard it, all I felt was disappointment. Even the addition of Joe Walsh, the former James Gang singer-guitarist who later had his own AM hit (the wahwah peddle-laden “Rocky Mountain Way”), couldn’t free the record from the bonds of its own pretense. Hotel California did nothing for me, other than reinforce that sense of imprisonment I felt in my gut. The lyrics of the title song – “You can check out any time you want/but you can never leave” – filled me with despair.

Was this the future of rock and roll? Was there a future?

My faith was weakening.

Show me the way
Some people call it junk but he don’t care.
He’s found a home. – The Kinks, "Prince of the Punks"
My friends and I weren’t the only ones desperate for someone or something to lead us out of this pop music wilderness. As British writer Jon Savage explains in his thorough examination of punk rock’s British roots, England’s Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock, and Beyond, musical attitudes in England were “repressed and horrible.” Radio rock had become “a pompous, middle-class facsimile of the anarchy” that existed in the fifties. With the music industry firmly in control and “conning everyone,” Savage writes, “how could that industry’s ‘Rock’ retain any trace of Rock’n’Roll’s original teenage revolt?” American rock critic Lester Bangs, writing in London’s New Musical Express magazine in 1977, felt much the same way. “[A]s far as I was concerned things started going downhill for rock around 1968; I’d date it from the ascendance of Cream, who were the first fake superstar band, the first sign of strain in what had crested in 1967.” That was the year the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which many critics consider the greatest rock album of all time. The demise of rock and roll culminated in 1976, Bangs believed, with “the ascendance of things like disco and jazz-rock, which are dead enough to suggest the end of popular music as anything more than room spray.” The “glam rock” of David Bowie and company offered little solace from rock’s descent into dullness. It merely reflected the status quo. Glam, writes Antonino D’Ambrosio, was “pretentious, over-produced, slick, and bourgeois – and so was modern society.” Rock journalist Peter Silverton was “so disgusted by the rock’n’roll scene [of the ‘70s] that I spent all day in bed listening to Chuck Berry and reading Trotsky.”

Pop music descended deeper into an abyss of mediocrity, or worse. Dreadful disco – led by KC and the Sunshine Band, the Bee Gees and Donna Summer – commandeered the charts. Peter Frampton – whose Frampton Comes Alive double album came to define the excesses of ‘70s-era stadium rock – spearheaded prog rock’s meager attempts to reclaim the radio by releasing a few singles, “Show Me the Way,” the ballady “Baby I Love Your Way” and the abbreviated-for-radio version of the concert jam “Do You Feel Like We Do.” But neither disco nor prog rock could claim the year’s top radio hit. That spot belonged to “You Light Up My Life,” Debbie Boone’s sentimental love song to Jesus.

So, two years after Hotel California, this was the musical environment I found myself in. But I was about to be jarred out of my slumber.

The cacophony I heard at Steve and Sharon’s house that night was unlike anything I’d heard before. It began with the first track on Never Mind the Bollocks, “Holiday in the Sun.” The tune begins with the sound of soldiers marching – an invading army – immediately underscored by a whapping bass drum. The pure, powerful noise of Steve Jones’ guitar chords follows, and the Glen Matlock’s bass joins in to lead the march into melody. This layering of sound is then attacked by the demented shrieks of Johnny Rotten, who catapults the whole thing into a sonic battle of amplified, visceral noise.

Rotten’s disturbed and disturbing vocals, of course, are what made the Pistols the crown princes of punk. But what strikes me today, listening to the tune some 30 years later, is the force of Jones’ guitar. He stripped his Gibson of all artifice, paring the sound down to nothing but loud, trebly dissonance. Writing about The Sex Pistols’ final concert, which actually occurred before my on-vinyl encounter with the group, rock critic Greil Marcus also took note of Jones’ thick sound, likening it more to “a guitar factory instead of a guitar.” Billie Joe Armstrong of the pop-punk band Green Day counts himself a Jones disciple, labeling the Pistols guitarist “one of the best guitarists of all time” and adding that Jones “taught me how a Gibson should sound through a Marshall.”

The Sex Pistols sound was rock and roll; there was no doubt about that. It was perhaps the purest rock and roll to be heard since the days of Eddie Cochran. It was also disturbing, unsettling and exciting. The sound was raw and earthy, yet also otherworldly, totally “out there.” Jones’ guitar, Paul Cook’s tribal pounding and Matlock’s thunderous bass set the table for Johnny Rotten’s volatile caterwauling, and it all came together as a full attack on the senses. More than a defiant shout into my world of anomie and complacency, the Sex Pistols sound was a siege upon the walled cities of rock and roll.

