I recently lamented, in a few short sentences that (Punk is dead): My own very personal realization that culture isn’t static and that outward forms aren’t the entire substance.
Up until that particular moment I suppose I was probably the only person left on the planet who’d have thought sincerely that Punk is now the very same cultural signifier that it was, say, fifteen years ago (pre-9/11) even though I knew perfectly well that I (or anyone) could now, for instance, more or less freely wander around a Baptist diploma-mill 1 sporting an outrageous mohawk with hardly any push-back. Unlike the same in 1975. You see, sporting an outrageous mohawk in public is much, much less likely to evoke fear and revulsion and more likely to win you an enthusiastic high-five of admiration from just about anyone within slapping distance.
The end of an art form and the end of Punk came before it had hardly begun. Iggy Pop of The Stooges in 1970 (both the year and the song)2 insists repeatedly that he “feels alright”. No, you don’t believe him when he sings it with some pathos, but you’d really like to hear him convince himself and maybe convince you, too. And you would now, nearly half a century later, but back then, in the year 1970, few did. The punk types where banging away in the midst of peace, love, and the Beetles’ revolution. Their message was transparently opposite what most people expected of music and of poetry.
The New York Dolls went a little too far and couldn’t keep it together, but created an art form despite themselves.
The kind of stuff performed by The Fugs wouldn’t simply result in cancelled shows on an international tour, but result in being investigated by the FBI. In 1968, only two years after Lenny Bruce had been blacklisted for the content of his spoken acts, four years after he (and club owners) had been arrested by undercover police at the Cafe Au Go Go, The Fugs performed songs like Slum Goddess and Coca-Cola Douche. 3 4 5
Punk begins. Punk ends.
Punk was almost a “genre”, not unlike the Grunge that never existed until it was commercialized and lampooned. But completely unlike its non-existent, Seattle cognate, the Punk emerging from the 1960s was rooted in an avant-garde rejection of established norms. The writers and performers knew they had new ideas not expressed in the culture, commercial or otherwise. That isn’t rejection as much as alienation and dispossession. The impulse that created the punk aesthetic ultimately destroyed it.
I can’t say for sure what the signaling moment was, but I think a convincing red flag should be raised with the debut of Plastic Bertrand’s Ça Plane Pour Moi6, possibly the last truly punk song, meanwhile being the first deadly anti-punk salvo shot straight into the heart of the camp and identifying the new fakery. It is a notable irony that the voice behind the first three albums and, indeed, of Ça Plane Pour Moi, was that of Lou Deprijck, not Roger Jouret.7 The characterizations expressed at the time that this song and its style was, somehow, “not punk enough” are telling. They struck then me then and now as little more than English-speaking chauvinism.
Was it that people thought that “real Punk” could only come from England (or New York or Los Angeles or…)? I don’t know. The label, New Wave, used by emerging punk-fashionista — punk-sentimentalists, rather — seems to me to have been blurted out, in those days, in a rather similar way — racist, condescension included — as the pithy, “Disco sucks!”, just as contemptuously intoned by so-called “real rockers” (I mean the non-performer “fans”) at about the same time. Both of Punk (or what passed as “Punk”) and Rock (or what passed as “Rock”) did end up gleefully slurping up, in just a couple years, both “New Wave” and “Disco” while an actual avant-garde continued elsewhere to invent and produce culture. Another conversation for another day.
Anarchy and Virulent Conservatism
Looking back, I think that many of my favorite bands of that time — The Clash, Television, The Damned, Ramones — were probably responsible in some way for its end.
[Hey pal] , say want you will about Punk, Never mind the Bollocks is one of the greatest albums ever produced.
8 The earlier punk encompassed people whose operating attitude saw through the phony peace-and-love movements of the 1960s. That attitude was replaced by a new faux idealism and eye-rolling silliness of phony “performance-anarchy”. The Sex Pistols were by my reckoning, more than any single act, the most responsible for promoting this new phoniness. In 1970, Iggy Pop told us what he wanted. But in 1976, John Lydon served up posture; and punk-nostaligics pretended to despise commercialism while yet seeking fame at full velocity under the pretenses of “revolt” and youthful confrontation with that old Conservatism, while yet embodying its attitudes and methods:
I am an antichrist. I am an anarchist.
Don’t know what I want, but I know how to get it.
