Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Avant-Punk:
A Cult Explodes . . . and a Movement Is Born

1. Avant-Punk Lives

One day a few months ago it dawned on me that this time it was different. Ever since hearing the MC5 in Detroit after Chicago '68 I had been waiting, hoping, or at least rooting for a new, clamorously urban style of rock and roll to, as they say, take over the world. All those who worked in this style consciously allied themselves with avant-garde movements in music, poetry, and/or the visual arts, and I believed that even at their most apolitical they were politically avant-garde, too, because they were uncomplacent and anti-liberal without being reactionary. These artists were always controversial. They always gathered enthusiastic journalistic support. And they always went nowhere commercially.

Detroit was not the birthplace of this avant-punk style, of course: the MC5 and the Stooges represented the second phase of a music that began in New York with the Velvet Underground. But just as the Velvets might well have originated avant-punk without thinking too much about its obvious precedents--the dirty raveups of the Yardbirds and the early Kinks and the garage-band one-shots of the original punks collected on Lenny Kaye's Nuggets anthology--so the Stooges and the 5 might well have been all but unaware of the Velvets. Put young, relatively unskilled white musicians from an industrial city together with some electric guitars, grant them aesthetic acuteness by nature or nurture, and eventually it's bound to happen: rock and roll that differentiates itself from its (fundamentally black and rural) sources by taking on the crude, ugly, perhaps brutal facts of the (white and urban) prevailing culture, rather than hiding behind its bland fašade. The underlying idea of this rock and roll will be to harness late industrial capitalism in a love-hate relationship whose difficulties are acknowledged, and sometimes disarmed, by means of ironic aesthetic strategies: formal rigidity, role-playing, humor. In fact, ironies will pervade and, in a way, define this project: the lock-step drumming will make liberation compulsive, pain-threshold feedback will stimulate the body while it deadens the ears, lyrics will mean more than (missing).

The rarity of avant-punk made it seem more precious. Between the time the Velvets formed in 1966 and the time Patti Smith began to assemble her group at CBGB in 1975, only four other bands of any consequence entered the tradition: the MC5, whose unironic crusade for hip was aestheticized by the sloppy, almost aleatory power of their feedback; Iggy and the Stooges, whose command of every star quality except fame made them the most influential of the avant-punks between the Velvets and the Ramones; the Modern Lovers, whose sole hard-rock album wasn't released until well after Jonathan Richman's brain had softened; and the irrepressibly irresponsible New York Dolls.

Of course, a similar buzz was provided by more profitable musicians, most prominently Lou Reed, who professionalized the Velvets' style; Blue Oyster Cult, who aped a host of more na´ve groups with such immaculate impassivity that in the end they convinced not only the audience themselves; and municipal parking garage bands like Alice Cooper and Kiss, heirs of the original punks who weren't above stealing from their bohemian cousins. Reed's Rock n Roll Animal is keen heavy metal; the Cult's Agents of Fortune is history as farce; Alice's "I'm Eighteen" is a direct forerunner of "Anarchy in the U.K." Yet in retrospect they lack any flash of radical individualism. Not so with the avant-punks. Detractors labeled their basic approach monotonous, but the distance within what was a relatively unexplored musical territory proved vast; Emmylou Harris will satisfy your yen for Linda Ronstadt a lot better than--to choose the closest pair I can think of--the Velvets' "White Light/White Heat" will satisfy your need for the Modern Lovers' "Roadrunner." And because details of approach differed so, all these bands were possessed of rock and roll's secret: they played a supposedly uninnovative style as if they'd invented it.

Needless to say, the art-commerce dichotomy was one reason the style remained so rare; a young musician might admire Lou Reed or Iggy, but following in their footsteps required conviction. As the Dolls and Patti Smith played their rock-star roles with ironic abandon, landed big-money deals, and made second albums that sold worse than their first, it seemed painfully probable that the avant-punks' infatuation with teen America would go forever unreciprocated. As an addict of the music, I was pleased when CBGB turned into a venue for inheritors like Television, Talking Heads, the Ramones, and Tuff Darts, and gratified when Blondie and Mink DeVille came up with better-realized albums, artistically and commercially, than I would have predicted. Maybe the heartland would finally be moved. I rooted, and I dared to hope. But I wasn't placing bets.

