The Birth of Punk

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Ray Stevenson/REX/Shutterstock (581295gs)
Sex Pistols – Johnny Rotten outside Glitterbest office

The Sex Pistols meant to bring the edge into view, and they did: when Johnny Rotten rolled his r’s, it sounded as if his teeth had been filed down to points.

Positing boredom as the legacy of rock, and spiritual death as the promise of the welfare state, punk triumphed over its vi­sions of ugliness—mastered them—by acting them out. Insisting on the bizarre and trashing standards of decency, punk shat­tered the mask of the dominant culture; by its very unnatural­ness, punk made the host culture seem like a trick, the result of sadomasochistic economics. With cruelly dyed and slashed hair, mutilated faces, bondage gear (from McLaren’s shelves, of course, which was only fair), wrecked clothes—a lumpen, day-­for-night-of-the-living-dead style—punk drew lines, divided the young from the old and the young from the young, forced new loyalties, forged new identities, and, as it announced that all possibilities were closed, opened up possibilities of negation and affirmation that a year before had not existed even as fantasies. This was revolt into style; it was also style into revolt. Centered strictly in London, later spreading directly across the U.K., punk’s claim on the world’s attention was not hedged: music­ally and politically it announced itself as a harbinger of things to come, of all that was feared and of all that could not even be imagined.

Greil Marcus, Punk (1979)

After listening to the YouTube tracklist, write about 300 words on what you think made punk distinctive as a musical and social movement. Try to avoid the obvious, which is that punk was “angry” or “loud” for example, and try instead to pick out specific lyrics, parts of songs and quotes from Please Kill Me to help you make your point. The quotes from Greil Marcus above give you a sense of how one person interpreted the music (you can quote from the Marcus article, also). Things to think about (you don’t have to answer all of these): Was there a vulnerable side to punk? Could their “politics” be taken seriously? How does the expression of pure negativity work as a political position? How did the punk bands relate to earlier bands (The Velvet Underground, the New York Dolls) on the tracklist? Would bands be able to make music like this today and reach the wider public?

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27 thoughts on “The Birth of Punk

  1. After listening the list of soundtracks of Punk, my first generalized impression of the five different groups of artists plus Carroll’s song is that they are actually comfortable with their bizarre equilibrium, balancing, according to Greil Marcus, on a result of sadomasochistic economics. To be more specific, for me, on the one hand, these artists are to different degrees unsatisfied with this world. The velvet underground reminds me of the vaguely bitter taste of Ginsberg’s Howl, and on the other end of the spectrum, sex pistol roars out their irrepressible anger, when, according to Marcus, “Johnny Rotten rolled his r’s, it sounded as if his teeth had been filed down to points.” Yet on the other hand, I consider that essentially, like Rimbaud, the poets are essentially obtaining some peace and satisfaction with their artistic creation, their growl, and their bizarre arrangement of their own bodies. The most prevalent reason for me is that I have noticed a common character of all these punk songs: for nearly all of them, no matter how abstract, elusive or eccentric the content of the song is (as it is shown in “sister ray”), the structure of the song always follow the pattern of a good symmetry, which is even frequently realized by the repetition of the lyrics. The velvet underground always gives me a sense of walking, and when the song ends with a non-explosive dying out of the melody, the walk perhaps carries on as the artist frees himself in the air, in art itself. Yet this kind of comfortableness doesn’t prevent the punk singers from feeling their pains, which are of course the initial driving power of their creation. Ramones’ critiques on the society is covered by metaphors and parables, seen in “beat the brat” or “Judy is a Punk.” Sex pistol and the clash, in their cases, step forwards and articulate their anti-constitutional political stance.
    However, I have said that in the end, they get certain comforts from their music, because first of all, they bring up full political conscience within their works, yet they propose, in the end, still no solution to all the things they are against just as their fathers didn’t. Yet what makes them different is their awareness of their position of helplessness. As it is clearly questioned in the “Im so bored with USA,” “what can I do” against the capitalism, the fake ideal of democracy, and the ongoing violence in the war? Nothing. Maybe the singer isn’t working hard enough as a philosopher to propose new models for the world, yet after all, he never imagines himself to be the Hero. This consciousness or self-positioning separates them from the postmodernism which is always at lost, and then gives them a sense of satisfaction, as we see in “Anarchy in UK,” not only the performers, but also the sweating and yelling audience releasing their irrepressible anxiety, hatred and desperation in the midst of the Cold War. Do they really yearn for the other side of the Berlin War? I don’t think so. Their main argument here of course risks to slip into the old trick of duality, that is, opposing one side by claiming the other righteous. However, I have felt a huge energy released here in an artistic carnival, which should not be reduced to serious of childish grunts—for after all, what should be or can a mature complaint be like? I think, in the end, “feeling nothing” encapsulates the essence of punk’s sadomasochistic economics, an economy which allows people to cry out their purest and extremist egocentrism, yet on the same time, to base all the fundamentalist individualism on a dispersed sense of desperate humanity.

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  2. The music that we listened to in this playlist is interesting because the singing is, in many parts, atrocious. Especially David Johnansen from the New York dolls, I couldn’t imagine this guy trying to fit into any other genre, but he did it perfectly in this proto punk stage of underground music. That seems to be, in large part, what these guys were after, not a typical rock sound, but really brash on purpose to extend their personalities even further out to the listener’s. At the time this was happening, the big bands at the time were guys like the Eagles, who are quite polarizing, but still immensely popular. The Eagles embody everything that this kind of music was trying hard not to be. Which was quite orchestrated and put together, this music was anything but that. I thought what Greil Marcus said was right on here, that “punk drew lines, divided the young from the old and the young from the young, forced new loyalties, forged new identities…”. Ultimately, the politics of punk, to me, aren’t ones of immense negativity, but really just freedom. The freedom to play and sound and sing the way they wanted to, and not worrying about attracting popularity because the acceptance of their own was enough. So when Johnny Rotten was singing about anarchy in the UK, it was more like a call to arms to be who you are and who you want to be, and forge new identities, and as Bob Gruen witnesses here, “… but by shouting their boredom and rage with everything, thye attracted the most bizarre reactions from every side”(359), they did just that. I think this kind of undergorund music will always exist in some form or another, it might not be punk, but there is always something that captures the feelings of societies youth. Reaching the wider public would be tougher though, just because of the sheer amount of music out there today, and the big ones that dominate to such a crushing degree that it would be hard for groups like the New York Dolls, or Velvet Underground to be the icons that they were.

