by David James
I have a confession to make and I would appreciate it if we keep it between ourselves. Tell no one.
OK, here it is. When I was a teenager I used to spend hours listening to Slade. I even owned a Slade record at a time when owning records was a big deal. I would sing along to lead singer Nobby Holder’s musical chunder – and, yes, I really got into it.
True, there wasn’t much else to do in Bennettswood, perhaps the closest thing in the known universe to nowhere in particular. And, in my defence, I did also have B.B. King records – which had a massive influence on my later musical development, whereas Slade had absolutely none. But I am afraid that, when it comes to judging what teenagers should and shouldn’t listen to, I have zero credibility.
Which brings me to the musical fashion known as punk, the subject of a recent documentary aired on SBS. Punk is certainly not the worst music ever produced. That award goes either to rap music, or experimental musician Charlemagne Palestine (real name: Chaim Moshe Tzadik Palestine), whose “music” I had the misfortune of witnessing in a four-hour concert at the Melbourne Town Hall (I managed to last three hours, but only because I was reviewing it for a newspaper).
To say the performance was discordant, tuneless garbage only begins to scratch the surface of its awfulness. It was obviously some sort of practical joke to call it “music”, but anyone who laughed at the joke should immediately have received counselling.
Anyway, back to punk. As music, punk is pretty terrible. But punk is not principally music; indeed it is a kind of anti-music. Many of the practitioners touted the fact that they couldn’t really play their instruments, and didn’t intend to stay sober long enough to try any time soon.
Punk was rather socio-political theatre. Like a lot of street theatre, it was a critique – all right, let’s not exaggerate, a cry of frustration against – the prevailing social order, specifically Thatcherism.
As is often the case, the exercise was pretty much futile. At the end of the punk era, the score was Thatcherism 985 million, punk 0.
Indeed, the neo-liberal drivel that Thatcher touted and allowed to run rampant largely remains in place, despite having been exposed, in the global financial crisis of 2008 and the current crisis, as a self-serving, vicious tautology.
The inspiration for the Sex Pistols’ performance style was quite deliberately theatrical. Johnny Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, explained in his autobiography that he borrowed part of his aural style and stage presence from Laurence Olivier’s memorable performance of Richard III in the 1955 film. Once this is explained it is easy to see the parallel, especially the famous “Now is the winter of our discontent” snarl in the opening.
There was also a feminist element in punk, with bands such as The Slits showing that what they lacked in musical ability – including barely knowing which end of the instrument to hold – they made up in stage presence and startling costumes. Punk was, and remains, more about the look than the sound: more a sound track to visual exhibitionism than anything that can be considered musical in its own right.
It was the same with the performances, especially in Britain, which were exercises in dressing in a certain way while pursuing bacchanalian oblivion. The loudness of the music was more important than the content of the music.
Where punk did do some memorable things was in the lyrics. The Sex Pistol’s God Save the Queen is a funny lyric, worthy of The Goons. Blondie’s Rapture is a captivating monologue underpinned by excellent rhythm and horn sections (including the highly rated saxophonist Tom Scott) and a memorable video performance from Harry. The lyric also has a Warhol-like satirisation of American consumerism – all right, I’m exaggerating again, it is just a bit of clever blather. But it works.
In the end, that is the best defence of punk rock. For a while, in performance, it worked. Teenagers bought the records, just as I once bought Slade records. But that is no longer possible; the record industry is dead, killed by the internet. The whole music “industry” is now as defunct as punk.
David James is a Melbourne writer and musician.