The Wheel of Punk Part Two
Jul 30 2012
If you’re anything like me you’re probably still reeling from the conversation-generating majesty of the Wheel of Punk (Part 1). If you don’t feel like clicking over, it’s (arbitrarily) this:
It’s beautiful. It’s a double rainbow all the way. But: what does it MEAN? It’s time to take this baby out for a test drive. Let’s rate some motherfucking BANDS.
Rating 1: Sex Pistols and The Ramones
Who is more punk? This is one of those age-old questions without any answer, and one of the reasons I came up with The Wheel of Punk™ in the first place. Out of a sense of national pride I’ve always wanted to believe that The Ramones were more punk forever amen, but the Sex Pistols make a pretty convincing case too. London in the 70’s gets points for being just as fucked up as New York at that time. Say what you will about New York’s white flight, bankruptcy, blackouts, the bicentennial, and the Son of Sam; London had rioting skinheads, garbage strikes, fucking English weather and food, and the silver jubilee. They were probably equally shitty places and times to be alive. We on this side of the pond lack the historical context for this stuff. At least New York had the Reggie Jackson Yankees to root for.
By way of a review, The Ramones had the following punk things going for them: were the first/most “we are punk” punk band in the USA, funny accents, incredibly stupid songs about sniffing glue and not going down to the basement, misunderstood lyrics about fucking LIKE a Nazi, leather jackets, black t-shirts and black Chuck Taylor All Stars, an aesthetic agenda which involved no guitar solos ever, a junkie bassist who couldn’t play bass, pretty much deciding never to be anything but exactly The Ramones after working with a gun-wielding Phil Spector in 1980.
In the Sex Pistols’ favor: were the first/most “we are punk” punk band in the UK, funny accents, songs about not liking the monarchy, exactly appropriately understood lyrics about not getting abortions, presumably free yet highly conceptualized clothing as a result of being put together and woefully mismanaged by the owner of a fashion boutique, an aesthetic agenda which involved glaring bug-eyed and acting hyperserious all the time, a junkie bassist who couldn’t play bass, pretty much calling it quits and implying the death of punk rock once they got tired of their manager using them for crazy stunts.
There are contrarian arguments to be made that The Ramones were incredibly stupid Bronx-basement sub-humanoids who only sounded the way they did instead of sounding like AC/DC because they didn’t know how to play their instruments, and therefore they’re not even all that punk. And there are arguments on the other end that the Sex Pistols were effete fashion-oriented Monkees concoctions dancing on the puppet strings of a calculating businessman who saw the New York Dolls and decided to horn in on the action, and therefore they’re not even all that punk. I think those arguments are 99.9% bullshit, but, like farts, they exist and they are funny.
The good news about The Wheel of Punk™ is we don’t have to decide who is more punk. We can just say “however punk you think The Ramones are, the Sex Pistols are equally punk and vice versa, only the Sex Pistols are on the ‘artier’ side of the circle and the Ramones are on the ‘dumber’ side.” Debate over, forever and ever, and the only thing that’s left is the argument over subjective locations. If you want to buy into those “not very punk” arguments for either band, you can go ahead and put the Pistols at your 2:00 and The Ramones at your 4:00. Just know that if you do that, you’ve probably got NOFX at your 3:00 (if so, please don’t think I’m making fun of you; I wouldn’t do that because I know it’s not easy being twelve years old). We’re talking about the fucking SEX PISTOLS and THE RAMONES here.
I’ve got them at:
Sex Pistols - 2:59.
Ramones - 3:01.
Rating 2: The Doors
Hether Fortune’s Twitter feed (Wax Idols – 1:45ish) recently alerted me to some revisionist attempts at painting Jim Morrison in a punk rock light. There are definitely some merits to this. Morrison was first and foremost a raging, bloated, death-obsessed drunk, which puts him in some pretty punk company. The fact that he also envisioned himself as being a “poet” doesn’t necessarily disqualify him from punkdom either, as you could just as easily point that finger at Patti Smith or Richard Hell or Henry Rollins. Sure, his poetry was worse than those other people (with the exception of Rollins), but that’s probably due to the fact that he also did way more acid. Also: what am I, a poetry critic? Who gives a shit.
There’s also some sonic evidence of proto-punk with these guys. Morrison had a pretty excellent menacing yell. Robbie Krieger displayed a few isolated incidents of shredding. Instead of getting a regular bassist, they conned a record company into giving them a bass electric piano, which is maybe a little bit punk. The band also went “all for one” on their publishing rights, so even their whiney little baby of a drummer got a quarter of the Doors money. That’s a pretty punk thing to do. Ask Courtney Love.
The biggest problem with the band as a punk entity is their defining “sound” came from a mawkish goon of a keyboardist who never met a note he couldn’t make into a baroque five-note run. That and, you know, they were basically a shitty pop band as much as they were a rock band (due largely to Morrison’s “fuck this shit” absenteeism, but still). To figure out how to appropriately rate the Doors on The Wheel of Punk™, you have to take the averages of their constituent members.
Jim Morrison - 1:12. This might be a lot “higher” than you’d want him, based on the idiotic overtry of his “poetry” lyrics actually plunging him into “technically stupid” levels, but you’d be hard pressed to convince me that he’s not an “outpunk the punks” artist. He invented whipping his dick out and used crowd psychology to start riots out of boredom. You don’t have to like the guy, but those are things he did. If it makes you feel any better, it’s not like GG Allin’s lyrics were any smarter.
Robby Krieger – 8:30. He did not shred often. Most of the time he did not shred at all. Most of the time he was ripping off riffs from Ajax commercials and writing “Light My Fire.” After The Doors he spent time pretending to be a jazz guitarist as well as starting up a group he called “Acid Causalties.” Sounds like a guy who’s halfway between The Band and The Eagles to me.
