Punk Chautauqua

As I was writing this, I saw that Lux Interior died last night. Sympathy and Prayers to his friends and family. Wow. Must have a Cramps fest this weekend in memorium.


I was invited by colleague Sam to lead the inaugural lecture in his new Chautauqua series here at work. The link will give you a good overview, but for those who want an even smaller summary, the Chautauqua is a fairly interactive adult-education format. Because he loves to harass me about my musical quirks (and because he is a genuinely nice and supportive fellow), Sam asked if I would speak on one of my favorite rambling subjects–punk.

We had a small, happy group. And we had fun. Well, I know I did.

I used the clips in yesterday’s post, and what follows here are a version of the notes that I used and during the talk. When I can, I will link to the songs referenced (there were myriad others that I can’t link to). Bonus–he asked that I continue the conversation next week, focusing on the Britpunk influences on American Culture and one of my pet subjects, Punk as a 20th century Romantic movement. I’ll share notes on that next week.

So, here’s some of what I did yesterday:

I’m doing a bit of a test run here, both for this series and for my own research quirks, so I need to lay out some ground rules.

First, I am a bit of a Westie on this matter; most of my research follows Seattle and Los Angeles bands. This is not a rejection of MidWestern or Eastern Punk—Akron and NJ and DC Hardcore (among others) have some excellent examples, but more of a sound preference that I am not quite sure I can articulate. So, if it feels a bit West-leaning, there you go. Blame the Californian birth; my mother has always attributed my “damn liberal notions” to breathing my first breaths in CA.

Too, I come at this from an odd angle—I’m a literature prof by trade, so I often look at written records. That said, my Masters thesis was on opera and politics, so this study is really an outgrowth of that (or, rather, the thesis was an outgrowth of this—I could get away with writing an academic treatise about Wagner. Darby Crash? Jello Biafra? Loud Fart? Yeah, not so much).

Other general notes: defining punk is akin to nailing Jello to a tree—and not our friend Biafra, if you are wondering. I have discussed hereabouts the original definitions of the word, though I later discovered that Lester Bangs used punk in reference to music in a Creem article at least a year before the Rolling Stone citation I mentioned. Likely, it was already becoming common when Bangs used it. Too, I realized (rather belatedly) that the connection between the second definition (“a boy or young man kept by an older man as a (typically passive) sexual partner…now chiefly prison slang”) and the current musical culture usage.

In Philosophy of Punk, O’Hara reminds us that many of the origins of punk image lie in the Skinheads of 1960’s Britian and the violence wrought on Pakistani immigrants. The general notions of “hoodlums” is also relevant here…and I’ve no idea if “punk” was a term applied to or claimed by the groups in question, but the connection between the definition and Bangs’ use is deceptively simple: as the class of disaffected young (primarily) men of the cities of England were imprisoned for the violence inflicted on the Pakistani neighbors and (presumably) fans of other football clubs were imprisoned with older men, they were, to turn a phrase away from the current use—Punked. Whether they chose to appropriate the name (with both the sexual overtones and the “person of no account” ones) or it was thrust upon them is somewhat less clear, but the propensity for three pieces of the original uses remain throughout American punk:

  • Sex and sex trades: consider the stories about the Go-Gos, many of which are highly specious but also highly sexualized (to say nothing of the Joan Jett stories). Too, sexuality and the politics of gender identity and sexuality were incredibly important in American punk. One need think only of Darby Crash’s reaction to Don Bolles showing up in a dress—and his concerns that the HB bands would discover that he was gay—and what they might do to that end. The fights between the Stims and Bad Brains, Steven Blush reminds us, often devolved into dismissive accusations: “The Stims accused Bad Brains of being rip-offs; the Bad Brains accused them of being homosexuals. All of the sudden, the singer’s gayness became an issue” (American Hardcore 175). Interesting, isn’t it, that charges that were leveled against one another—rip-off versus gay.
  • “no accountness”/hoodlum—see Dr. Quincy’s nefarious punks below—burning holes, taking drugs, “there’s no one innocent here.” Notice the white makeup (“look how different those punks are,” the episode practically shouts) and the chaos of the punk scenes.
  • Drunkenness—there is no point in pretending that addiction/use/abuse and the attendant Straight Edge movement aren’t significant to punk’s history. Remarkably, two of the earliest known uses of the word punk references drunkenness (probably more for rhyme than anything else, but the early correlation is awfully interesting to me): the first, from 1575 merely remarks that drunkenness and punking are sinful: “1575 Old Simon the Kinge in J. W. Hales & F. J. Furnival Bp. Percy’s Folio Ms.: Loose & Humorous Songs (1867) 127 Soe fellowes, if you be drunke, of ffrailtye itt is a sinne, as itt is to keepe a puncke.” The second, from 1698, explicitly ties punk and drunk: 1698 Womens Complaint to Venus (MS Rawl. 159) f. 32, The Beaus..At night make a Punk of him that’s first drunk.”

