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From Heroin to Anarchy – How the West Was Lost

Posted on December 3, 2017 in Uncategorized

After all, Mozart was a punk. Signed: Salieri. [1]

A few weeks ago, something very disturbing crossed my path: a commercial for butter with no other than John Lyndon [2], one of the most sacred icons of the punk movement. Now, is butter punk? Is being English, or eating English Country Butter punk? Does Rotten being chased by cows include a message of anarchy and filth? Has Rotten gone mainstream? Is he still rotten? When talking about punk nowadays, one might think of those dirty and violent kids who wear mohawks, leather and scream for anarchy, but is that the only truth? Does Lou Reed walk the same line with Sid Vicious? How come a band dressed in drag like New York Dolls had such an influence on the Sex Pistols? Why does Rotten loathe modern punks, and why did he make that commercial? What is punk anyway?

Some would argue that punk is synonym with brutality and it’s best represented by the world-wide feared skinheads [3]. Others, on the other hand, would say that punk is everything that goes against the current. From this point of view, placing the term in an exact time frame (officially mid ’70s – early ’80s), would not be accurate: if punk is non-mainstream, then the idea transcends history and it could refer to anything and anybody from Adam and Eve to Elvis and beyond [4]. The term was consecrated in 1975, when Legs McNeil and John Holmstrom create the Punk magazine. It was a perfect word to describe a generation of outlaws.

Punk was born in the United States as a reaction to the bubble-gum pop culture which flourished in the post-war era. The society that a few decades earlier fashioned the roaring ’20s, was going through a moral revival with pink glasses. Women were supposed to go back in their household universe, sex was again taboo [5], and communism was the pharmakos and had to be eradicated at all costs (see the war politics lead by the U.S.A. in Asia during the second half of the 20th Century). But, something happened in the fifties: there was a new enemy who threatened to take away the souls of the youth, now that the Cold War became a routine – rock ‘n’ roll.

Again, as it happened in various moments of the 20th Century, black music was pushing harder and harder from the social periphery. Even if some voices saw the devil in Elvis’ eyes, America had another weapon against revolt: popularity. Black music had become white, innuendos were erased as to be able to appeal to all citizens. It was time for the bubble-gum balloon to pop. Enter The Velvet Underground [6], Patti Smith, Television, New York Dolls [7], Patti Smith8, The Stooges, Iggy Pop and David Bowie [9], etc., a.k.a., the so called proto-punks.

In the ’60s, along with the increasing number of amateur garage-punk bands [10], there were the artists, or at least the Arts students. It’s no secret that the proto-punks were underground culturally enlightened creatures: from Patti Smith’s poetry, to the inclusion of the Velvet Underground in Andy Warhol’s factor, with Iggy Pop acknowledging Harry Partch as a major influence to his music, with proto-punks like Patti Smith (and Warhol!) pushing poet Jim Carroll’s career forward (after previously being discovered by Jack Kerouac) to the publishing of The Basketball Diaries [11], and with names such as Pere Ubu [12] or Tom Verlaine [14]. Now it was the time for the Second Act, on the other side of the Ocean.

The crossing was made by Malcolm McLaren (Vivienne Westwood’s – former – husband and business partner, the original punk-mainstream-fashion trend-setters). After a not so successful proposal to manage Richard Hell and make him famous in England, McLaren, created one of the best selling brands of all times: the Sex Pistols and their loud call which was transplanted into the whole blank generation [14]: no future, screaming for action and change [15].

Nowadays, Anarchy in the UK and God Save The Queen are synonymous with punk. Even though they were preceded by such crucial bands as The Ramones with their loud, violent and quick tempered music, lyrics and looks or MC5 with their famous line Kick out the jams, motherfuckers line, the Pistols and their effect in music, behaviour, politics, arts, literature or life in general, became what is nowadays seen and understood as punk.

