AN ABSURDIST'S GUIDE TO PUNK, VOL. 1
by Dave Lang (January 1998)
There's this guy I work with - a decent fellow - who also happens to have extraordinarily bad taste in music. We both work in the dispatch division of a large-ish independent record company and we're only allowed to play CD's that the company distributes. There's a huge selection and a reasonable amount of good stuff, so there's not a lot of complaints. Come his turn on the workplace stereo (we're all alotted an hour each day, and no complaints are to be heard of others' music of choice), I'm usually subjected to fusion-cheese-funk-rock-lite hell. Come my turn, well, he probably thinks no higher of my choices, but let's get to the point here.
The other week I was playing Richard Hell and the Voidoids' Destiny Street CD when the title track came up, the funk/rap-style number. My colleague's head bobbed up from his 'desk' with great interest. 'Who's this? This is good.' 'You must be slipping, you mean you actually like some punk rock?' I asked. If there's one thing this guy can't stand, it's punk. 'What?! That's not punk! How the hell is that punk? That's funk-rap! I suppose George Clinton was a punk, was he?' 'Fuckin'-a he was, damnit,' I responded. And what dribbled on was a long and tedious argument concerning the ins and outs of what 'punk' is. Considering he didn't have a fucking clue of what the hell he was talking about, I figured I won.
My point was that punk rock was never a musical style or a haircut or a certain method of stage-diving into a sweaty audience. It's about attitude, it's that scream from the bottom of your lungs saying 'Listen up, people of the world, the time has come to testify. This is me, take it or shove it up yer backside.' That's the shorthand definition; see Greil Marcus for the fully annotated version (with footnotes and bibliography). This is nothing new; it's been going on for centuries - nay, thousands of years - and anyone who honestly believes that punk really started in the Bowery slums of CBGB's or the high-fashion world of King Street in the '70's isn't getting the bigger picture.
Now all that is obvious, that's true. First there was Eddie Cochran and Elvis and Little Richard then the Kinks, Stones, and the Who then the Seeds, Stooges, MC5, Velvets then the Dolls and etc., etc. We all know the formula and the given heroes and precursors to what was eventually spat out upon the world in the mid '70's. However, if hindsights teaches us anything, it's that the given orthodox theories of history are never fully what they should be, and that so much is often left out - so many pieces of the puzzle missing - so as to not give all the credit (or blame) where it is fully deserved. Over the last few years, thanks to a few factors (the popularity of 'alternative' forms of music; the renewed interest in punk; the willingness of major labels to finally dust the cobwebs off a few 'obscurities' in their catalogue and give them a belated CD reissue), the pieces of the puzzle are starting to come together.
Ever read Jon Savage's excellent ENGLAND'S DREAMING? A fine book, though what always struck me as the weak link was the listed discography at the end. Sure, you've got your obvious heroes mentioned above, but what about Amon Duul, Miles Davis, Yoko Ono, '60's free jazz? No mention is ever made, yet these artists were important to all those involved in both transatlantic 'scenes.' All these factors are important in piecing together the map of punk rock. Nothing exists in a vaccuum: all these artists bounced off each other, fed off each other and helped create the monolith of modern 'alternative'/underground/indie/avant-garde/whatever! That we now know and often bathe in.
I'm not insinuating that they're more important or worthy than the garage punkers mentioned above, because they're not. I'm just saying that history is bunk! History is being re-written as we speak - not by me but by the many others who, like myself, are waking up to the fact that these following artists have been cheated out of their rightful (or perhaps more 'accurate') place in the Rocklapedia Brittanica scheme of things. If ol' Greil-baby is allowed to write (and publish!) extensive, longwinded, and often completely ridiculous tracts on the 'secret history' of punk, then I shall do a highly abreviated version of the same. Ladies and gentlemen, it's time for an absurdist's guide to punk rock...
