To tell the truth, I’m not a huge fan of middle-aged punk rockers. Perhaps it’s the constantexposure to reunion tours where decades-old feuds are played out to riotous humiliation in geriatric mosh pits, or maybe they just look a little stupid. Having said that, Epix’s four-part series on the history of punk rock, Punk, is an interesting look at the history of a musical genre associated with teenage rebellion, a rejection of establishment societal values and, as the astute MC5’s guitarist Wayne Kramer states, and example of the arc of life itself. Indeed, each of the four parts begins with the slow birth of a geographical and temporal period, its relative rise to the pinnacle of its success and, due to internal and external forces, an inevitableslow decline and death.
Produced by Iggy Pop, acknowledged by many as the father of the genre, the series begins with an apocryphal tale of a young music fan, James Newall Osterberg (the future Iggy Pop), hiding under the covers of his Michigan trailer park bedroom to avoid disturbing his parents while waiting for The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” to burst through the placid offerings of the 1964 music charts. Despite his contention that most music at that time was not worth listening to, that year in music was the only time the R&B and pop charts merged due to similar tastes across both audiences.
The story progresses quickly as the fate of young Osterberg, a would-be blues drummer, and another band, the MC5, quickly intertwine the group ask him to audition. Choosing instead to change his name and become a frontman, Osterberg assembles a trio of high school delinquents and The Stooges set out to – as Iggy would later tell the bemused talk show host Dinah Shore – put an end to the 1960’s. Incomprehensibly, the producers miss an opportunity explore influence of the 1967 Detroit riots on the two Motor City groups (the MC5 and the Stooges) while they discuss the impact of the televised violence associated with the Chicago Democratic convention of 1968. Indeed, the MC5 recorded “Motor City is Burning” in 1969, and Iggy’s closest musical ally, David Bowie, wrote “Panic in Detroit” during his Ziggy Stardust phase.
Johnny Rotten (far left) has some harsh words for Marky Ramone (far right) in Epix’s Punk. (Photo courtesy of Epix)
The series quickly shifts to the competing Meccas of punk rock orthodoxy, New York City and London. Both cities experienced precipitous economic declines in the 1970’s, becoming ideal locations for dystopian music that focused on the boredom of poverty and the anger of a generation facing narrowing expectations. John Lydon, ever the clownish, court jester of punk, dispels the theory that his band, The Sex Pistols, gathered much of their influence from the first tour of The Ramones in the UK. Indeed, the two movements seemed to sprout in parallel, with the American version focused more on hedonism while the British version, embodied by the Pistols and The Clash, ranted about the hopelessness of being poor in an impenetrable class system. The producers of the series missed yet another opportunity by failing to explore this further. Instead, they devote far too much time to the hapless, but telegenic, antics of Sid Vicious.
Similarly, while the series devotes considerable attention to The Dead Kennedys, it ignores the political anger of songs like ”California Über Alles.” I was left wondering why Iggy and co-producer John Varvatos chose deliberately to minimize the political power of punk, especially when the two are so intrinsically related.
When the story moves to the West Coast of the United States, we see the burgeoning hardcore scene gradually morph into the pop-punk of the 1990’s, fed by the endeavors of Bad Religion’s Brad Gurewitz, and Kevin Lyman’s Vans Warped Tours. A dichotomy among the contributors emerges; some praise the exposure that bands like Green Day, The Offspring and Nirvana gave the genre, with others decry it as a dreaded “sell-out”. I generally liked listening to the anecdotes shared by Henry Rollins, Iggy Pop, Jello Biafra, Wayne Kramer and Flea. Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill discusses how she shifted the focus of her band away from appealing to the pervasive misogyny of the time by addressing women in the punk scene.
However, the series allots far too much time to Legs McNeil, one of the founders of Punk, a fanzine of the 1970’s. McNeil does little more than continuously repeat the same mantra about rebellion, not caring about the opinions of others and “doing your own thing.” Moreover, for some reason, the producers thought it would be a good idea to devote screen time to Mark Bell, better known as Marky Ramone, the last surviving member of The Ramones. In his on-camera appearances, Bell appears either tired or bored, and is simply inarticulate.
What can we take away from Punk in the end? One theme running through the series is how the music appealed to angry, white, teenage boys in the days before the Internet. While sharing sites like Napster contributed to a decline in CD sales, the series misses a golden opportunity to comment on another phenomenon attributed to the advent of online culture. Those same angry youths – once forced to seek outlets for their aggression in mosh pits – began to congregate in chat groups and social media sites like Reddit and 8chan. They exchanged the experience of seeing ethnically and gender diverse bands like Bad Brains, L7, and NOFX for the insular world of alt-right hate groups promoting a vision of alienation that can be cured only by an act of violence towards a perceived threat, usually someone different. As AR-15s continue to replace guitars as the weapon of choice for the new angst-ridden loner, many of us are left to wonder whether the importance of honesty and truth, as emphasized by Lydon, can ever be expressed again through the medium of music.