A Brief History of Punk . . . But First, Green Day Wins a Grammy!
It makes me extremely proud to make punk rock the biggest music in the world right now.
—Green Day bassist Mike Dirnt,
quoted in a September 21, 2005,
article in the East Bay Express
In 2005, Green Day won the Grammy award for “Best Rock Album” for their 2004 release American Idiot. In fact, American Idiot wasn’t the band’s first Grammy—Green Day received the 1994 Grammy for Best Alternative Music Performance, too. But Green Day’s triumph at the 2005 ceremony felt . . . different. For one, the 2005 Grammy Awards proved something of an upset: Ray Charles’s Genius Loves Company, the sentimental favorite, took the honors for “Album of the Year,” but many felt that American Idiot was the better, more relevant effort.
As “Album of the Year,” American Idiot certainly carried all the elements the award should commemorate. For one, American Idiot was both the most critically acclaimed album of the year and (most important to the Grammy voters) a massive commercial success. It also felt thrillingly relevant, as the title track and other songs pointedly commented on the declining state of our world. American Idiot sounded more than anything like an expression of life midway through the first millennium: as exuberant and passionate as it is cynical and jaded, it struck a universal (barre) chord with many.
Also, American Idiot represented a comeback on two fronts. Green Day had been on a stylistic wane for some time, and had never been a critical favorite; the same could’ve been said for their chosen genre, “pop punk.” American Idiot’s transcendent success changed all that. Green Day’s Grammy was the most significant embrace from the music-business mainstream of music descended from punk rock yet: in years previous, the music biz was always happy to make money off punk rock, but always reluctant to give it any respect. “Ten years ago, a lot of people [wrote us off],” Green Day bassist Mike Dirnt exclaimed to Entertainment Weekly. “‘That’s just a snotty little band from the Bay Area.’” But Green Day’s Grammy moment showed that punk, after years of growth, just might be ready for prime time. Punk was now “classic.” The outsiders had won. Right?
In fact, the peers and followers of Green Day in the punk world they had exploded out of had varying reactions to American Idiot’s Grammy win. “I think it’s amazing,” exclaims Chuck Comeau, drummer for the popular pop punk band Simple Plan. “I’m absolutely stoked and happy for them. It’s amazing that this kind of music is so anti-establishment but goes on to win a Grammy from the most stuck-up organization in the music world. It’s amazing how far it’s traveled, how far we came from being totally underground to being recognized as important, viable, and serious. Lots of people don’t take it seriously, but a lot of the pop-punk songs are really important—they’re fucking great, amazing pop songs. It’s amazing they’re being recognized. It gives us a lot of hope that our music will get to that level. Winning a Grammy is nothing to be embarrassed about; it’s definitely a goal of ours.”
At the same time, Comeau sees Green Day’s Grammy win as a beacon pointing the way out of the pop-punk ghetto. “We don’t want to stop at being a punk band, but here’s the thing, though: we don’t see ourselves as a ‘punk’ band, and at this point I’m not sure Green Day wants to be limited to being a punk band, either,” Comeau says. “We just want to be a band—not a pop-punk band, not a punk band, just Simple Plan. Take No Doubt: No Doubt came from the Southern California ska scene, and they’re so beyond that now. Every record they pushed the boundaries, and they became just . . . No Doubt. Same with U2 and Weezer—they came from scenes but are now just considered on their own merits. Weezer is just . . . Weezer, U2 is just U2. Those are the models for us now.”
That punk has moved from a cult obsession for insiders to mainstream phenomenon still rankles some purists, however. “As soon as Green Day hit the Grammy awards this year,” Greg Attonitoi, front man for long-running, stalwart indie pop-punkers Bouncing Souls, grumbles with vitriol, “I had to be hospitalized.”
Attonitoi’s anticonformist brio has always been a punk rock mainstay, regardless of its commercial virility. When punk first pogoed its way onto the radar of the 1970s mainstream music scene, Grammy Awards seemed like the last thing on its amphetamine-addled collective consciousness. Still, punk’s Molotov-cocktail immediacy made it seem like it just might be the next big thing. Punk was so assaultive, so trenchant and colorful, so circa now even then, that its success somehow seemed inevitable. And it was, give or take seventeen or so years . . .
