Titus Andronicus’snew album,The Most Lamentable Tragedyexhilarating, twenty-nine song, ninety-three minute punk-rock opera revolving around the subject of manic depression – stands as a perfect example of just how far the genre has come. And while the record itself might sound like a whole hell of a lot to take in initially (and don’t kid yourself, it most definitely is), it is absolutely worth the time and effort.
Interestingly, The Most Lamentable Tragedyisn’t the first left-field punk-rock opera to be released by a reputable band this decade. Just four years ago, Canadian act Fucked Up proved similarly adventurous by unleashing the mind-meltingly great David Comes to Life onto the unsuspecting masses. For those who hadn’t been paying much attention to the world of punk at the time, the albums arrival came as a bit of a shock. However, to the rest of us who were still very much under punk’s powerful spell, it was simply another in an impressively long line of great modern releases to see the light of day. These albums, like all the very best music, are overflowing with individuality and diversity – two qualities that have always been an essential part of punk’s DNA, even going back to its earliest days.
The often turbulent history of punk-rock is an important thing to consider when discussing today’s artists, as it provides some valuable insight into why, all these years later, the real-deal bands still have the ability to kick even the most overly-cynical music fan’s ass. And while there continues to be passionate debate as to when exactly punk first took shape, what is generally agreed upon is the moment in which it all came together and rose up from the underground: right smack bang in the middle of the crazy seventies.
PUNK GETS ITS NAME
By all accounts, the mid-seventies was a fascinating period, one in which an increasing number of artists chose to defiantly stand away from the generic mainstream’s reach in order to let their freak flags fly. The ultra-unique personalities of these reckless trailblazers were on full, uncensored display - both in their music, and in the ways in which they chose to present themselves: The Ramones had the matching leather jackets, skinny jeans, fake last names and two-minute punk anthems; Richard Hell had the torn shirts, the safety pins (a style later adopted by The Sex Pistols), and dark, poetic lyrics that spoke directly to an entire ‘blank generation’. Divisive two-piece Suicide, meanwhile, had their own unique brand of electronic nihilism going on, one that both baffled and compelled the lost souls who stumbled through the doors of now-legendary New York venues CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City.
As the artists on the scene continued to evolve and change in interesting and unpredictable ways, so too did the scene itself, and not always for the better. While shows were initially only attended by genuine, like-minded individuals who were there to celebrate punk’s original vision, things altered rather dramatically the second punk gained the unwanted attention of the previously dismissive mainstream, who – let’s be honest - still didn’t really know or care about the true meaning of it all. This inevitably led to gigs becoming over-crowded affairs full of clueless trend-followers who saw punk as little more than a radical fashion statement to piss off their Elvis-loving parents.
Still, the arrival of posers on the scene, while initially problematic, was an issue that was relatively short-lived. As many at the time probably guessed would happen, it didn’t take long for the fake fans to grow tired of drinking beer from plastic cups in dark clubs while attempting to sing along to lyrics they didn’t quite understand. Before long, most had ditched their pre-torn jackets and perfectly-groomed Mohawks in favour of white Armani suits and horrible mullets. By the time the eighties finally rolled around, every last one of them had vacated to the next ‘happening scene’, which, given the musical trajectory at the time, no doubt entailed snorting ungodly amounts of cocaine and sweating profusely to the sounds of early Duran Duran.
THIS IS HARDCORE
Following the mass-poser-exodus, punk suddenly found itself in a very different place. When the dust had settled, it became immediately apparent to those who stuck around that the music had morphed into something altogether different; something far more serious and intense. Within the burgeoning scenes in major American cities like Washington DC and Los Angeles, the bands populating the stages inside ratty venues were suddenly a whole hell of a lot louder, faster, and angrier. Punk had entered a new phase, one that was soon bestowed with its own appropriate title: hardcore.
Hardcore quickly gained all kinds of notoriety thanks in part to the no-bullshit, D.I.Y attitudes of bands like Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, Bad Brains andCircle Jerks, whose chaotic, blood-splattered live shows became the thing of legend. Sadly, like the scene proceeding it, hardcore was sadly not built to last – at least not in such a large-scale way.
