I don’t hate Punk Rock.
I don’t even actively dislike most of it.
I’m sometimes momentarily amused by Ramones’ songs like “Sheena is a Punk Rocker,” “I wanna be sedated,” or even “The KKK took my baby away.”
When I was a teenager in the 1980s, I was quite amused by Agent Orange’s deconstruction of surf rock (I didn’t actually think of it in terms of “deconstruction” though I think I thought of it in terms not incongruent with deconstructionism).
Mostly I’m terribly bored by most examples of punk rock. The one band that’s sometimes lumped in with the punk label that I’ve consistently liked over the years is The Clash, a band not really fitting the genre, and certainly not confined to it. The other main icons of punk, The Sex Pistols, have always struck me as a snot-nosed, put-together boy band that didn’t even have the virtue of cuteness – and they’ve struck me that way because that’s what they were.
Earlier today I was having a nice conversation about music with my good friend Jonathan Means. We began talking about historic concerts. I decided that if I could have been at one concert ever, I would have liked to have been there for the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival.
I remembered having watched a documentary in honor of the 40th anniversary of the festival last year on VH1. Some of the most interesting footage was of the audience reactions to The Who and to The Jimi Hendrix Experience.
There had been some buzz about both groups among rock insiders in the U.S., but aside from those who had seen them in London, no one in the U.S. had yet seen or heard these two bands when they came on stage in Monterey.
As The Who’s set came toward an end, and guitars began to be smashed and drum kit demolished (ridiculously cliché now, but totally new then), many in the audience appear in a state of shock and fear, unsure whether they’re seeing an act or whether the high-energy band they’ve just seen and heard has gone bonkers. (The only filmed reactions I’ve seen that are similar can be found in the anthropological documentary First Contact, specifically footage of interior Papuans encountering a landing airplane up close for the first time in the 1930s. The degree of apparent shock and fear is more extreme in the First Contact footage, but not dissimilar in appearance.)
The Who were the ultimate manifestation of the Chuck Berry vein of rock and roll. Musically, they rehashed and developed anything left to develop in the Johnny B. Goode variety of hopped-up blues progression based rock and roll, and so were “ultimate” partly in the sense of the end of a line of development. Visually, The Who were the apotheosis of the raucous or “raw” energy so often associated with rock and roll.
Then Jimi Hendrix strode on stage with something completely different, a different rock sound (and if The Who were one of the last to play older style rock and roll, Jimi Hendrix was one of the first to play a musically different rock, largely referred to without the “and roll”). He was, of course, visually stunning as well, playing guitar behind his back, with his teeth, symbolically ejaculating on his guitar with lighter fluid and lighting it, and all the while sounding good. The audience reactions are again telling – a different reaction, not so much shock or fear as looks of wonder or bafflement.
Then the Mamas and Papas came onstage for one of the stranger denouements ever.
In any case, after Hendrix came along, rock was different. Not that he single-handedly changed everything, though he was a major influence on a variety of rock musicians and even Mile Davis in his creation of fusion, but he did present one new way of playing for a musical genre in need of new ideas.
What tends to bore me most about most punk is its intrinsically conservative quality – not that those who played it or who like it are conservative people, but that it’s musically conservative. Musically, most punk songs are a rehash of The Who’s rehashing of Chuck Berry, just sloppily played. In visual style, most punk is again a rehash of The Who and similar bands who acted out aggression and “raw energy.” Mostly punk trafficked in tropes of rebelliousness (with the fact that many punks self-consciously parodied this about themselves not making it any less true), though I would give punk credit for the introduction of at least two new tropes of rebelliousness, Mohawk haircuts and safety pins used as piercings.
Punk Rock was a genre of reduction, subversion, and negation. Those are fine tools, but as tropes or ends in themselves, they’re meaningless. If punk did help subvert prog rock to bring its over-seriousness and pomposity down a notch in the mid-1970s, that was a good thing, but mostly it seemed to consist of reducing rock to its minimal elements, badly played at that, something actually pretty old hat by then. For many, punk simply provided the tropes of rebellion or subversion, while not really doing anything new – musically much less politically.
What music isn’t boring? Music that works positively, not in the sense of “Shiny, Happy People,” but in the sense of producing something new, even if on a modest scale.
From the early 20th century Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, engaging in new rhythmic uses for the full orchestra, or the 1920s recordings of Louis Armstrong on songs like “West End Blues,” “Potato Head Blues,” or “Heebie Jeebies,” staking out both a new way to improvise within small band ensembles and a new form of popular singing are prime examples of positively-working non-boring music.
More contemporary with punk, and within the broad purview or rock, there’s Hendrix whom I already mentioned, or a bit later, the guitar style of Eddie Van Halen, which like it or not, produced a new sound and new way of playing the electric guitar (put to best use, in my opinion, on Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” where Van Halen’s more restrained than normal playing is impressive enough while hinting at a sort of pent up but boundless energy). The speed metal of groups like Metallica and Slayer beginning in the early 1980s, like it or not, represented a new way of playing rock, that was if anything more akin to Stravinsky’s Rite than other ways of playing rock in using the entire band to focus nearly exclusively on the exploration of rhythm.