Punk is a music that is inherently hilarious. To try to make serious punk music is like trying to make serious happy hardcore. That's never been its purpose for me.
It has always been my way to de-value the fashionable, light-hearted, impulsive traits that people associate with punk, because punk is more than that, so much more. Those elements become trivial in the light of the experience that punkers share.
– Greg Graffin
Punk is ancient: say 40 years old. Anything this old in the modern age will in fact be several different things uneasily sharing a name. 3
It’s easy to view punk as necessarily political and necessarily left-wing. But neither are generally true. Just one instance before we get into the weeds: The Ramones, the central example of a punk band, have exactly one even vaguely political song, a mild response to one faux pas by Reagan. (Their guitarist was a crabby Republican.)
At first, punk was negative: defined by its opposition and not a positive programme; and also as in nihilistic and downbeat, focussing on the worst things in the world for aesthetic reasons.
Punk wasn't new
No Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones in 1977– The Clash
An interminable question among punk fans is when punk started, who counts as the pioneer, who counts as the precursors.
Well, the sound of "Year Zero" 1976 simply wasn't new: the incompetent garage rockers and (a couple of) the 'Kraut' rockers of the late 60s sounded exactly the same as the New Yorkers and Londoners of the late 70s. Television (1973-1978) get tagged as both a proto-punk and a post-punk band: simultaneously before and after, influence and pre-emptive successor. 1
The alliance of pop music and political radicalism wasn't new - consider all the actual social experimentation by the (hated, derided, 'soft') hippies. The hippies did pirate radio and DIY and zines. The hippies actually fought the police en masse, not just at gigs. The largest-scale punk practice, the Punk House or squat is just a tiny wee co-op commune, the sort of thing tried for hundreds of years, and the earliest examples are tied to Andy Warhol.
Even compared to other subcultures, punk is unusually closely tied to its music and fashion. Are there punks who don't like punk rock, who don't like patches and studs? Not many. What we call a counterculture is a vague mix of subversive aesthetics, politics, and lifestyles. Sometimes it's principled, and sometimes it is just about the thrill of being contrary, of 'countersignalling'.
The punk look was kinda new, but really just a stronger form of greaser and hard mod style.
Nihilism and anti-establishment art is very old. And even the punks would have known about the aggressively negative art of 50s England.
What was novel about punk was not its content or its form, but its reception: nasty music at the top of the charts, all kinds of weirdos on TV with major label contracts, and a permanent change to the available palette of pop music.
What is novel about punk is its longevity: a radical arty youth movement of the mid C20th which did not lose all of its adherents, only most of them, and which continues to recruit from every new generation of contrary individualist teenagers.
Fashion movement that became political, or vice versa?
I was messianic about punk, seeing if one could put a spoke in the system in some way
Another common talking point is "fashion punks": the superficial apolitical poseurs who dilute or co-opt the true scene.
You can guess what I'm going to say here: this is a perfect inversion of the origins of punk, among NY art schoolers and literal avant-garde haute couture (haut-en-bas). (Anti-fashion is still fashion: have you seen any catwalks lately?)
Sid Vicious wore a swastika to shock, while out on the town with his Jewish girlfriend; he wasn't an outlier. Maybe half of Misfits songs are about murder, rape, paedophilia, abduction, mind control, body horror, cannibalism. Insincerity was there from the start. Larping extremism.
No restriction on the "taste" of your lyrical content (nuclear terror, foetal meals, Hakenkreuz) but authoritarian restriction on style.
"Fashion" is probably too narrow: this kind of punk was shock art, instances from all media.
Why did early punk seem political?
It's now hard to imagine a Western government banning pop music, but it wasn't long ago. Everyone is an unlicenced radio station now, via Youtube or podcasting or whatever.
An analogy: people look at photographs of Victorians and see stiff joyless people. But this is a mistake, two mistakes: you had to hold extremely still for a long time to get the exposure to come out without blurring, and the people in the photographs are disproportionately upper-class and thus unusually mannered.
Punk needed official disdain to feel relevant. Outside the west, it is quite often subject to oppression far beyond what the original American and British punks underwent.
- March 1974: Television debut at CBGB
- Autumn 1974: Westwood's clothes shop reopens as SEX, the edgiest place around.
- August 1974: Ramones debut at CBGB
- January 1976: Issue #1 of 'Punk' magazine
- June 1976: Sex Pistols at the Lesser Free Trade Hall
- December 1976: Sex Pistols on the Bill Grundy show. 3rd ever televised "fuck".
- May 1977: "God Save the Queen" reaches #2 in the UK charts. A blank space is left on some charts (but not the official BBC one, and not #1, contrary to punk lore).
What is ideology anyway?
Here I only mean "ideology" in the new neutral sense of 'a set of political beliefs'. (Whereas Marxists and politicians use it as an insult.)
