“PUNK’S NOT DEAD”: FROM CHEMICAL ABUSE TO MY CHEMICAL ROMANCE

“People who say ‘punk’s dead.’ I always think, like, it’s such a selfish concept because it’s as if they own the definition of punk rock, and that’s just nonsense. Punk is indefinable, therefore it can never be dead – you can’t kill something that doesn’t really have, like, a single definition.” – Minor Threat/ Fugazi frontman Ian MacKaye.

punk (pungk) n. 1. Easily crumbled decayed wood used as kindling. 2. A substance that smolders when lighted, used to ignite fireworks.

punk (pungk) Slang. n. 1. A young inexperienced or insignificant person. 2. A young hoodlum or tough. 3. Punk rock – adj. 1. Of inferior quality. 2. In poor health. Of, relating to, or being a purposefully bizarre style of dress affected by punk rock groups.

pun-kin (pung’kin) n. Regional. A pumpkin.

punk rock n. Hard rock music marked by themes of bitter hostility towards established society. – punk rocker n.

- Webster’s New Riverside Dictionary

Okay, pick a definition, any definitely definitive definition of the ‘indefinable’ from those above (and okay, I left the ‘pumpkin’ thing in for a laugh), to explain what punk is or isn’t or could or should be, noting that I only inserted those definitions to counteract the somewhat self-important Ian MacKaye’s statement (and I might point out that something which is ‘indefinable’ would have no definitions whatsoever, let alone not just not having a single one). But he is, in essence, correct. Punk is all things or nothing to all people, punk is a four-letter word, punk is the last four letters in ‘spunk,’ punk has the word ‘pun’ as the first three letters…which is a pun crock crack…and blah blah blah, round and round we go and where she stops nobody knows. Or cares.

“Arguing about fucking whether or not punk’s dead, or arguing about what is or isn’t fucking punk…shit man…these are arguments that no human being with half a fucking brain in their head should be having over the age of 15. You probably missed punk in the 70s, get over it, life goes fucking on.” – Anne Onymous.

Okay, so I just made up the preceding pseudo-anonymous quote; so sue me; I copped to my creation. But what it does do is to illustrate that any ‘debate’ about punk is pretty much a waste of time and words. It is what it is or isn’t, it means different things to different people…and it also means nothing whatsoever. Or it means everything. Depending on who you are and how old and angry you are. One hotly debated point is that ‘punk’ is a term first applied to the music by the late lamented Lester Bangs. Apart from that…your guess is as good or bad as mine.

One filmmaker who set out to check the pulse of rock and roll’s angry bastard fistwaver spikehair stepchild, just to see if it still has one, is filmmaker Susan Dynner. In her fine, comprehensive new documentary “Punk’s Not Dead,” Dynner examines the origins, evolution and current state of those hated in the nation…and comes to some interesting, though not particularly surprising (to those who know anything about the punk scene at all) conclusions. And does she find punk dead? Of course not. As a musical subgenre, a subculture, it’s still very much alive and kicking against the pricks – or being the pricks – the world over. And her musings on punk’s (n)ever-changing musical machinations take place to a searing soundtrack from the likes of Flipper, The Ramones, Dead Kennedys, The Ruts, DOA, Subhumans, NOFX, Back Flag, Anti-Nowhere League, ad infinitum, so it’s definitely a fun movie you could get up and pogo to in the cinematic aisles. Before getting chucked out, that is.

Dynner’s entertaining, perceptive, serious, humorous, well-researched (it’s clear she knows her punk scene stuff) and well-made documentary spans the globe, settling mostly on punk in the UK and the US. It gives us a brief history lesson about the UK societal backdrop (unemployment, shoddy government) that produced the UK version of the music in 1976, and then goes on to detail how punk middle-class-angst-transpired on this side of the pond. We then get interviews with the likes of punkosaur Brits like Glen Matlock and Billy Idol and Charlie Harper (if I have to tell you the bands they were/are in…you won’t enjoy this documentary); and old American punks like Mike Ness (looking haggard as hell and somewhat lifestyle-damaged – though this ex-drug-abuser is sort of amusing) and John Doe and Legs McNeil and many, many more. This film has an absolutely stellar cast of interviewees, so if you like punk music you’ll be in hog heaven watching it, I guarantee you.

