Tuesday, 24 July 2018

We're pretty vacant and we don't care: Punk & Confidence Part 5

 I'm not a good person / Ask anyone who knows me ”- Pat The Bunny, I’m Not A Good Person

There’s a conflation between being simple, stripped down and straight-to-the-point and being shit.  The prog bands were known for their technical skill, and so the punk response was strip rock back to three chords.  If these prog bands were being overblown with intellectual concept albums then punk would present their views in 3 mins or less with a gutter view of the world.  But does this philosophy mean that punk was a poor man’s rock?

Sure as a genre, punks and the punk scene were spat on by the establishment because the gobby kids spat back.  But it was originally a haven for the misfits and the outsiders who were told they were worthless.  In the industrial degradation of 1970s Britain (to the backdrop of black bin bags piling in the streets) British youth felt like garbage.

This despondency has been knitted into the lining of punk across the decades.  Across the pond, The Replacements named themselves to imply they were a B-class band, drummer Chris Mars saying it was “accurately describing our collective ‘secondary’ esteem”.  The Cramps sang “I've got a garbage brain” on Human Fly and years later Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong would question his sanity on the pop-punk hit Basket Case.  A huge proportion of The Ramones’ back catalogue is about being a weirdo outsider (Cretin Hop, I Wanna Be Well, Bad Brain, Now I Wanna Be A Good Boy) or directly referencing being mentally unwell (Teenage Lobotomy, Shock Treatment, Psycho Therapy and I Wanna Be Sedated).

Some songs oxymoronically revel in being ‘wrong’.  Nirvana’s Dumb has Kurt declare “I think I'm dumb” and yet he concedes at the end “But I'm having fun”.  The classic Sex Pistols song Pretty Vacant has Rotten declare “And we don’t care!”, surely the victory cry for 77’s snotty teens.

Some bands pin this crisis of confidence on the system.  Gang of Four’s post-punk masterpiece Entertainment! is about commodification of humans.  On Damaged Goods they state “Damaged goods, send them back / I can't work, I can't achieve, send me back.”  On the same album The Clash moan about career opportunities Strummer also questions “What the hell is wrong with me?” via What’s My Name.

I want to highlight three songs which have really stuck with me.

The first is by The Menzingers.  Masters at an uplifting anthem, Obituaries is no exception to their discography.  However the earworm chorus stamps “I will fuck this up / I fucking know it” over and over again.  It feels like failure is an energy.  Not deflated, but destructive and that confident outburst makes it seem like the outcome, “I am just freaking out, yeah I'll be fine” is worth fighting for.  I Don’t Wanna be An Asshole anymore is another Menzinger’s song with a light at the end of a shitty tunnel.

The second is by Pat The Bunny.  Loads of his Wingnut Dishwasher Union songs have this destructive quality, but I especially love the lyrics of I’m Not A Good Person that go “I'm not a good person / Ask anyone who knows me / I'm mean and bitter / And a failure at everything that I say I believe”.  Also check out the full album Probably Nothing, Possibly Everything.  The way Pat sings his lyrics seems so fucking bitterly honest.  His chords and his voice are drenched in a venom that it far removed from a pop-punk grumpiness.

Thirdly I recently came across a band from Leeds called Daves.  In The Menzinger’s style, they have a track on their EP called Change which shouts loud “I’m not ready to admit / I think I’m a piece of shit”.

So why do I listen to these self-deprecating songs?  When it’s so easy for me to believe that I am rubbish.  I can’t remember a time I didn’t think I was a Bad Person because of some drilled-in sense of binary Good/Bad.  And this sense of Badness gets conflated with being wrong, getting things wrong, or not doing things right.  This guilt leads me to think I’m worthless, useless, inadequate and better off not being around.  To quote Martha, “to tell the truth I’m struggling today/Why’s it gotta feel so sad?”  Thoughts are not facts, and yet it seems one central tenant of the Universe I am shit, the one cosmic certainty I can hang my life upon.  That’s because, in a kind of Cartesian solipsism, I can only rely on this within my head.

So I think it helps, like all art, to find someone that feels the same, and is sharing.  I do worry that this self-deprecating is influential.  It just helps dig the negative grooves in my brain, reinforces the pillars that prop up my personality.  It doesn’t feel that healthy.