Even late, post-80s punk is anti-political in one sense: it avoids existing social mechanisms like democracy or lobbying or markets. It is difficult and thankless to work within the system as a punk - if you succeed in changing something, then you will have failed, by becoming part of the establishment. Punks seem more likely to spoil votes. And the idea of a punk politician feels paradoxical, just a stunt.
- Mumia Abu-Jamal
- Terry Eagleton
- Henry Rollins
- Jello Biafra
- Greg Graffin
So it wasn’t political, and then it was.
Empty factories to the east and all our waste
The shape of things that came, shown on the broken worker's face
To the west you'll find a silicon promised land
Where machines all replace their minds with systematic profit plans
The course of human progress staggers like a drunk
Its pace is quick and heavy but its mind is slow and blunt
I look for optimism but I just don't know
Its seeds are planted in a poison place where nothing grows
Just one political song, just one political song
To drop into the list that stretches years and years long
Just one political song, just one political song
To drop into the list that stretches years and years long
One way to handle the messiness and variance of political ideologies is to give up the search for sufficient beliefs, away from the attempt to cleanly distinguish true punks from fake punks. Instead you can try splitting it into
- core beliefs (the essence of the thing),
- adjacent beliefs (other commonly found themes),
- peripheral (fringe but distinctive) beliefs.
This clunky approach lets us account for the mind-jarring variety of people that all call themselves liberals, or socialists, or whatever. The downside is that this always makes the “core” sound banal, because it has to be something that appeals to everyone.
A first attempt
- Social conscience
Anti-elitism. Entails amateurism, hatred of pretence. (This is not the same as egalitarianism, below.)
Anti-establishment. The System. If you have the energy you might dream of breaking away and creating a perfect part inside the evil whole, the punk house.
Individualism. Entails nonconformity; customized, deviant appearance [itself a new uniform]; drugs; refusal of ordinary roles. Free thought. 4
Snobbery. A rejection of pop culture, as brainwashing commercialised shit or just shit. One in a series of rejections one must conduct to be truly DIY. (Entails abhorrence of popularity, the fear and hatred of “selling out”. Often painted as anti-consumerism.
Inverse snobbery. Off-hand rejection of bourgeois quality and tradition. Generally not because of a Marxist critique, but because boring or inaccessible or old. (This is just anti-elitism again.) 5
Authenticity. Honesty and autonomy as far more important than quality. DIY and amateurism and abhorrence of profit.
Irony. A lot of punk is self-consciously dumb fun, and a lot of the rest covers extreme things for the hell of it.
Nihilism / Pessimism. Focus on the worst things in the world. War, crime, atrocities, etc. Often identification with the freakish, the low, the cheap and the taboo, for kicks (Lou Reed, Iggy) or semi-political art (Patti Smith). Obsession with kitsch and cool. (Richard Hell) Sometimes also primitivism.
Egalitarianism. But often in a specific inverted way: “We are all sub-human scum. You’re no better than me, I no more than you.”. Entails the DIY ethic, bands playing in the crowd - but more importantly an usual degree of activism, direct action, civil disobedience.
look at you, then look at me / there is no difference I can see– D.R.I, rather than say Barney the Dinosaur
Internationalism. One reason punk remains so lively is that people listen to foreign bands, and then somehow manage to book them for international tours. This makes the community much larger, more interesting, and more sustainable. Among the few other cultures which pull this off to this degree are metal, Art and football.
Anti-capitalism. Common but not as common as you’d think from outside. Few bands really took it on with real seriousness. Entails guilt about consumerism, disdain for material comforts, opportunistic squatting, freeganism. 6
Rationalism. Atheism, Skepticism, lip service to the great social theorists. This is the upside of basing your worldview on Noam Chomsky’s.
Animal rights & environmentalism. I don’t know numbers, but definitely a disproportionate awareness of social justice, ethical and environmental issues, at least where this conforms to the above anti-state, anti-tradition rules. (Entails veganism and BIKEPUNK.)
Syncretism: basically any genre has some band doing the “-punk” version of it. The ska-reggae-dub-punk complex of the early 80s was particularly important. This is the antidote to the purists still listening to dull iterations of exactly the same music forty years on. I think this is yet another factor in punk’s longevity.
MiSanDao, Chinese oi
Working-class consciousness: As in left Oi.
Racism: As in far-right Oi. Apart from the explicit kind, the rest is maybe just the background level of society at large, or maybe exacerbated by the edginess and dark irony. Punk, like its descendent indie music, is disproportionately white, but note that this may be a boring statistical thing.
Feminism: There was a bit of gender flex in punk originally (compare Joey Ramone to Mick Jagger), and many women in the NY mix. But, then hardcore was much more macho than ordinary society. It took a while for the natural mix of feminism and punk to really show up.
