The Wheel of Punk
You ever get weird flashbacks to things from high school that you both did not learn and did not forget? I get that a lot with the Wheel of Governmental Something Something. I don’t know what it’s called. I couldn’t find evidence of it on the internet. It might just be one of those things that tenth grade civics teachers have written on chalkboards since they crawled out of the primordial ooze and began droning on about checks and balances.
You know, the Wheel of Governmental Something Something? Kind of looks like this:
I think it’s supposed to teach teenagers not to get all carried away with their political beliefs. The idea is that if you go too far in one direction of wanting things to be a certain way, you come back around, and the most extreme ways to be are actually dead in the middle of two other things.
Like for example: If there’s only one person in charge of the country where you live, it’s probably not going to matter to you a whole hell of a lot if that person is ideologically more of a fascist or a socialist, because either way you’ll probably get your head chopped off for bitching and moaning about them in public. Or if everybody is equally in charge, you can never find a way to be conservative or liberal because every single decision is like nine people on their iPhones taking fucking FOREVER just to figure out how to pay for dinner. So the most left or right you can get politically are actually from the most medium-authority style governments that go all the way in one direction.
I don’t really know how it works, okay? I just LIKE it.
I do know this: it’s pretty much impossible to figure out how punk a band is.
For example, who is more punk between the Sex Pistols and the Ramones? Set aside that this is the stupidest thing anybody (me) has ever thought about for way too long. There’s no satisfactory answer. Or there wasn’t. Until now.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Wheel of Punk:
So it’s basically the same thing as the Wheel of Governmental Something Something, but this time it’s for locating bands based on how punk/non-punk they are as determined by how much of an agenda they put into what they’re doing.
So if somebody, whether they’re punk or not, put so much fucking energy into some kind of an idea behind the music that there’s pretty much nothing else to it than that, that will be exactly halfway punk. Like the Henry Rollins spoken word stuff and Greg Ginn sludge guitar fantasia stuff on Black Flag Family Man, for example. That’s so punk it’s punking the punks who thought they were punk. It’s also, according to me, completely intolerable non-music, and so much so that I would harbor deep, unsettling suspicions about anybody who heard “Let Your Fingers Do The Walking” on an iPod and didn’t immediately skip it. There’s no room for the punk/non-punk argument in that album. Listening to it is like living in a totalitarian dictatorship of musical ideas. The only rational response is to overthrow it and try something else. Of course this is subjective. If you think Ween Pure Guava is just be-yond the pale (it’s not), throw that in there. It’s your wheel too. The idea is it’s music that’s so patently aggravating, it’s actually for NOBODY.
Anyhow, that’s the north pole of our Wheel of Punk. The south pole is populated by anything which presents so few ideas other than rocking that it’s too gridlocked by idiotic riffage to even confront the whole punk/non-punk question. I’d go with “Louie Louie” (YouTube description: “This was a big hit for The Kingsmen”) here. Again: this is that rarefied category of rock that is too stupid to be anything but the entire world’s, and therefore has no place in a “who’s more punk” pissing match. Because anybody can play it, nothing is more punk than “Louie Louie” and because everybody has played it, nothing is less punk than “Louie Louie.” Forever amen.
The extreme most punk and extreme most non-punk zones are also up for debate, but I’ve decided on pre-Rollins Black Flag and The Eagles as my place holders, which works great because both "Louie Louie" and Family Man are pretty much exact midway points:
Now if my calculations are correct, we should now be able to place every band ever somewhere on this circle. Keep in mind this is pointless. But: to make it easier, let’s do like the ancient Whoeveritwases did and make this circle into a clock, so if you’re feeling confident about your summarizing abilities you can come up with time-based positions exact to the second, or you can just be like “Judas Priest? I’ll be there in like 15 minutes.” I’ll just fill out the hour markers using my arbitrary tastes:
12:00 – Black Flag's Family Man.
1:00 – Flipper, because I have a feeling people might get a little confused if I dropped a Black Randy and the Metrosquad here, or too upset if I dropped a GG Allin (both of which I just did). The idea is this is basically punking punks like Family Man but with enough retention of musical value that you could actually put it on at a party and not have people react with immediate and eerily silent violence directed at whatever machine it was playing on.
2:00 – The Clash, a band which changed their location on the Wheel over the course of their career by probably as much as 5 hours; its arbitrary placement here is the ideal shorthand for “message” punk, “political” punk, AND “post” punk. Otherwise I’d have to do something ugly like Minor Threat/CRASS/Wire, and it would get all muddy. Sorry.
3:00 – Pre-Rollins Black Flag. I’m not saying Rollins didn’t contribute to punk. I am saying, well, look at 12:00.
