why everything you think you know about punk rock is completely wrong

“Grossness [is] the truest criterion for rock ‘n roll…”
~ Lester Bangs

Hundreds of books, thousands of you tube videos and millions of magazine articles and blogs have informed you as to what punk rock is – and practically every one prescribe to these SEVEN fallacies.

Fallacy 1: 1977 is Year Zero for punk.

Revisionists are now trying to position that date somewhere between late 1975 to early 1976, however, both of those dates are closer to the start of punk’s demise rather than its genesis. The term ‘punk’ actually dates back to the 16th century (and can even be found in the works of William Shakespeare). At that time ‘punk’ was a term for young theatre boys who were seemingly homosexuals (the New York Dolls anyone?).* But as far as Rockism goes, punk was first put into the context of Rock Music in the mid 1960’s. The definition of a ‘punk’ at that time was someone who was a junkie/outsider/homosexual like those characterized in the novels of William S. Burroughs. Years later, when Burroughs was asked about his role in defining punk rock he famously answered, “Punk? I just thought a punk was someone who took it up the ass.”

By the late 60s, the term punk became a common description for young inner-city criminals, like those portrayed in Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry. This “young criminal” sense of the word was how certain fringe music critics (who were influenced by the writing of Burroughs) characterized certain fringe rock bands of the day and soon the words ‘punk’ and ‘rock’ began showing up in the same paragraphs and even the same sentences. 

Lester Bangs (in his 1970 novella Drug Punk), Nick Tosche (in his 1970 Fusion article, “The Punk Muse“), Richard Meltzer and Greg Shaw were all throwing the terms around at that time, while Dave Marsh – in his famous 1971 article in Creem magazine – is generally cited as the first person to use the words ‘punk’ and ‘rock’ side by side in print. The first musical artist to identify themselves as “punk rock” was Ed Sanders of the Fugs in 1970 and several Rockist journalist (Greg Shaw – Who Put the Bomp, Phil Hardy and Dave Laing, Lenny Kaye in the liner notes of his iconic Nuggets compilation of garage bands) soon after began trying to define “punk rock”.  

From these beginnings it didn’t take long for the mainstream media (with a little help from Malcolm McLaren) to cling on to and co-opt the term “punk rock” so that by the mid 1970s the term “punk” had gone from meaning someone who was an outsider, junkie, homosexual criminal, to someone who was a snotty, Pop Poseur in the mold of the Sex Pistols and the rest of their BritPunk ilk.

But this mid-70s fabricated brand of Punk Rock really had very little to do with the original punk rock of the late 60s/early 70s.  The fact that mainstream “music critics” were not hip to punk culture until the mid 70s doesn’t mean it didn’t exist prior to that. It did exist, although nowadays it has been given the dismissive label of “Proto-punk” in a posthumous manner intended to be used as a marketing devise in much the same way the term “Classic Rock” was coined as a marketing device in the early 1980s when it first infiltrated the Mainstream Rock narrative (many years after most “Classic Rock” music had already been created).

Fallacy 2: Punk is just as relevant today as it was in the 70s and 80s.

Initially punk rock was a distinct, recognizable entity. In the early/mid 70;s there was nothing else like it around. It arose from the urban underbelly of Industrialized American wastelands in cities like Detroit and Cleveland and New York and Chicago and Boston. It embodied the nihilistic ethos of ‘informed’ and perceptive youth who believed themselves to be sentenced to a lifetime of economic stagflation. The effect that those original punks had on Western Civilization is still felt today, but it no longer has the same relevance. One of the many reasons for this is that punk birthed several cliches which have been co-opted in such a way as to transform punk rock’s original nihilistic energy into nothing but fabricated poses and sloganeering by everyone from “Activist Punks” like Jello Biafra, Ian MacKaye and Joe Strummer, to commercial sell-outs like the Dead Milkmen (a precursor of Greenday) to Nazi skinheads and even melodramatic made for tv punk bands like Mayhem (from a 1982 Quincy M.E. episode) and the band Pain (from a CHiP’s episode). 

Despite this, it can be argued that Punk Rock still remains relevant in terms of an individual’s personal development, particularly to those who discover it during their teenage years. But in terms of the original spirit that spawned Punk (the danger of it, the nihilistic desperation of it, etc) that aspect has been so watered down through 30 years of manipulation by the corporate consumer culture that even today’s ‘underground’ punk just comes off as teenage poseury and a bit of a joke at best.

Fallacy 3: The Sex Pistols Never Mind the Bollocks and the Clash’s London Calling are the two most important punk albums ever made.

