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Rhythm & Soul: Defining punk

By Kathleen McWilliams
On February 19, 2014

Monday morning I picked up the paper and read Matt Gantos' column on '90s Nostalgia. It's always a fun time to read what Matt has to say about the decade of our childhood and I often find myself pleasantly reminded about the things I loved and the fads I missed growing up. This week Matt wrote about his first punk experience, Blink-182, and it made me think about what defines punk. I'd never considered Blink-182 that edgy in comparison to the punk bands I listen to, like The Clash and The Ramones.
The way I see it, punk is less of a genre and more of a culture. Within American culture, for example, there are many different types of music, and within punk culture, there are many diverse sounds. The overarching theme of punk music is rebellion and a desire to flout authority. This all may be sounding very anarchist, but punk does have roots in politics. When punk music became prevalent in the early 1970s, New York City and London were plagued by social issues. The decades of war in the United States had free thinking individuals questioning the country's leadership and the wealth divide in Britain had young adults, like Sid Vicious, wondering what the point of it all was. Particularly in New York, punk was seen as a musical expression of the grime, crime and disease that was rampant in the city. The cutesy lofts of Greenwich Village did not exist in 1973 and it is from this filth that punk music was born.
That said, punk music is extremely diverse. The Ramones have a distinctly rock and roll edge with their four piece band and exploitation of 1950s socks hop music. Their sound is cut clean, without actually being very clean. Bands like The Ramones are very vanilla when it comes to profanity, but the grit that led the way to the grunge movement is there in the caustic guitar riffs and shouts. On the other hand, no one could compare the music of The Ramones to the discography of Siouxsie and the Banshees. While the Ramones dominated in the '70s, Siouxsie and her scarily clad band ruled the '80s with synthetic harmonies and grating guitar parts. Her music still embodies the punk culture, but has a very different sound. The Ramones, the Clash, the Damned and the Velvet Underground were the vanguard for the punk movement and their distinctive style allowed for groups like Siouxsie and the Banshees to develop a punk sound that fit their generation.
For our generation punk music has really been pushed underground with the emergence of Indie labels and bands. Indie labels allow artists to pursue whatever sounds they want whether it is soft grunge, scream or pop. Some Indie music definitely has a punk vibe to it, but I'm not sure that I would classify much of it as "punk." The Gin Riots, a band out of England, have songs with a distinctly punk vibe, but they also don't sound 100 percent punk. It's a fine line to walk for sure, but the crazy experimental screeching guitars and brooding lyrics commenting on modern society give it a punk edge.
If you're looking for more classic punk you can do no wrong checking out "London Calling" by The Clash, "Sonic Reducer" by the Dead Boys or "Rip Her to Shreds" by Blondie.

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