*** I have been reading in punk rock and music history for some time, for leisure, and I had the opportunity to draft a National Endowment for the Humanities grant for my friend Kerry Gallagher Semrad in Fall 2016. I re-purposed it a bit to feature it below.***
The subcultures of music in the United States in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries offer the means of circulation and communication that bind communities of listeners together that can be tens, hundreds, and even thousands of miles away. Musical subcultures embrace and reflect existing, individual notions of contemporary politics, social relations, and racial and ethnic identities that bridge the gap between local and international music communities. Music subcultures also gather individuals into political and cultural collectivities that transcend geography.[i] Music and its subcultures have been the basis for a number of social and cultural movements in the United States over the course of the twentieth century until today, exerting a powerful influence over regions and localities, thus the phrase “all politics are local.”[ii] So is all local music as well. During the 1970s and 1980s in urban areas, small cities, and small towns, underground music like glam rock, glitter rock, punk rock, and Americana music flourished against the tidal waves of major label music that shaped and controlled the domestic market for music at venues and on the airwaves. And in observing the actual foundation and constitution of the broad term “music industry,” it’s quite clear that the 100,000s of small, original bands keep the domestic music industry financially afloat from venues, to record stores, and music equipment stores that sell a variety of musical equipment, subsidizing instrument manufacturers profits and keeping them in business.[iii]
Traditional American music and independent underground music have been the most highly-exploited genres of music in American history with respect to the origins of the commercial music publishing industry. Even though traditional American music has historically had more coverage than the punk/experimental underground, its early progenitors’ history is a product of the recent past by music historians.[iv] Early rhythm and blues and other folk music artists during the 1920s through the 1950s often gave away the rights to their music to either folklorists, ethnographers, or the hundreds of small and regional record companies that existed throughout the Northeast, mid-Atlantic, South, American Southwest, and California. It was a rare occasion when these artists could draw a living from the sales of their recordings and live performances, much of it going into the pocket of their producers, sponsors, or record labels. And this commercial exploitation continued into the 1960s and 1970s for soul, R & B, funk, folk, country, and other traditional American musical artists. This is one of the reasons that in the last ten to twenty years, many of the oldest living blues artists, for example, continue to tour well into their late 70s and early 80s; they had never originally profited equitably from their original recordings, with only the club circuit and its brutally late hours (at their age) to provide them with a living from live performances. Long ago, Richard Wright noted the way the infamous bluesman Lead Belly had been taken advantage of in this system, when he termed it “one of the most amazing swindles in Amazing history.”[v] During the 1970s and 1980s there was was a reliable itinerary of great rhythm and blues, bluegrass, country, and folk recording artists from Chicago, Kansas City, Tulsa, Oklahoma City, Dallas/Ft. Worth, St. Louis, and other Midwestern and Great Plains cities with vibrant scenes because of music markets located on Highway 77, Highway 34, and then I-70 and I-80 as a destination stop between Chicago, Denver, and the West Coast. It was nothing less than a political economy of the traditional American music touring scene during that era, which was reliable and robust for these traditional American recording artists who were engaged in economically recouping past treatment by record labels on this migratory club circuit.
The origins of commercially-unviable rock and roll in the United States during the late 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s is comparable to the exploitation and difficulty experienced by recording artists in the traditional American music scene. In this decidedly Transatlantic phenomenon, glam and glitter rock, often termed proto-punk rock, evolved into an entirely new musical idiom in terms of composition, aesthetics, tempo, and sound, even dress and costuming. These new genres arose from the basic premise that in the lower echelons of the rock and roll scene, no small venue or small club in any locality in England, France, Canada, and the United States would book a band that played a full set solely composed of their original musical compositions.[vi] The “commercial record label system” controlled the industry from the airwaves and stadiums, to the mid-sized performance venues and small clubs. Small clubs across the Atlantic World booked only commercial bands (who played original music on commercial record labels) or cover bands. Bands that played their own original music who were not part of the commercial record label system or were an unsigned band had to seek other avenues for performing their music.
