Being a writer who’s primary focus has been punk music (and associated subgenres) has been somewhat of an interesting experience. On one hand, I have been allowed to write about the music I love, hearing a vast array of new and exciting artists that are constantly innovating and taking the genre to new places. On the other hand, I hear a vast array of bands who are happy to simply take what has already been done, praise their heroes with minimal personal additions to the music, and then market themselves (almost constantly) with the term “passion”. The former of these two almost always earns an excited and well deserved good review from me while the latter consistently receives a poor one. However where the job of a punk critic becomes interesting is dealing with the response to each of these separate reviews for each of these separate acts.
There seems to be the idea that no matter what else is happening on a punk album, so long as “passion” is there, the album can be as generic, derivative and boring as one wants. To a degree, this is undeniably true. Punk was a genre founded on a passion and will always continue to be one. Where this becomes difficult is when actually trying to measure how much “passion” went into an album. Take, for example, the band G.L.O.S.S.. While I am, completely honestly, not a huge fan of their music as it is extremely derivative d-beat, I can admire and listen to their releases fairly consistently due to the fact that their message is extremely important and delivered with extreme urgency. These two factors are enough for me to determine that there is actual passion behind the music and vibe with it despite thinking they aren’t doing anything new or interesting musically.
Contrasting this, however, is the bands who happily throw buzz words like “infused with anger/passion/energy/etc.” into their promo emails and then expect to receive a positive review as such. Being realistic I cannot say how much or how little “passion” or “anger” went into the music. What I can hear though is the simplistic renditions of legendary hardcore/punk bands as well as the regurgitation of “punk theme” lyrics that I already heard once on Damaged. These bands have very little redeemable qualities and as such generally don’t do much for me. Which is fine, to each their own and we could move our separate ways. Where it becomes an issue is when I continually have to explain to people that “passion” alone does not make simple, generic punk music any more exciting, nor does it excuse the lack of risks.
Many seem to be in the mind set that punk has never been a genre of innovation, that simply playing simple and sloppy forever without deviating from the norm is acceptable. And, putting the irony aside that this idea is basically conformity which punk is supposed to so vehemently oppose, makes for some consistently boring bands in the present. Historically, it is also just flat out wrong as punk has essentially been a highly experimental, innovative genre. And, realistically, it has been that way since the proto-punk era.
The prime example of this is legendary punk influencers and proto-punk heroes, The Velvet Underground. This was a band that was unhappy with a limited range of music and so instead broke off in their own, new direction to explore a more full sonic pallet. The very concept of this rebellion through their music, rebellion against rock music that was already supposed to be about rebellion, was, to put it bluntly, punk as fuck. And, to be totally honest, none of it was extraordinarily musically complex either. If anything The Velvet Underground understood their limited musical range but used it to the best of their ability to create a sound completely and uniquely their own. Which proves an important point that, thus far, I may not have done the best at communicating. That, no matter the level of your musical ability, your punk band can always scratch out their own sound so long as they willing to do the right, punk thing and refuse to conform to already existing sounds.
Three perfect examples of this come in the form of one legendary (but often forgotten about band) as well as two bands that are extremely well known. The first (the cult classic) are seminal hardcore punk act Flipper. Flipper never played anything overly complicated, nor did they ever deviate too far from their standard formula, but they did do something completely unheard of in the early 80’s: slow punk music down. It was a stupid, simple way of getting noticed (as well as their rather obnoxious drinking and use of a second bass player live), but it worked. People began to recognize Flipper as having pioneered a new way of thinking in punk and (later) as being responsible for subgenres such as noise rock, sludge, and grunge. Which, conveniently brings us to our next two bands.
Two bands, who are rightfully hailed as highly influential, were highly influenced by Flipper’s offsetting, disorienting brand of hardcore punk and took their formula while tweaking it to fit their own formula. The first of which is (the) Melvins, the true blue sludge metal pioneers who took Flipper’s already established formula and added a bit more of an established groove, as well as a bit more Black Sabbath worship. It was such a tiny, minimal tweak that still sat in the realm of “simple”, but placed (the) Melvins into a place of reverence for many. Their music, while still paying homage to their heroes, was still completely their own and did not stagnate by simply claiming it was “passionate”. They added, they innovated, and realistically did not do much as all to get there.
The second of these bands is Nirvana, a band that practically drove grunge, but has songs so simple to play they are often used as intro tracks for beginning musicians. However, the simplicity of the music never detracted from it, nor did Cobain’s obsessive worship of acts like Flipper and (the) Melvins as he understood how to meld them in a way that was uniquely his. Which, ultimately, is the point to all of this. When listening to Nirvana, your first thought is never “Gee, this sounds exactly like (the) Melvins”. Instead you’re drawn to Cobain’s melodies, derived from his love for artists such as Bowie, as well as his pained bark. His influences are clearly heard, and his passion is clearly heard, but of the two neither is ever more important.
So simplicity, in reality, is punk. And, in reality, passion always has and always will drive the music. However, simplicity does not translate to lack of innovation or falling back on already established norms by legendary bands. And, most importantly, passion and innovation are not mutually exclusive. After all when someone is truly passionate about their music, truly pouring their heart and soul into it, it will always, no matter what, show in an end product that is distinctly theirs. They might start at point A with one favorite band as a basis but will always add in all of their influences along the way, as they are legitimately excited to be able to make music. Their musical ability will never matter in these cases as their passion will carry them through to make powerful new music that connects with people. That is real passion, and that is where simplicity is acceptable, but to fall back on saying all punk is supposed to be “simple” and based on “passion” is a dangerous game. It excuses lack of originality and encourages people to copy what is already present instead of chiseling out their own spot in punk rock history.
Non-“simple” Punk Bands For Your Listening Pleasure:
Gasp – An Earwig’s Guide To Traveling (Psychedelic Powerviolence/Avant Garde/Noise/Ambient)
The World/Inferno Friendship Society – Red Eyed Soul (Jazz/Cabaret/Folk Music from various countries/Post Punk)
City of Caterpillar – City of Caterpillar (Post Rock leaning Screamo)
Diarrhea Planet – I’m Rich Beyond Your Wildest Dreams (4 guitarists, hair metal riffs for days, and all tied together by Ramones-esque pop punk)
Everybody Row – The Sea Inside (Soul/Rock n’ Roll tinged Punk)
Arctic Flowers – Weaver (A cluster fuck of Post Punk subgenres)