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  3. While listening to punk music its loud and disturbing tones become initially obvious and often leave a listener with sentiments of either disgust or extreme interest. A closer examination of punk exposes the ways punk reflects a spiritual revival for its audience. Through its integration of drugs and political movements, punk possesses its listeners with a desire to reevaluate religion in their lives.
    As Patti Smith cultivates punk music she intertwines biblical characters and religious associations in order to combat the church and create her own spiritual preferences. Within her song Gloria she beings by singing “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine”. By beginning her song with this religious connotation, Patti suggests that the song addresses her immediate sentiments towards religion. Furthermore, by pinpointing “sins but not mine”, Smith dissociates herself from religion entirely. In doing so, the artist indicates she must make up for her sins and not even Jesus can save her from herself. The political representation Gloria makes explores the ways in which religion becomes a constricting element for the artist. While it does not completely close religion for Smith the song proposes she finds ways to cleanse herself spiritually aside from religion. By transforming her mindset into one which strays away from normal religious beliefs the artist creates a platform where one can find spirituality on their own.
    Additionally, within the novel Please Kill Me Now, Patti voices how she views the art of Punk music as a salvation from the world. As she voices her opinion she states: “and how art can really save someone”(325). Smith’s view of art as a road to salvation pinpoints her desires in finding her own salvation aside from the church. She explores art as the road which changed her and saved her from her prior thoughts. By voicing her view of art Patti suggests Punk becomes a movement which reframes the mindsets of its listeners not only through it’s obstructing noise yet through its captivating and often profound diction.

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  4. To call punk just loud or angry certainly feels not only like a simplification but a misinterpretation. Punk is complex in that it feels both antipolitical and antisocietal but it still often functions within politics and society. Is very much a reactionary subculture in many ways, it rarely is meant to be interpreted as “world building” as one would apply it to, say, queer theory in the sense that it is attempting to establish a world outside of the preexisting normative society, and rather it is very much responding directly to the normative society and functioning in direct conversation and opposition to it. I wouldn’t call classic punk “political” as much as I would call it, again, reactionary. Songs like “God Save the Queen” and “Anarchy in the U.K.” don’t feel as if they’re attempting to make a political statement as much as they’re being intentionally counter to the norm in a way that is meant purely to deviate from it in the name of rebellion. There’s less redefining or recreation of identity and more taking the pre-existing and destroying it in the name of what almost borders into shock value. But I don’t think this stems from anger necessarily, although there is anger in the music at times… I think the anger present is meant often to be a catharsis and a method of expressing a pain that goes beyond just anger. The lyrics on a deeper level often include feelings of loss or otherwise an inability to feel heard or understood in society- Jim Carroll’s repetition of “Those are people who died, died / They were all my friends, and they died” is very sad, although the music projects it into something “louder” and “angrier,” while the Ramone’s “Perhaps they’ll die” has a similar nihilistic and hopelessly frustrated feeling towards death and loss expressed in “loud anger.”

    I think, at the end of the day, punk allowed anger to be acceptable, but the reasoning for the anger is much more complicated than that. It allowed people a place to express a frustration or a sadness or a lack of control or any other deeply negative emotion within oneself, be it something personal or something on a larger societal scale, to be spoken about freely and without shame. The Marcus quote puts it well: “Punk … forced new loyalties, forged new identities.” Like the other music subcultures that would spring from it there is a sense of community being found through it and an encouragement to forge one’s own identity through self-expression with the promise of no restraint or judgment. This also feels like where the connection to earlier bands such as the Velvet Underground come in, because they, too, are allowing themselves to focus on “uglier,” more taboo topics with no restraint such as drug addiction and sex while also being unafraid to experiment with music and sound as well to come up with songs that often sound discordant and even chaotic (such as the second half of “Heroin,” or, not included in the playlist, “The Black Angel’s Death Song”), although perhaps not as overtly “loud” as the punk music that would follow.

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  5. I was very hesitant to listen to the playlist. The only punk music I had ever heard was in my America in the sixties class and we didn’t really dive into the deeper meaning of punk music. However, I didn’t find the Velvet Underground to be angry or loud, I enjoyed listening to the different instruments, and I disliked hearing their actual singing. The only band I felt fell into the stereoptypical punk rock band was the Clash, Sex Pistols. As I was reading I played the playlist and I feel Patti Smith helped me understand the punk music better than anyone else in the book. In Please Kill Me, Smith says, “Physical presentation in performing is more important than what you’re saying” (174). I feel the artists and bands are able to put on a performance rather than just singing their songs. They create these cliques and styles made specifically for their own bands. Members of the Velvet Underground describe how they would perform in movie theatres and they had props and their backs would be used as screens to project the movie onto. This type of performance helped to make punk different than folk or what was previously popular. The way the New York Dolls used glitter in one of their concerts and soon after everyone was using glitter and dressing this certain way. I feel like bands could make music like that today and it would still reach a large audience. The music the Dolls made appealed to people and also the way the presented they created a style for people to follow. Childers agrees, “You didn’t just go see the Dolls–you had to be seen seeing the Dolls” (128). This relates to today in many ways, artists create and design fancy decorations for their concerts, Travis Scott did the whole Astroworld thing and had a makeshift roller coaster around him while he performed. Youtubers are paid to attend Coachella and a lot of times they don’t even care about who is performing they are more obsessed with photographing that they were present. If now the Dolls were to have made waves like they did back then it would attract a large fan base not only because of the music but because of the way they showed who they were. I think all the punk bands had some level of vulnerability they were all performing things that had yet to be done and they weren’t even making lots of money from it. Despite the money, and the lack of fan base they continued to build and build their mini empires. And through this building they helped push trends and create a new genre of music.

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  6. Punk was a distinctive musical movement due to its deep societal roots. It embodied contrarian ideology that rejected societal norms. Eddie “Legs” McNeil, American music journalist, said, “I thought the magazine should be for other fuckups like us. Kids who grew up believing only in the Three Stooges…kids that stole cars and had fun. So I said, ‘Why don’t we call it punk? The word ‘punk’ seemed to sum up the thread that connected everything we liked – drunk, obnoxious, smart but not pretentious, absurd, funny…” (204). This excerpt is emblematic of the punk crowd, a crowd that lives fast and dies young, an on-edge group that rejects authority and embraces impulsiveness. In fact, shortly after coming up with the title punk, Eddie was from then on known as “Legs”: this rechristening is punk in itself, as it is absurd and comic.

    Punk tracks often push the envelope and feature potentially uncomfortable subject matter. An early example is the song “Venus in Furs,” which has an innocuous chorus, “I am tired, I am weary, I could sleep for a thousand years…” This chorus stands in sharp contrast to the lyrical content of the verses, which include leather fetishism and striking your partner for romantic intent. This song successfully brings sexual taboo to the forefront and presents it plainly, unfiltered.

    Though punk was a rambunctious sound, there was often room for vulnerability, as seen in the album “The Velvet Underground and Nico.” The topics, at the time shocking and off-the-wall, include heroin abuse and sexual deviancy. Lou Reed’s lyrics in “Heroin” are revealing and sad: the speaker states, “When I’m closing in on death you can’t help me…you can all go take a walk” when referring to how heroin is the only thing that saves him from suicide and stays his depression. It is also said that while on heroin, the speaker, “don’t care anymore about all the politicians making their crazy sounds and everybody putting everybody else down…” which is a punk-like indiction of the system, essentially stating the environment forces punks to act out.

