Monday, April 03, 2006

Johnny Rumble:
What is Punk?...

Punk. One simple word that can conjure many different feelings and many different understandings. To the casual observer, a punk can be a hooligan and a non-contributing member of society. It can also be seen as a screeching, offensive, abomination of music. But to a person heavily involved, heavily entrenched in the Punk Rock scene, it becomes a lifestyle, a calling and a rally cry. To the outsider, a chaotic mess of anarchy and gang warfare; to the insider, it’s about comrades, fun and good times.

So many views, so many possibilities. So what exactly is Punk Rock? And why would I care to write about it? Because, my friends, the Punk scene is an unstable, amalgamation of people, ideas and styles. I write this because I am a Punk.

I already know what it’s like to be on the inside and on the outside as well. I know what some people consider punks to be isn’t true. But what I don’t know is what the mass majority of people think it takes to be a Punk. Or how the Punk scene operates. I’ve read the views of Joey “Shithead” Keithley (front man for Vancouver Punk band DOA) and the views of Rush Limbaugh (the hypocrite that he is). What I want is the moderate’s point of view on the Punk scene.

There have been papers and interviews and videos done from many points of view. But intend to get most of my research from the people I surround my self with everyday. People like my family, my friends, my classmates, and the strangers I see everyday. What do they have to say? What do they know and what do they not know? I, for one, intend to find out. I invite you on my small journey to delve into the question: “What is Punk?”

So really, what is Punk? Is it just a fashion fad? A music trend? Or is it something much larger, like a way of life, a way of thinking, and a way of perceiving? A quick endeavor into the history of Punk Rock might reveal a couple of clues. In 1975, the widely considered quintessential Punk band The Ramones first came together. In 1976 they released their first album. Recreating the “two minute song” in the era of six minute, over produced ballads (a la, The Rolling Stones, Journey, and Styx), The Ramones created a sound that new and different. It was, in fact, so radical that the record companies wouldn’t touch it for many more years.

In ’76 or ’77, The Ramones sound was exported to Great Britain, where the sound morphed into a tougher, ruder sound (Jaffe). English bands such as The Sex Pistols, The Clash, and The Damned paved the way for Punk Rock to become ever more popular in America. With songs such as “Anarchy in the U.K.”, “London’s Burning”, and “God Save the Queen,” Punk Rock was quickly becoming the new “in” thing to be.

Fast forward to 1979. Punk Rock has been collapsing in on itself. With most of the big Punk bands going to major record labels, Punk had become lost, and without a message that had not already been told. Punk was on its way out. Or was it? With the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the punk scene suddenly had something to scream about. With Reaganomics and England’s Thatcherism, the Punk scene once again caught like wildfire. With “Ronnie Rayguns” “Star Wars” programs, and Thatcher’s lack of concern of politics outside of the commonwealth, bands and “Rock Against...” concerts came out in full force in attempts to stop the nuclear madness that was ensuing.

When Reagan and Thatcher were removed from office in ’88 and ‘90, the Punk scene again cooled-down to the point of near non-existence. Only a few diehard punks were left to carry the torch. This is what some have called “The Modern Era.” With the emergence of Pop-Punk came a new wave. Instead of focusing on hardships and politics from the earlier eras, bands such as Green Day, Blink-182, and Sum-41 focused on parties, parental trouble, and love. With the growth of these bands and their different messages, pop-punk became very popular. With all of the Modern Era bands snapped up and selling millions of albums, a void was left in the underground.

Enter the much less popular bands, with dedicated messages and definite political leanings. With bands such as The Casualties, The Forgotten, NOFX, and The Lower Class Brats, a much more hardcore sound emerged. The DIY (do-it-yourself) ethic had emerged. Bands produced their own CD’s, promoted their own tours, and encouraged others to start their own bands.

Through the entire history of Punk, there have always been a few bands that brought undue attention and may have even helped in its declines. The Sex Pistols in the 70’s with it’s onstage antics and offstage interviews (one only remembers the infamous Today Show interview with Johnny Rotten), to The Damned violent shows. But even these do not eclipse what is probably the most destructive, and yet most respected and most influential hardcore punk band of all-time. The Exploited. These guys have started riots, been thrown in jail, have actually been banned from playing in many European countries, and yet, still manage to walk away from it all.
But enough about the history and back to the questions. What is Punk? The New Merriam-Webster dictionary defines Punk: n. 1: a young inexperienced person 2: a petty hoodlum. Well…yes, some hoodlums are Punks, but not all Punks are hoodlums.

