(Yesterday, inspired by Fucked Up’s new concept double-album David Comes to Life, we set about charting the history of the ambitious impulse in punk rock. Today, we continue the series up to the present day. You can read the first part of the column here. We pick up in 1988 with one of rock music’s greatest landmarks.)
Sonic Youth – Daydream Nation (1988)
Yet another record about which there is little to say that hasn’t already been said. Allow me to make just a few assertions:
1) Sonic Youth is the most important American band since the Beach Boys (you heard me), and Daydream Nation is their undisputed masterpiece. It has in fact been preserved in the Library of Congress.
2) Sonic Youth is a punk band. While “experimental” and “noise rock” are the terms used most often to describe them, I challenge you to imagine a world in which the late-70s CBGB’s scene never occurred but Sonic Youth still exists. You can’t.
3) It was a subtle shift over time, but this is essentially the point where punk rock ceased to be a music for men in steel-tipped boots who performed shirtless and became a music for sensitive intellectuals who read poetry and wrote in their journals. Throughout its 70 minutes, the record references William Gibson, Saul Bellow, Denis Johnson, and Andy Warhol. This role has gradually dissipated over time with the reinvention of folk music (Sufjan Stevens, Bon Iver) and the growth of electronic music (James Blake, Jamie Woon), but if you came of age circa 1991, this is how you remember punk music.
Boredoms – Soul Discharge (1989)
Sonic Youth may have been the only band in America making their brand of arty, noised-up punk, but they weren’t the only band in the world. Japanese freak-show Boredoms had already befriended Sonic Youth and American jazz pioneer John Zorn by the time of their international debut’s stateside release in 1989, and the influence of both parties is evident. But Boredoms take things a step further than Sonic Youth, abandoning song structure entirely and embracing pure, unadulterated musical anarchy. The music is most certainly abrasive and not for all tastes, but in its fearlessness and love of chaos, it is decidedly unique.
The Nation of Ulysses – 13 Point Program to Destroy America (1991)
And, if you believe diehipster.com, they might just have succeeded. For all of their leftist ranting, Washington, D.C.’s Nation of Ulysses was always more about style than substance, more about attitude than ideology. Their debut is full of anarchist screaming and comes packed with polemical liner notes, but it’s hard not to read their political presentation as a parody on the punk of the past. As such, The Nation of Ulysses married punk rock to its once mortal enemy: irony. It’s hard to not to read this line from the record’s liner notes:
“To dress well, as clothing and fashion, are the only things which we — the kids — being utterly disenfranchised, have any control over”
as a call to arms for burgeoning hipsters everywhere. Of course, the music was spectacular as well; with trumpet squalls and free-jazz solos, The Nation of Ulysses went farther than any band since The Clash in its efforts to introduce African-American music into the punk world (an effort that will manifest fully in our following record). But the true legacy of NoU is in its influence not on music but on youth culture: without these punks there would be no “Brooklyn,” no “Portland,” and no “diehipster.com.”
Nation of Ulysses – “Look Out! Soul is Back”
Refused – The Shape of Punk to Come (1998)
In the mid-to-late-1990s, consumer power over the music industry changed hands, passing from wasteful but tasteful college kids to wasteful but tasteless 12-year-olds (don’t worry, we were all tasteless when we were 12). As a result, the previous years in which punk had been accepted by the mainstream were washed away in favor of a punk music that sounded like the old mainstream. Blink-182. That was punk. Yikes.
Swedish five-piece Refused weren’t going to stand for it. Alluding to Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come, an album which sent bebop to a craze and continues to drive jazz purists into a frenzy, Refused abandoned the typical chord progressions and dynamic shifts of punk, instead inserting mid-song jazz breakdowns (real jazz, not just “jazzy”), political spoken-word diatribes, and Wagnerian cello into the mix. Of course, there are still a lot of bellows and decibels, and the record will still scare your neighbors, but in every other way this record hit the reset button on punk. Thankfully reissued by Epitaph in 2010, the record is a welcome reminder that there is always something new to be done with rock music.