That was August or so. Now, a couple of months later, avant-punk seems likely to make some sort of breakthrough. I don't know how big it will be or whether I'll like its shape when it's over. All I know is that I haven't been this excited about rock and roll in at least 10 years. I'm buying records, calling people up to announce finds, playing the Vibrators and the Radiators From Space for everyone who walks in the door. First it was isolated artists, then a vanguard, but now it looks like a movement. When dozens of groups are out there making certifiably exciting music, it's hard to believe there isn't also a real audience--bigger than a cult, smaller than a mass--ready to make exciting noises of its own.

2. Creative Misapprehensions

Unless you memorize Additional Consumer News and the Pazz & Jop Product Report, or peruse rock magazines other than Rolling Stone, you probably can't quite place the Vibrators or the Radiators From Space. That's because they're based in England, land of the Sex Pistols and home of "new wave" "funk rock" as a social rather than a strictly artistic phenomenon. For despite all the publicity Johnny Rotten has received, the movement he symbolizes is still local to Great Britain. In the U.S., it's "underground"--it has to be sought out. And it is.

As with Haight-Ashbury, which inspired instant on-the-spot obituaries and scant recorded music during its earliest notoriety, the British new wave is already being mourned by those who discovered it first and has occasioned only a few American-release albums so far. British punk records are available, of course--mostly as singles, mostly as imports. But their notoriety precedes them. Anyone who's read 500 words about Johnny Rotten knows that this music embodies an uprising against youth unemployment in Britain and that the Sex Pistols' "God Save the Queen" hit big despite a blackball by the BBC and major retailers. And anyone who ever glances at the British music press, which caters to both fans and the trade, knows punk is the hottest news in British rock since Liverpool. It's my guess that these success stories have done more to fuel the latest burst of enthusiasm for punk in America than all the imports put together--and more, too, than any of the excellent non-hit LPs to come out of CBGB. Rock and roll has always thrived on star fever.

Yet avant-punk began in America, and star fever was not how it spread to the U.K. When conceptually sophisticated local art movements disperse, distortion or vulgarization can result, but so can a kind of creative misapprehension that rolls right through apparent formal cul-de-sacs. That's what happened when the Ramones toured England. The Ramones exploit the standard ironic strategies--role-playing, humor, and extreme rigidity--to make a powerful but ambiguous statement that both celebrates and mocks the frustrated energy of the ordinary American teenage male. But so unmistakably did they imply that any leather-jacketed geek can master three-chord rock and roll that in England, where teenage males were desperate for mastery in any form, all their other messages were ignored. In the wake of the Ramones summer '76 tour, bands playing Ramonseish avant-punk sprang up all over Great Britain. But where the Ramones distanced themselves from their own vaunted dumbness (it's not Joey Ramone the fictional character, much less the 25-year-old cat-owner behind the pseudonym, who beats on the brat or doesn't wanna be a pinhead no more), the English punks preferred simply to flaunt theirs. In comparison, the Ramones seem attenuated--wonderful, but arty. When the Clash snarls, "I get violent/When I'm fucked up/I get silent/When I'm drugged up," they're saying what they have to say more directly than anyone in avant-punk since the Detroit days, and it works. I'm not convinced, however, that the misapprehension of English punk by Americans will prove equally creative. The general jolt of activity and excitement is welcome. The kids at Max's who recall a B side by Chris Spedding--"Do the pose/All you have to do is wear the clothes"--have vulgarized what began as brutally witty street fashions, and star fever could distort an avant-garde scene that became healthy only when it faced up to its own modest commercial potential. Although I approve of the British-inspired vogue for independent singles, I worry about how the music on the albums I hope follow is going to sound.

