A few observations/reflections on the nature of two genres/cultural tendencies known as "punk rock" and "the blues."

Revised 18 June 2002
I'm adding my thoughts here as they come to me, sort of compiling a totally disorganised collection of thoughts, which at some point I may consolidate and render more coherent/consistent. For now I hope they might be enjoyable and thought-provoking enough to read as they are.

These observations are subjective
By necessity, these observations are wholly subjective, which seems to me to be appropriate to the subject matter; furthermore, I am both consciously and unconsciously selective in choosing which parts of each to consider and to compare. Consciously: I am selecting those things which I find most appealing, or most interesting, or which offer the possibility for the most interesting connections between the two. Unconsciously: my understanding of each is limited to my (sentimental) ideas about them, my limited experience of them, my impressions mainly drawn from listening to the music, we must make no mistake, that listening through a white middle-class ear, an ear that, I suspect, can decipher punk rock music much more readily than the blues. This only inasmuch as my cultural experience is likely to have more in common with that of the writer of punk rock than that of the writer of blues. Conversation overheard between two white bluesmen: "Someone said you don't play the blues, you live the blues." "Don't I know it--I used to live in my van."

My second caveat: If you haven't noticed by now, this loose collection of thoughts is meandering, digressive. I think this is appropriate to the subject, to the confusion and contradiction of my ideas on the subject.

I also should warn the reader that a number of the observations I have may contradict one another, not only because most of my thoughts are half-formed at best, also because both "punk rock" and "the blues" themselves contain multiple overlapping paradoxes, in my view because both of them are concerned with the essential experience of human life, which is itself paradoxical. My use of the terms will sometimes be in the sense of musical genre, especially as concerns the blues, but "punk rock" is to me a much more transcendent term, relating simultaneously to genre, fashion and mindset.

Punk rock is the blues. I just wanted to get that thought in the air, but I'll leave it for now untethered. I'll return to it later.

Blues >> Rock >> Punk Rock
The blues set the stage for rock and roll, which in turn grew to become punk rock, which in a sense was a return to the original values of the blues, though for a very different audience this time. The blues was about personal life, nearly exclusively. It was about the experience of the individual, about being poor, drunk, beaten, imprisoned, enslaved, but also about being joyful, about finding liberation in the simple experience of a song. Let me reiterate that the blues were (are) about many more things, these aspects are selected for their potential for reflection in the mirror of punk rock.

Elvis Presley
I choose the rise of Elvis Presley as the defining moment for the birth of rock and roll. In genre terms, musicologists generally place the beginning of rock and roll a bit earlier. Generally, Chuck Berry's "Maybelline" or Jackie Brenston's "Rocket 88" are cited as the first rock and roll song. Elvis, though, was unquestionably the one who brought rock and roll to white America, who redefined the phenomenon known as "the blues" as being about stardom, excess, beauty, a sensual glut. None of these things were known to the blues. There could be no such thing as a blues "star". The blues myth was nearly the opposite of the myth of rock, which has been a retelling of the myth of Dionysus, the ascendant star destroyed by his stardom and thus immortalised. Blues is, in fact, virtually without mythologising, or rather, its myths only relate to particular individuals, such as the story of Robert Johnson meeting the devil at the crossroads and trading his soul for the ability to play guitar beautifully. The blues never offers the individual a chance to be a god. It says only "You will live, you will have the ordinary wonderful and terrible experiences of life, you will die." It says "I will accept my life, its pain, my death. I can't! I will accept that I can never accept it." It tells the story of the endless paradox of living, that we cannot bear it, that we must, we do, we cannot, and in the end, we lose even that, we die.

Rock and roll as Dionysian myth
Rock and roll brought a new fantasy, and in a sense its Dionysian myth is a Christian myth, or a Christian myth turned a bit. "Eat of my flesh and you will become as me!" (or Tommy's "See Me, Feel Me, Touch Me, Heal Me.") It brought the rock spectacle, the rock concert, the grandiose, the psychedelic, the chance to lose yourself in something much larger. Undoubtedly, the experience of listening to blues/rock/punk rock is the experience of rehearsing for one's own human role. Or rehearsing for one's fantasy role. In rock there is no death, there is only an endless and endlessly expanding youth, there is an exploding sacrifice, death comes only in the form of an orgasm/scream and a becoming-god.

