What Is Punk Rock? What Is Not Punk Rock?

Trauma, Transformation and Punk Rock (Part VI)

Originally published in Mental Contagion 

The Punk that can be discussed is not the enduring Punk;
The name that can be named is not the enduring eternal name 
(modified Tao Te Ching quote, cited in Joseph Campbell, Oriental Mythology, p. 23).

Spin does a cover package on punk’s anniversary!”  (From “Top Five Times Punk Died,” Spin, p. 99, May, 2001)

This months’ issue is a largely a survey of “experts” on punk rock and their conceptions of what is and is not punk. The motivations for this are several, the foremost being that I will be on vacation next month and I thought this would be an easy way to fill a column. But, this is a question which I have returned to again and again in writing this column. I go back and forth about whether or not Joy Division should be discussed in the context of punk rock. But then the above issue of Spincame out, celebrating “25 Years of Punk.” This issue listed Unknown Pleasures as number 11 of the “50 Most Essential Punk Records,” thus putting a permanent end to my questioning as well as that of a new generation of “punks”  who can now go out and buy the “ 50 Essential Punk Records,” only now re-released on CD. [What is with the gothic script, it looks more appropriate for a Heavy Metal retrospective?]

I can’t help but be ambivalent toward writing about punk, whether it is in Spin or in this column. It is hard not to see this writing as either misguided, myth-guided, or as an attempt to find a new market to exploit. One of our survey respondents put it this way: “Not Punk Rock is something you buy on CD to replace your crappy tape of someone else’ s old LP.”

The 25 Years of Punk did help me to clarify some of my own thinking about punk. One element that is often left out (in a discussion of what is punk) is the distinction between punk as a movement that occurred at a particular point in history (1970s) versus an attitude of protest that is ahistorical and re-occurs at different times in history. In the first instance, punk is very narrowly defined and is confined to New York (early-mid 70s) England (mid-late 70s) and LA (late 70s) and then the rest of the US (very late 70s and into 80s?). The latter approach views punk as an example of a more universal youth and counter-cultural movement that is trans-historical. An example of this approach can be found in Greil Marcus’ Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century. Marcus traced “punk”  attitudes back from the Sex Pistols to various 60s movements, Situationist International (1957) and Lettrist International (1952) (French cultural art movements), to the Surrealists (1920s), to Dada (1910s), and earlier to “ the young Karl Marx, Saint-Just, various medieval heretics, and the knights of the round table,” (Marcus, 18). Jean-Pierre Turmel’ s essay on Joy Division from licht und blindheit explores the darkness of Joy Division and similarities with the German Romanticists, various mystics, and the writings of Georges Bataille, to find a common source for the energy of “ punk” music (this essay can be found in London Records 4 CD set: Heart and Soul. Joy Division, or I imagine it came with the original vinyl, if you can find it).

These various writers use punk as an example of trans-historical cultural movements, for instance, we could consider Nietzsche as the “god father of punk,” through his writings on music and the Dionysian element. Examine this following quote by Edinger on the Dionysian, and consider how it may apply to punk rock:

“In general, the Dionysian is daimonic and ecstatic, promoting intensity of experience rather than clear, structured meaning. It is a dissolver of limits and boundaries, bringing life without measure. In its extreme form it is wild, irrational, mad, ecstatic, boundless. It is the enemy of all conventional laws, rules and established forms. It is in the service, not of safety, but of life and rejuvenation. The weak and immature may be destroyed by its onslaught; the healthy will be fertilized and enlivened,” (Edinger, Anatomy of the Psyche:  Alchemical Symbolism in Psychotherapy, 64).

Another view is that of the historian, David Hackett Fisher, who examines the link between various historical eras and waves of economic change, such as inflation. “These material events had cultural consequences. In literature and the arts, the penultimate stage of every price-revolution was an era of dark visions and restless dreams...Young people, uncertain of both the future and the past, gave way to alienation and cultural anomie,” (Fisher, The Great Wave, 238).

My own writing has tended toward this latter, inclusive, view of punk, and has turned toward the trans-historical and general to help to understand the particular. This is not without its risks, I am the first to admit it. It does not bother me if in trying to understand punk, I destroy punk. Well, it does bother me. But my interest is primarily in “punk”  rather than in punk. The following survey may help to alleviate some of my own bias in punk. In a sense, we are “taking our research to the streets,” “out to the people!”