O’Hara further remarks that “there is a current feeling in modern society of an alienation so powerful and widespread that it has become commonplace and accepted” (21). He goes on to contextualize this remark, situating the beginnings of this “feeling” with the Industrial Revolution. As does Fredrich Engles in his “the Great Cities”, O’Hara suggests that the creation of the city—the space in which we can live so close, but utterly separated (O’Hara puts it: “people think that they have nothing in common with each other” (22) is the foundation for our alienation—especially from one another.

And from this pervasive alienation, disaffected youth, and assorted other bits of interest—along with a good bit of attention paid by Malcolm McLaren and other “Svengalis,” punk is born, in and around 1968, alongside the philosophical arm—the Situationists.

The Sex Pistols are often heralded as the “first,” but doing so leaves out so many bands and influences, not the least of which is David Bowie, Iggy Pop, etc.

So, How do I know punk? Some of the basics of identifying punk rock:

  • self-identification as such: This will necessarily lead to various charges of “posing” as punk or “playing at” punk, versus real punks. Such recriminations will remain true in the most bizarre ways as LA claims glam rock in the 80s and the Aquanet boys volley similar charges at one another. Alex reminded me in the course of the talk that they were, at least around here, known as “Quincy Punks.”—they looked the part, but perhaps didn’t live it. See Steve’s remarks in the case study below.
  • At least for hardcore punk, a very fast tempo——something like 160-200bpm. Rock is often 110-150. Overlaps and exceptions abound. There does tend to be a dismissiveness toward ability. Sid Vicious, for instance, was a terrible bassist, technically—and Steve Jones began unable to play [he remarks in Lydon’s autobiography, Rotten, that “I didn’t know how to play, but once we got John in the band, I had to learn seriously” (79)]; the Germs reveled in the stories that they couldn’t play their instruments (such stories are largely apocryphal. Pat Smear, Don Bolles, and Lorna Doom all seemed to practice fairly regularly.) But, amateurism was highly regarded—part of an ethic that championed DIY—not relying on the “majors” (major labels).
  • Stage presence: the relationship between musician and audience is fairly unique to punk. Duff McKagan (you knew he’d get here, didn’t you?) recounted an early punk rock experience for him was at a Clash show prior to the release of “London Calling.” At said show, Strummer forced security away from the stage, insisting on the reciprocal relationship between audience and band. He recounts “During the show, a big yellow-shirted security guy up front punched a fan and broke his nose. Blood was everywhere. The Clash stopped the show. Bassist Paul Simonen appeared from the wings of stage right wielding a firefighter’s axe that he must have plucked from the wall. He jumped down in the pit and proceeded to chop down the wooden barrier separating the fans from the band while guitarist Joe Strummer dressed down the security gorilla and went on further to say that there was no difference between the fans and the bands…”we are all in this together! There is no such thing as a Rock Star, just musicians and listeners!” We have, by turns, stage diving, slam and circle dancing, and the like. Examine Sid Vicious and my man Steve Jones here, to say nothing of the incredible shirt on Johnny Rotten. Sid is the very image of ideal punk—blood covered, doing poorly wrought Pete Townsend-style Windmills. Sam wondered if he realized that he was parodying the Who with that; I suspect not—I’d sooner believe that Rotten was actively satirizing. Rotten is bears out the antagonism that necessarily occurs between close sets—audience and band—in his disdainful looks and the mock insanity between stanzas. And Jones, well, Steve Jones is just the man. Always.
  • Humor: there is a fair bit of satire apparent in the lyrics and actions of the American punk crew. Dead Kennedys “Night of the Living Rednecks,” for instance. This is one area that I think needs greater attention; satire lives and breathes in punk.

So, the Fartz: A Case Study
Seattle was in a significant recession at this point; the youth were unemployed and largely unemployable. The punk scene here sprang, as it did in England, from the unemployed working class. The Fartz certainly play on this. In an interview in Ripper # 7 from 1982, Steve and Loud discuss their politics:

Just by what’s going on around you. After three and a half years in the service I realized that something was wrong. Somebody always wants control and to be able to tell people what to do. It’s about to the point in life where everybody’s pretty much sick of being told what to do. They want to find out for themselves what they should do, and not just fall into a role in society.
LOUD: Mine was Abbie Hoffman, ’69. He was really big in the news, and he was bizarre, so I just clicked right into that. I just read whatever he put out and whatever was put out about him.
STEVE: Paul and Blaine are a little younger, so they really haven’t had a chance to get really badly fucked over enough to jar out a view or to have a view on it. It’s to an advantage for them because they got to learn about getting fucked over before it happened to them, and now they know how to avoid it.

