Punk'd: a decade under the microscope

"I created punk for this day and age. Do you see Britney walking around wearing ties and singing punk? Hell no. That's what I do. I'm like a Sid Vicious for a new generation." - Avril Lavigne

Punk rock, you feel, has maybe not had the best of decades.

The horse, of course, was well-and-truly flogged twenty or thirty years ago but for those of us left addled by years of sniffing solvents, its continued commodification remains about the only thing likely to rouse us from behind our pints of cloudy cider. Only the threat of (another) Sex Pistols re-union could sap our spirits even more. Oh, wait ...

Confusingly though, punk also came in from the cold; the critics treating the likes of Pissed Jeans, Fucked Up, Jay Reatard and even The Hives as mere spokes in the whole axis of rock alongside noise bands, metalcore, post-rock and all the other sub-sub-genres that seem designed to simply send anyone over the age of 38 scuttling back to their Abrasive Wheels singles. Make punk rock music, just don't call yourself punk rockers, whatever you do.

The grumpy old men may have thought things couldn't get any worse after the mall punk explosion of the 1990s, but the marketing departments took catchy punk pop into kids' bedrooms: Avril, Kelly Clarkson, Miley Cyrus - Disney-fied uh ... pink rock that was often - infuriatingly - entertaining. Strip away the vocals and there often wasn't much to choose between 'Since You Been Gone' and the latest American Hi-Fi number. Even the UK got in on the act with the much-missed Busted, providing a smashing opportunity for father/daughter first gig experiences. Fast-forward a few years and no doubt we'll see the results in a whole raft of feisty femme bands, kicking out the jim-jams.

Suprisingly, 'real' pop punk proved to be a sturdier beast than many would've dared bet, with Sum 41's 'Fat Lip' remaining a Kerrang! TV staple to this day. Kids who grew up listening to Iron Maiden and Metallica - but were alientated by Lars and co.'s descent into success-fuelled therapy - rediscovered the joys of three chords, a wink and a sneer. That goofball element was never far away, meaning a Blink 182 re-union was as inevitable as Bowling For Soup super-sizing up at the burger bar. Somewhere along the way Green Day became Grandaddies of protest rock with 2005's American Idiot, although their arena-based antics and stage musical aspirations painted them more as a Gilman Street KISS than genuine rabble-rousers - which is sad, given the lack of an effective artistic response to what has been a pretty grim decade, politics-wise.

Publicly, emo was the face of punk rock during the decade. To paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart's position on the old dirty mags, it might be hard to define but you know it when you see it. No other modern genre inspired quite as much hand-wringing as to what it meant or what act fitted the stereotype and while second (or third?) wave bands like Dashboard Confessional barely registered this side of the Atlantic, by the time it became 'the next big thing', the genre had morphed into a queasy Frankenstein's monster: part-punk, part-metal, part-goth and easily dimissed as haircut or MySpace music.

Emo infiltrated the mainstream sufficiently to secure both sniffiness from the cognescenti, a certain amount of tabloid hysteria and street-level hostility, but on a musical level we've been left with little in the way to sit alongside the likes of Nevermind, Ten or even Badmotorfinger as defining a period in alt.rock. My Chemical Romance's 'I'm Not OK (I Promise)' could lay claim to being something of a generational anthem, with a lyrical nod to a now long-dead figurehead ("I've told you time and time again you sing the words but don't know what it means") but the likes of Panic! At The Disco, Fall Out Boy or minor league entrants like Aiden and 30 Seconds To Mars never quite convinced anyone much over 19 and, as the decade drew to a close, the genre began to stray dangerously into a MOR mediocrity that would make even hardcore Journey fans blanche.

But it all started so promisingly. At The Drive-In's 'Relationship Of Command' was the perfect blend of Dischord label experimentation and post-hardcore fury that, for better or worse, defined a certain emo sensibility and became a template for the harder edge of the genre over the next decade. The moderate success of UK acts like Funeral For A Friend and lostprophets and, more recently, Gallows were an obvious legacy of ATD-I but they did little to translate the format to a British context, preferring to ape the sounds and moves of the American wave.

