Thursday, November 26, 2009

All the young punks

“They’ll bury me a punk,” says Domino, bitching about the Pistols on CD, just before his brain gets fried and his head gets twisted off in one of the last episodes of Zenith.

Sometimes, I know exactly how he feels.

* * *

There is one moment in time when I became a punk for life. Somewhere in 1995 and I’m watching the No Fun episode of the BBC documentary Dancing In The Streets – all about the punk and reggae scenes of the seventies – while reading John Savage’s England’s Dreaming and Griel Marcus’ Lipstick Traces.

There is a flow found in the BBC series and Savage's book, from rockabilly to Roadrunner to Max’s Kansas City to those dingy little rehearsal rooms in Soho, picking up with the heavy reggae influences of the time to create something new and exciting.

And that flow goes back even further in Lipstick Traces, back into a history of absurdity and individual freedom. Marcus draws a long and tenuous connection between the Dada artists of the early 20th century making it rain inside cabs and Johnny Rotten’s sneer, but I can see the deal: ideas and visions sparking across decades. Grinding guitars and screen printing genius: it’s all the same.

They’ll bury me a punk after this.

* * *

What does punk mean, anyway?

It’s loud, obnoxious and pisses off all the right people. It can also be ideologically sound, smart, funny and emotionally devastating. Just like music should be. It diversifies into a thousand different genres and movements, but it always comes back to the music.

It’s not a particular sound. Buzzsaw guitars and a sneering lyric do not make a punk song. It’s a short, sharp shock to the system, something that wakes you up and pisses off quickly.

It’s youthful stupidity and breaking stuff apart to see how it works. It might not go back together the same way and might be a little jarring at first, but at least it’s something new.

It’s an energy, a raw enthusiasm.

It’s life in less than three minutes.

It’s anybody can do it.

* * *

And that music. That wonderful, wonderful music that came out of all this.

Like any musical movement, there is plenty of trash, but the good stuff can be better than anything. Short catchy songs with killer melodies, driving beats and noisy guitars will always find an appreciative audience.

And like any other music, it’s a style that attracted its fair share of stone-cold geniuses: musical kings and queens who crafted songs of heartbreaking fragility, hidden beneath a whirlwind of noise. They showed up in New York and LA and London and Manchester and all over the world, all making some righteous noise.

* * *

And it seeped into the world of comics in the most organic way. The wave of British comics creators that swept over mainstream comics in the 1980s - a tsunami of hair, amphetamines and cultural wealth - had many of its roots in the punk ideal. Creators like Kevin O’Neill and Bryan Talbot and Alan Moore cut their artistic teeth in the fabled UK Art Labs of the ‘70s, but hit their peaks in the wake of punk idealism, which filtered through into their comics.

And it’s still there. Punk comics in every town – the fanzine mentality that will never die. Most of these proto-efforts go nowhere, but sometimes they produce something wonderful.

Once upon a time, there were none more punk than Los Bros Hernandez and that freewheeling storytelling and joyous self-indulgence is still there in everything they do. Nobody told them you had to live in New York and draw adventures of men in tights to make it in the comic biz, they just went out there and did it.

Anybody can do it. The old punk credo of picking up a guitar, learning three chords and getting out there to form a band applies to comics more than anything else. Whip up a few pages of art and words, run off a few copies and staple that shit together. Put it out into the world, see what happens.

Sure, it can be crushing when nothing at all actually happens, but at least you’re trying.

* * *

It’s a bit harder to do all that in the movies as singular visions get swallowed up by the vast machine of movie making.

But it can still be done. Low budget films with high ideas – usually young and hungry directors who scrape to pull their projects together and sometimes manage to squeeze some art out of their work.

And some make a whole career out of it. Directors as diverse as Jim Jarmusch and Spike Jonze have kept their punk credentials intact for their films, pleasingly refusing to cater to their audiences, but always worth watching.

* * *

It’s like this: Da na a na na naaa DA DA DA naaasaaaa!

* * *

They’re still out there, god bless ‘em. Refugees of ’77, bouncing up to the front of the crowd.

At a recent Buzzcocks gig in the centre of Auckland, the average age of the crowd was about 47 and that’s including some shockingly young boys up the front. (Got to hand it to those guys, sneaking out to slam it with the Buzzcocks in a good way to spend a teenage Saturday night.)

But for some, that fire never fucking burns out. That passion, that vigour – it never dies.

They’ll happily bury me a punk.

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