Many of the complications that led to the demise of the original punk movement soon overlapped into hardcore. Like before, crowds of trendy outsiders were slithering their way into shows. Now, however, they were joined by an even worse element - violently-minded thugs who were using the music emanating from the stage as their own personal soundtrack to beat in the skulls of nearby audience members.
Complicating matters further was the fact that the police were starting to pay a great deal of attention to the comings and goings of hardcore bands (and their fans), which inevitably led to numerous tension-fueled run-ins. All of this, it goes without saying, didn’t exactly do the movement any favours. In a 2013 interview with LA Weekly, Black Flag front man Henry Rollins spoke with writer Ben Westhoff about the exact moment it all went south, stating, ‘We were picking a fight with the police and we got it. We got really vilified because of that, and the police ended up winning.’
Despite the forces working against hardcore, it wasn’t all bad. Along with the hordes of detractors came great numbers of passionate believers. One notable example was filmmaker Penelope ‘Wayne’s World’ Spheeris who was not only completely on board with hardcore and everything it represented, but who also went out of her way to capture the action on film as it was taking place. This resulted in the exhilaratingly raw moment-in-time documentary The Decline of Western Civilisation, which is today considered a classic.
As hardcore gradually screeched to a depressing halt, the future looked pretty grim for punk. The rising tide of glam/hair metal- and all of the hedonism, misogyny, and ego-fuelled excess that went along with it – came close to being the final nail in punk’s coffin. Thankfully, smarter listeners were able to block out the awful sounds coming out of L.A’s Sunset Strip and sit and wait patiently for music to once again return to a more exciting and dangerous place.
Soon enough it did, in the form of genres such as grunge and riot grrrl (a movement that deserves its own dedicated article). Yet, while these new musical movements were undoubtedly a breath of fresh air, many fans continued to pine for the specific thrill that only old-school punk could provide and remained hopeful that it would someday return in a big, bad way.
Little did they realise just how big and bad it was about to get…
A FATE WORSE THAN DEATH (THE RISE OF POP-PUNK)
While grunge shared some obvious commonalties with the punk scenes of yore – with young upstarts like Dave Grohl toEddie Vedder heaping endless amounts of praise onto the genre any chance they got - it still wasn’t punk, exactly. That said, it came a damn sight closer than the next movement to eventually carry the punk moniker - a type of radio-friendly aural excrement that, all these years later, still has the ability to send a cold shiver down the spine of the even the most resilient punk rocker. I speak, of course, of the much-maligned sub-genre known as pop-punk.
Pop-punk –at least in its overtly commercial form - wasn’t exactly what the purists had in mind while waiting for the next era of punk to reveal itself. In fact, the shiny, over-produced puppy dog version of a once beloved genre was so bad that many old school fans couldn’t help but involuntarily vomit in their own mouths. As far as they were concerned, punk had just died the worst death imaginable.
It was easy to understand why so many were so horrified. While the genre had up until that point been on a commendable winning streak (despite lapses in its cultural prominence), this brand new, heavily neutered version of the genre was threatening to undo all of punk’s hard work by turning it all into a pathetic joke. What was especially disturbing was that a great majority of the pop-punkers burning up the charts were - at best - skinny, helpless puppets attached to strings being yanked at by drooling record executives with dollar signs in their eyes. Inevitably, words such as ‘integrity’ and ‘individuality’ were replaced with ‘relatability’ and ‘popularity.’ It was a worrying change of pace - one that came frighteningly close to killing off the genre entirely.
Luckily, it would take more than a few money-hungry musicians with nothing of worth to say to destroy punk completely; and while the faux-punks had stolen most of the spotlight, the real artists were still around, soldiering on in the shadows and waiting ever-so-patently for audiences to grow tired of the musical crimes perpetrated by the likes of Good Charlotte and Simple Plan. When the moment finally arrived for pop-punk to draw its last, wimpy breath, theactual musicians returned with a vengeance to bring the genre back to its rightful place – which wasn’t, as some mistakenly seemed to think, plastered across the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine.
