what they did was secret

On Wednesday 10 February 2010, I presented a paper at the 31st SWTX PCA/ACA entitled “What They Did was Secret: The Links Between Punk and Grunge.”

This earlier appeared in the comment section, but I thought I would re-post it, WITH PICTURES.

Here is the main thrust of what I was trying to get across in my conference paper:

First of all, “punk” isn’t a sound. It’s an attitude. The bands playing together at CBGBs in New York, like Television, the Ramones, and Blondie didn’t share a sonic like-mindedness, but they shared the view that something had to change – something had to be done about what mainstream music had become. So they took control. In CBGBs they found a venue that they could perform in, and took things from there. Punk was where the energy to create and innovate laid. Not everyone agreed on the direction punk should go, but those involved in CBGBs had planted the seeds that would sprout across America (and yes, seeds were being planted in places like foggy London town, but that’s a whole other story).

In the late 1970s in America, people all over the country were feeling the same sort of disaffection with mainstream culture that caused the drive of creativity and innovation in New York. When acts like Patti Smith started to be plugged in music magazines with national reach, the punk image and attitude was thereby getting across the country. Of course, it was harder to hear the actual music, because it wasn’t being played on the radio. They had to wait for the actual bands to come and perform. These were, if you can imagine such a time, not the days of wikipedia and youtube.

Anyways, scenes with this punk “attitude” sprung up all across America. Guided by the do-it-youself ethic, a term that has become almost synonymous with punk, people in places like L.A., San Francisco, Boston, and yes, the Pacific Northwest, started an alternative to the mainstream by creating their own venues, zines, record labels, and music.

And the bands from these scenes TOURED. This post is getting a tad long so I’ll try to start cutting to the chase. Bands like Black Flag and Husker Du toured through the Pacific Northwest relentlessly. When they played, members of the bands that would form the grunge scene were either in the audience of these shows, or else in the bands opening up. Punks like Mark Arm started to write fanzines and form bands. His band Mr. Epp and the Calculations wrote songs like “Mohawk Man,” satirizing people within the Seattle punk community that were becoming increasingly violent (like Jello Biafra did with the Dead Kennedy’s song “Nazi Punks Fuck Off”). What’s more punk than that?

In fact, Mark Arm and his Mudhoney band mate Steve Turner are rarely referred to in literature without the label of “punk.” Turner didn’t touch an instrument until he was playing in a band. He would also leave bands if he thought they were trying to become too commercial at the expense of their principles. Arm and Turner’s band Mudhoney, while being considered the quintessential grunge band, was completely and utterly PUNK. Anyone that has every listened to them, seen them perform live, or read their lyrics can attest to that.

Bands like Nirvana further exemplify this connection to the American punk movement and the punk attitude. Heck, their drummer was poached from a punk band called Scream from Washington D.C. Novoselic was heavily influenced by Flipper, a punk band from San Francisco. In songs like “Smells like Teen Spirit,” Cobain was following the musical lineage of the Pixies, in songs like “Tourette’s,” he was creating melody out of sonic chaos, just as Husker Du did in songs like their cover of “Eight Miles High.”

The reason why “grunge” is remembered as separate is due to the marketing practices of the record label Sub Pop, and because of the mainstream media using grunge as an umbrella term to describe any music and corollary culture coming from the Pacific Northwest. The reasons behind grunge’s “ascendency” to the cultural mainstream came from luck, timing, and innovation. They were building off of a foundation started in places like New York City and extended throughout America. Many of the early bands in San Francisco for example, never even had the ability or the means to record an album, but by the late 1980s, underground institutions were in place to the point where a band could record an album, be interviewed in fanzines with a national readership, get promotional backing from their label, and tour the country with at least enough support from the local scene to get through to the next town. At that point, the major labels were bound to start paying attention. And Geffen signed Sonic Youth with the intention that Moore and company could recruit acts to their label that might let them tap into the underground scene. Sonic Youth, of course, got Nirvana signed to Geffen.

There were links between punk and grunge sonically, in the approach to creating and performing music, and their general outlook of mainstream culture (and the world to a certain extent, but that’s, again, another story). Punk is more of an attitude of non-conformity to the mainstream than a precise sound. The bands involved in the PNW shared this attitude, and many of them considered themselves punk.