Many of my friends and comrades define punk differently. In fact I sent out a mass questionnaire that had only four questions on it.

1.) What is Punk?

2.) What does it take to be a Punk?

3.) What inspired you to be/reject/listen to Punk?

4.) What is the one most misunderstood thing about being a Punk?

The majority of the answers were not very clean cut definitions and answers. The majority hit me back saying something to the effect, “Punk is a fashion fad; all you need to be punk is some clothes,” and on and on. Very poor and much uninformed. But there were a few very good simple answers. Sean Tilley writes,

“Punk is a lifestyle out the accepted "norm". What it takes is a strong sense of individuality and determination to go against what is accepted through non-violent acts. My inspiration was the freedom and the tenacity of the music. The number one most misunderstood thing it that being a punk is the way you dress when in reality it’s the life you lead.”

Brings tears to my eyes every time I read it. I say that this is a man that know exactly what it takes to be a Punk and knows exactly what shapes his world. A few people seemed to think that being Punk simply meant being anti-government and anti-societal.

One questionnaire came back from Deborah Habel. She writes:

“1) What is Punk?
Punk n. [Origin unknown.]
1. Slang.
a. A young person, especially a member of a rebellious
counterculture group.
b. An inexperienced young man.
2. Music.
a. Punk rock.
b. A punk rocker.
a. Slang. A young man who is the sexual partner of an older
b. Archaic. A prostitute.

adj.: of very poor quality [syn.: bum, cheap, cheesy, chintzy, crummy,
sleazy, tinny] n
1: an aggressive and violent young criminal [syn: hood, hoodlum,
goon, thug, tough, toughie, strong-armer]
4: a teenager or young adult who is a performer (or enthusiast) of
punk rock and a member of the punk youth subculture [syn: punk rocker]
5: rock music with deliberately offensive lyrics expressing anger and
social alienation; in part a reaction against progressive rock [syn:
punk rock]

2) What does it take to be a Punk?
Not much. No self-respect (read: emotional & physical self-abuse/neglect). Poor relations with others, inability to resolve anger, ambivalence. Lack of motivation, curiosity of the world (history, literature, science, etc., beyond contemporary children’s culture – cartoons, comics, etc.). Lack of knowledge of the world beyond their immediate day-to-day circle. Explosive anger. I wonder if depression may be at a root of the punk’s self-destructive patterns. Given the slang definitions surrounding homosexuality and boy-toy-ism (for lack of a better word), I find the use of the term completely undesirable, lest one be truly misunderstood. Decayed wood is a good analogy for the fully-developed punk.

3) What inspired you to be/reject/listen to Punk?
Reject. Deliberately offensive lyrics expressing anger and social alienation. Incredibly bad fitting clothing. Incredibly vile things some do to their bodies in the name of fashion/art/self-expression (read: piercings, tattoos, really bad haircuts, even worse hair colors). The association with homosexuality, prostitution and violent anger.

4) What is the one most misunderstood thing about being a Punk?
You’ve got me there. I’m interested in reading your paper; perhaps you can enlighten me. Although, I’m not sure you really understand the full definition when you call yourself a “punk,” and what others may understand by your use of the word, the style, etc. People don’t always hear the words the same way – they mean different things to different people. I’m very concerned that people think the homosexual/boy-toy/prostitute definition of you (especially scary since you advertise that you wear a skirt [referring to author’s email address, kiltwearingpunk]). And, knowing that you’re a good guy with a ton of potential, the identification you have with the angry, alienated, disaffected, apathetic and ne’er-do-well’s of society puzzles me.”

Excellent response. Exactly what I was looking for. I’d like to take a quick moment to analyze and pick apart her e-mail back. Mrs. Habel notes in question two, “Poor relations with others, inability to resolve anger, ambivalence. Lack of motivation, curiosity of the world (history, literature, science, etc., beyond contemporary children’s culture – cartoons, comics, etc.). Lack of knowledge of the world beyond their immediate day-to-day circle.”

