Bill Bois’ Music Theory For Non-Musicians™
…if there was ever an art where breaking the rules is one of the rules, it’s music.
S3:E10 – What Makes Punk, Punk? – Part 2
We established in Part 1 that punk didn’t start out with a definitive sound.
Talking Heads may have played their first show opening for The Ramones, but the two bands sounded nothing alike.
Making your own new sound was what punk was all about, at first.
After a while, the mainstream press found they could pigeonhole these bands as a stereotype, which would sell more newspapers. Sensationalism works, especially in the UK tabloids.
The Sex Pistols and their manager Malcolm McLaren knew how to create sensations.
On December 1, 1976, Queen was scheduled for an interview on a tea time show on Thames Television. However, Freddy Mercury hadn’t been to a dentist in 15 years and suddenly had a toothache so painful, he had no choice but to get professional help. At the last minute, Queen canceled the TV interview.
And was replaced by The Sex Pistols.
The band let the interviewer goad them into the bad behavior he expected of them, and their use of naughty words on afternoon television was splashed all over the newspapers the next day.
“The Filth and the Fury!” screamed the Daily Mirror.
If you believe that all publicity is good publicity, as the Pistols and McLaren did, it was perfect.
This little underground band was suddenly known nationwide, and beyond.
The brouhaha continued in the UK for well over a month, as the tabloids knew filthy and furious headlines sell papers, and McLaren knew they sold records. The press and the Pistols used each other in an unspoken arrangement.
Reporters said the Pistols spit and vomited in the KLM departure lounge on their way to a tour of the Netherlands.
In reality, they were running late and a record label representative got them directly to the plane on the tarmac. They didn’t go through the terminal at all.
Now, did the newspapers just invent the vomiting story, or did Malcolm MacLaren plant it? We may never know.
The result is that the general public, who didn’t know a thing about punk rock a month prior, now understood punk musicians to be vile, anti-social, miscreants.
Whether that made individual members of the public want to ban punk or start a band, it fixed the Pistols’ sound as what punk bands sound like.
Granted, it’s a great sound, like Chuck Berry songs played faster and with more distortion.
A good little jump number.
These guys remind me of myself when I first started, I only knew three chords, too.CHUCK BERRY, 1980, ON THE RAMONES’ Sheena is a Punk Rocker”
But there were other great sounds around and the bands making those sounds didn’t want to be associated with punk. Something had to give.
Once again, McLaren was involved. Melody Maker writer Caroline Coon quoted his use of the phrase “new wave” to differentiate the abrasive punk bands from the more melodic bands of the movement. He may have heard the term from Lester Bangs.
Loud, fast and aggressive bands like The Ramones, Sex Pistols, and Clash were punk. Bands influenced by the pop music of the 50s and 60s like Blondie, Joe Jackson, and XTC were new wave. Problem solved.
Of course, there was crossover. The Ramones were, at heart, a bubblegum pop band.
McLaren managed both punk and new wave bands. In addition to the Sex Pistols, he handled Bow Wow Wow and Adam & The Ants, and also helped The Slits and Jimmy The Hoover. He even released his own records. Where there was money and fame to be had, McLaren was there.
When punk’s initial shock wore off, it was overshadowed by its sibling, new wave.
Some of the new wave bands became very popular once they distanced themselves from punk and I’ll do a separate article about them. Let’s stick to punk for today.
Punk’s aggressive style, with its power chords and shouty vocals, was taken up by many other bands, particularly in the UK. British punk rock was not just a rebellion against the kingdom’s poor economy and society’s failure to care for its most vulnerable, it was a reaction to the overblown and pretentious prog rock and stadium stardom that couldn’t be achieved by mere mortals.
Punk was a public service announcement, with guitars.
There were punk love songs, too, though they were usually about love gone wrong, or not having love at all.
The Clash were the biggest post-Pistols punk band, often billed as “the only band that matters,” and they did both political and love songs.
Their two highest charting singles were London Calling, a protest song, and Should I Stay Or Should I Go?, a love-on-the-rocks song.
Even with somewhat varied lyrical topics, the guitars-with-shouting formula got boring after a while. At the end of the 70s and continuing through the 80s, bands began combining punk with other genres. There was folk punk and dance punk and cow punk. Punk jazz and punk metal and punk blues. Pop punk and peace punk and glam punk.
And then came the -cores.
Hardcore and metalcore and thrashcore and grindcore and queercore and nardcore.
Tweak your sound, pick a noun, add “core,” and you’ve got yourself a new subgenre.
Hardcore was the first of the -cores. It was a mostly American phenomenon and the starting point for all the other -cores. Bands like The Ramones used the ethic that loud fast rules. Hardcore bands wanted to be even louder and faster. When you play that fast, there’s no time for subtlety. It’s just “1 2 3 4 bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang. Bang. Thanks. And for our next song….”
Songs played at 240 bpm are going to be short. What would be a three minute song at a normal tempo became a ninety second song.
The sweat drenched frenzy in the mosh pit wasn’t sustainable for terribly long, so many songs were deliberately written to be shorter so the dancers wouldn’t exhaust themselves before a song ended. It’s a bit of a novelty but a song called Count by Arizona band JFA is only five seconds long.
