||How to Thoroughly
(or: how to be punk as fuck using
the ten point plan!)
how it is that many bands start out on fire, then rapidly go to crap? Why
is it that the Sex Pistols put out barely more than one killer LP's worth
of stuff, then two decades later could only reissue the same songs as a
live "Filthy Lucre" tour document? Why is the Adolescents blue album their
best? Why is Fear "The Record" their best? Why does the Rollins Bands seriously
suck now, not even in the same solar system with brilliance like "Lifetime"
and that hilarious Henrietta Collins EP? What's wrong?
many interlocking reasons. Conventional wisdom says that a punk band full
of 19 year olds had a full 19 years to write the first album, but only
one year to write the second at age 20. There is some truth to this, as
there is often a 4 or 5 year accumulation of songs on that first record,
but one might also suppose that they would learn their craft from the first
one and do better on the second, not worse. One might suppose so... and
be so wrong about it as to be 180 degrees off. By "learning their craft"
they are concentrating on becoming good musicians who can actually play
their instruments, and while doing so often they have lost sight of what
made their raw punk rock so special. There they were on that first record,
putting every ounce of effort and energy into it, nothing held back, playing
as hard and fast as they physically could. A young punk band often puts
their all into the music, and it shows. Because of that effort the music
has a special quality: it sounds real and honest and immediate. By immediate
I mean that it sounds like the band is playing it fresh, new, and hypercharged
with hormones, with no shadows of tiredness dulling its shininess or efforts
of forethought making it mechanical. Does this mean anything to you? Do
you understand what I'm talking about? There are certain qualities that
make music, all music, but especially punk music effective. In punk, certain
tendencies in popular music have been carried to their logically brutal
conclusions. Punk is rock and roll, sure, but it is maximum rock and roll
as Tim Yohannon (RIP) has pointed out. And many of these qualities have
more to do with emotion, energy, intention, attitude and presence (fully
do what you're doing while youíre doing it) than all the little anal-retentive
details of punk rock tempo and technique. For example while it is true
that a bass picked with a strumming motion, combined with fast, square
pounding drums and buzzsaw guitar are all part of a certain style of punk
technique, you should keep in mind that those style elements rose out of
the musicians' state of mind. That state of mind is the one important part
of punk rock that a band needs to maintain. If they can keep it, their
music will automatically be very punk, even if they go off onto some wild
tangent and try to play a different style (like jazz, rockabilly or blues).
I say try, because it would still come out with that wild excitement that
makes punk rock rule over all other styles.
are the elements that go in to making punk rock punk?
1) Attitude. It's got to
have some sort of attitude as Al of Flipside Fanzine remarked a few years
ago. I've isolated two primary attitudes in punk. One is the attitude of
being fucked up or that the world is fucked up. The other is a second person
personal "fuck you", very in-your-face and angry.
2) Energy. Punk isn't known
for being particularly lethargic. Just the opposite. Energy is necessary
in all forms of music, who the hell wants to listen to some band being
lazy? But it is absolutely critical with punk rock because punk strips
away the bullshit for speed and power in the same way that a full-dress
Harley-Davidson is stripped down into a chopper.
3) Velocity. Not all punk
is fast, but it is a fairly dominant element. Even the 70's punk'n'roll
style bands generally play faster than their merely rock contemporaries.
4) Intensity. This is not
the same thing as energy, though it's strongly interwoven with energy.
Sorta hard to be intense and languid at the same time. There is often a
sense of the band playing with gritted teeth and frozen snarls on their
5) It's "over the top." Johnny
Rotten frankly admitted that his act was over the top. Think about it.
A lot of punk is pretty blatant and anal-expulsive. This probably became
an element of punk through the influence of the 70's glitter/glam bands.
(Allow me to do an aside here about over-the-top. Metal is over-the-top
also. The difference is Attitude [see above]. Punk is over-the-top with
an attitude of "Fuck you" or "everything's fucked." Metal on the other
hand has the attitude of "Arenít we pretty and sexy? You should come give
us coke and blowjobs after the show." Between metal attitude and punk attitude
is wrestling attitude, combining 70's punk's blatant bullshitting with
metal's "I am the best." Wrestling is extremely over-the-top, and its attitude
[I am baad!] bridges the two musical types. So just being over-the-top
is not enough to be punk. Punk needs many of these elements I'm naming
here, the more the better!)
6) Intention. Real punk rock
has a strong intention that is usually either subversive (an intention
shared by early reggae) or destructive. Punk bands look to thoroughly fuck
something up: maybe themselves, maybe the government, maybe McCorporation,
7) Honesty. 70's punk'n'roll
had a tendency to be honest by lying and posing so blatantly that you knew
they were full of it. And they knew you knew. Sex Pistols and Dictators
are a couple of obvious examples. 80's punk, spearheaded by the DC bands
that triggered the straightedge movement, added brutal honesty so intense
that at times anything less than the metaphysical truth was rejected; and
anyone who wasn't up front and real was slagged as a "poseur." Naturally
there were still lots of punk bands during the 80's who werenít really
honest, but they often had to pretend to be! I find that really funny because
it's an exact inversion of the 70's bands!
8) Urgency. Punk rock often
has a sense of urgency, a "right now, let's go!" That's one reason why
it's so exciting, and live shows are so addictive. Without urgency... who
9) Jaggèd aesthetics.