Punk rock returns to the essence of living as an individual human being, but with even more vengeance, more irony, and a deeper paradox than the blues offered. It uses the energy imbued in the form by rock and turns it back in.

The sound of the electric guitar
A digression on the sound of the electric guitar: The electric guitar isn't a blues instrument, and it isn't a rock instrument. It is, of course, utilised in both genres, is the backbone of nearly all rock and punk rock. But it is in fact the first instrument of industrial music. I say this because it sounds like a machine, it brings the sound of electricity, the sound of the industrial age, into the music. It adds that buzz which is the same buzz as a noisy refrigerator, or a short-circuit. It also sounds like a train. The train is significant in the blues as a means to leave the south, to move north, to leave agricultural serfdom for city life, to work in industry. The Velvet Underground invented (perhaps) a guitar sound known as the "subway sound", mimicking the sound and rhythm of the New York City subway. Thus transforming the meaning of the train, of the train sound, to refer to the enclosed, insular world of New York. Travel in this context meaning travelling uptown to score heroin. Wandering meaning wandering the streets, presumably to return in a few hours to a low-rent apartment, as opposed to the wandering of the blues musician, which could extend across the country and back again and last a lifetime. When I think of trains, I also can't help but think of the trains to the Nazi concentration camps, and of the Sex Pistols' "Belsen Was a Gas" and of Throbbing Gristle's album "Giftgas" (German for "poison gas.") I don't know what these associations have to do with this general idea, but they seem worthy of mention.

A further digression from the previous digression: It might occur to you that the Velvets don't exactly have a lot to do with the Dionysian rock and roll described in previous paragraphs. In that sense, I would consider them punk rock, though in a genre sense they would probably be classed as psychedelic rock.

The blues never ended; punk rock never began
It's not my sense that the blues ended with the rise of Elvis. Or that the blues were ever entirely absent from rock and roll. By the same token, I don't think there was a moment when punk rock came into being. There is an element of what I think of as punk rock in Elvis, though much moreso in the White English R and B music of the 1960s, such as The Yardbirds, The Small Faces, The Who, and especially The Kinks. It was these bands who then inspired a generation of young, white, middle-class no-hopers of America to start playing electric guitars in their garages and sing about how much they did or didn't care about girls, getting a job, or whatever other things young men are or aren't concerned with. Most of these groups put out a 45 or two on a small label and then vanished altogether. Lenny Kaye, a rock critic later of The Patti Smith Group collected some of this music for the Nuggets compilations, coining the term "punk rock" in 1972. In genre terms, there never has been much to distinguish punk from rock other than that it tends to be a bit sloppier and a bit louder, for a few simple reasons: it was played by young people who probably weren't practicing their guitar playing much, who were probably playing music because it was fun (not because they were musicians per se) and because they were recording cheap instruments on cheap equipment.

The Stooges were the anti-Doors
The late-1960s brought Iggy Pop and The Stooges, who many consider the first punk rock group. Their first album looks very like the first Doors album, with the same typeface and same four headshots of the band members, with the difference that the Stooges look like thugs. Musically, they lack the Doors' orientalism (as well as their licks borrowed from Arthur Lee's Love); the sound the Stooges makes is a powerful thrum. Lyrically, the Stooges reject the overarching mystical pretensions of the Doors and others, instead voicing similar concerns to earlier "punk" groups, concerns of having fun or not, having sex or not, and taking drugs. Drugs for Iggy were no Blake-ian mystical journey, they were excess for its own sake. There was no confusion as to what it meant to get real fucked up on drugs. It was that simple. As a performer, Iggy functioned as a rock star in the traditional mode, as did Jim Morrison, with several distinctions. Unlike Morrison, he presented his body as a kind of comical sacrifice, rolling in broken glass, jumping off the stage into the audience, knocking over tables and spilling drinks and starting fights, while Morrison presented himself instead as some sort of idealised sensual man (or man/lizard/god). Unlike Morrison's notion of himself as some kind of native shaman in whiteman form, Iggy offered only himself as dumb white kid in a world he didn't make, pissed off, high, loud. This points to another distinction between rock and punk rock generally: Rock musicians since Elvis have tended to play the role of intermediary between the magical/primitive/exotic realms and the suburban living room. Elvis brought us the raw, sexual, animal forbidden boogie beat that previous whiteys like Pat Boone had no access to. Later we were presented fun, easy-to-digest versions of eastern mystical traditions. This in contrast to both punk rock and the blues, which concern themselves for the most part with what the actual individual's life is like, rather than offering a fantasy (other than the fantasy of identifying with the life of the punk/blues protagonist). I seem to have digressed, again, from my original point, which was that Iggy is the anti-Morrison and that The Stooges are the anti-Doors. Which reminds me, the performance poet Patti Smith idolised Morrison. Smith's boyfriend and bandmate Lenny Kaye coined the term "punk rock," and I suppose it's for this reason that The Patti Smith Group was considered punk. I can't think of any other. Let me also make the point that Morrison fancied himself some kind of all-American poet, and as a result his lyrics were turgid and self-indulgent, whereas Iggy indulged himself only in banality (and as a result produced poetry of more value than Morrison ever did).