In the creative search for music venues, which were usually illegally-zoned storefronts like The Masque in Los Angeles, basement venues in houses like the first Runaways show in L.A., art galleries like the Hard Art Gallery in Washington DC where the Bad Brains began, housing project courtyards (again, the Bad Brains), and union halls like Fairmont Hall in San Diego, the music itself evolved into a sort of “anti-commercial rock” aesthetic with a sound that deconstructed if not overtly and hostilely attacked commercial rock and roll music. It was also a reaction to the political and cultural inertness of 1960s rock and roll and its perceived lame and suburban underpinnings during a time of massive social upheaval. In the 1970s, the LA “Laurel Canyon scene” was a continuation of the politically-inert, easy-listening soft rock of the 1960s.[vii] During the 1970s and 1980s, glam, glitter, punk, hardcore, and post-punk music signaled a unique sound of the post-industrial, post-Fordist Era.[viii] With historic urban economic restructuring, two major recessions in 1973 and 1979, working class militancy, high unemployment particularly for young adults, and Vietnam war demobilization, young people in the Transatlantic World developed their own youth subcultures to find larger meaning in a future of diminished expectations, increased bureaucratization, consumerism, and alienation. In many ways, this youth cohort created a parallel, non-commodified youth culture that signaled this age cohort’s “great refusal,” differing dramatically from the Baby Boom generation’s media-saturated cultural rebellion during the 1960s and early 1970s.[ix]
In the United States, the basis of the future American and English punk rock scenes began in Detroit in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with powerful and anarchic rock and roll bands like The MC5, The Stooges, Sonic’s Rendezvous Band, Death, and Destroy All Monsters among others. The Detroit proto-punk sound played a critical role in the Transatlantic hard, rock and roll subculture because The MC5 and The Stooges attracted major label interest and released their albums in the commercial music industry, even if they were at the lowest echelon of the commercial record label system, slogging through the club circuit with few large concert performances. Both bands were commercial failures for their record companies and proved resistant to the middlebrow image-making of the commercial record label system. They engaged in rude and wild stage performances; had a dangerous sound that eschewed virtuosity; and embraced a decidedly nihilistic and radical political message aimed at the emergent neoliberal order. However, both bands emerged as legendary inspiration through the commercial distribution and tour support they received, and spread their proto-punk rock sound around the globe in record stores, the music press, word-of-mouth grassroots mythology, and live performances.[x] Both of these bands played the East and West Coasts in the U.S. and also England. Every significant, future punk and hardcore band in the Transatlantic World drew their influences from the MC5, The Stooges, or both. Even more, Iggy Pop from The Stooges peripatetic life on the East Coast, West Coast, and Europe drew in young musicians and music fans who worshipped his nihilistic attitude and punk rock swagger. They became young acolytes of punk rock after meeting this legend.[xi]
Hard rock and roll and punk bands influenced by the Detroit sound were The New York Dolls, The Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers, The Voidoids, and others from New York City; The Dead Boys and Rocket from the Tombs from Cleveland; The Runaways, The Cramps, The Germs, X, The Weirdos, Black Flag and others from Los Angeles; The Zeroes from San Diego; The Dead Kennedys, The Avengers, and others from San Francisco; the Bad Brains, Black Market Baby, The Slickee Boys and others in Washington DC; and The Damned, The Sex Pistols, The Clash, Generation X, The Buzzcocks and others in England. How this happened without the support of the commercial record label system, corporate music industry supply chains, commercial radio programming, and first-tier music magazine journalism exposure is yet one of the great, barely written about phenomena in the history of music and also for this youth cohort.[xii]
There have been critics of punk rock, hardcore, and post-punk from the standpoint of race, class, and ethnicity, however, we must not forget there was no underground or parallel rock and roll scene in the Transatlantic World before this time. The kids and young adults, together, created it all by themselves.[xiii] All throughout the Transatlantic World, youth music subculture, independent punk record and clothing stores, new punk venues, independent record labels, and fanzines arose as modes of dissemination and communication for the punk rock and underground subculture outside of the dominant control of the commercial record label system and its industry and distribution supply chains.[xiv] An apt explanation for this subcultural movement in youth music has been offered by political philosophers Agnes Heller and Ferenc Feher during the 1970s and 1980s when they noted, “Modern cultural movements appeared in waves, and this happened for the simple reason that each new generation had to ‘come of age’ in the sense of creating a new ‘imaginary institution’ before it could take over the torch from the former generation.”[xv] Young punk rockers in the United States and Europe (particularly England) engaged in modes of cooperation, communication, and praxis in a “do-it-yourself” music culture completely outside the dominant modes of communication, distribution, venues, and control of the commercial record label system to create a non-commodified form of hard and fast rock and roll that challenged the aesthetics and system of corporatized music. The simultaneous and parallel phenomena to the dominant music industry emerged as a global “magmatic social imaginary signification” of the punk subculture that brought the yearnings of thought, and that thought put into praxis, in the service of creating an independent social geography for this new form of music.[xvi] Punk rockers formed bands because they were alienated by the arena rock of the commercial record label system, pre-packaged music consumerism, and its emphasis on virtuosity and celebrity. They created or found alternative venues where they could play their music because they were blacklisted or exiled from the club circuit. They paid to record and press their vinyl records and sold them in alternative and non-corporate retail outlets, by mail order, or at their own shows. And this youth cohort formed their own alternative, music journalism in the form of handmade fanzines to disseminate their scenes to other like-minded youth and young adults
