Machine Gun Punk by Jonny Steiner

Posted: April 22, 2008 by Maximum Mike in The Rocking Chair Blog
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In the mid 70s everything in popular music seemed ok. Led Zeppelin released their epic “Physical Graffiti,” and Pink Floyd put out their classic, “Wish you were here.” Brian Eno, began to experiment with Ambient Electronica on his release “Another Green World,” while Aerosmith were putting nuts in the cracker with “Toys in the Attic.” Across the pond, David Bowie released a legitimate Soul classic with “Young Americans,” and Queen took us out to “A Night at the Opera.” It was a magical time where the boundaries of musical exploration were constantly being tested and expanded. Progressive Rock was at its peak, Funk was ruling the party scene, and Electronic music was getting its feet wet at the deft hands of Vangelis and Tangerine Dream. Something had to give, and something surely did.

Almost at the same time two bands formed that were to crush the mighty with their loud yet simple ways. Even legends like The Sex Pistols and The Ramones have predecessors. Emerging from NYC and Ann Arbor Michigan, the New York Dolls and the Stooges were stripping down everything the aforementioned bands had spent years building. The Dolls had a bit more of direction with their heavily influenced Chuck Berry meets the Rolling Stones sound, although to see and hear them you would never know. The music was loud and dysfunctional. It was everything they could do to not fall apart on stage. Similarly The Stooges went even further. Raw and manic, their playing seemed to try to prove the point that anyone can be in a Rock band, and the less you knew the better. The fascinating thing about these two bands is that their debut albums were both produced by famous members of other musical movements. John Cale, who produced The Stooges eponymous debut, was known for his contributions to The Velvet Underground as much as his experiments with Ambient and Electronic Music. Todd Rungren, who produced The New York Dolls debut, was famous for his work with Carole King. These two men saw something in this new gritty style of music, and chose to offer their talent to help the fledgling genre along.

It was not until The Ramones and the Sex Pistols that Punk, which got its title when people adopted it as a source of pride rather than let arrogant music journalists use it as an insult, began to achieve mainstream success. The desire was to strip Rock down from its high horse, and bring back the fun. That many of the bands advocated drug abuse and violence added to their influence both positively on the youth and negatively on the critics who initially panned them for being unpolished, and uninteresting. Despite their best efforts though, by the end of the 70s a whole slew of bands had reached the upper echelons of the Rock sphere playing this base and unintelligent style of music.

So Punk had effectively killed off everything good about 70s music. But what of Punk itself? Could a style formed on such basic principles last? What would the artists themselves do to keep the music interesting? Well there were two schools of thought. In one instance bands began to incorporate a greater palate of sounds to the same stripped raw sound of early Punk. On the other hand was the Hardcore movement based largely in California. The best known acts came out of the Post Punk-New Wave scene because of the acceptance of diversity in the style allowed for greater radio play. The Clash were experts at this, and their 1979 release “London Calling” was a testament to that. Incorporating Reggae and Pop elements with the uncompromising lyrics of Punk, the album is still considered to be a landmark release, and one of the greatest albums in history. The realization that their genre could only go so far showed that Punk had a bit of maturity after all. It seems that the catalyst for that was the death of Sex Pistol’s Bass player Sid Vicious of a heroin overdose. His death was seen by many as a symbol of Punk being doomed from the start, a sentiment that Punk’s numerous and vocal detractors would take to heart.

The Hardcore scene took Punk at its word and made it heavier and faster, the lyrics only coming out in a series of grunts. Ruled by The Misfits, The Dead Kennedy’s, and Henry Rollins’ first band Black-Flag, their uncompromising assault on the senses did not win them much fame, but it did afford a dedicated following that persists to this day.

It is the New Wave and Post Punk movement that is most interesting though. It is almost as though the artists began to realize that they destroyed something beautiful, and needed to scramble to make up for that. The Talking Heads began to toy with electronic production methods. Blondie embraced Disco, and The Police helped to make Reggae mainstream, bringing a whole new generation of fans to the music of Peter Tosh and Bob Marley. These bands showed that the music could still contain the same frantic scathing lyrics, without sacrificing musical experimentation. It was no longer about youth culture sticking their middle fingers into the face of the government. The second wave of Punk was led by some of the most intelligent artists of our time. It shows in the way they were able to achieve mainstream acceptance at the same time they were politically active, and trying to broaden their musical horizons. Interestingly enough, it was the collaboration between the Talking Head’s David Byrne, and Brian Eno that afforded the band their greatest creative period.

Looking through the lens of early Punk trying to break rules and destroy what came before them, it is almost funny to see where Punk stands, as one of the most popular styles of music today. That the music is based on simple rhythms and chord progressions is not lost in an industry where digestibility is paramount. It is for this reason that early pioneers like Johnny Rotten, hate these new kids. He sees himself as a martyr to a cause that has long since left him behind, and is angry about the people that took over. Many of the artists understand this growth, this need to adapt and change. It is not that Punk killed what was good about the 70s, not really. It is more that a few bad seeds got loose and upset the balance for a while. It came together in the end, it nearly always does.

What I am listening to: The Smashing Pumpkins – Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness

One of the most ambitious albums from the Grunge era, Mellon Collie… is an epic, two disks, with songs that range from Heavy Metal, to Classical, and almost Folk. Billy Corgan, described the album as “The Wall for Generation X.” It is a rewarding listen. Full of beautiful compositions the material almost never lags. It is the sign of a man at the peak of his creative gifts.

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