American Underground/ Outsider Rock in the 1980s (Part 2): Punk Rock

What is Punk…? I’d say political-action: (MC5, Clash, Black Flag, Gang of Four, etc.), and jamming the status quo: (Sex Pistols, FEAR, Dead Kennedys, etc.). I’d call it a vibrant energy beyond the mainstream capable of linking memorable characters along the margins (Lou Reed, New York Dolls, DEVO). Punk is having the passion to claim your destiny (Stooges, Ramones). “Punk” is a word coined by Lester Bang’s along his search for authenticity in Rock music. 

Today we see Punk everywhere - in music, film, design, fashion, photography… It’s in the gutter, taught in schools, corporatized. Punk is fussed over, celebrated, ridiculed, left for dead. It’s a certain sound, a particular sight, a slight, a movement, freedom, desperately serious and a complete joke. It has placed touchstones along music’s search for meaning. True definition doesn’t inspire; it’s best left open to interpretation. Whatever may be Punk, the general idea has seeded an unquantifiable amount of art.
 
Where does Punk come from? The general sound dates back to garage rock from the Fifties and Sixties. The well goes a little deeper attitudinally into the Rock and Roll golden era, the "Chitlin' Circuit" post WWII. Punk is nothing special: voice, guitars, drums - some (if not all) the music makers entering the fray from an amateurish background. Lester Bangs co-opted the word from prison slang. Energetic, edgy, raw, direct… Punk still attracts new recruits wanting to live or die by some such terms, or maybe just carry a flag that fucks with the Man’s business.
 
Punk remains largely misunderstood (if recognized at all) in Pop culture. So be it. It’s not about nostalgia. It doesn’t click as a tourist-friendly memory mile; it barely holds as marketing term. It’s only now inching towards museum treatment. Punk doesn’t need a Hall of Fame, but the kick-ass of its collective brethren did as much for the business and culture of music as anyone of any time and place. Put simply, any modern Rock music that hasn’t at least paid a visit to Punk’s legacy is all but dead (notwithstanding the general public's taste for zombie). 
 
The music business at its heart has always been a shallow, trivial, escapist and sad machine. Punk is one of the few anomalies to that. In its heyday, Punk held the gravity of what could be called a movement. Punk exorcised Rock music, crushed it and then rebuilt it back to a point of purpose. Those in the wake are still improving upon the blueprint to bring musical missions towards greater levels of sustainability. In United States, the Punk idea laid the groundwork for the last great moment for Rock and Roll, the independent underground scene of the 1980s.
 
In the 1970s, Punk made enough noise to attract major label business plans that tried, and usually died, with efforts to turn it into the Next Big Thing. Only a handful of bands made it to any renown. Blondie was an exception. DEVO had promise, but couldn’t rise out of novelty. The Ramones gave it a good shot, but couldn’t tie their craziness into consumer frenzy. The mainstream limits for American Rock seemed clear - and dull - and the truly inspired basically just gave up on trying to please people. The big business economy of scale went to the dollar bin as free-spirited peoples created their own independent operatives. This was the post-Punk moment.
 
Going into the 1980s, the music industry was churning out bland and cynical corporate schlock by en large. The Punk ethic of doing-your-own-thing successfully deconstructed that process, which fanned into regional communities sustained by hardcore music heads living along the margins. Functional networks grew into actual music businesses that existed beyond the influence of major label corporatism. These networks had their own identities, but they shared a can-do spirit. They helped bring each other along from A to B. If one worked hard enough, there were opportunities to get past financial limitations to achieve sonic identity.
 
Success by these measures happened nation-wide. New York had its thing as always. So did LA. Yet, there were notable underground sounds everywhere: San Francisco, Austin, Minneapolis, Washington DC, Seattle, Athens, etc. These regional networks connected and spread an unsaid spirit for adventure that, practically speaking, allowed the means of production to stretch further and operate more efficiently. One could now travel across the country playing unfettered independent Rock music, find food and reliable shelter on the cheap, and have audiences eager for new sounds waiting to hear them.
 
The biggest beneficiary often times was the product itself, which could melt your ears, blow your mind and rattle your bones – maybe all at once. The best of it holds up well today. Musically, this was a passionate era and special for its collective willingness to explore new ideas, not to mention the chronicling of hard-charging-good-(and-bad)-times that could be downright ferocious. Those who bought the product had to have it. The target audience was within one degree of word of mouth; patronizing messaging would not stand.  The American underground scene of the 1980s was an unpaved road full of harsh critics, but the payoff was culture – and real cultural experiences – soaked in actual content. 

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