Punk rock in the late 1970s
The meaning of the term "punk rock" went through a major shift in the late 1970s, when popular English bands such as The Sex Pistols, The Buzzcocks and Gang of Four injected a sense of the political into the music. Each of these three examples does this in a different way; The Gang of Four are pretty clearly critical of modern capitalist life, though their critique is fairly humourous and oblique; The Buzzcocks express the personal in quasi-political terms; The Sex Pistols give voice to the meaninglessness of history and of their place in history, the horror of this meaninglessnes, and the humour of this horror. For the most part, these political (or anti-political) sentiments were still only considered relevant inasmuch as they related to the personal. Politics was just another language for talking about the experience of the individual, and at the same time individuals in England in the late 1970s probably felt the personal impact of political decision-making much moreso than did indolent middle-class young Americans in the relatively affluent 1960s and 70s. Note that I'm entirely disregarding the American punk rock groups of the mid-late 1970s such as the Ramones, etc., considering them as a continuation of the trends set by the 1960s punk rock groups dicussed in the previous paragraph. Also note that I'm ignoring the overtly political propagandeering of groups like The Clash. I guess this has to do with my view that their intent was to use the medium of punk rock to do something else, though I don't know if I have a name for that "something else," it reminds me somehow of the Rolling Stones recording a Rice Krispies advert.

What was probably most interesting about this later phase of the punk rock idiom wasn't the sensationalism of the Sex Pistol's antics, or indeed the other popular groups of the time affecting a punk-rock style. More interesting was the way they inspired so many young people to return to that earlier experiment, to play music in their garages or basements, only because they wanted to, regardless of what it sounded like. In this sense punk rock returned rock and roll to what the blues originally meant. Not that anyone can be a star but that anyone can have meaning without being a star, that anyone can make music, and that through music anyone can find their escape from the confinement of everyday life.

Punk rock and blues record collecting
Something else which the two genres have in common is that they both seem to inspire fanatical record collecting. And, what I see as a parallel to this, both inspire heated debate as to authenticity (of identity, of experience.) This is especially interesting as regards punk rock, as one of punk rock's main rejections is that of authenticity. Punk rock assumes a posture that can only mock, first of all mocking rock and roll, then itself, then itself mocking. It is perhaps this slipperiness itself which makes analysis of the authenticity of a particular group, performer, or fan, so enticing for some.

Punk is dead
"Punk is dead." If this is true, perhaps only because it was born dead. Has anyone ever ventured "The blues is dead"?

These are only the fragments of my thoughts and feelings at the moment, I welcome discussion, I may return to this writing to elaborate, correct, or attempt to make more complete.

For the moment I have nothing to say about the most recent "punk rock revival" nor about the current state of the blues.


More Questions

What is rock and roll?

What is whiteness?

What about sexuality?

What is genre?

Altered 12/14/02

I dig this (the above) node / have been in possession of what you might call an interest in this (these sorts of) question(s) ever since I began to familiarize myself with both concerned musics, which wasn't, probably, long ago, but seems like it was. Here, accordingly, are some of my own observations, the (specific) topics of which I will choose as they enter my mind. All of the caveats cited, by kareneliot, above, necessarily apply to the following observations as well, as will, perhaps, become obvious shortly.