I would argue most of what she has just said. When I and some of my friends go to punk shows, we have found the people to be extremely friendly and a willingness to buy you a drink (be it a coke or beer). A lack of curiosity about the world I believe is also false, seeing as how most Punk songs are written about current politics and history (I think about songs by The Dropkick Murphys and The Real McKenzies), and that most punks that I have met have a very good since of history and literature (not to mention science: home-made beer and barley pops). I have met Punks that have been able to give me a run down of the “Communist Manifesto,” and personally know some punks that can give me a listing of ordinances passed in my hometown, Edmond, Oklahoma.

Deborah Habel also notes through out the questionnaire about associations with homosexuality. My response to this is, “So?” While I do not know if she is implying that all Punks are either bi- or gay, I can answer for myself. I am not gay, but that doesn’t stop me and others from trying to push gay rights and helping support the gay community. I’ll welcome gays and lesbians into my home and treat them with just as much respect as a heterosexual. And just for a couple of seconds I’m going to defend my kilt. Two words…uninhibited freedom.

Deborah Habels husband, Mark on the other hand takes a completely different view about the Punk Scene. He writes:

“1. What is Punk?
More than a style of rock music and less than a philosophy, although I have heard some aspire to a nihilism that they call a philosophy. The term became common in the mid-seventies to identify a style of rock music. In 1978, I saw a documentary about British Punk called The Punk Rock Movie, that traced roots back several years. I think Punks range from hobbyists, who like the music and enjoy dressing up, to renegades, who own up to angst and nihilism, and want to live acceptably beyond the fringe.

2. What does it take to be a Punk?
I don’t have an answer that sums it up. Here are two attributes that seem to be required.
§ Listen to Punk music
§ Be willing to be conspicuous
Anger and nihilism were common characteristics 30 years ago, but not a necessity.

3. What inspired you to be/reject/listen to Punk?
I was inspired to listen to Punk in the mid 1970s because I was curious about popular music. In addition, I was disdainful of the disco that was popular then, and so were the Punks. I liked the Sex Pistols, and bought their first record. It reminded me of music from the late 1960s and early 1970s, which I liked: Lou Reed, the MC5, Them. I still listen to some early Punk music and music influenced by Punk. I am a fan of The Clash and Billy Bragg, who claims to have been heavily influenced by The Clash. I rejected the fashion because I was and am a stuffed shirt. The appearance seemed to be time-consuming to achieve and a pose of poverty and poor health (very common, incidentally, among rock styles over the decades). My pose was rumpled minimalism, by the way.

4. What is the one most misunderstood thing about being a Punk?
I guess that it is merely a style of rock music.
Are these misunderstandings?
§ Punks are usually angry at the Man.
§ They believe that there is undeserved prejudice against them.
§ They want the Man to perceive them as losers.
I have some questions that might clear up my own misunderstandings.
1. Can a Punk be a successful athlete?
2. Can a Punk vote republican?
3. Can a Punk aspire to high grades in school?”

I find it sad that I can’t find anything inside his response to either pick apart, or argue against. I do agree that Nihilism is a core theme and can be found in spades in many Punk songs, but I don’t agree with his statement about nihilism being unnecessary today. At least not in the underground Punk. The major label “Pop-Punk” bands, sure it’s not common, and I would argue that it is in fact discouraged. But in the underground, it’s another matter. Metaphorically, they look up and see society degrading it self into a mush that is blander than lettuce tossed in the blender. They see commercials using sex and soft porn to advertise products, while politicians destroy free thought and movement (shades of the Patriot Act and 1917’s Sedition Act anyone?).

What I can do, however, is at least attempt to answer Mr. Habel’s questions. I believe that a Punk can be a successful athlete. I don’t see a reason why a Punk can’t go on to the Olympics. Or maybe you meant multi-million dollar contracts with major sports teams? In that case I would have to divert to, “It depends.” A very good football player who is ranked in the top ten lists, signing with a team for just $300,000 a year? I’d say that’s Punk. A star player staying with the team that gave him his first shot at the “big-leagues” after several teams offer him more lucrative contracts? I’d say that’s Punk too. And of course a Punk can vote conservatively. There’s a whole scene out there for Conservative Punks. And why can’t a punk aspire to high marks in school? All that means is that he’s dedicated to something.

