A Brief Survey of Punk, Part II

(Editor's Note: This is the second of five parts -- to see part I, click here)

by Jeff Siegel

It is not unusual for youth to be alienated, and the punks are not unique in this respect. The proto-punk, after all, was Elvis Presley – dressed in leathers with swooshed hair and preaching the gospel of sexual freedom and racial justice. That none of his songs expressly said those things didn’t matter. It was Elvis’ attitude that counted, and in the U.S. in the 1950s, where his hip gyrations were so taboo that they were censored whenever he appeared on TV, attitude counted a lot.

What made the punks different was that their songs, both words and music, were as explosive as their attitude. When Alberto y Lost Trios Paranoias sang "Kill" (1977) in 1:38 full of sloppy guitars and sloppier vocals (with the word "fuck" in the first line), no one was sure if they were joking. (Check iVoryTowerz Radio: The Ecstasy of Gold to hear the song.) There was no difference between what the punks sang and how they sounded and what they believed, and this is what set them apart from almost everyone who came before them. Elvis, after all, was really a good boy who loved his mother. Even The Beatles, as brilliant as they were, separated their politics from their music. They sincerely believed in peace and love, but a song like "Revolution" was the exception, not the rule, and it speaks volumes that John Lennon recorded "Give Peace a Chance" under his own name. Yes, the White Album (1969) may be a work of art, but "Julia" and "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" are songs firmly rooted in English and pop musical tradition, not the agitprop of the Sex PistolsNever Mind the Bollocks (1977), with "Anarchy in the U.K." and "God Save the Queen."

This is because political music had traditionally been the province of folk singers, who had been picking and strumming for change since the end of Word War I. The most famous folkie was Woody Guthrie, whose songs celebrated working men and women, proselytized for trade unions, and warned the world about the greed and the excesses of the moneyed and propertied classes. Guthrie’s "This Land is Your Land" (1940) is not a grade school sing-a-long, but a socialist anthem decrying the misery of the Depression. (Please check, "iVoryTowerz Radio: Summer Sounds.") Guthrie’s followers, and most prominently Bob Dylan, carried on this tradition, and Dylan’s "Masters of War" (1963) is Guthrie updated for the nuclear age. Pop musicians of that era, though, had other concerns. In 1963, Steve Lawrence, Bobby Vinton, the Singing Nun and even Paul and Paula had No. 1 singles.

The British Invasion, and its fallout on this side of the Atlantic, improved the quality of the music, but didn’t much alter the content. This is not to denigrate the subversive nature of rock 'n roll, but to differentiate, again, between what’s in the songs and what the bands may or may not believe. This is not to say rock bands didn't write protest songs, but that protest wasn't their reason for being and that protest songs weren't most of their music. And while Creedence Clearwater Revival’s "Fortunate Son" (1969) is as scathing as anything Guthrie or Dylan wrote, it is, again, an exception. The Archies had a No. 1 hit in 1969 with "Sugar Sugar," as did jumpsuit Elvis with "Suspicious Minds." In fact, if all you did was look at the pop charts, you’d think Vietnam didn’t exist.

(To continue on to Part III, please click here.)

(Photo of the Sex Pistols circa 1977 from A&M Records. To see The Sex Pistols perform "God Save the Queen," please check below.)

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