Punk As The Horror Of Nonidentity
This is a paper I’m giving today at UCLA’s big punk conference Curating Resistance: Punk as Archival Method. I originally pitched the piece as a kind of précis of the monograph I’m writing, which focuses on New York in the 1970s. The basic goal of my project is to rethink punk as a philosophical practice. I argue that punk is a form of critical musical consciousness, one shaped by its status as a form of consciousness. This is to say that punk is not just a way of “musicking” (of participating in a style or a history), but also of reflecting upon and evaluating what it means to make music. Moreover, I take punk to be a set of musical practices motivated by the sense that such work is necessary of music, that music’s lot might not simply be to be music, but to argue and re-argue—perhaps unsuccessfully—for it’s right to exist.
This argument hopefully has a set of payoffs for how we think of music, many of which are too broad for this paper to dig into. For example, it’s going to take a few more words to sell my basic conceit that we can—or should—think of music as a form of critical knowing. One of the more concrete payoffs of my project, I hope, is that we might think of punk as potentially more amenable to points of dissensus than common sense definitions of the genre typically dictate. Punk might potentially not be a style, in the sense of a cohesive set of regulatory musical norms (e.g. I-IV-V progressions, distorted guitars). Nor might it be a style in the sense of having a prevailing spirit such as iconoclasm or the DIY ethos. If punk is more a mode of inquiry than anything else, it might permit a wide range of divergent conclusions.
So I try to go beyond a lot of common conceptions of punk, as defined by its retroness, amateurishness, or ineptitude. While I don’t reject these ideas per se—which would be naïve, given their obviously central and formative role in punk history—I also want to call attention to a number of alternative strands within that tradition. What if we broaden the sonic map of the New York punk scene beyond the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame artists to include the dozens and dozens of artists who participated actively in the scene in that period? And moreover, what if we thought of some of those sounds to be representative rather than exceptions that prove the rule? What would it mean, for example, to argue that to be punk is not to be hardened against the world, but to be fragile? What would it mean to think that Patti Smith Group’s meditative, soft ballads aren’t deviations from punk, but exemplifications of some of its principles? Or that Jayne County, Suicide, and power pop artists like Just Water were also exemplary of punk in their own particular ways?
There’s a lot of theoretical work I’m trying to do in my book to justify this thought process, and to ensure that the end result isn’t just a trite claim that musical categories are often vague or internally self-contradictory. Just to give something concrete beyond the dreamy philosophy: my book presents a set of rival theories about what punk might be, from revisionary retro rock to occult mysticism and catastrophic avant-gardism. I highlight a number of key parts of the punk scene, from staples of the LGBTQ punk scene including Jayne County and Mumps, to the kitsch aesthetic of the Ramones and the Cramps, to the more poppy sounds of the Miamis, the Marbles, Milk ‘n’ Cookies, and Tuff Darts.
My abstract promised something closer to a reduction of that, something I can’t really deliver on in twenty minutes. So, for practical purposes, I just want to quickly sketch out one of such visions, focused on the band Suicide and their 1978 song “All Night Long.” Really, given that I’ve distilled my paper down quite a bit, it probably should be called something like, “Punk as the Horror of Nonidentity.”
Suicide is kind of an intriguing group because of their place in punk’s history, as well as their unique style. A duo comprised of singer Alan Vega and instrumentalist Martin Rev, Suicide is often noted for paving the way for dance punk, noise, and experimental electronic music. Their twin self-titled albums (1977 and 1980) in particular are often hailed as early classics of punk. One of the things I try to do in the project—maybe a bit perversely—is imagine what it would like to think of Suicide as a punk band proper. Not exclusively as an art project, a weird experimental act that pre-dated punk, nor a group that transgressed a clearly defined set of musical norms, e.g. post-punk. (Though all of that is obviously true in some sense.)
Part of this argument is historical: Suicide was playing before basically all of the classic CBGB bands, played with the Dolls and Jayne County and co. at the Mercer Arts Center, and started recording in 1974—exactly when Patti Smith Group does. One of my conceits is that it’s a normative stylistic claim to sift them out, one that doesn’t make a ton of historical sense and one which I think isn’t necessary given my framing above.
More than a question of sequence or labels (which would be pedantic and uninteresting), I think framing them alongside punk helps reveal something musically interesting about the group. The commonplace story about Suicide is about just how musically singular they are, or really, how they approach the boarder where music almost seems to stop. A major factor in this evaluation is their performance style, which was confrontational and intense; the group was famous for causing fights and getting banned from venues, as in the case of a Glasgow date with the Clash where an audience member threw an axe at Alan Vega, or an infamous tour with Elvis Costello where their sets were often disrupted after a few minutes of performance. (This is collected on an NME bootleg, 23 Minutes in Brussels.)
Exemplary along these lines is the great passage from Nick Hornby’s Songbook, where he basically says the group plays unlistenable drivel:
“Frankie Teardrop” is ten-and-a-half minutes of genuinely terrifying industrial noise, a sort of aural equivalent of Eraserhead. Like David Lynch’s film, it conveys a chilling, bleak, monochrome dystopia, full of blood-curling shrieks and clangs, although I seem to remember that the movie offered the odd moment of respite, an occasional touch of bizarre and malformed hope, whereas “Frankie Teardrop” offers none at all.
Setting aside the value judgment stuff, what is interesting about this account is that Hornby hears the song as pure noise, a dystopia unleashed onto musical form. Even kinder accounts of the group echo this assessment, regarding the group as basically eschewing music conventionally understood.
