Saturday, January 10, 2015

Old punks don't die, they just play metal

I was listening to the NYT Music popcast recently and came across an old episode about metal with the poet Michael Robbins. He and NYT's Ben Ratliffe remarked how punk didn't seem to age - people didn't grow old with punk. At the same time, I've been listening to crust legends Amebix, and reading criticism by punks about how they went metal. Which got me thinking about how punk doesn't age. Most of the punk bands I can think of that didn't burn out early either went metal or some other genre. To whit:

Black Flag went metal. They started incorporating  Black Sabbath riffs in their first proper album. Other artists that went metal include Bad Brains, Descendants, Discharge, and GBH. Subhumans last album was metal. I'd argue that the whole Epitaph/Fat Wreck Chords sound is essentially punky metal.

Other bands went in an alt-rock path, like 7 Seconds, Husker Du, and Stiff Little Fingers. Still others went roots - I'm thinking X especially, and Joe Strummer's solo work. Hell, the Clash weren't a punk band by their third album.

The whole first wave of punk bands stopped being punk by the 80s. Johnny Rotten's band after the Sex Pistols was PiL, who were not punk at all. Mick Jones of the Clash formed a dance/hip-hop/reggae hybrid. The singer of the New York Dolls became a crooner. Most of the new wave bands had members who had started out in punk bands.

Even looking at how the genre evolved, it went in a metal direction. Crusty punk, which was pioneered by Amebix and further refined by Doom and a host of d-beat bands is basically a punk riff on Motorhead, built around chugging guitars. Grindcore is owned as much by metal as punk, and the bands on punks extreme could be categorized as metal.

Looking at contemporary punk bands, Fucked Up have basically become a rock band with a punk vocalist, Trash Talk have strong metal elements about them, and many of the other so-called punk bands either veer towards post-punk or some other genre.

I think the reason for this is that punk, while a vital and energizing form of music, is extremely limited. It depends on playing fast and loud and simple. Once you learn how to actually play and want to do something beyond three chords, you end up moving into different musical territory. Near me there is an unincorporated community called Kensington that is less than one square mile and has a population of about 5,100. It's small. If you walk to far in any direction, you leave it. And it doesn't want to grow. Punk is a little like Kensington, narrowly focused, encompassing a limited musical geography, and resistant to expanding that geography.

This isn't to disparage punk at all - it is and remains one of my favorite types of music, and the early albums and singles by the classic punk bands are musical treasures. I'm not dissing "Nervous Breakdown" or "Out of Step" or "The Punch Line" or any of it. It is interesting, however, to examine why punk bands don't tend to have long careers, and why so often it is the early albums by punk bands that remain the most highly revered (this isn't true across the board, and it is also true of many non-punk bands). Punk is important, but it is not music that is conducive to mastery.

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