Punk rock is pushing forty, unruliness intact. This year marks the fortieth anniversary of the Sex Pistols’ original releases, and a year-long series of events and exhibitions, “Punk London,” is being staged in the Pistols’ home town. Meanwhile, four decades after the mid-Seventies detonations of the Clash, the New York Dolls, Patti Smith, and their safety-pinned peers, punk’s first, second, and third generations are still relevant, what with the continued influence of major punk-descended acts like Pearl Jam and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and the iconic status of punk-grunge casualties Sid Vicious, Kurt Cobain, Joe Strummer and Joey Ramone. Punk rock rules, ’16.
So, in the true punk tradition of shock and scandal, let it be said: punk’s junk. The ossified wisdom holds that, by 1975-76, rock ‘n roll was a decaying empire of bored millionaires purveying music either hopelessly pretentious (Pink Floyd, Yes), embarrassingly grandiose (Queen, Rush), terminally mellow (Cat Stevens, the Grateful Dead), or slickly commercial (Kiss, the Eagles), until malcontent pioneers the Ramones, the Damned, Siouxsie and the Banshees, et al, stormed the palace and sparked the most important rock revolution since the Beatles and Bob Dylan emerged in the early Sixties. Right. The reality is that punk’s real legacy was the introduction of a postmodern, irony-weighted aesthetic into what had up to then been a largely spontaneous expression of an authentic folk culture. Far from being the savior of rock rebellion, punk fatally compromised it.
In the first place, punk rock was an in-joke for an in-crowd. If you accepted the premise that Jethro Tull or the Rolling Stones were boring old hippie farts, then the Dead Kennedys or the Talking Heads made perfect sense, but if you weren’t initiated into punk’s ever-changing standards of iconoclasm, it was obvious that true talents were being upstaged by rank amateurs. In punk critical theory, Jimi Hendrix, Bill Bruford, or Paul McCartney were elitist, audience-alienating wankers, but in record stores and concert halls, more punters wanted to hear their hard-won skills than listen to Stiv Bators or Rat Scabies struggle with three chords and 4/4 time. Cartoon cretins Beavis and Butthead later nailed cerebral alternative acts like Pere Ubu and Husker Du as “college rock,” and punk-steeped alt-rock reviewers wrote sentences such as “…they sound like the pseudo-underground Mommyheads on a pre-earnest Stone Roses trip, but without the oh-so-’92 angularity of the now-unhip Jesus Jones…” For all its outrageousness, punk rock become sort of nerdy, appealing to people who knew everything about musical politics and musical fashion, but with little appreciation for music period.
If punk’s players tried to make a virtue out of their incompetence, punk’s apologists have tried to find populism in the genre’s very inaccessibility. Yet probably far fewer fans have been moved by punk’s vaunted anarchy than by Bob Marley’s Rastafarianism, the Beatles’ psychedelia, or Black Sabbath’s occult; like its counterparts on the political left, punk music suffered under a success-equals-sellout orthodoxy that frequently descended into factionalism and disintegration. And as with many of the fringe movements it soundtracked, punk was mostly a negative phenomenon, clearly defining its enemies – optimism, good taste, advanced musicianship – but vague in advocating a platform of its own. Anarchy has proven no more viable on stage or on record than at the ballot box.
Ultimately, of course, punk rock is just a style of music, and like all music there are examples of it that are enjoyable and inspiring. Classic rock bands as diverse as the Police, Guns n’ Roses and U2 all have strong punk roots, and my own music library boasts great punky songs like Suicidal Tendencies’ “Institutionalized,” Rage Against the Machine’s “Hadda Be Playing on the Jukebox,” and Blondie’s “Atomic.” But punk’s retro, self-referencing winks and nudges prefigured our current media landscape, wherein pop culture has become its own chief subject and it is impossible to stand outside of an omnivorous, omnipotent show business. Its raw-power, no-rules reputation to the contrary, punk cemented our submission to the entertainment-industrial colossus. “Punk’s not dead,” says the familiar graffito – too bad, says me.