The Sex Pistols sound shook me to the core, as it did almost anyone who heard them for the first time. I felt a wave of nausea mixed with excitement wash over me. A year or two down the road, the Rolling Stones would capture the feeling with a simple one-word song title: “Shattered.”

All I knew at that moment, as Rotten’s high-decibel wailing pierced through the smoke-filled air, was that if this noise was the new sound of rock and roll, then everything was about to change.

Most of us did not accept this attack peacefully. The Pistols were as alien, in their way, as the love songs of killer whales. Sharon begged Steve to return to the comfort zone of Fleetwood Mac. To his credit, Steve pressed on; he thought the Pistols deserved a fair hearing. By the end of Side 1, I was growing accustomed to the noise. But even as I left Steve and Sharon’s that evening, my ears still ringing with the sounds of anarchy, my gut in knots as though I’d just stepped off a roller-coaster, I held fast to my dream of learning how to play “Stairway to Heaven.” I was having trouble departing from the way of my rock-and-roll youth.

Hey ho, let’s go
You Should Never Have Opened That Door. – Ramones song title
Even we isolated teens in Moberly, Missouri, were not immune from the revolution. In the coming months, Never Mind the Bollocks started showing up on the turntable of weekend beer bashes. By the time I graduated high school in May of that year, “Anarchy in the UK” was as familiar to me as all those insipid Bee Gees songs from the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack.

A few weeks after my initial exposure to the Sex Pistols sound, a high school friend introduced me to another seminal punk recording, the work of a band of leather-jacketed hooligans from New York City who called themselves the Ramones. Their sound was a weird mix of old-time rock and roll – part Chuck Berry, part surf music, part Phil Spector-inspired wall-of-sound girl groups and doo-woppy fifties stuff – all cranked up to eleven and moving at warp speed. The Ramones churned out relentless power chords, hammering drumbeats and a thumping, hurried bass line. None of their songs had a guitar solo or lasted more than three minutes. This was the antidote to Frampton, the opposite of stadium rock and long, wailing guitar solos. The Ramones’ tunes sounded almost like pop, but with a kinky twist filtered through dark lyrics that satirized drug use, prostitution, world politics and child abuse, and laced throughout with Nazi symbolism. The sound hearkened back to the days of early rock but touched on a range of taboo and bizarre subjects no pop singer in his right mind would sing about – at least, not in the 1960s.

The Ramones’ debut album, recorded in the spring of 1976, “now sounds laughably simple,” writes Savage in England’s Dreaming. But “at the time it was brutal and divisive. After hearing it, everything else sounded impossibly slow.”

It wasn’t just the lightning speed and minimalist textures of their music that drew me in. The voice, and the lyrics, were equally as powerful. The songs that make no grand social statements, no prophetic utterances. The Ramones were not the Clash or Sex Pistols. They weren’t railing about anarchy, no future, or riots in the streets, as were those two popular British punk bands. They were either singing about weird, stupid stuff – about sniffing glue, a loudmouth, a girlfriend, or beating on a brat – or churning out feel-good, poppish tunes that echoed fifties-era sock-hops, tunes like “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” or a cover of Jim Lee’s “Let’s Dance.” But their music also reflected the gritty realism of the world, and a few Ramones songs even touched on social and political issues, including foreign policy (“Havana Affair”) and prostitution (“53rd and 3rd”).

There’s also something about the voice of lead singer Joey Ramone. It is haunting – at once affected yet detached, both human and robotic, resonant of the struggle of the individual in a mechanistic, dehumanizing world.

As a wannabe guitarist, what I loved best about this group was – of course – the guitar. The songs rode on Johnny Ramone’s lightning-fast but pedestrian power chords. Any fool who knew two or three bar chords could play a Ramones song. There was hope for me after all.

The song that kicks off this album, the high-energy “Blitzkrieg Bop,” has risen to the status of unofficial punk anthem (and more recently, a sales pitch for everything from cars to cell phones and diet soda). The song – with its throbbing bass line, manic power chords and “the biggest crash symbol sound this side of ‘76 Trombones’” – today “stands out as a declaration of independence, the Commie Manifesto of punk,” writes sociologist Donna Gaines, a longtime Ramones fan. The song’s legendary status made it the choice to kick off a recent four-CD collection of punk’s greatest hits. But the band didn’t set out to write the theme song for a punk revolution. The Ramones wrote “Blitzkrieg Bop” as a pop song, a response to the Bay City Rollers’ 1976 hit, “Saturday Night.” The Rollers’ opening chant of S-A-T-U-R-D-A-Y night! became, in the Ramones’ hands, Hey ho, let’s go! “We thought we were a bubblegum band,” said Joey Ramone, adding, “there was no punk movement.”

