Friday, February 8, 2008

On Why Punk Rock Is So Boring

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.


David Thole said...

Are you familiar at all with Suicide? While not well known, they left an indelible mark on rock music. One can hear their influence in everything from R.E.M. to Nine Inch Nails.

Robert Philen said...

Thanks for the tip and the link, Robert

The.Effing.Librarian said...

what punk did was to tell us that you don't need to be talented to create, that anyone can do it. as a blogger, surely, you should be able to appreciate that. (unless you hate sloppy bloggers; but who doesn't.)

check out the link on my page for one of my favorite songs, if for no other reason than it represents the punk sound, and it's short: - cheers

Robert Philen said...

Dear the.effing.librarian,

Thanks for your comment, and I agree with your statement. (I would say I don't hate sloppy blogs any more than I hate punk rock, but I find them boring, too.) I was going to post a response here, but it grew larger than I had intended, and also I was prompted by your comment toward a whole chain of thought that really goes into some separate territory. So, I'm posting my response as a new post.

Don Share said...

Hi, Robert. I wonder what you make of this version of a Slayer song performed by Dokaka - using only the sounds of his own voice!!

(Discovered via UbuWeb)

Robert Philen said...


Thanks for the link. That's an interesting piece. It is amusing - and I think it's intended to be insofar as "humor" is part of the URL on it. It's also a pretty impressive feat. The original version of "Angel of Death" by Slayer is more to my liking (even though I've not actually listened to it in many years), but this piece also has an interesting sound in its own right. Robert

Cuitlamiztli Carter said...

With all due respect, if one thinks that "most punk songs are a rehash of The Who’s rehashing of Chuck Berry, just sloppily played," one hasn't listened to much punk rock. People are dropping recommendations, so I'll add Operation Ivy, Link 80, J Church, Lagwagon, the Huntingtons, the Riverboat Gamblers, Value Pac, etc.

I also think, despite the enthroned position of Jimi Hendrix, he presented a new way of playing but wasn't responsible for too many memorable songs. I find himself ultimately boring, despite how impressive his guitar work was.

Anyway, I highly recommend that you dig into punk rock. I think you find it boring because you're not aware of how much it has proliferated, and how diverse it even was in its early days (I hate the Sex Pistols, but that era also birthed the unique punk acts the Stranglers and the Specials). Punk rock empowered countless young musicians to realize that the essentials made a memorable song, not the flourishes. It also birthed a long-lived underground activist community, so I'm a bit wary of the statement that punk rock didn't introduce much politically.

Robert Philen said...

Dear Cuitlamiztli Carter,

Thanks for the comment and personal recommendations - hope people find them engaging.

I wrote this post a bit tongue in cheek and in an intentionally strident fashion (mainly just having fun doing so), and I hope that was apparent. At the same time, I was also just trying to engage in a serious exploration of something about punk that was intriguing me - namely that I've actually listened to quite a bit of punk over the years, and this is the one musical genre that I simply find boring. There's individual bands and songs that I like or viscerally dislike, but as a genre, I find it generally boring and I wanted to try to figure out why.

I'll take your point about Hendrix. What I find exciting about him was the energy he played with and what was a new style of playing, something we both agree on. Most of the songs he's most known for, "Purple Haze," "Foxey Lady," his cover of "Wild Thing," I myself find bombastic, kind of dumb, and boring. The Hendrix tunes I return to again and again are the more subtle pieces, like "The Wind Cries Mary," or his cover of "All Along the Watchtower," or songs that are simply a bit unconventional, like "Room Full of Mirrors."

Lastly, we might be talking past one another to an extent in conceptualizing "punk." For example, I like the Specials, but wouldn't have considered them punk, but instead a ska band. In talking of punk, I have in mind a pretty "tight" definition and delineation involving a distinct style of rock music from the mid-1970s (and later music following in the same style), with the Ramones and Sex Pistols simply being the two most famous and iconic but by no means the sole exemplars.

