When rock and roll began to coalesce in the 1950s, it was a dangerous music, unsuitable for respectable persons. Over time, the sharp edge of menace grew dull and was replaced by a thin gruel of antiseptic multi-tracking and endless guitar/keyboard/drum solos.
Or something like that.
The point being, popular music was ripe for revolution. Enter punk rock.
There are as many shades of punk as there are of (wait for the semi-literary reference) grey. My first exposure to the music was in the late 70s/early 80s, which is right about when punk was transforming from one thing to another. Early punk, which traces its roots back to the late 60s in the music of The Stooges and MC5, was a clear outgrowth of early rock and roll: three chords, simple songs, repetitive. Perhaps most importantly, it embodied a do-it-yourself revolution. Anyone could pick up an instrument (although drum sets should be left on the floor) and create music. This was a far cry from progressive rock which required instrumental virtuosity. Punk was soon to move to hardcore which was faster, louder, often angry, and to me remote from the roots of rock and roll.
Here’s an interesting fact about me. Well, a fact at any rate. For the past 35 years I’ve been certain that I don’t like punk rock. Oh sure, I’ve seen the Dead Kennedys twice, X, Iggy Pop, and The Clash; I own every Ramones album; Buzzcocks are one of my favorite groups; I played in a punk band… Why Mr. Burger, the answer is evident: Our author is a punk! The truth is, I don’t think of the groups I love as punk. Early 80s hardcore groups like Minor Threat, extremely aggressive and, at least in my mind, unquenchably angry, defined the one and only brand of punk. Anything similar that I liked I thought of as new wave or some other safe label.
But guess what? Punk comes in many flavors.
Any of these bands are a good start for your introduction to punk, but today we’ll look at the amazing debut album of the Dead Kennedys, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables. This San Francisco band remains unique in the world of American punk, featuring musicians who are equally at home playing vicious vitriolic anthems, riffing on jazzy chord progressions or tying Elvis Presley songs to the rooftop rack of a nitro burning dragster. Led by the indescribable Jello Biafra, these four lads exploded on the punk scene in a napalm-encased conflagration of politics, disturbing imagery, humor and top-notch musicianship. Biafra’s voice is immediately recognizable and his performances are steeped in a teapot of dramatics.
Perhaps one of the most endearing qualities of the band is the combination of serious political lyrics and disturbing imagery with happy-go-lucky music. Take this excerpt from Let’s Lynch the Landlord, backed by some of the happiest music you’ll ever hear:
I tell him, “Turn on the water!”
I tell ‘im, “Turn on the heat!”
Tells me, “All you ever do is complain, yeah.”
Then they search the place when I’m not here
But we can, you know we can
Let’s lynch the landlord man
Guitarist East Bay Ray, a clear influence on my own playing, remains one of my favorites. His lines fit the DK’s songs perfectly while taking unexpected wanderings into deep, dark cobweb-obscured corners, corners revealed only by Ray’s brain-tingling, ice-pick-toting guitar licks. Not typical punk guitaristing.
So there you have it, Punk 101. Take a chance and check out one of the library’s offerings. And look for more punk albums to join the collection in the future. If the punks are united, they will never be divided.