From there, punk reached the surface audience, and acts like The Clash, The Damned or, later, The Misfits [16] were possible. Punk entered the mainstream, there was no way back. Through the years, punk gave birth to eclectic, sometimes bizarre hybrids, such as Psychedelic punk (Ween, Butthole Surfers), Country punk (Violent Femmes), Celtic punk (Dropkick Murphys, The Real McKenzies, Flogging Molly), Gipsy punk (Gogol Bordello [17]), Horror punk (The Misfits), Hardcore punk (Husker Dü), etc. The latest deconstructivist pure punk musical and social movement was grunge in the late ’80s, up towards the end of the ’90s. The movement was started by Nirvana and its front man, Kurt Cobain and it popularized the quiet-loud (whisper-scream) style introduced obscurely in the underground by the Pixies [18], regurgitating all the anger and frustration of the no future youth into the nevermind attitude. This pessimistic conception of life [19] and the realisation that no future wasn’t only a threat, but a reality, and has been dominant since more or less the transformation of punk into hardcore and subsequently into such genres as death metal, goth, or the youngest son, emo.

As a style, what we nowadays consider punk, has different origins and it is in itself a melting pot for cultures and subsequently, for musical genres. In the case of the punk movement in England, this blend is much more complex, because it adds elements that were not popular in the US, but were significant ingredients of the British Identity. Obviously, when adding discordant elements, the resulting mix is quite unstable, as Dick Hebdige concludes:

[…] all these elements constantly threatened to separate and return to their original sources. Glam rock contributed narcissism, nihilism and gender confusion. American punk offered a minimalistic aesthetic (e.g. the Ramones’ ‘Pinhead’ or Crime’s ‘I Stupid’), the cult of the Street and a penchant for self-laceration. Northern Soul (a genuinely secret sub-culture of working-class youngsters dedicated t acrobatic dancing and fast American soul of the 60s, which centres on clubs like Wigan Casino) brought its subterranean tradition of fast, jerky rhythms, solo dances styles and amphetamines; reggae its exotic and dangerous aura of forbidden identity, its conscience, its dread and its cool. Native rhythm ‘n blues reinforced the brashness and the speed of Northern Soul, took rock back to the basics and contributed a highly developed iconoclasm, a thoroughly British persona and an extremely selective appropriation of the rock ‘n roll heritage (25-6)

Regarding the connection with ‘black’ music, there is one important detail that must be stated: the musicians were white, but they sang black(ish) music. Even though, Richard Hell stated that “punks are niggers” (Hebdige, 62) and they fraternized with ‘the other’, but only at a superficial level, and the relationship was by no means reciprocal. Dick Hebdige sees this issue as a “punk aesthetic” which “can be read in part as a white ‘translation’ of black ‘ethnicity'” (64), which of course, is quite a paradox thinking of what punk has become nowadays and noting the obvious contradictions that would come out due to this combination:

These contradictions were literally re-presented in the form of punk’s association with reggae. At one level, the punks openly acknowledged the significance of contact and exchange, and on occasion even elevate the cultural connection into a political commitment. Punk groups for instance, figured prominently in the Rock against Racism campaign set up to combat the growing influence of the National Front in the working class areas. But at another, deeper level, the association seems to have been repressed, displaced on the part of the punks into the construction of a music which was emphatically white and even more emphatically British. (66)

That is, punk is white, and more than that, it is British. Even though it was born in America, it has returned to its birthplace years later, as another British Invasion. This yoyo movement is one of the most notable symptoms of post-colonialism, the appropriation of values and elements into the main cultural computer. In the same way blues was stolen from the blacks and has reached the mainstream white public through white voices: The Tokens took “Mbube” from the Mahotella Queens and turned into “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”, Elvis stole “Hound Dog” from Big Mama Thornton, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant took a lot of ideas [20] from Robert Johnson [21], including the “Lemon Song”. Indeed, rock ‘n’ roll would not be rock ‘n’ roll without the (Delta) Blues.

