A Brief Survey of Punk, Part V

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

by Jeff Siegel

Punk petered out in the early Thatcher and Reagan years. Its audience not only grew up, but bought into the jingoistic, consumption-oriented cultures that Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in Britain and President Ronald Reagan in the U.S. offered as a counterpoint to the disaffection of the 1970s. The punks called for social justice, but by the mid-1980s, social justice was seemingly irrelevant. Hence Bobby McFerrin’s "Don’t Worry, Be Happy," a No. 1 hit in 1988. Even The Clash, the most committed and dedicated of the punks, finally gave up. There were the usual sorts of personnel problems, compounded by declining record sales and even some bad reviews. But, more importantly, it was obvious that their listeners didn’t care any more. The 1980s were the boulder, and punk was Camus’ Sisyphus, destined to fall down every time.

Punk became marginalized, and as it did so, it splintered into countless offshoots – hardcore, psychobilly, post-modern punk, riot grrl, even something called ska punk. This is not to give punk's successors short shrift, but to note that they're successors, and not an overarching musical and cultural movement.

Some punk bands kept going, reminding listeners that punk was about the music and not about ripped t-shirts and nose rings. The Dead KennedysFresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables (1980) and the single "Holiday in Cambodia," with its Greek-style chorus of “Pol Pot, Pol Pot, Pol Pot,” remains a kick in the ass for a world that seems to care more about bottled water than genocide. Sleater-Kinney recorded seven albums between 1994 and 2006, using a feminist sensibility and three chords to stick it to record companies, their male counterparts in the music business, and a political climate that has become increasingly unfriendly to strong-minded women who have their own opinions. The title track of Dig Me Out (1997) spares no one, and it takes just 2:40 to do so: “Do ya get nervous watching me bleed?”

Green Day is Bob Dylan to The Clash’s Woody Guthrie, the most successful punk band – critically and commercially – since The Clash. Yes, Green Day owes a lot to grunge and its zonked out, convenience store slackers. But the band is much more self-aware, with the added ability to laugh at itself. Consider "Basket Case," from Dookie (1994): “Do you have the time/To listen to me whine/About nothing and everything/All at once?” A decade later, with the title track to An American Idiot (2004), Green Day added The Clash’s political vision to its Ramones-like sense of humor: “Well maybe I’m the faggot America/I’m not a part of a redneck agenda/Now everybody do the propaganda/And sing along to the age of paranoia.”

Somewhere, the Ramones are smiling.

(To read from the beginning of this series, please click here.)

(Promotional photo of the Dead Kennedys from Alternative Tentacles Records. To see the Dead Kennedys perform an R-rated version of "Holiday in Cambodia," please check below.)

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Liberal Arts Dude said...

Excellent series! I was a heavy metal guy in high school but was friends with enough punks in those days to be influenced by them both politically and musically. It was the punks who were most politically savvy and active in activist circles in my 1980s memories of high school in Philadelphia. It reminded me that you could be angry, look weird, be alienated, but still carry a decent conscience and wear your heart on your sleeve much more so than the jocks, preppies, and "normal folks" who were mainstream. I was part of the South Lawn of Central High in Philly in the late 80s where the punks, hippies and metalheads hung out. Much of us probably turned out to be normal, regular folks with steady jobs and families but I hope that the spirit of those teenage years still remain to influence our actions and politics as adults these days. \m/

Jeff Siegel said...

Thanks for the kind words. You raise an interesting point, as well, that I didn't have time or space to get into -- why metal never became politicized the way punk did. I think that has as much to do with its origins in the U.S., as opposed to punk growing in Britain.

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