Is punk rock the blues?
I start with this topic both because it's an interesting question and because the answer is taken, above, for granted. It seems, to me, to boil down to the question of whether art movements (in this case, punk rock and the blues) have definitive "beginnings" and "endings," or if they can be said to live on thorugh their influence on later movements (as, in this discussion, the influence of the blues on punk rock). The answer to this is, like most things, a matter of opinion; if one believes art movements begin and end in a definitive way, one must then concede that both punk rock and the blues are deader than the cinema. If however they can be said to live on through their enduring influence, or some other such phenomenon, it's possible to make a fairly decent case for the continuing existence of both punk rock and the blues. I shall elaborate.

In the case of the former argument mentioned above, an acceptable (or at least logical) course of action would be to choose a particular time in history (say, for the blues, 1929-1932, the "golden age of recording," or, for punk rock, 1975-1978, the reign of the Sex Pistols) during which major (generally founding) exponent(s) of a given art form were particularly influential, and argue that only during the specified period did that art form exist. Alleged purveyors of said art form straying outside the specified time frame (which could be grouped with a location, such as London or the south) would then be dismissed as purveyors, actually, of something completely different (the Ramones were not punk; Muddy Waters did not play the blues). This viewpoint has obvious problems, but it also has its strengths in comparison with its counter-argument, which see below; in any case it's this sort of logic that leads to statements like "punk is dead" or--if anyone ever had the audacity to say such a thing--"the blues is dead."

Under the logic of the other argument, the aesthetic of an art movement (or whatever) can be invoked later, and in different places, than originally. It is because of the existence of this view that the words "punk" and "blues" are used at all in describing music made nowadays, even though most folks who do this are misinformed as to what the original aesthetic was (even if punk exists, Blink-182 ain't it; etc.).

Neither argument is more valid, but I tend to side with the former, which seems to make more sense in the overall scheme of things (in reference, that is, to other art movements--many folks today would probably acknowledge, for example, the death of things like abstract expressionism, surrealism, and what have you). As the saying goes, "Opinions are like assholes; everybody's got one."

As to the original question (I'd forgotten it for a minute), it depends, it depends, it depends. Most folks won't contest the theory that the blues begat rock 'n roll, which in turn went through various stages, one of which was punk rock. If you think rock 'n roll is, due to blues's influence on it, itself blues, you must concede that the same is true for punk rock. Otherwise, forget about it. (I hope you can see how this connects with what I talked about above; if not, I'm sorry; I, at least, can.)

Is punk rock rock 'n roll?
Obviously this is akin to the question posed above. Dispensing with some of the nonsense employed in answering aforementioned question, I'll assert that the answer differs depending on whether punk is understood to be an essentially American or an essentially British phenomenon. In the former case, punk can be seen as a natural extension of rock 'n roll, the spirit of which had been reincarnated before, having made the transition from Elvis and co. in the late '50s to the '60s British Invasion. "American punk," that is, was extremely similar to rock 'n roll in its previous incarnations. (The Ramones are, I think, a particularly good example of this, what with their emphasis on teenage rebellion, the spirit of which spawned, depending on who you talk to, rock 'n roll in the first place.)

British punk was something of a different beast. Its most significant proponents, the Sex Pistols, tended to hate everything by which they were preceded, at least if it happened to be particularly popular, as did their peers. Interestingly, though, they liked and were influenced by American punk (of pre-punk or whatever)--Steve Jones idolized Johnny Thunders, Johnny Rotten identified "Road Runner" as (one of?) the only songs he actually liked, and etc. Whether this is due to fundamental similarities between the two (which would be handy, allowing us to dispense with the categories of "American" and "British" punk) can be questioned. I'd say the Sex Pistols' (really only Johnny Rotten's, I reckon) antipathy for the Beatles and such had much to do with their extreme popular appeal, much of which appeal was to the sorts of people punk set out to offend--whereas American punk appealed to a more limited audience of less vapid folks. At least, that's what I think the conception might have been; whether this is true is a question that someone could probably ask.