The irresistible straightforwardness and conviction of so much English new wave goes with an energy that is political rather than aesthetic, and no less advanced artistically for that. But the source of this energy is a state of class warfare with no real parallel in this country, where repressive desublimation still has enough money behind it to make obliqueness aesthetically appropriate. Translated into American, the sincere rage of Eater and the Clash is likely to issue in molten-metal torrents of boredom and misogyny that lack even the justification of metaphorical license. I find it ominous that when England's Damned came over to CBGB, the opening act, Cleveland's Dead Boys--a runty cross between macho Ted Nugent, decadent Iggy, and the despicable Stranglers--established themselves as the hottest new punks in the land.

None of which has diminished my excitement yet. English punk turns everyone who likes it into a helpless fan; because it's still so local, there are only second-hand experts here. So I buy singles on the basis of gossip or title or picture sleeve or Pazz & Jop rating, and read whatever comes my way--Simon Frith's column in Creem, one issue of the Xeroxed London fanmag Sniffin' Glue, a July piece from Time that Sire Records sent me in late September. And even though Ira Robbins of Trouser Press claims it's all over but the selling, even though a few recent parody records muster enough musical authority to excite the skepticism they intend, I'm hot to get to London and see for myself.

Meanwhile, I cling to my scraps of plastic and print and attempt my own creative misapprehension. I keep thinking of Kingston, where I spent eight days in search of reggae roots in 1973. I found then that there was no guided tour, no way to hit the record companies, radio stations, and retailers for a guaranteed overview. The roots were too deep and various to be rationalized so easily. Almost any persevering rudeboy could connect with one of the dozens and dozens of small-time record producers, plug a topic or image of the day into a rhythmic formula supplied by a community of poorly paid session men, and come up with an arresting or even important piece of music. The English punks (most of whom are reggae fans) provide their own formula--Sniffin' Glue published a diagram of the basic chords--and sometimes scare up enough capital to become entrepreneurs themselves. I bet not all of them are poor. But they share with the rudeboys their inexperience, their threatened maleness, their potential for demagogy, their need to reconcile class identification with professional/artistic ambition, their inchoate politics of rebellion, and their ultimate vulnerability. And so they are worthy of pity and awe as well as skepticism.

To a lover of avant-punk who holds proudly to his square politics--his belief that only collective action will enable the mass of dispossessed people to attain personal power--this is a reasonable facsimile of a dream come true. I don't expect it to last. It's only culture, flawed culture, ridden with evident contradictions and resting on a material substructure of monumental inertia and fearsome ill will. But for the moment I'll settle. Rock and roll!

3. Fascism, Sexism, and Old Farts

I am not a punk. I am 35 years old, fervently attached to my marriage and my work, and better off materially than I could have wished or imagined in 1970. But someone once flattered me (inordinately) by writing that I seemed classless and almost ageless, and my excitement over this music no doubt connects with the fact that I can create such an impression. Conversely, much of the resistance avant-punk inspires, although expressed in careful musical or sociological formulations, has an ad hominem dimension of age or class. About music I could go on forever, and about age there isn't much to say--perhaps having to keep up with a couple of kids will eventually dispel my feeling that rushes of musical adrenalin are good for the system, but I doubt it. The sociological misgivings of the anti-punks, on the other hand, seem to me quite substantial.

In a world where lib-rad goody-goodies compare rock concerts to Nuremberg rallies and dismiss all electric guitarists as phallic narcissists, it's not hard to understand why so many bright young avant-punk musicians and fans consider abstractions like "fascism" and "sexism" squarer than love beads. Not that such terms can't refer to anything real. But they've turned into scarewords, deployed by comfortable hypocrites who pretend that to name a manifestation of horror is a meaningful way to control it. Nevertheless, I don't buy the (always unstated) defense of fascism and sexism as they manifest themselves in avant-punk. This isn't merely another ironic confrontation with brutal facts that are prettied up and exploited by mainstream hard rock. For one thing, whether such horrors are disarmed by aesthetic means is even more iffy than it is in the case of mechanical cacophony or adolescent aggression. Worse still, for American-style punks even to admit that disarmament is their purpose--if indeed it is--is to violate their own ironic strategies, while for the English to abandon their straightforwardness in such contexts, as they sometimes do--or claim to--is at best a questionable tactic.