AMON DUUL 1, or you may wanna simply call them Amon Duul. Just don't get 'em mixed up with the godawful Amon Duul II, that's all: they're a whole different (and rather dull) story. AMON DUUL (AD) were never the most popular, proficient or 'wilfully avant-garde' group of the Krautrock scene, yet they sure were the noisiest, most primitive and most intensely fucked-up of the lot. That is meant as a complement, by the way. Now it's become apparent over the last few years just how important the Krautrock scene was as a missing link between the Stooges/Velvets axis and the final coming of the storm in '76 - there's (Julian) Cope's book, the reissues, the deluge of fanzine articles - but as per usual, the most out-of-control and downright 'uncommercial' group of the scene has been virtually swept under the carpet (with even Cope being surprisingly dismissive of AD's works) whilst every record-collecting douchebag and his mother has practically fallen over themselves trying to sing the collective praises of Can, Faust, etc. (brilliant bands, too, of course, but I'm trying to make a point here).
For a crash-course, purchase either Disaster or Psychedelic Underground, their two best in my opinion. 'Historically,' you may know the story: AD were an artists' communal group in Germany who split into two sections and pursued music in two very different manners (group 2 featuring the 'pros'), though musically most people still don't know what the hell AD sound like. My half-arsed summation: the Shaggs with about ten extra drummers trying to play "Sister Ray". Ultra-primitive, incompetent, tribal, grunting, strumming, screaming punk rock mayhem from a buncha pot-smoking longhairs from Berlin. One day, when the revolution comes, these guys will be given the keys to the city. I tip my hat, truly.
I'm sure you've heard of YOKO ONO- she's the one famous for splitting up the Beatles. Yep, according to Joe Average, that is what she's most famous for. A pity that, 'cause she's also responsible for some totally brain-melting discs back in the late '60's/early '70's. Completely shitcanned in their day, her Plastic Ono Band and Fly LP's (the latter a double set), now finally reissued on CD courtesy of Rykodisc, are stone-dead headspinners of the beat-me-senseless punker variety.
Featuring the likes of John Lennon (who commits some awesome feedback-ridden guitar work), Ringo Starr (who sounds good!!) and even Ornette Coleman as her backing partners, both of these discs set standards in timeless 'out-there' rock, and if you want me to make some even more quarter-assed comparisons, then you're in for a treat: Plastic Ono Band, with its churning, cyclical noise-rock action, is like the missing flipside to the Stooges' Fun House or Amon Duul's Disaster; whilst Fly, with its looping, experimental vibes is almost like the sister album to Trout Mask Replica. Whew!
So, what's my point? It's this: Yoko is more than just a one-joke Fluxus flunky and her music amounts to more than just a bunch of ball-tearing wailing and screaming bound to send your housemates running for the hills - it's proto-punk action right up on a par with the Detroit school of righeosity, and your life will be richer for checking it out. Case closed.
The body of work that MILES DAVIS plummed between the years of 1969 to 1975 (or from Bitches Brew to the Agharta/Pangaea albums) is just so damn huge in an earth-shaking kinda way that I feel humbled in even attempting to get my brains around it. Let it be said: this is my all-time favourite music, and one does not take a psychedelic Miles too lightly. This is music that moves buildings and the furniture with it; this stuff is just so damn emotionally massive that I still nearly weep given the odd moments on Get Up With It or Big Fun. Whilst we're on the topic, let's talk about Get Up With It.
GUWI certainly isn't the only Miles record from this period worth talking about (I could do the prattle on the whole damn lot), though it is my fave, and it must be added that the 110 minutes of sonics contained within is something that's severely scarred my brain cells over the last two years of my life. Running the length of the stream from the 32-minute "He Loved Him Madly" (a tribute to Duke Ellington), a Krautrock-style ambient-shimmer piece, to the mournful wailing of "Red China Blues" to the (once again) 32-minute scrotum-tightener "Calypso Frelimo" to the simple barrage of noise on the infamous "Rated X" (seven minutes of world-expanding organ-drenched funk-noise), this is a set of discs I'll stake my life on. This is the sounds of a man battling against a world he no longer wants to be a part of - ladies, this is uber-punk-funk giganticism from the USA, 1974. Black anger never sounded so good.
