Maybe this will be the swan song of a very short stint as an occasional contributor to Dying Scene, and maybe the editors will want to remind their readers at the outset that the opinions expressed therein are the author’s alone and should not be associated with Dying Scene and all its affiliates in any way. Oh well, so it goes…
I have no taste for 80s punk rock. I don’t think I ever did, and I feel fine. It isn’t a personal shortcoming, a lack of sophistication, or a deficient musical sensibility. I am utterly unashamed to say it holds no appeal for me. Most of it I find downright unpalatable, with the exception, maybe, of some of Husker Du’s material, most of the Descendents, and The Dead Kennedys’ Fresh Fruit for Rotten Vegetables, which retains a small corner of my melomaniac heart, mostly because it brings back fond memories of that summer I spent hanging out with anarchist punks in Saint-Henri, a seedy South-West Montreal neighborhood. I’ve tried Black Flag on several occasions, and there is not one single song I’ve heard that I’d care to hear again. I feel the same way about The Exploited, The Cramps, Crass, The Misfits, Bad Brains, Circle Jerks, or any other horror/psychobilly/hardcore/street/trash outfit from the 80s.
So there, I said it: I don’t like 80s punk rock.
Cue the comments of the type “then you’re no punk, you loser,” and “what the hell are you doing writing for a punk music blog you poseur,” and other twists on the basic premise which is that I am an ignoramus with regards to punk music and have thus no cred and no business calling myself a punk rock aficionado. Criticize all you want, and though few will admit to it, I know I’m not alone in this. I am here to declare loudly that if you grew up drenching in second (third?) wave melodic punk rock of the mid-90s, that you will care even one iota for the trashy lo-fi punk of the 80s is not a foregone conclusion.
That is not to say I don’t have an immense respect for the work of these bands, or that I don’t acknowledge their historical relevance and their legacies, or that I don’t recognize their influence on a lot of the punk music I appreciate. Because I do, I really do. I understand the role that 80s punk rock played on the course of music history; I understand the intelligence and avant-garde of a lot of these musicians, and clearly I’d have no NOFX to listen to if it wasn’t for, say, Circle Jerks. But none of these facts predispose me to actually enjoy listening to the music.
And while I’m emptying my bag with total sincerity for the benefit of a readership that, given the platform I’ve chosen, probably doesn’t share many of my leanings, here’s another confession to make you cringe: I am totally into 80s New Wave music. I had to get this out of the way, lest you think I simply don’t listen to anything from that decade altogether.
I was just a kid in the 80s. When we were riding in our parent’s car for the mandatory Sunday outing to granny’s house, I would inconspicuously borrow random unidentified tapes from my preppy older sister’s tote bag to play in my bright yellow Walkman. In that way I was introduced—without realizing it—to New Order, The Smiths, The Cure and other New Wave acts which later turned me on to bands like Talking Heads, (early) R.E.M., and The Pixies. To this day, I still listen to New Order’s Low Life, REM’s Reckoning, and Depeche Mode’s Violator.
As for punk rock, it wasn’t music I was introduced to so much as a sound I heard in the ethereal distance—i.e. the back of the high school bus—and followed instinctively out of sheer need. Long story short: my father had just passed away and we had moved with my mother to another town, leaving me disoriented, spiteful, and lonely. I would spend my nights reading Baudelaire and Rimbaud and coming up with my own dark and dejected verses while listening to Syd Barrett era Pink Floyd.
Punk Rock rescued me from turning into a depressive Goth kid. The Offspring’s ‘Smash’ sang about “living like there’s no tomorrow,” and Lagwagon’s ‘Trashed’ boiled down to pretty much just having fun all the time, while NOFX’s ‘Punk in Drublic,’ you’ll recall, was simultaneously earnest and tongue in cheek about whatever topic they dealt with; all of these bands were shouting loud and clear that life shouldn’t be taken too seriously, but should still be lived fully and passionately.
And that I guess brings me back to my original point concerning 80s punk rock. You might have this urge right now to grab me by the collar and shake some sense into me, hoping it might get me to ‘really’ listen to Black Flag’s Damaged, or the whole discography of Minor Threat (it’ll only take half an hour of your time anyway, you might argue), but when it comes down to it, I also have a bit of a problem with the ideological assumptions that informed a lot of that music. Elaborating on this would take us far astray of this essay’s scope, but to keep this short I’ll just say this: we’re allowed to listen to punk music and not think the world is doomed. It’s fine to be punk and still have faith in humanity. For some reason, I don’t get that from 80s punk; through the political radicalism, the anti-establishmentarianism, the anarchist-cum-nihilist outlook, all I get is a good doze of existential dread and social anxiety. There’s so much anger and outrage and hopelessness, it’s fucking discouraging in the end.
But hey, maybe that’s just me and my idiosyncrasies. And after all, it is a ‘de gustibus’ argument: if it strikes a chord with you, even if it’s just nostalgia, or because you genuinely like the music and the message, then by all means keep on truckin. If however you’ve always felt, like I did for a long time, that a strict diet of Black Flag and/or Circle Jerks and/or The Adolescents is the mandatory (and only) rite of passage to true punk connoisseurship, think again: life’s too short to waste time struggling to enjoy music that doesn’t stir you inside.