I didn’t categorize the Ramones as a punk band at first. For one thing, they were an American band, and punk, I thought, was a British phenomenon. The Ramones were true to their American rock and roll roots. The only thing they were rebelling against was the long, soul-numbing prog rock of the era. What I didn’t know at the time, though, was that the Ramones actually inspired the British punk movement. The Sex Pistols, Clash and Buzzcocks were just finding their voice when the Ramones toured England in 1976. So in a sense, punk was truly American, but the Brits had taken the style, infused it with a social conscience, repackaged it in tattered clothing, and brought it back to the states a year later.

Never mind the Sex Pistols
[I]f New York punk was about art, and London punk about politics, L.A. punk was about pop culture, TV, and absurdity. – Greg Shaw, founder of Bomp Records and Who Put the Bomp fanzine
Musical movements, like social movements, don’t start and end neatly, on time or in any kind of orderly fashion. They sprout from seeds borne on winds of the past and dropped on disparate soils. They take root beneath the surface in the compost heap of culture, then appear as a slender, tender shoot before they are recognized fully for what they are. This is especially true for the messy cultural movement known as punk.

Most observers date-stamp the emergence of punk as being sometime in the 1970s, in either London or New York. The founding fathers of punk: either the Sex Pistols or the Ramones; take your pick. But the truth of the matter is that punk grew from a disparate hodgepodge of earlier musical, political and cultural influences. The “original” punk of American rock goes back to the sixties, to groups like Detroit’s MC5 and Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground in New York. Some trace punk’s roots back to the earliest rock and roll, which of course sprouted from the blues, rockabilly, country and western, and jazz. The early music of country artists like Johnny Cash, for example, address themes similar to those of the Clash and other punk bands. Punk’s influences also include the Beat poets of the fifties, the European situationists of the sixties, anarchist politics, and even perhaps the Dada art movement of the early twentieth century.

I really didn’t understand punk’s social significance until around 1980. By that time, punk was supposedly dead, according to critics in the know. But in Columbia, Missouri, where I was studying journalism and getting a late start in my punk rock education, the punk and “new wave” scene, a broader offshoot of punk, was small but strong. Energetic, no-name bands would perform at a local club located in a converted warehouse. The bands ranged from local blues groups to reggae, ska, punk and new wave, and included a few bands with cult followings and record contracts, like the Modern Lovers, the Waitresses and the Violent Femmes.

After two years of community college in my hometown of Moberly, Missouri, I went on to the state university in Columbia, hauling with me boxes of rock albums, only two of which – Ramones and Blondie’s Parallel Lines – could be considered truly punk (and some would question the Blondie album). I also owned a couple of borderline-new wave records – the Cars’ debut album and the Knack’s one and only Get the Knack – which I would try, without success, to pass off as punk-worthy to my more musically savvy college pals. Most of my records were crap, and not even worth packing for the trip.

I shared an apartment with a friend from my hometown and two guys from the big city – St. Louis – who would broaden my musical vistas. Tom was a Ramones freak who played Rocket to Russia constantly. Dean turned me on to the Clash’s new double album, London Calling, which has since become my favorite record of any genre. Other friends in the apartment complex introduced me to new wave influences like Talking Heads, Devo and the B-52s. None of us were punks in the fashion or lifestyle sense; none of us sported mohawks, pierced ears or ripped T-shirts. We were clean-cut, fresh-faced college kids, maybe a bit nerdy. But we loved the music, and the way it spoke to our souls.

To me, punk music was more than rebellion against the rock-and-roll powers that were. Punk said it was okay to be different, that it was okay to not fit in. The creators of this movement didn’t fit the rock star mold, and they were okay with it. The Ramones were a bunch of misfits, the Talking Heads a group of geeky art students “less given to slam-dancing than Polaroid experiments,” and the Sex Pistols a gang of reprobates. Their songs spoke to the unpopular, the uncool, the geeks. Songs like Devo’s “Mongoloid” and the Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” glorified miscreants and weirdos. “Blank Generation,” by Richard Hell and the Voidoids, one of the seminal bands from the New York movement that also produced the Ramones, Blondie and Talking Heads, came to define punk for more spectacular acts like the Sex Pistols. Malcolm McLaren, the London fashion guru who created the Sex Pistols, calls Richard Hell “a definite, 100 percent inspiration” for the Pistols and adds, “I remember telling the Sex Pistols, ‘Write a song like “Blank Generation,” but write your own bloody version,’ and their own version was ‘Pretty Vacant’.”

