Punk the superword

August 7, 2010

Right, I’m reading this and all its attendant conversations. It’s fascinating and exciting and reminds me a tiny bit of my exchange with Danny O’Brien the other day. Except much less friendly of course. At the heart of all this is a blog post by the late music writer Steven ‘Swells’ Wells, responding to an article about punk, by someone called Dom who also writes about music. But first of all, let’s see what Dom said:

“My beef is with punk as a superword, as an idea, as a concept. There’s a tacit acceptance amongst music writers that punk was some kind of musical Red October, an audio-revolution that every other subsequent cultural movement has to be measured against.”

I think he’s dead right. It sounds quite jealous, all the stuff he goes on to say about aging music writers being to blame – but there are some points that can’t be denied. There is a sense in which the word ‘punk’ gets nailed to moments in time, to bands, and to events and philosophies to authenticate them. The resulting faux authenticity lasts forever, and every other moment in time must attempt to match up to like a pitied younger sibling. Everything from the magnificent history of hip-hop to grime to Agyness Deyn must be tested out as a potential ‘answer to punk’.

Cue Wells’s hugely entertaining blogpost (and by the way, this is how it’s done, Charlie Brooker fans). He mainly really responds to the point that old duffers like himself should stop going on about 1977 “and be killed” but there’s also this:

“Dom Passantino and his fellow oldsterphobes are calling for a new year zero – A Dom’s-day if you will… the new year zero – says Passantio – is 1997. Why? Because that was the day Britpop died (at fucking last) and paved the way for the seminal (in the literal sense of that word) album of the fucking millennia […] Belle and Sebastian’s epic, epoch molesting, planet shattering, cosmos birthing, atomic thunderclap of a stone cold rockin’ classic Chicks, Drugs and Harleys – Bring it the Fuck On.”

Hehe Dom’s Day! Personally, I can’t get behind the idea of a new year zero as 1997, but I think for a lot of people around my age, it probably already is. The significance of 90s music seems HUGE to those of us who were teenagers then, and incrementally smaller the older you were at the time. Not only do we have a need to hold things up against a glory day, we are also more or less programmed to find authenticity in own youth just in order to understand what authenticity is.

I know all that. But I’m sorry Dom, I just can’t do it. I can’t bring myself to think for one second that we had any kind of real battles to fight, as kids growing up in the UK in the 90s, or that we ‘deserve’ our own ground zero (actually: is this all about my generation’s appalling, all-consuming, poisonous sense of entitlement?). Dom is probably correct that the endless reinforcement of The Importance Of Punk comes from those who were around then, a generation who have dominated criticism (across numerous media) for decades now. But the truth is, I’d still much rather hear about it than about Britpop or any of the other fashion-motivated, philosophically-bereft movements that have spun past in my lifetime. And I’d rather hear it from a 50 year old who remembers it than a 25 year old writer or comedian riding the coat-tails, imagining they’re perpetuating the ‘DIY ethic’ when all they’re really doing is being lazy*.

However, one of the reasons I find punk interesting is because it has been so appropriated. It’s such a useful word that it has resonated through every other aspect of our culture, and statistically, sometimes it’ll end up being used to describe something important. Look around – its leering face is everywhere you go, from Banksy to the blogosphere to Adam Curtis’s critique of ‘hippies’ on our podcast. In a way, who cares about the date? Who cares what happened at the time? Look at what’s happened since.

Sorry, back to the the blog post. The comments begin. Wells is pretty good to the cheeky young upstart, especially to start with. He thinks Dom’s “absolutely right” to hate his generation, but asks: what does he think of the “blandroids” populating the world of music writing since? Well Dom himself wades into the comments bog around lunchtime and hones his point:

“And if there’s one thing Boomers love above all else, it’s putting forward the belief that their generation was the last one that had any opportunity to change anything, and if they failed at anything, then there’s no chance any future generations will succeed […] Therefore, for this schtick to wash, the punks had to remove all evidence that the previous boomers (greasers, beatniks, hippies, to a lesser extent the disco kids) had tried to change the world and pretty much crapped out […] At the end of the day, the majority of music writers over 30 in this country strongly resemble generals fighting the previous war.”

