Tag Archives: punk rock

Proto-Punk? Yes. Post-Punk? Yes. Punk? Eh, Not So Much

When I was a teenager I discovered The Clash and with them, punk-rock. There was a certain immediacy and urgency that appealed to my teenage self. Everything was vast, loud and angry. Even if I didn’t exactly understand what they were referring to (this was the case for many Clash songs in my younger years) it didn’t matter. It was exciting and visceral.

Sometime later, a friend of mine took me to an Anti-Flag show about ten years ago, and I found the whole experience completely boring. Sure, the songs were played at break-beck speed, but they mostly stuck to their studio incarnations and seemed lackluster. I also didn’t enjoy being shoved every which way as the kids around mossed themselves in oblivion. I couldn’t understand why no one paying attention to the band – they only seemed intent on bashing each other.

Punk-rock it seemed, didn’t fit my personality after-all.

This isn’t to say that I totally dislike punk. I still rate both The Sex Pistols and The Clash among some of my favorite groups. The Clash and Nevermind the Bullocks are some of the most exciting and classic albums of rock and roll. It seems to me that no matter how hard any punk has tried subsequently they’ve never been able to better those two albums. There’s a reason why The Sex Pistols imploded, and the Clash moved on embracing other musical styles. The standard three-chord attack of punk only offers so much for a song.

I however, have a huge fondness for proto-punk and post-punk. Readers of this blog will surely know my affinity for Iggy Pop and The Stooge and of course, the Velvet Underground. The blue-print for punk was more or less created with these artists. As the 60s closed and the 70s began, mainstream rock became a little stagnant with the advent of prog-rock, bands whose names sounded more like law-firms, and other bands who took their names from cities and other locations.

In come The Stooges with their abrasive sound and Iggy’s legendary antics. It should also be noted that their first album also updated early rock and roll, giving it a more aggressive and wild sound complete with tightly controlled feed-back solos. Iggy seemed to be attack the “golden god” singers of the era when he declared, “Your pretty face is going to hell!”  Both the Stooges and The Velvet Underground’s proved that any one could make rock and roll. You didn’t have to be an expert or a virtuoso to get attention.

Punk of course, took that philosophy to the extreme. Naturally, the next groups of artists to emerge would combine punk’s do it yourself freedom, but not completely sticking to its three-chord ethos. Elvis Costello wasn’t strictly a punk-rocker at the beginning, but his first two albums – My Aim Is True and This Year’s Model – combined punk’s punchiness with a songwriter’s mentality. He also looked and acted like Buddy Holly who could punch you in the face and have no trouble stealing your girlfriend in the process. The Police managed infused their punk with tinges of reggae and in the process became one of the world’s biggest bands. The Talking Heads took avant-garde to a mass audience without ever forgetting their roots as a bar-band in CBGBS.

There are dozens of more bands I could list as favorites who were influenced by punk’s attitude, but not so much its sound. For me, punk has always been about freedom and too often a lot of “punk” bands seem stuck in one mode.

 

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The Ten Most Important Artists of the Last Decade: 1. The White Stripes

In 1973 the critically hated band Grand Funk Railroad claimed themselves to be “An American Band”.  But few bands are as strictly American as The White Stripes.  The ghosts of Son House, Robert Johnson, and Blind Willie McTell  live in Jack White’s basement.  Using old blues records and folk songs as a template, The White Stripes created some of the most authentic and engaging music to come out in decades.  Add to that they came from Detroit, perhaps popular music’s most important city.  It’s a city known for its blues artists in the 50s and 60s, and helped popularize Black Music with Motown in the 1960s, and conceived punk-rock with The Stooges and The MC5.  The White Stripes have almost exclusively ignored musical trends since the end of the 1960s, an era when Detroit seemed to fall out of favor with the music public.

Even as they’ve dug up the past, The White Stripes live in a world that very few artists have.  It’s a world that isn’t defined by time.  While Elephant and White Blood Cells they could easily  exist in the 50s just as they do in our age.  Just like The Basement Tapes, The White Stripes looked to Americana for inspiration, but in the process created their own version.

Crucial to their own version of Americana, is The White Stripes’ own myth-making.  It may seem silly in the age of information for Jack and Meg to insist on being siblings when in fact they were really married at one point.  But like their heroes, they created personas of themselves directly linking themselves to the past, even going so far as to change their names.  Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil to play guitar. In In the early stages of his career Bob Dylan (another of White’s heroes) created the illusion that he was actually a ho-bo to make himself seem more authentic in the burgeoning folk-scene.  In “Ball and Biscuit”, White refers himself to “the 7th son” – a folklore concept in which the 7th son is given special powers due to his birth order.  It’s no coincidence that White makes this declaration in a seven minute showcase for his fiery guitar freak-outs.  By making such claims, The White Stripes are securing their place in American culture, right alongside other legendary artists.

But it’s really the music where The Stripes establish their credibility.  It’s a primitive and primal crunch, that has to be made two people.  Adding another instrument of person would take away from the rawness that harkens back to the blues records.  There’s a reason why they only recorded with vintage guitars and equipment.  It’s not just because they prefer that particular sound.  Anything else, would make them just another blues band, instead of blues purists.