On another level, punk told us we didn’t have to be popular to be accepted. Punk says, Shave your head or grow your hair long – it doesn’t matter to us. Rip your shirt like Johnny Rotten or wear leather like the Ramones or skinny ties like Joe Jackson. It doesn’t matter; you’ll fit in. You’re accepted, just as you are.

This, to me, is the foundation of punk’s theological offerings – subject matter that parallels the theology of Christianity quite nicely.

All the young punks
True punk rock is challenging. It’s often discordant and upsetting. It can be immaculately performed and recorded, but the message and the passion are of real importance. – Brian F. Hartz
As a musical movement, punk actually began more than a decade before I first heard Never Mind the Bollocks. Like many other American adolescents in 1978, I thought punk was a British import. I was wrong. The roots of punk run at least as deep as the underground sounds of New York and Detroit in the mid-1960s.

By 1965, a group called the Velvet Underground was performing in New York’s avant-garde art clubs. The group “addressed such taboo subjects as sexual deviancy (‘Venus in Furs’), drug addiction (‘Heroin,’ ‘White Light/White Heat’), paranoia (‘Sunday Morning’) and the urban demimonde (‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’). In so doing, they brought rock and roll into theretofore unexplored experiential realms with a literary and unabashedly adult voice.” The Velvets’ approach fit neither the popular rock and roll of that time nor the folk music scene of Bob Dylan and company. It stood on its own, at the fringes.

At the same time, a raucous sound began to be heard in Detroit, where James Osterberg, taking the name Iggy Pop, formed “a band that would be completely unlike anything anyone had ever heard,” called the Stooges. Around the same time another Detroit garage band, the MC5, started kicking out the jams. Combined, the Velvets, Stooges and MC5 are often considered the founding fathers of the punk sound that came of age in the seventies.

From art clubs and garages, the movement took root in New York’s Bowery. By 1971, a rock journalist-turned-punk poet named Patti Smith was reading her work in St. Mark’s Church on New York’s Lower East Side. Her first performance came in February of that year. “Seizing the podium as if it were her anchor, Patti started seducing the crowd with the voice of a needy ten-year-old girl,” write Victor Bockris and Roberta Bayley in their unauthorized biography of Smith. She moved from a rendition of Bobby Darin’s “Mack the Knife” into improvisational jazz-like readings of a list of famous criminals, then “wrapped up her rocking introduction by making the leap that was at the center of her work, from crime to religion, dedicating her reading also to Mary Magdalene, ‘the only woman who could make our savior weep,’ and of course Christ.”

By the mid-1970s, a dingy, run-down club called CBGB-OMFUG (short for “country, bluegrass, blues, and other music for uplifting gourmandizers”) had become ground zero for the nascent punk movement. A group called the New York Dolls (a “freakish, mutated glam band” and the first group to be managed by McLaren) built upon the Velvet Underground sound, performing at another New York club, Max’s Kansas City. But with the Dolls’ decline by 1974 and the ascendance of the Ramones and groups like Talking Heads and Blondie, CBGB’s became the focal point of the “scene.” Patti Smith, too, began performing at the club.

The Ramones cut their first album in 1976 for a few thousands dollars, then went on tour – first to New England, and then England, where they influenced British bands like the Clash and Sex Pistols. The New York rockers performed on British soil on July 4, 1976, the date of America’s bicentennial. It was a “metaphorically appropriate” occasion, according to Danny Fields, the Ramones’ manager at the time, “because here it was the two hundredth anniversary of our freedom from Great Britain, and we were bringing Great Britain this gift that was going to forever disrupt their sensibilities.”

The British weren’t exactly waiting for the arrival of punk from American shores, however. McLaren had fashioned a new group – the Sex Pistols – from four teenagers who hung out at his boutique. McLaren actually invented the band as a gimmick to promote his store, called Sex, and the underground fashions he sold there. By 1976, the Pistols had made a name in London and were influencing a number of other groups – most notably the Clash and the Damned in London and the Buzzcocks in Manchester, to the north. At the same time, as these bands gained a following, a British alternative press of handcrafted, amateur “fanzines” cropped up in London, Manchester, Glasgow and elsewhere. These cheap, photocopied communiques helped spread the word of the scene more immediately than the establishment music press of that time.

From these disparate events, the punk movement emerged. But what, exactly, did it all mean?