But how much did people really revere punk after in the aftermath? Wells hits back with:

“You tilt at imagined punk windmills. The swine who dominated the music press from about 1981 onwards hated everything about punk. Except maybe the fucking sleevenotes. Looks like the forces of righteousness lost those particular battles”.

Dom counters:

“What do you mean by the swine of 81? […] I believe that your gang actually give a shit, which is why you’re still around. I’m just not sure that you’ve ‘helped'”

Then Wells delivers the payload, which is grrrreat:

“All I’ve ever asked is that concepts like ‘authenticity’ and ‘credibility’ be tested and examined against some real world criteria now and then, so they can’t be used as a smokescreen to disguise indie’s glacier-like slide into the unquestioned and unchallenged white/male, middle class comedy of conformity […]

“I like teasing pop haters (who are more often than not women-haters) because it is they who have—for decades now—fucked thing up with their cloth ears and mild autism and unexamined racism, sexism, homophobia and privilege (and yes, I know, kettle-pot, but the plank in my fucking eye is scrutinised on a daily basis […] Your point about punk being the sting in the tail of baberboomdom, by the way, is brilliant. Esp. as we saw/see/sold ourselves as the enemies of babyboomerdom (aka the hippies)”

Marvel now, as Dom dematerialises from the thread and reappears two years later thoroughly wrapped up in another Swells-related antagonism on another blog. Here a new opponent enters the ring. As everyone knows, the excellent David Quantick, who came on our show and gave me a quote for my book, was a good friend of Swells. Anyone following Quantick’s tweets when his friend died in 2009 will testify to the impact it had on him.

But it seems Dom engages in ‘deadpooling’ – placing wagers on the end-dates of terminally ill celebrities. Yes, you know where this is going. Slightly surprisingly, maybe, given the lengthy and interesting exchange they took part in back in 2008, Dom cheerfully placed bets on Steven Wells. Well, Quantick got in touch to complain, Dom did a blog about it, Quantick replied… and it’s deja vu all over again.

* Further notes about wilful amateurism on the comments of my Danny O’Brien blog post – essentially I believe there’s no honour in producing crap anymore; things must have some integrity about them, either in content or production values. Technology is available now. You can’t get away with scrimping on both.


5 Responses to “Punk the superword”

  1. Dom Passantino Says:

    Just want to point out I never had Swells on my team in 2009, because during our email back-and-forths I tactfully asked him about his health and he seemed to think he had another couple of years in him (this would have been arse-end of 08). So in the end, he boyed me good and proper.

  2. Danny O'Brien Says:

    Blog post I’l never get around to writing: a critique of Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not A Gadget from the perspective of his position as a late-Boomer.

    I actually rather enjoyed the book, but there was one particularly dull and self-involved bit which I was grinding through thinking “God, Jaron, you sound like such a fucking Boomer”, and *literally* turned the page to find him talking about how there had no good music since 1990, and how “Generation X” were (accurately) characterized as “blank and inert”. I think because our minds live in hives or something.

    Soon. Soon they will all be dead. And as soon as they are gone, we will go back and rewrite history so punk was invented by Billy Idol and Richard Branson.

  3. enemyofchaos Says:

    Noticed loads of boomer-hate around lately from 20-30 year olds moaning they can’t afford to buy a house, have been left in a world without jobs or job security & won’t get pensions etc. On the other hand, our minds do live in hives.

    ‘I hate you mum!’ vs ‘You kids today don’t know you’re born!’

  4. Dave Says:

    ah, people arguing on the internet – on the plus side: written on April 1st, but apparently keeping punk alive, it’s… Bill Thompson!


    Page last updated at 12:15 GMT, Thursday, 1 April 2010 13:15

    The Day the Web Turned Day-Glo


    The point about Chatroulette is that is has no point, that it strips away the wooden panelling from this finely modelled room we call the internet to reveal all the workings beneath and show that in the end it’s just a space for making connections between people.

    It reminds me of the day in 1977 when I went into the sixth form common room at Southwood Comprehensive School in Corby and my mate Dougie Gordon played me his newly-arrived copy of God Save The Queen and everything I thought I knew about politics, music and revolution coalesced around the Sex Pistols into *a punk sensibility that has stayed with me ever since*.

  5. enemyofchaos Says:

    Are they your asterisks Dave.

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