Where Did Punk Go?
Everybody has an opinion about the world’s first punk rock band.
Was it the Sonics? Los Saicos? Death? The Stooges? The Ramones? The Sex Pistols?
Well, lately a more pertinent question perhaps needs to be asked: who was the world’s last punk rock band? Yes, 40 years after its birth, it’s time to reflect on the state of punk rock:
Could the bell be tolling for one of the most iconic, culture-shaping musical genres we have ever known? Where did punk go?
Of all the musical genres, it was punk rock that seemed to have a built-in life span. Like hip hop, punk was as much about culture and attitude as the music itself. But it was the music – the ferocious, raw energy of punk rock – that defined it. And while hip hop music has evolved and developed distinctive styles, punk has remained static, a prisoner of its musical limitations and its steadfast anti-commercial ethos. By its own definition, punk rock was meant for the fringes, the edges of our society. The bands, the music, the punks: they were never meant to fit in.
But the danger of living on the edges is that you risk falling off…completely.
I was one of the lucky ones. I grew up during the heyday of punk rock, that ten year stretch between 1976 and 1986 when punk achieved its musical and cultural apex. Musically, it was a reaction to the mundane, meandering music of the 1970’s. Culturally, it was a reaction to the economic policies in England and the United States, which began to widen the gap between the rich and the poor.
Punk rock began with the Ramones, Richard Hell and the CBGB culture of New York. It then crossed the Atlantic and spawned the British punk scene, including the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Anti-Nowhere League, and the Exploited. Punk then turned right around and returned to the States, added the adjective “hardcore” and gave birth to a slew of legendary bands: Black Flag, Bad Brains, Dead Kennedys, Circle Jerks, Minor Threat, the Descendents, and Vancouver’s very own DOA.
I discovered punk as a 12 year old when a friend lent me a copy of “Never Mind the Bollocks…” and said simply, “Listen to this.” I listened…and listened…and listened. And my life changed.
For a bored, restless teenager living in the suburbs of Victoria, punk rock was a breath of fresh air stuffed inside a brick to the face. I swallowed it up, spending every last penny of my allowance on records. And sometimes, in what I thought was true punk fashion, I would steal money from my parents’ wallets to buy even more records. When I came home one day with a copy of the Buzzcocks’ “Singles Going Steady” album, my mother took it from my hands, turned it over, read the song titles (which included “Oh Shit” and “Orgasm Addict”), and threw it in the garbage. The next day I was back at the record store, stealing myself another copy.
And it wasn’t just the music, the beautiful, fast, furious music. It was the attitude, the message of punk rock. It was the ripped clothes, the safety pins, the mohawks. It was pure rebellion. It was DIY. It was real. When I was 13 my mother would drop me off at the bus stop so I could go downtown. I would be dressed in whatever god-awful clothes she had bought for me, but I had my trusty Adidas bag with me. It contained everything I needed: a tube of hair gel, a Clash t-shirt, and my zippered leather jacket. As soon as she was out of sight, I would slip behind a building, put on the t-shirt and leather jacket, sculpt a mohawk using ridiculous amounts of hair gel, and off I would go downtown elated by the knowledge that I was a punk!
Of course, this was just a phase. I soon clued in to the fact that I was nothing more than a wannabe punk. Real punks lived on the fringes of society and their hatred of authority was real. I went to a private school and listened to my parents. But the music remained and I never stopped listening.
Then something happened: whether we liked it or not, most of us grew up and became responsible adults, authority figures even. We evolved, and the only thing punk that remained with us was the music.
And then something worse happened – the 1990’s. If the 1990’s didn’t kill punk, then they surely gave it a good ass-kicking. For it was the 90’s that gave birth to an offensive and obnoxious musical genre: pop-punk. A true paradox, if ever there was one. It was the decade when “punk” went commercial: Green Day, the Offspring, Blink-182, Pennywise. This was not punk rock. This was adolescent rock dressed up and packaged as punk. Stadium tours, radio play, flashy videos, glossy production, guitar solos – these things had always been the antithesis of punk, both as music and as an ethos. But the kids bought into it and “punk” was redefined for a new generation.
Two other musical genres birthed in the 90’s had a huge and ironic affect on punk rock: gangsta rap and grunge. Gangsta rap gave the bored, suburban white kids a new rebel music to listen to, a new rebellious culture to adopt, and a new kind of musical artist to emulate. Musically, grunge was a more palatable offshoot of punk, made tastier by Black Sabbath riffs and – gasp – melody. While both genres rode a tidal wave of popularity into the our culture and consciousness, the massive debt they owed to punk rock went unpaid.
In some ways this was a blessing in disguise for punk rock, because it forced the punk rockers – with their combat boots, skinny jeans, and leather jackets – to the fringes once again. And since punk by its very nature belongs on the fringes, by the end of the 90’s and 2000’s punk seemed to have come full circle.
And such is the nature of circles: when they close, there is nowhere else to go. So punk isn’t really dead, but back where it truly belongs – in the basements, in the garages, in the dingy clubs, in the hearts and minds of disaffected youth and nostalgic, never-say-die adults.
But that is just one man’s opinion from the sidelines. To truly find out where punk is at, we might be better served hearing from someone who didn’t watch from the sidelines, but played the game, who personified the punk ethos, who became a punk rock legend.
Joe Keithley (a.k.a. Shithead) is a testament to the endurance of punk rock. As leader of quintessential punk band DOA, he is the epitome of a punk rocker. DOA burst upon the scene as part of the early 80’s Westcoast punk explosion and has since become one of the most enduring and influential punk bands, not just in their hometown of Vancouver, but across the globe.
For Keithley, the very essence of punk rock means that it can never go away.
“In punk music, sound and look are secondary to attitude,” he says. “Punk has always been the perfect vehicle for kids who are mad at authority, and there will never be a shortage of those.”
So while it may slide back underground and never be the sensation it once was, punk will never die as long as there are disaffected youth and people who have something to express.
“For me, punk rock is the most real way of expressing ourselves,” Keithley insists. “It’s about being mentally free. It’s about the jolt. You can look punk and you can sound punk, but you are not punk if you don’t have something to say. In the end, art has to triumph over lustre.”
Keithley accepts that the two decades between 1990 and 2010, with the rise of punk offshoots like grunge and what he calls “mall punk,” almost brought punk to the mainstream. But he seems content that punk is returning to its roots. More importantly, he believes that punk has a future, that it is going nowhere.
“It’s more underground now,” he says. “And it’s back in the suburbs. but it will never go away. Punk has always been a DIY movement, and it’s easier than ever for kids to make a record or a song on their own. Punk’s gonna be around forever, like country and jazz.”
So where did punk go? Everywhere and nowhere. Like all counter-culture movements, punk is reactionary, born out of disaffection and rebellion. Whether it was labour politics in England, or Reaganomics in America, punk rock began as a reactive voice during troubled times. It was an expression of anger – at parents, cops, the government, the system. It was defiant music. It was middle finger music. It was I-don’t-give-a-fuck music.
And so it shall remain.
Photos by Bev Davies
Top Photo: Dead Kennedy’s, 1981, London. Photo by Bev Davies