The Stooges and the Doors are opposite sides of the same coin
I refuse to believe that the Stooges and the Doors necessarily represented opposite perspectives on the world (or at least on proper subjects for musical meandering). While it's true that their frontmen hailed from backgrounds which were polar opposites of one another (sunny, dreamy California vs. dark 'n dreary midwest misery), I think it's possible to discern, behind their respective musics, the same driving force--namely, reckless, restless sexuality. The ways in which they expressed this were, granted, opposite, Iggy Pop viciously declaring his desire to be some chick's dog while Morrison wailed on and on about love (whatever that is) and such; their essential desires were, however, no doubt the same, as becomes clear when factors such as Iggy's stage presence and lyrics, as well as the undeniable veracity of the essence of Richard Meltzer's statement that the Doors "were your dick," are taken into account. (Also: listen to "Gimme Danger," for example. If it weren't for the somewhat abrasive guitar work and also paroxysmal shouting that erupts eventually (which elements are of course sort of unavoidable with the Stooges), etc., it might as well have been a Doors song. I mean, Iggy croons, for crissakes! He sings, "Kiss me like the ocean breeze," or some such! And etc.!) (Also: it's somewhat notable Iggy Pop decided to form the Stooges after witnessing a Doors concert, at least according to the All Music Guide. This doesn't of course guarantee musical kinship between the two, but it does affirm Iggy Pop saw in the Doors something worth emulating, even if it wasn't aesthetic in nature; but etc.)

On the Clash
They were not, as is implied above, merely propagandists-for-hire--at least, not to start with. Some critic I once read referred to them as something along the lines of "sick fucks looking for ways to justify their destructive urges." In light of things like their song "The Magnificent Seven," and other such trash (the similarly mediocre "Should I Stay or Should I Go" seems to be making the rounds on a series of tv commercials for some alcoholic beverage or another--quite fittingly, actually), this statement seems unconscionable; in the context of their first, eponymous album, it makes a bit more sense.

The Clash overflows with venom and, generally, destructive energy, as best heard in for example "White Riot," "London's Burning," "Protex Blue," etc., etc. Listening to The Clash one can certainly get a sense of the same sort of "world-historical" power Greil Marcus and his ilk attributed to the Sex Pistols, and late-1970s British punk in general--the power to completely negate society, to invoke medievel heretics, and such. This is perhaps an overly dramatic view, but it's nevertheless undeniable the Clash are generally given--by many--a worse rap than they deserve, due probably to some of their more mediocre later output (Combat Rock is probably the most often cited example of this).

Stardom and the blues
Did the two ever intersect? Clearly, when blues was at its best, society was radically different in terms of these sorts of things; there was no tv, no People magazine, no cult of celebrity; on the other hand, I like to think prominent bluesmen were considered, in some way, heroes among men, which is the closest they could probably ever get to being stars, considering time and such. The only remotely empirical evidence I have for this is something I read in the CD booklet to a reissue of songs by Blind Lemon Jefferson, which I'm too idle and lazy to fetch now but which stated, more or less, that he was extremely popular to the point of attracting folks from miles around, all of whom idolized him and that he was, additionally, quite rich, considering. I'm not doing a very good job of, uh, conveying this, but the impression that I got was that he was the back then version of a rock star. (Listening to the songs, I could see why; but that is another subject.)

For punk rock, electric guitar; for blues, acoustic
The instrumental (ha!) (which is to say vital) role of the guitar in both punk rock and the blues has been noted and is undeniable. I wish to observe, briefly, that the electric guitar in punk rock and the acoustic guitar in the blues produce a similar effect (in a word, shock) and serve (probably) similar purposes. This might not be very significant. Uh, nevertheless, the primary reason for this (the effect that is) is, I wager, distortion.

About distortion (and such): when I use the word I use it mostly in reference to production value. Old blues albums were (and are), for example, for the most part lousy-sounding, due to the relative lack of sophistication of recording techniques then extant. With punk rock this is also sort of true, but this sort of distortion (or whatever you prefer to call it) was, additionally, adopted in the area of musicianship. Guitars were played such as to cause distortion; it's as if the mood induced by poor sound quality in blues recordings were being emulated, though I wouldn't go so far as to say this was deliberate. It is, however, something I apparently once thought about.

Log in or registerto write something here or to contact authors.