Following the genre’s mid-late nineties low-point, punk returned to a more solid and steady path. The tragic events of 9-11, along with the horror show of the Bush administration, understandably gave the music a much-needed shot in the arm. There was, after all, a lot to speak out against during those dark years. And while all the negativity at the time wasn’t quite enough to bring about an earth-shattering movement on par with those of the late seventies and early eighties, one really has to question whether another highly-publicised scene is what the genre really needed anyway. After all, over-exposure didn’t exactly do punk any favours the first time around, did it?
PUNK – NOW AND FOREVER
Today, punk no longer dominates the headlines of online music blogs, and it is certainly not a part of any national conversation – it is a niche genre that is adored by some, and ignored by others. But let’s be absolutely clear – this is a good thing. The genre – and the many, many sub-genres that have subsequently popped up since its inception - is as vital now as it has ever been. Better yet, it can now exist without the imminent threat of pre-mature flame-out.
The sorry state of the music industry has also, in a strange way, helped transport punk to a better place. At one time, there may have been thousands of talentless wonders looking to form bands with only the shallowest of intentions (fame, money, sex). However, the grim realities of being a musician in 2015 has rightfully scared most of these goons away. This has, in turn, left the real punk-rockers to pick up the slack, with the best of them – artists like Titus Andronicus and Fucked Up - embracing the punk ethos of old, while simultaneously putting their own unique spin on a genre that now encapsulates the very best qualities of old school punk movements.
Listening to any of this year’s best punk records – including releases from the likes ofDesaparecidos, Refused, Radioactivityand Ghetto Ghouls – is really all the proof you need that the music still has the ability to shake us from our dazed human state and remind us all what being alive is really supposed to be all about.
I am entirely confident this will remain as such for the foreseeable future. Unless, of course, there is a pop-punk resurgence on the cards. For the sake of all that is good and right with the world, let us pray that neverhappens…
For further punk-related reading, check out:
American Hardcore: A Tribal History by Steven Blush.
Get In the Van by Henry Rollins
Rip It Up And Start Again by Simon Reynolds.
Our Band Could Be Your Life by Michael Azerrad.
Please Kill Me by Leg McNeill and Gillian McCain
England’s Dreaming by Jon Savage
Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution by Sara Marcus
I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp by Richard Hell
For further punk-related goodness on film, check out:
American Hardcore, dir. Paul Rachman
The Decline of Western Civilization, dir. Penelope Spheeris
Suburbia, dir. Penelope Spheeris
Punk: Attitude, dir. Don Letts
Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten, dir. Julien Temple
The Filth and the Fury, dir. Julien Temple
The Great Rock N’ Roll Swindle, dir. Julien Temple
Repo Man, dir. Alex Cox
Sid and Nancy, dir. Alex Cox
SLC Punk, dir. James Merendino
The Punk Singer, dir. Sini Anderson
For further punk-related listening, here’s ahastily thrown-together modern punk playlist to wrap your eyes and ears around:
OFF! - ‘Borrow and Bomb/I’ve Got News For You’ (OFF!, 2012)
Pissed Jeans – ‘False Jesii Part 2’ (King of Jeans, 2009)
Brand New – ‘Mene’ (Single, 2015)
Desaparecidos – ‘Backsell’ (Payola, 2015)
Fucked Up – ‘Queen of Hearts’ (David Comes to Life, 2011)
Refused – ‘Dawkins Christ’ (Freedom, 2015)
METZ – ‘The Swimmer’ (METZ II, 2015)
Perfect Pussy – ‘I’ (I Have Lost the Desire for All Feeling, 2013)
Ghetto Ghouls – ‘Peepshow’ (Ghetto Ghouls, 2014)
Radioactivity – ‘Silent’ (Silent Kill, 2015)
White Lung – ‘Bag’ (Sorry, 2012)
Titus Andronicus – ‘The Magic Morning’, ‘Lookalike’, ‘I Lost My Mind (DJ)’, ‘Mr. E. Mann’, ‘Fired Up’, ‘Dimed Out’ (The Most Lamentable Tragedy, 2015)