The most distinctive aspect about punk music is that fact that it hard, fast, and loud. This is the common thread that links punk music throughout the years together. The punks bands in the 1970’s, such as the Sex Pistols, set this tone. However throughout the years punk music has gone through many changes that often correlate to bands specific ideologies and political backgrounds.
The Early Punk Bands: The Sex Pistols Vs Crass
The Sex Pistols
In 1978 the British band the Sex Pistols produced an album entitled “Nevermind The Bullocks.” This album was immediately banned in the UK after three days of being on the shelf. This was because it featured the word “Bullocks” in the title and the lyrics in songs criticized the government. This album also housed some of the Sex Pistols most famous songs, such as “God Save the Queen” and “Anarchy in the UK.” Both of these songs consisted of a basic 4/4 tempo and typical rock and roll instruments, such as a guitar, a bass guitar, drums, and lead vocals.
When listening to “God Save the Queen”, the song is not particularly loud. When playing it on a home stereo you can set the volume at a regular level. The lyrics are also clear and repetitive. The first verse starts off with “God save the Queen, the fascist regime, they made you a moron, a potential H-bomb.” Similar the first verse every other verse after this one starts off with the phrase “God save the Queen.” Between each line in the verses the lead guitar “answers” the line sung. For example, the first line, “God Save the Queen”, is three notes long and the guitar “answers” the line with three notes. The next line is then three notes, “the fascist regime”, and the guitar answers again in three notes. There are two more lines in each verse and the pattern repeats itself. There are a total of seven verses (verse six is a repeat of verse three) in the entire song.
Even though the lyrics of “God Save the Queen” were considered treason in England, the music itself was well put together. When talking with Joe, a professional drummer of thirty years, he claimed that the Sex Pistols music was very produced. This is clear when listening to “God Save the Queen.” Each instrument is easy to make out. The vocals always stay at a higher level above the music while the guitar and drums are clear. Each note of the guitar solos is audible, while each beat that the drums are precise. The music itself seems to lack a sense of hard noise that other punk music of the movement represented. Overall, “God Save the Queen” is clear and repetitive. When the song came out the lyrics were highly offensive and fulfilled the punk ideology about anti-conformity. After the first verse the next line is “Don’t be told what you want. Don’t be told what you need. There’s you.” However, musically the song seems to conform to the standard form ideal of produced music for the time.
Click here to see sheet music for “God Save the Queen”
Click here to see sheet music for “Anarachy in the U.K.”
Similar to the Sex Pistols, Crass was another punk band that started out in the late seventies. However, different from the Sex Pistols, Crass stayed as an independent music group. Their songs were also about anti-capitalism and anti-conformity, but different then the Sex Pistols their music embodies this. In the song entitled “Banned from the Roxy”, off the album “Christ”, there is a voice at the beginning of the song that describes the bands ideology about punk music. They start off by describing the concert venture the Roxy as a place where punk bands got their start. They then go on to say: “Punk came out to air its dirty wings crashing out from the stagnant mire that was the Beach Boys sperm at Malibu Beach, The Beatles death pickings at Madison Square Garden. The Pistols, The Dammed, The Clash, The Stranglers, The Jam. New sounds, new vocabulary, the dirty little Roxy bounced to the new energy and Wall Street in the city pricked up their dollar ringing ears. Within six months the new anarchy was bought out. The capitalist counter revolutionaries killed with cash. Punk went from being a movement of change to becoming the biggest media bonanza sense hippie, in six months it became a burnt out memory of how it might have been. Bought up, cleaned up, souped up. Just another cheap product for the consumers head.” After the voice over is finished the song continues. The song appears to be a live recording and the lyrics are almost completely inaudible. The overall sound is one of distortion. Many other songs by Crass also start with voiceovers discussing left wing politics. For example, the song “Major General Despair” (also off of the Christ album) does not start until a minute into it. When the actual song does begin the lead vocals appear to be fighting with the music. When listening closely I can make out the lyrics, however the voice is somewhat distorted. At one point in the song, the lead singer speaks the lyrics in a monotone voice while, the music appears to be distorted in the background. It is also hard to distinguish what sounds are coming from which instruments.
In the early eighties Crass was offered a major record contract by EMI records, however they turned it down. Craig O’Hara quotes a punk fanzine, in the Philosophy of Punk, stating “Crass ran themselves on a self-sufficient basics organizing their own tour, records and distribution. Their sole concern was to make enough money to live, not to have top 40 hits or play a large stadium” (O’Hara, p. 160). By not signing to a major record label, Crass helped to create the do-it-yourself (DIY) ideology that the punk movement fought for. Different then the Sex Pistols who signed to a few different major labels, Crass signed to none. This appears to be a major reason why their music sounds more like “anarchy.” Crass did to have to conform to any social norms, unlike the Sex Pistols.
The 1980s Hardcore Movement: Dead Kennedy’s Vs. Seven Seconds
The Dead Kennedy’s
By the 1980’s the punk movement had moved into a new genre of “hardcore” music. This music appeared to be even louder, faster and less audible then the music that existed before it. Similar to Crass, the band the Dead Kennedy’s kept to the same political do-it-yourself mentality. They did not sign to any major record label and fought for many social causes. Their music was also experimental like Crass’ including voiceovers and comedy in certain songs.
