The Spirit Of 77: Punk At 40
This week, I’ll be speaking on a panel at IASPM-US’s annual conference in Cleveland (Saturday 1:15-3:15, Ballroom B – please come!!). The panel is titled “The Spirit of ’77: Punk at 40.” I had the idea to put together this panel after seeing a flurry of eulogies, memorials, and best of lists dedicated to punk in the last year. Depending on whether a source says that the Ramones invented punk with their 1976 self-titled album or whether the Sex Pistols did with their 1977 Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, people have been calling this or last year the 40th anniversary of punk. I actually don’t have a horse in that race, but I did think it made good fodder for a discussion about what punk means today, how it has changed over the last forty years, and so on. To build the panel, I invited Steve Waksman, Jessica Schwartz, and David Ensminger – all people who I think have done really interesting work with punk in various guises (in the spirit of punk, we’re aiming for a lot of audience participation, so please come if you have stories, critiques, etc.).
The stakes of the panel got dramatically upped in November. Like many people, I was staggered to see Donald Trump elected as President of the US. What I originally conceived of as a bit of remembering the good ol’ days while debunking “invention of X” myths turned out to be wildly out of date. Anarchy, invented truths, all of that has come to mean something quite different in the month since Trump came to power. A blatant liar who many have accused of being a rampant, amoral opportunist, Trump’s presidency often feels like a game changer. For many of us punk fans who once courted irreverence and nihilism (and, who have long stood on the front lines against fascism), Trump is cause for reassessment of the political promise of punk and of culture more generally.
Interestingly, it also inspired a flurry of writing about punk’s place in this new moment, meaning that the panel suddenly was busting at the seams with content. In order to give anyone interested a leg up on the discussion, I thought I would post a draft of my introduction along with a bibliography of some of the things I’ve been reading about punk in the last few months (it also highlights a few recent things by me and other people on the panel). Since my intro offers a bit more context, I’ll wrap up the preamble here.
The Spirit of ’77: Punk at 40
This panel takes its cue from the 40th anniversary of the album Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. Released in October 1977 – just months before the group dissolved – the album has long functioned as a stand-in for the spirit of punk: ill-fated, catastrophic, terrifying, thrilling. In its moment, it scandalized the press and elated those who were searching for a new sound. In the forty years since its release, it became a rallying point. Today, the record forms a site of initial exposure for multiple generations of punk fans. It is often the first sound linked up to that elusive word. In that sense, Never Mind functions as something of a perennial gateway to something that often comes to define – or haunt – our lives.
For this reason, the album has been taken as something of a crowning achievement for punk. Such was the sentiment guiding the art critic Robert Garnett, who posed a rather lofty question:
What is it about
Never Mind the Bollocksthat makes it stand out from anything in the history of popular music?... Perhaps there is no single means of explaining the phenomenon that was punk at is best, but what does seem clear is that the Pistols were singing from somewhere else, someplace that hadn’t existed before and that only existed for a brief moment in time.
In speaking in such lofty terms, Garnett was approaching a form of hagiography that often accompanies the album. Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces – itself something of a monument in the academy – takes as its unequivocal goal the refutation of the album’s place in the canon of art. His epilogue concludes with a warning that punk offers not a promise of triumph, but “the certainty of failure: all those who glimpse possibility in a spectral moment become rich, and though they remain so, they are ever after ever more impoverished.”
Even so, triumph punk has. It should strike us as curious that, 40 years on, a disaster of a record by a failed group is attracting accolades for its historical significance. Indeed, my motivation for convening this panel has little to do with that record at all. The Sex Pistols’ greatness, their influences and influencees, or their privileged post at the origin of a grand musical lineage… this doesn’t particularly interest me. Partially, this is because such ideas seem in part anathema with punk itself (which, at least by a certain construal, has no lot with canon-building of any kind). But they also stand at odds with a moment ripe with suspicion, where the culture wars seem to be beginning anew. We live in a moment possibly at odds with notions of greatness, with the foundational myths of rock and roll, and perhaps, with punk itself.
Intead of chasing after ghosts, my goal is largely to take Never Mind as launching point. It strikes me as exemplary only insofar as it touches on a number of tensions inscribed at the heart of punk. I want to ask about what is alive and dead in punk. I want to interrogate punk’s past, to ask about its earliest moments and its foundational myths. What was punk, when and where was it, for whom did it speak? I also want to think through punk’s legacy, its changes over forty long years of history. How is punk memorialized, and what does it tell us about memory itself? The ultimate end of this, of course, is to get a better grasp of our present. How does punk influence our current moment? What place, if any, does it have in our current world? As Kyle Smith asked in the New York Post, is Donald Trump truly the “Punk Rock President America Deserves?” Or conversely, as Amanda Palmer remarked, will Trump “Make Punk Rock Great Again?”