The following survey was conducted by email. Eighteen experts were identified and solicited. Seven responded (38.9%, this figure is roughly equivalent to the general response rate to my email, thus, we can consider it a valid sample). I will break the responses down into several separate categories that will sample from the various respondent’s replies. The survey consisted of two questions: 

1)  What is punk rock?

2)  What is not punk rock?

What is the Punk Rock Attitude?

“Punk rock is the opposition to a societal or governmental norm through angst driven music...Punk rock engages both a separateness - from mainstream society - and a gathering - into a group of others of similar beliefs and frustrations. Punk rock concerts are the ritual meeting grounds for exercising frustrations and meeting others of the same ilk.”

“...punk rock by definition expresses alienation, conflict, anger, in relation to mainstream expectations and perceptions.”

“The Attitude: Anti-Establishment, civil disregard with a tendency toward violence and pain as forms of pleasure.”

“Punk rock is an underclass voluntarily created and populated by its members to provide an artistic alternative to the mainstream media.”

What is the Punk Rock Appearance?

“...either an intentional lack of energy put toward personal appearance in defiance of societal standards or an extreme costuming that is symbolic of war (Mohawks/war paint) or death (black clothes/pale face).”

What is Punk Rock Music?

“I know nothing about the nuts and bolts of music...”

“Anyone that can pick up an instrument can play.”

What is a Specific Example of a Punk Rock Band?

“Ramones, Illnoiz”

Who Was Illnoiz?

“Illnoiz was the shit. It was a band of high school kids from Decatur. They played at a mini-punk fest that Andy put together on the Quad. I think Mike would remember. Their hit song included the refrain: “Hey sporto, hey sporto, hey sporto, FUCK YOU UP!”  or something like that. I also failed to mention that punk rock is about hope.”

“I would agree with Mr. R’ s inclusion of Ill Noize. They were 100% punk, hard core stick eaters.”

Why Were Ill Noize 100% Hard Core Stick Eaters? 

[This is a paraphrase from an email I deleted, or maybe it was a face to face conversation]

“Well, one time I was at a show at Channing-Murray and they were all outside on acid or something and they were eating sticks...Don’ t you remember them?  They had that one song, “The Mall Crawl.”

What is Not Punk Rock?

“The happy-go-lucky glee club of old.”

“George Michael.”

“Not Punk Rock is something you buy on CD to replace your crappy tape of someone else’s old LP. I can listen to Not Punk Rock for more than 10 minutes these days. Not Punk Rock’s not dead (ha ha).”

“Punk Rock is not a haircut. The revolution is not a hat.”

An Application of Punk/Not Punk to the 25 Years of Punk Issue’s “50 Most Essential Punk Records”

I think they use a combination of a historical definition as well as a trans-historical one. This leads to statements such as “punk as hell but not punk,”  which is either idiotic or profound, depending on the nuance.

How could you choose New Day Rising over Zen Arcade? I, myself, do actually prefer NDR, but ZA is definitely more punk.

Nirvana, that is a tough one, but how can you choose In Utero?

Meat Puppets II, sure one of my all-time favorite albums, but I’m not sure it is punk, I’d say post-punk.

Devo, come on!

Big Black, I think you could make an argument, but I think you only choose that album because of its title, rather than its music.

Green Day. Maybe I didn’t give them a chance, but I already sold my copy and can’t give them a second chance.

Jesus and Mary Chain...definitely post-punk.

Public Enemy, well, I’ m glad you put them in there, I’ d like to see something written on the relationship of punk and rap music, but I don’ t think you can call them punk.

I’ll end with a few records I would have liked to have seen listed:

Butthole Surfers: Butthole Surfers, or my favorite, Psychic...Powerless...Another Man’ s Sac(although that is probably better described as post-punk)
Flux of Pink Indians: Strive to Survive Causing the Least Amount of Suffering Possible
Naked Raygun: Throb, Throb
CRASS: Nagasaki Nightmare (7”), and Reality Asylum/Shaved Women (7”)
Black Flag:  Nervous Breakdown (7”)
And what about the Feederz?

Perhaps the best punk music is not to be found on a record, at least if we listen to our respondents, I don’t know if there are any recordings of Ill Noize? I always liked the Defoliants, too.

ConiunctionisDavid Kopacz