But a friend of mine said, whether you say something negative, you need to say the opposite.  You need to counteract the strangling voice in your head that whispers, dominates and demands.  And yes, I do listen to raised-fist-victory-to-us songs.  But also maybe these self-destructive songs are healthy too.  Because they prove someone has taken stock of their world.  Wrote it down.  Wrapped some chords around it.  It’s identifiable, it exists and it can be sung about.  My anxieties are a thought in chords, and they can be sung out.

Sunday, 15 July 2018

All I know is that I don't know nothing: Punk & Confidence part 4

Drinking beer on the kerb with all the punks
Read the free fanzine from back to front
Even chatted in the queue to Babar Luck
- Keep On Believing, Sonic Boom Six

I have the kind of brain/personality that loves to hoard information.  As a kid, on the nerdy side of my spectrum, I loved to know all about Spider-Man, Star Wars and Pokémon.  I’m the kid that bought those Encyclopaedia books and poured over recycled facts of whole worlds.

Getting into punk was much the same.  I would buy books, magazines, read CD liner notes and trawl through the internet.  I wanted to pick off every band.  If they were mentioned highly in the chronicles of punk, I’d make sure they were added to my repertoire.  I think this could be the result of a neurodiverse brain, or potentially being an Only Child, or coming of age around the Millennium with Wikipedia, YouTube and a book-end to the 20th century.  Or a combination.

I have a copy of a Mojo Special Edition from 2005, which I bought in my first year of College aged 16.  The magazine covers The Ramones, The Stranglers, The Clash, Sex Pistols and features a handy year-by-year breakdown between 76-79.  It is the perfect starter kit to move from a fan of the sound to a fan of the punk world.  Albeit, of course, a punk world presented as pretty male and pretty white and pretty straight.  This magazine was one of the many used as a prop in my theatre company’s production Whatever Happened To Vandal Raptor?

The magazine has a ‘Punk Smashers’ section where all the classic punk albums are listed so a young Henry could tick them off, band-by-band.  Looking back, it must have been so exciting to have this whole world open up and explore-able within the shelves of HMV and the realms of YouTube.

Around this time I was well-thumbing my copy of Mojo, I’d go see a local punk band called The Mighty Booze who had a song called ‘Best Mates’ all about an old punk who claimed to have met Sid Vicious and Joe Strummer and kissed Debbie Harry.  The protagonist of the song doesn’t believe the drunk punk, but will pretend to be his “best mate” as long as the bullshitter is buying the drinks.  Behold, the power of the internet and Myspace:  I found the song here!

As much as certain sections of society want to kick-back against ‘experts’, I believe we still have a hierarchy of knowledge.  When it comes to things like comics or music, knowledge can become a dick-measuring mechanism.

Punk demands that you care.  The Sex Pistols’ nihilism may have been fashionable for a brief period, but it was soon eclipsed by passion.

In this battle for knowledge, I have been guilty of searching out the most obscure bands (and genres) across Bandcamp or line-ups.  Even within the underground scene, we try and seek out the outsiders amongst the outsiders. 

Maybe this is part of punk’s need to prove it’s ‘Not Dead’ and evolve from punk to hardcore, hardcore to riot grrrl, from folk-punk to thrashgrass, from ska to ska-punk to skacore to hip-hop/ska/punk fusions.

Maybe this is part of punk’s need to constant search deeper and deeper below the surface of rock.  To take a page from Crass’ grimy book when Steve sang “Punk became a movement cos we all felt lost, but the leaders sold out and now we all pay the cost.”  So we reject those leaders and movements so we don’t end up “staring up a superstar’s arse”.

Maybe this is part of the arrogance of punk, the confidence mutated into a gobby swagger.

But naturally when we talk about knowledge, we have to acknowledge the song Knowledge by Operation Ivy.  When Jesse Michael’s sings “you can't get the top off from the bottom of the barrel” this seems a lovely image to accompany this idea that punks are all trying to prove themselves the most well-equipped about their genre and subculture, despite the fact we’re all stuck within this tight narrow genre and subculture.  Jesse’s magnificent chorus barks over and over “All I know is that I don't know all I know is that I don't know nothing”.  It doesn’t sound too self-deprecating, the repetition is a call-to-arms.  And finally the song ends with the simple, effective and honest rest-assurance that “that’s fine.”

I glory in knowledge, because I glory in learning.  I love a good hard natter in the pub about punk and music, as well as films, politics and Pokémon.  I think though, in always learning, we should never allow this confidence we know our genre goes beyond a celebration into an arrogance.  Because that’s the pomp that punk strove to tear down in the first place.