Punk’s notorious beginnings have become such a part of mainstream pop music legend, in fact, that going over them seems redundant. Punk is now part of the fabric of the greater culture, a “type” that’s wordless lingua franca shorthand across numerous cultures for a specific kind of person and music.
Punk rock as it’s thought of today began in New York City during the mid to late 1970s, spawning itself in Manhattan dive bars like the now-infamous CBGB—its name an acronym for “Country, bluegrass, and blues,” chosen well before anyone knew it would become punk’s Mecca.
In such appropriately ramshackle, almost improvised environments, bands like the Ramones, Blondie, and Richard Hell and the Voidoids cannibalized everything rebellious, trashy, and authentic (and often trashily authentic) from pop music history. These young rebels were hellbent on creating a new formal language of rock music out of their stylistic clusterfuck collage. They succeeded all too brilliantly, resulting in one of the twentieth century’s most important art movements—although one whose legacy just may have been to self-destruct. That it might destroy itself under the weight of so many platinum plaques, well . . . no one saw that one coming.
If anything, early punk influences read like a history of defiance in pop music up to that point. Many of the first wave of New York punk bands looked to the stripped-down strum and leather-jacketed switchblade style of 1950s rock and roll, perceiving a minimalist immediacy in the raw rave-ups of Chuck Berry and Elvis. They soaked up the amphetamined, black-nail-polished androgynous sexuality of glam-rock à la the New York Dolls and Bowie along with the brassy, torn-fishnet cattiness of 1960s girl-group pop. Most of all, the punks emulated the feedback-drenched debauchery of the Velvet Underground, which was the art-school educated big-city cousin to another punk trope, the stomping, simpleton sneer of 1960s garage rock like the Stooges, who featured a key proto-punk icon in its frontman, a young Iggy Pop. “I didn’t know much about what was happening at CBGB’s, and all of that,” Pop explains in Please Kill Me. “I mean, I thought there must be two or three bands in the universe that weren’t complete dicks, but I never thought, Oh, punk is happening, it’s taking over and gonna be big and huge.”
New York’s proto-punk fringe contained enough artsy types to keep a balance of improvisational experimentation and a social critique of moderne society going. Some, of course, just wanted to be obnoxious and loud, but punk was the twain where all forms of irreverence could meet and hang out. Punk was indeed one of the first moments in pop music where a youth culture movement self-consciously critiqued not just society, but the style of music and art movements within that society. And despite punk’s media image of hooliganism—thanks to the Ramones’ street-gang persona and ironic, taboo-threatening humor that evoked underground comics of the time—the early New York scene was surprisingly diverse.
The Ramones’ self-titled 1976 debut album was primal three-chord monte, reducing rock and roll to its barest, fastest essentials. Its monochrome guitars, village-idiot yelling, and sheer velocity set the tone—song titles like “Blitzkrieg Bop” and “Chain Saw” served as truth in advertising manifestos, perfectly capturing the band’s sound in words. In reality, The Ramones were just one facet of the early New York punk scene, of the CBGB’s era. Coexisting alongside them were bands that vitally reflected different influences.
There was the arch retro pop of Blondie, given a heavy dose of Y-chromosome postfeminist kick courtesy of sex symbol front woman Debbie Harry, who made a career out of blonde ice-queen charisma. Then there were “New Wave” synth-pop forerunners Suicide, who juxtaposed violent, reverbed-out scenarios over raw soundscapes of primitive, thumping electronics; without Suicide, the template for bands like Depeche Mode would never have existed.