The “typical” tendencies appear to be present—the little guy fighting against “the Man.” Even the notion that here, and in the remarks that follow, that the older must protect the younger from the system and from being fucked over. We have here an insistence on a certain kind of relationship between musician and audience–>reciprocal of sorts, but certainly a responsibility of musician to audience. The interview continues with the following remarks:

Yeah. We feel that it’s great that there are kids coming out to the shows who are only 15 or 16 and still live with their parents and haven’t had to be on their own yet, and really had the chance to live out in the gutter and have nothing to eat. [Notice here the assumptions of working class—not suburban—participation, which is not quite what we see borne out in American punk]. It just shows them pretty much that if you just keep playing your role, you’re just gonna fall into a category and you’re never gonna be able to control your own mind. You gotta figure out the problems you’re gonna face and deal with them before it happens. Just learn young. That’s something we’d like to accomplish.

Further, and I adore this one:

STEVE:We don’t want to try and come across like some real politicals or anything like that, because it’s really not that much of a thing as – we’re more after the apathy. It really pisses us off to see people just sit back and sing about destroying this and destroying that, cuz that’s stupid.

See, conceptually, this is interesting. The lyrics tend toward the highly political and active, not the apathetic. Clearly being “pissed off” suggests something other than apathy. Finally, the classic “the corporation” remarks, which make perfect sense in light of their politics and the economic period in Seattle:

STEVE:It’s not so much that we want to criticize the corporations, I feel more pissed toward the middle class people who can just ignore everything else. The low class people like us who are starving or whatever, we’re the ones suffering, they’re making money, they’re happy, cuz they adjusted to that way of life, they can put up with silly rules and whatever they have to face to make that money.

And the suburban/working class bit works itself out here, too. Quincy Punks, I imagine were largely suburban, and how many of the reviews mention that a band was “okay, but clearly suburban” (as happens with Genocide)?

Compare this with the remarks made by Gregg & Duff, after Fartz reformed as Ten Minute Warning. Much of the language here is what is cited as “the death of punk”:

On the difference between the Fartz and TMW, musically and the attendant—“I thought you were hardcore” comments:

Duff:We’re still a hardcore group; hardcore to me means just hardcore. Getting intense on that music, slammin’ on them guitars and believing in what you’re doing. That’s hardcore to me. Hardcore is not raw smash, stage dive and shit. Hardcore is more a way of thinking and playing.

I’m intrigued by the next set of remarks, as they recount one of the reasons behind a “death” of punk culture, if not of punk music. Punk became, well…like everything else:

O. K., what kind of spiritual message are you trying to relate with your music? Haha. . .
Love in the light. No, we’re not trying to blaze any particular path or any political ‘do this’ or ‘do that,’ just, uh, having fun and not being. . .
Duff: Begin[sp] caught up in certain cliques or peer pressure. Basically what the whole quote-unquote ‘punk scene’ was about was getting away from the cliques and the peer pressure. Now it’s just regressed back into. . . Gregg: It’s turned into what it was trying to get away from.

Duff: Yeah, it’s just kind of gone around in a big circle, to right back to what I was trying to get out of. So we’re just trying to say, hey you guys, let’s unite; let’s not worry about what you’re wearing or what the guy behind you thinks about you. Just have a good time, have fun, don’t go around hittin’ people and shit.’
Gregg: I think, in a way without having to say much, we’re an example of that happening because we’re not a punk rock band and there’s a lot of punk rockers who get into what we’re doing. And we don’t always necessarily look like punk rockers when we’re on stage. Yeah, we’re just an example of that working.

Ten Minute Warning, however, rejects the overt politics of the Fartz:

So you’re not an anarchy band?
Duff:Definitely not an anarchy band! Some people might say, ‘Oh well, these guys serve no purpose,’ ’cause we’ve had interviews where the first question was, ‘What are your political views?’ We’re a rock ‘n’ roll band, not Governor Spellman. And people might look down on us ’cause we don’t have political views, but then you gotta look at it, why should we? You guys are getting dragged down by peer pressure because somebody says you gotta have political views. That’s the cool thing right now, to be a political band. Well fuck that shit; we’re not political.

On the amueturism that became a totem of punk; the last remark is my favorite. It is sooooo Duff. I’ve said time and again he’s gone on the “I’m not a RockStar” bit forever—he even does it here, sort of, in 1983. I love the remark here.

Gregg:It’s a fact that we come across a lot more professional than a lot of the other local bands and alot of people interpret that wrong.
Duff: They think we’re stuck up or trying to sell out. I don’t know where they’re getting this: do we have a record contract? We just want to be good, we don’t want to be just five wankers up on stage.
Gregg:To practice once a week and jerk off is not where it’s at.
Duff: We are serious musicians, but I want to make the point that we’re not stuck up, no matter what people think, not that we care what people think.

Even in the desire for inspiring apathy, the Fartz dealt in parody. With Ronald Reagan as the center of their ire, songs such as “Battle Hymn of Ronnie Reagan” (lyrics here) use the familiar sounds of “Songs of Patriotism” and satirize them and the messages.

As I mentioned, this was great fun, and I’ll keep adding to the thoughts begun here in the coming weeks.

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