♫ 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.