Punk: Yes, it still matters

Joe Shearer

Disco. New wave. Hair metal.

What do all of these genres have in common? They’re dead and buried, along with a slew of other embarrassing musical endeavors.

Over the last couple of months, you may have noticed some magazines marking the 30th anniversary of the punk rock explosion of 1977. True, you don’t really see bands running around with spiky hair and leather jackets so much anymore, but punk is still as important and influential today as ever.

A band like the Sex Pistols represented a lifestyle no longer relevant today, but bands like The Ramones and The Clash embodied something far greater: Not a fad, but rather a new, simple form of music in response to trendy disco and overly complex album rock.

Those looking for an alternative welcomed the fast, three-minute songs composed of a few power chords and constant drumbeats. It was now possible for any music-illiterate kid to pick up a guitar and start a band a week later. If he hadn’t died in 1970 from choking on his own vomit, Hendrix may have done the same seven years later.

From there, acts like Blondie and Elvis Costello — both part of a batch of experimental musicians labeled “punk” at the time — helped usher in the 80s new wave. Once the synthesizers took over, post-punk bands like The Jesus and Mary Chain and the Replacements found safe haven in college radio while also weathering the storm of hair metal. Again, the genre waited patiently to explode. In 1991, it did.

Nirvana cleaned up the mess of the late 80s, showing the world punk rock was far from dead. But enough with the history lesson. You’re old enough to have heard of Green Day and Rancid, but look at music today as a whole. Where are the guitar solos? Where are the 10-minute epics? Perhaps a better question: Where are the rock stars?

Whether you admit it or not, you live in a punk-rock generation. Neo-garage rock, indie rock, emo, scream — it’s all, for the most part, simplicity at its best. If Johnny Ramone had never popularized the stripped-down, all power chord, all down-stroke method of guitar playing, it’s hard to say if a lot of these bands would be around today.

Maybe it was inevitable. In today’s lightening-fast world, there seems to be less and less time to experience anything. Why listen to a full album when you can pick and choose songs with your iPod? Why read a book when you can wait for the movie? Hell, some of you might have already stopped reading this column.

I’m not here to say any of this is wrong. It’s a reflection of our culture, and I don’t believe anyone is right in saying we’re stupid or shallow people because we can’t listen to 10-minute songs or plow through novels the way we used to. If you want to do those things, you can. There’s plenty of it available — past and present — and it’s not going anywhere.

Punk rock music (not the message) seems to me a nice little reminder of where we are. We’re so busy and hardworking, we gravitate toward quick and simple media we don’t have to think too hard to enjoy. Don’t like it? Move on. No harm done, no time wasted.

Contact all correspondent Joe Shearer at [email protected].