A Brief Survey of Punk, Part III

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

by Jeff Siegel

Not only were Britain and the U.S. mired in a cultural and economic morass by the mid-1970s (Vietnam and Watergate, plus the oil embargo, had sapped the vitality out of this side of the Atlantic), but so was rock 'n roll – both artistically and commercially. By the mid-1970s, the British Invasion was finished, The Beatles were gone and the sound that once had been so vibrant and alive had turned into arena rock guitar noodling and the excesses of progressive and art rock (see Kansas for examples of both).

Meanwhile, the record companies had become fat and lazy. Five multinationals controlled the music business after dozens of independents and regional labels like Stax and Chess that had flourished in the 1960s had been bought or gone out of business. Radio reflected these changes: in 1975, when the Ramones were regulars at CBGB’s, Captain and Tenille, Tony Orlando and Dawn, John Denver, and the Carpenters all had No. 1 hits. Nick Lowe, the punks’ poet laureate, explained it all in "I Love My Label." He sang: “I love my label, and my label has high hopes in me.” Which was, of course, absurdist humor on the grandest scale.

So you’re a young man (the punks had few women, though Patti Smith may be an exception) with little hope for a decent job, and you spend your day sitting around the house listening to crap on the radio and hearing your parents tell you to get off the sofa. You’re angry, certainly, and you want to tell the world how angry you are. Maybe, like Mick Jones of The Clash, you know real rock 'n roll (Jones loved Mott the Hoople – see "Rock 'n Roll Queen" – and the rootsy, hard-hitting incarnation of the early Faces). And maybe, like many young men, you had a guitar or could get one, and you also knew a couple of guys who were just as angry as you were and who also had lots of time on their hands.

This is not as much of an oversimplification as it sounds, since it’s pretty much the story of the Ramones. The original members knew each other in high school in the Forest Hills section of Queens, forming the band in 1974. Their musical skills were limited (and would remain so for years). Tommy (his real name: Tamás Erdélyi) was first their manager and then their drummer; Joey (Jeffry Hyman) first the drummer and then the front man. And no one, least of all anyone in the band, ever accused Dee Dee (Douglas Colvin) of being a great bass player.

And none of this mattered. In a world where Yes could release an album with just six songs, three of which were about 9 minutes long, and where the 6:47 song would chart in the U.S. (The Yes Album, 1971), bands like the Ramones were a revelation. Art and progressive rock bands like Yes and Genesis produced songs that often had ethereal themes with orchestration and complex and sophisticated arrangements that seemed to go on forever. The punks wrote songs that lasted two minutes – an entire album lasted 20 – and that used just three or four chords. There were no guitar solos, no Wagnerian-style song cycles, nothing but the simplest production.

This made punk incredibly democratic and populist. Could a garage band ever sound like Emerson, Lake & Palmer (or even a slickly produced Top 40 band of the era)? Of course not. But it could sound like the Sex Pistols or the Ramones without a whole lot of trouble. The Adverts, who had a minor punk hit with "Gary Gilmore’s Eyes" (1978) understood this completely – their first single was called "One Chord Wonders." (Please check "iVoryTowerz Radio: Deluxe Edition #1" for an example.) This openness extended to the business side of the music as well. The Big 5 didn’t understand punk, didn’t see how to make money recording punk and, in fact, had pegged reggae as the next big thing in the mid-‘70s. EMI actually dropped the Sex Pistols at the first sign of trouble in 1977, and it took CBS two years to release The Clash’s debut album in the U.S. The punks were a perfect fit for the new, independent labels like Stiff, Virgin, and IRS that appeared, almost magically, at about the same time. The independents were willing to take chances that the major labels weren’t, didn’t care about the controversy (and even encouraged much of it), and appreciated the punks, as well as New Wave acts like Elvis Costello and Graham Parker, for their politics and their assault on the musical establishment.

The punks, though they made rock 'n roll the way it had been made, were more than revivalists. The critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine has written that the punks reinvented rock 'n roll, both theoretically and musically. They stripped it down, and then played it more loudly, more angrily and with more intensity and authenticity than anyone had in years. Their themes were not the boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl of the British Invasion and early rockers, but of social justice, of equal opportunity for the poor and oppressed, of the excesses of consumerism. The punks wanted to change the world, and they knew – though not necessarily logically or rationally – that their music could do it. This is something that cannot be emphasized enough, and it almost doesn’t matter that they were wrong.

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

(Photo of the Ramones from Sire Records. To see a mini-documentary on the Ramones, please check here. To see the Ramones perform a medley of songs, including "Sheena is a Punk Rocker" in 1977 on Don Kirshner's Rock Concert, please check below.)

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