Thursday, March 7, 2013

Look out honey, 'cause I'm using technology

At New APPS Jon Cogburn is inviting people to identify the best rock song ever. That and this piece on Roadrunner got me wondering about what makes a great punk rock song. Supposedly punk means something like scumbag: "As Legs McNeil explains, "On TV, if you watched cop shows, KojakBaretta, when the cops finally catch the mass murderer, they'd say, 'you dirty Punk.' It was what your teachers would call you. It meant that you were the lowest."" So (maybe 'so' is an exaggeration) a great punk rock song ought to be some sort of transformative celebration, a slave rebellion in music. 

A couple of people at New APPS have suggested "Sister Ray" by the Velvet Underground, a droning, hypnotic account of banal debauchery. It's good, but a bit too obviously experimental. "Roadrunner" is based on it, but much happier. Jonathan Richman takes the Velvet Underground's reversal of the usual '60s themes ("I'm sick of trees, take me to the city" and the taunting "all you protest kids") and embraces their more positive implication: "Doesn't anyone love the dark? And Route 128 out by the industrial park?" He loves driving around at night with the radio on. It's not postmodern irony but love. Which perhaps disqualifies it as punk rock. More appropriate might be something that runs on anger, like the live version of "Boss Hoss" by the Barracudas. I don't know the story behind this recording, but I think the Barracudas were supporting the Stray Cats, and were about as popular as supporting acts usually are. Here they're clearly having some technical problems, and it sounds as though the crowd decides to make things worse rather than wait any longer for them to get their act together. I'm probably imagining things, but I've always felt as though the song becomes an expression of pure frustration, or a pure expression of frustration. Which makes it sound great to my ears, but it's not universally hailed as a classic, and there's probably a reason for that. 

The best rock song of all time is the one you're listening to right now, as long as it amazes you with how good it is. There are lots of perfect songs ("Crash" comes to mind), so any of those that you haven't heard for a while (e.g., for me, "Cool Guitar Boy" when it came on while I was driving the other day) would be it. But if you want something more definite it probably has to be Iggy Pop, either "The Passenger," which claims triumphant ownership of the entire world, or "Search and Destroy," which combines violent fantasy ("I'm a street-walking cheetah with a heart full of napalm"), self-pity ("I am the world's forgotten boy"), lust ("love in the middle of a fire-fight") and poetic nonsense ("I'm the runaway son of a nuclear A-bomb") into something as close to the ultimate punk rock song as you can possibly get. 


  1. An exceptionally thought-provoking post, even by your standards. A (favourable) newspaper review of my latest book (by someone I took the mickey out of in the preface) in fact called me "the punk of Finnish social science", so I have a personal interest in this.

    I instantly loved the idea of "a slave rebellion in music". But I'd have thought that it would involve a celebration of wilful passivity, a refusal to slave. By this yardstick, Dylan's "Maggie's Farm" would probably be the ultimate punk song (perhaps as sung by a black singer to further highlight the slavery angle). Followed closely by such Lennon songs as "I'm Only Sleeping" and "I'm So Tired", as well as Herbal Mixture's minor classic "Machines".

    By contrast, the boastfulness in a song such as "Search and Destroy" strikes me as something that could just as easily be the boast of a slave driver, a "don't-you-know-who-I-am?" type. I was in fact reminded of the very punky scene in Waiting for Godot, when the archetypal slave driver Pozzo introduces himself:

    POZZO: (terrifying voice). I am Pozzo! (Silence.) Pozzo! (Silence.) Does that name mean nothing to you? (Silence.) I say does that name mean nothing to you?
    Vladimir and Estragon look at each other questioningly.
    ESTRAGON: (pretending to search). Bozzo ... Bozzo ...
    VLADIMIR: (ditto). Pozzo ... Pozzo ...
    ESTRAGON: Ah! Pozzo ... let me see ... Pozzo ...
    VLADIMIR: Is it Pozzo or Bozzo?
    ESTRAGON: Pozzo ... no ... I'm afraid I ... no ... I don't seem to ...
    Pozzo advances threateningly.
    VLADIMIR: (conciliating). I once knew a family called Gozzo. The mother had the clap.

    But here, of course, it's Vladimir and Estragon who are the punks and not Pozzo. To me personally, the ultimate punk song would be something like the musical equivalent of "(conciliating) I once knew a family called Gozzo. The mother had the clap." Of the songs you mention yourself, "Roadrunner" comes closest by far.

    There's also The Slaves (from Vienna, although Wittgenstein wouldn't have liked them), with songs such as "Shut Up" and "Get Out of My Way". Plus their theme tune "Slaves Time", which states: "Got no money / Got no home / And nothing to eat / But no matter / Cos we know / We are better / Than you." And gives such uplifting advice as: "And if your own brother have more money than you, go on, kill him." Somewhere to the left of Gerrard Winstanley, were those Slaves. In fact I'll tentatively vote for this one until I see if I can bring other candidates to mind.

  2. Thanks, Tommi! I found your comment stuck in my spam filter (apparently it thinks you're a punk too). "The punk of Finnish social science" is great! You should put that somewhere on the cover of all your books from now on.

    You're right about "Search and Destroy." It's a classic song, and I usually focus more on the "forgotten boy" despair than the boasts, but it doesn't really do what I said it should. I like your examples, both as examples and as songs--those are two of my favourite Beatles songs. And thanks for the information about The Slaves--I've never heard of them before, but I like them a lot.

    More possible examples along these lines:-

    Celebrations of dropping out by the Seeds: "Mr Farmer" and the ridiculous (but still likeable)"Bad Part of Town"

    More recent rejections of the system: Eggs "Government Administrator" (on the negative side) and Stereo Total "Party Anticomformiste" (which is in a way its own solution to what it rejects, or at least embodies a positive spirit as well as negative, 'anti' one). And finally "Southern Mark Smith" by the Jazz Butcher, which is also both negative and positive, rejecting swimming pools in favour of whatever makes your heart sing. I like that.

  3. tommi's comment about passivity puts me in mind of greil marcus (i've been rereading 'lipstick traces' recently). near the beginning he kicks off his reading of punk as involving a 'denial of all social facts'. which probably gets at why duncan can say 'listening to right now'. there's something deeply antinomian about 'best' in this context.

    dylan's christian songs are really fascinating and instructive in that connection. some of the best tracks on 'slow train coming' have this weird amalgam of his customary way with a sneering accusation directed at the audience (or someone who could be in the audience), of a sweeping criticism of the contemporary social scene, of a kind of ironic/humorous self-implication, AND of a righteousness about submitting to god. when you listen the swagger is really affecting, while it's hard not to laugh at the fact that he's swaggering about it.

  4. Thanks, j. Yes, the idea of a best punk rock song is odd. The kind of attitude described here, where everything is a competition that someone has to win and someone else has to lose, and where winning is really important, is deeply un-punk rock.