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9:42 a.m. - June 07, 2006
A Punk Rock Treatise! (Wait, Can A Treatise Be Punk?)
I thought I knew it all back in high school. But didnít we all.

We had to write a research paper in the first semester of Senior English. This had to be a proper paper, over 20 pages, with all of the appropriate footnotes, bibliography, etc. This was going to teach us how to write college papers (and frankly, it worked because I was a pretty kick ass paper writer in college).

Of course, I wasnít going to pick just ANY topic to research, so I picked something that someone from BFE land in Indiana would really need to do some research on.

I picked punk rock.

Mind you, this is the fall of 1983, and Iím rather isolated from any Ďsceneí whatsoever. I knew some of the music, as thanks to the Columbia Music Club I had the Clash and the Sex Pistols records. But Target really didnít have a lot of punk rock records (hah Ė thatís rich!), and while I went up to JL Records in Lafayette a lot I really didnít get to exploring much. Those records were hard to find even up there. And I was rather into a new wave phase Ė sorry Ė I was lame.

But thankfully the Wabash College Library had a lot of music periodicals and books, so I was well on my way.

I drew the timeline, from the 60ís to the sudden rise and fall of punk rock as a commercial force in 1977 and 1978, to the present time of 1983, where it had seemingly died a death along side of disco.

My ending thesis was that punk rock, or something similar to it, will always emerge when rock music gets bloated and safe.

The teacher gave me an A- and said I needed more work on footnoting and formatting.

And the thesis IS true Ė punk emerges when the music gets blah. What was the solution to the massive doses of hair metal poofy bands? Grunge Ė more punk than metal and definitely influenced by equal parts Sabbath and Black Flag, which is close enough, really, to count!

(Of course, as you know, the market forces corrupted grunge much like they did punk rock in the UK in 1978).

But boy, I was really naÔve. Of course, I was 18 years old, it was 1983, and to someone in BFE Indiana, with no access, the scene was dead. Punk rock WAS history, for the most part.

Of course, with a lot more reading and research since then, and of course, the history of music from that point forward, I was wrong. Dead, dead wrong. I missed a metric ton of stuff, even if I filled 20+ pages, double spaced, with footnotes and a bibliography.

Ah, to know then what you know now. Of course, there has been a ton of music, and a ton of punk rock records released since 1983. Better take that shovel and dig up that grave, son, because the corpse has come to life.

Of course, soon after I wrote this paper, Husker Du, the Replacements, and the Minutemen were releasing vital albums and Black Flag was finally getting out of legal limbo and allowed to resume their career. Timing is the key to life, isnít it?

So as I was planning my heavy metal essay yesterday, remembering the documentary on VH-1, and seeing those stoner kids in the parking lot at a Judas Priest concert dissing punk rock, I got to thinking about punk rock as well. Because to be honest, metal and punk are more similar than those metal heads would want you to believe. Theyíre both music for outsiders and music with power and fury behind it.

So what is punk rock, anyway? Is it definable?

You know I hate the over-genrezation of music. Looking up punk rock in Wikipedia, you come up with a mess of sub genres of punk. Thatís way too many. Music doesnít have to be pigeonholed. But there IS a definition of punk rock, isnít there?

First, I wanted to re-look at the history. And I wrote a whole bunch of minutia stuff about the history for this and deleted it all. It was the typical stuff that you find in books and other articles. Yet, it didnít seem like it was coming together, though I thought hard and I think I KNOW the first real punk rock song, well, one that was heard by the masses anyway.

Itís ďTalk TalkĒ by the Music Machine, for reasons Iíll get to later.

There are a lot of influences to the early punk rockers. Garage bands, who were called punks by early record critics, were a big influence thanks to the Nuggets collection compiled by Lenny Kaye. Some of them: The Standells, The Leaves, The Seeds, The Music Machine, for examples, really could have been considered punk rock in a loose definition.

The Stooges, the MC5 and the New York Dolls were big influences, as well as Captain Beefheart (which surprised me, but Joe Strummer and John Lydon both loved the Captain), David Bowie, Gary Glitter, and Roxy Music in the UK. They also were influenced by diverse things as ďEighteenĒ by Alice Cooper and ď(Iím Not Your) Stepping StoneĒ by the Monkees of all people!

So how did this whole thing become punk rock?

There was a fanzine called Punk published in 1975 in New York City that bestowed a name on the NYC scene. It featured Lou Reed, Patti Smith, and the CBGB bands like Television, the Ramones, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Blondie, etc.

But most of those groups donít play what post people think of as punk rock. Television is one of the best groups ever, but they were the new sceneís guitar heroes, constructing intricate guitar epics and always were striving for perfection.

I would say the Ramones, maybe the Voidoids and perhaps the Heartbreakers were the real punk rockers out of that early NYC scene, yet all of that music is vital to the history of the movement.

When the kids of London, bored by prog rock and wanting straight ahead rock and roll again, started forming up bands, they were in luck because the Ramones blew into London. And that was the tinderbox that ignited it all.

Of course, at first all of these bands, from the Sex Pistols to Eater to the Slits to Slaughter and the Dogs were Ďthe new waveí, a term which also captured some of the pub rockers like Ian Dury and Nick Lowe, who were writing songs way far away from the current popular scene, or the angry singer songwriters like Elvis Costello or Joe Jackson that were making a name for themselves. Only later did the angry, loud, belligerent bands get the term punk rock.

(Of course, when they first used the term ďNew WaveĒ in the USA, people called Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers and Cheap Trick new wave bands. Oops!)