Well, whilst we're on the topic of 'jazz,' let's talk about another titan of the genre, German saxophonist PETER BROTZMANN. You know the guy, he's Caspar's dad. Unfortunately that may be his only claim to fame to the clueless, though those with their ears firmly planted to the ground will undoubtedly be familiar with his 1968 chest-pounder, Machine Gun, a masterpiece of eight-piece European free-improv psychosis. I gotta admit, I still can't listen to this all the way through: it's just too much. I mean, I can handle my Albert Aylers and all that, and yes, you're talking to a guy that once actually owned a Whitehouse record or two at one point in his life (shameful confession #12,425), but this insanity is almost too much for anyone to bear. If you were to say to me, 'It's just noise, where's the tune?' I'd probably say, 'Nowhere, but that's the point.' Dig?
So, you've got that down pat, but there's more. Not only is Machine Gun a hot-wired little ball of fury, but Brotzmann is also a proto-punk in his general dedication to 'revolutionary' antics and shenanigans (and rude album titles) and the DIY spirit. The label he co-founded in the '60's, Free Music Productions, a label dedicated to 'freedom and free music' (or something to that effect), is still going strong in its attempts to bring non-mainstream jazz and improvised musics to the world. Now you tell me, what's Joe Strummer up to these days, and more to the point, who the fuck cares??!! Straight from the horse's mouth, Mr. Brotzmann deserves a knighthood for his services to unpopular culture.
Now, if you were to tell me that FRANK ZAPPA was pathetic, self-indulgent, egotistical, talentless and boring, I probably wouldn't disagree with you. That said, his entire musical career wasn't a total dedication to the aesthetics of complete worthlessness. There are those early MOTHERS OF INVENTION records to consider, the most important and worthwhile of the lot being their 'classic' debut, Freak Out. I'll admit it, when you think of 'punk', Zappa isn't the first word that comes to mind; not only did he hate the shit (claiming it 'ruined a generation of musicians'), but his unbelievably painful fusionoid noodling dogshit of a career thoughout the '70's and '80's pretty much went entirely against the back-to-basics slam-'em-up-and-let's-kill-Reagan-later ethics of the 'movement.' Here is a guy that could make ELP or Yes look positively 'economic' in their 'compositions.'
All that, however, is by the by. The Mothers of Invention, an actual 'group' that Zappa 'led' before he went solo, were a pretty darn nasty, funny and sarcastic little garage unit in their day, and their debut (and indeed some of their subsequent LP's; check out Uncle Meat, a fine Kingsmen-meets-Harry Partch abortion of a record) is a good example of a standard '60's garage band branching out into a slightly weirder universe, with a healthy mix of greaser rock ("Mr. America," "Who Are the Brain Police?" - songs that must've been a revelation to every mixed-up oddball in their time), 'wackiness' ("Wowie Zowie," "Go Cry On Somebody Else's Shoulder" - this is before Zappa's retarded humour became simply unbearable) and, err, the 'avant-garde' ("Help I'm A Rock" and "The Return of the Sun of Monster Magnet" - both nice extended journeys of musique concrete-style loopiness) making it still quite the treat over 30 years later.
Zappa responds to Dave
So, what's the deal? Was Zappa a chump or not? Well, I don't really care, because that's not what I'm getting at. It just goes to show that this sham we call 'culture' - this supposedly shared set of beliefs and practices that govern our daily lives - is not what it appears to be, and that goes right down to the minute, and, admittedly, trivial, details. Most people don;t even know of any of these records that I've just raved on about, and if they do they certainly wouldn't put them in the punk rock basket. Well that's OK, because everyone has their 'thang' and I don't really care for the classifications myself, but if anything it shows that 'history' is never linear; it has its bumps and abberations along the way, and despite the official rock'n'roll books' complete and total refusal to even acknowledge the vast bulk of what I've just talked about, these very slabs of yelling, screaming and wilful individualism are a piece of inspiration that'll no doubt bring a ray of sunshine to your life. Or perhaps a headache.
Next time: I attempt to bring the music of James Brown, John Cage, Blind Willie Johnson, Robert Wyatt, Igor Stravinsky and Billie Holiday together under a pathetically loose-limbed coalition known as 'The Real, the Truly One And Only Secret History of Punk, Vol. 2'.
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