Music journalists and historians since the 1980s have written hundreds of books about the largest and most popular performing artists in the traditional American music, punk rock, and indie underground music scene. And much is known about acts like Lead Belly, Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Diana Ross, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin among other commercial hit makers. However, much less is known about the talented performing artists that were influences upon the most commercially-viable musicians and bands as they were coming up through local music scenes in their pre-stardom days.[xvii] In this regard, focusing upon local music scenes and the contemporaries of eventual “star” underground bands also highlights the politics of public memory in American music history.[xviii]
There has been much good work recently, often self-published, about local music scenes. Some may think it falls under the rubric of “nostalgia,” but longtime local scenesters appear to be motivated in capturing particular moments of vibrant local scenes that eventually launched successful performing artists and bands. The local memory presented within these books reveal cross-sectional layers of local music talent. Many of the commercially-published books about traditional American music, and the punk rock and indie underground favor the most commercially-viable bands and performing artists (because they are commercial brands), to the detriment of the local memory that still resides in the oral traditions and memories of local music scenesters. The rise and popularity of the Seattle band Nirvana is a case in point for the punk and indie music scene. Beginning in the mid-1990s to the present day, music journalists and others have written dozens of books on the band, and about its lead singer, Kurt Cobain. Their album Nevermind was released by DGC Records in 1991, and in subsequent retellings of the band’s origins, the year zero for punk rock and its variants (“grunge” for Nirvana) became 1991.[xix]
Recent books and documentary films of local underground music scenes are beginning to move the corporate “year zero” back where it rightly belongs in the late 1960s in Detroit and its hard, proto-punk rock and roll.[xx] The history of the rise of hard rock and roll is only about 50 years old, and until recently, music critics were beginning about half way through the genre’s life course. Much the same could be said about works on Bob Dylan or The Beatles or The Rolling Stones or The Doors. In traditional American music, the history of its influences date to the 1920s and 1930s with the ethnographic recordings and popular books of John and Alan Lomax and others, and the first traditional American music records by purveyors of the genre like Moses Asch (Folkways Records, now at the Smithsonian Institution).[xxi] The majority of books, film documentaries, and radio programming on pop music, traditional American music, and the punk rock and indie underground serve as mnemonic erasures of fuller, dynamic, and vibrant local music scenes, where the popular memory of music scenes is submerged under the corporately-controlled public memory within all genres of music and book publishing about music in the United States. The fuller account of the rise of the American music underground is still relatively young, and recent books and documentaries will continue to restore those scenes, with their thousands of participants, back to the historical record and public memory.
[i] George Lipstiz, Dangerous Crossroads: Popular Music, Postmodernism, and the Poetics of Place (London: Verso Books, 1994); Josh Kun, Audiotopia: Music, Race, and America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005); See also Lipsitz, Time Passages: Collective Memory and Popular Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990); for the new basis of political economy that underscored the rise of popular music in the post-WW2 period, see Ernest Mandel, Late Capitalism, trans. by Joris de Bres (London: Verso Books, 1999), 474-561.
[ii] Michael Denning, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (London: Verso Books, 1996); John Szwed, Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World (New York: Viking, 2010); Suzanne Smith, Dancing in the Street: Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999).
[iii] On the connection between cultural movements and politics after 1970, see Agnes Heller and Ferenc Feher, The Postmodern Political Condition (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), 132-145.
[iv] See Szwed, Alan Lomax; George Lipsitz, Footsteps in the Dark: The Hidden Histories of Popular Music (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007). Lipsitz notes how the mass media in documentary and music journalism often obscures the social movement political basis of ethnic music subcultures like jazz, rap, or the hard techno underground in Black metropolises like Detroit, and also the musical nationalisms of Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and ethnic Mexicans on the East and West Coast.
[v] Wright quoted in Szwed, 72.