Best, Robert

Cuitlamiztli Carter said...

I appreciate your gracious response. I was a bit of a John Calvin defending my doctrine of punk rock there, but I'm worried limiting the definition of punk rock to a narrow slice of bands will automatically create an undesirable field. It would be like me condemning disco because I find KC & the Sunshine Band mind-numbing.

While I agree that the Specials were more ska than anything else, theirs was a sound that intentionally applied the aesthetics of punk rock to rocksteady and bluesy rock. Within a couple years of punk rock's rise to the charts of Britain, those same punkers were mixing it with a million styles. Punk rock, like every genre or art, has gone through its periods of exploration and then deconstruction to what made the genre so unique - raw, direct chords & percussion, untrained but passionate vocals, catchy & simplistic hooks.

If you like the Specials, I recommend you head over to Amazon and order some of the "Mailorder Is Fun" comps from Asian Man Records, one of the few true indie labels in the United States. The bands they release, especially back in the 90's, are the punk rock I grew up, and range from bands like Tuesday (rough and raw, but heartfelt lyrics) to Slow Gherkin (loopy ska-pop) to Johnny Socko (smooth ska) to Korea Girl (lo-fi indie pop).

I think one of the most important things punk rock brought to the pop music world was the idea that success is not the main goal. There are droves of exceptions, sure, but what keeps bands playing raw punk rock is not merely the fact they're learning their instruments, it's that punk rock represents a rejection of the values of the pop charts. Every now and then punk rock returns to its roots to remind itself that too much studio glitz and genre experimentation loses sight of that goal.

- Carter

revstrange said...

Hmm, you may have listened to 'Nevermind the Bollocks', but I don't think you really took it in, for the album remains the most kick-ass slab of rock'n'roll ever committed to vinyl (in my humble opinion). And the Sex Pistols were no more a boy band than the Beatles. You could certainly take that point of view, but I think it invalidates the sentiment.

"Dick" said...

It's interesting that you would contrast the experience of a Who / Hendrix performance with the decontextualized, commercialized, and perhaps solo consumption of punk music. Is there something about being there at the time that made (and may still make) some punk music exciting? When I listen to Minor Threat after waiting a while, I like to imagine what it must have been like to be there, in DC, when MT were honing their chops in church basements and private homes (where Ian Mackaye apparently still prefers to play); when I listen to The Minutemen, I am amazed not only by the DIY (do-it-yourself) attitude that they champion, but the incredible tension between their highly unorthodox approach to punk as music and their normative approach to punk culture. I think those are the issues that Carter was pointing out.

I understand from your comments that you're trying to be polemical here (and fyi the tongue-in-cheek nature does not come through in the post), but more importantly is it ethnographic or anthropological to analyze and criticize the text in isolation from the social experience of its consumption? How, in other words, is this different from music criticism?

Melinda said...

You're saying a complete lie because punk is perfect, imagine taking a generic viagra and playing punk what sensation we could get.

mercado said...

I don't understand why you're saying that because The Clash is a perfect band they're better than buy generic viagra they're a terrific sensation, you don't know anything about them.m10m

Tristan said...

I have the same view of the punk movement, except that where you take The Clash as an exception, I take The Birthday Party as an exception - I like the punk asthetic, but to me The Birthday Party are the only band of the original punk movement ot make really interesting music musically rather than politically/conceptually. But although they were a part of the initial punk movement while in Melbourne, by the time they made it to London they were "post-punk".

mishami5 said...

Wow!... Thank you ROBERT PHILEN, I agree with you 100% on this article. Finally someone that can confront the self indulgence of punk rock though I would add that it was a total rejection of Black Music which of course African Americans made up Rock and Roll. and Rock. But thank you all the same I enjoyed seeing this printed. Ted Mason President Mi5 Recordings Universal Music Group, former member Modern English, producer and guitarist.

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