New Anarchism. Anarchism was fairly dormant from the end of the Spanish Civil War to the 70s. While it was previously a thing for angry young men, it is now the quintessential youth politics, away from the mannered, literary resistance of Kropotkin or Proudhon, towards the tragically hip Hakim Bey and Howard Zinn and David Graeber.
Libertarianism. I have in mind people like Steve Albini and Frank Kozik), but you see this in the anti-SJW kind of punk a lot - “you can’t judge me”.
Straight edge. Self-control fetishism. No booze, no drugs, often no meat, and sometimes even no casual sex.
It is a style, it became an ideology, and it remains a community. All in all, a good way to spend your teens.
Case study: Against Me!
Sell out or set out against.- Shit Stroll, 1997
it's so much less confusing when lines are drawn like that- Those Anarcho Punks, 2003
When people are either consumers or revolutionaries.
Foul play! There's a target on the audience -- The Shaker, 2005
Vampires! We're only in it for the money -
Diluted! We took the movement to the market -
So fuck us! We totally sold out the scene."
Protest songs! in response to military aggression.- White People for Peace, 2007
Protest songs! trying to stop the soldiers' guns.
The revolution was a lie.- I Was A Teenage Anarchist, 2010
Against Me! are a great example of many phenomena that haunt counterculture bands - and tell-me-where-you-live-I-will-gig-in-your-toilet folk-punk most of all.
- a morbid fear of co-option and "selling out" (i.e. of success);
- the need to sermonize, to confirm one's membership in the unsold-out orthodoxy;
- snobbery ("fucking radio rock!");
- a love of levelling-down;
- utterly restricted aesthetic options.
AM! lived in a place where "major label debut" means not "the beginning of your pro musical career", but its spiritual end. They got out, though only via the most impressive fanbase alienation of recent years. They went from Crass to blink-182, Plan-it X to Sire (and back to DIY)
Why on earth would you attack political idealism? Oh yeah; because it's infested with posture, self-importance, intolerance and wilful technical ignorance. As such, large bits of it are an impersonation of a political movement. Lightly-donned, ill-conceived political idealism is a force preserving the status quo: firstly since, in rejecting due process and reform, it ends up achieving nothing; and secondly because, if-and-when it takes up direct action, it alienates most people, who could help change things on grander scales.
"The personal is political; so, everything is political; and, if you're not making political épater le bourgeois! music then you're a fucking shill. With us or against us. All or nothing."
I don't want to attack DIY; why on earth would you? These folk care about financial and artistic autonomy to the point of only needing to break-even from it (if that). These folk freed themselves (and you) of the self-aggrandizing, fifty-foot-high-stage mythology that chokes rock music. Oh yeah; because in hermiting itself off, it disparages most people and the things most people like; demonizes things which actually do good, like trade; and cos it leads to tall-poppy syndrome.
Despite its screamed historical content, this is really about love across political lines. The bassline is pure doo-wop, a simple addition to the long list of punk songs that ignore the "Year Zero" myth and the neurotic rejection of melody. There's anxious self-consciousness throughout the AM! discography; the last single is just the most blatant one. Then there's their getting tired of pretence; sleep (passivity, peace) is another main motif. ("8 Hours", "Turn those Clapping Hands"). This is as should be; making art which is about many things, many brilliant greys.
2003:Upon signing to Fat Wreck Chords, though - a successful, famously socially progressive, non-corporate, non-RIAA entity that apparently doesn't bother with contracts - there was ideological blood in the water.
Disgruntled fans slashed the tires of their tour van in one town and graffitied it in another (scrawling “remember when you mattered” but misspelling “Against”). At a concert in Texas a protest band called Against Us! played in the parking lot outside the club. A writer for Maximum RocknRoll, the granddaddy of DIY zines, went so far as to issue a fatwa against the band, listing tips readers might find handy for disrupting Against Me! shows (like pouring bleach on their T–shirt table).By the time the pitchfork-toting scene had proven that they were a self-obsessed deadend packed with snobs - AM! were on their way to Warner. The singer recently got into some ugliness with a drunk kid angry at their pop music.
“He came to a show and let off a stink bomb,” Seward says. “We were like, ‘Well, this smells,’ and kept on playing.” Even in a notoriously balkanized subculture, this kind of abuse was over the top..."
The really funny thing is that at no point did they stop being politically radical.
Proportion of songs with specifically political lyrics
- Vivida Vis: 33% ("In the Name of What?" "National Myth" and "This Is Control")
- 12" EP: 40% ("I am Citizen" & "All or Nothing")
- Acoustic EP: 33% ("Those Anarcho Punks", maybe "Reinventing")
- Reinventing Axl Rose: 54% ("Starving", "Jordan's", "Those Anarchos", "Reinventing", "Baby I'm An Anarchist", "8 Hours" sort-of)
- Eternal Cowboy: 28% ("Cliche", "Rice and Bread", "Turn those Clapping Hands" - their best)
- Former Clarity: 29% (sort-of "Justin", "From Her Lips", "Holy Shit!", "Clarity")
- New Wave: 40% ("New Wave", sort-of "Up the Cuts", "White People", "Americans Abroad")
- White Crosses: 40% (1, 2, 6, 10)
So it's not lyrical dilution. The last album even calls out old Robert McNamara's war crimes, in a massive pop-punk chorus.