Then there were the bohemian punks, leather-bound poetic artistes like Patti Smith, Richard Hell, and Tom Verlaine, the iconic, reedlike frontman/co-guitarist for Television. Fronting her self-named band, Patti Smith outrageously reinvented the androgynous cock-rock sex symbol epitomized by Mick Jagger and Jim Morrison in her own tragic-romantic persona that reeked of Rimbaud. Likewise, Television’s Verlaine was like a downtown, Soho art-scene makeover of a “beat” poet. As such, Television were arguably the most virtuoso musicians of the scene, their angular, twisty songs built on lyrical, epic guitar solos that evoked jammy, San Francisco-style counterculture rock of the ’60s more than more stereotypical punk influences. Between these already young archetypes lay the intentionally awkward art-schoolers the Talking Heads. The Heads’ paranoid-android honky funk would find itself ubiquitous by the mid-2000s, landing in both the formal ambition of Radiohead (who took their name from a Talking Heads song) and the akimbo body music of ’80s-redux bands like Franz Ferdinand. “In New York, there were bands like Blondie, Talking Heads, Patti Smith, the Ramones, all that shit,” says Tony Bevilacqua, guitarist for the Distillers, one of the most vital bands to evolve out of today’s contemporary punk movement. “They were all different. They all looked different. They all played different. That was punk rock. That was rad.”
Punk’s greatest impact, however, was to show how decrepit and out of touch popular music had become. By the late 1970s, the heyday of the Rolling Stones and the Beatles was over; those artists had already become “classic rock,” a genre stratified into an FM radio format. Soft rock and manufactured disco made up the Top 40 sound of the day. Epic, prog-rock (Yes, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Jethro Tull, Genesis, Pink Floyd) was the rock sound of choice—bloated, conceptual, navel-gazing. Too many rock bands released what could be called concept albums or rock operas—state-of-the-art symphonic and overdubbed within an inch of their lives.
“It’s easy to forget that just a little over a year ago there was only one thing: the first Ramones album,” iconoclast rock critic Lester Bangs wrote in his brilliant 1977 essay “The Clash” for Creem magazine, reprinted in the anthology Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung. “Better Slaughter and the Dogs at what price wretchedness than one more mewly-mouthed simper-wimper from Linda Ronstadt. Buying records became fun again, and one reason it did was all these groups embodied the who-gives-a-damn-let’s-just-slam-it-at-’em spirit of great rock’ ’n’ roll.” It’s no surprise, then, that when punk erupted out of England in the form of the Sex Pistols, Pistols frontman Johnny Rotten caused controversy by wearing a homemade “I Hate Pink Floyd” shirt.
“In the ’70s, punk was about taking back rock and roll from what it had become—the bloated machine of twenty-minute solos and introverted-musician crap like the Eagles,” explains Matt Kelly, drummer for Boston’s Dropkick Murphys. Yet for some, it’s all come back around again: one man’s punk, it seems, is another man’s dinosaur. “It seems to me like today’s ‘punk’ has a lot of parallels with the dinosaur rock of the ’70s,” Kelly adds. “Now it’s harder than ever to do something interesting and original because of the popularity ‘punk’ holds in mainstream music,” says Matt Skiba of neo-punk combo Alkaline Trio.
These feelings aren’t new, but rooted in punk’s dadaist tradition of destroying tradition, which inevitably resulted in a Phoenix-like rebirth. In Lipstick Traces, Greil Marcus describes how refreshing it was the way “punk immediately discredited the music that preceded it; punk denied the legitimacy of anyone who’d ever had a hit, or played as if he knew how to play. Destroying one tradition, punk revealed a new one.”
London’s Calling . . . And the World Picks Up the Phone
As far as punk rock goes, the English punk movement was really the shot heard ’round the world. The U.K.’s embrace of this new sound and style was the moment when punk became a known concept in the popular consciousness, a suitably colorful subject for tourist postcards featuring Day-Glo mohawked punks on London’s Kings Road.
Still, punk remained anything but a mass-market phenomenon in terms of real record sales for many years following its first wave. The Sex Pistols’ debut album, 1977’s Never Mind the Bollocks, has only recently achieved platinum status (over one million units shipped), in 2004, over two and half decades after its release. “Mass movements are always so unhip,” Legs McNeil wrote in Please Kill Me. “That’s what was so great about punk. It was antimovement, because there was knowledge there from the very beginning that with mass appeal comes all those tedious folks who need to be told what to think. Hip can never be a mass movement.”