I wanna destroy passerby \ ‘Cause I wanna be Anarchy.
No dogsbody \ I get pissed, destroy!
9By the mid-70s Punk was beginning to become fully integrated into the Rock and Roll ethos and aesthetic, leading to a pure conservatism all its own. Its wild invention and wild inventors were either gone or fully subsumed into the new status quo. This new Punk was to become, before ever having been, equal parts “punk-nostalgia” and “punk-sentiment” under the commercial label: “Punk”.
The new followers, the fan base, posed as self-proclaimed anarchists against nationalism and big money and identified, like the old Hippies, as being against The Establishment. Unlike the Hippies, however, many of these punk-nostalgics appropriated right-wing symbols, gestures, and swagger; the punk-nostalgics accommodated the Skinhead, anti-immigrant, anti-foreigner, and ironically (given their supposed cultural distancing from The Establishment) managed rather to fuel another kind of anarchism entirely, quantitatively more deadly by orders of magnitude: The Conservative Right. Odd, isn’t it, that the performance “anarchy” so closely resembles the Conservatism it pretends to revolt against! Skinheads, meet your new fascist masters.
The Sex Pistols may have gotten pissed, but I’m fairly certain they got their contracts sorted out first, and that they collected performance paychecks forthwith. All talk and no trousers, as it is said; empty romanticism which nearly of its own gives the appearance to have ushered into existence a politically conservative era, as anarchy movements always do. This is a radical diversion from the topic at hand, I know, but I sometimes I think it less than coincidental that the youth who then pretended to anarchism in the 70s became middle-aged people, as one does, who sought actively to destroy government and functional social services.
The artists who leveraged the artistic inventions of Punk rode the wave of popularity straight into the emerging neo-conservative movement of Rock and Roll. Pantomimes of rebellion and mayhem were married to high energy, driving walls of noise and, most importantly, to large crowds of cash carrying, adoring fans. The art of Punk could go no further.
Come off it! Repo Man was 1984 — so was Liquid Sky…and Suicidal Tendencies were also 1981…
10Yes, well Blade Runner was released in 1982 and SLC Punk! in 1998. So what?11 The aesthetic shell, once emptied of content, can be filled to create any mood in order to appeal to any number of emotions: nostalgia for youthful invention, pretensions of rebellion, reflexive lampoon of some harmless (after the fact) indiscretions, and so forth. Like contemporary, American political Liberalism, these visual and musical performances incorporated elements of an old form, stripped of creative vitality.
Just to be clear, I don’t think that music ended. On the contrary, people are constantly churning away creatively. Burlesques and covers of songs must of necessity appeal to the comfortably digested performance zeitgeist and status quo. A cover song attempts to leverage the latent sentimental popularity of an earlier work which has gained some acceptance. The very definition of a cover, in fact!
In 1977, not un-coincidentally, The Damned covered the song by The Stooges, “1970” (using the alternate title, I Feel Alright12), but cranked to top volume and nearly muffling the truly anarchic and pleading message that was delivered by Iggy Pop seven years prior. Sorry, but it didn’t feel alright.
Dedicated to the memory of Punk, (b. ‘unknown’, d. 1977) We hardly knew you
- Liberty “University” ↩
- The Stooges. “1970” Fun House, Elektra, 1970 ↩
- New York Dolls. New York Dolls, Mercury, 1973 ↩
- The Fugs. “Slum Goddess” The Fugs First Album, ESP-Disk, 1965 ↩
- The Fugs. “Coca-Cola Douche” Virgin Fugs, ESP-Disk, 1967 ↩
- Plastic Bertrand. “Ça Plane Pour Moi” b-side “Pogo Pogo”, Sire, 1977 ↩
“Plastic Bertrand tells paper he did not sing ‘Ca Plane'” BBC 2010-07-29 http://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-10801347 (2014-08-24)
29 July 2010 ↩
- actual quote from someone trying to defend, I suppose, the “honor” of “Punk” ↩
- Sex Pistols. “Anarchy in the U.K.” b-side “I Wanna Be Me”, EMI, 1976 ↩
- another quote ↩
- “We saw things you people wouldn’t believe. Cadillacs, pulling out of graveyards. I saw Venus in furs run all tomorrow’s parties–there she goes again–All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain…” ↩
- The Damned. “I Feel Alright” Damned Damned Damned, Stiff, 1977 ↩