(Random Entertaining Moment: Scottish old school punk Wattie Buchan from The Exploited being subtitled as he is interviewed, gibbering like a manic spluttering starry-eyed baboon, looking like he is speeding or coked out of his tits. Shit, I’m from Scotland and even I couldn’t make out a fucking word he was saying!)

The film jumps back and forth the Atlantic, mirroring the sing-song ping-pong match that punk music has undertaken since its who-invented-it, UK-or-USA (random thought from my notes: ‘how come Yanks say ‘punk rock’ and Brits say ‘punk?’), oft-disputed inception. It goes from the squalor of working class England in the 70s to middle class America in the present, with a short sidestep documenting the mushrooming of punk round the world, showing the odd twists and turns the subgenre’s evolution has taken it through, from the ’no future’ ethos of the UK 70s to the ‘fuck Middle America’ vibe of the horrifying-straightedge-spawning 80s, to the PC holier-than-thou sanctimonious quagmire of the 90s, to the current new drowning wave of pap-pop-punk bands of the noughties. These fragmented semi-formed-vision tangents ape the music’s still-in-effect attempts to evolve a morality and philosophy and stupidity outside that of the Western mainstream. But, you know, there’s only so much you can do with one or two ideas and three chords.

“I believe that the music I heard is a killer. It’s a killer of hope. It’s a killer of spirit.” – Quincy, M.D. tells it like it is(n’t).

One thing’s for sure about punk music: when it hit both British and American shores it contained a frisson of shock and awe and fear and loathing that genuinely scared the shit out of the people not involved in it. Entertaining boo-look-at-the-scary-punk-rock-freaks clips from “Quincy” and “CHiPs” and “Jerry Springer” demonstrate this amply. This is, of course, an aspect of the music that has utterly dissipated now because of the familiarity of the mainstream to punk, having been exposed to it for 30 years and having learned to use it to its crapitalist advantage, taking punk from shock to pop-punk schlock: sadverts featuring the likes of Travis Barker from now-thankfully-defunct Screeching Weasel (who were hugely influential on pop-punk) wannabes Blink 182 shows how the music can now be used to sell any old crap these corporate co-opted daze.

(Random thought: Get Keith Morris from the Circle Jerks a haircut. White guys should NEVER have dreadlocks, ESPECIALLY ones as skanky and dirty looking as his)

“I feel that the world is not the same place as it was before I was here. You know, that’s the worst thing you could possibly do, to live your life and have the world be the exact same place as it was before you. You have to make a footprint, you have to make a change, you have to make a dent. And even if that change is to say something that really means something ‘like ‘You know what? You are not alone in what you’re feeling and there’s an outlet.’ I think that’s punk rock.” – My Chemical Romance’s Frank Iero on my deluded, egocentric, vapid pop-punk rhythm guitarists should only be allowed to open their mouths when they’re eating, or sleeping, or at the dentist.

To me the most disturbing thing about punk music now is its bastard drooling idiot offspring pop-punk. You can say what you like about early punk, but it was a way for genuinely alienated and isolated people (for whatever reason: abuse, drug damage, low level mental illness, formless extreme anger, alcoholism, drug addiction, general assholeism…pick a pathology path) to form friendships and alliances that helped them get through lean and hungry and angry salad years of frustration and struggle and incomprehension. When you turn on any music television station now all you see is one castrato clone bland band of prettyboys (random thought from my notes: ‘singer from Sum 41 looks disturbingly like Mickey Dolenz’) and girlygirls after another soundalike-groaning about not having a girl-or-boyfriend, or of evil bad ugly (boospithiss) mom and dad making them mow the lawn.