    Though punk itself is not serious, its “politics” can be taken seriously. It stems from objection with higher powers like the government and authority, and often has a genuine message against the environment at the time. The size of the punk movement indicates its validity in reflecting a portion of the populace.

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  7. Punk was born out of a rejection of classic rock n’ roll. The music itself was hard-edged and under-produced. The songs were not melodious, rather the focus of punk was the lyrics which were often used to send an anti-establishment message. For example, the Sex Pistols’
    “Anarchy in the USA” says “I am an antichrist…I wanna destroy the passerby/’Cause I wanna be Anarchy”. Another display of the Sex Pistols’ nonconformity can be seen in their “God Save the Queen” music video when they rented a boat and rode down the Thames blasting music as Queen Elizabeth celebrated her accession to the throne. The rambunctious demonstration seemed to send a clear message of dissidence as police boats encircled the band to end this display. However, I do not think that punk at that time, had a real political message rather it was anti-establishment and crude more so to distinguish itself and create an unorthodox subculture. Punk music was a subculture based on youthful rebellion and political negativity. When punk first evolved, the main idea was to create something new and reject rock n’ roll, only later did punk demonstrate a clear ideology of anti-authoritarianism, discontent and individualism. The pure negativity worked as a political position because it encompassed all the ideologies of punk. A major factor of the punk was also the evocative clothing styles. In Please Kill Me, Mickey Leigh describes the Ramones as “all wearing black leather jackets, and they were all trying to be real fucking tough and we were a little scared” and Genya Ravan recalls an experience with the Dead Boys “they come walking in…Swastikas all over everything” (McNeil and McCain,231). Danny Fields explains that they did not really support the Nazis rather it was a crude aesthetic. The offensive symbols and masculine, spiked, black clothes with chains were staples of punk. The clothing was a visual representation of punk’s ideology. I think that if bands today made music like this and restarted a punk movement it would be quick to catch on. The music would reach a wider audience as there is a lot of political angst in the US and people could express their discontent through a new wave of punk.

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  8. Exterminate all virtual possibilities dictated by mass culture through negation of its primary forms of bodily and mental control. Think past the unthinkable. Punk made present the apocalypse of the future, in the same way Rimbaud speaks about poetry “Being in advance” (Letter of The Seer). In killing the fixity of the present, derangement of the senses take hold from “the horizon where the other collapsed.” (Letter of The Seer) Richard Hell uses the collapse of a horizon where noise and silence reach an ambient channel in the hollow refrain that goes “I belong to the ________ generation. But I can take it or leave it each time.” This negation of historical belonging aligns itself with the dispossession of the punk while the silence memorializes the souls mangled by the age and each collapse. There’s a whimsical mobility that shows in the “I can take it or leave it each time”, a political future is there but through mobility itself, the freedom to move from vampiric identification of mass culture–into emancipatory rejection, becomes punks cult/axis. Alienation and an inflected ironic horror course through the masochism of Reed/Underground, The Pistols, and Iggy. Rejection as an end in itself, especially as it attempts to match pace with the acceleration of the techno-capitalist scheme, seems like it could just be straddling a pure fetish of power and efficiency as exploitation becomes the primary pleasure or morality. Tetsuo comes to mind when thinking about punk facismo run amuck–a demonstrative departure from the human in both form and desires, culminating in a giant rebar-washing-machine penis that “fuck[s] the world” to death. Maybe the punks are thinking more dialectically than me?

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  9. Punk is set aside from other musical and poetic genres by its expression of genuine pain and frustration. It is characterized not by its extremely aggressive vocals, but instead by its communication of human emotion. In Please Kill Me, a featured artist, Eliot Kidd, states, “The only thing that made the music different was that we were taking lyrics to places they had never been before. The thing that makes art interesting is when an artist has incredible pain or incredible rage. The New York bands were much more into their pain” (282). The music’s side of vulnerability is clear in this quote. Lyrics in the music extended beyond the anti establishment thinking that is typically associated with the genre of music. New York groups were believed to be less violent with their music, and instead focused on the elements of society that oppress the masses. Bands focused on social instability and wrote extensively about the plight caused by institutions. Punk artists wrote their music with the intention of channelling aggression and taking hold of the cultural scene using lyrics that were representative of evil itself. Another artist, Arturo Vega, in response to the artistic process claims, “I always thought that to conquer evil, you have to make love to it. You have to understand it” (256). He believed that the movement was unique because of its ability to “find you out” (257). Vega compares punk music to swastika paintings pointing at the fact that they both offend those that are hiding a portion of their identity, “closeted fascists,” as he states. He argues that punk is the evaluation of morality, and those that are intimidated by its opposition to social values are aware of contemporary issues, yet refuse to change their ways. New York artists specifically combatted complacency amongst Americans and sought to alter the world’s perception on sociocultural issues with their music

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  10. Punk addressed the incessant adolescent need for honesty. The decorum and outdated modes of behavior of the ‘Greatest Generation’ appeared feckless to the younger generation. Their parents had created a vicious world that everyone had to live in. That is why there are so many calls to action, bands like The Clash and The Sex Pistols conflicted with authority. In London Calling lines like “The ice age is coming, the sun is zooming in /Meltdown expected, the wheat is growin’ thin,” call on images of Biblical Apocalypse to try and process the existential fear of Nuclear Holocaust and the Western Bloc shed the morals that were so emblematic of the ‘Good/Evil’ dynamic of World War 2. They were no longer the good guys, and so punk bands like The Clash just held up an ironic mirror to power, jeering them on songs like ‘God Save the Queen’.
    Furthermore, a song like People Who Died by Jim Carroll explores the quiet collapse of society and community in their capacity to care for each other. Some people are affected by savage incurable diseases like “Bobby got leukemia, 14 years old/ He looked like 65 when he died” which are terrifying, but other’s deaths are the direct cause of neglect and state sponsored poisons. Whether it is wine or Drain-O or sniffing glue, the result is always the same grim fate. Every and any tenet or conception of the contract between the state and the citizen was being disrupted as the balance of power had given the state the means to disenfranchise its youth. Life was in some circumstances hell- and the recourse was silent resistance and slightly illegal narcotics which rendered the resistor apathetic and listless. The next step is just noise, unbound undirected rage. Angry boys who act out in class, lighting a dumpster on fire, etc. Punk marks the turn where this resistance is brought back into the fold, the counterculture becomes incorporated in the mainstream as the avante-garde becomes overtaken. When rock lost the ability to resist, somewhere after grunge and Kobain in the 90’s- it lost its ability to encapsulate the rage of the youth and speak truth to power.