Ray Manzarek – 9:30. Halfway between The Eagles and Yes. Exactly. He was proto Rick Wakeman.
John Densmore – 6:00. Unless they do something excessively punk like permanently destroy Pete Townsend’s hearing or something excessively un-punk like front the post-Gabriel Genesis, drummers are pretty much an automatic 6. Writing a book about your lead singer that gets a ton of shit wrong does not help your case.
The Doors (Average) – 6:18. Due to the decision to split the royalties four ways, you pretty much have to average the ratings out by a factor of four even though it’s pretty absurd to argue that Morrison and Densmore are both responsible for a quarter of the band’s punkishness. But: they did split everything four ways and it’s also hard to argue that The Doors as a band rocked any harder than about a third of the way from “Louie Louie” towards Deep Purple. Remember that their crowning achievement on the pop charts was “Light My Fire.”
We’re talking about The Doors, here. Taken as a whole, divorced from Jim Morrison alone who was somewhat punk, they were very close to being a stupid enough band to be considered punk. I’m not even worried about saying this here. Doors fans don’t have computers. Just remember that The Wheel of Punk™ is not about what’s good and what’s bad. It’s just about taxonomy.
Rating 3: The Velvet Underground
There are many problems with rating the Velvets. They did so much different stuff all over the spectrum, and there’s not another band enough like them you can say “dumb Velvets” or “unpunk Velvets.” Part of me is tempted to break them down song by song and album by album, but then I’m basically a baseball nerd using Excel to draw a spray chart to illustrate some esoteric point about Giancarlo Stanton’s power to the opposite field, and that would be so boring and sad that congratulations if you made it all the way to the end of this sentence.
Sometimes the best way to go about things like this is process of elimination. The Velvets were certainly more punk than not, and certainly more arty than not, so the question is where to put them on a scale of 12:00 to 3:00. Should be easy enough. In fact, there’s no reason to overthink this. Overthinking The Doors is funny. Overthinking The Velvets for the purposes of summarizing them is a tragic waste of time. Not to mention a trap. I won’t fall for it. The Velvets were sufficiently drug-heavy to just give them a three hour window and let them fill it how they see fit. As in, “You know, midnight, three, whenever man. Party o’clock.”
If you think this is some kind of lazy cop-out, 1. Why don’t YOU go ahead and invent a whole new way of thinking about music that is as fun as it is completely useless and stupid; 2. It’s the fucking VELVET UNDERGROUND here. Concessions must be made.
Rating 4: Elvis Costello and Elvis Presley
Without unduly calling into question an operating definition of what “punk” is (The Wheel of Punk™ lets us rest on something as lazy as “the exact opposite of The Eagles”), it’s important to realize that half the fun of this thing is how arbitrary it is. If I want to say that Elvis Costello clocks in at 9:45 or Elvis Presley is a 4:30, I can do that. It’s my circle.
Elvis Costello – 9:45. I’d say that Elvis Costello was a “look at me” songwriter who smartly used a punk-esque sound and some thinly veiled double entendres about dicksucking to trick people into listening to him before slowly ramming his head further and further up his own “I’m a genius” ass. I’d put The Attractions at a solid 5:30. I’d put Nick Lowe’s production on the first album at a very kickass 4:05. I’d put Elvis Costello the egomaniacal singer/songwriter at a 9:15, and bump him up to 9:45 on the basis of using those other punkish elements as a gimmick in the same way Jethro Tull used a flute.
Elvis Presley – 4:30. Fuck it, I’m claiming Elvis for the punks. Even latter day fat sad housewife-entertainer-extraordinaire Vegas Elvis. Even stuck doing movies Elvis. I’m putting him halfway between The Stooges and Motorhead in the dumb/punk quadrant. He never wrote his own lyrics, he did a ton of pills, he shot a television set, and he put his name on more shitty merchandise than Kiss could ever dream of. Plus he’s from Memphis, hometown of Jay Reatard, and that has to count for something. I get to do this because it’s my circle and it’s fun to.
If you wanted to put Elvis Costello at 1:50 or Elvis Presley at 8:15, I would listen to you tell me why. And then I’d ask you what you’d want to do with The Pretenders or The Go-Go’s or Chuck Berry or Little Richard, and then I’d watch you get all flustered. For the record, I don’t know what I’d do either. I know whatever it is I would do it fast and it would be wrong.
Probably something like this:
Rating 5: Ween.
Critics have struggled to come up with a summary of this group since their recent breakup, and it’s not an easy task to locate them on The Wheel of Punk. They are a sort of prototype for a band that outpunked even the very idea of punk by giving impossibly little of a shit about what may have been expected of them. Some might say that I’m treading on Zappa’s ground here, but that guy was a boring show-off who averaged out to somewhere around midnight. I say this without having investigated further than “Help I’m A Rock.” Which I like a lot, but you’ll never need to listen to it all the way through more than once a month unless you’re having a nervous breakdown, and what’s Zappa gonna do, get better than that once you listen to his fourteenth album? I don’t think so.
Ween at least has shown themselves to have some pretty solid footing in punk, even if they seem to have only ever done “what if we did this and were fucking great at it” goofs in every genre, tickling just about every given minute of The Wheel of Punk™ rating system. Ween’s output seems to be about making fun of the entire idea of music. Their method for accomplishing this involves doing drugs and being totally fucking great at music AND funny and horrible.
Luckily there’s a rating for this on The Wheel of Punk™:
So that’s the test drive version of what YOU can accomplish with The Wheel of Punk™. Don’t just sit there and gripe about how stupid this writer is (for the record I rate myself a 5:59, about as stupid as you can be while still being a little punk). USE The Wheel of Punk™. Get out there and bother each other! That’s what it’s all about.
Previously: The Wheel of Punk
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