The other, defining trend within American punk at least, was a re-connection with protest musics of the past. While in Britain this previously spawned The Levellers, the sound of country, bluegrass and folk was a rich seam to mine, although as yet more and more screamers put down the Gibsons and picked up acoustics, the formula soon wore thin. This blue-collar aspect was apparent in The Gaslight Anthem's Springsteen-isms but Against Me! were the main protagonists and 2002's Reinventing Axl Rose was arguably their defining statement. Their subsequent jump to a major label provoked the usual accusations of 'selling out' but it was a decision few other previously underground bands had to make during the decade, with the multinationals hardly falling over themselves to get beardy anarcho-punx to sign on the dotted line. Other interesting acts like Ghost Mice, Defiance, Ohio and This Bike Is A Pipe Bomb followed in their wagon tracks but did not fare so well in the panning for gold stakes.

There's not much to be gained from trying to look into the crystal ball and foresee the genre's future but it's unlikely to morph radically or break musical boundaries - but then neither is heavy metal, that other haven for disaffected white kids which hasn't had a particularly glorious decade either. A quick whizz through the all-time best-sellers on Interpunk.com, probably the world's biggest online resource for punk-related paraphenalia, suggests there's still an audience for a bit of the old short, loud and fast - and if there's a message in there, however naive, it's all to the good: For Blood and Empire; No Gods/No Managers; Change Is A Sound. Still breathing. Just about, anyway.

Some Personal Highlights


Too young to be burned by life, Be Your Own Pet were instead seriously burned by the record industry, but managed to puke up two fantastic albums of teenage rage, part-Minor Threat, part-surf-guitar chaos. Their eponymous debut was a burst of adolescent surrealism, high on possibility ("We are adventuring / We are adventurers / I'm having such fun! / The wonders we've seen!") but the follow up, 2008's Get Awkward regressed into a Heathers-style teenage nightmare, leading to their American label refusing to include several tracks due to their lyrical content. This almost unprecedented move - at least in modern times - sapped their spirit and they split soon afterwards, but they left behind a whole bunch of good memories.


Small Brown Bike may have had one of the worst names of all time, but Dead Reckoning was one of the decade's finest heavyweight albums, taking Hot Water Music's gruff punk stylings and injecting a Melvins-esque poundage to proceedings. 'This Ship Will Burn' typified their sound, creaking under the strain of weights both sonic and emotional: 'This ship will not overturn / These waves will not cool this burn / This sea will not swallow me / This past will not defeat me!' Anchor heavy, ocean size! SBB owed much to Sunderland's Leatherface and the shadow of Frankie Stubbs cast long over many quality acts: Gunmoll, Grabass Charlestons, North Lincoln most of whom congregated around Florida's No Idea label. It was a sound that was never quite picked up in the way it should have, but it provided some of the decade's finest, and least pretentious, sounds.


Away from the punk pop beach balls and bikinis, Alkaline Trio took Misfits-inspired anthems of disappointment down booze-sodden highways normally reserved for the denizens of Nashville or Dublin. Songwriting duties were split between guitarist Matt Skiba and bassist Dan Adriano, each with a distinctive take on the format (Skiba = dark, Adriano = yearning) and while the musical conservatism might have dissuaded many from investigating further, for those in need of a soundtrack for those times when you just want to throw in the towel, they know all about the dark nights of the soul.


One of the few albums to successfully pick up the gauntlet laid down by ATD-I was Thursday's Full Collapse. Its Morrissey-meets-Fugazi vibe - striking fear into veal farmers everywhere - offered a road-map for the future, but it wasn't to be.


In that hazy wilderness where genre meets shorthand, emo pioneers Jimmy Eat World's Bleed American (2001) pursued a heavier, power pop sound that was perfect for soundtracking those days when you packed up, shipped out and started driving west.


Music that changes lives? For sure.

Sometimes you can't explain why a band might get into your head and heart quite so deeply. Sure, back in the day I liked Dinosaur Jnr, Madder Rose and Belly, same as everyone else. But Lemuria manage to take all those elements and amplify them until they become crack for the soul. I've spend days and weeks barely listening to anything else. Musically, indie rock I suppose but DIY at heart and, given the amount of time they spend on the road, punker than most of us will ever be.

There's no point in sleeping in,
And there's no need to wake up.
There's nothing to live for at the end of my coffee cup.
I'm happy with myself, and I'm proud of who I am.
I gave myself a certificate saying "I'm a Fucking Champ".

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