Three weeks ago, the six-piece Canadian punk band Fucked Up released David Comes to Life, a record which is likely to stand as their magnum opus and one of the best of 2011. It’s an 18-song, 77-minute epic about a lightbulb factory worker named David who falls in love with a young activist named Veronica, only to watch her die in a grand protest, blame himself for her death, meet a woman named Vivian who was witness to her death, meet a man named Octavio who was likely to blame, and ultimately reach acceptance and redemption. Each of the four characters acts as narrator at some point, in the tradition of The Sound and The Fury or Rashomon.
How did punk rock get here? A musical movement built on short songs, sloppy musicianship, and disdain for pretense has sprouted a thousand branches over the last 35 years, in the process bringing us some of the most challenging and brilliant work that popular music has to offer. Over the next two days, we’ll attempt to chart the historical course of ambition in punk through profiles of the bands and records that define it best. By “punk” we refer to any music that could not exist without being preceded by the work of The Sex Pistols, The Buzzcocks, and The Ramones; in so doing we will include music that other music publications would refer to as “post-punk,” “hardcore,” “post-hardcore,” “noise rock,” and any number of other ridiculous appellations. By “ambition,” we mean any effort to willfully shift the course of punk music at the given time, any attempt to expand, contract, explode, or otherwise alter its apparent limitations. There will be a lot of words, and there will be a lot of songs. We begin shortly after punk’s glorious inception.
When punk broke in the UK in 1975, its simplicity and sloppiness represented a reaction against the masturbatory musical fantasies of the day, namely those of Yes, Genesis, and especially Pink Floyd. The punk blueprint of three major chords, bruising distortion, and growling vocals was meant to bring popular music back to the masses. But over time, rules become shackles, and the most ambitious prisoners are likely to break free. The first such punk fugitives were Wire, a London trio whose debut Pink Flag subverted punk orthodoxy in subtle yet dramatic fashion. The songs remained ultra-short and the instrumentation was steeped in rawness, but the intriguing song structures, radical tempo shifts, and rapid changes in mood proved revelatory. It was with this record that punk rock transformed from a cultural force into an aesthetic one, and all the records that follow owe it a debt.
Wire – “Lowdown”
There are few intelligent things left to say about London Calling, one of the great landmarks in the history of rock music and easily the most ambitious record to grace the world since The Beatles. The Clash’s first two records clung tight to the skeletal punk aesthetic, but by their third LP the band recognized that “punk” was just a frame onto which countless musical ideas could be fastened. Thus was born the 65 minutes of dizzying genre-hopping magic that has become a touchstone for music lovers worldwide.
The Clash – “Clampdown”
The story goes that the Sex Pistols were truly born when a band associate saw John Lydon on the street wearing a Pink Floyd t-shirt with the words “I Hate” handwritten above. Lydon subsequently became the band’s lead vocalist and the face of punk rock, but even his deep-set punk fundamentalism couldn’t stand the onslaught of an artist’s curiosity. Following the break-up of the Pistols, and after spending some time in Jamaica with Richard Branson (!), Lydon took it upon himself to filter punk rock through the filter of reggae and dub, in the process creating a stark, bass-heavy terror of a record that changed man’s view of what constituted “rock.” From the stream-of-consciousness lyrics to the film-canister packaging, Metal Box was a true objet d’art, a work that broke Lydon’s own rules in all the right ways.
PiL – “Memories”
Apparently London Calling wasn’t enough for The Clash, so for its follow-up they recorded a two-and-a-half hour, three-LP monolith that attempted nothing short of distilling all of the words musical style into one record (there are two rap songs!). Time has not been kind to Sandanista!; while it was viewed as a masterpiece at the time of its release, it is now generally regarded as the band’s worst record, an attempt at flight that brought the band too close to the sun. Nonetheless, there is much to love about this massive effort, not the least of which is its shameless ambition.
The Clash – “Police on My Back”
Despite appearing in Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections on several occasions, essentially no one knows who The Au Pairs are. Thanks to bands like Wire, Public Image Ltd, Joy Division, and Talking Heads, punk music was going in a thousand different directions by 1981, and The Au Pairs were at the vanguard of the rapidly changing scene. A co-ed quartet from Birmingham, the group brought a unique gender equality to rock music, and on their debut record Playing With a Different Sex, the band attempted nothing short of changing the way listeners conceived of sex itself. A collection of ten songs about everything from domestic violence and sexual assault to open relationships and “orgasmic equality,” the record’s controversial subject matter undoubtedly led to poor distribution and historical neglect. Despite a fine reissue in 2000, the record remains a forgotten classic.
