Punk Repunked

Source: Nation, November 2, 1992

by By Gene Santoro

The received wisdom on punk, that explosion of energy in mid-1970s rock, goes basically like this: Post-1960s rockers had become bloated and pretentious--so-called progressive bands like Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer, who flailed away at pastiches they called "suites" or badly refried classical chestnuts like "Pictures at an Exhibition." Radio had already frozen into the prototype of today's strict market segmentation after its free-format heyday. Corporate rock--a combination of bland, interchangeable licks and sobbing vocals with a touch of inchoate rage about heartache-filled arenas in the form of groups like Journey and Foreigner. It was the trough following the exploratory tidal wave of the preceding decade.

Punk, the story goes, changed all that. Hippie - the subculture personified by bands like the Grateful Deadbecame an epithet. Pre-hippie dinosaurs like the Rolling Stones and the Who were dismissed as old farts. Three-minutes-and-under tunes, blasting at neck-snapping speeds, suddenly became the order of the day. Solos were out. Technical polish disappeared in the firestorm of deliberately amateur, I-just-picked-this-up-for-the-first-time-this-afternoon thrashings that reflected the garage-band ethos at rock's roots. Politics, leftist or anarchist or simply rejectionist, reappeared in lyrics. Sum it up by saying that what returned to rock was attitude, the curled sneer and piss-off shrug that has fired the hearts of rockers since the early 1950s.

All generalizations, including this one, are false, runs the old conundrum. It's no less true for the thumbnail sketch above. As usual, history itself is messier than the overlays we'd like to impose on it. What's really interesting are the revaluations that hindsight and history's own twists bring. Take Aerosmith. They started life as a sort of down-market Stones, pitching singles at the teeny-bop crowd. Because of that, early rappers Run-D.M.C., who grew up on their music, did a remake of "Walk This Way," one of Aerosmith's 1970s chart-toppers, that became an early hip-hop crossover hit. That led to joint appearances and the resuscitation of a band that, frighteningly enough, probably sounds better today than the first time around.

Frightening, because things aren't supposed to work like that in rock and roll. The mythology is still live fast, crash, burn, and push the envelope along the way. But as the mythology collides increasingly with the actual fact of rock's longevity, the music is beginning to reflect its history. As happened in the revivals of the early 1960s, bands are covering tunes that could be considered the rock equivalent of standards--songs by the likes of the Stonesand the Velvet Underground. In some ways, that's because rock's history looks like it's closing, thanks to the inevitable generational shift that's propelling hip-hop, one of its offspring. With the pressure to be at the cutting edge lifted off it, rock can take the time to reflect--and continue, like bebop, as the musical mainstream's underlying syntax. Maybe. Or it can dwindle into the kind of timeless twilight the big bands now inhabit. Or maybe the two are inseparable.

Television has stepped out of that twilight, though you'd never know they'd been gone from "Television" (Capitol). They sound like... well, Television, but they're not exactly a rerun. The band was one of the critics' darlings of mid-1970s CBGBland, when protopunk and proto-New Wave were being birthed at the Bowery dive with the flophouse overhead. The quartet, featuring the dueling guitars of Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd, refracted jazz influences (Verlaine adored Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler) and sixties psychedelia (he loved the Grateful Dead, also jazz-influenced, and Jefferson Airplane as well). The guitar duo strafed each other in stretched-out jams, while bassist Fred Smith drove or floated and drummer Billy Ficca nailed the four-four into the audience's skulls. In other words, they drew from sources and played in ways that punkers, their alleged descendants, loved to hate.

That was live. On disc, the critics' darlings (who never even broke into six-figure sales - so much for the power of the press) edited things to a tighter-lipped ferocity. Television (which is to say Verlaine, who steadfastly refused to share composing credits with the band) made songs. Moody, raunchy, delicate or hurtling, their tunes are such stuff as dreams are made of.

Their ellipses make them so. The best of them haunt because of their very unpunklike hovering suggestiveness. (Lyricist Verlaine, who changed his name from Miller after the symbolist poet, is an apt student.) Glimpses of the underlying tale flash, dart, disappear. Listening is like watching the lostin-the-funhouse finale of Orson Welles's Lady From Shanghai, where killers stalk each other by means of misleading reflections in an endless series of facing mirrors.

It's not surprising that the band always says how centrally important Ficca's high-hat is to their idiosyncratic sound - which underlines one of the more curious aspects of Television's music. Like Verlaine's elliptical lyrics, the accompanying sounds are shards. Now, rock's African roots, along with its American pop heritage, tend to make it riffbased. In its best examples, short repeated phrases cycle around, and those tags create a call-and-response atmosphere that yields a forward thrust-what jazzers call swing. But Television creates its swing in a characteristically odd fashion. Guitar riffs stuff each tune, gyring around one another like a sometimes exquisite, sometimes snarling series of dissolves and overlaps. But the underlying beat would seem static, flatfooted to a jazzer - slam, slam, slam. There's no real bounce. Nevertheless, the tense space between the two elements, the cast-in-stone foundations and the soaring, kaleidoscopic riffs, opens up its own strange throttle. It's like idling at 120 mph.