4:00 – The Stooges. When you’re building a rating system that’s based on a circle, you’ve got to look out for circular arguments. There’s that famous Andy Warhol quote about believing that nothing is something that I just went and looked in a bunch actual books to try and find like some kind of dinosaur. I bring this up because I believe that The Stooges are about as elevated artistically as anything can be, so I have to fight the urge to put them on the upper half of the clock, but the reason I want to do this is precisely because the music is so stupid. Put it this way: if the north-south axis of this chart is about, essentially, “smart” at the top and “stupid” at the bottom, then the Stooges are exactly as “stupid” as The Clash are “smart,” with the two being equally “punk.” Makes sense based solely on the fact that “punk” was an actual decided-upon thing when The Clash were around, whereas Iggy and Co. were more or less just doing what came naturally. Whatever. They both lived in shitty little squats.
5:00 – Motorhead. “Ace of Spades” is simply too perfectly dumb not to be the exact midpoint between The Stooges and “Louie Louie.” It’s all the no-frills rock of “Search and Destroy” with all the meaning and depth of “I gotta go now.”
6:00 – “Louie Louie” (The Kingsmen version if you want to get technical).
7:00 – Deep Purple. Just as stupid as Motorhead, and almost exactly as unpunk as Lemmy is punk. Lemmy is “General Badass” without a subgenre, but let’s face it, being a General Badass is a pretty punk thing to pull off. The “Smoke on the Water” riff is as awesomely complete of an electric lobotomy as “Ace of Spades” is, just, you know, weaker.
8:00 – The Band. Dumb as the Stooges, as unpunk as they are punk. Think of The Stooges being “good times” music instead of “bad times” music, and you’ve pretty much got The Band.
9:00 – The Eagles. I linked to a weird synth karaoke version of “Hotel California” because this article is intended to be for entertainment purposes and I couldn’t live with myself if I was in any way responsible for another human being accidentally listening to the definitive version of the worst song of all time (you will not debate this with me, it is my opinion and it is also a fact at the same time, lalalala don’t wanna talk about it, lalala). More technicalities in support of The Eagles include this excellent Robert Christau essay in which he posits that The Eags are good times nihilists, which makes them a perfect counterbalance to the exact punkest nihilists on the other end of the Wheel at 3:00. There are other bands that could just as easily go here. The Allman Brothers Band and their overbearing musicianship combined with aw-shucks country-style jangle would probably do the trick, but it’s more fun to put the Eagles in just to make sure that the next generation gets its middle fingers ready for some Peaceful Easy Feelings.
10:00 – Yes. Another funny placeholder, this time for “Prog.” You could put King Crimson or Soft Machine in here, but the results are the same: band which tried through musicianship, excessive composition, overlong jammage, and fake jazz to transcend the idea of being a rock band while still being just a big, bloated self-important fucking rock band. I don’t want to give the impression that I don’t like anything on the non-punk side of the Wheel. Or rather, I don’t want the fact that I don’t like a lot of stuff on the non-punk side of the wheel to sway you into thinking that this Wheel is no good. Good and bad isn’t really as big of a part of what I’m going for as an accurate system of taxomony, and Yes is a good signpost. Plus, Yes had good songs. They were just 20 seconds long and in the middle of 18 minutes of crap.
11:00 – Tortoise. It was hard to come up with a better way than giving these guys credit for existing to signify the transition into the avant garde as non-punk makes its long journey into the midnight of “Family Man.” I had originally put Tangerine Dream here before realizing that the their first four albums are sufficiently radical (as in “that’s very different from what everybody else is doing,” not “rad pizza, dude!”) to put them more at 11:30. If it helps, think of Tortoise as the halfway point between Yes and Greg Ginn’s incessant noodling. It’s hard not to see their enduring commitment to total sonic boredom as at least somewhat starting to be punk. By the way, all of the music between 11:00 and 12:00 is hard to write about without sounding like some kind of horseshit-speculator academic. These bands are the deep sea creature nature shows of music. The good news is that around 10:45 there starts to be a shit ton of krautrock that makes the nature show host get all hushed and talk abut who’s got the biggest teeth per body mass of any creature on earth. Also: I’m of the opinion that Tortoise gets a bad rep. They’re an underrated drug band.
And here we have the full clock. Check it out:
I should point out before everybody starts freaking out, assuming anybody will actually read this (use codeword: BANANAS in the comments section for an added sense of intellectual superiority) that the actual locations of bands are completely subjective. Once this ratings system launches into the popular lexicon, earning me millions in royalties, people will ask each other how punk a band they think a band is and then say, “Hmm, 4:15, huh? That’s right in my wheelhouse. What’s your three o’clock?” Then you can get all mad about how wrong somebody is about their three o’clock setting and use the phrase “no way” like a thousand times. There is no conversation more awesomely stupid and fun than double-digit “no way”s about music. You are welcome for this.
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