[vi] See John Savage, England’s Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock, and Beyond (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992); Legs McNeil, Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk (New York: Grove Press, 1996); Dewar Macleod, Kids of the Black Hole: Punk Rock in Postsuburban California (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2010); Cynthia Connelly, Sharon Cheslow, and Leslie Clague, ed., Banned in DC: Photos and Anecdotes from the DC Punk Underground, 1979-1985 (Sun Dog Propaganda, 1988); Mark Andersen and Mark Jenkins, Dance of Days: Two Decades of Punk in the Nation’s Capital (New York: Akashic Books, 2003); Lucien Perkins, Alec MacKaye, and Henry Rollins, Hard Art: DC 1979 (New York: Akashic Books, 2013); Mark Spitz and Brendan Mullen, We’ve Got the Neutron Bomb: The Untold Story of LA Punk (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2001); Brendan Mullen, Don Bolles, and Adam Parfrey, Lexicon Devil: The Fast Times and Short Life of Darby Crash of the Germs (Los Angeles: Feral House Press, 2002); Steven Blush, American Hardcore: A Tribal History, 2nd ed., (Port Townsend: Feral House Press, 2010); Scott Crawford, Salad Days: A Decade of Punk in Washington DC, 1980-1990 (New Rose Films, 2015); Danny Garcia, Searching for Johnny: The Legend of Johnny Thunders (Chip Baker Films, 2014); Wes Orshoski, The Damned: Don’t You Wish That We Were Dead (Three Count Films, 2016); Mojo Magazine, Punk: The Whole Story (London: DK Books, 2006).
[vii] Macleod, Kids of the Black Hole; Keith Morris, My Damage: The Story of a Punk Rock Survivor (New York: Da Capo Press, 2016); On the Circle Jerks Group Sex album (Frontier Records, 1980), Keith Morris sang on the song, “Beverly Hills,” “Beverly Hills, Century City, everything’s so nice and pretty, all the people look the same, don’t they know they’re so damn lame, three-piece suits, spandex pants, cowboy boots….” This summed up much of punk’s revolt against the legacy of the 60s, and the cultural scene of the 1970s.
[viii] Mike Davis, Prisoners of the American Dream: Politics and Economy in the History of the US Working Class (London: Verso Books, 1986); Thomas Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996); David Farber and Beth Bailey, ed., America in the Seventies (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004); David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernism: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (London: Wiley-Blackwell, 1991); Manuel Castells, The City and the Grassroots: A Cross-Cultural Theory of Urban Social Movements (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985); Frederic Jameson, “Postmodernism, Or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” New Left Review 146 (July-August 1984); Deyan Sudjic, 100 Mile City (London: Harvest Books, 1992); ; Macleod, Kids of the Black Hole; Spencer Olin and Robert Kling, ed., Postsuburban California: The Transformation of Orange County since World War II (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995); Edward Soja, Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory (London: Verso Books, 1989).
[ix] See Thomas Frank, The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998); Macleod, Kids of the Black Hole; Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, trans. by Donald Nicholson Smith (New York: Zone Books, 1995); Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011). When glam, punk, hardcore, or post-punk music did receive major and first-tier media coverage, it was usually sensationalist, negative, or cautionary. Every punk rocker remembers the alarmist Quincy episode.
[x] Brent Callwood, The Stooges: Head On, A Journey through the Michigan Underground (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2011); Brent Callwood, MC5: Sonically Speaking, A Revolution of Rock ‘n ‘Roll (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2010); Mark Covino and Jeff Howlett, A Band Called Death (Drafthouse Films, 2013).
[xi] Macleod, Kids of the Black Hole; Mullen, et. al., Lexicon Devil; Spitz and Mullen, We’ve Got the Neutron Bomb; Savage, England’s Dreaming. The critical mass of scene histories notes how Iggy Pop was also the main conduit for the spread of the use of heroin in the glitter and punk scenes of Los Angeles, New York (via CBGBs and Max’s Kansas City), and London (via Johnny Thunders), and New York; The great irony here, of course, is the recent nomination of The MC5 and the Bad Brains to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, bands that continually fought and struggled with their record labels, who now profit from the renewed interest in these bands; When one reads most of the books about the rise of punk rock in Los Angeles, the underlying narrative is quite clear: ex-hippies turned hipsters taking advantage of teenage and young adult punk musicians and their bands through band management, indie record labels, and club bookings. The exception to the LA scene was Lisa Fancher’s Frontier Records, which still is a fair custodian of its back catalog for the bands that have published music with the label. In Washington DC, Ian MacKaye and Jeff Nelson’s Dischord Records serves similarly as the custodian of the label’s recording artists, and has engaged in a massive remastering initiative of its entire back catalog.
[xii] The relative lack of scholarly works on the origins of glam (glitter in LA), punk, and hardcore music, from an ethnographic or ethnohistorical point of view can be seen as similar to the questions raised by Eric Wolf and Marshall Sahlins in their pioneering works on indigenous peoples around the globe. See Eric Wolf, Europe and the People Without History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982); Marshall Sahlins, How“Natives” Think: About Captain Cook, For Example (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995).
