I’ll never forget the first time I got called “punk”. It was 1978, and I was wearing black jeans, a black t-shirt, and a black sport jacket. The only thing separating my appearance from that of millions of other people wearing the same basic outfit over the last hundred years was that I was also a guy with an earring, wearing eyeliner, and had a slightly textured haircut. It wasn’t really even spiky or anything. I knew why the teenage guys crowded into a Pontiac Trans-am were yelling it – the year before they would have just yelled “fag”, but the Sex Pistols had made quite a splash in the media, and now all the people who had disco record burning events had something new to hate. People like me.
America was a little slow, this event was in 1979. They’d learn to hate punk later.
Which was ironic, because I and most of my friends thought this whole “punk” thing was pretty stupid too. We thought most of the bands just sounded like inarticulate three-chord rock, we hated cheap beer, and anything resembling a mosh pit or slam dancing seemed even more idiotic than the music itself. This was early on in the whole arc of whatever “punk” became. Like “real punks”, our attitude was a bit nihilistic, but a sort of rational nihilism; the global economy was in the shitter, they were still fighting in Ireland, and every day the media was implying that the world would end any day thanks to mutual assured destruction. Our brand of nihilism was more focused on having a good time as it all fell to pieces, not self-destruction. So we focused our meager resources on stylish resale clothes and intelligent music that reflected a slightly more thoughtful vibe, drank a lot of coffee, read pretentious twentieth century philosophy and art books, and smoked a lot of weed.
This didn’t play too well with a lot of those around us who ironically would call us “posers” as they downed another beer, primped their mohawk, and resumed slamming and moshing to stuff like DOA, Dead Kennedys, or Suicide. The irony of course being a bunch of people dressed alike and acting the same claiming they were vanguards of the rebellion. We watched with amusement when some kids we knew who adopted the whole thing way after we did got written up in the local paper in an article about “this crazy new punk phenomena”. What the hell were WE? We didn’t even get journalistic acknowledgment for being whatever we were before these other kids were whatever they were. At the time, we felt validated in the sense that whatever punk was, we were more punk than those kids.
So What About The Music?
The music that always gets referenced when discussing the punk era is practically gospel by now. The story goes something like: MC5, The Stooges, and Detroit were progenitors, the New York Dolls, Ramones, and others constituted the 70’s incarnation. Creem writer Dave Marsh coined the term “punk” around ’72, Malcolm McClaren cashed in on it all with the Sex Pistols, and VOILA! Punk was born. Or something like that. There are some really interesting and well-assembled books and documentaries on the topic (we’ll highlight them in an upcoming piece), but almost universally, they ignore or gloss over a whole sub-culture of the culture. Or maybe it was a “superculture”, because the ethos pre-dated and outlasted the punk phenomena by decades in both directions. But at the height of the late 70’s and early 80’s phenomena generally called punk, there were a lot of people (like me) who were operating very much on the fringes of mainstream culture, but not getting subsumed by the quickly packaged and marketed subculture called “punk”. We listened to stuff ranging from minimalist composers like Steve Reich and Phillip Glass, to ECM jazz, electronic music like Kraftwerk, and we even dipped into the diversity of what would soon be called “world music”. We also listened to “punk” acts, but more often because of a political or philosophical underpinning, or because they were truly innovative yet somehow punk.
Irony, Insight, Art, and Politics
This is the lower half of the image at the top. It’s a photo of Brenda Ann Spencer, the 16-year-old perpetrator of the Cleveland Elementary School shooting, who, when asked why she did it, said “I don’t like Mondays”.
Here are just three tunes (two of which you may not even have heard of) which were likely on the playlist of a lot of “punks” at the time, but which often get ignored. The Boomtown Rats could be nauseatingly mainstream, but their hit “I Don’t Like Mondays” was a pretty searing commentary for a top 40 hit, and captured some of the era’s ethos, especially by getting such a caustic message on mainstream radio with so few people noticing. Bands like The Normal and Flash and the Pan also captured a gloomy “punk” mood, but while using simple and innovative sounds. Interestingly, Grace Jones later covered both of these songs, gaining a lot of “punk cred” from them, and Daniel Miller of The Normal went on to found Mute Records.
Enjoy the vids; in part two we’ll share more by other overlooked artists, and challenge you with a “How Punk Is THAT?” quiz. We’ll also dig into how Generation Jones got cheated by it all.