Literary Journalism Project
The Politics of Youth: A History of Punk Rock
“If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution”
“I’m not blaming the kids here. There are a lot of great kids out there who listen to punk rock and take it very seriously. I just think that the world is a different place, and unfortunately punk rock is kind of a dinosaur right now.”
-Brendan Kelly (The Lawrence Arms), in interview
The line-up is an extremely strange one, representing almost all sides of current-day Punk music and even taking us on a trip through the history of styles that have led up to today’s scene. The opening band is a female-fronted Pop-Punk trio from San Francisco, The Flipsides, who most accurately resemble the bee’s-hive swarm of similar-sounding bands following in the wake of Pop radio sensations Blink 182, who seem to want to become Punk’s first teen idols: Ricky Nelson with tattoos. Everything about The Flipsides sounded completely dry and unoriginal, almost somnambular in their chord progressions and stage presence. For a lot of reasons, they seemed like a band that I might have been really into back in 8th Grade. But since most people mature after Middle School, more must be demanded from a band like this. As they played through their short set they looked like they were having fun, though the only reactions that I gathered from the people around me were more along lines of, “Well, they’re pretty boring, but the lead singer is kind of hot.” I hate to wonder if this is what independent music has been reduced to.
The current scene, as influenced and perverted by the major players in the recording industry is rife with watered-down Pop-Punk: no one dilutes their whiskey; would anyone drink it if the bitterness wasn’t there to offer sympathy? Since Punk has suddenly become a popular trend again in the past few years, the majors have quickly snatched up a lot of the most popular and friendliest bands (the ones you might shamefully find your little sister listening to). With this saturation of the current market and videos being played daily on MTV, it’s just not that cool to say you listen to Punk anymore, for the images it conjures are more akin to the mall than to any valid political movement. The danger is as dead as any dinosaur nowadays.
“Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”
-John Lydon (The Sex Pistols), last words ever spoken on stage
Directly after The Flipsides comes the assault of six kilted Scotsmen (one of whom actually plays the bagpipes during most of their songs), the Real McKenzies, who play more traditional, straight-ahead, Punk Rock, bringing about nostalgic references to the original ideals of punk: fast, loud, and very, very rude. This band is completely energetic, bringing the crowd into a pipe-driven frenzy; the guitar players seemed almost gymnastic in their wild and sweat-drenched bodily contortions; the drummer couldn’t stay in his seat for very long before that forbidden beat of Punk took over his body and demanded all of his available stamina. It’s almost as if the Mckenzies were trying to send a retort to the Flipsides and fans of their genre, a friendly middle finger to their entire musical background. The lead singer, Paul Mckenzie, also managed to show us that same finger many a time, though a normally disrespectful gesture like that at a concert like this is both expected and warmly welcomed with the same return from the crowd. Paul, the nice guy he is, did us all a favor and scared off any young kids or mainstream lovers who dared to come to the show with their parents by showing his audience, on more than one occasion, that real Scots truly didn’t wear anything underneath their kilts
This is all about the energy of youth and the “controlled” violence that the exuberance leads to, a lashing out, against every single oppressing agent. This idea is not new; acting out has always been an expected part of youth. But Punk was formulated to combine that youthful outburst with the honest recognition of societal ills. Punk in its birth seemed to be a striking out, a mission of revenge for the modern youth, a rebellion that had no aims other than to destroy the government, committing to a life of anarchy. This was all evident in the group that most often takes the title of Punk Rock’s founders, the Sex Pistols.
Any discussion of the Sex Pistols inevitably leads to examining the integrity of their popularity and influence. Integrity is possibly the most important virtue that a Punk band can have, outside of their music (though, sometimes you must question whether the music is very important for some bands). Everything rides on credibility. A complete dedication to the DIY (do it yourself) ethic is nearly mandatory, and if you sign to a major, that’s it, you’re just another sell-out. This label is surprisingly supportable for as often as it’s been thrown around in discussion, there has been many a case throughout Punk history of bands losing their edge to a label-executives wish for radio-play and success.
The Sex Pistol’s yet-undecided level of credibility came as a result of their being scouted by a major-label rock manager, Malcom MacLaren, and thereby introduced, to the mainstream pop culture, extending a huge influence over a generation of disillusioned British teens. Debates still rage over whether the Pistols and their followers, “No Future” Gutter Punks, were completely manufactured by a corporation or not. It’s truly hard to decide about the Sex Pistols, but the Punk lifestyle that became more and more popular in the late 70’s and early 80’s was certainly a novelty. Walking the streets dressed in leather, spikes, and safety pins, adorned with Mohawks and dangerous scowls, these Punks were feared more for their shock value than anything else. The ideas of social change were flimsy at best, though “Anarchy in the UK” was certainly a popular song for a group of teens playing their instruments poorly and crafting an impact and style from it all. Unfortunately, when the solid political thought came along later to back up the style, the window of shock-opportunity had already closed.