Avant-punks's vaguely Nazisymp reputation seemed mostly a matter of aura until recently. Given the disciplined brutality of the basic style and the S & M flirtations of first Lou Reed and then Iggy (both sometimes sojourners in Berlin), those who get nervous whenever 500 people chant in time were sure to see the worst in David Johansen's goosesteps or Brother J. C. Crawford's exhortations to kick out the jams. The rest of us, however--especially those who believe that sometimes collective violence worked for good--were not obliged to agree. But then the Dictators, counted by some as another seminal avant-punk band, made this aura their central "joke," to the point where somgwriter Andy Shernoff placed a racist remark (about Puerto Ricans) in an early issue of Punk. And then came the Ramones, with three songs referring to Germany on their first album; an especially charming couplet, "I'm Nazi schatze/Y'know I work for the fatherland," highlighted their climactic "Today Your Love, Tomorrow the World," which regularly moved a few aspiring punks to heil-Hitler salutes. In England, where the Ramones have been so influential, swastikas are even more popular among punks than they are here; to middle class people who have confidence in such formulations, the English punks, with their defiant lumpen nihilism, might well recall "the growing masses outside all class strata" described by Hannah Arendt as "natural prey to Fascist movements." So it's no surprise that an English band, the Cortinas, has released a single called "Fascist Dictator," the boastful momentum of which recalls the Stones' "I'm a King Bee" done double-time: "I'm a fascist dictator/That's what I am/I'm a fascist dictator/Ain't like no other man."

None of this looks very good, but none of it is as bad as it looks. If anything, the new punk is consciously anti-fascist, which is a step up from the apathy and complacency of most rock and roll. Unless you think the Ramones identify with Charlie Manson, the Texas chain-saw killer, CIA men, SLAers, geeks, glue-sniffers, and electroshock patients--an absurd misreading as far as I'm concerned--then you must conclude that their intention is satiric, and the same applies when they turn to fascist characters. Meanwhile, England, unlike the U.S., faces a clear, self-identified fascist threat, the National Front, which most punks take the trouble to oppose explicitly; when Johnny Rotten calls Queen Elizabeth's government "a fascist regime" it's fair to assume he wants no part of it. Even the Cortinas' song works as a Ramones-style irony.

The problem is that irony is wasted on pinheads. The Cortinas' protagonist is like no other man for two reasons--he's a fascist dictator and he gets no pleasure from love. Even if the Cortinas do intend an invidious equation, each side of which devalues the other, those of their fans who get no pleasure from love--victimized by one of the brutal modern facts that made punk necessary--may not see it that way. They may conclude that if the loss of pleasure is their fate, they might as well, in the classic fascist pattern, seek power instead. Considering how many hippies ended up in authoritarian religious movements when they discovered that enlightenment did not solve their problems, it seems likely that a few of those saluting Ramones fans will undergo a comparable political life-change when they discover the limits of energy. Beyond the liberal-baiting, beyond the image of horror, avant-punk is forebodingly ambivalent here, with a complexity barely suggested by this one stanza of Iggy Pop's "China Girl": "My Little China Girl/You shouldn't mess with me/I'll ruin everything you are/I'll give you television/I'll give you eyes of blue/I'll give you men who want to rule the world."

The parallel issue of sexism, implicit in the roots of rock and roll, is even knottier; but here, too, the evidence is mixed. In New York, the two most prestigious bands, Television and Talking Heads, avoid both macho and wimp and are notably unantagonistic toward women. Ironic strategies abound, especially from the Ramones and Blondie, who puts on her bombshell image so convincingly that she's turned into a rockmag pinup (how do you jerk off ironically?), and whose theme song rips "Miss Groupie Supreme" to shreds. In England, the Sex Pistols and the Clash direct their underclass rage, so often deflected toward women in rock and roll, right where it belongs, at the rich and powerful, and social-problem cliches are invoked much more often than women-problem cliches. But irony is double-edged, and the mechanical, pleasureless, hostile sexuality projected by names like Vibrators, Sex Pistols, and (get this one) Buzzcocks is, once again, more than liberal-baiting. The avant-punk scene is certainly no better place for women than any other rock scene and in crucial instances it's worse.