The intention of the early punks – so to say – was to bring (rock) music back to its roots: early rock ‘n’ roll mostly. Suddenly, minimalism was the key. Music (and art in general) was to be taken down to its atoms. Obviously, following the trends of the time, the words in order were purification and regeneration. As a lifestyle and cultural trend, punk is seen as one of the variables that were given the possibility to exist due to Surrealism and Dada. One of the common key elements, that persisted through the years, to be still found in punk, is the technique of the collage (see the Pistols’ God Save The Queen cover), and according to Hebdige, “dream work, collage, ‘ready mades’, etc – are certainly relevant here” because they are “classic modes of ‘anarchic’ discourse” (105). Punk also borrowed the DIY [22] culture inherited, paradoxically, from the hippies (another reactionary group!), but added violence and defiance to it. Dick Hebdige, in his study Subculture: The Meaning of Style, gives on of the first intellectualised accounts of the punk movement:

Although it was often directly offensive (T-shirts covered in swear words) and threatening (terrorist/guerrilla outfits) punk style was defined principally through the violence of its ‘cut ups’. Like Duchamp’s ‘ready mades’ / manufactured objects which qualified as art because he chose to call them such, the most unremarkable and inappropriate items – a pin, a plastic clothes peg, a television component, a razor blade, a tampon – could be brought within the province of punk (un)fashion. Anything with or without reason could be turned into part of what Vivien Westwood called ‘confrontation dressing’ so long as the rupture between ‘natural’ and constructed context was clearly visible (i.e. the rule would seem to be: if the cap doesn’t fit, wear it). (106-7) [23]

Punk as understood generally nowadays is a scream. Punk is meant as a cold social shower. It’s a shock treatment that is meant to be quick and violent. Punk songs are usually under 2 minutes and express this will to let out one’s anger. While the hippie/psychedelic solution has proven not to be viable to the requirements of the cultural context of the time, being, maybe too soft, or too slow, a new method was needed. It had to reach its target quickly and without delay. As an official current, punk didn’t even last a whole half-decade, but its influence has not decreased through the years, even nowadays we can still feel it as strong (or even stronger) than when it was born. But how much of this violence (be it of language or expression) was real? How much was connected to the representation of the group?

The post-imperialist argument of punk’s back and forward motion from one land to another is most vivid, especially concerning the place it came from: America, a former colony, which had gained its independence from the mainland and was a power in its own right. But, how come an elitist artistic movement was transformed into the proletariat’s struggle for a reform? Here lies the catch: proto-punk had the sort of cultural snobbism that can be found in newly culturalized environments. That is, it recently [24] gained a cultural identity; it needed to show that there is potential for greatness. The hippies have already claimed the fight against the war and social problems (in a peaceful and violent manner), rock ‘n’ rollers have unleashed the sexual revolution, so the underground didn’t have a tangible enemy, so it took on the conservative post-pilgrim society of the US.

On the other hand, in England, this urge was somewhat obsolete and unneeded. The youth was not interested in proving itself, it wanted change. The issue was no longer shocking or controversy, there was the urgency that characterized ’70s Great Britain: poverty and unemployment were realities. Somebody had to shout out and demand a solution. Suddenly conservative forces censoring free speech were not relevant any more. The idea was if they would not let them in through the door, nor would they through the window, why bother? Blowing up the whole house, then rebuilding it was a much better solution. Plus, even though the youth was well read [25], but was fed up with culture, it needed Raw Power! The US movement was not meant to be political, it was more of an artistic statement, whereas British punk is anything but artistic [26]. Of course, it did have its own aesthetics, but it was more of a consequence, than a goal in itself. That is the punk movement’s version that was consecrated into the annals of history and was spread all over the Globe.