Well, that’s quite a caffeine induced rant, and will hopefully induce more debate rather than convince people that I’m right. I welcome any insights and criticisms and questions…that is, if anybody read this far.

Thanks to the fanzines Impact and Maximum RocknRoll, as well as the magazine the Rocket for the pictures.

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4 Comments on “what they did was secret”

  1. xolager Says:

    Mustaches are punk.

  2. Lime Says:

    So here’s a question (or series of questions) for you. If ‘grunge’ appeared because they were marketted as a separate genre from punk, even though the acts themselves often thought of themselves as ‘punk’, is it possible ‘punk’ appeared for the same reason? Was there a point where you can separate the ‘punk’ bands from their predecessors like the Doors, Patti Smith, Blue Cheer, etc, etc? Seems like Jim Morrison was pretty punk in every way but the music.


  3. I like the questions. And I think you are absolutely spot-on regarding Morrison as “punk in every way but the music.” In Marc Spitz and Brendan Mullen’s 2001 oral history of the Los Angeles punk scene, We’ve Got the Neutron Bomb: The Untold Story of L.A. Punk, the narrative starts with the 1960s. On page 2 Danny Sugerman relates that “Jim [Morrison] was a true original artist who refused to compromise for anyone for any reason. It was that attitude that made him punk.”

    It seems to all go back to the attitude again. I think it’s very difficult to separate punk bands from their predecessors – the NYC scene of Television and the Ramones and Patti Smith were obviously influenced by bands like the Velvet Underground and the earlier Detroit and Cleveland scenes. Again on the same page of We’ve Got the Neutron Bomb, Don Waller explains his “definition of punk rock Mach 1 [as] basically ’60s American garage bands like the Sonics that wanna be a combination of the London bands like the Yardbirds, the Pretty Things, and the early Stones.”

    Waller isn’t alone in his assessment. Much has been written on the Sonics, a mid-60s garage band from the Pacific Northwest, and their influence on later punk bands. All you need to do is look at how they dressed to see they were influenced by the British Invasion band image and hear them play to notice the strong sonic influence as well. BUT, they weren’t simply imitators. As my friend David Gault said the first time he heard the Sonics, “they sound like the Kinks on cocaine.” They took a gritter approach to the music – an attitude that broke through in the sound and in the lyrics.

    Here’s a link to their record “the Witch”

    And, “Strychnine”

    When the Cramps covered the latter of the two songs a decade and a half later, they barely changed it.

    I guess my long-winded point here is that the attitude was around before the appearance of punk, in agreeance with your assertion that it is hard to draw lines between proto-punk acts and punk itself. And further to this, it isn’t like the do-it-yourself ethic was created by the punks. It goes way, way back, an obvious example that comes to mind is Sam Phillips in Memphis with Sun Records, where Phillips was able to take advantage of the new tape-recording technology not available only a few years before. Recording had until then been a process that was often too expensive for local, independents to partake in. With the advent of the new technology (that was thanks to German Engineers working on the propaganda front during WWII), independent record studios were able to open up all across America, and, to a certain extent, do things themselves. (See Jonathan Gould’s recent work Can’t Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain, and America, pages 19-20).

    Now although there were these proto-punk bands performing and people participating in aspects of the DIY ethic, I think when punk really became punk was when it became a deliberate reaction to the conditions of the late 1970s…in terms of the excesses of music itself, and also the socio-political environment of the day as well. And not only was it a reaction to those conditions, but it was also an attempt to get back to early rock and roll, a nostalgic drive back to when their conditions of grievance did not exist (or they did not perceive them to). Technology was again playing a role, and innovations like fanzines were being used to spread the DIY ethic, among other things – suddenly music wasn’t just an outlet, it became a tool of communication en masse available to anyone with the attitude we’ve been discussing.

    I think the major problem is that the media has placed a sort of “Great Wall of China” between punk and grunge and the deeper you dig, the more similarities you find between them. And perhaps the same can be said for proto-punk and punk. The harder you look, the more it becomes obvious that there are many connections. Connections that go back even farther.

    My friend Kevvy Schlauch told me once Johnny Cash was the first punk. Well I think even Woody Guthrie was one too.


  4. […] I said it. Now, to try and back it back up…As I’ve argued before – punk was all about having an attitude closely associated with the DIY ethic, not about […]


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