I was reading the October issue of Uncut magazine recently, feasting on the article about The Clash. Part band history (complete with interviews with surviving members) and part commercial for the upcoming “Sound System” boxset. Ah, sweet remembrance. The energy of “White riot”, the attack of “Safe European home” and the feverish anticipation of holding the brand new “London Calling” double album in my hands, and having to drive 300 kilometers home before being able to listen to it. For those younger than 40 who might be reading this, there actually was a time before both CD´s and MP3´s. Those were the days…
Maybe we should take it from the beginning. I was born in 1963 and started enjoying pop music as a six-year old. My first serious musical love was The Beatles, pretty predictable I know, but still true. I could hear every single song on the “Help” album playing in my head while enduring boring school days in the second grade. My third album ever bought was “Sgt Pepper”. With a brother five years my senior a lot of new influences trickled down, and my tastes slowly evolved and changed. The big bands of the hard rock era in the 70´s – Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Uriah Heep, as well as others too numerous to mention. Mostly simple stuff with a solid base in the blues. However, things moved on and musicians became increasingly proficient and songs more and more complicated, sometimes covering the whole side of an LP. Influences from jazz started to turn up, and technical things like guitar notes per second was discussed. My brother played in a band, strongly influenced by British progressive rock and jazz rock. This type of stuff was all around me and as many others I thought that this was how it was supposed to be. Music was fast becoming more and more cerebral, and the emotional rush I had become used to from earlier pop and rock started to wane. Something was missing.
Then came punk. It could be argued that every generation has its own defining musical movement, and this was mine. The excitement was back. Energy, protest, noise and a liberating disregard for whether you could actually play or not. This lasted for about five minutes, but I guess that´s all it took to change rock music forever.
Let me make one thing clear. I was not a punk per se, if you´re thinking torn T-shirts and safety pins. In the small town where I grew up, adhering to the punk fashion would have been a difficult proposition, necessitating a lot of bruised knuckles. I could just never see the point of showing your individuality by conforming to yet another norm anyway. Still, I could listen to the music, which I certainly did. The famous British bands like Sex Pistols and The Clash mixed with Swedish classics like Ebba Grön and KSMB. Simple, energetic chord progressions on the electric guitar ruled.
This was a time of vinyl records, the single was still very much alive and small record companies popped out of the woodworks everywhere. Even in the north of Sweden where I was living. The do it yourself ideal that later transformed into indie music was born, and wiped the slate clean from everything that had come before. Or so it seemed at the time. While thinking back on this period over 35 years later, I can´t help feeling that it´s obvious that the most important legacy of the punk era was not punk itself, but what it paved the way for. The burst of creativity that lasted from the final years of the 70´s to the middle of the 80´s is for me even now in many ways the pinnacle of rock music as an art form. Of course, being at an impressionable age at the time certainly helped this feeling to form, but that´s not the whole explanation.
Hopefully not stepping on too many toes, I´m inclined to claim that all the bands from the punk years whose music has managed to survive into the present were actually (or became) good musicians. The “I-can´t-really-play-my-instrument-but-it-doesn´t-matter” esthetic that was so much heralded in the beginning of punk quickly disappeared. Probably because nobody could be bothered to continue listening to out of tune guitars and tone deaf singers, as soon as the novelty had worn off. The discussions on authenticity didn´t help much either. It´s not really possible to compete in a category like “the most working class”. Punk puritanism very quickly became as much an obstacle to enjoying music as jazz-rock excess ever was.
If we return to The Clash, their seminal double “London Calling” showed a new way forward. Embracing the energy of the new while still valuing what had come before. The future and the tradition at the same time. Bravely opposing the pretty oppressive rules of the movement that was supposed to have no rules. I loved it, the puritans hated it and the album has since become an all time classic. As a lot of other things, musical history is often easier to understand in retrospect. In a stifling musical climate, punk came along as a giant, noisy reset-button. Fueled by youthful enthusiasm and a set of ideals valuing authenticity and independence above all. Ideals that very soon proved to be dysfunctional and unattainable respectively. The bastard child was definitely stillborn (or at least didn´t live for very long), but the simple fact of its birth set other things in motion. Things of which I´m going to write some other time.