When the UK scene became punk rock (and frightened the good upstanding citizens) it had developed a reputation of amateurism, meaning that everyone just needed to pick up an instrument and start banging away. And while that did happen, it was a broad generalization because even though the Sex Pistols were pretty much amateurs when they started, they got to be a pretty solid band (well, except for Sid Ė Glen Matlock was a good bassist). Paul Simenon of the Clash became one of the outstanding bassists of the time, and even when the Clash started Joe Strummer was a seasoned performer.

Itís just that you didnít need to spend 6 Ĺ hours a day for three years perfecting chords and scales and the like. Just get out there and play Ė youíll get better or die trying. Thatís how the Buzzcocks, Wire, and the Gang of Four did it, same with Joy Division and the Cure. All of those bands took root on the heels of the early punk rockers.

And that amateurism claim carried over to the US, though most of those bands could play some. They just chose to play in a simple and emotional style, but check out Billy Zoomís insane rockabilly guitar in X, or East Bay Rayís wild surf guitar licks from the Dead Kennedys. Thatís some talent, there!

And it DID encourage kids to go out and pick up guitars and basses and drums, which is cool. I think more kids who saw bands like Black Flag wanted to learn to play than anyone who saw a Yes concert. I mean, you could DO Black Flag songs within a matter of hours or days if you tried Ė it would take you YEARS to learn to play a Yes tune.

So the term Ďpunk rockí had a lot of mixed meanings, going back to the early 70s, but people always seem to know what a punk rock song is. In describing songs myself, I use terms like Ďpunkí and Ďpunkyí, so what do I mean?

Punk rock, as a genre, is loud, mostly fast, and aggressive. Usually, itís three chord monte (sometimes four or five), with guitars and basses, and everything is brief and ferocious. Solos arenít necessary and sometimes there arenít really verse / chorus structures or bridges or anything like that. The song just is. Think of ďOne Chord WondersĒ by the Adverts.

And notice I said mostly and usually.

Suicide, a true old school punk band (they were part of the original NY scene and predated CBGB a touch) based on their attitude, only used a synthesizer to create their aural chaos. Well, that and a vocalist who had a tendency to get rather aggressive.

X-Ray Spex used a saxophone as their main musical assault weapon.

If you get right down to it, some REAL country music (the outlaw stuff, not the crap on the radio) is downright punk rock, based on the attitude and feeling.

So what makes something punk rock? For me, a punk rock song has these four elements:

Attitude
Urgency
Emotion
Simplicity

Those four things, I think, make punk rock what it is.

The attitude- that this is what we want to do and we donít care who or what is telling us no, you canít do this Ė because we are. The DIY spirit fits in here, definitely. But itís not necessarily DIY Ė what it IS though is not compromising a vision, nor allowing one to sacrifice a vision you have for stagnancy.

The urgency - that thereís nothing more important in the world than making this song or this record at this exact time and place.

The emotion Ė whatever emotion that is conveyed, be it happiness, sadness, anger, rage, fear, loathing, dread. Thereís an aggression and an edge, even in the happiness.

The simplicity Ė simple the way that the emotions, feelings, and attitude are conveyed canít be layered up or hidden. Itís got to be there. And itís got to be said in a short amount of time. No meandering or wandering here Ė say your piece quickly and move along!

Mind you, the Minutemen were not simplistic musically, but they used simple sounding arrangements that conveyed all of the emotions everything even if Mike Watt and D. Boon were wrapping jazz licks all over the place.

A punk rock record makes you feel as if it is going to self destruct as it goes along. A punk rock record is going to make you feel SOMETHING when you hear it.

Itís not about what label youíre on, or what you wear, or what you play or donít play. You donít have to play loud and fast to be punk rock. You donít have to be an amateur. You can even grow and change your musical direction a bit.

But you have to play with your emotions and your guts, and by the seat of your pants. You canít be safe.

What punk is NOT is to make a record for the mere point of trying to sell records or to keep milking the same cash cow. (Really, itís OK to sell records, but punks donít make records to sell records. Punk rockers make records they want to make, and if they sell, fine).

But as you can see, itís kind of silly to really label something as punk or not punk. Everyone always argues about it, and thereís a line somewhere, and I canít find it. Itís like the border between Oman and Saudi Arabia, itís there, but not really there, you know.

Back to ďTalk TalkĒ and why thatís a punk rock record, and why I think it may be the first TRUE punk rock record.

Itís simple Ė really. I think anyone can play it.
Itís brief Ė they donít beat around the bush.
Itís urgent Ė it gets right to the point and sounds vital.
Itís got feeling Ė in the playing and singing you can feel the power and a vibe. Itís a heavy vibe, too. You can feel the alienation and fear and loathing.
Itís got attitude Ė itís got this in spades. The Music Machine used to dress all in black and wear ONE black glove on stage. Take that Mr. Jackson.

Sure, it sounds a bit daft right now for a heavy organ-drenched song released in 1966 that hit #15 on the pop charts to be termed the first ďpunk rock recordĒ but itís really gotta start somewhere. The Music Machine were influenced by some people, sure, but no one really sounded that heavy or frustrated or angry.

And like a punk rock band of the 70ís, they released a handful of other singles that were fairly decent, especially ďDouble Yellow LineĒ but slowly drifted away. They had their brief moment in the sun, much like the Adverts, Fear, Slaughter and the Dogs, and even the Sex Pistols.

So, go find ďTalk TalkĒ by the Music Machine. Thatís the punk rock blueprint, right there from 1966. Sure, itís miles away from current punk rock Ė it sounds quaint. And while they had no idea that they were spawning a generation of angry young people playing music, the seed was sown, right there.

 

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