The Au Pairs – “It’s Obvious”
Many of the bands above, in an effort to distinguish themselves from the sweaty mess of mid-70s punk, aligned themselves with the so-called “post-punk” movement (the absurdity of which term is a matter for another column). There remained bands that considered themselves true punk bands, and although their rules had blurred, they all agreed on two things: punk had to be fast, and it had to be bleak.
Enter raucous San Francisco group Flipper. A quartet of unabashed musical anarchists, Flipper insisted on filling their songs with life-affirming lyrics, all while slowing their tempo to an unrepentant sludgy swamp-walk familiar to fans of Black Sabbath. They came off sounding irritating at times and ridiculous at others, but Album: Generic Flipper stands today as an effort to reveal the boundless nature of punk rock. Punk is about attitude and spirit, not convention or style, and Flipper, in all their unfashionable brilliance, were fearless in their dedication to this ideal.
Flipper – “Sex Bomb”
In the early 1990s, the independent/punk ethos went mainstream in the United States, and there has been a great deal written about which band was most responsible for this change. Some say The Pixies, others R.E.M., but Minneapolis trio Hüsker Dü is as good a candidate as any. Zen Arcade is not their best album (that title goes to New Day Rising or Flip Your Wig) or their most accessible (Warehouse: Songs and Stories), but it is unquestionably their most important. In the American Underground in 1984, no idea would have been more repulsive than a 70-minute, 2-LP story of a young man escaping an abusive household in search of meaning. But Hüsker Dü took “anything goes” at face value and, in the process, opened up American independent music to a new range of possibilities.
Hüsker Dü – “Chartered Trips”
Competition is the unspoken impetus behind much of the best pop music, from The Rolling Stones to Jay-Z. When Zen Arcade was issued in 1984 it was stunningly well-received in the indie community, and as such it served as a challenge to all like-minded musicians. Minutemen were not to be outdone by their labelmates, and on hearing of Zen Arcade‘s scope and concept, they scrapped their idea for a 1984 single-LP and went back to the studio to record more material. The result is the 80-minute, 45-song Double Nickels on the Dime, released by SST records on the same day as Zen Arcade. The two records are dramatically different musically but were derived from the same idea: that “rule-breaking” in punk was to be applied universally, not trivially. The album’s title is a response to the Sammy Hagar (!) song “I Can’t Drive 55,” in which Sammy defines himself as a rebel by breaking the speed limit. With their spoken-word interludes and jazzy improvisations, Minutemen tried to clarify the meaning of rebellion in music: driving the speed limit, but breaking the mold.
Minutemen – “The Glory of Man”
Meanwhile, in the UK…
By 1985 British punk had followed a line from The Sex Pistols to Siouxsie and the Banshees to Adam Ant to Culture Club, with bands gradually embracing theatricality over musical prinicple until finally the grotesque spectre of Frankie goes to Hollywood descended on the British Isles.
The two elements at the root of punk rock, noise and melody, had disappeared. And so it was time to start from scratch. This is exactly what The Jesus and Mary Chain did with their brilliant debut Psychocandy, a collection of songs that are nothing more than a set of Brian Wilson melodies over a screeching wall of feedback. The record inspired music critics everywhere to invent new genre names, from “noise pop” to “shoegaze,” but it’s a punk record pure and simple, and one of the loudest, catchiest ones you’ll ever hear.
The Jesus and Mary Chain – “Never Understand”
Big Black mastermind Steve Albini would likely hate this column, this website, and me personally. He would certainly hate the idea of being cast as “ambitious” by some gentrified Brooklynite. But fuck him. Songs About Fucking, owner of the greatest title in rock n’ roll history, is an unabashed attempt to take a sledgehammer to the “concept album.” In its terseness, its aggression, and its unwavering defiance, it is an anti-album in the way that Holden Caulfield is an anti-hero. And what could be more ambitious than that.
Big Black – “Fish Fry”