What even is this ‘punk’ thing, anyway?
If there’s any musical genre that’s truly transcended the boundaries of mere sound and come to represent a set of ideals – even a lifestyle – then surely it has to be punk.
Even the word ‘punk’ is more than just an adjective to describe music. It’s also a noun to indicate a person. You can picture the punk right now in your mind’s eye: scruffy-looking, foul-mouthed, tattered clothes, spiky hair. Piercings. Safety pins. Their T-shirt (coated with a plethora of sinister and intriguing stains) sports the name of some edgy underground band – ‘Pissgasm’, ‘Deathwank’, or maybe ‘Shit Head and the Dry Heaves’. A beer bottle in in whichever hand isn’t making an obscene gesture. They are nearly too drunk to stand – unless it’s against The Establishment.
Over the course of the past half-century, ‘punk’ has become almost synonymous with rebellion and anarchy, the sound of a protest movement – typically with left-wing characteristics – against corporate greed and the tyrannical state.
It was for this reason that when former Sex Pistols and current Public Image Ltd singer John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) was spotted in a Make America Great Again T-shirt back in 2018, it was about as well received as a Vatican City screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The backlash was palpable, and accusations of selling-out abounded. Lydon didn’t shy from his beliefs come the recent election, confirming in October that he would be “daft as a brush” not to cast his vote for Donald Trump. Compounded by recent assertions from conservative commentator Paul Joseph Watson that “conservatism is the new punk rock”, the entire basis of the punk movement has suddenly been called into question. What actually are punk’s fundamental qualities? Can it ever be punk to support a conservative president?
The knee-jerk response is likely to be “no, obviously!” But for this to be correct, punk would have to unwaveringly promote a coherent ideology which uniformly rejects capitalism and/or a right-wing government. Does it?
The mainstream perception of punk has ossified into the assumption that it represents a consistently progressive or libertarian set of values. But this bears scant resemblance to reality. Punk is, and always has been, riddled with contradiction and fraught with internal quarrels. The Sex Pistols released their first (and only) album, Never Mind the Bollocks, in 1977; people were claiming punk had kicked the bucket not long after. The oft-repeated phrase “punk’s not dead!” comes from the title of the Exploited’s debut album, which was released as early as 1981.
The punk revival bands of the ‘90s were largely condemned by the old guard of the ‘70s, who cast them as inauthentic opportunists for the sin of not adopting a sound and image identical to that which the original punks had forced into parody and beyond a whole 20 years earlier. This tension is reflected in the younger bands’ lyrics. “I wonder if you really think that all your rules spell anarchy”, probed Screeching Weasel in 1993’s ‘One Step Beyond’. “The bands are good till they make enough cash to eat”, snarled Lagwagon in ‘Know It All’, attacking their critics’ impossible standards. “You’re not punk, and I’m telling everyone”, was Jawbreaker’s take on the matter in ‘Boxcar’, highlighting the petty pedantry of the whole affair.
To work out what – if anything – punk can be said to stand for, we should take a look at its origins. When punk rock developed, it was as a response to the then-dominant form of rock music, which had been spearheaded by the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. It consisted of intricate, noodling guitar solos, and was often upwards of 10 minutes long. Well, a decade spent smashing psychedelics will wreak havoc with anyone’s attention span, and the new generation of rockers wanted something far more immediate; something that cut through the performance and the poetry, and went straight for the angst, the energy, and the anger.
With this in mind, perhaps ‘punk’ should be defined as a respect for authenticity and simplicity whilst shunning pretension. This would explain punk’s revulsion of selling-out; after all, this is someone who does something for money, rather than because they genuinely love it.
Well, what if John Lydon genuinely loves Donald Trump? Millions of voters became disillusioned after Obama’s progressive promises dissolved into status-quo orthodoxy. They saw in Trump a promise of change that the Democrats seemed incapable of delivering. Lydon might be one of them. If that’s the case – and, not being mind-readers, we can’t conclusively say it isn’t – then this is Lydon speaking his mind. He’s being brazenly authentic. He is, therefore, doing one of the most punk things imaginable. Isn’t he?