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  11. As much as punk music is rightfully associated with a rejection of mainstream societal values, that doesn’t mean that the movement was characterized by hedonism, or the complete absence of values. In fact, a common thread throughout much of what is classified as punk music is political activism expressed through art and music. Even in songs that don’t seem to be overtly political, punk bands often express truths that they feel need to be told, but aren’t being addressed in mainstream music or media. For example, in their song “Heroin,” The Velvet Underground sings, “when the smack begins to flow / I really don’t care anymore / about… all the politicians making sounds…/ and all the dead bodies piled up in mounds.” Although the lyrics could be read as a frustrated drug addict giving the middle finger to life and society in general, they actually express an insightful view that sheds light on the problems of the day- problems which were not being called out in any other media.

    Some of the more extreme views that punks express seem to be pipe dreams that are not taken seriously, even by their professors. One of these views that is often identifies with punk ideology is anarchy- the absence of government. Although anarchy seems like an attractive option to those fed-up with oppression and over-regulation, it is less feasible than manly punks would like to think. Even if one could get a small society of people together agree to live under complete anarchy, it would be practically unrealistic to maintain a lawless yet somewhat functional society over any period of time.

    As Legs McNeil discussed when he talked about the founding of Punk magazine, “the word ‘punk’ seemed to sum up the thread that connected everything we liked- drunk, obnoxious, smart but not pretentious, absurd, funny, ironic, and things that appealed to the darker side” (226). Although the word “punk” brings many concrete images and associations to mind, I find it difficult to define it in one paragraph. Punk combines anti-authoritarian views, DIY values, and an emphasis on personal uniqueness, among other things, in a blend as radical, fresh, and new as it is classic.

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  12. Punk’s vulnerability does not mirror that of previous musical and social movements. Prior to the punk era, post-war society was centered around the home, family, and the individual. While conformity was then-valued, punk emerged as a conscious breaking away and rebellion from such standards. Punk distinctness is rooted in anti-establishment politics. From punk aesthetic to punk method to punk music, punks sought to flip the bird to “dominant culture.” Punk’s aggressive exterior was arguably limiting to furthering its political or otherwise messages to audiences. Upon initial glance, punk was loud and violent making it not entirely accessible to the faint of heart. In the “Go Rimbaud!” chapter in Please Kill Me, Patti Smith notes, “Physical presentation in performing is more important than what you’re saying. Quality comes through of course, but if your quality of intellect if high, and your love of the audience is evident, and you have a strong physical presence, you can get away with anything.” I found it fascinating that Smith would lament that physicality is more important than what’s being said considering punk, while an aesthetic style, was primarily an ideological movement. It’s odd to think that anti-establishment politics would concern themselves with the perception of others. I am less inclined to their politics if punks only care about the image of being a punk instead of believing and living their manifestos. At the same time, I can see and understand that during a period of extreme cultural conformity, taking a perpendicular approach to exteriority is essential in creating a literal digression from the then-state—after all, punk’s distinctness erupts from its anti-ness and being as alternative as possible.
    Today, punk has aged well. Punk bands successfully creating music for the public and DIY punk method is rampant. While modern punk bands aren’t necessarily household names nor do they top charts or reign supreme over prevailing genres, punk culture is alive and well around the world. Here in Los Angeles, DIY punk venues like The Smell, The Factory, and Rec Center cater to punks and create spaces for punk expression. Anti-establishment politics are somewhat “in fashion” now considering the global modern political climate is complete garbage. With that said, young punks are emerging more and more and punk ideology is alive and well.

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  13. I believe that punk’s originality is in its rebellion and the sense of community that stems from that rebellion. On the surface, punk can appear to be just loud and angry. It is criticized as having a simplistic chord structure, poor sound quality, and repetitive lyrics. Its artists are controversial and provocative. However, this type of “low art” is exactly what I think punk is trying to be. Tired of expensive, overly-produced, corporate albums, punks embraced music that was more emotional (see: angry) than technical. For example, the Ramones famously recorded their self-titled album for only $6400 in under a week (Mcneil and McCain, 252).

    By focusing on the emotional instead of the technical, punk is able to convey a very poignant, electrifying set of politics that is accessible to everyone. The Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the UK” demonstrates the immaturity found on the surface of many punk songs, with lyrics such as “get pissed, destroy!” However, this “expression of pure negativity” is a necessary part of politics as it advocates for alternative forms of lifestyles by challenging the authority of the mainstream. Bands like the New York Dolls sung about the “personality crisis” that many people feel from the pressure of these narratives, and their songs act as a realization and expression of that oppression. Later punk banks would be inspired by the expressive freedom in the lyrics, music, and style of bands like the New York Dolls and the Velvet Underground. For example, the Velvet Underground’s “I’m Set Free” discusses the “illusion” that later punk would challenge.

    However, I believe that that style of punk can no longer be replicated, because its “sound” is no longer new; it has been somewhat appropriated into the mainstream culture and allowed to exist within its own space. However, I believe that the ethos of punk can find itself in a new sound, because punk itself isn’t just a sound; rather, it is that which values the emotion and life of the individual over any sort of system that they are expected to participate in. In the words of James Grauerholz, “‘Punk’! – I loved it, because it meant to me a derisory word for a young, no-count piece a shit” (230).

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  14. What made punk distinctive was that it attacked every mainstream and not so mainstream value. It does not propose an alternative ideology or thought. It just attacks what it sees and reveals the absurdity of the righteousness of the morals we live on. Many of the songs speak of religion and nationality, hinting at the union made between God and country to defend the acts of the nation. One such example is the opening lines of “Anarchy in the U.K.”: “I am an antichrist/ I am an anarchist.” The words antichrist and anarchist seem indistinguishable. To be an enemy of the dominant religion is to be the enemy of authority and law and order. To rebel against religion is to rebel against secular law.

    The politics of punk, especially that of the Sex Pistols, was taken seriously by the media and the public. In Please Kill Me, Danny Fields explains that “There was no music on the network coverage of the Sex Pistols. It was simply that this sociological phenomenon from England that happened to play music was playing here.” Regardless of the band’s intentions, the media was taking their work as a study of current social anger. They were not appreciated for being “radical … in terms of music.” Everyone around them morphed their words into their personal and national struggle against hegemonic systems. The consistent negativity simply negated authority and the growing popularity of punk, the spread of its “unnaturalness” amplified this sentiment to the mainstream. It worked by simply humiliating popular values.

    Newer punk bands borrowed the same sense of frustration that older bands expressed. For example, one of The Velvet Underground’s songs records the experience of using heroin: “And all the politicians making crazy sounds/ And everybody putting everybody else down/ And all the dead bodies piled up in mounds.” The use of drugs is a way of ignoring the horrors people commit on a daily basis. Bands like Sex Pistols expanded on this feeling with even crazier looks, music, and followings.

