What Is Punk?

At some point in the early 2000’s my friend Jay informed me that I “wasn’t very punk”. I’m not sure exactly what precipitated this declaration. We hadn’t been discussing my punk credentials, as I’d never claimed to be a punk. At various times in my youth I might have said I was a “Waver” or a “Rocker”, but I’d long stopped using such labels by this point. Yet by modern definitions, I agreed with him. I wasn’t very punk.

The first time I heard a punk song I was at a dance in either sixth or seventh grade and someone had put on “Holiday In Cambodia” by The Dead Kennedy’s. I liked the song and danced to it with my friends, but I didn’t own it, nor did I listen to it on my own. After all, the song was at least two years old at that point, and New Wave was on the rise. Or rather, a lot of what were once considered Punk Bands were now New Wave bands such as the Pretenders, The Talking Heads, The B52’s, Blondie, The Go-Gos, The Police, Patti Smith, The Only Ones and Television.

Many people reading this will probably be scratching their head at that list. The B52’s? The Talking Heads? Blondie? “Heart of Glass” Blondie? Punk? Wha?

Back in the mid-seventies all these bands were considered Punk acts, when Punk was an underground movement rather than a genre. The style of music didn’t matter so much as the attitude and intention. Punk was giving a voice to the disenfranchised and disillusioned. There’s a reason why the origins of punk lie in London, New York and Detroit, where 17 minute prog-rock synth solos or tales of Mordor were neither relevant nor relatable to everyday life.

In 1979 when Margaret Thatcher became the Prime Minister of England there was a lot of unrest amongst the youth of England. The nuclear arms race, the cold war and unemployment were persistent realities in everyday life. London was still war torn from World War Two and much of the youth were reduced to squatting in bombed out buildings in order to survive. With a questionable future ahead of them, much of the youth connected with the aggression and ethos of British punk music. It spoke directly to the young, their lifestyle and their concerns.

While most would consider The Jam musically to be a mod band, lyrically they mine the same territory as their punk peers at the time. To me, they are as punk as The Clash.

New York in the late 70’s and early 80’s wasn’t doing much better than London the only difference being the lack of bombed out buildings. Meanwhile, in Detroit, a failing automotive industry left many youths with little hope.

But once upon a time, Punk music was more than just three chords and an attitude. It was just alternative music before it went mainstream. “Punk” wasn’t as marketable a term as “New Wave”, so by the early 80’s punk bands with a more radio friendly sound decamped from the scene and became New Wave. Remaining was the more aggressive bands that personified “Three chords and an attitude” and modern punk was born.

This is why I say I’m not very punk by modern definitions. My favorite punk bands are The Clash, The Jam and X. I know people who will argue that they aren’t even punk. None of the band fits the “Three Chords and an attitude” directive. While all three bands have attitude in spades, they are also more musically adept than just three chords.

But to many, Punk is the Sex Pistols, The Dead Boys, The Ramones, Generation X, The Germs and Green Day. Bands which played aggressively and favored an economy to the music they played. This is why many early punk songs eschewed a solo: it was frivolous and unnecessary. If it didn’t make the point it wasn’t needed. The urgency of the message or the aggression behind the message was what was important and in those cases, less was more. The briefer and more direct the message, the better the chance it wouldn't be misinterpreted. The simpler the better.

But everything can’t always be said in two and a half minutes. Sometimes being direct is the least effective way of making your point. Sometimes to convince, to win over the hearts and minds to your side, finesse is necessary. Time is necessary. Detail is necessary.

To claim that “Three chords and an attitude” encapsulates all of Punk rock is akin to saying one particular song is indicative of the entire album. It gives no room for nuance, different tempos, different stories or different points of views. It’s homogenization. Distilling Punk down to a genre, as opposed to a movement. A movement that the Rolling Stones arguably first tapped into in 1968 with the release of “Street Fighting Man” and then again in 1978 for “When The Whip Comes Down", “Lies” and “Respectable”.

Lyrically, Ray Davies has always been a punk. His keen insights into the classism of British society has literally filled records. There’s a reason his songs were covered by both the Pretenders and The Jam. But in the late 70’s and early 80’s the Kinks truly embraced punk, blending the guitar fury of “You Really Got Me” with the societal hangover of Thatcherism.

Punk is born out of youthful angst and rebellion. It’s protest music at its core. It’s Woody Guthrie with a Les Paul Jr and a Marshall half stack. Distilling it down to Three Chords and an Attitude does it a disservice. It’s honest and truthful and not sugar coating the world the way pop music so often does. One has to wonder what new punk music we have to look forward to over the next four years.