For sure, the punks believed what they sold. Some of them actually were what they sold (see the case of Sid Vicious), some recovered and returned to the – so called – normal (David Bowie). Nowadays being a punk requires following certain rules, from behaviour to clothing. It is that the punk is represented as the stereotypical image of a former minority that gained ground due to the radical and conformist (!) message it sent. Punk is no longer surrealist, it was no longer pour les fleurs de coucou, it is no longer the current that permits you to be whatever you want, however you want, but it’s the culture of misunderstood, often violent teenagers. It has climbed down to the darkness of the absurd and depression. A violent depression, that is…

Works Cited
Butler, Christopher. Postmodernism. A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2002
Big, Ioan. Era punk. Bucharest: Editrex, 2003
Rohmann, Chris. The Dictionary of Important Ideas and Thinkers. London: Arrow Books. 2002
Hebdige, Dick. Subculture, The Meaning of Style. New York: Routledge, 2007

Endnotes:
1. See Big, 14
2. aka. Johnny Rotten, lead singer of Sex Pistols
3. Skinheads have come to be viewed as right-winged terrorists, but that depiction could not be more misleading! What is generally known nowadays as skinheads, is a small fraction of the group, a minority that has nothing to do with the ideology in question. Skinheads are, in fact, English workers, with very short hair (to avoid being infected with lice and other insects), who would go to the pub and listen to punk music. They were not violent (well, not more than normal), they were not racist (punk rock is known as to be inspired and/or co-dependent with Rastafarian culture, as I will state later in the paper), nor “male chauvinistic pigs” (punk was one of the most gender open movements of the 20th Century – from all points of view!), and certainly not terrorist.
4. NB: This happens as long as the movement/person is not generally acknowledged and it remains at a subculture level. When it becomes popular, it is no longer punk. Though, ironically, punk itself is nowadays’ mainstream.
5. Which is quite hypocritical, coming from the country who has an obelisk as one of its national monuments….
6. Very influential band in the US underground and not only, and introduced Lou Reed and John Cale to the music business. The band was famous for approaching controversial themes such as sexual promiscuity, drug consumption or violence. VU remained virtually unknown until they were discovered by Andy Warhol. He added the second female member to the band, German actress and singer, Nico (together with drummer Maureen Tucker) and reinvented the band for a wider (and commercial) success. VU is considered one of the most important acts of the decade, and journalists such as Lester Bangs appreciated their status in the modern music history: modern music starts with VU. Lou Reed is seen as the incontestable father of the punk movement. (see Big, 105-19)
7. Unknown to most music fans, and anonymous to the day, the NY Dolls have made their mark in history. They were partially devoted to the Glam scene (they would dress in a way that was more characteristic to a drag queen, than to a punk), they would sing about sex, taking further VU has started earlier in the decade. They formed a working relationship with Malcolm McLaren (in music and fashion).They have only released two LPs, but their influence has been great: Steve Jones, the Pistols’ guitarist would imitate Johnny Thunders onstage. (see Big, 120-4)
8. Named the Godmother of punk, a singer, poetess, the first woman to transcend gender roles in pop music and make herself respected as an artist, not as merely a woman (opposed to Debbie Harry, another important punk female singer, who chose to exploit her femininity, rather than her intellectual abilities).
9. Iggy Pop, initially lead singer of the Stooges, afterwards a remarkable solo artist, is one of the first images of violence in punk. He was the first to cut himself on stage. He sang about bold things, taboo at the time, and songs like Gimme Danger or I Wanna Be Your Dog are perfect witnesses of this. Iggy was brought up musically in the protective shadow of Andy Warhol. John Cale would produce his first album, while Nico would be his mistress for a while. His relationship (some say it was more than professional) with David Bowie is more than just a friendship: Bowie would revive his career and name Ziggy Stardust, the bisexual alien, in his honour. Even though their careers will take different paths (nowadays Bowie prefers to close his eyes on his punk past), their legacy is as present as in the past, and is depicted (as an allusion only, due to Bowie threatening to take legal action) in the movie Velvet Goldmine, ironically named after a David Bowie song. (see Big, 125-30)