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  15. After listening to the YouTube playlist of punk songs, I believe what made punk the distinctive musical genre and social movement it was because of the message it conveyed and the consequential feeling it instilled amongst people–specifically the song by the Sex Pistols, “God Save the Queen”. An interesting fact about this song is that it was actually banned by British authorities because the song was deemed to be offensive to the Queen. Indeed many of the songs in the playlist had the obvious distinctions of being “angry” and “loud”characteristics very prevalent in many of the songs by the Sex Pistols. However, I believe it was its raw and unconventional way of commentating on social issues that gave it its iconic distinction that ultimately set it apart as a unique social movement. “The Sex Pistols meant to bring the edge into view, and they did: when Johnny Rotten rolled his r’s, it sounded as if his teeth had been filed down to points.” This quote by Greil Marcus in his 1939 article “Punk” describes this perfectly. The dissonance from the repeating power chords and gritty dragging out of syllables gets the attention of the audience who are then better equipped to take in the often heavily political lyrics. I think the expression of pure negativity works as a political position by creating a certain sense of shock value. In those times, and even today, punk is often associated with things that are not mainstream. I think this innate negativity that is associated with punk is both its strong suit and what makes the genre vulnerable. It may help in reaching an audience that could be stuck on the outskirts of mainstream media yet many might not be readily available to take their music’s political messages seriously. The punk bands today are almost mainstream compared to many back in the day. I think true punk would have an almost cult following and may not be able to reach that wide of an audience. Especially in terms of politics, today’s society–mainly the younger generation–are already relatively politically apathetic. With that said, raw punk songs holding these heavily political messages may not even be received properly.

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  16. Punk became distinctive because from the very beginning it formed its own subculture that was separate from other mainstream music. Its origin was that of self-identification, to break apart from society and its norms, a fight for rights, and an overall creation of their own culture. Although punk music was a form of artistic expression, not everyone understood its musicality and wrote it off as noise. In Please Kill Me for example, Danny Fields sates, “I took Morrison to Max’s and he was a monster, a prick. And his poetry sucked. He demeaned rock & roll as literature. Sophomoric bullshit babble. Maybe one or two good images.” Danny Fields’ criticism to Morrison’s music may be biased, seeing as it is evident he held a strong dislike towards him; however, earlier in the novel, when Morrison performed and let out a “scream” that was unlike what people were accustomed to in regards to adequate performances, the criticism stemmed more from the sound of the music and not the writing or message itself. An example of the way this music shaped political and social movements is when Havel explained to The Velvet Underground what their music truly meant to people, “We had a translator, and he was trying to describe to me what the Velvets’ music and lyrics had meant to him and his cohorts when they were trying to blow up Russian tanks, creeping around the woods, and going to jail.” People were willing to go to jail and get into “big damn trouble” for their music and lyrics. Many times their “politics” could not be taken seriously due to the content of their music, “look what they were writing about: heroin, and naked sailors dead on the floor. I mean, they were not going to get radio airplay with ‘Venus in Furs!’” The lyrics of “Heroin” are very descriptive and build upon what it’s like to be on the drug, it starts off mellow and slowly builds up —much like heroin itself. Its content is clear: “’Cause when the blood begins to flow / When it shoots up the dropper’s neck / When I’m closing in on death,” heroin is not being recommended nor endorsed in any way, it is simply a poetic way in which it is described to the masses; there seems to be no ulterior motive. Today, music like this is more widely accepted, drugs are not this unspeakable thing that bring shame upon someone, but instead seem to be glorified by certain musicians. It is evident that time period has a large impact on the direction of music, its contents, and acceptance.

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  17. The biggest thing that I noticed upon listening to the playlist was the heavy reliance on instruments as opposed to the vocals being the center of the songs. The music was loud and fast with a constant rhythm to it, giving the songs a sense of urgency. The electric nature of the music unifies all the songs into one genre, even if their subject matter could range from mindless rebellion or aggressive nothingness to political stance or commentary against societal sexism. For example, in “God Save the Queen,” Sex Pistols comment on the political standpoint of the UK when they sing “God save the Queen, cause tourists are money.” Although the title of the song doesn’t necessarily communicate whether the song is intended to be ironic or sincere, the actual lyrics of the song make it clear that it is a dismissive commentary of the Fascist ideology that existed at the time. Because songs like these take the pessimistic approach on society, punk can be viewed as a heavily negative genre of music. I personally believe that this results in punk being more effective in conveying critical messages because the audience are forced to address the hard realities instead of using art as an escape mechanism. For example, in “I’m So Bored with The U.S.A.,” The Clash sings “I’m so bored with the U.S.A / But what can I do?” Although patriotic songs – to show love for the US – can be expected, The Clash use their anger towards the country and instead call it “boredom” in order to make their individualized anger relatable to the public sentiment. Overall, I think that the ability for bands to make music like this is much higher now than before because the public are more attracted towards music, and art in general, that shows the hard-hitting realities as opposed to the flowery tales of the world. Additionally, due to social media and advanced technology, it is also now possible to reach a wider variety of audience that can appreciate the music and therefore, give the necessary medium to the bands that they might have lacked before.

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  18. Pure negativity acts as a political position that is hard to refute. The act of Punk makes a mockery of themselves through embodying a persona that does not giving a fuck, hence saving themselves from retaliation of unhappy audience members or subjects of their songs. This mentality is exemplified in The Ramones music video to “I Want To Be Sedated,” as it shows the unexplainable chaos of life occurring behind them, while they remain unaffected and content with their morning breakfast. The lyrics within this song reflects their opinions on life, and glorifies suffering, as they sing “Twenty twenty twenty four hours to go. I wanna be sedated;” keep in mind there are only twenty four hours in the day. Yet, their vulnerable side is seen within their freedom of self expression. Although, they do represent a persona when performing, there is an honest and flirtatious side to Punk bands that garnered an audience. For example, most of the interviews that describes Patti Smith idolized her unapologetic beauty and eye for talent; Jim Marshall even stated that “Patti was absolutely like the nicest, most inspiring person (325), which contrasts her performance art. Therefore, I see that the audience also ate up the true passion that these unregulated individuals expressed off stage. They were unique individuals that were true to themselves, as well as to their art.

    These Punk bands took risks. The Velvet Underground and The New York Dolls’ semi-consumable style transformed into a distorted genre that was self-created. Within ‘Please Kill Me,’ Jerry Nolan stated that at the beginning “they couldn’t understand why these guys were getting so much attention – the Dolls were not what you’d call great technical musicians,” but they wore high heeled boots and elaborate outfits, and were not scared to express themselves (128). They experimented with sound and incorporated external art into their performance. Punk was eclectic and expressive, which became more apparent, and less consumable, with the Sex Pistols and the Ramones.

    I believe that bands would be able to make music like this today, since audiences desire an outlet to express their range and discontent; and, especially within today’s American society, I feel that people need a creative way to understand the fuckery that citizens are enduring, besides through Late Night Talk shows or the news. Personally, I believe that a political movement within the arts, such as music and film, will emerge within my generation. We see rappers expressing their discontent with racial injustices, and this topic can only be talked about when openly challenged. The underrepresented and the misunderstood are eager to gain agency, in order to be heard. Their vocalized discontent can be ‘sugar coated’ through the arts, which I believe Punk Rock did; and, this form of consumption has the power to create change within a society, which, I believe, will perhaps occur within the medium of film.