I don’t think there are easy answers for these or many other questions concerning punk today. Punk remains as elusive today as it ever was. In my work on 1970s New York punk, I argue that punk names less a neatly bounded genre or social project, than a set of questions. Punk is an aporia. It is a problem, a promise (often broken), and a cause for doubt.
Punk history is rife with contradictions. Sonically, punk might be the most instantly recognizable, completely unexplainable genre that exists. As the recent Sounding Out! series on punk noted, “ironically, perhaps the least understood element of this thing called ‘punk’ is its sound.” This strikes me as a result of a contradiction central to punk’s power. On the one hand, the genre is predicated on the radical critique of all hitherto existing music, an outright hostility to all inherited musical norms. But on the other hand, punk is also the genre par excellence for those obsessed with borders, categories, even the most minute of distinctions. Anyone who believes that punk is wholly against musical norms has never spent an afternoon arguing with friends about what separates the sound of British crust from its Twin Cities, West Coast, Providence, Pittsburgh, Southern, Scandi, or Latin variants.
This tension is matched in the social register. Punk names both a callous hostility to all inherited forms of kith and kin, and a rallying point for organizing, community building, and solidarity. Though punk once promised to “burn this racist system down,” it has also done a great deal of building. Moreover, this labor has grown to a matter of historical and geographical consequence. Though punk at least partially offers a plea for the local and the immediate, it has fragmented into dozens of genres scattered across forty-plus years of history and nearly every country on the earth. While punk is a genre that speaks for the here and now, it would seem that it speaks in many voices for many heres and nows.
It is because this latter temporal-spatial question looms so large, that the story of Never Mind the Bollocks is worth telling at all. Punk is aging. And for a genre that has often put a premium on youthful iconoclasm, this is something to confront. That’s not exclusively because punk’s demographics are changing, remarkable though that fact is. Punk has gotten older because punks are getting older. This lends to punk layers, generations, simultaneous posts-, durings-, and pres-… these cannot easily be bypassed.
It is also because, like it or not, punk has also outgrown the ownership of punks themselves. Punk now partially sits in the hands of the culture industry, the university, even the state. Almost coterminous with its explosion into mass media in the late 1970s, stock characters adorned in leather jackets and spiked hair began appearing in films from The Warriors to Terminator and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Today, Ramones shirts droop from suburban shopping mall t-shirt racks while shows like HBO’s recent series Vinyl rehearse the band’s history like sacred myth. And last year, a restaurant called CBGB Lab opened last year in Newark Airport in order to give tourists one final taste of the City before they depart.
Of course, central to that story – especially for all of us who sit here – is punk’s intellectual legacy. Early punk records top best of lists while 1970s pioneers are received like dignitaries by heads of state. Meanwhile, academics build ivory tower careers by celebrating punk at conferences, while curators transform the throwaway kitsch of yesteryear into the sacred relics that adorn the walls of museums.
Not all of this should appear wholly at odds with punk’s spirit. Perhaps the greatest aporia built into punk concerns its temporality. Of course, punk is partially the genre known for its total iconoclasm, a rampant nihilism that often lends itself to the “kill your idols” “rip it up and start again” kind of attitude.
Even so, punks are wildly obsessed with curation. Punk is a nostalgic genre. There is a strain of punk that dwells in speculative history, remembrance, living in a world of history’s ghosts. This is true from its earliest years, when punk artists battled over the fate of rock and roll, to its latest, where the genre forms one of the central pillars of our retro-obsessed moment. And, it certainly is true this year and last, as dozens of articles appeared to commemorate the lingering masterpieces of punk’s yesteryear. My title for the panel, “The Spirit of 77,” takes its cue from a song by Blank 77. Pioneers of street punk, a subculture obsessed with dressing like it’s Britain circa 1982, their song captures punk’s obsession with the past perfectly:
I'm caught in a fuckin' time warp
the styles never changing the music
all sounds the same
what ever happened to
the punk rock of the past
well now here we are
to bring it back at last
A recent issue of the journal Social Text (2013 Vol. 31, No. 03) focuses on “Punk and its Afterlives.” But it might be better to think of punk as a genre itself rooted in the afterlife. Punk is genre as afterlife. In working on punk, I’ve often reflected on a quotation from one of my favorite philosophers, Gillian Rose. Just before her untimely death from cancer in 1995, she wrote something that could well characterize punk. History is, she remarked, a “baroque melancholia immersed in the world of soulless and unredeemed bodies.” Rose was actually reflecting on the political imaginary of intellectuals after the dramatic collapse of Actually Existing Socialism. Rose worried that the only apparent successor to communism was the long, dark night of what everyone now flippantly calls neoliberalism. Though Rose didn’t quite buy the idea that the overturning of a century of revolution signaled the End of History, she saw it as at least portending history’s aberated status. In this register, reflection on the past often ended less with peace than with endless melancholia:
[T]here can be
no work, no exploring of the legacy of ambivalence, working through the contradictory emotions aroused by bereavement. Instead, the remains of the dead one will be incorporated into the soul of the one who cannot mourn and will manifest themselves in some all too physical symptom, the allegory of incomplete mourning.