One song in particular that the Dead Kennedy’s made was “MTV get off the Air.” The song starts off with young children singing and then goes into a voice imitating a Video Disc Jockey (VJ) from MTV. When first listening to the song you are not sure if it a punk song or not. The beat is 4/4 tempo, however there are no loud, fast, or hard sounds. This continues for about the first minute of the song and then it breaks. A barely audible voice from a distance shouts, “MTV get off the air” and the beat picks up. The lyrics then match the beat and the repetitive shout of “MTV off the air” is sung by many voices. However, it is sung in a specific rhythm of “MTV get off the, MTV get off the, MTV get off the air. Get the air. Get off the air” (with the same rhythm of how it would be spoken). For the last third of the song they introduce a trumpet and voice changes again to become more audible and the “noise” seems to drop out.
Another hardcore band that came out of this punk movement was a band called 7 Seconds. On a live recording of the song “Sooner or Later” is featured. This song is much different from the Dead Kennedy’s sound. Their sound seems to be more simple and direct. The guitar mimics the vocals and the vocals mimic the drums through quick fast rhythms. The tonalities of the vocals become another part of the music because the singer fails to meet “conventional singer standards.” His voice sounds strained and the syllables are indistinguishable. Song the song is then over almost as soon as it starts, it is about one minute in length.
While the Dead Kennedy’s appear to directly attack capitalism and conformity through lyrics, Seven Seconds attacks anti-conformity through its actual music. Their music appears to be an outward aggression of the typical original punk ideology of “Fuck you.” A lifetime hardcore fan, Christopher, describes their music, as “Simple.” The chord progression from the lyrics to the drums beats are all hard, fast, and loud, but simple. Seven seconds seems to embody the Hardcore punk ideal of eliminating all outside chemical stimulants through the use of basic sounds.
Current Punk Music: Anti-Flag Vs Blink 182
Today punk bands still struggle to keep the spirit of punk alive. One band in particular is Anti-Flag. Similar Crass and the Dead Kennedy’s, Anti-Flag is also on their own independent label. The band sings about left wing politics and encompasses the raw noise that Seven Seconds creates. The song “A New Kind of Army” is about creating an army that is against killing and fighting. Each verse seems to follow an “up and down” rhythm between the guitar and vocals. While the vocals keep a consistent pace that match the drums, the guitar seems to hit it chords on the “up” beats. This gives the song a “catchy” feel. The chorus in this song is also similar to the verses in “God Save the Queen.” However, in “A New Kind of Army” the background vocals and the guitar mimic the lead vocals. The lines consist of “We’re looking to start “A new kind of army” and the background vocals sing “Too smart to fight, too smart to die” while the guitar mimics this.
Anti-Flag also managers to fit too many syllables into the measures during the chorus. In four beats they manage to fit the words “We’re looking to start a new kind of army” when conventional music would fill the measure with “We’re looking to start a new army.” In fact I listened to the song for seven weeks strait, live, and I never heard the lyric until I listened to it on CD.
Click here to go to Anti-Flag’s offical website
Anti-Flag appears to keep the original punk ideology afloat, while other commercial bands such as Blink 182 seem to exploit the fashion of punk. Blink 182 is a band from Southern California that has made it mainstream. Their lyrics contain almost no political value and their videos are played quite frequently on MTV. In the past few years one of their hit songs on the radio was called “All the Small Things.” The song has the same 4/4 tempo as punk and has similar guitar riffs. The chorus consists of lyrics such as “Turn the lights off, I will not go. Turn the lights low, carry me home.” However, besides their clothes I see very little similarities to any genre of punk music.
What most punk bands have in common is a high energy level at a live concert. This feeling rarely lends itself to produced musical recordings. As Tricia Henry describes in her book, Break All the Rules!, the energy level at a Sex Pistols concert was incredible. She states, “The atmosphere was one of unleashed fury, emotional overload, and sensual assault. The energy level was awesome” (Henry, p. 87). Not only would the Sex Pistols physically assault the audience members but they would also turn their amps to the maximum volume and begin to play regardless of the size of the room. As any sound engineer would tell you, when all the amps at a concert are turned up to their maximum volume, it is almost impossible to distinctly make out different instruments and voices. This is probably one of the reasons that I could not determine the song lyrics to Anti-Flag’s songs. Instead I was left with an overall feeling of chaos from the music.
The more political a punk band becomes the less famous they seem to be. Punk band ideologies most often manifest their way into the music. Even though the Sex Pistols were challenging the English government, their music made it mainstream because their sound was more understandable to the mainstream public then Crass. The Sex Pistols belief in an anti-capitalistic society was also not as strong as Crass’ beliefs because they chose the sign with a major record label. While, the Dead Kennedy’s may embody the do-it-yourself (DIY) ideology through their means of production, Seven Seconds appears to reach for a raw and violent noise to express their point. The Dead Kennedy’s never made it main stream, but are probably more well know by mainstream society then Seven Seconds, because their music is not as hard, loud, or fast. Finally, Anti-Flag still holds true to the belief of anti-conformity and has not made it mainstream and probably never will. While in the meantime, Blink 182 seems to embody capitalism and conformity and has made the Top 40 hit charts. Once a punk band decides to conform to the social norms of society, that band is no longer punk.