The Problem With Punk


So, I’ve been listening to a lot of punk music recently and been doing a bit of research into the whole punk phenomenon and scene, and I started thinking to myself ‘what’s this all about then?’ I mean, what is it about this that actually makes it a genre of music rather than people just playing rock music badly, what is that makes people compulsively spike their hair into ridiculous Mohawks, what is it that makes people who claim to be punks abuse others for not being punk enough while defending themselves against those very same accusations?

Well, after a lot of research and a good, long, hard think I’ve come to a startling realisation: punk is not, in fact, a genre of music. Now, I know that already some of you are jumping up and down in your seats screaming that I am an idiot who has absolutely no idea what I’m talking about, but if you take the time to read the rest of this article I will explain what my thinking here is.

Firstly, how can one call punk a specific genre of music when there are just so many different opinions on what makes the genre specific? For example, some would claim that punk is characterized by its adherence to a strict three chord structure, or its use of eight to the bar bass, or even just be its being incredibly loud. Well, all of these things may be true of music that is typically called punk and, in fact, they are quite often very true, but there are plenty of examples that counter these claims. For instance, while The Ramones generally stuck to a basic three chord structure (such as in Blitzkrieg Bop), another band, The Clash, often used more than the three chords necessary to make a song, and while The Sex Pistols routinely used eight to the bar bass another artist considered to be ‘punk’ such as Patti Smith may opt to use more flexible bass guitar rhythms. So it can be seen that musical coherence cannot be used to be a defining feature of punk, as it is not at all coherent.

But, even though one can see that musical style is not unanimous among punk bands, one can also not deny the fact that punk exists, and how are we to explain this existence if we can discount the idea that it is a consistent musical genre? Well, to my thinking, it seems that punk can be conceptualized more in terms of its attitude rather that its formal markers. From my listening to many punk records and from my research into the area I have found that there is a distinct commonality between the attitudes of all the bands that could be characterized as ‘punk’; namely that they all seem to hold a belief that any can be a punk. It doesn’t involve spiking your hair, nor does it involve faking a cockney accent, but what it does involve is a basic belief that if you picked up a guitar and started playing and singing about the things you cared about not worrying about how you sounded and how people would receive it then you would be punk.

Really, it all comes down to these do-it-yourself and I-don’t-care attitudes. They are the basic elements of punk; sincerity and drive. And this is how bands so disparate as The Stranglers, who are quite accomplished musicians, and The Saints, who appeared to have only a basic understanding of what music should sound like, can both be described as ‘punk’. They were both (and still are to my knowledge) out there promoting this belief that they’re nothing special and that anyone with half a brain and hands could get out there and do what they do if they could only get over themselves enough to not give a flying fuck what anyone thought.

So I guess in conclusion to this little rant I would have to say that if you want to call yourself a punk then you should just shut the hell up about how punk or not punk other people and bands are, because if they really are punks then they probably don’t care what you think, and if they’re not then nothing’s really going to change.

The other thing I’d say is that there is something wonderful we could all take from this basic punk ethos, and this is that we can all do it. You don’t need to be some kind of guitar god like Joe Satriani or a songwriter like Leonard Cohen, all you need to do is want to play music and get out there and play it. It doesn’t matter if you suck; that’s not your concern, leave the listeners to worry about that. All that matters is that you’re out there doing your own thing.

So, what are you waiting for?

Get out there and suck!

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One thought on “The Problem With Punk

  1. Thanks for referencing my post. I’m a but of a punk historian. I watch everything written or produced about it. Legs McNeil’s book Please Please Kill Me is great for this topic as is The Filth and the Fury and End of the Century documentaries about the Sex Pistols and Ramones respectively.

    Everyone you mentioned had two things in common. They never used the word punk to describe themselves and they wrote and produced all of their own music including reinterpreting cover songs.

    The Clash is my favorite band. The Ramones, Patti Smith and Sex Pistols are in that exclusive top 15 list. The thing about the punk genre is it was about chaos, taking risks, angering traditional outlets and structures, and do your own thing. Without it, you don’t get the alternative college radio scenes that launched REM or the Seattle grunge scene that gave us Nirvana and Pearl Jam.

    Proto punk, glam rock, punk, post punk, new wave, and alternative are the most important genres ever.

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