Reading best album lists and memorials for fallen punk icons; listening to Suicide, Joy Division, and John Maus; staring at the gruesome images that populate the covers of Dropdead and Crass records… it’s hard not to see such acts as gestures of incomplete mourning. If it is too late for punk, this is because the genre, like Hegel’s owl of Minerva or the Marxist’s historical dustbins, always stands on the verge of the end.
Even so, punk carries within it a revolutionary promise brutally at odds with empty rear-guardism. Rose did not live to see our current moment, where, for the first time in my memory, history has never felt more dangerously in motion. Nostalgia, iconoclasm, nihilism, all these strike me as elements of punk that must be reconsidered in the age of Trump and the Alt Right. In a 1970 speech at Boston College, Huey Newton offered a warning that I think remains timely today: “The wind is rising and the rivers flowing, times are getting hard and we can’t go home again. We can’t go back to our mother’s womb, nor can we go back to 1917.” Or, I might add, to 1970, 1976, or 1977.
Punk echoes Newton’s sentiment. Newton was warning that fond memories of childhood innocence or the political victories of years past form only part of the struggle for the good life. Punk surely carries within it traces of what once was. But punk also carries within it a warning, one that is flashing frantically in our current moment of danger. In 1982, the band One Way System demanded of the British government: “Give Us a Future!” With the future up for grabs, this demand is once again urgent. I don’t know what exactly Never Mind still says, or if punk will form the sound of whatever is coming next. But I do know this at least: listening to punk, I know that this time, we better get it right.
From the Panelists
David Ensminger, 40 Years of Ramones Mania (Houston Press)
David Ensminger, “American As Apple Pie: Top 20 Punk Protest Songs for July 4th” (Pop Matters)
Jarek Ervin, “Punk Rock Puppet Show” (jarekpaulervin.com)
Jarek Ervin, “Not Our Punk Rock President” (jarekpaulervin.com)
Jarek Ervin, “Inside the Green Room” (Jacobin)
Jessica Schwartz, “Listening in Circles: Punk Pedagogy and the Decline of Western Music Education” (Punk & Post-Punk, Vol. 4, No. 2-3)
Jessica Schwartz, “Sí se puede!: Chicas Rockeras and Punk Music Education in South East Los Angeles” (Punk & Post-Punk, Vol. 5, No. 1)
Steve Waksman, “Suburban Noise: Getting Inside Garage Rock” (in Making Suburbia, Minnesota, 2015)
Studying Punk, Remembering Punk
Seth Mandel, “What the poser punks of Green Day can learn from the Sex Pistols” (New York Post)
John Wiederhorn, “39 Years Ago: The Sex Pistols Release ‘Never Mind the Bollocks Here’s the Sex Pistols’” (Loudwire)
Rolling Stone Roundtable, ”40 Greatest Punk Albums of All Time” (Rolling Stone)
Stephen Duncombe and Maxwell Tremblay,
Sounding Out Series, ”Punk Sound” (Sounding Out!)
Kyle Smith, “Donald Trump is the punk-rock president America deserves” (New York Post)
James Parker, “Donald Trump, Sex Pistol” (The Atlantic)
Steph Harmon, “Amanda Palmer: ‘Donald Trump is going to make punk rock great again’” (The Guardian)
Scott Timberg, “Don’t Bet That Donald Trump Will ‘Make Punk Rock Great Again’” (Alternet)
Steve Knopper, “Jello Biafra on How to Stand Up to Trump, Why Punk Still Matters” (Rolling Stone)