Why don’t we call it punk?
Punk is that pimply name the media invented to describe one of the most glamourous and flamboyant failures in my life. – Malcolm McLaren
The term “punk rock” was coined way back in 1970 by rock critic Nick Tosches. While it took another half-decade before the phrase would take root in the fertile soil of pop culture, its meaning changed little during that time. According to another music writer, Greg Shaw, Tosches’ use of the term to describe the approach of garage bands like the Stooges meant that “‘anybody’ – that is, any old punk – ‘can do it.’”

By 1975 and 1976, the rock world was ripe for a revolution. As Billboard senior writer Chris Morris explains, “The can-you-top-this? daring of ‘60s rock had given way, after a round of woeful late-decade fatalities, to music that had become mired in its own softness, smugness, fatuousness, and bloated emptiness.” Wrote another critic: “Rock had become dead boring by the mid-1970s. At the top you had arty posers like Pink Floyd with songs that went on longer than minor heart surgery.” In England, the rock scene had stagnated to the point that it was looking to the past for inspiration. On the week the Sex Pistols first performed in 1975, David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” released six years earlier, was the number one single, while the top album was “the TV-advertised 40 Golden Greats by Jim Reeves, who had died in 1964.”

Entering this void were bands that brought new energy, and a new attitude of rebellion, to a stagnant world of rock and pop.

Unconnected to Tosches’ writing and inspired by an unknown proto-punk band called the Dictators, three friends from Connecticut – cartoonist John Holmstrom, entrepreneur Greg Dunn and Eddie “Legs” McNeil, all living in New York City – decided to create a magazine devoted to their passions, which, according to McNeil, consisted of “McDonald’s, beer, and TV reruns,” as well as new, obscure musical sounds by groups like the Dictators, which had just released an album called Go Girl Crazy! The three self-described outcasts sought a creative outlet that the traditional musical media was not providing. McNeil despised ‘70s rock, “because it was about lame hippie stuff, and there really wasn’t anyone describing our lives.” He wanted no part of yet another rag to promote the current dismal state of affairs. “Then John [Holmstrom] found the Dictators, and we all got excited that something was happening.” McNeil suggested a name for the magazine – Punk – and it stuck. “The word ‘punk’ seemed to sum up the thread that connected everything we liked,” says McNeil. It was “obnoxious, smart but not pretentious, absurd, ironic, and [conveyed] things that appealed to the darker side.”

In England’s Dreaming, McNeil further explains the term’s appropriateness: “On TV, if you watched cop shows, Kojak, Beretta, when the cops finally catch the mass murderer, they’d say, ‘you dirty Punk.’ It was what your teachers would call you. It meant that you were the lowest. ... We’d been told all our lives that we’d never amount to anything. We’re the people who fell through the cracks of the educational system.” McNeil’s ideas coincided with the sentiments of music writers like Lester Bangs and Dave Marsh, who were attempting to “celebrate the unconscious, noisy pop of the mid-1960s” in their writing. Punk, from Bangs’ and Marsh’s perspective, “was an underclass menace” and “a new pop aesthetic that delighted in Rock’s essential barbarism” that was so prevalent in the fifties but which had been lost by the time Bangs and Marsh were writing in the early seventies.

Founded in 1975, Punk, with its amateurish illustrations of the scene’s rising stars on its covers and throughout its pages, would become an important literary accompaniment to the musical and cultural scene emerging in New York – even though McNeil and company had no clue at the time. “It’s funny, but we had no idea if anybody besides the Dictators were out there,” McNeil says. “We had no idea about CBGB’s and what was going on, but I don’t think we cared. We just liked the idea of Punk magazine. And that was all that really mattered.”

Anarchy in the UK
On one level Johnny Rotten/Lydon is an insect buzzing atop the massed ruins of a civilization leveled by itself, which I suppose justifies him right there, on another level he’s just another trafficker in cheap nihilism with all that it includes – cheap racism, sexism, etc. – Lester Bangs
By the end of 1976, punk was insinuating itself into the global rock-and-roll consciousness. The Ramones’ July 4 tour had taken the UK by storm. But now it was the Sex Pistols’ turn in the limelight. And they took full advantage of the situation.

The Sex Pistols had been performing in small clubs throughout England and attracting a small but loyal following among Britain’s idle teens. Their concerts often marked by violence, much of it instigated by their opportunistic manager, Malcolm McLaren, the band soon had difficulty finding locales to play. But word of this new band and its unruly music spread quickly. Performing in Manchester in 1976, the Pistols inspired another, lesser-known band, the Buzzcocks, as well as future Clash members Joe Strummer (then leading a London “pub rock” band, the 101’ers), Mick Jones and Paul Simonon. But Johnny Rotten and company would forever put their mark on punk rock and the world – and forever define punk as a defiant, chaotic and offensive genre – on December 1, 1976, when the band appeared live on a London TV program.

