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Tuesday, January 31, 2006

PUNK ROCK IN THE 21ST CENTURY: What is the point in that?

Johnny Rotten AKA John Lydon... a man who knew when it was time to move on
30 years since punk, quite frightening really. What is really amazing though is that it is still regarded as musical force today and people are still listening to the original first wave of punk… well, some of us are anyway.

The fact that the Damned have just issued a box set of their Stiff Records releases and we have not long had the 25th Anniversary edition of the Clash’s London Calling must mean that I am not the only one still buying the old stuff (or in some cases re-buying on CD). And then of course there's the gigs with all these old bands still treading the boards!

I find it strange going away with the City on RAMs busses to travel all the way to Leeds (or wherever we are playing) with a punk rock sound track. I am sure that would not have happened 30 years ago!

30 years… the thought of listening to 30-year-old music (Vera Lyn?) back in ’76 would have been just unthinkable. As a young punk the thought of listening to music ten years old seemed outrageous (although my record collection now contains large quantities of ‘60s music).

What exactly was punk though? I am sure many would argue that punk was a musical movement that hit the UK in 1976/77 that burned like an exploding star and soon found itself destroyed by its own success when the big record labels jumped on the bandwagon. To a certain extent that is true, but if that were all it was we would not still be feeling the cultural shock waves of the movement 30 years on.

Punk was about more than just music, it was about attitude, it was a rejection of everything stale about society, it was about taking control of things yourself with a strong emphasis on DIY ethics and it just happened that it manifest itself in musical form. There were the fanzines, movies, books, independent record labels, art, poetry… the list is endless.

It was not long before the whole thing spiralled out of control and a lot of people lost the plot, with the original idea of outrageous DIY clothing soon giving way to the uniform of leather jackets, spiky hair or Mohican, safety pins etc. I have to confess; I got caught up with this myself for a while.

Bands started conforming to a set formula of what a punk band was supposed to sound like, giving rise to bands like the Exploited, GBH and Peter and The Test Tube Babies. They were not all dreadful, some of them were actually quite entertaining (which in itself was a justification for existing), but most were completely missing the point of what punk was about.

Many of the original punks moved on, charting new waters and experimenting with new styles or mixing and matching a variety of old styles. The Clash, for instance, flirted with dub, hip-hop, and jazz; The Damned started leaning towards the psychedelic; and Joy Division turned into the disco beast that is New Order.

As the music industry smothered punk almost before it was born, many bands went underground and took things even further. Bands like Crass, Conflict, Poison Girls and countless others took things into their own hands and ‘Anarcho Punk’ was born. This attitude helped to revitalise the free festival scene, which spawned the outdoor free parties that would come to be known as ‘Rave’.

The music that the ravers were getting into was possibly more punk than punk, stealing samples from wherever they felt like, chucking in noises made by the new generation of synthesisers that was starting to emerge, doing it all in the bedroom, very often with few or even no ‘proper’ musicians being involved, releasing the records themselves and putting on parties away from the traditional live circuit… basically controlling everything, from the creating of the music right through to the selling, promoting and performing.

Although the seeds of punk were sewn in America with bands like the Ramones, New York Dolls and the MC5, UK punk managed to turn it into something meaningful and then sold it back to the US, and the rest of the world. A recent visit to Prague revealed that Punk is alive and well over there pogoing on the ashes of communism.

In the 1990s, bands like Nirvana and Green Day, together with the ‘Brit Pop’ and ‘Cool Cymru’ scene, many of them not even born when punk first landed, were banging out hits that owed more to the original punks than your average teenager will ever know.

On top of this, there are bands out there that have taken on the best elements of punk and mashed them up with everything else they see around them, like hip-hop, raga, rap, ska and dub, to create brand new original music that is far more than the sum of its parts; bands like Asian Dub Foundation, Inner Terrestrials, Transplants, Spanner, Fundamental, King Prawn… the list goes on.

If that was not enough, the spirit of punk has also resulted in people giving their music away fro free in the form of MP3s… now there is a whole blog post on its own!

So, 30 years on the aftershocks of that first punk explosion are still reverberating. Without that brief period of intense creativity 30 years ago the music scene would look completely different and no doubt rugby players would not be spending hours making their hair look uncombed and unmade beds would not be on display in the Tate Modern.

The only thing that has had as big an impact since punk was rave, and it could be argued that was just punks with new technology. Surely we are due for something as explosive, new and original new soon? My musical tastes have broadednd way beyond punk since those heady days, my record collection covers just about everything from blues, soul, dub and jazz to techno, metal and space rock. Despite this I still enjoy listening to punk, it is lively, shouty, energetic and at its best thought provoking. Some purists would argue punk died in 1978, but its spirit certainly lives on.

Perhaps much of the above making out punk to be some sort of pure form of rebelion, is the reason it has so many critics, because it will often fall short of the ideals it sets out to achive; if some band signs a major label deal then they have sold out. No-one complains when some amazing dance act signs to a major label. At its most basic level, it is still music, which after all is only a form of entertainment. And for me it still entertains... so rock on!

Sites that may be of interest


At 12:24 am , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Punk´s not dead :)


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