"Some day I'm gonna smash your face," barks 27-year-old ex-schoolteacher Hugh Cornwall of the (talkin' about the Boston) Stranglers in his first words to an American audience, and he's echoed by young short and whiny Stiv Bators of the Dead Boys: "Don't look at me that way bitch/Your face is gonna get a punch." I am assured that such metatheatre, the candor of which is new to rock and roll, merely desublimates an adolescent fantasy that has always fed into the music's aggressive sexuality, and is directed solely at the kind of fucked-up female--vain and slavish, sucking after any connection to power, and (to quote Bators) "born with dishpan hands"--who afflicts the scene. Only I don't believe the fantasy to be adolescent--gender, not age, is what's relevant--and I wonder (rhetorically) why more putdown songs aren't devoted to fucked-up male hangers-on. I do make a distinction between the Stranglers, posers with the gall to claim their misogyny constitutes a positive political protest, and the altogether more desperate and vulnerable--hence revelatory--Dead Boys. But I don't want to listen to either. I got loads of hostilities, but my need to beat up women is repressed, and I hope it stays that way. It'd be some world if we all went around killing our fathers.

If it appears that I'm confusing art with morality, or with life, well, I didn't start it. This is the Stranglers and the Dead Boys I'm talking about, not Oedipus Rex or Celine or, for that matter, the Rolling Stones, and if the confusion of art with life is common on a scene which becomes ever more unsophisticated as it expands, that's at least partly the fault of the second-rate artists who are being misunderstood. Desublimation my ass. Tales of affectless protopunks in jail for beating on their girlfriends (how do you punch someone ironically?), or of the varieties of consensual stoopidity, remind me that the only reason no woman was ever seduced--or raped--by a book is that books don't have penises. Art is only art, but it can really damage people anyway. Avant-punk sexism not only repels those smart, unmasochistic women who don't choose to cultivate the cool that plugging safely into the scene requires, it also has the effect of encouraging less savvy and independent women to fulfil it's prophecy. And while it may be true that the only way to defuse certain fantasies and forbidden ideas is to bring them into the open, it's dishonest to pretend that such idealistic motives--or such ideal results--are usually present here.

So it isn't just goody-goodies and old farts who stay away from CBGB. All good rock and roll risks fascism simply by generating mass energy, and much of it flirts with sexism simply by exploring the music's traditional subject matter. Sometimes the risks are worth it, sometimes they aren't. It's not enough to argue that the Dead Boys pervert the Ramones--not when the Ramones' deadpan invited the perversion. I love the Ramones myself. I think the settled over-25s (and sensitive under-25s) who equate the Ramones with the Dead Boys are wrong. But their mistake is at least as understandable as the mistake of bright young avant-punks who think abstractions like "Fascism" and "sexism" are squarer than love beads.

4. The Next Medium Thing

It really is different this time, because the music will be there. Over the next six months, Americans will have a chance to purchase albums by dozens of artists who spit at the conventional wisdom of the record industry, or seem to. Many of them will reflect signings made possible by the most recent punk explosion, and almost all will share with punk its paucity of sophisticated production techniques, such as chords. But not all of them will qualify as avant-punk. England's Elvis Costello is more pub; Boston's Loco Alexander is basically an eccentric white r & b stylist; the lead singer of New York's Shirts has a big part in Hair; Los Angeles's Runaways are punky female Monkees created by a record producer. And even bands that clearly are in the style hedge their bets. The first two British albums in the U.S. sweepstakes, by the Jam and the Stranglers, were accompanied by press material making it clear that these boys were really "new wave," not that nasty old punk.