10. Not to mix with garage bands from the eighties on. These garage-punk bands were mainly inspired by the British Invasion style R&B (The Animals, The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, The Who, etc.) and, later, by “high” and/or “smoking” music brought by Hendrix, The Doors and so on, had no technical background, but were characterized by their honesty, raw power (there is actually an Iggy Pop song called Raw Power, with an obvious punk message, also existing in other Stooges and solo songs, such as Search and Destroy) and passion. The most notable names would be The 13th Elevators or Nuggets. (see Big, 22-23)
11. Carroll actually recorded Velvet’s last concert in august 23 (!) 1970, along with the orders made to then waitress Debbie Harry (future lead singer of Blondie). Carroll also participated in poetry reading sessions, “Did-A-Poem”, along with Lou Reed, Patti Smith,… Charles Bukowski and William S. Burroughs. Furthermore, he writes songs with Allen Lanier (Blue Öyster Cult), notably the Catholic Boy LP. (see Big, 50)
12. Art-Punk band formed in 1975, active for more than 20 years as one of the most important groups in the US punk underground.
13. Tom Verlaine (aka. Tom Miller), along with Richard ‘Hell’ Meyers, created the group Television, one of the royalties of (proto-)punk in 1973. Hell will later leave the band due to irreconcilable differences with Verlaine, to form The Voidoids (see Big, 131-5).
14. From Richard Hell and the Voidoids’ LP, Blank Generation.
15. God save the Queen/The Fascist regime/It made you a moron/Potential h-bomb
16. The Misfits created the horror punk genre, which subsequently lead to hardcore punk, and later to hardcore, metal (blending heavy-metal with hardcore lead to violent, manly genres, such as death metal). Without them, acts like Marilyn Manson would have not been possible.
17. The band is technically part of the no-wave movement, alongside with Sonic Youth and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
18. One of the most influential punk bands of the ’80s, even though rather unknown to the wide audience of today. It has been an inspiration to all later punk and/or alternative bands, such as Nirvana. Due to conflicts between Jeff Black (singer) and Kim Wilde (bass), Pixies disbanded, only to be reunited in 2000s.
19. Realizing that there IS no future and that fame IS real and touchable, killed Cobain in the end. Not more than 30 years earlier, Sid Vicious would die in a drug overdose, destroyed by his career as a Pistol (again, fame) and his drug addict (see also Courtney Love) girlfriend’s death. It can be said that these two -real- punks are misunderstood, broken souls that were hurt by the society and that are fighting back through course language and vile acts onstage, but nevertheless would return to their sensitivity offstage.
20. Not to say that they totally plagiarized and adapted his music to modern rock ‘n’ roll standards, but they were pretty close, and also used other inspiration sources, like Howlin’ Woolf for example.
21. Robert Johnson is one of the early 20th century Delta Blues legends. He was one of the best guitar players that Blues has ever seen and influenced many a guitar legends such as Page, Clapton, his influence range going from pop to heavy metal. Also, he might just be the one who started the Faustian trend for artists to sell their souls to the devil in order to become legends. He has allegedly sold his soul at the crossroads, and in a few months’ time he became the greatest blues guitarist the world has ever seen. Of course, white rock ‘n’ rollers have taken this to the extreme, namely following Alistair Crowley, the renown occultist, never thinking about that devil actually not being Satan, but some sort of an African religion daemon. The Beatles included Crowley on their Sgt. Pepper Cover, Plant bought his Loch Ness mansion, Ozzy Osbourne wrote a song about him…
22. Do it yourself.
23. The connection between (pop) art, music and fashion is very strong, not only in the case of punk.
24. Comparing a couple of centuries to a couple of millennia would not need an extra explanation to make a point…
25. Johnny Rotten, for example, is obsessed with A Clockwork Orange the movie (and probably the book as well). A Clockwork… has become the punk manifesto for a whole generation, and often cites literary names and pieces in interviews.
26. As understood by the mainstream.

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