“Resistance should be fun. Resistance isn’t some pain in the ass. It’s not just good for the soul and uplifting spiritually, but it can also be a great kick in the ass. Remember how much fun you had shooting spitwads at the teacher in seventh grade? Imagine apply that kind of attitude to actually fucking with Mitsubishi!”
-Jello Biafra (The Dead Kennedys), in interview with The Onion AV Club
Next up was one of current-day Punk’s most interesting groups, Rise Against, who play an extremely technical combination of Pop-Punk melodies with the aural ferocity typically found in a less melodious act. Rise Against recall visions of early and mid-80’s punk acts, when slam-dancing became such a popular and worrisome tradition. On their slower, more melodic songs, Rise Against had every audience member singing along, there was even one person who made it on to the stage and was still singing every word on beat even while security quickly escorted him off. During their faster songs, their lead singer, Tim McIlrath, showed his true strength, combining rapid-pace melody with enough shouting and screaming to keep everyone on the floor moving. This musical juxtaposition is evident in their writing as well; they combine personal and affecting lyricism with the general feeling of rage for society and American politics that had been dominant in the Punk scene since the beginning of Reagan’s presidency.
Bands like the Dead Kennedys and Agnostic Front took the political extremes that their spiritual predecessors, Johnny Rotten (The Sex Pistols) and Joe Strummer (The Clash), had shocked the world with and made it an incredibly explosive musical force. At this time, it was evident that Punk was here to stay; even if it seemed the initial impact was dead. The community that surrounded Punk was not deterred, however; the decreasing public recognition was welcomed as the chance to return to an underground and elitist scene. With this small, but incredibly tight following, Punk developed: the music got louder, as did the political message.
“All of the early stuff was: “no future, fuck you, fuck the rich, we want their money!” Now it’s like, “we are all well off and we hate money!” Punk started to try and save the world somewhere along the way”
-Efrem Schulz (Death By Stereo), in interview
After Rise Against finished off their fury with a gigantic sing-a-long ending that was incredibly filled with accusations toward the crowd, yet musically powerful, the headliners, The Mad Caddies set up and began playing. What came next was a mix of styles that still somehow managed to stay underneath the Punk umbrella. They manage to throw the offbeats of Ska and Reggae together with some Punk and on some songs, the influences of Dixieland and a strange, yet appropriately-titled genre entitled “Pirate-core”. Their last CD was a surprise: they traded in a lot of their outside influence for Pop-Punk on a lot of tracks, leading to poor reception from both critics and their fans. Luckily, on this tour, they were proving to all of us that they still had it in them, playing a lot of old favorites and trumpeting through some promising new material. Their lead singer, Chuck Robertson, sang through all the songs with his distinctive, varied vocals, supported by the horn section who doubled for backing vocals and hand-claps; truly, there is never a dull moment during this band’s set, even during the slower tempo songs. The music itself was pulled from all over their career and represented a great range, though still tied to the Pop-Punk governance of the 1990’s.
Fat Wreck Chords, the label that both Rise Against and The Mad Caddies are currently signed to, has been one of the most important factors in forming the Punk scene in the last ten years. From its debut in 1992, Fat Wreck has led the charge for both the popularity of skate punk in the mid-90’s and current trend of Pop-Punk (though they avoid a lot of the clichéd bands in this genre, thankfully), so much so that there has often been a stereotype of the Fat Wreck sound. While this characterization may have been true for a good amount of time, they used this “sound” to help to resurrect the popularity of Punk music while never selling out to the mainstream success of the other major Punk label, Epitaph Records. This commitment to integrity in the face of monetary temptations has led to great deal of respect, even if not everybody can agree on the music’s quality.
The same arguments have gone on throughout all of the history involved with Punk. Argument itself, the debate over bands, local scenes, and labels is an integral part of the whole community. Not because the music style necessarily evokes a violent nature as some would believe, but because it affects each person differently and evokes a passion that is often defended rigorously. While the mainstream dissemination may have killed Punk’s power and possibilities in real life, the music will continue to be original, the message strong, and shows like this one will certainly still leave the kids satisfied.
Thomson, Steven, ed. The Tenacity Of The Cockroach. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2002.
Kelly, Brendan. E-mail interview. 06 Mar. 2003.
Schulz, Efrem. E-mail interview. 25 Feb. 2003.
PLyrics.com. 2002. <www.plyrics.com>.
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The Clash Discography. <http://www.geocities.com/SunsetStrip/Palladium/1028/main_discography.html>.