There’s not much time or need for a melody, either. If you only have a half octave vocal range, you can be a hardcore singer. Of course, “singer” might be the wrong word. You can be a hardcore vocalist.
Can you scream in time? Can you push stage divers away if they get too close to the equipment? Have you got a van? Yeah?
You’ve passed the audition.
Among these hardcore bands and fans, some decided to go straight edge. This idea started in Washington DC, with Minor Threat vocalist Ian MacKay as its somewhat unwilling spokesperson. While punk philosophy is about thinking and doing for yourself, rejecting normal societal roles, and questioning authority, straight edge added personal restraint. That meant no drinking, doing drugs or having sex.
It was a mix of liberal individualism and conservative morality.
Hardcore bands could also be really young. You need that angsty teenage energy to play that fast, and 21-and-up nightclubs wouldn’t book you anyway. Hardcore isn’t music that helps sell drinks, especially if half the audience was straight edge.
Instead, in the DIY spirit, bands would rent a VFW hall or Moose lodge and invite a couple other bands to play. They’d charge a few dollars at the door.
If enough kids showed up, the bands would make their money back. These shows were all ages.
The result was regional scenes, each with their own sound and vitality.
St. Louis bands sounded different from Oklahoma City bands. Even scenes that were near each other had their own flavor.
When I was in a hardcore band in Boston, I noticed that the bands in the western Massachusetts scene had a different vibe. Just two hours up the Mass Pike, they were more likely to have a sense of humor. The Freeze, who were considered part of the Boston scene, had a sense of humor, too, but they were actually from Cape Cod.
Each scene had its own fanzine. The ‘zines had band interviews, record and show reviews, and lists of upcoming shows.
Some had comics. Most had badly reproduced photographs.
Fanzines were very low budget, sometimes handwritten, sometimes typed. Some were Xeroxed, some were mimeographed. ‘Zine editors used whatever equipment they had access to.
One of punk’s main ideas is DIY.
If you can’t find a singer for your band, do it yourself. If you can’t afford guitar lessons, teach yourself. If no label wants to put out your band’s record, start your own label. If no magazine covers the bands you love, start your own ‘zine. Like abstract art, it’s not about the result, it’s about the doing.
Even with all these individual scenes, some bands rose to national and international prominence.
Some of the bigger names in the American hardcore scene include Black Flag from Southern California, the Dead Kennedys from Northern California, Minor Threat and Bad Brains from Washington DC, and The Misfits from New Jersey.
Some won their relative success through relentless touring, but it was the kind of touring where the band did everything. There were no roadies or bus drivers. Everyone piled into a van and took turns driving. (I bought a 1963 Dodge Town Wagon for $500 from an exterminator, so my band’s touring vehicle was a white panel truck that said “Bugman” on the side.)
With any luck, the local band in each town had spare beds and showers for the touring band. Otherwise, they slept in the vans. Punk bands who spent any time doing this kind of touring are very familiar with the term “van stench.”
Hardcore and its variations are strictly underground subgenres. One might have thought that music protesting Reaganism and Thatcherism could have been more popular, but protesting in a genre so difficult to listen to isn’t really an effective instrument for change.
This is especially true given hardcore’s tendency to write lyrics saying the exact opposite of the writers’ intent.
When Fear sang Let’s Have A War or the Dead Kennedys suggested a Holiday In Cambodia, they didn’t mean it. They were trying to point out how asinine warmongers are.
Not everyone caught on to the sarcasm.
Hardcore was nowhere to be heard in the mainstream through the 1980s. Still, it was influential enough that metal musicians added its fast tempos to their songs to create the speed metal subgenre. Early Metallica and Slayer are great examples. Both bands would have long successful careers.
Despite early punk’s initial reluctance to seek stardom in and of itself, the early 90s brought blockbuster success to punk bands like Green Day and The Offspring. Their success can be seen as a response to the excesses of glam metal.
It was like the record buying public was saying it was time to get back to basics again.
These young bands put the pop melodies back into the punk energy at a time when people needed it.
I’ll cover punk’s influence on grunge in a future article, and it may be a little obvious already.
The hardcore underground still exists with many bands together forty years later, day jobs and all. Their kids have started bands and their grandkids are thinking about it. You can hear hardcore’s influence on current bands like Turnstile and Iron Lung.
However, I’ll go further and suggest that punk has influenced such diverse genres as Americana and electronic dance music.
And any other music you can record in your bedroom.
Advances in technology and the proper attitude make it possible to truly do-it- yourself.
The do-it-yourself mindset is punk, whether it’s a band writing songs in a garage, or a couple of guys developing a personal computer in a garage.
It’s dogged individualism with the purpose of creating something new.tnocs.com contributing author bill bois
The Sex Pistols famously imploded during their American tour, playing their last show in January 1978.
Some say punk died with them.
If so, the memorial service has lasted for 45 years now. Punk has never gone away.
The crux of punk is this:
- Everyone has something to say.
- Anyone can be in a band.
- You can do it.
God Save The Queen
There’s Gonna Be A Borstal Break-Out
Holiday In Cambodia
Pay To Cum
Know Your Rights
Let’s Have A War
Idiots At Happy Hour
Kids Are For Trix
Lou’s Anxiety Song
Die Die My Darling
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