That sound, while if not wholly original, must have been a shock to casual radio fans who weren’t familiar with the likes of Son House and others.  In era where everything on rock radio seemed homogenized, “Fell in Love With a Girl” was a blast of fresh air.  Not since “Blitzkrieg Bop” have two minutes sounded so exciting and fresh.  “Fell In Love With a Girl” helped established The White Stripes as a new voice in rock and roll to the mainstream (even though they had been receiving critical attention for a while), but it was really “Seven Nation Army” and Elephant that saw them conquer the world.

With that famous “bass riff”, Seven Nation Army”, has got to be one of the weirdest songs to grace radio in years.  The whole song is built around a variation of the same chord, and there’s no chorus. While some detractors have claimed that Meg White as a terrible drummer, no other drummer would have sounded right for this song.  White has claimed the title came from a childhood mispronunciation of “salvation army”, but the magic number 7 pops up again.

The White Stripes’ popularity suddenly make it possible for younger bands to realize that they didn’t have to be pigeon-holed by a particular sound.  Over the last decade, there has been a surplus in bands that just contains two members, or omit a bass player – The Black Keys and The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, being the most prominent.  Numerous unsigned and local bands have also taking the cue as well.  But trying to be authentic, The White Stripes have helped create a rock revolution not seen since the punk-era or grunge.

As significant as their influence on younger bands is, The White Stripes remain legendary because they’ve established themselves as part of American culture in a way that few artists have.  The White Stripes could never keep going, because Jack White is always on the move – always between two places, never staying in the same place once.  Since their break-up they’ve truly managed to become what they’ve always wanted – artists that existed for a time, but never part of a particular time.

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The Ten Most Important Artists of the Last Decade: 10. – Death Cab For Cutie

I first heard of Death Cab For Cutie sometime in 2003, sometime before the infamous Seth Cohen Starter Pack episode of the OC.   One of my friends in my poetry class next to me, who knew that I liked music, asked me if I heard of them.  “No,” I told her, thinking that Death Cab For Cutie was such an odd name for a a band.  She told me to listen to them, which I did, but I didn’t think much of it at the time.  I wasn’t too into the sensitive rock that they excel in at the time.  I was too into the “angry young man years” of Elvis Costello and Bob Dylan to really give Death Cab much of a chance.

For a while, I kind of forgot about them.  Then somewhere along the line, tons of people I know started talking about them.  This was probably due to their inclusion on episodes of The OC.  I had heard of The OC, but it wasn’t on my radar.  “Why would a band want to sell out and include themselves on a TV show?”, I wondered.  My thought was that they were obviously a bunch of sell-outs.  This thought is of course, not really well constructed.

Back to Dylan and Costello for a moment.  Both of these artists, represent an aura of non-compromise.  They do what they want, consequences by damned. Costello, famously playing “Radio Radio” on Saturday Night Live when the producers told him not to.  Dylan, of course, for going electric when he was the hero of folk-music.  Sure they sold records, and have a wide audience, but “selling out” wasn’t something they would do.  I for one, held onto this very idea for a long time.  (Ironically, around this time Bob Dylan was appearing in a Victoria’s Secret commercial, but I deemed it too weird, and surreal to be considered “selling out”.  Really, I just didn’t want to admit that even my hero could do something like that.)

But for bands in the early 2000s, the music business was different.  The record companies were fledging, and there had to be a new way for artists to get exposed.  While it may seem commonplace today, for artists songs to be used on Glee, in 2003 having your songs on shows like The OC was uncharted territory.  Especially for respectable bands, but Death Cab along with Bright Eyes seized the moment, and it worked.  Suddenly people started talking about Death Cab all the time.  Their sensitive, melodic  songwriting, and Ben Gibbard‘s soft voice ushered in a new wave of indie-rock, where it was okay to emotional without being angry.  Death Cab represented a true alternative to radio rock which seemed to be dominated by big, dumb rock songs.  They also weren’t “cool” like The Strokes, or guitar-heavy like The White Stripes.  Death Cab was more interested in writing songs and telling stories that people could relate to.

When you think of “indie rock”, it’s hard not to think of Death-Cab.  Earlier incarnations of indie rock mostly included punk, hard-core, riot girl, and weird experimental post-punk bands. But Death Cab represented a new era of “indie rock”, and almost every indie band that came out after (or around the same time) – from Modest Mouse to Vampire Weekend – owe them a huge debt.  Let’s also not forget Death Cab also became a band that teenage girls, and women in college could relate to, something which rock radio seemed to be lacking.

When Death Cab signed to Atlantic in 2004, it was a major move.  True, Modest Mouse was among the first of the “new indie” bands to sign to a major in 2000, but when Death Cab signed people were left wondering if they would alter their sound for the masses.  But like R.E.M., two decades earlier who had also put out several albums on an indie label before signing to a major label, Death Cab put out Plans in 2005 , an album that didn’t compromise their sound, but built upon the foundation they already had as evident on such songs as “Crooked Teeth“, and “Souls Meets Body”.

Even though they’ve never really had a “hit”, Death Cab For Cutie remains extremely popular in part because the world came to them.  Perhaps in their own way, maybe they are a bit like Dylan and Costello.

Edit: Here’s the full list of The Ten Most Important Artists

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