by Bill Hartley
There is a listings magazine distributed around the pubs and clubs of North East England called NARC. It’s a good guide to what’s going on and is packed with news and reviews about the Arts and much else. The magazine allows performers, bands and their recordings exposure which they might otherwise struggle to attain.
What soon becomes noticeable is the frequent references to ‘Punk’. Those with a long enough memory will recall a raw musical genre which leapt out of the 1970s, simulating outrage in the British tabloids with its cheek and offensiveness. That kind of energy and rebelliousness couldn’t be sustained indefinitely and eventually Punk faded away, to be followed by Post Punk, New Wave and Alternative Rock; labels hung on bands by music journalists keen to keep abreast of a vibrant and fast evolving musical scene. Evolution is the way it’s supposed to go with popular music though in NARC there seems little evidence of this. The magazine hangs the Punk label on so many bands that it seems as if it’s just an attempt to generate a sense of excitement, which on closer examination seems elusive.
A good example would be Grandma’s House; a relentlessly glum faced all female trio who describe themselves as ‘Queer Punk’. For some bands it seems showcasing their sexuality is a marketing device. If this is meant to indicate rebelliousness then it fails miserably. The world has moved on and there hasn’t been anything remotely subversive about belonging to a sexual minority for a long time. Allied with their adherence to a long gone musical genre it all seems very unthreatening. Despite this the magazine loyally describes them as presenting ‘a raucous post punk fury’. Actually it’s a very sedate kind of fury as Youtube reveals. This is not a criticism of their music but rather the inaccuracy of the description. They are presenting themselves as adherents of a 45 year old musical genre, meaning those who were there at its birth must be drawing their pensions by now. The sad fact is that Grandma’s House lacks the essential energy and aggression of real Punk; done to some extent to compensate for the fact that musically those early bands weren’t very good. As the late Dee Dee Ramone said: ‘we got into playing like that because musically we couldn’t hold a candle to Jimi Hendrix’. Grandma’s House are unlikely to be troubling the tabloids any time soon.
This ersatz approach brings with it a sad air of stagnation and a sense that nothing really interesting is going on out there. The power of the word Punk has been lost by overuse and probably doesn’t help the musicians either. Do Nothing are another band said to be blending New Wave, Art Rock and you’ve guessed it, Post-Punk. Anyone sampling some of their work would struggle to detect Punk influences. Post Punk suggests moving on or building on something but here it becomes a failed attempt to generate edginess and excitement. Perhaps defining themselves with a little more originality might be helpful.
So it goes on, page after page. There’s another outfit carrying the vague Post-Punk label. The Turnstiles are lined up to support the Psychedelic Proto Punk band TV Death. A before and after approach you might say. Proto suggests they are reaching back to the origins of punk, seemingly unaware that a fusion with Psychedelic is an obvious contradiction. Punk in the United States began in part as a reaction against the peace and love Hippie musicians and their ethereal lyrics. Still, it might be fun if TV Death attempted to use the sitar in their performances. That would be one fusion worth going to see.
Overall there is a growing impression of a strange Year Zero approach, using the word Punk without any understanding of where it came from. These bands seem to lay claim to musical influences without any awareness of the social and historical context which helped shape them.
In Stockton-on-Tees, Ceshi Ramos ‘rapper and singer’ will be on stage later this month and he blends Folk and Punk. He’s not the only one: this is a more precise sub genre which has something of a following and an endearingly DIY approach. Thanks to an American Folk Punk musician called Elliot Pullen it’s only necessary to listen to one song to get the gist of what it’s all about. In The Most Stereotypical Folk Punk Song of all Time he manages to include a drugs overdose, alcohol, the death of a dog, anti police sentiment and a reference to anarchism. Pullen, unlike Grandma’s House, is prepared to risk being funny.
Wading through the rest such as Frank Carter and the Rattlesnakes (explosion of Punk attitude) Ivory Tower (classic Punk fare) and Gwailo (Punk meets Rock) there is paradoxically, less variation on the theme and a growing sense of sameness. They are trying too hard to create an air of rebellion using a dated source. These days rebellion is undertaken by deranged pensioners and their allies on the M25.
Grandma’s House illustrates the sense that the people who write this kind of thing are unaware of its origins. According to one reviewer the band were spurred on by the ‘criminal lack of female representation in Punk’. Somehow the likes of Siouxsie Sue and the Runaways (all female incidentally) have been overlooked. There must be lots of women of a certain age who were hard at it asserting themselves in the Punk scene of the 1970s but they seem to have been wiped from musical history. At least according to the present generation.
Help however may be at hand. John Lydon (formerly Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols) is appearing at various venues in the North East with a one man Q&A session. This is the man once quoted as saying, ‘meat isn’t murder, it’s delicious’. He also remarked that he’d like to thank the British public library system where he learnt how to throw those verbal grenades. Lydon has sufficient evidence to endorse his comment that ‘chaos was my philosophy’. There is a difference between Punk Rock and Punk, something which these bands seem to be missing. Punk is something starker and less likeable. Perhaps they should go and see Lydon, who would no doubt explain this to them.
William Hartley is a former Deputy Governor in HM Prison Service