Punk Rock – More Harm Than Good?
I’m probably going to get some stick for this – but I believe Punk Rock stifled rather than saved music.
Punk Rock was not necessarily the saviour of music that it is pretty much always lauded to be. There. I’ve said it.
I was watching BBC Four the other night. Yes, I know how uncool that makes me (think that’s uncool? You ain’t heard nothing yet – wait ’til you read my rebellious thoughts on Jools Holland’s ‘Later’). Anyway, it was a documentary on the impact made by Mike Oldfield’s ‘Tubular Bells’ debut album. The kid was only 17 when he wrote it and finally got it to our ears by a series of fortunate coincidences in 1972, peaking in 1973. It took the music market by storm, sold millions and is still selling strongly over forty years later.
Back then, there was nothing else like it. Everybody had a copy. Shoehorned into the ‘Prog-Rock’ genre for the convenience of record-shop classification, but it wasn’t really Prog. It wasn’t really anything except perhaps a sort of concerto.
And then a few years later, along came Punk. The documentary reports the subsequent overnight change in record-industry commissioning attitudes and the ominous warning for the future of music – “don’t bring me any of that hippie shit.” Prog, and everything associated with it was dead, and the received wisdom is that it was a good riddance. You can get more of a flavour of the musical shifting of the times by watching the excellent movie ‘Almost Famous’, starkly pointing out the end of a musical era.
Elements of Prog survive in heavy metal, and in dedicated bands like Big Big Train, and although it is respected around the world (or at least wherever English isn’t the first language), it is pretty much marginalised in its UK birthplace. All because of Punk. Punk was good, apparently, because it wasn’t pretentious – you didn’t have to be a Keith Emerson or a Rick Wakeman virtuoso to be a rock star. Anybody could do it.
And lo, Punk begat New Wave, via the Stranglers and Souixsie & the Banshees and the magnificent XTC, and New Wave begat the aristo-rock of later Roxy Music, Spandau Ballet, and Duran Duran as the music buyers sought to find music by people who could actually play instruments. But still the punk undercurrent ran on, spawning the Madchester splinter, Britpop and the Indie tsunami. Punk was commercialised, watered down, its cachet smeared over as many other genres as possible, and ultimately became just another way to play the kids for their money.
OK, some Indie bands are tolerable or even genuinely world changing – what’s not to like about Radiohead? But man, enough already. Glastonbury, you have a lot to answer for. Summer after summer, stage after stage of droning kids with too-big electric guitars sticking out of their hips, wishing they were Johhny Marr, playing like the unschooled, jam-written, rushed-to-market, that’ll-do mediocrity they are. The forgotten art of songwriting stifled to death by repetitious riff-based verse after riff-based chorus for years and years and sodding years. When is it going to end?
No time soon, that’s for sure. Parts of the record industry of the 21st century apparently have a policy of only putting A&R men on the road after surgically removing their cojones; along with their capacity for independent artistic interpretation. The indoctrination appears to go “We don’t do originality, because that means Risk, and our fixed-cost base is already way too big for Risk. So only bring me artists that sound like artists already charting”, (there I go, having a dig at ‘Later’ again).
This is the true legacy of Punk – the Indie wave that has turned into a swamp. Sure, now and again you get a Dubstep or an xx, but they’re just fads. Sooner or later the Next Big Thing will be just another indie-style, bearded, twenty-something guitar band that some prat in the biz, in a bid to be hip and new, will praise as being ‘cutting edge’ (another drivelesque phrase that makes me want to reach for my peacemaker).
Say what you like about the Progressive mainstream and its spreading, dissipated delta, but at least it moved music forward. It was too varied to call it a genre. You couldn’t force so-called Prog acts like Mike Oldfield or King Crimson into the same slot as Pink Floyd with a big hammer, like you can with so many artists today. Theatrical excesses aside, Prog was only what it claimed to be – progressive.
Punk stopped that musical development dead. While it was good to give the amateur musicians a chance, I find it sad that it was at the expense of a genuine forward movement. I’m sure Prog would have morphed into something more mature and less esoteric. I’m also sure that it would have encouraged virtuosity, variety and quality. I also believe it would have encouraged far more investment in the longevity of artists than is common today. “If your album doesn’t chart lads, there’s the door. Or worse, we’ll not release it to stop you from splitting the market with another artist on the same label.”
So, do ya feel lucky, Punk?
Sorry, Punk. Thanks for ‘Never Mind the Bollocks’ and all that. But I believe you must ultimately take your sizeable share of the responsibility for the stagnation, similarity and short-termism that has become such a strong feature of the contemporary music scene. That said, look to the horizon – for there is a new ‘punk’ coming, one more musically accomplished, but just as revolutionary – but that’s for another article.