Aesthetics (beauty and ugliness) behaves in the mind not unlike sound waves
and electronic wave forms. Visualize what I'm going to say next as if it
were on a sillyscope (oscilloscope). The waveform of punk tends to be jaggèd,
squared off or change shape abruptly. An effective way to do this in punk
is to put the sudden up-and-down volume of the main pop of the drum beat
on the snare exactly between the counts: one-AND-two-AND-three-AND-four-AND.
As the listener will instinctively try to groove with the count, hitting
in between them has the effect of jerking the person off-rhythm. (This
same "every other" technique becomes an abomination when it is blanderized
into radio pop's lazy one-TWO-three-FOUR beat.) Most popular music uses
smooth, rounded waveforms that are pleasant and soothing. Punk waveforms
are nearly straight up-and-down peaks and valleys, particularly in the
drumming, but also in the harsh vocals, buzzsaw guitars and massage-your-face
bass. Most people interpret such wave shapes as unaesthetic. I won't argue.
Punk is ugly, but keep in mind it's deliberately ugly.
10) Unrehearsed immediacy.
One could also call this a sense of "spontaneity." No music is ever truly
spontaneous. Every band has to go into their garage or "lockout" and practice.
But a performance needs to be delivered without any sense of deliberation.
This is why raw garage rock is often labeled "punk." There is a amateurish
"just do it" approach to punk that is weirdly similar to the freely flowing
creativity of the best jazz, only without jazz's goddamn masturbatory noodling.
Jazz frees the musician's creativity, allowing it to flow unrestricted
from the spirit to the instrument. Punk is normally done with limited instrumentation
(3 chords, barre chords, square drumming), which restrictions frees the
expression of physical and emotional energy instead, as the band plays
as hard as possible. Intense effort channeled through a narrow medium in
this way can be explosive. If, IF!, and only if nothing is held back. The
most narrow and restricted style of punk is oi. A bad oi band is horrible,
disgustingly boring bad rock and roll. But a good oi band is a near religious
experience as they explosively throw everything theyíve got into spontaneous
expression through the restricted style.
conventional explanation for bands sucking on their later works is the
favorite (sarcasm alert!) one of the anti-capitalist crowd. The band decides
that living off their parents or girlfriends blows chunks so they go after
money. They decide to make music that will make money, and that usually
isn't punk rock! So they slow it down (Nirvana unfuckingplugged), blanderize
it -- that is to say make it inoffensive (Circle Jerks' and Jawbreaker's
last albums), deintensify it (Chili Peppers), mix other styles into punk
(Chili Peppers and Offspring), or mix punk into a dead older style to revitalize
it enough to make it interesting again (Metallica, whose old Misfits covers
shred!). The intention here has moved from rocking hard, to selling records
instead. Sometimes they succeed. Sometimes they suck eggs.
thing that fucks up many "punk" bands is that they have zero clue as to
why to play a certain way. All art is based on ideas. Music is art -- and
despite what some people claim, punk rock is music (ha ha). There is a
definite philosophical basis for each wave of style that rises up through
the underground. With the hippie wave there was a rejection of violence
and an embracing of peace and love on an emotional level, coupled with
a relaxed mental state. This is reflected in the softly bright and earthy
colors, the rounded shapes of their graphic art, and the swirling dissociation
of their psychedelic rock. Of course they took it too far, and the punk
wave rose up in rejection of idiocy such as unconditional love and Gandhi
style pacifism. So the punk wave overreacted with hate and violence. The
bands of that era expressed this philosophy of violent rejection ("anti")
as a natural consequence of growing up under those conditions. They didn't
have to think it through, because their reasons were all around them. They
and punks as a whole, rejected hippie pacifism to embrace physical courage.
This ranged from people like Tony Adolescent (a really nice guy) who has
zero interest in fighting, but will if shit goes down (read the lyrics
to his ADZ song "Where Were You?"), to violent pricks (I'm not naming any
names!) who picked fistfights, stabbed people and even used guns. The common
denominator was manliness (even among the women), and a rejection of wussiness.
I see many of today's "punk" bands without a clue, probably because they
didn't grow up in 70's post-hippie/stagflation/disco doofus culture.
more to punk philosophy than just that narrow example above of physical
courage. Think about it and you should be able to puzzle out all the ideas
that underlie punk philosophy. Start with rejection of authority, defiance
of convention, deliberately ugly aesthetics, etc ... and a lot more. (Everyone
keep in mind that no matter what style of music you do, you still have
to be able to write catchy, interesting songs, so don't neglect that side
of it. Good songwriting requires a clear mind and the ability to image
sounds in the "mind's ear." So don't screw up your creativity with too
many drugs. You'll get away with it at first simply because of the vitality
and resilience of youth. Eventually, too much of anything, even alcohol,
will interfere with your writing.)
So I say
to people in punk bands: want to thoroughly suck? Then ignore the 10 points
of punk rock I've laid down here and go do something different. It's your
right. You can suck as much as you want. Play slow and lazily. Stay stoned
on pot 24-7 for the next 10 years. Wank out something saleable. But don't
ask me to listen to your lame, weak music if you do. The more of the above
ten are present in your music, the punker you'll be. The fewer, the suckier.
Sucky may be saleable, but it still sucks. Nyah!
This article originally
appeared in Flipside Fanzine