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  19. Punk overtly questioned the social and political climate during a time of rapid deindustrialization when the working-class youth were losing political power and economic status. This genre not only created a distinct, young musical and social identity, but it gave this generation a political voice through the “pure negativity.” The methods of Punk were so drastic, aesthetically and verbally, that its large following forced the attention of those it was meant to criticize. The fact that for a period of time these songs were banned in the popular culture gave even more strength to the genre and its message. In addition, I believe that a lot of the excessively negative aspects of Punk are meant in more of an ironic way. For instance, in The Sex Pistol’s “No Feelings,” it is so full of life and volume that it is hard to believe that it comes from a place of true indifference to the world around them.
    In an environment where young people were losing power and agency, Punk put them in a position to lead activist movements and give identity to those lost in the social hierarchy. Particularly in “God Save the Queen,” The Sex Pistols urge people; “don’t be told what you want. Don’t be told what you need.” This challenge to the monarchy stands as a call to end the blind following of major societal institutions in general. This message urges people to reconsider the kind of values that are in place before they give their support.
    While artists did this through drastic negativity and aggression, the topics that they were covering were largely vulnerable topics and were meant to help the people who were the most vulnerable to the harsh political climate of the time. Punk offered these marginalized subcultures an alternative to the strict social structure of the time. I also believe that the extent of the uniqueness of the Punk culture provided diverse groups of youths with a brand new creative outlet that had not previously been defined. This undeveloped genre allowed for people to be an active participant in its creation and purpose. While the onset of Punk may have started as a simple outlet of frustration, I believe the aggressive genre transformed into a calculated, valuable political and social movement.

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  20. To discuss first, the bands/artists that were considered as “proto-punk” (i.e. the Velvet Underground/Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Johnny Thunders) were musicians that inspired others to search for distinctiveness from the mainstream crowd; non conformity, hoping not to sound generic. In culture, the New York Dolls, as well as beings like Jim Carroll, inspires challenges in social values, as their Dorian Grey-esque hedonism on moral grounds (especially in sexuality) questions typical social values of living. In fact, one of the standing traditions within early punk was the sharing, and constant disputing, of partners, such as the constant feuds between Connie Gripp and Eileen Polk for not just Arthur Kane, but also for Dee Dee Ramone. Another recurring aspect that the former generation of (proto) punk artists installed into their newer contemporaries was the cult of worship for idols. One that the novel Please Kill Me introduced in the first chapter regarding such was the oversight of Danny Field’s observation of Jim Morrison (of the Doors) and his, more or less, pseudo-intellectual captivation of his fanbase, as he remarks: As a person, I think Morrison’s magic and power went beyond the quality of his versifying. He was bigger than that…But it sure wasn’t his poetry” (McNeil/ McCain 31). This kind of worship can be also be found in the New York Dolls as depicted by Bob Gruen: “…wherever the Dolls went, there was a scene surrounding them – there would be people waiting for them.” (McNeil/McCain 163).
    Many of these aspects of the bands mentioned would be transferred to the newer age of punk rock (Sex Pistols, the Ramones, Dead Boys). However, while these aspects were duly adapted to the scene, the differences between the generations is its demeanor of creating shock value and outrage to the point of superficiality. For instance, while the Ramones maybe considered more contemporary with the Sex Pistols, their first engagement with the English scene suggest a veterancy to their status. Hence according to Mickey Leigh (roadie of the Ramones at the time), the Ramones’ interactions (specifically Dee Dee) with the Sex Pistols become jarring when one can see that members of the Clash imposed a bravado towards them “because that’s how they figured bands in New York acted – tough” (McNeil/McCain 253). Furthermore, Sid Vicious (of the Sex Pistols) added to the disconnected intercourse when Dee Dee Ramone mentions of how “Sid Vicious followed [him] all over the place” and when Sid obtained some speed from Dee Dee, the former “put a whole bunch of speed in the syringe and then stuck the needle in the toilet with all the puke and piss in there and loaded it” (254). Throughout these exchanges, the worship of former (punk) idols, as well as their appetites in hedonism, are similar in nature yet differentiate in passion and extremity almost to a farce. Furthermore, in the realm of musicianship, the more contemporary punk bands start to disregard the poetry of rock music, as well as poetry itself. For instance, Lou Reed’s the Velvet Underground is concentrated less on musicianship with instruments, as songs like Heroin frequents in syncopation, and concentrates more on verbal poetry similar (even corresponding) to Patti Smith’s Rimbaud-esque poetry; such music differentiating from popular music from its time. Looking at any of the newer bands, the lyrics flip between simplicity, such as the Ramones’ Beat on the Brat: “Beat on the brat/Beat on the brat/Beat on the brat with a baseball bat/Oh yeah, oh yeah, uh-oh”, and satire of ‘deep’ lyrics such as Sex Pistols’ Anarchy in the UK: I am an antichrist/And I am an anarchist/Don’t know what I want/But I know how to get it/I wanna destroy the passerby/’Cause I wanna be Anarchy/No dog’s body.” Lyrically, the newer punk is a deconstruction of their former idols and inspirations.

    Punk essentially teeters between the freedom of personal and creative expression as their predecessors, yet rejects any sophistication that the past tries to portray and aims more for the hedonistic/superficial lifestyle found in outrage and non-conformity. As Malcolm McLaren failed to make the New York Dolls as artistically political, the outrageous and satirical lyrics of punk can only garner political attention as outrage itself and seldom contain any actual political value (at least until more politically charged punk bands began to appear as early as 1977). In fact, past bands post 1977, punk still only serve as outrage lyrics, especially modern incarnations of punk bands circa 1973-77, and would never be able to make an impact on today’s music as they would in that era…assuming that something like punk did exist in that era.

