A closer look at the age-old question of whether punk is dead reveals quite the opposite – the sentiments behind the genre may have changed, and it may have but a shadow of its former social relevance, but punk is very much alive and kicking despite today’s naysayers.
“God save the Queen,” is the first line that Sex Pistols frontman Johnny Rotten snarls on the band’s seminal 1977 single, titled exactly that. Even if you have no idea who Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols are – in which case you might just have been living under a rock for most of your lifetime – the monikers should leave you in no doubt that this song is hardly meant to rally the nation together in unflinching support for the monarchy. And unsurprisingly enough, Rotten immediately follows up that normally oh-so-patriotic line with – for those of you that know it, sing along! – a hearty cry of, “The fascist regime!”. Unsurprisingly, it raised enough eyebrows back in the day to warrant a boycott by both the BBC and the IBA, and its peak at second place on the UK Singles Chart led to widespread accusations that the charts had been fixed to prevent an anti-establishment hymn from reaching the top spot. Such an anarchical upset couldn’t even have been passed off as unexpected. The Labour government’s rule was only fostering serious industrial discontent, and the country was just two years away from seeing the election of Margaret Thatcher and the dawn of a new (and equally tumultuous) Conservative regime. It should therefore come as no surprise, to both ardent punk fans and those completely ignorant of the genre, that God Save the Queen was only the beginning.
The punk movement burst to the forefront of the British music scene in the 70s thanks to the foul-mouthed antics of Johnny Rotten and co. on national television; and the genre reached its peak in the 80s headed by the likes of The Clash, X-Ray Spex, and The Slits. Each of the bands involved in the punk scene had their own uniquely identifying traits – to name a few, the distinctive voice of The Clash’s Joe Strummer, the unconventional addition of a saxophonist to X-Ray Spex’s lineup, and the complete and utter inability of the Sex Pistols’ bassist Sid Vicious to actually play the bass live. But these bands all initially shared one thing in common. Abrasive guitar music, bemoaning all manner of faults with the nation, was the flag they flew; rallying thousands under their politically-charged attacks on destructive socio-economic constructs. The Clash’s first single White Riot, inspired by a large altercation in Notting Hill, took aim at the blatantly racist attitudes of the Metropolitan Police at the time; while Oh Bondage, Up Yours presented a scathing critique of consumerist capitalism. But that isn’t to say that the genre remained stuck in its guitar-oriented, distortion-driven ways. The Clash, at the forefront of punk throughout the 80s, paved the way for a more experimental approach to punk through their incorporation of funk, jazz, and African rhythms in their later albums London Calling and Combat Rock. Punk had always been about subversion; whether it meant a musical diversion from the norm, or an ideological safe haven for those who were discontented with the state of the nation. It is this notion of refuge amidst a turbulent political and socio-economic climate that draws young and old alike to the genre today, even as the decades continue to fly by. No society is perfect. So by that logic, shouldn’t punk always have a place in music, as an outlet for protest and a cry for change?
Joe Corré, son of punk icons Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, burnt £5 million worth of punk memorabilia in a highly controversial protest against the acceptance of punk into the norm today
The answer isn’t that simple. 2016 in the UK saw the dawn of what was officially declared “the year of the safety pin”, with a nationwide celebration of the 40th anniversary of punk. The festivities spread far and wide, much to the horror of hard-line fans of the genre – respectable, age-old institutions like the British Library hosted exhibitions proclaiming the glory of the scene; overturning the reputation and legacy of punk itself as the ever-present, loyal opposition to the establishment. The year-long festival itself was given royal approval by the Queen herself; the very target of Johnny Rotten’s vitriol all those forty years ago. And as if that wasn’t testament enough to the death of punk and all it stood for, Johnny Rotten himself (now peaceably going under his real name John Lydon) stated in an interview with the Quietus this year that he “would miss the Queen when she died”. The irony of this is not lost on some. Joe Corré, son of punk icons Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, burnt £5 million worth of punk memorabilia in a highly controversial protest against the acceptance of punk into the norm today. “Punk has become another marketing tool to sell you something you don’t need,” he proclaimed, just before setting fire to one of the largest collections of records, fashion, and collectibles from the era. It’s not hard to see where he’s coming from, either – the effectiveness of a ‘counter-culture’ dies with widespread acceptance. This leads us back to the question at hand – is the sentiment behind punk completely dead and gone today?
The time for destruction is over
Before we go on to look at that question, it makes sense to look at the genre with a more rounded scope, and to consider the similar punk revolution that also began across the pond in the 70s. Early American punk is perhaps best known for propagating destruction, anarchy, and mindless fury – rebellion without a cause to contrast against Britain’s generally more organised movements. The likes of Black Flag, T.S.O.L., and The Dead Kennedys – arguably the most well-lauded American punk bands – originated in California, which eventually grew into a hotspot for rowdy, sweat-drenched gigs and nightly fighting within crowds. It is the legacy of this vein of punk that mostly lives on today in modern American punk bands, even if the genre has transformed itself altogether.