One of the things I find especially staggering about listening to some of their earlier material (which is gathered up on two records: Half Alive & The First Rehearsal Tapes) is how unhelpful that framing can be. Actually, there are fragments of very conventional rock and roll scattered throughout their music, something that sets the group in dialog with Patti Smith Group, the Ramones, and so on. References to Elvis, blues-based harmonic and melodic structures, conventional rock harmony, lyrics fitting for the most syrupy bubblegum pop songs… it’s all there. Lester Bangs was one of the few people cued into this, when he remarked in his liner notes for Half Alive that one of the group’s songs might as well have been a cover of “Sugar Sugar” by the Archies. (If you don’t know, this was fictional band of comic book character Archie on the 1968-1969 The Archie Show.)
Of course, this was Bangs being a smartass, since the song sounds nothing like the Archies, especially in any sense where such a comparison might matter. (Thanks to Amy Bauer, who pointed out to me that she got a copy of the Archies’ single from a box of Super Sugar Crisp as a kid. I’m sure Bangs was thinking of the fact that this wasn’t just ‘60s bubblegum pop, but almost literally was sugary cereal kitsch music.)
Suicide’s music doesn’t really “work” as rock and roll. Indeed, their songs merely sound like rock, at least insofar as they deploy elements of rock: the licks, the chords, the rhythms, etc. But they seem to be missing all of the principles that should hold it all together. In the end, their songs sound like badly faded copies of copies of copies, as if rock’s influence has become so blurry, it lingers only as the faintest trace. You can hear this enacted literally in a song like “Going to Las Vegas,” which is this sort of disturbing eulogy for the king of rock and roll. The song only vaguely sets the scene, sort of gesturing at Elvis’s Vegas period, the fact that he is dead, and vocal style: a rather shoddy imitation of his performance that gradually descends into screaming.
Thinking about their work reminded me of a book about visual art by the philosopher JM Bernstein, Against Voluptuous Bodies. In his book, Bernstein presents an alternative account of pictoral modernism from the conventional accounts rooted in either historical period (e.g. art roughly between 1890-1960 or whatever) or style (e.g. abstract expressionism, serialist technique). Bernstein argues that modernist artworks are those which display a doubled sense of identification and distance from the normative force of artistic practice. They represent less the heroic and triumphant escape from society, than a never-quite finalized rift between art and its inheritances. Modernism announces distance, failure, even horror at art’s coming irrelevance, as if it might soon be too late for art.
Bernstein writes at length about Cindy Sherman’s 1985 photograph Untitled 153.
The picture is a disturbing work, partially because it displays a curious affection for photography as a medium. The work is obviously frightening at the level of content: it implies—without ever quite confirming—that some horrific act of violence (perhaps sexual) has befallen the person depicted in it. Curiously though, from a formal standpoint, the picture seems partially disinterested in content. It is perfectly posed and framed. The woman is aestheticized, presented as almost beautiful. Bernstein reads this photograph as horrific in an aesthetic sense. It is an indictment of photography as a medium, which almost passively captures something deserving not aesthetics but moral indignation. Photography cannot deliver. In this sense, Sherman poses the horror of nonidentity between medium and expressive ends. Bernstein says the photo asks us “who killed this woman,” but it can only answer: “the camera did it.”
This image resonated with me, not only because it seemed to so nicely capture the inadequacies of myths about punk’s canonicity, which is also often presented as a heroic overcoming of rock’s limitations. It also seemed to capture the odd admixture of formalism and sheer contempt that seemed to characterize a group like Suicide. They too get all the pieces of the form, as if the bass lines and rhythms of rock and roll are the materials of rock. And yet, they seem unable to believe in it, not as much as Elvis, not even as much as the Archies.
Exemplary of this sound for me is “All Night Long,” a song that was recorded live in Toronto in 1978 and released on Half Alive. I hear “All Night Long” as emblematic of punk’s avant-gardist self-consciousness. At the level of content, the song references rock in a number of explicit ways. The central lyric of the song is the phrase “we’re gonna dance all night long.” This text plays on a common trope in rock and roll of the celebratory dance/party tune, from Bill Haley’s 1954 “Rock Around the Clock” to “Let’s Have a Party” (most famous for the 1958 Wanda Jackson recording). Suicide’s lyrics evoke this exuberant rock and roll experience, of dancing all night long, of feeling at home in the affective power of rock and roll.
On a superficial level, the music reinforces this vision of bliss. The central material of the song is an emphatically played boogie woogie bass line, one that would be right at home on a Jerry Lee Lewis song or something of the sort. If the song matches the materials of rock and roll on a superficial level, it is anything but affirming. Everything feels off. The bass line only appears in the middle of the song, and suddenly. When it arrives, it is out of sync with the vocal delivery and simply outlines a single chord over and over again. Far from the comforting groove that might ground rock and roll, it feels almost frantically out of touch with the rest of the song. This is matched by lyrical delivery. Vega essentially chants the song’s key phrase on repeat, occasionally interspersing an occasional “come on baby” or “yeah.” These sound like rock clichés, redeployed here as empty filler. Gradually, they deteriorate, until Vegas is basically screaming. It as if a rock song has been smashed to pieces and we are left to witness the shards of what is left. (It’s not really Eraserhead but Blue Velvet, as if Frank Booth took over for Dick Clark on American Bandstand.)
In the end, “All Night Long” is rock too late. It sounds the horror that arises from the rift between punk and classic rock. It reveals the ability of punk to contemplate rock but never again be rock. In the song, punk can only stand helplessly by as rock lingers like a corpse under a sad, beautifying gaze. Ultimately, the song demands that we repurpose Bernstein’s question. We must ask, with little hope of answering: who killed rock and roll?