Regardless, punk exploded in England when the Brits got their first dank whiff of the Ramones’ proletarian shabby chic, all DIY (do it yourself) attitude and speedy two-minute songs packed full of urban alienation they could relate to. The moment the Ramones descended upon cool Britannia’s shores, it was over. “Our first show in England was July 4, 1976, the weekend of [the United States’] Bicentennial, which I thought was metaphorically appropriate,” Ramones manager Danny Fields said in Please Kill Me. “Here it was the two hundreth anniversary of our freedom from Great Britain, and we were bringing Great Britain this gift that was going to forever disrupt their sensibilities.” “When we went to England, things happened so fast, it was unbelievable,” Ramones bassist Dee Dee Ramone added. “I thought I was a huge rock star.”
Meet the new rock, definitely not the same as ye olde rock. In the wake of the Ramones, writing album-side-length songs about, say, Hobbits and Middle Earth (à la Led Zeppelin) and prancing around the stage in Renaissance Faire tights while playing flute (per Jethro Tull) seemed dangerously out of touch. In then-prime minister Maggie Thatcher’s iron rule of England, dole lines were long and the youth were angry. Enter the Sex Pistols, stage left. The Sex Pistols’ first single declared “Anarchy in the U.K.,” and it proved a call to arms for the disenfranchised. “The Sex Pistols came around like a political movement,” says Brody Dalle, singer, songwriter, and guitarist for the Distillers. “There was political unrest and depression in England. No money, no jobs, factories; just a gray and drab life. They were fighting against something—and Steve Winwood wasn’t exactly going to tell you what was going on in the world.”
Musically, Never Mind the Bollocks was as subtle as an air raid alarm, about as loud and no less frightening: its walls of distortion guitar, anti-establishment lyrics taking on everything from S&M to the beloved Queen, and most of all Johnny Rotten’s defiantly atonal caterwaul, all felt so different, so fresh, so ahead of its time. It still shocks today. “It remains new because rock and roll has not caught up with it,” Greil Marcus writes in Lipstick Traces. “Nothing like it had been heard in rock and roll before, and nothing has been heard since—though, for a time, once heard, that voice seemed available to anyone with the nerve to use it.” “If I had to choose one record to listen to, it would be Never Mind the Bollocks,” wrote Fat Mike, bassist/vocalist for NOFX, one of the leaders of today’s neo-punk movement, on the Web site for his record label Fat Wreck Chords. “That record changed my life.”
England’s punk cavalry rode in quickly behind the Pistols—the Damned, the Buzzcocks, the Stranglers, and so on—creating what smelled to the outside world like a visible movement. One of the greatest rock bands ever, the Clash, erupted out of this first wave of British punk; showing even greater musical range, intelligence, and political bite than the Pistols, the Clash released records of such vitality, they remain as classic and timeless as anything by, say, the Who or the Stones.
Yet punk was gaining international notoriety for its antics more than for its music. The Sex Pistols swore on television. They wore swastikas on T-shirts (designed, with willful paradox, by their Jewish Svengali manager, genius punk mastermind Malcolm McClaren). True to their self-destructive nature, the Pistols flamed out spectacularly, playing their last-ever show in 1978 at a tour stop at San Francisco’s Winterland Theater. Soon after, Pistols bassist Sid Vicious made headlines by seemingly committing suicide after he was arrested for killing girlfriend Nancy Spungen.
Around the time U.K. punk made itself heard, the arguments about what really is punk began in earnest, and would continue to percolate for years after. Check the Internet—“what is punk?” remains still the number-one issue of discussion central to punk culture today. Punk’s “sellout” epitaph was begun seconds after it started, and it’s still being written. “It’s funny, but now ‘punk’ was being used to describe something the world thought of as English . . . ,” Legs McNeil writes in Please Kill Me. “Four years earlier, we had pasted the Bowery with bumper stickers that said ‘WATCH OUT! PUNK IS COMING!’ Now that it was here, I didn’t want to have anything to do with it.”
Copyright © 2007 by Matt Diehl. All rights reserved.