The Pistols were creating quite a buzz in England at the time. Their explosive first single, “Anarchy in the UK,” in which lead singer Johnny Rotten proclaimed himself “an antichrist,” was climbing the British charts. The group had just signed a big contract with EMI. So after Freddie Mercury of the pop-rock group Queen canceled an appearance on Thames TV’s Today show, the Pistols jumped at the chance to fill in. It was a prime opportunity for these rising stars to capitalize on their notoriety and expand their fan base.

The four lads “were like no band ever seen before on teatime TV,” recounts Philip Norman of London’s Daily Mail newspaper. “Pale and emaciated, with unkempt, spiky hair, they spurned the usual glam rock finery in favour of torn T-shirts and shabby jeans.” While accounts vary, several reports indicate that they were all drunk, “having downed a bottle of wine each beforehand in the studio’s hospitality suite.” (Some reports indicate that only one or two of the Pistols had imbibed prior to the appearance.) Interviewer Bill Grundy, disgusted by their appearance but apparently as soused as his guests, tried to goad the Pistols into saying something outrageous. Guitarist Steve Jones – not the notorious Rotten – obliged, and uttered profanities on live television.

The effect was like pouring gasoline on a fire. “The establishment reacted as if the boys were a four-man plague,” Ward explains. Twenty seconds of TV programming “had turned into a national scandal, with all the attendant farce: manic reporters, outraged posturing, and cries for action.” The British press covered the event as though a true antichrist had been unleashed upon the world. Headlines blared from the morning’s papers: “Rock Group Start a 4-Letter TV Storm,” “The Foul Mouthed Yobs,” “The Filth and the Fury!”

“Overnight,” writes Norman, “the Sex Pistols won more notoriety than any pop musicians either before, or since. ... Its effect on Britain’s social fabric was cataclysmic. It changed for all the time the way people – not just young people – looked and thought and dreamed and, above all, the way they behaved.”

Ready steady go
[F]or us punk rock was everything. ... It was like a religion for us. – Shawn Stern, co-founder, Skinhead Manor and BYO (Better Youth Organization), 1979
By 1977, punk broke loose of its underground scenes and struck the global pop culture consciousness like a blacksmith’s hammer on the anvil. Fueled by the Pistols’ antics in England – where they released the scandalous “God Save the Queen” to coincide with the Silver Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II – this rock and roll rebellion spread throughout the United States and elsewhere. In England, the Pistols, the Clash, and Elvis Costello all released their full-length debut records, while Blondie, Talking Heads, and Richard Hell and the Voidoids did the same in the United States. Punk’s ascendancy did not happen without a fight, however, as the music industry, and later the press, the politicians and “the public at large” actively discouraged the movement. In New York, the scene at CBGB’s turned into a circus, with posers infiltrating the turf of the true believers. The Sex Pistols, meanwhile, their scandalous reputation scaring away promoters in the UK, where their performances were cancelled left and right, set their sights on the United States. Their U.S. tour lasted only a few weeks, and was marked by turmoil and opposition at every stop. A Tulsa pastor picketed the group’s arrival, saying, “There is a Johnny Rotten inside each of us and he doesn’t need to be liberated, he needs to be crucified.”

The tour ended badly at the band’s final concert on January 14, 1978, at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom. The Pistols played for an hour, then ended the concert with Johnny Rotten posing his question for the ages – “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” – as he dropped his microphone on the stage. Four days later, the most infamous band in rock and roll history was history.

With the collapse of the Sex Pistols, punk as we knew it – punk as a volatile, high-energy force, propelled by the media into our collective consciousness – seemed to disintegrate before our eyes. By 1979, punk’s success – and its excesses – began to take a toll. The movement hit a crossroads – one leading to commercial success and the inevitable “selling out” of consumerism many punk acts railed against, the other leading to dissolution and annihilation. The Sex Pistols seemed destined for the latter path. But the seeds they and other early groups had sown were beginning to bear fruit.

The same year that Blondie became the first CBGB’s act to reach the top of Billboard’s singles chart (with the disco-ish “Heart of Glass”) and the Clash released their masterpiece, London Calling. But also that same year, the Pistols’ Sid Vicious, Johnny Rotten’s buddy, who had replaced Glen Matlock as bass player, died of a heroin overdose. Meanwhile, out west, punk took root in Los Angeles, morphing into a “hardcore” version that embraced surf and skater culture along with all the artifice of Hollywood. Groups like X, Black Flag, the Weirdos and the Germs burst out of the gates in full fury, unleashing sounds with even more speed than their New York progenitors while embracing the fashion sense of the London punks.

