Please don’t call it Punk
If rock ‘n’ roll is dead, as people have been saying for years now, punk rock must be really, really dead. An underground rock movement that started in the ’70s has infiltrated the culture so thoroughly that it’s everywhere, but at the same time, it’s nowhere, because it has undergone such a dramatic change from where it started as to be unrecognizable.
Like so many other things that started as revolutionary, reactionary and real, punk rock has been assimilated into the mainstream and in the process its been turned into a de-fanged, de-clawed caricature of itself. It’s something you can buy at a store in Lloyd Center or listen to on MTV – it’s still around, so somebody must be watching it.
When you hear someone say “that is so punk rock!" all they’re really saying is “that’s so cool!" People throw the word around without having any idea of where it comes from, where it’s been, or how it started.
The word itself has undergone a fascinating evolution through the decades. Like other words you know without me writing them, it started out as an insult only to be taken back and turned into an identity label and a badge of pride by the group of people to whom it applies.
In the case of “punk," though, the meaning isn’t as clear-cut. The original meaning of the word, first recorded around 1600, was “prostitute." It retained its sexually derogatory connotation later when it came to be used to be used as a synonym for “fag," or a man who’s another man’s bitch in prison.
It can also be used as an adjective to mean “rotten wood" or as a verb to mean “flake out, quit." Obviously, these are all very negative, and the word is still used as an insult today: you’ve probably called someone you don’t like a “punk-ass." And yet, when you call something “punk rock," it’s a compliment. Weird.
Punk as a movement began in the mid-’70s as a reaction to the failed hippie movement and as a rebellion against disco and prog-rock, which dominated mainstream radio in that era. Musically it came out of the garage bands of the ’60s, which explains the garage rock revival of the early years of this millennium by rockers perpetually seeking their roots.
Rock critic Dave Marsh is said to have first used the phrase “punk rock" in a 1971 issue of Creem magazine, referring to garage bands like the Sonics, the Seeds and the Troggs. Several years later a new scene was emerging in the form of bands like the MC5 and the Stooges in Detroit and Patti Smith, the New York Dolls, and the Ramones in New York.
But these early American bands don’t fit the image that “punk" probably conjures in your mind today. The Velvet Underground, often cited as an influential forerunner of punk, were an experimental art band whose classic first album was produced by Andy Warhol.
The New York Dolls were an early glam or glitter band whose members performed in women’s clothing without sacrificing their heterosexual, guitar-wielding machismo. Patti Smith was a poet who hung out with Robert Mapplethorpe and whose performances were closer to spoken word than garage rock.
Punk Magazine appeared in 1976, officially christening and documenting the emerging subculture. Required reading: Please Kill Me, an oral history of the beginnings of the punk phenomenon compiled by Legs McNeil, who co-created the original Punk Magazine in the ’70s, told in the words of the people who were there.
It wasn’t until conniving promoter Malcolm McLaren got involved that punk began to materialize in the form we usually think of it today. McLaren took what he’d gleaned from the New York scene back to England and put his own spin on it, turning the movement into a brand with a recognizable style and icons in the form of the Sex Pistols.
The Sex Pistols toured the American South in early 1978, intentionally targeting the most hostile possible audiences in places like Texas, where they were often abused and attacked by the crowd and responded in kind. By the end of the tour the Sex Pistols, who recorded a total of one album, had self-destructed, and the first wave of punk was in its death throes.
If you want to know what happened next, go to Cinema 21 and check out the excellent documentary American Hardcore currently playing there. Punk morphed into hardcore or thrash, an extremely fast and furious form with songs often as short as 30 seconds.
Hardcore brought a more political attitude to punk, as disenfranchised kids voiced their anger at Ronald Reagan, their era’s George W. Bush. Black Flag, formed in southern California in 1976, are considered by some to be the founding fathers of hardcore.
Others would point to the incredibly weird and wonderful Bad Brains of Washington D.C., an all-black hardcore band who infused their music with “Positive Mental Attitude" and whose first record included reggae songs alongside thrash punk. Minor Threat, whose first show was opening for Bad Brains, founded the straightedge movement, which encouraged kids in the hardcore scene to rebel by not numbing their minds with drugs or alcohol.
In American Hardcore, Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat (and, later, Fugazi) talks about how he and others in the scene distanced themselves from prototypical punks like the Sex Pistols. “Sid Vicious was a nihilistic junkie, and we were not." Hardcore shows got more violent, involving regular skirmishes with the police and in the mid-’80s, after Reagan was re-elected, the movement began to implode as disillusionment and cynicism spread.
Maybe punk, and specifically hardcore, aren’t really dead, but just keeping a low profile. There are lots of people here in Portland you could call punk or hardcore: they’re political, they dress kind of like street kids, a lot of them live in Northeast.
There are Hot Topic punks who wear the uniform – piercings, dyed hair, fishnets – without knowing or caring much about where it came from. There are punk drag queens, like Sissyboy, who take the punk attitude in a “homocore" direction.
And much of the DIY ethos that pervades Portland could have been born out of the punk and hardcore movements. But this kind of punk is a far cry from Good Charlotte singing on MTV about the “lifestyles of the rich and famous," as they get rich and famous themselves and date starlets. That shit is so not punk rock.