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  21. I think punk is defined by an overt opposition to surrounding society and values. It is not necessarily the presentation of new values, but the trashing of old ones. It is a counterculture, not a subculture. It refuses to be subordinate to a larger society, to coexist within an existing set of values. As Legs McNeil defined when he talked about the founding of Punk magazine, “the word ‘punk’ seemed to sum up the thread that connected everything we liked- drunk, obnoxious, smart but not pretentious, absurd, funny, ironic, and things that appealed to the darker side” (226). Punk appeals to the “darker side,” it seems to agree with the notion that Arturo Vega presents when he says, “I always thought that to conquer evil, you have to make love to it. You have to understand it” (256). Punk engages with “evil,” or what they label as so, in order to rid society of it. Punk is not everything society isn’t, but the opposite of whatever society values. This can be seen in many of the songs we listened to from the Youtube track. For example, in “Heroin,” the Velvet Underground sings, “when the smack begins to flow / I really don’t care anymore / about… all the politicians making sounds…/ and all the dead bodies piled up in mounds.” Though on the surface this seems like an apathetic, cold approach to the problem, a cowardly presentation of a reaction as opposed to a solution, these seem to be precisely the kinds of lyrics which punks choose to present to the public. They are not attempting to solve any problems or persuade others to join them. They are not presenting a new and improved worldview which they think others should join. Rather, they present a reactionary picture of the ravaging society causes on human souls, with themselves as case studies. They simply express how they feel, more than just their anger, but the depth and width of their profound frustration with the world. Their use of drugs and alcohol is not meant to be a solution or means of inspiring others, but a statement on the effect the world has had on them. Thus, I do think punk can be vulnerable. For example, in “Heroin,” Lou Reed sings, “When I’m closing in on death you can’t help me…you can all go take a walk.” In a strikingly honest manner, Reed presents his frustration with society. He doesn’t present a solution or find a scapegoat. Rather, he is real with what he experiences and how he feels.

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  22. What made punk so distinctive as a musical and social movement was that it went against any social kind of authority or institution though style and presentation that was considered to be out of the norm. It created a political stance on its own just by being the total opposite of the status quo. The negativity becomes their political stance because their hate for the system and political leaders becomes a collective feeling across the country. One that people can come together and share amongst each other because they see the flawed aspects of their system and would like to see some change. It is a way for people to free themselves from such a mundane world that has so many restrictions on what they believe people, art, and love are supposed to be like. With punk, there are no limits automatically giving freedom to the African Americans who have always been looked at with scorn, giving hope to the homosexuals who are seen as disgusting because of who they love, and giving respect to the women who are objectified and degraded because of their gender. This collective power amongst the people gives punk enough power to be considered a political stance. In addition, there is a vulnerable side to punk because through punk, people are finally free to say and do what they want without the oppression of an authority figure like in the song Heroin by the Velvet Underground, when they sing, “I really don’t care anymore, About all the Jim-Jims in this town. And all the politicians making crazy sounds,” showing that politics and authority are just another cog in the wheel that keeps turning but has no end. They admit that life is pointless where authority doesn’t exist except in the minds of those who want it to. In that same way, people open up about their deepest desires, their biggest fears, and bring light to topics that are considered to be inappropriate and “sinful” such as sexuality and suicide. Different aspects of punk lets one see a darker perspective in life, making one feel almost naked in the eyes of the public, giving it a tone of vulnerability. Lou Reed explains this passion for music and new ideas in the book, Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, by Legs McNeil as he says, “Rock & Roll is so great, people should start dying for it. You don’t understand. The music gave you back the beat so you could dream. A whole generation running with a Fender bass…” (pp.24) Even as he says it, one can almost hear the sarcasm in his voice, as he himself cannot take what he says to be serious. Their politics could not have been taken seriously all the time, because sometimes their ideas and politics seemed a little too extreme and negative, that any indication of solution was almost impossible to achieve such as world peace. In addition, their messages were so radical and completely out of the norm; that they themselves didn’t want to be taken seriously because they themselves, don’t want to be associated with a system they desperately hate.

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  23. What made punk so distinctive as a musical and social movement was that it went against any social kind of authority or institution though style and presentation that was considered to be out of the norm. It created a political stance on its own just by being the total opposite of the status quo. The negativity becomes their political stance because their hate for the system and political leaders becomes a collective feeling across the country. One that people can come together and share amongst each other because they see the flawed aspects of their system and would like to see some change. It is a way for people to free themselves from such a mundane world that has so many restrictions on what they believe people, art, and love are supposed to be like. With punk, there are no limits automatically giving freedom to the African Americans who have always been looked at with scorn, giving hope to the homosexuals who are seen as disgusting because of who they love, and giving respect to the women who are objectified and degraded because of their gender. This collective power amongst the people gives punk enough power to be considered a political stance. In addition, there is a vulnerable side to punk because through punk, people are finally free to say and do what they want without the oppression of an authority figure like in the song Heroin by the Velvet Underground, when they sing, “I really don’t care anymore, About all the Jim-Jims in this town. And all the politicians making crazy sounds,” showing that politics and authority are just another cog in the wheel that keeps turning but has no end. They admit that life is pointless where authority doesn’t exist except in the minds of those who want it to. In that same way, people open up about their deepest desires, their biggest fears, and bring light to topics that are considered to be inappropriate and “sinful” such as sexuality and suicide. Different aspects of punk lets one see a darker perspective in life, making one feel almost naked in the eyes of the public, giving it a tone of vulnerability. Lou Reed explains this passion for music and new ideas in the book, Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, by Legs McNeil as he says, “Rock & Roll is so great, people should start dying for it. You don’t understand. The music gave you back the beat so you could dream. A whole generation running with a Fender bass…” (pp.24) Even as he says it, one can almost hear the sarcasm in his voice, as he himself cannot take what he says to be serious. Their politics could not have been taken seriously all the time, because sometimes their ideas and politics seemed a little too extreme and negative, that any indication of solution was almost impossible to achieve such as world peace. In addition, their messages were so radical and completely out of the norm; that they themselves didn’t want to be taken seriously because they themselves, don’t want to be associated with a system they desperately hate.

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  24. Punk became a distinctive musical movement because it was a musical style that rebelled against the existing musical styles of the time. As a social movement, I think Ed Sanders said it best when explaining that “there developed a hostility within the counterculture itself, between those who had, like, the equivalent of a trust fund versus those who had to live by their wits…And those kids fermented into a kind of hostile street person. Punk types”(40). Punk was a rebellion within the counterculture itself. It’s interesting to trace the evolution of punk beginning with The Velvet Underground because while I wouldn’t consider the band punk, it was something different, existing between rock and punk. John Cale (who actually studied under Bernstein and John Cage) said that in Reed’s lyrics, “…there was an element of character assassination going on …” (18). This can be seen in the song “Heroin” as there is an element of character progression in both the music and the lyrics, “Heroin, be the death of me/ Heroin, it’s my wife and it’s my life/ Because a mainer to my vein/ Leads to a center in my head/ And then I’m better off than dead”. The Velvet Underground was avant garde, but through the emergence of punk, the avant garde musicians were pushed out. CBGB started to slip away from the avant garde and turned into a punk club. This transition in style is marked by The Ramones who made the music as basic as possible with simple guitar riffs and three chord structures. Even in their first rehearsal, Dee Dee Ramone said “I had no idea how to tune a guitar and only knew the E chord” (286). There was a “do it yourself” mentality to punk music with simple, raw, and vulgar lyrics which was expanding the concept of what could be considered music. The Sex Pistols used their platform to voice their own politics in “God Save The Queen” calling her a “facist” and “not a human being”. Considering that at one point they went through three labels in one week, I would say that their “politics” were being taken seriously, at least by the labels who understood the band’s impact. I also believe that there was a vulnerability to punk. When looking at “Train in Vain” by The Clash (who were more musical than The Sex Pistols and less outrageous), there is a vunerability in the lyrics “But without your love I won’t make it through/ But you don’t understand my point of view/ I suppose there’s nothing I can do”. Punk was tapping into an anger and was creating a release of pent up emotions in audiences who were described as “a pack of starving animals that hadn’t eaten in a week” (54). I think it would be possible to reach a wider public audience today if bands were to make music in this style. I believe there are many people who want to find, and hear that rawness and ugliness in music that is often erased in popular music which tends to focus on producing safe melodic lines and chord progressions.

