In this, my third post on the aesthetics of punk rock, I will continue my examination of Jesse Prinz’s idea (as detailed in “The Aesthetics of Punk Rock”) that punk rock (in its various forms) is characterized by three qualities:
The topic of this post and the next is amateurism. (See here for the introductory post, and here for the post on nihilism. As already noted in previous posts, I don’t have much to say about irreverence.)
Prinz divides his discussion of amateurism into two sub-topics: amateurism as reflected in the minimalistic, raw sonic qualities of the music itself (and its means of production) and amateurism as reflected in the do-it-yourself (DIY) attitude that prevailed in the punk culture more generally (including, but not limited to, the music itself). While Prinz is right that punk is often amateurish, in this post I am going to focus on the (I think mistaken) idea that punk rock is characterized by purposefully amateurish composition and playing styles. The fourth post in this series will then focus on the connection between amateurism and the DIY aspects of punk.
Prinz writes that:
… punk bands often play in ways that imply a lack of proficiency with their instruments or lack of vocal training. Punk eschews ostentatious displays of “talent” that had become mainstays of ’70s rock (e.g. complex guitar solos or operatic vocals). Many punk performers are actually skilled musicians, but the prevailing ethos says: we just picked up some instruments and started playing in our basement. (p. 586)
Now, it is certainly true that many punk rock bands started out by just picking up their instruments and learning to play along the way. But we should not confuse the first two claims below with the third:
- Many early punk bands (and many later punk bands in their earlier days) sounded amateurish (often because they were, in fact, amateurs!) TRUE!
- Punk rock, to various extents in its various forms, is characterized by a fast, simple, raw style of musical composition and playing. TRUE!
- Punk rock uncritically values amateurish composition and musicianship over more polished work. FALSE!
To be clear: I am not accusing Prinz of making this mistake (although I do think an less-than-careful, uncharitable reading of his essay could encourage this view). But I do think something like (3) is widely accepted – especially by critics of punk and music fans who reject punk in favor of more “professional” or “polished” genres of music. Thus, it is worth looking a bit more closely at the role that amateurism plays in the punk scene.
A recurring theme in interviews with punk pioneers is that early, musically unskilled bands were often booed off the stage by punk crowds, and had to practice in order to get good enough to be allowed to play again. Hardly behavior consistent with a uncritical celebration of amateurism. Consider the following quote from Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols:
Matlock could definitely play… Glen was always trying to show me these complicated chords, which aggravated me even more. I wasn’t interested in his Beatle-type chords. I couldn’t play the chords he tried to show me. If we had played those chords we would have sounded like Dr. Feelgood or one of those pub rock bands. (in Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs, John Lydon, p. 78, emphasis added)
It is easy to misinterpret this passage (via misreading the force of “couldn’t”) in terms of Jones admitting he wasn’t good enough to play the fancy chords that Glen Matlock showed him, feeding into the legend that Matlock was fired for being ‘too good’ and Sid Vicious named his replacement for playing ‘worse’ (in addition to Sid’s obvious advantages over Matlock in terms of punk rock image). But the final sentence, I think, tells the real story – Jones, as is evident to anyone who listens to Never Mind the Bollocks (where he played both the guitar and most of the bass tracks) – was no doubt competent enough to play in the more technically sophisticated manner preferred by Matlock. But part of the punk ethos involved an explicit rejection – not of musical competence or expertise – but of the musical complexity and pretension the punk scene associated with the musical movements of the sixties and earlier.
One of Prinz’s data points regarding the role of amateurism in punk is his observation that the Advert’s song “One Chord Wonders” celebrates:
“… the idea that anyone can start a band and that doing so would rescue music from commercial interests and return in [sic] to the bands” (p. 586)
This is, in one sense, a perfectly correct analysis of the song, but it also (understandably, given the briefness of Prinz’s discussion) overlooks some of the subtleties. The Adverts are celebrating the democratic element of punk that allowed anyone to grab an instrument and immediately start a band, but the song is more complex than this: There is also a clear satirical self-mocking aspect to the song (after all, despite the song having more than one chord, the playing on this single is relatively amateurish) which is in part due to TV Smith’s exceptional song-writing ability. As a result, the song might be celebrating the fact that punk rock can be amateurish, but it’s hard to square Smith’s obvious songwriting talent (and the band’s later musical development, despite their brief existence) with a reading of the song where it endorses the claim that punk must be (or must sound) amateurish.
Lest anyone think that the compatibility of the punk scene with non-amateur musicianship was specific to the late 1970s British scene, consider Sara Marcus’ observations regarding the Dischord-era Washington DC scene:
While most Oly [Olympia Washington] punks had gone to Evergreen – public, inexpensive, experimental – DC’s punks had attended some of the country’s best public and private high schools. In the place of Olympia’s de-skilled musical collectives, DC grew polished bands from teens who had taken piano lessons in elementary school or recieved electric guitars as birthday presents before their small fingers could even press down a barre chord. (Girls to the Front, 2010, p. 77)
A nice example is the godfather of the DC scene – Ian MacKaye – who learned both piano and guitar as a child.
So punk rock embraces a simple, raw sound, and consciously eschewes complicated musical styles and techniques associated with pub rock, hippy rock, and other, earlier musical movements. As a result the bar, with respect to talent and training, for entering the punk scene as a musician is in some sense lower than that for other musical genres. But this in no way entails that the music must be (or sound) amateurish. And, focusing for a moment on guitarists, anyone who has listened carefully to East Bay Ray (Raymond John Pepperell, Dead Kennedys), Dr. Know (Gary Miller, Bad Brains), Greg Ginn (Black Flag), Captain Sensible (Raymond Ian Burns, The Damned) or Billy Joe Armstrong (Green Day) knows that there are plenty of punk bands where the musicians display a level of virtuosity that rivals that of musicians in any other genre.
So where did the idea that punk rock bands should sound like amateur musicians (regardless of their actual skill level) come from? I think that one of the primary sources of the:
punk = bad playing
equation is what I would like to call the myth of Sid Vicious. The story of Sid Vicious (John Simon Ritchie) is often told along the following lines: Not long after the Sex Pistols exploded on the London scene, and before they recorded Never Mind the Bollocks, Glen Matlock was forced out of the band so that Vicious – rabid Pistols fan, fashion plate for the developing punk scene, and friend of Johnny Rotten – could take over the bass duties, despite the fact that Sid couldn’t play (and as a result didn’t play on the album). The idea behind the many tellings of this story (which often disagree on the details), presumably, is that the actual music didn’t matter as much as image and attitude, and Vicious had both, and hence was better for the band (and for its association with Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s Sex shop).
Now, it’s true that Vicious couldn’t play bass when he joined the band, although he had been in other bands before joining the Pistols: He fronted (and apparently played saxophone(?) in) Flowers of Romance, and played drums in an early incarnation of Siouxsie and the Banshees. But, both before he joined the Pistols and afterwards, Vicious put a tremendous amount of energy into learning how to play (until heroin got in the way, of course). At one point (according to Viv Albertine) he stayed up for two nights straight on speed learning to play the first Ramones LP (and could play it all at the end of this bender). He got Lemmy Kilmister (of Motörhead fame) to give him bass lessons while he was crashing on Lemmy’s couch. And he was, by all accounts, a competent (even if not much more than competent) bassist by the time the Sex Pistols embarked on their ill-fated US tour in 1977.
So even Sid Vicious – the poster boy for the association of punk rock and musical incompetence – realized that the music would be better if his playing got better. He may have never gotten much past amateurish playing, but even he didn’t believe that punk in general, or his playing in particular, should be purposefully amateurish. And neither should we.