Punk and Possibility

Once upon a time, Emerson, Lake & Palmer was the future of music. The 'progressive' early-1970s rock of Keith Emerson, Greg Lake, and Carl Palmer was a bombastic blend of jazz improvisation and classical structure combined with virtuosic chops and 40 tons of equipment. ELP sold millions of records, played sold-out, laser-lit arenas the world over, and was one of the most celebrated bands of its day.

Yet today, no band wants to sound like ELP, whose triple LP, Welcome Back, My Friends, To The Show That Never Ends -- Ladies and Gentlemen: Emerson, Lake & Palmer, epitomizes the extreme bloat of the era.

Around the time ELP was conquering the globe, a group of semi-feral cross-dressers was playing for small, raucous crowds at the Mercer Arts Center, a shabby theater in Greenwich Village. The original New York Dolls made two albums and both sold poorly. But they ran in the same circles as the bands who would go on to "invent" punk, allowing the heroin-chic cool of both guitarist Johnny Thunders (perhaps the closest thing the world has produced to a Keith Richards clone) and drummer Jerry Nolan, not to mention the provocative antics of lead singer David Johansen, to seep into both the punk rock and the hair metal of the 1980s.

A decade earlier, The Beatles had spawned a thousand clone bands that got started playing out of their garages. Naturally, few had anything close to the Fab Four's musical genius, but what they lacked in talent they more than made up for in energy, creating new brands of psychedelic, loopy rock, and enjoying regional and (some) national success on the backs of a few hit songs. These garage bands were destined for the shadows of rock history until, in 1972, Lenny Kaye pieced their semi-forgotten 1960s psychedelic rock songs together. He called the compilation Nuggets (an early reference to "punk rock" appeared in its liner notes), and it provided a critical touchstone for young rockers of the 1970s.

Although lots of bands wanted to sound and act like the New York Dolls and Nuggets garage rockers, and none wanted to sound like ELP, all were equally critical influences for the new hard rockers of the early 1970s. Even if ELP had spawned a thousand clone bands, its influence on pop and rock could not have been greater than the anti-influence it provided for punk.

Beginning in the early 1970s, the nature of musical influence started to change. When The Beatles and the Stones and Dylan ruled the earth, it was easy to hear the influence of artists like Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Pete Seeger, and Woody Guthrie -- the next generation of stars sounded a bit like, and paid homage to, those who came before. But by the mid-1970s, the old, linear pattern of influence in rock (Band A influences B which influences Bands C and D) -- elegantly visualized as a gently cresting wave in Reebee Garofalo's famous "Genealogy Of Pop/Rock Music" poster -- was breaking down. Punk was just as influenced by what it didn't want to be (e.g., ELP) as it was by what it did want to be (e.g., post-psychedelic garage rock).

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The "Genealogy Of Pop/Rock Music" poster by Reebee Garofalo. Graphics services by Damon Rarey and Jean Nicolazzo

Punk peeled rock down to its core, dialed up raw distortion, and amplified its rough edges. Out with the soft, long, and baroque, in with the hard, short, and fast.
Most importantly, punk espoused an individualistic, do-it-yourself philosophy that, at least initially, encouraged bands to find their own unique sounds. The idea of emulating the bands that influenced you became passé, and you ran the risk of being ridiculed for sounding too much like your idols. ("No Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones," as Joe Strummer of The Clash famously snarled on the song, "1977.")

Punk's rejection of virtuosity resulted in a great variety of sounds. The Talking Heads, Blondie, Ramones, Dead Boys, and Television had little in common except that each made music that specifically avoided easy antecedents. But despite their anti-influence pose, punks arguably had more points of influence than other musical genres because they borrowed inspiration freely from fashion, politics, and culture. Because all these influences were wrapped in a primal scream and held together with safety pins, few besides critics like Lester Bangs and Dave Marsh could parse the ways in which punk was a logical extension of earlier music.

The rough garage sound of the Nuggets bands would influence punk music, but just as importantly it set in motion the crate-digging, re-issue culture that would fragment and proliferate musical influences. Punk, already divided by the idea of new wave, split off into hardcore (Minor Threat), metal (D.O.A. and Black Flag), sludgy proto-grunge (Flipper), speed metal/reggae (Bad Brains), psychedelic noise (Butthole Surfers), pop feedback (Hüsker Dü), novelty (Mojo Nixon and Skid Roper), hip hop (Beastie Boys), pop punk (Avengers), and goth (Bauhaus and The Cure).

By the time MTV hit the airwaves in the 1980s, a punk band like the Germs was a little-remembered footnote in the Los Angeles punk scene. These late-1970s art rockers could barely play their instruments and made a super-abrasive brand of punk that mainly consisted of lead singer Darby Crash screaming about how miserable he felt. Crash had a Grand Canyon-sized death wish combined with an appetite for attention that led him to kill himself. (Overshadowed in death as in life, he did so the day before John Lennon was murdered outside The Dakota.) That might have been the end of that, except that a kid named Kurt Cobain loved the Germs. His band, Nirvana, would go on to conquer the world with grunge -- yet another branch of post-punk rock.

If untangling the lineage of scenes and sounds in the 1960s was a matter of addition and subtraction (Crosby + Stills + Nash +/- Young), by the mid-1970s it was story problems ("And after Clapton folded Derek and The Dominos..."), by the 1980s, algebra (Prince = Jimi Hendrix + George Clinton x E.T.), and by the 1990s, calculus (Primal Scream = Mahalia Jackson + Peter Fonda + Keith Richards [over] Club DJs x Ecstasy). Today, tracing musical lineage requires creating quasi-quantum equations so complex as to be nearly unintelligible (Fleet Foxes = Brian Wilson + Gregorian Chant + [David Crosby x Vashti Bunyan] / [Neil Young + Maurice Ravel + Marvin Gaye]).

Punk had a big hand in introducing this complexity. While bringing rock back to its basics, punk opened up popular music, creating a much wider field of influences. Now, almost any musician (including country folks like Steve Earle and Michelle Shocked) can legitimately, and with a straight face, claim punk's influence.

In many ways, punk's legacy is such that it is now a mark of sophistication among artists to draw from a constellation of influences, just as it was once stylish for prog rockers to draw upon classical music.

Consider Top 40 rapper KiD CuDi. Born in 1984, CuDi unapologetically channels Pink Floyd over Grandmaster Flash. He rhymes about outer space instead of the ghetto and samples Lady Gaga rather than James Brown. He combines orchestral strings with turntable scratching. He references Facebook, Carl Jung, and insomnia, embracing big pop hooks that helped his record debut at number four on the Billboard 200. Asked about his wide-ranging sound and influences­­, CuDi said, "I did want to make something that would baffle the critics, as far as putting it in a certain genre; I wanted them to have a hard time doin' it."

How many ways can you split the musical atom? And if you splice it enough times, do all artists become unique genres unto themselves? Lady Gaga sure thinks so. She was influenced by Freddie Mercury and Madonna, but carries herself like a disco diva, D-I-Y punk. She might think she's the next New York Dolls, heralding a stylish new future in music, but we should all hope she's the next Emerson, Lake & Palmer -- a vapid monument to excess that inspires another messy, beautiful, musical insurrection. /

photo by flickr user jomelia