How much do you know about punk? If you’re making a mental checklist of bands right now, you don’t really know anything. Music is one form of art, sure, but punk is a movement of thought that transcends the particularities of form. Note the usage of present tense verbiage there: punk may be dead, but it is quite present, whether dead or alive. Still, we can indulge your list of bands—did you get any further than the Sex Pistols, the Clash and the Ramones? You’ve also heard of the Banshees? Good.
If you want to learn a tremendous quantity of information about punk that has been obscured by a lack of reputable first-hand accounts, look no further than Punk Is Dead: Modernity Killed Every Night. It’s a collection of weird histories and poetic fragments of recollection strung together by two editors: Richard Cabut, who was 17 in the summer of 1977, and Andrew Gallix, who is best known as chief of 3:AM Magazine. The focal point of the book is London in late 1976, during the 15-minutes where pretty much everybody agrees that “punk” was a genuinely existing thing.
Yet what it was then is hard to say, and that’s the amazing value of reading all the slightly overlapping, lived experiences of it presented in this collection. Many of the essays are culled from late ’70s publications; there are a few retrospectives from the ’80s, and then several very recent interviews. It’s well summed up by this bit from Simon Reynolds, one of the more famous thinkers on the subject and most recently author of Shock and Awe:
“Punk haunts rock critical thinking as teasing proof that a unity of alienation existed once, can therefore exist again … There never was a consensus over its scope or aims or defining actions. Punk was really the opening of a discourse who subject was: WHAT’S PUNK? (i.e. what’s music for, what power can art have?). Punk is best defined as ‘disturbance’—a clamour and congestion of claims and stances” (263).
He then proceeds to chart several of these territories: punk as estrangement from normal life, as political responsibility, as style war, as incompetence, as outrage, as pub rock. The disparate pieces collected in Punk Is Dead ultimately prove to be a gorgeously nuanced quilting job. Every contribution is thick with description, shot through with substantive critical thinking, and assured by self-awareness in the earnest yet unserious extreme. It will generate quite a to-do list for any reader, whether one’s area of interest in confined to music, or invested in other things like poetry, film, and fashion. Take this fine distinction made by Nicholas Rhombes: “There are films about punk. And there are movies that are punk not in their content, but in the conditions of their creation. And there are movies that are both about punk and perform punk aesthetics in the mode of their production” (219).
The result is that punk—discussed in the book as well as very cleverly performed by it—is perhaps best interpreted as a specific mode of critical impulse. It’s not a mode of critique that appeals to everyone for two reasons: 1. because it’s often mean and 2. because it’s a series of collapsible paradoxes that self-defeat. Penny Rimbaud, who somehow survives to be now in his mid-’70s, can still dispense with any reticence based on the former complaint: “Although it might not seem a good enough justification to say that it was punk to behave [badly] like that, I can see now, in our desperate attempts to redefine ourselves, that it probably is: we were attempting to create a new future by trashing the past and, until that job was done, maybe there was no other way forward for us” (172).
As to the second objection, well, that’s postmodernism for you. Cabut and Gallix do an expert job of stacking up the laughter to hedge against any ugly, sneaking suspicion that punk goes nowhere. C’mon, punk is everywhere! No aspect of modern popular culture has proved immune to the proliferation of punk’s ideas. These essays make boredom and irony and all the inanities of our modern existence seem very livable, even fun and intriguing. Also, inescapable—haha! Look at the Human Condition, summarized here by Tony Drayton, founder of legendary punk fanzines Ripped & Torn and Kill Your Pet Puppy: “Cynical enthusiasm meant reveling in the scene while harbouring the belief that it was bound to go wrong. It wasn’t a sense of cool. Cool isn’t cool because if you’re cool then you don’t show you’re cool—that means you’d be acting cool, which is uncool!” (202).
Punk Is Dead must be consumed slowly. It’s spunky, thinky, and original. It disdains skinheads. It celebrates the contributions of queers and women. Judy Nylon wrote the foreword. Do you know who she is? How about Dorothy Max Prior? Pamela Rooke (also known as Jordan, or also Amyl Nitrite)? This book shows there’s ever so much more to punk life than Malcolm McLaren, though every single one of these contributors can spend as much time waxing poetic about 430 King’s Road as about Situationism. Oh, just look it up already.