Joey “Shithead” Keithley is the front man of the Vancouver based hardcore punk band DOA. Keithley has always been an activist and a DIY advocator. Besides his band, he also runs an independent record company called Sudden Death Records. Having always been at the forefront of the Punk scene, he has seen many different trends and many different sights. In a column he wrote for The Globe and Mail in November of 2003, he made it very plain exactly what punk was in his eyes. Keithley writes,

“When punk started, it was seen by many as a noisy, obnoxious, hedonistic type of music bent purely on a peculiar brand of very destructive nihilism. At least that’s what the mainstream media repeatedly and forcibly kept telling people. But there was a whole other side to punk that many did not see… punk rock had become a youth driven, revolutionary, countercultural phenomenon. Punk was activist, political, ugly and utterly unafraid of kicking the establishment square in the groin. Punks rallied against the utterly insane buildup of conventional and nuclear weapons in the West and the East. Protests and benefit concerts were held in aid of a broad spectrum of causes: against racism, against tuition fee hikes, for battered women’s shelters, for jailed American Indian Movement leader Leonard Peltier, among others.” (Keithley R13)

Keithley’s words are backed up by his own personal mantra “talk-action=0.” All I can say to Keithley’s words is this: Hoo-rah, carry on.

Obviously, as with anything, there will be people who react negatively to Punk Rock. It has been rumored that during a Ramones concert a representative of A&M Records left after only one-half of a song was played (Jaffe). Also, a response to Keithley’s column stated that Punk “…is boring” (Dunn) and is arrogant and elitist. The writer also said that Punks had, “…pretentious bleating” and “careless violence,” (Dunn). While the respondent provided no evidence of any of this “bleating” and “violence,” his own arrogance shines through readily.

I found in the Amarillo Globe’s online database a small story about a high school brawl gone horribly wrong. In Amarillo, Texas there resides a nationwide recognized figure named Brian Deneke. Many of the friends of Deneke have said “He never looked for trouble,” and he “…was about the nicest guy you could find,” (George). So much so that Deneke earned the nickname “Sunshine,” from his friends (Amarillo). Deneke led the Amarillo music scene and had taught many of the other kids about politics and other school subjects. Even though Deneke was a high school dropout (he later earned his G.E.D. (Amarillo)), he always told the others to complete school. He, according to his father, was “…artistically gifted,” (George). Brian Deneke was a good natured kid, who just thought differently and dressed differently. Brian Deneke was killed on December 13, 1997. He was killed because he was different. He was killed because he was a Punk. I have to ask: what is the world coming to when a person cannot be different from the mass population of people? Why can’t I, for instance, walk down the street with my Mohawk without getting angry glares from mothers, sneers from the jocks, and Old Timers looking at me weird? Granted, I usually do go talk to those Old Timers and try swapping some stories with them, which I guess is odd to them, but the point remains. People have said that world is more tolerant than it has ever been, but from my point of view I can’t see what they’re saying. Is this really a great “age of tolerance?”

In my travels and studies I’ve found out this: Punk Rock is not about getting drunk, smashing things and causing violence. Punk Rock is about being different than the majority of the population. Punk Rock is about thinking A-Z while most only think about A, B, and C. Punk Rock is not violence, but pacifism. Punk Rock is not about living the way people want you to live; it’s about living the way you want to live and changing the status quo. Punk is not a fad, Punk is not going away, Punk is here to stay. Punks not Dead. Nor will it ever be. No matter you or I go there will always be somebody doing something opposite what everybody else is doing. Punk is not silent; Punk is loud, obnoxious, and annoying. But to those who tune in being a Punk is about absolute freedom.

Works Cited
“Amarillo, TX: High School Hit & Run.” City Confidential. A&E NA NA July 9, 2005
Dunn, Matthew W.I. Globe and Mail [Toronto] NA 03 Apr. 06 ,

George, Ricky. "Family suspects killing linked to teen's looks ." The Amarillo Globe 14
Dec 1997. 03 Apr 2006
Habel, Deborah. E-mail interview
Habel, Mark. E-mail interview.
Jaffe, Eric. "The History of Punk Rock." In Music We Trust May 1998. 03 Apr 2006
Keithley, Joey. "Young punks (and old) still fighting the power." The Globe and Mail 21
November 2003: R13.
Tilley, Sean. E-mail interview.

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