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Why You Don't Argue About Punk With Me

I know, I promised that I would post about Mercedes Lackey and why I like her so much even though my tastes in fantasy have matured and she is a very flawed writer. However, I got into an argument about punk rock on Facebook. Anyone who knows me well or reads this journal can discern that I like punk rock. A lot. Arguing with me from a stance based on misinformation about punk will get you nowhere, because I have an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the genre as well as being a fan for almost half my life. I will bury you in information. This argument got me thinking about some of the most common misconceptions about punk, though, and I decided to use this forum to clear things up a little bit. So we'll talk about some of the things I've heard people say about punk:

1) Punk rock started in Britain.

Anyone who says this has just earned themselves an eyeroll and exasperated sigh. Possibly a sarcastic comment. Punk has its roots in garage rock, which originated in the United States and Canada in the early 1960s and the louder, faster revival of the genre in the early 70s. Through this musical style, some very specific bands like the Kingsmen and Question Mark and the Mysterians emerged -- in fact, the first use of the term punk rock was used by Dave Marsh in 1971 to describe Question Mark and the Mysterians. Out of this genre, a heavier sound based on a two or three chord structure that placed a lot of emphasis on raw, aggressive lyrics and intentionally crude musicianship heralded the precursor to true punk. Some proto-punk bands that would be influential were MC5, the Stooges and the New York Dolls. Please note that all of these bands were based in the United States.

In June of 1974, Patti Smith, a New York spoken word performer and musician, would release what is widely considered to be the first punk record with her single "Hey Joe/Piss Factory." Meanwhile, four musicians adopted the same stage surname and began playing the harder-louder-faster style that would come to epitomize punk. The Ramones played at the now famous CBGB club in August of 1974, became regular performers there and dropped their first record in May of 1976. In May 1975, Richard Hell left protopunk band Television and Johnny Thunder left the New York Dolls, forming the Heartbreakers a mere week later and raising the profile of the early punk scene. Although punk spread to other areas in the U.S., such as the Suicide Commandos in Minneapolis and Death in Cleveland, the primary stage of punk was centered in New York and CBGB.

It was was seeing a Ramones gig and fascination with the Richard Hell's studded clothes and spikey hair that inspired Malcolm McLaren, a British band manager and clothing store owner who lived briefly in NYC. When he returned to London in mid-1975, started managing a band called The Strand, whose members consisted of Paul Cook, Glen Matlock, and Steve Jones. He urged them to make several changes. First, he asked, drop the lead singer. Second, hire John Lyndon, a.k.a. Johnny Rotten, to sing. Third, change the name. Fourth, use the clothing from my shop to send the world a message. Viola! The Sex Pistols were born. They played their first gig in 1975 and dropped the now-famous single, "Anarchy in the U.K." in November of 1976. This was AFTER the punk scene was already going strong in New York.

Granted, punk in Britain didn't get started until the Sex Pistols started playing in London. Souxsie and the Banshees formed in 1976, as did the Clash and Billy Idol's band Generation X. The Buzzcocks, X-Rey Spex and the Slits soon followed suit. This is also when punk became very political, as McClaren was heavily interested in French arnarchist and Marxist groups during the 1950s and introduced their philosphies to Rotten. But the fact remains the same that punk's earliest roots and the first true punk groups were unequivocably American.

2) Real punk died at the end of 1970s.

I've heard many people say this, most notably in the "Punk died when the Pistols broke up" variation. Saying this won't earn you an eyeroll, it will earn that person a smackdown. If they're lucky, it will be verbal. I have, however, physically whupped someone upside the head for saying this, and I probably will again. Punk didn't die when the Pistols broke up, it got better.