Another reason for the challenge on Lydon’s punk cred is Trump’s position (really quite far along) on the political right. Punk is often styled as the rage of the individual against the injustices of The System and its cornerstones: bigotry, state brutality, and wanton profiteering at the expense of the human race. Well, those phenomena wouldn’t look out of place listed on Donald Trump’s business card. Here is a man who was sued for racial discrimination in the ‘70s, whose fake university swindled people out of tens of millions in the ‘00s, and who supported military action against peaceful protestors in the ‘20s.
Punk undeniably has a powerful left-wing tradition, and this should not be ignored. The Dead Kennedys’ ‘Kill the Poor’ satirised the propensity of the rich for prioritising private property over human life; ‘Let’s Start A War…’ by the Exploited lambasts Thatcher’s reckless enthusiasm in igniting the Falkland’s conflict; Propagandhi hinted at their dissatisfaction with nationalism in ‘Stick the Fucking Flag up Your Goddamn Ass, you Sonofabitch’.
Yet in the 1980s, Nazi punks were endemic. The National Front formed the ‘Punk Front’, a youth outreach programme that promoted punk bands with a white supremacist bent. Groups like the Dentists and Skrewdriver wrote songs whose titles I won’t repeat, whilst their fan’s appearance at gigs invariably ended with violence, sometimes fatally. The issue was so widespread that the Dead Kennedys themselves addressed it in a 1981 single entitled ‘Nazi Punks Fuck Off’. Why was punk attractive to fascists? Well, because punk’s pioneers (the Ramones, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and the Pistols themselves) all dabbled in Nazi iconography – not out of genuine appreciation, but for shock value. If early punk had any ideology at all, it was radical contrarianism, rather than anything recognisably left-wing.
Another, bigger problem with presenting punk as music’s natural custodian of left-wing activity is that it does a great disservice to other musicians who are equally subversive, and, arguably, far more relevant. It was not a punk, but a grime artist, who stood on stage at Glastonbury whilst the crowd chanted “fuck Boris”. Cardi B and Lady Gaga’s statements in support of the Democratic party this year went viral, whilst Green Day’s new song ‘Ivankkka is a Nazi’ (released through side project the Network) barely made a dent on anyone but their most devoted fans. And indeed, whilst Johnny Rotten – punks’ anarchist trailblazer – urged support for Trump, it was hip hop artist Killer Mike who firmly endorsed 2020s’ only legitimately leftist candidate, Bernie Sanders.
Those who accuse Lydon of selling-out based on his Trump advocacy have failed to consider the huge diversity of opinions and beliefs that fit under the punk umbrella. I’m not defending Lydon’s Trump support in and of itself, of course. But scratching beneath the surface reveals that whatever defines punk, it isn’t allegiance to any political school of thought. Quite aside from Nazi punk frustrating claims of a purely left-wing affiliation, plenty of punk bands are simply apolitical; lyrical content from the Queers, Guttermouth, blink-182, and many more simply revolves around getting drunk and acting stupid, not incisive critique of the military industrial complex.
To really understand punk, we ought to take it from someone who was there at the start. From within the whirlwind of contrary, competing definitions, Dee Dee Ramone – the Ramones’ bassist – puts it best. “Punk rock”, he wrote, “comes from angry kids who feel like being creative.” Well, what else do you need? This is surely the strictest definition we can give before we start missing the point altogether.
Punk was born out of the cultural and economic upheaval of the ‘60s and ‘70s. It created wave upon wave of people who felt misplaced and rejected, and the intense malaise they experienced did not need to be articulated with precision. A generation transformed their unrest into momentum and named it punk – but a means of propulsion is not the same as a final stop. As such, punk offers no manifesto, and no dogmatic principles. Why should it? The moment we attach punk to my set of ideals exclusively, we rob it of the vitality that makes it significant in the first place. It’s a blazing storm of emotion which by its nature defies impediments, be that political ideology, or, you know, the ability to play and sing well.
But this isn’t to say that punk is nihilistic. On the contrary, anger is a form of optimism. Why should the state of the world enrage you unless you expect it to be better? The assertion that our system is broken is inherently loaded with meaning. Sound signifying fury. Now that’s punk rock.
Words by Ed Brown
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