From Establishment to Establishment: The Changing Face of Punk
"Good luck solving the mystery." – Ian Mackaye, Minor Threat/Fugazi
Punk is just a bit of ink on paper - one syllable, spelt p-u-n-k. That's about as far as we're going to get. The term - with all its musical connotations - was originally propagated by the media, most notably when writer Legs McNeil and illustrator John Holmstrom created Punk Magazine, a fanzine, or, as they referred to it, 'some sort of media thing', dedicated to the unchristened developments of the mid-70s underground. Since then, the name has been spat around in all different directions.
For all its shifting manifestations over the years - nihilism, self-expression, anti-establishment, sadomasochism, DIY, anarchy, honesty, energy, apathy, self-destruction, being yourself, not giving a shit, saying NO - it's interesting how scarcely music crops up in the denomination.
“I never thought that music was that important,” says impresario and former manager of the Sex Pistols Malcolm McLaren. “Not even in 1976; the look of it, yes, but not in itself. I was always searching for a way to make the ‘look of music’ subversive, provocative, obsessive, sexy and stylish.”
McLaren's image-heavy concept of disenfranchised youth culture came to fruition with his London-based clothing shop on King’s Road - Let It Rock and later Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die - which sold a variety of bondage and fetish clothing designed and promoted by McLaren and his partner Vivienne Westwood. After McLaren discovered the tatters-and-rags look in New York, he renamed the place Sex and it soon became more of a concept than a shop: one would walk in to leather on one side, rubber on the other, ripped sleeveless shirts, Cambridge Rapist masks, chicken wire, nudity here and there, and a dwarf named Helen. But the shop's greatest advertisement was the Sex Pistols.
"Sex got it right," says McLaren. "The music that was borne out of Sex came via those young sexy assassins who invaded my store on behalf of the new generation. I called some of them the Sex Pistols."
Video: The Sex Pistols - Problems (Live in Sweden, 1977)
And that was it. The safety pins came out, the Pistols learned how to tune their guitars, they spiralled violently out of control, the shock value got sweeter by the day, the antichrists and the anarchists multiplied across the board, and the movement took hold. 28 months later, Britain was filled to the brim with punks.
The revolution isn't always so romanticised, though. Howard Devoto, the original frontman of Manchester's Buzzcocks, reflects on the time he left the first-wave punk scene to form his genre-defying art-band Magazine. "I don't like movements," he says. "Punk wasn't necessarily a movement when it started out, and then, suddenly, it was. And after a while it just started to become stupid. The conclusion to all this really was: Sid's way - Sid Vicious' way. For me it was over when the Sex Pistols split up. If you want to sum it up and try and sort it all out: it was Sid's way. And who wants to be there? Not me."
Sid's way was one of propulsive self-destruction: he very instantly became the iconic face of punk in the UK. His musical incompetence was irrelevant; he had the look and the attitude - McLaren's ideal incarnate - and a fury that could only end in kamikaze. Vicious burned out as soon as the fire started, and some may say he took it with him. McLaren sees it a little differently.
"The Sex Pistols," he reflects, "were, it is true to say, just puppets for our - my gang of disenfranchised ex-art students in search of ideals - own destructive but creative terrorism. We were simply hell-bent on making spontaneous revolution. Our humour was deadly. No one - not even the Sex Pistols - could stop us from tearing the status quo, its power, its religions, its values, apart."
He goes on: "Punk was the cry of blue murder by a pre-pubescent child. That child was printed on the first Sex Pistols T-shirt. I found him in a book of nude ten-to-twelve year olds. He was smoking a cigarette. That was my image of Punk, and so, by appropriation, my invention, my art."
It’s a bold statement that some people disagree with. "He co-opted it," says Beth Murphy of Ohio's noise-punk band Times New Viking. "And I admire him for co-opting it. But after a while it became so commercialised." Drummer Adam Elliott chimes in on the scepticism: "The whole nihilistic concept just didn't work; it didn't really pan out the way he thought it would."
But at least McLaren's got a clear-cut conviction - avaricious as it may be. Nowadays, everybody (including your little brother) is so eager to claim the rights of punk - or at least the knowledge of its origins - that the finger-pointing, parallel-drawing, record-scavenging, vision-narrowing, and genre-shoe-horning (proto-punk) severely tangle punk rock's embryonic history. The one thing most of us can agree on is that a lot of it started in America.
"I think the idea of punk pretty much took root in New York," says TNV's Murphy, "and it was then crafted by bands like Television and Pere Ubu. McLaren got a hold of it and said 'Ooo, we should do this…sounds like it has some money in it.' I mean, he created a movement, but I don't know, it was very managed, whereas in America I think it was more honest and down-home."