The first reason is because a lot of really influential bands that we associate with punk today didn't come onto the scene, or matured musically, until the 1980s. The first example is Black Flag, which formed in the late 70s but didn't drop their first record, Damaged, until 1980. They went on to become one of the biggest names in punk music, peaking during the 1984-1985 period when they released very diverse albums and played over 170 gigs in one year. Another example is London punks the Clash, whose third and best-beloved album London Calling hit U.S. stores in 1980. Other bands that formed or reached their biggest influence during the 1980s are: Minor Threat, Bad Brains, Dead Kennedys, Subhumans, the Exploited, The Germs, Social Distortion, The Misfits (who actually became more influential after their 1983 breakup), Husker Du, G.B.H., Fugazi, Fear, X, The Exploited, The Vandals, The Descendants, The Dead Milkmen, Dag Nasty, Circle Jerks, Bad Religion, Agent Orange, The Adicts, the Cockney Rejects, The Pogues, and The Violent Femmes. These bands are firmly 80s punk bands and indelibly left their mark in music history.

The second reason is because punk became such a musically diverse genre during this time period. The hardcore movement, fathered by Black Flag and Dead Kennedys, had a wide influence over punk. Over the pond in Britain, Oi bands like the Exploited gained a major foothold. Anarcho-punks like Conflict and Subhumans rose to prominance during this era, eventually spinning off to d-beat and crust punk. Skate punk took early Ramones influences to heart, combining hardcore edge with sarcastic lyrics and melodic songwriting. The Cramps jump-started the psychobilly subgenre, while bands like Social Distortion and the Meateaters practically invented cowpunk. Celt-punk was started by the Pogues, and the Violent Femmes became the face of the folk punk subgenre in the U.S. Classic punk bands from the 70s like the Clash and the Ramones were also still going strong. That's nine different subgenres that were all going strong during the 1980s, though there were subgenres that were more prominent than others.

Punk during this era was hugely influential on later musical movements like alternative rock and indie rock. Bands like Nirvana, the Pixies, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, and Sonic Youth have all cited several 80s punk bands as heavily influential to their music. Anarcho-punk and hardcore punk heavily influenced heavy metal subgenres like thrash and grindcore. Punk, particular skate punk, was heavily influential to the third wave of punk in the 90s and 2000s. Subgenres that got started during this time period were riotgrrrl and queercore, pop punk, and emocore bands. It's still an evolving genre over 35 years since Patti Smith dropped that crucial single, even if the commercialization and higher visibility of punk has become highly controversial.

3) Punks are always left-wing liberals with anarchist tendancies, white, dress a certain way and promote violence.

I love stereotypes like the this, because they are so easy to refute!

First off, there are several punk rockers that are associated with both the Republican Party and Libertarian Party in the U.S., notably Johnny Ramone and Michaele Graves of the Misfits. Secondly, the Bad Brains was exclusively composed of African American members and both the Germs and Das Nasty had African American or mixed-race members. Chicano punk are an entire movement in the Latino subculture. And even if the subculture is predominantly Caucasion, the subculture also adopts a primarily anti-racist attitude (although there are some exceptions due to the neo-nazi movement, but they are a minority).

Thirdly, while many punks do adopt a certain fashion style, there's a whole anti-fashion subset that feel that punk should be defined by music and ideology rather than clothing. I tend to dress pretty conservatively myself, since my everyday wear consists of jeans or nice slacks, a nice blouse or plain teeshirt, and "sensible" shoes. Just because someone doesn't wear a bunch of ripped up clothing or wear a mohawk, it doesn't mean they aren't part of the punk culture.

Lastly, while punk culture is generally defined by a history of violence, not everyone in punk culture think violence is the answer. For instance, Crass were firmly anarcho-pacifists, adhering to the philosophy that violence is authoritarian and coercive, and so its use does contradict anarchist principles. There was a whole peace punk thing in the Bay Area during the height of the hardcore movement that believed direct action was more about nonviolent means of social change. A lot of punk rockers still follow these philosophies in their day to day activities. It's not a subculture that promotes violence for violence's sake by any stretch of the imagination.

There's a lot more misconceptions and ignorance about punk floating around out there, but I think we've covered my three major hot button statements. My personal philisophies tend toward an anti-fashion aesthetic, a peace-punk inspired philosophy and and a listening habit that mostly encompasses skate punk, third-wave punk, and classic punk with a generous sprinkling of hardcore. Many people don't think I'm a "real" punk and that I don't know squat about the genre. Obviously, these jerks are WRONG. 

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