In other words, the record industry is playing it both ways. Not many music execs like the stuff, which is designed to blast away every "artistic" standard they hold dear. But unlike the actual standard-bearers--established rock musicians like those who reportedly put together a protest petition when English A & M briefly signed the Sex Pistols--the executives don't feel threatened where they live. If it makes noise, they're set up to make money off it. Many of them sense that Johnny Rotten is something special, perhaps unprecedented, and all of them have heard that the two giants, Warners and CBS, are vying for him. They're also aware that Warners has picked up the American punk company, Sire, from ABC, and that CBS has been dealing with Britain's pub-to-punk Stiff label and is preparing a major push with the Vibrators. Still, they have their own tastes and truisms. They know that the Sire catalogue also includes Renaissance and old Fleetwood Mac, that Stiff means an in with Graham Parker, that English phenoms like T. Rex and Slade have fizzled here. They know the radio stations and their own distribution networks are filled with the kind of tasteful rock fans who are outraged by punk. And they know--or think they know--that the rock audience is as put off by the rough, the extreme, and the unfamiliar as they are.

This rock audience is the one the execs created--more passive and cautious than that of a decade ago not just because kids have changed, although they have, but because it is now dominated statistically by different, and more passive, kids. My first assumption about punk is that it will attract new blood to rock and roll, and my first question is whether a transfusion is possible. Will the marginal fans of boogie and heavy metal decide they're tired of all that calculated spontaneity and putative self-expression? Will they turn from those big, thick cushions of loudness and decorative licks of musicianship? Will something real be forged from the surviving dogmas of teen rebellion? Or will punk artists who only appear to spit at the conventional wisdom of the industry sneak between instant oblivion and world takeover?

The prime contenders for such compromised punk superstardom are the Stranglers and the Dead Boys, either of whom could convert to modishly bombed-out heavy metal inside of two months, and the Rods a/k/a Eddie and the Hot Rods, basically a double-time boogie band. In America, any grander artistic hopes must rest with those hard-working heroes of concept punk, the Ramones, who have charted a single and attracted the biggest booking agent in rock, both inconceivable feats a year ago. Among the English bands the fate of the Sex Pistols is crucial; Johnny Rotten looks like a rock star who could matter, and he might ease things for the Jam and the Vibrators, both pop-based, hook-prone hard rock bands of a sort that has proved too tough for comfort before, and even for the Clash, so crude and unpretty that they qualify as protest music in every sense of the word. Rotten is so special, though, that his commercial impact might have negative musical effects--so far, he's found truth in the kind of overstated self-dramatization that has killed so much rock and roll, but I don't look forward to his imitators. That's why I'm rooting for the Ramones--they suggest a way out of his expressionistic cul-de-sac, just as Rotten suggests a way out of their formalistic one, and the syntheses could be stunning, as Television, Patti Smith, and Talking Heads have already demonstrated.

By experimenting with certain implicit imperatives of rock and roll, punk cleans out the ears. It's one thing to theorize that most of what is called hard rock these days is really a species of MOR, another to recoil at the goo of Foreigner after scouring yourself with the Clash for a week. It's one thing to know that great stylists are born of the sort of na´ve audacity that's unhampered by technical preconceptions, another to hear Tom Verlaine turn into a great rock guitarist who owes almost nothing to blues beyond bent notes. It's one thing to believe that music need not swing to activate, another to pogo up and down to the Clash while some Italian Communist who likes Pink Floyd--a combination that would ordinarily seem wondrous--complains about "the rhythm of death." I mean, this music definitely decreases your tolerance for sentimentality.

Sentimentality has its uses, of course. Basically, it is sentimentality that enables us to believe in things, to get through life, and because these are artists who don't yet believe in very much, I worry about how they and their audience are going to manage. Think of it--they don't even claim to believe in rock and roll. Yet that too I find cleansing, because the music business has transformed believing in rock and roll into the most odious sentimentality of all. Rock and roll isn't something you believe in, in that onanistic, self-reflexive way that has vitiated so much modernist art. It is something you do to get somewhere else, until the doing becomes a kind of belief in itself. That, after all, is the avant-punk attitude, and at this pregnant moment it seems at least possible that these rock and rollers won't end up where they began.

Village Voice, Oct. 24, 1977