Of course, it’s axiomatic that the further away you get from the (hard)core of something the more washed-out and watered-down it’s going to be, bled dry of the tense intense emotions that fed it in the first place, but it’s truly nauseating to see these corporate cocksuckers pop-bopping around with their silly wee soap-spiked haircuts and their stadium tours and their token mouthing of punk platitudes (Kelly Osbourne is in this bumping her gums about punk, though I have no fucking idea why – who gives a fuck what she has to say about anything at all?) as they weep into their same-whiney-voice-projecting mikes (that prick from Dashboard Confessional has a LOT to answer for in the ‘mournful vocals’ stakes) and give bland no-problem zero-emotion middle class spoiled pampered teens in the richest fucking country in the world some anthems for a new tomorrow to sing along in record-label-manufactured teen angst visions of a brave new world of faux rebellion and codified pasteurized past-your-eyes anti-anarchy.

(Pause for breath)

(Okay G, calm down)

(Keep repeating it’s only a movie…only a movie…only a movie…)

This whole pop-punk waste of time and effort and energy started off with Green Day who, of course, came along with their spineless spiky happy-being-unhappy pop-punk looney tunes when the music world was in need of an attitude-blood transfusion after Kurt Cobain blew his head off in 1994. After that it was open season on sell-out punk blands and shallow Bad Religion-soundalike Epitaph Records zorros like The Offspring and Pennywise threw their two cent’s worth(less) into the mix. Until eventually we end up with the horror of Good Charlotte and Sum 41 and My Chemical Romance (the latter a tweemo – there ya go, just invented a new musical expression! – melodramatic teengirl pantwetter punk-popera bucketafuck puppets, named after Irvine Welsh’s worst book, who take themselves and their hand-me-down goth schtick oh-so-VERY-seriously) and whatnot. Some of the main offenders from this sonic sludge are interviewed in this doc. This is a very clever thing to do – it lets the director examine this branch of the music(k) and draw in kids attracted by the name of their fave beat-boy-band combos on the posters. There is a humorous scene where Dynner overlays footage of some of these bands doing synchronized sorta-pirouettes and poncey prance steps to classical music – nothing like hedging your bets, eh Susan – and it fits perfectly.

Of course.

As for the practitioners of this accountant’s-wet-dream-teen-girl-scream shite, well Benji Madden from Good Charlotte (a band who can release a song mocking famous people who complain about being famous – then a couple of singles on release a song complaining about the exact same thing!) comes across as a man who epitomizes the phrases ‘trying too much’ (sporting a clichéd phalanx of tattoos and piercings everywhere) and ‘dumb as a box of dirt.’ One of the most annoying turns in the doc comes from Billie Joe Armstrong (or ‘Billy Bob of B.C. Pills’ as he’s know around our house after his caricaturing in John ‘Jughead’ Pierson’s amusing book about being in Screeching Weasel, ‘Weasels In A Box’), who comes across as being both genuinely annoying and also gay. And I’m not saying the latter to be contentious, there’s just something…not quite right about the man (his poncey hat and the fact he’s talking about young boys taking off their shirts to expose their muscles for other young boys doesn’t help either). Then again, I guess I shouldn’t insult the egocentric Pop-Punk Bono, not when he produces timeless classic albums like the apolitical ‘political’ ‘zeitgeist genius’ album ‘American Idiot’; Dillinger Four should have sued Armstrong for plagiarism for TOTALLY ripping off the famous riff from the titular song off that album from the DF song ‘Doublewhiskeycokenoice’.

(Blah blah blah, bitch whine moan groan G you jaded cynical old bastirt. Why do I care so much about this putrid pop-punk pish? Well I do and I don’t, and I’ll tell you why in a moment.)

For more of Graham Rae’s musings on “Punk’s Not Dead” and an interview with filmmaker Susan Dynner, check out Part Two of “Punk’s Not Dead”: From Chemical Abuse to My Chemical Romance>>>




Posted on July 9, 2007 in Features by
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