Once future-less, punk now has a cataloged past


January 24, 1993|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

Punk rock nostalgia?

Back in 1977, while punk was just beginning to make itself known outside the underground clubs of London, New York and Los Angeles, the idea would have been unthinkable. Never mind that few of the bands involved expected their music to last long enough to be remembered; nostalgia itself seemed somehow inimical to punk's here-and-now world view.

"No future, no future!" howled Johnny Rotten at the end of the Sex Pistols' infamous anthem "God Save the Queen." "No future for you!" And they meant it, man. Punk saw itself as rock and roll's wrecking crew, less interested in building a new tomorrow than dislodging an increasingly meaningless rock star establishment. "No More Heroes" was the way the Stranglers put it, and it went without saying that this included punk rockers as well.

Yet 16 years later, punk is not only remembered fondly, but is considered the very cornerstone of modern rock. Just look at Nirvana, the multiplatinum Seattle act that was recently the focus of a documentary entitled "1992: The Year That Punk Broke." Nor was that meant ironically; as front man Kurt Cobain admits,his group is in some ways just a punk rock tribute band, "like an El- vis or Jimi Hendrix impersonator."

No wonder, then, that the rock world is awash in punk rock artifacts. In fact, it's quite a multimedia assault, with recent entries ranging from books like Jon Savage's study,"England's Dreaming," to video releases of the Sex Pistols' "Great Rock and Roll Swindle" and the Clash's "Rude Boy," to CD reissues of long-forgotten classics like "Germfree Adolescents" by X-Ray Spex or Stiff Little Fingers' "Inflammable Material."

But nothing expresses the current enthusiasm for punk rock's past better than Rhino's new D.I.Y. (after the punk credo, "Do It Yourself") series. With nine volumes organizing the music's seemingly chaotic development into neat categories like "U.K. Punk," "The New York Scene" and "American Power Pop," the D.I.Y. albums offer an exhaustively researched, impressively inclusive overview of the punk era (mostly from 1975 through 1979).

Skim through the song titles, and it's easy to sense the rebellion that was in the air. As the Sex Pistols called for "Anarchy in the U.K.," Eddie & the Hot Rods complained of "Teenage Depression" and the Adverts boasted sarcastically of being "One-Chord Wonders." And that's just in the first album, "Anarchy in the U.K.: U.K. Punk I" (Rhino 71171); subsequent volumes include such attitudinal classics as Wire's "I Am the Fly" on "The Modern World: U.K. Punk II" (Rhino 71172), the Heartbreakers' "Born to Lose" on "Blank Generation: The New York Scene" (Rhino 71175), and the Dils' "I Hate the Rich" on "We're Desperate: The L.A. Scene" (Rhino 71176).

A return to basics

For all the lyrical bluster, though, most of the music sounds quite tame. Of course, some of that can be chalked up to the passage of time, inasmuch as rock has gotten a whole lot harder and faster in the years since punk first began.

But it isn't entirely a matter of acclimation, because as much as punk pretended to offer musical rebellion, what it delivered was simply a return to rock-and-roll basics. Forget the look, the politics, the posturing; what punk rock was really reacting against was the overstuffed inanity of mainstream '70s rock and roll. Punk's progenitors hated the emphasis on virtuosity and elaboration that so-called "progressive" rock had introduced, and they positively loathed anything that included light shows, lengthy solos or more than three verses. Not for nothing did Johnny Rotten scribble the words "I Hate" at the top of the Pink Floyd T-shirt he wore when auditioning for the Sex Pistols.

In that sense, punk was less a revolution than a reformation, placing the emphasis on its fundamentals: three-minute songs, simple choruses, no flashy instrumental stuff. And above all, no rock stars. Because as in the early days of rockabilly and doo-wop, punk held out the promise that making music was something anyone with a guitar, a voice or an idea could realize.

True, that often left some pretty raw edges on the performances, as is evident in Polly Styrene's straining vocals on "Oh Bondage Up Yours!" (from "Anarchy in the U.K."), or in the ragged, sometimes mismatched harmonies of John Doe and Exene Cervenka on X's "Los Angeles" (from "We're Desperate"). But that hardly took away from the music's power. Indeed, the Ramones proved again and again that simplicity is very much its own reward, and a song like "Blitzkrieg Bop" (on "Blank Generation") packed more pleasure into two minutes and 12 seconds than Yes usually managed in an entire album.

Some liked a good tune

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