"Aha!" cries our strawman purist. "But they are politically diluted! Deed over word! Look what they did to Plan-it X! In profiteering, they have abandoned DIY!"
No. This view is an analogue of admitting that you do not listen to music at all; you listen instead to artists, scenes and Propositions.
The backlash against Against Me! is aesthetic. People who reject them for their pop-punk sound and sharp new wardrobe are right in one way - there is no easy way to separate content and style - but dead wrong about the politics of accessible sounds.
2007:It's difficult to pinpoint where they stopped being punk, because I don't care. New Wave and White Crosses are populist, post-emo rock'n'roll bullshit, and a good thing too. New Wave is unpleasantly self-conscious; more than half the album is about the music industry, as if they signed up to Sire just to make a musical report for the underground. Unrepentent too, mind; featuring the tall one out of Tegan and Sara. (And why not.)
What is interesting is that they didn't have to mature into pop-punk, the Green-Day-with-a-vocabulary that they did. As the Eternal Cowboy, the first Fat Wreck release, is a bunch of short vignettes that flirt with all kinds of sounds, deciding what to become. There's something that could become great folk. They might yet develop this more oblique stuff, pull more "Pints of Guinness".
Even the album's name, "New Wave" is a stuck-out tongue - read it as "replacement of punk" the parvenu pop that "co-opted" punk in the 80s... And, with hindsight, the 2005 album title is another sly one.
I do think that, unfortunately, a majority of kids out there aren’t necessarily interested. Instituting a draft might be the only thing that will really make them political. But it’s not just kids, most people in general are happy just to be ignorant to what’s going on.Where does someone's right to prefer ignorance end? I don't know - but slashing someone's tyres for wanting to make slightly different music says a lot about you.
one of the things that makes the punk stance unique is how it seems to assume substance or at least style by the abdication of power: Look at me! I’m a cretinous little wretch! And proud of it!
So many of the people around the CBGB and Max’s scene have always seemed emotionally if not outright physically crippled — you see speech impediments, hunchbacks, limps, but most of all an overwhelming spiritual flatness. You take parental indifference, a crappy educational system, lots of drugs, media overload, a society with no values left except the hysterical emphasis on physical perfection, and you end up with these little nubbins: the only rebellion around, as Life magazine once labeled the Beats. Richard Hell gave us the catchphrase “Blank Generation,” although he insists that he didn’t mean a crowd with all the dynamism of a static-furry TV screen but rather a bunch of people finally freed by the collapse of all values to reinvent themselves, to make art statements of their whole lives.
Unfortunately, such a great utopian dream, which certainly is not on its first go-round here, remains just that, because most people would rather follow. What you’re left with, aside from the argument that it beats singles bars, is compassion. When the Ramones bring that sign onstage that says “GABBA GABBA HEY,” what it really stands for is “We accept you.”
Once you get past the armor of dog collars, black leather, and S&M affectations, you’ve got some of the gentlest or at least most harmless people in the world: Sid Vicious legends aside, almost all their violence is self-directed...
anytime you conclude that life stinks and the human race mostly amounts to a pile of shit, you’ve got the perfect breeding ground for fascism. A lot of outsiders, in fact, think punk is fascist, but that’s only because they can’t see beyond certain buzzwords, symbols, and pieces of regalia...
there’s a difference between hate and a little of the old epater gob at authority: swastikas in punk are basically another way for kids to get a rise out of their parents and maybe the press, both of whom deserve the irritation. To the extent that most of these spikedomes ever had a clue on what that stuff originally meant, it only went so far as their intent to shock. “It’s like a stance,” as Ivan says. “A real immature way of being dangerous.”
(before the good ideology)
- Note that 'Year Zero' is actually originally a Khmer Rouge socialist slogan.
- My own preferred unkind meaning is ideology as unreflective, tribal philosophy.
- Strong evidence that punk isn't one thing: how many other subcultures need a renowned disclaimer like "Nazi Punks Fuck Off"?
- Obviously not literally free thought, since no tight-knit human culture ever manages to allow that.
- I had these snobberies in the core, but in retrospect the old purism is dead: there are now plenty of punks who admit to liking pop, not just Joey, and the noughties were rammed full of punk covers of classic ballads, which is actually how I learned about great pop.
- As always, this coexists with commodity fetishism, e.g. $200 for a rare anarchist cassette tape.