Video: The Stooges - TV Eye (Live in Cincinnati, 1970)
The 'forefathers of punk,' so to speak, can be traced within an overwhelmingly wide array of styles, backgrounds and generations (from los Saicos in South America to the Saints in Australia to, say, Marcel Duchamp ) but the most commonly cited - the Stooges, the Modern Lovers, MC5, the New York Dolls, Patti Smith, the Heartbreakers, Television - were all from the States. As soon as the CBGB  club scene kicked off with bands like Ramones and the Dead Boys, the underground phenomenon started coming to life. But it's difficult to say how many of these bands directly influenced the British uproar that followed.
"Television was just a name you read in the newspapers," says Howard Devoto. "You read up on Suicide, you read up on Television, and at the time they were just names, because there were no records available, and these groups were never big enough to come over and play in Britain. So yeah I had no idea what they sounded like. The Stooges, though, yes, with some difficulty you could get a hold of the Stooges records."
You can never know who heard what, of course. However, the one thing few people can deny (and if you do, we might need to have a talk) is the influence of the Velvet Underground. They took a stab at everything - pop, rock, art, sex - and spun it on its head. The Velvets, amateurish in their technique, marginal in their lyrics, brutally honest in their approach, loved the sound of filth, and hated everything else. Andy Warhol - much like McLaren did ten years later - saw something extraordinary in that.
"Andy Warhol was Catholic in his attitude and cultural savvy," says McLaren, concerning his attributed association with the pop artist. "I am not. But on the surface, we both created artist factories that sent out a style, an aesthetic, a way of looking at the world."
He’s of course referring to Warhol's Factory and McLaren's Sex shop - the old US vs. UK ordeal that punk aficionados love to squabble over. Let's just say they were both quite different. In America, everyone inspired by the Velvet Underground contributed to a protracted, eclectic, and relatively regional assortment of early punk rock, though it was never a cohesive movement. In Britain, McLaren brought it to a younger grasp, and after the first stroke the whole damn thing exploded prematurely into a commercial sensation. By 1978, McLaren's 'spontaneous revolution' got considerably less spontaneous.
"Quite a lot of people started doing it," comments Devoto on the time he split from the Buzzcocks, "and everyone was getting so much more doctrinaire about it." The part-time punks started doing the pogo and the rich kids started ripping up their brand new T-shirts. Things were becoming overridingly fashionable and formulaic, and if punk rock is about saying no, there were many who were saying no to punk rock itself.
Video: Buzzcocks - Breakdown (Live in Manchester, 1976)
"Its strength, to me, was also its weakness," continues Devoto. "Stylistically it was very defined; there were pretty rigid rules about what new material should be about, and that's okay for a while, but then…I wanted something else, something more, you see."
After a while, three-chord aggro runs its course. Post-punk bands like Magazine, Wire, and Mission of Burma took the formula and twisted it into a whole different form of expression. Image became subordinate, and a naked sincerity harkened back to punk's earliest incarnations. Thirty odd years later, this is the sort of reaction that's resonating the most.
"We never really got into the Sex Pistols," says Randy Randall of Los Angeles-based noise-pop duo No Age. "We relate more to bands like Black Flag and The Minutemen, when punk became a really eclectic, strange sort of…expression, you know, freedom of expression is really what punk represents. We try to break it down to a sense of honesty."
The spirit of bare-faced hollering seems to be surfacing more and more these days. "If punk's making some sort of comeback," says TNV's Adam Elliott, "then it's doing so in the right way - with the idea that anything that happens, goes, and you're not too worried about your image, or whether people will like it, you just do it."
Video: Times New Viking - Drop-Out (Live in Houston, 2008)
And many kids are doing it. Those embracing some remnant of the punk aesthetic cleverly enough to absolve themselves from second-hand banality - Thee Oh Sees, Parts and Labor, Times New Viking, Sic Alps, Titus Andronicus, No Age, Tyvke, the Vivian Girls, to name a few - are doing so with a very pungent and overarching degree of rawness. For the most part, it's not just Brooklyn hype. Music is deliberately being torn to pieces.
"I think what's happening in America right now," says Elliot, "is a direct or indirect reaction to Bush being in office for eight years. It's just like 'the world's fucked up, let's get up and do something else'. If you think of old punk bands like Television or The Stooges - they weren't being overtly political - but they observed how politics existed, and they were responding to it; they weren't trying to necessarily change it, they were simply expressing themselves in response to the way politics functioned."
Likewise, the modern lo-fi current isn't necessarily inflamed with politics, and there are no cries of anarchy. "We grew up in the suburbs," says Randy Randall, "and we reacted to what we saw and made music because it felt like the right thing to do at the time."
Video: No Age - Eraser
It's the sort of action/reaction tug-of-war that punk has always manifested itself as - a stimulus against your surroundings. The urge is circumstantial in nature, and that's why punk is never the same thing twice - whether you're Iggy in New York or Sid Vicious in London. Or anyone, anywhere. The Dadaists were punk; the French Expressionists were punk; the Beats were punk. The only thing that vaguely unifies all these figures is a certain indefinable inertia - a raw, confrontational, brutish energy seized by those willing to seize it. It has always been around, and it will probably never die.
So, really, what is punk? You won't find the answer in print.