The long playing album format has never translated very well in terms of punk rock. Punk was meant to be played live, at shows in basements, abandoned warehouses, garages, dive bars or wherever the punks could find electricity. It wasn’t about making albums. Making albums were for the sell-outs. Punks were outsiders who didn’t give a frog’s fat penis about that stuff. At most they would scrounge up a few bucks to cut a single, and then later with the rise of cassette tapes, they’d simply record something onto a tape and pass it around among other punks. Eventually though, yes, some punk bands made albums, bands like the Stooges, the New York Dolls, the Electric Eels, Rocket from the Tombs, the Ramones, Richard Hell, Patti Smith, the Dead Boys, The Saints, etc. But by the time that a band’s first album came out their short incubation period as an authentic punk band was near its end or actually past its sell-by date. The result is that there is very little original authentic punk captured in album form–which is exactly the way it should be. 

Fallacy 4: Hardcore punk is a response to economic hardship and government/corporate suppression.

Actually hardcore is a response to nearly the opposite. There was an economic recession in late 1970s/early 1980s America, but it was generally the wealthy (wealthy compared to me at least) white suburban kids that were least effected by the economic downturn who are mostly responsible for hardcore. In part these teens were simply bored with the carefree upper-middle class suburban lifestyle of safety and security that they were living and through media images they developed a romanticized envy for earlier authentic punks (who actually had struggled with hard economic conditions and a government/corporate repression). Wanting to be like the image they had of these earlier punks while also attempting to battle suburban boredom, these suburban teens often tried to eject drama into their lives through drug intake, especially amphetamines, which are somewhat responsible for the sped-up, angst-fueled, sonic quality of Hardcore music. Many of these suburban teens were also rebelling against not getting enough attention from mommy and daddy and therefore rejected everything their parents stood for. This contrarian impulse resulted in the fabricated image that hardcore became famous for; ripped t-shirts, safety pinned nostrils; spikey, multi-colored mohawks, and yes, even the cliche ‘toughguy’ pose while flipping off the camera (which if you are one of those who are guilty of using this for your MySpace pic, then “LOL!”).

Fallacy 5: Punk rock is a valid way to express your individuality and rebellious nature.

Although this was once true, today punk rock is more about conformity. And it is more about image than it is about music. Whereas even as late as 1985 dressing like a punk and walking through your high school cafeteria was the quickest ticket to an ass-beating, today it is the quickest way to a nod of approval. There is no risk in being a punk today. There is no danger in it. It is not an expression of rebellion against the corporate masters, it is in fact an embrace of the corporate masters. Mike Diehl’s book My so-called Punk is an extensive exercise in trying to rationalize the corporate take over of punk, but the fact of the matter remains that it is precisely because of Punk’s corporate sell-out that it has very little impact on society today beyond its entertainment value. So-called Punk bands of today draw more parallels to acts like N’sync or the Spice girls than to original punk bands. 

Fallacy 6: Bands that sounded and acted like punk rock in the late 60s and early 70s are “proto-punk”.  

Punks, punk bands and punk rockers were around in the early 70s and writers were writing about them in the US, yet the mainstream does not acknowledge these punks as punk. Instead they refer to them as proto-punk? And why is that? 

For starters, punk was so underground in the late 60s and early 70s, and so many other things were going on that punk didn’t really make a dent on the public consciousness until the Britpunk stuff exploded. And these original punks weren’t really the type to try and take credit for punk–because that kind of recognition didn’t really matter to them. Second of all, to start a movement you need a defining moment. The Britpunks had that moment when the Ramones did the July 4, 1976 show in London. Many of the defining players in the first wave Britpunk were at that show. Lastly, the punk bands in the US were spread out geographically from Detroit, Ohio, New York, etc. and therefore didn’t have the kind of sweltering critical mass that the Britpunks had. 

Fallacy 7: The best way to really know what punk was like is to read books about it.

Like anything else, it is impossible to really know what punk was like unless you actually experienced it. I was just a whipper snapper living in small town Central Illinois when hardcore began. Like most Ameriteens of the 80’s, I was introduced to hardcore via the Repoman soundtrack and from mixed tapes recorded off the local college radio station. It wasn’t until the summer of ’85 that I experienced the punk scene in Chicago first-hand, but by that time hardcore’s heyday had already been and gone. I’d never been a joiner of groups/movements, etc., anyway, but the hardcore scene I experienced was nothing more than just another highschool lunchroom cafeteria clique that was rather silly.  My limited and Johnny Come Lately experience of provides a greater understanding of punk than if I were to simply read the procession of punk books that attempt to chronicle the true punk experience.  Books like Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk by Legs McNeil and American Hardcore: A Tribal History by Steven Blush might chronicle punk history but they are no substitute for the real experience.

*Punk was also Great Depression era lingo which meant a “young inexperienced boy who was admitted into the circus free of charge

©2006 Rockism 101. All Rights Reserved

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