What's fascinating about Television, made more than a decade after the group first drifted apart, is how it picks up pretty much where they left off. It's almost as if the suspension of time that lurks between rock beats the way they play them magically reflects how history itself eddies around the band. On the one hand, aside from expanded guitar sounds there's little evidence from the disc that anything that's happened musically over the past dozen years has had any effect on what they do. On the other, why should it? They foreshadowed much of what did happen, and the sound they evolved for themselves was so strong and defined, why shouldn't they just be themselves?

It's a conundrum rockers face more directly than other musicians or artists, because of the high premium rock has always seemed to place on change. Naturally, there's been a struggle between the push for innovation and the desire to hear what's already been said in slightly different form: That's part of the essence of any populist format. And here in what appears to be the music's Gotterdammerung, change is even more often only a facade. One of Television's early CBGB cohabitants, the Talking Heads, made a career out of transformations, but they could get away with it partly because their appeal hung from David Byrne's nerdy and neurotic persona, which was a constant, and partly because their oddball videos helped fuel early MTV. It's not that rock history has ended completely, as Fukiyama would have it. Almost any disc by Prince or harbingers like James McMurtry's engagingly recombinant Candyland (Columbia) or P.J. Harvey's fabulously raw Dry (Island) makes mincemeat out of that generalization. But as the pileup of reunions, reissues and regurgitations (like Seattle-based psychedelia) demonstrates, the emphasis in rock culture has inevitably swung to a kind of cultural conservatism that embraces even those fiercest of in-the-moment crusaders, the punks. It especially applies to punk's godfathers, the Ramones.

There are two central ironies to the Ramones. The first is that their main cultural importance comes from how British would-be punks misunderstood them when the band toured Britain in 1976. Malcolm McLaren and the Sex Pistols rather creatively expanded their bad-boys-in-the-high-school-playground routine into larger social contexts, for instance. The second is that they've effectively become the Grateful Dead of their rock-and-roll generation. They've only written about three songs, and they play them with the same repetitive determination that the aging tie-dye set brings to acid jams.

Of course, the best thing about the Ramones was and is their goofball humor. Who else would have taken a doofy rock "classic" like "Do You Wanna Dance" and sped it up to undanceable speeds? Or created a teen anthem so true to the Reagan era that its title, "I Wanna Be Sedated," could encapsulate it? Now, on Mondo Bizarro (Radioactive), their song titles tell it: "Censorshit," "Cabbies on Crack," "The Job That Ate My Brain." "Anxiety keeps me happy," they sing in their pathetically thin, nasal voices; "It's a crazy world and I'm crazy." Pummeling their trademark power chords and slam-dunk beats, clarifying (or reducing) rock and roll to its bare bones, they make you believe their cartoon, just as before, even if they've got seemingly unlikely sidekicks like ex-Turtles Flo and Eddie (hyperconscious cartoons themselves) on board. Still, the art of appearing artless lies close to the populist heart of rock and roll. So the Ramones have earned their spot in the music's history sheerly by managing to avoid seeming as self-conscious as they inevitably are after almost two decades. After all, in case you've been so sedated you've forgotten about "Do You Wanna Dance," Mondo Bizarro includes a campy, revved-up remake of "Take It as It Comes" by the Doors, who've been the big 1960s nostalgia icons for years.

The English protopunkers who caught the Ramones' first British tour came from all across the rock spectrum, as The Stiff Records Box Set (Rhino) illustrates. This four-CD collection, "electronically recorded" in "mono enhanced stereo," recaps (complete with tongue-in-cheek booklet essay) the history of that seminal, delightfully silly label of the mid-to-late 1970s. In the process it underscores just how diverse the roots and faces of punk actually were. The collection includes the obvious and necessary (Nick Lowe, Dave Edmunds, Elvis Costello, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Joe "King" Carrasco, Graham Parker, Wreckless Eric, Ian Dury and the Blockheads), along with lots of lesser and forgotten lights, some of whom barely flickered even then. In that way it reminds me of the larger (nine CDs), more expensive, wonderful, but revealingly uneven The Complete Stax-Volt Singles 1958-1969 (Atlantic). If you can afford these boxes or can cop a listen to a rich friend's copies, they make for a congenial walk down memory lane that's inadvertently useful at the same time, because it works out any nostalgic twinges you might be getting about the good old days. Most rock and roll, like most of any species of cultural artifact, is junk, but junk functions as cultural lubricant. Both the Stiff and the Stax-Volt sets are full of junk. Some of it is swell.