It was the best of times and worst of times. Punk had succeeded, because its message had spread beyond the garages of Detroit and clubs of New York, London and Los Angeles to reach kids on the West Coast and even alienated youth in the Midwest, like me. Punk also succeeded in breeding a new generation of “do-it-yourself” entrepreneurs who created their own recording labels and clothing lines. But punk also failed, for in its success it was swallowed up by the corporate rock it railed against, tamed into a “new wave” sound – or again pushed to the margins by the recording industry, which, finally clued into the movement, found groups that were just similar enough to punk to appeal to a broader audience without being as audacious as the original. The “true” punks, “and even most of the new wavers,” writes Chris Morris, “would remain prophets without honor; while their look and some vestiges of their aggression would be briefly appropriated (‘My Sharona,’ anyone?), their revolutionary essence would be by and large ignored by the mainstream.”

By the end of the seventies, in the view of many, like Punk co-founder Legs McNeil, the movement has sold its soul. “After four years of doing Punk magazine, and basically getting laughed at, suddenly everything was ‘PUNK!’ ... It was very bizarre, because as the Pistols made their way across America, and the hysteria was broadcast on the news every night, kids in Los Angeles, and I imagine the rest of the country, were suddenly transforming themselves with safety pins, spiked haircuts, and ugliness.

“I was like, ‘Hey, wait a minute! This isn’t punk – a spiked haircut and a safety pin?’ What is this shit?”

In McNeil’s vision, punk “was about trying to get people to use their imaginations again, it was about not being perfect, it was about saying it was okay to be amateurish and funny, that real creativity came out of making a mess, it was about working with what you got in front of you and turning everything embarrassing, awful, and stupid in your life to your advantage.” In short, punk was about redemption. But by the end of the seventies, it had become a fashion statement, and “punk had become as stupid as everything else.”

God save the punks
There is no room for pretending in the spiritual life. – Mike Yaconelli
“It’s better to burn out than fade away.” So sang folk-rocker Neil Young in “My My Hey Hey,” his 1979 tribute to – or requiem for – the Sex Pistols. But punk rock has done neither. In a brief period in the late 1970s, punk changed the rules of pop forever. In the 1980s, punk mutated unpredictably. Who would have expected a CBGB’s fixture to introduce rap to the mainstream? Blondie did so in 1981 with the hit single “Rapture,” which made it to number one. Other punk artists – most notably the Clash, in songs like “Radio Clash” and “Magnificent Seven” – also embraced the early rap and hip hop sounds and used their rock-star status to bring new urban sounds into the mainstream. The punk-rap connections are tight enough to lead observers like black filmmaker and former DJ Don Letts to call hip hop “black punk rock,” and for rapper Chuck D of Public Enemy to credit the Clash and Joe Strummer as inspiration for his own work.

Today, punk lives on – not only in the roots of rap and the“candy punk” of MTV groups like Good Charlotte, but also in more legitimate heirs to the punk throne of the Ramones, Pistols, Clash, et. al. – groups like NOFX, Bad Religion, 1208, Rancid, Radio 4 and Anti-Flag – and in a new wave of bands that mix punk sensibilities with other styles, from techno to world, to create new musical forms. But for early punks like Legs McNeil, whose serendipitous vision helped lay the foundation for this important musical and cultural movement, watching the heroic music he helped to give voice to devolve so quickly – whether into nihilism, as with the Sex Pistols, or into commercial success, as with Blondie – must have been like watching an only child die.

In the realm of Christianity, believers may experience similar feelings of grief or helplessness as we see spiritual movements birthed and movements pass. The spiritual causes we help start or join – whether they’re connected to the “megachurch” culture of the recent past or the “emerging church” buzz gripping much of western Christianity today – have a habit of becoming precious to us, and when it’s time to move on, we have a tough time letting go.

Sometimes we mistake the form of a thing for the spirit of it. The form of the movement – the way we remember it, the static image of it in our minds – becomes more important to us than the spirit. But as Jesus tells us, the wind of God’s Spirit “blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes” (John 3:8, NKJV). We cannot trap the wind of the Spirit as it blows upon the church today; to do so would be to kill it.

As believers, we hold at least one thing in common with the punks who got in on the movement’s ground floor: we both tend to be elitist in our approach toward what is “truth.”