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  25. The question I love most within this prompt is whether or not there was a vulnerable side to punk. Through the mirage of anger and loudness, the titles of some of the songs immediately flag signs of self-doubt and contemplation. There’s “Personality Crisis” by The New York Dolls, “I Wanna Be Sedated” by The Ramones, and “Pretty Vacant” by The Sex Pistols. The lyrics within “Pretty Vacant” are hidden through the overwhelming power of the drums and guitar riff. However, when looking at the lyrics on paper, they almost resemble work from Lou Reed or Bob Dylan. Even though the punk stereotype necessitated a certain type of production genre, these artists still found a way to let their vulnerability shine through. Within “Pretty Vacant”, the band states, “Don’t ask us to attend ‘cause we’re not all there / Oh don’t pretend ‘cause I don’t care / I don’t believe illusions, ‘cause too much ain’t for real / Stop your cheap comments, ‘cause we know what we feel”. Even though at face value these lyrics seem to be giving off the façade of indifference, they do recognize that they have been affected by the comments the media or society have made. The phrase “I don’t believe illusions, ‘cause too much ain’t for real” also provides a commentary on mainstream culture. They are basically calling out everyone who puts up any sort of front, critiquing their inability to live without appearances.

    As for their “politics”, I believe that they can be taken seriously to a certain extent. I think they were revolutionary in a way that brought negative attention to the corruption within the society they lived in, however, they can’t really be acted upon. I genuinely wouldn’t want Johnny Rotten having any sort of say over our democratic republic. I think it is enough that they call attention to politics, and it isn’t necessary for them to create any sort of governmental change. They probably have influenced many who have made a difference and that is extraordinary

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  26. Punk appealed to the discontent, exacerbated, and misunderstood. The movement and music fed into that, creating an environment of rebellious, disruptive, and aggressive followers in search of freedom and authenticity by employing subversion and absurdism. Punk, the word, is defined as “a worthless person.” By naming the movement/music Punk, the people owned the label of punk, reclaiming the word and subsequently subverting the known, definition, that is; a rejection of the conventional and social norms. There was a vulnerability in allowing yourself to lose control in order to gain control.

    Pure negativity worked as a political position only because people in power were ignoring the negative. Punk shined a light on the deficient and called for rebellion. Greil Marcus writes, “punk was the first such movement to direct its rage where it belonged: against those in power.” Punk, as a movement, was severely nihilistic and attracted those whose situations were overlooked or ignored. Talking Head’s song “Life During Wartime” sung, “The sound of gunfire, off in the distance, I’m getting used to it now…this ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no fooling around.” People were angry at the environments and the lack of agency to change things. Punk allowed to feel that anger and direct it. Legs McNeil recalled, “the entire seventies culture was based on being ‘nice.’ You had to be nice. It’s no accident that the smiley faces became the symbol of the seventies. So when the Ramones sang that they were Nazis, they were really saying, ‘We refuse to be nice’” (256). The Ramones railed against just “be nice” and refusing to be passive. Furthermore, there is a growing anger, mistrust in government, restriction, and call for change, similar to the climate that punk arose from. Punks embrace of nihilism could appeal to a wider audience today.

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  27. I have the ebook, so I don’t have exact page numbers, unfortunately.

    One of the first things I noticed carried over from earlier bands like The Velvet Underground and The New York Dolls into punk was the emphasis on fashion and style. In ‘Please Kill Me,’ Paul Morrissey mentions that one of the standout things about the Velvet Underground was that “there was absolutely no way of telling if Maureen Tucker was a boy or a girl… And John Cale… he was wearing a huge rhinestone necklace.” The New York Dolls, meanwhile, were wearing androgynous clothing and stepping over those same lines. Playing with gender through fashion is another way of breaking rules, rebelling against social expectations, and I think Punk took up that spirit of being “anti-”; anti-society, anti-rules and expectations. And according to Greil Marcus, “punk made the host culture seem like a trick” and used trashed clothing as one way to do it. Looking counterculture is an in-your-face way to guarantee people know you’re not playing by their rules. Style was definitely a defining feature of the groups’ overall aesthetic and attitude, even if that style was something like absolute trash, the kind of people who would masturbate into chili, like the Dead Boys did at CBGBs (as mentioned in chapter 22). In the video of Richard Hell, Dead Boys, and the Ramones performing at CBGBs, this fashion is visible: Richard Hell wears a trashed, dirty-looking vest onstage, for instance.

    Musically, it’s interesting how the drone of the Velvet Underground (songs like Heroin especially, which relies mainly on one strummed note contrasted against two chords) transitioned to the limited chord structures of bands like the Ramones. Rather than one song that droned on and luxuriated in itself in a druglike stupor, the Ramones utilized the same simplicity to make songs that were upbeat and short. Before, as Jerry Nolan points out in Chapter 12, it was “the days of the ten-minute drum solo, the twenty-minute guitar solo.” There’s an element of that to the Velvet Underground, but not at all to the Ramones and their super-concise songs that seem like an excuse to jump around. They took the experimental side of droning music and turned it into something countercultural. Like the fashion did, this basic song structure and limited use of chords and melody went against the current. Rather than being simply “negative” for the sake of cynicism, I think the negativity seemed to be born out of boredom or dissatisfaction with the mainstream. That meant rejecting the way the mainstream looked, acted, and sounded, and the fast-paced, almost childlike Ramones (“four really pissed-off guys in leather jackets”) fit the bill. (It’s quite ironic how popular they are now.) But for all they were “pissed off,” the Ramones’ lyrics don’t really have any political push. Take “Judy is a Punk,” which can be summed up by the line “second verse, same as the first.” Other groups, however, did venture into that, most notably the Sex Pistols with “God Save the Queen.”

    I’m not sure whether something like this could be taken seriously and make an impact at the moment. I relate these political impulses to groups like Rage Against the Machine. In 2009, RATM became #1 on the Christmas charts with a resurgence of their 90s hit “Killing in the Name.” When they performed on radio, they went against orders and sang the song uncensored in the line “fuck you I won’t do what you tell me.” I haven’t seen that kind of impulse from rock and roll gain traction in a long time, although it must be out there. Right now I feel like rock isn’t the genre that’s pushing boundaries. Most of that seems to be accomplished by hip hop, which has a deep-rooted history of social criticism.

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