Punk Rock Academy *with Tommy Monroe*

The first of a regular feature from Tommy Monroe.

Posted on Nov 9th, 2011 in Features and Interviews / By Frankie Reeves
Punk Rock Academy *with Tommy Monroe* I've put this feature off for some time because in simply explaining the meaning of the word 'punk', one seems to misunderstand its very essence. 'Punk' is effectively whatever the heck you want it to be, but it’s a music genre that is so aggressively defined by its operators that it almost feels wrong to question. Nevertheless, it's of paramount importance that this genre, so tirelessly overlooked in modern day music, is exposed for its influence, its history, its comeliness, controversy and occasionally its downright callousness.

It's difficult to put your finger on exactly what 'punk' stands for – is it the advocation of self-sufficient anarchy championed by bands like Crass and Leftover Crack, the theatrical nihilism of The Sex Pistols, The Clash's embrace of culture and freedom, the tough, trashy image portrayed by bands like The Ramones and the New York Dolls, the white nationalist nazi regime aggressively advocated by Skrewdriver and the like, or simply the mindless admiration for horror movies lovingly adopted by The Misfits? Some people might immediately favour one of these positions, but the question I frequently ask myself is: why does it matter? I've certainly met 'punks' in my time who find the concept of white nationalism completely abhorrent - in fact, I'm one of them. I've also met 'punks' that think The Sex Pistols were diabolical and others that believe punk couldn't have existed without them, some that are chauvinistic and others that are devout feminists, some punk bands that can't play a note and others who are among the best musicians I can think of. It seems that punk could be everything and nothing all at once.

And this is all before we really consider the music. The amount of bands who define as 'punk' is quite overwhelming, but rarely is this an indicator of their sound – do these differences make some bands 'less punk' and others more so? Is Chumbawamba's soft, heavily melodic folk sound any less punk than Minor Threat's painfully fast 40-second chunks of hardcore? Has the sound of Rancid or early Green Day become less respected in light of their astounding mainstream success? Is Siouxsie Sioux's music considered punk, post-punk, neither, or both?

In deliberating these questions, it is difficult to determine who is punk and how to approach conversation with them. Most conversations with strangers usually revolve around music and morality, but the aggressive and highly opinionated nature associated with the punk lifestyle makes approaching these subjects a matter of extreme caution. Be it a question of liberality vs. right wing nationalism, sexuality and gender vs. chauvinistic narrow-mindedness, or offering to buy them a drink when they are fiercely straight edge, situations with those who define as punk can turn ugly very, very quickly. Granted, these issues affect us all regardless of who we talk to, but the extent to which some punks will go to clarify their beliefs can sometimes make these affairs all the more dangerous.

So what generalised rules can we create to answer the question, “what is punk?” bearing in mind that there will always, as discussed, be notable exceptions. The main musical attributes seem to be an aggressive vocal tone, simple melodies, unifying vocal chants, passionate and morally acute lyricism, fast tempos, basic harmonic content and lo-fi production. Even with these attributes in mind however, most of you have probably thought of a handful of bands immediately that over-rule all of these criteria.

One thing that remains obvious is the fundamental differences between punk as a music genre and the punk lifestyle. Perhaps the best example of this is the stereotypical punk image (y'know, leather jackets, tartan trousers, patches, spikes, mohawk) – in an attempt at unity, this creates a conformity that many punk bands wouldn't dream of advocating. Similarly, a lot of my punk friends are the nicest, kindest and most open-minded people I know, but the music they listen to is confrontational, dogmatic and, to the average pop appreciator, openly petrifying.

It's interesting that musicians have chosen the punk genre to convey strong, fervent political and social messages because in many cases one cannot help feeling that they're preaching to the converted – punk fans are amongst the most loyal and supportive of any genre, but stereotypical punk music is somewhat of an acquired taste. Surely the best musical platform to share such strong opinions would be something with mass appeal and heavily influenced fan-bases like commercial pop and rock music? Of course the message might have to be toned down a little, but the sentiment could surely still exist to an influential extent? Perhaps this is a primary reason why punk has expanded and morphed into a huge number of cross-over genres, thus becoming more and more difficult to define and determine.

Personally, I think punk is about being a good, opinionated person – respecting yourself, respecting others, playing music with more passion than technique, and being morally attuned to what is right. In the same breathe, don't go under the impression that your opinions are the only ones that matter, because they don't and they never will; I think being punk is also being open to both moral change and mental growth. But that's just me.

Punk is whatever the fuck you want it to be. Perhaps it's passion, or picking up a guitar and starting a band with three chords under your belt and something, anything to say. Perhaps it's doing what you want when you want all the time in music and in life, and perhaps it's also about unity. Perhaps it isn't any of these things. Frank Turner probably answered the question of punk the best with the lyric, “the only thing that punk rock should ever really mean, is not sitting 'round and waiting for the lights to go green”, and, for now at least, I can't think of anything more agreeable.