[xiii] Many music critics note that Malcolm McClaren, Kim Fowley, and Rodney Bingenheimer and others were from the upper or upper middle classes. However influential they thought they were in their small punk empires, there were thousands of bands that formed without backers or rich sponsors. The “posh” argument minimizes the real activity of thousands of punk rockers in the underground scene. In Washington DC, Ian MacKaye and Henry Rollins worked at a Hagen Daz ice cream store in Georgetown and the local movie theater to save money to put out records and pursue music. See Crawford, Salad Days. This could be the “two jobs” trope often found in Southern Plains country music lyrics.
[xiv] David Park, Conglomerate Rock: The Music Industry’s Quest to Divide Music and Conquer Wallets (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2007). Park notes that in 2005, independent record labels had only 28% of domestic market share in sales annually; Universal Music Group held 26% DMSA; Sony BMG 22% DMSA; EMI 13% DMSA; and Warner 11% DMSA. The DMSA for independents has shrunk considerably since 2005 to under 15% DMSA due to mergers and acquisitions in multi-integrated media corporations; A few of the significant new fanzines were Slash (Los Angeles); Flipside Magazine (Los Angeles); Maximum Rock and Roll (Berkeley, CA), and The Big Takeover Magazine (New York City); New York University has a new, punk rock and underground fanzine collection that researchers can utilize to understand the modes of music journalism at the local level from the 1970s to the present. The writer of this narrative has donated a substantial portion of his fanzine collection to the NYU library archives.
[xv] Heller and Feher, The Postmodern Political Condition, 136.
[xvi] Cornelius Castoriadis, The Imaginary Institution of Society, trans. by Kathleen Blamey (1974; Cambridge: MIT Press, 1987), 340-373. Castoriadis explains “To say that social imaginary significations are instituted, or to say that the institution of society is the institution of a world of social imaginary significations, also means that these significations are presentified and figured in and through the actuality of the individuals, acts, and objects that they ‘inform.’ The institution of society is what it is to the extent that it ‘materializes’ a magma of the social imaginary significations, in reference to which individuals and objects alone can be grasped and even simply exist. Nor can this magma be spoken of in isolation from the individuals and the objects that it brings into being. What we have here are not significations that would be ‘freely detachable’ from any material support, purely ideal poles; rather, it is in and through the being and the being-thus of this ‘support’ that these significations exist and are such as they are,” 356. Heller and Feher’s formulation is drawn from their participation in the discourse on autonomy with Castoriadis, Juergen Habermas, Richard Rorty, Charles Taylor and others during the late 1970s and 1980s. See also Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. by Donald Nicholson Smith (1974; London: Wiley-Blackwell, 1992).
[xvii] The writer of this narrative took his first guitar lessons from his high school band teacher in Coronado, CA, Bob Demmon. Demmon was the leader of the Boulder, CO surf-rock band The Astronauts. During the heyday of their popularity on tour in the early 1960s, the opening band on their first tours was The Beach Boys, who went on to great fame in the music industry.
[xviii] The historical, philosophical, and sociological literature on memory is vast. See Maurice Halbwachs, On Collective Memory, trans. and ed. by Lewis Coser (1941; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992); Kerwin Klein, “On the Emergence of Memory in Historical Discourse.” Representations, 69, 4 (Winter 2000); Wulf Kansteiner, “Finding Meaning in Memory: A Methodological Critique of Collective Memory Studies.” History and Theory, 41, no. 2 (May 2002); Norman Klein, The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory (London: Verso Books, 1997); Warren Susman, Culture as History: The Transformation of American Society in the Twentieth Century (New York: Pantheon, 1984); Michael Kammen, Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture (New York: Vintage, 1991); David Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001); Henri Lefebvre, Introduction to Modernity: Twelve Preludes, September 1959 – May 1961, trans. by John Moore (1962; London: Verso, 1995); Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism (1983; London: Verso, 1991); see this writer’s book, Matthew F. Bokovoy, The San Diego World’s Fairs and Southwestern Memory, 1880-1940 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2005).
[xix] Macleod brings up this point in Kids of the Black Hole, which is testament to his training at The New School for Social Research and CUNY Graduate Center, and his courses with the remarkable Eric Hobsbawm.
[xx] See Jim Jarmusch’s new documentary on The Stooges, Gimme Danger (Low Mind Films, 2016); see also the unreleased documentary on The MC5 by David Thomas, MC5: A True Testimonial (2004) that frequently gets posted on YouTube for a few weeks before it is taken off the web (due to litigation from Wayne Kramer with the film’s producers and director).
[xxi] Conversation with Michael Asch, August 12, 2012: Victoria BC, Canada. Michael Asch is Moses Asch’s son and professor of anthropology at University of Victoria.