“All pop movements have started with elites – and none, to that date, more self-consciously than punk – but there is always a point where the elite loses control,” writes Savage. For the punks of the seventies, it comes “when the mass market and mass media take over, a necessary process if that movement is to become pop.” At precisely the point when a movement seems to face certain death, when it seems the cause is lost – that is the point when it becomes something even greater and more forceful than ever imagined. As Simon Reynolds notes, “revolutionary movements in pop culture actually have their widest impact after the ‘moment’ has allegedly passed and the ideas spread from the metropolitan bohemian elites and hipster cliques that originally ‘owned’ them into the suburbs and outer regions.” Perhaps, he adds, “punk had its most provocative repercussions long after its supposed demise.” That certainly was the case for me and my college friends in the Midwest.

Whenever such a transition occurs – when a movement outgrows its roots and its message spreads beyond the point of easy control – it becomes necessary for the originators to yield some control and allow the movement to burgeon. Otherwise, the movement grows stagnant, loses its vitality, and dies. New York and London, the epicenters of the punk movement, could not contain the movement, any more than Jerusalem could contain the “Jesus movement” – Christianity in its earliest form. As punk spread throughout the world and morphed into new wave, hardcore, postpunk techno, emo and other flavors, the genre’s elders – McNeil and others – no doubt longed for the old wine. But any spiritual movement, if it is to flourish, must continue to change and progress through ages and cultures. The trick is holding true to the spirit of a movement as it grows.

For punk culture – and, I believe, for the spiritual movement that began with the message and ministry of Jesus – the spirit can live on through the words and music. It lives on, in other words, through the message. Sometimes it takes a while for the spirit, the message, to blow fully into our lives and in our gatherings. We become like the dry bones of Ezekiel’s vision; it takes a strong wind to breathe life into us. And sometimes it is up to us to keep the spirit of a movement alive – not only in our memories, and certainly not only in our traditions, but also in our everyday, lived-out lives. To keep the spirit of punk culture alive – indeed, to allow it to thrive in our spiritual lives – means more than putting on a T-shirt from Hot Topic, shaving our head, sporting a tattoo or adhering to some legalistic doctrine of the punk subculture (veganism or communal living, for example). For the message of punk, and its spirit, is found beneath the surface of what we think we know to be true about the lifestyle.

Just as Jesus calls his followers to shoulder their own crosses and follow after him (Luke 14:27) – to live a life of sacrifice and service every day – so the message of punk calls us to strive for a higher purpose. Scratch beneath punk’s callous surface, and we’ll find a message that often reflects the Christian ideals – ideals as simple yet demanding as this refrain from the band 1208's song “Outside Looking In”: “turn your back to the world.”

In 2002, twenty-six years after the Ramones released their debut album, they joined Talking Heads to become the first CBGB’s alumni to enter the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. A year later, the Clash, Elvis Costello and the Attractions, and the Police joined them. It took a quarter century for punk to earn the recognition of the rock and roll elite, but the time did come. As we venture further into the world of punk culture – its music, its words, its literary and oral traditions, and even its movies – we shall discover that the time has come to hear what the spirit of punk, a movement decades in the making, has to say to the church of today.

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4 Comments:

Blogger brendan said...

Great piece of writing Andrew!. Looking forward to further instalments.

9:06 AM  
Blogger Patrik said...

I like what you're writing, but please consider breaking it up in somewhat shorter segments... This is too long to read on a screen.

11:29 AM  
Blogger julie said...

Off the top of my head:

I ended up just scanning, towards the end. Granted, I have a hard time reading long things off a screen (as previously commented upon), but it started to run together after a while, all the name-dropping.

It, to me, still lacks focus. And a lot of it was reading like an introduction. I think you could really cut down the history of punk bits, there.

Because you'll have two readers:

People like me, who know all that already. Who want you to get to it, just what does Jesus have to do with Wendy O?

People who don't know it, because they don't care, whose eyes will glaze over - these people will probably be reading it for the Christo stuff, so I think it'd be beneficial to have more of that interspersed throughout.

Those latter people are probably also the nice publishing people who said "No."

I think of course giving your personal stance, and a little bit of background as to what you mean when you say "punk", is important, but there needs to be more of a balance.

2:38 PM  
Blogger Whisky Prajer said...

Hey, I liked it. This has good form, a clear sense of progression, and on a printed page is likely to read with greater clarity (should be easier to read, too - I'm with the guy that said you should go through Lulu with this, since you're already formatting it in a PDF file).

Say, have you written a song devoted to the Steve & Sharon experience? "Down at Sharon & Steve's" or somesuch ... I'll be looking for it on a future podcast.

1:31 PM  

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