Refused -”Liberation Frequency”
Sleater-Kinney – The Hot Rock (1999)
Sleater-Kinney was a band made up of women, so the music press decided to label their music “Riot Grrrl” rather than punk. After the admittedly fantastic Dig Me Out, a record that contained songs like “Heart Factories,” “Little Babies,” and “Buy Her Candy,” the media was practically demanding a follow-up LP full of more girl stuff so that it could avoid genuine analysis. Sleater-Kinney did not oblige. The Hot Rock is far from the band’s best record; it is self-consciously difficult at points, and some of the dissonant asides fall flat, but by refusing to conform to “girl group” stereotypes, Sleater-Kinney began the process of redefining the place of female bands in rock n’ roll.
Fugazi – The Argument (2001)
Fugazi is one of the great American bands of the last 20 years, and each of their 6 LPs is essential. That being said, it is hard to think of a record more essential and yet less representative than 2001′s The Argument. Writing full songs, deconstructing them, and then rearranging the parts into entirely new songs, the band managed to create a collection of punk songs with an unprecedented degree of diversity while maintaining the organic feel of their previous records. The songs are paved unconventionally and the instrumentation is unorthodox, but the spirit of innovation and adventure is pure punk rock.
Fugazi – “Cashout”
Liars – They Were Wrong, So We Drowned (2004)
I have never purchased a record that received more uniformly negative reviews at the time of its release than this one. Rolling Stone gave the record 1 star, finding it infinitely better than did Spin, which gave it 0.
Anyway, they were wrong. Like many of the records on our list, this one’s reception suffered the weight of expectations: Liars had been at the forefront of the “dance-punk” movement, and the press was hotly anticipating more dance-punk. What they got instead was an astonishingly dark, sparse concept record about German witches flying to Brocken Mountain during Walpurgisnacht. But this is more than a concept record; it is the rare concept record on which the metaphor is in the music. Just as the Germans made cacophonous noise in order to strike fear in the witches, Liars using clanging percussion, fuzzed-out guitars, digital thumps, and disturbing found sound to strike fear in the listener. Daring. Courageous. Ambitious.
Liars – “There’s Always Room on the Broom”
Abe Vigoda – Skeleton (2008)
Los Angeles is a hotbed of pop-music creativity at present, so it’s easy for a band like Abe Vigoda to be lost in the shadows. Their first record, Kid City, was a generally forgettable slice of noise, but on Skeleton the band found a sound all its own. Merging classical punk rock with the indie world’s growing interest in “world music,” AV created a genre all their own, if for only one record. By drenching their typical punk tunes in heavy reverb, the band managed to make their typically screeching guitars sound like steel drums, in the process fusing punk rock with the music of the tropics. Mix in the lilting tempos and pounding percussion and you have a unique new punk sound that has yet to be replicated.
Abe Vigoda – “Animal Ghosts”
Titus Andronicus – The Monitor (2010)
This record, made by a band named for one of Shakespeare’s most obscure heroes, is a loose concept album about the Civil War battle between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia. It features bagpipes. Need I say more?
Fucked Up – David Comes to Life (2011)
And so, we come to the present. In interviews prior to the release of this record, Fucked Up have stated that they no longer believe themselves to be a punk band. This notion is, of course, preposterous; play 3 minutes of the record for any of your friends and they will identify it as punk. Why would they choose to dissociate themselves from the punk tradition?
Fucked Up came of age as representatives of the so-called “hardcore scene.” Thrashing guitars and bellowing vocals endeared them to this scene, but ultimately became an audience requirement. As the band became creatively restless, the audience became resentful. And so, rather than be swallowed by expectations, the band has chosen to pull away.
But, to my way of thinking, such an attitude is a gross misunderstanding of the meaning of punk rock. For, as we’ve seen for four decades, from Wire to Fugazi, from The Clash to Titus Andronicus, punk rock is nothing more than the constant upending of expectations. It is not music for a “scene;” it is music for men and women, for the young and old, for doctoral candidates and dropouts, for anyone who is interested in the capacity of rock music to evolve, emote, and inspire. And if you’re not convinced, well just watch the video below:
And try to imagine something more punk rock than that.
L.V. Lopez is co-editor of Frontier Psychiatrist. Every now and then, he writes an epic column like this one. None of them have been preserved in the Library of Congress. Yet.