The boozing-and-cruising lifestyle didn’t sit well with others, though. A separate vein of punk – the straight-edge movement – was later spawned by Ian MacKaye, the frontman of another seminal punk band, Minor Threat. Straight-edge, aptly named for its followers’ refusal to partake in the excessive vices and violence that the hardcore punk movement enjoyed so much, soon became a notable force of its own; a counter-revolution within the punk revolution itself. While still outnumbered by those who believed that punk was almost synonymous with hedonism, straight-edge punks were easily identifiable by an X drawn on their clothing or backs of their hands – funnily enough, the same X is drawn on the backs of under-aged concert-goers’ hands in America today as a sign that they can’t be served alcohol. Straight-edge remained a small sub-culture within another sub-culture, and never even came close to achieving force majeure status within the music world. But its ideals endure to this day; embraced by a small number of punk and metal bands active today such as Rise Against, and even rappers like Hopsin.
And what of American punk today? The dawn of the new millennium has seen its evolution into an amorphous, multi-sub-genred creature, garnering growing acceptance as the popularity of alternative rock increases amongst the youth of today. The recent punk revival at the beginning of the decade is illustrative of this, ushering a new wave of lo-fi performers into the spotlight – notably skate punk giants FIDLAR (an abbreviation for ‘Fuck It, Dog, Life’s A Risk’) and fuzz rock multi-instrumentalist Ty Segall. But arguably, the punk bands that are the most popular today fly a very different flag to their predecessors. The raw, unbridled anger of the 70s hardcore movement has been replaced with an unrelenting, almost stoic sense of apathy. The time for destruction is over. In an age where skateboard culture is popular once more (courtesy of some highly-criticised fashion choices by the Kardashians and Kanye West) and the legalisation of cannabis is a top concern for many teenagers across the UK and the USA, punk has ultimately begun to embrace a new ethos – to wake, bake, and skate. Or, in other terms, to do nothing useful to society at all. This is, of course, hugely dissonant from the rage-fuelled war cries of the 70s. The music is as energetic as ever, and includes the same blistering riffs and punchy basslines that the genre is famous for. But the message it sends is no longer the same. Within this observation itself is the main criticism, and perhaps the largest problem that American punk faces today. Did punk die when it calmed down, and moved from being about destroying everything to doing nothing?
to give previously unheard voices a seat at the table, punk must therefore take a step backwards, out of the limelight it once enjoyed
Arguably not. The multi-faceted nature of punk in America today and the lowering median age of bands breaking into the scene means that the problems touched on by the genre are now mostly orientated around the growing pains of adolescence – and it is a commonly known fact that adolescence is the stage at which everyone has the most to worry about, for very valid reasons. In a world where children are expected to choose a career path before they hit 17 and own at least two degrees before getting a “professional” job; in an age of soaring unemployment and more academic pressure than ever, doing nothing at all is perhaps the biggest form of rebellion against social norms that one could visualise – rich or poor. Whether conveyed through paeans to small-town suburban angst by garage rock bands like Chicago’s The Orwells, or the golden dream of endless lazy days shared by surf punk bands like San Diego’s Wavves; American punk remains the same at its heart. It is the age-old idea of not giving in to The Man, minus the excessive violence of the hardcore punk scene, and with all the benefits abstained from by the straight-edge movement. Through the lens of the present, instead of the past, it should be clear that American punk is alive and kicking, and here to stay in this age of unrest.
As for the British question, the answer is not only applicable to the UK, but also to punk scenes all over the world. And the answer itself is that punk, as a genre propagating vocal dissent against the flaws in society, is no longer as relevant to engineering social change as it was in its glory days. Rap is taking over as the new protest music; the new voice of unresolved anger and prominent social inequality. In the UK this has manifested as grime, a harder-hitting cousin of American hip hop created by the likes of Wiley and Dizzee Rascal in the past decade and popularised today by artists such as Stormzy, Kano, and Mercury Prize winner Skepta. The rise of rap (and subsequently, the fall of punk) as a genre influencing social awareness is hardly unwelcome, and couldn’t be called unpredictable. Today’s millennials are equally concerned with the state of the government and racial politics, and accordingly, are starting to pay attention to accounts of injustice and inequality from those who actually face such struggles on a day-to-day basis. The rising traction and influence of grime artists who give a voice to the struggle of working-class ethnic minorities in areas of London rife with crime and violence is completely parallel to the immense popularity of rap and hip hop (notably Kanye West’s Black Skinhead and Kendrick Lamar’s Alright) as protest anthems in the USA. This is the time of the Black Lives Matter movement; the rise of feminism and social awareness. And to give previously unheard voices a seat at the table, punk must therefore take a step backwards, out of the limelight it once enjoyed.
There are those in the punk scene who share this sentiment too. “A punk band these days could never be as angsty or as in-your-face as the most pissed-off rap record,” says Matt O’Keefe, guitarist for The Orwells. “No matter what, that album is usually tougher and cooler and more badass… We can keep saying, ‘Ah, I’m pissed off!’ but it falls a little flat.” It is a strangely pessimistic observation for a musician currently active in the punk scene, but a relevant one nonetheless. Today, punk continues to endure as a musical genre, stylistically abrasive and tonally aggressive – but gone is its seat at the head of the table as a generator of social change. Neither does that mean that the genre should no longer be enjoyed, or be considered obsolete. As Kanye West once said, “We’re all gonna be dead in a hundred years. Let the kids have the music.” And with punk, perhaps that is exactly what we should do.
Image: Sex Pistols, Nationaal Archief