Caragh Medlicott explores how punk music from Britain and America has developed since the late 1970s to become a distinct, contemporary form in 2020.
In 1977 Sex Pistols played their last ever gig at a pokey club in Huddersfield; it hadn’t even been two years since their first-ever live appearance, but still their songs and iconoclastic aesthetic would go onto become synonymous with the archetypal punk image.
Sometimes described as the first unisex youth movement, the punk world rejected a society of tickboxes and transformed the jaggedy guitars of ’60s garage rock into a new era of anti-establishment fury. Joey Ramone once said: ‘Play before you get good, because by the time you get good, you’re too old to play’. Boys and girls alike were picking up foreign instruments and translating sounds into feelings without so much as a bar of written music to slow them down. Punk was about attitude, ideas; by definition, it was both derisive and fluid. A distinctly rocky sound soon gave way to the avant-garde post-punk music that’s still being made today. In the contemporary world, the tickboxes have turned digital and the west is increasingly gripped by a chokehold of populism. So, what does it mean to be punk in 2020?
‘Do It Yourself’ is a hallmark ethic of traditional punk spirit – safety pin earrings, anarchistic music styles, handmade fanzines – but today, grassroots organisations often rely on digital platforms for material creation and distribution. Learning new skills independently and collectivising with the like-minded is, in many ways, easier than ever – but circumventing the proverbial “establishment” is much harder with Silicon Valley harvesting data ad infinitum in the background.
While the nostalgia-inclined might insist that punk is dead, the music world continues to churn out post-punk that both mimics and diverges from its inaugural sound. In the late ’70s, British punk was often distinguished from its US sister-scene by its more nihilistic outlook, a distinction that has since become muddied and – in some cases – actively reversed.
Take Bristol band IDLES; they’re well known for their sweaty, energised live shows that send flailing crowds careening for the stage. Though distinctly angry in tone, many of their songs lean into hopeful ideas. On their second album, Joy As an Act of Resistance, frontman Joe Talbot sings in praise of immigration on the song ‘Danny Nedelko’ – the lyrics contrast the faceless immigrants of Daily Mail headlines with British migrant icons beloved of the nation. ‘My blood brother’s Freddie Mercury / A Nigerian mother of three’ sings Talbot. Rage sizzles, but a hint of the persuasive lurks beneath; IDLES aren’t just angry, they genuinely want change (a fact which finds expression in the track’s repeated screeched demand: ‘unity!’).
Stateside, Parquet Courts have turned modern existentialism into something dancey. Their most recent record – Wide Awake! – is upbeat and accessible; a funk-styled bassline veils numerous nods to anxious modern realities. On the album’s last track, ‘Tenderness’, the lyrics are almost bemused by the perishing planet that continues to prize consumerism over sense: ‘Nothing reminds the mind of power / Like the cheap odour of plastic / Leaking fumes we crave, consume, the rush it feels fantastic’.
Also in the US are Detroit band Protomartyr (though their particular strain of nihilism could hardly be called upbeat). The band’s recently released fifth album, Ultimate Success Today, happens to be a fitting soundtrack to our current climate (despite being written over a year before its July release). A general sense of unease permeates these songs, an effect which is ever-emphasised by Joe Casey’s crooning drawl. On ‘Processed By The Boys’, Casey prophetically sings of ‘A foreign disease washed up on the beach’ as well as ‘A riot in the streets’. These broad (and often intertextual) concepts speak to a creeping fear of one homogenous corporate evil, an idea that chimes with the sometimes vague anti-establishment messages of both the punk tradition and today’s social media echo chambers.
The first coming of punk was notable for the warm welcome it gave to female artists (though many of its trailblazers such as The Slits, The Raincoats and Poly Styrene have missed out on the reverence still bestowed on their male counterparts). With its bizarre and outrageous fashions, it’s not hard to see how punk became a precursor to ’80s androgyny and the queercore offshoot grown from the same scene. Today the LGBT+ post-punk tradition is continued by artists like Ezra Furman who sings frankly about subjects that span US politics (‘I don’t give a shit what Ben Franklin intended / What slaveowner men said – glad they’re all dead’) to matters of personal identity (Furman has also lent her talents to Netflix’s Sex Education soundtrack).
Back over the pond, Fontaines D.C. have caused less a splash and more a tidal wave in the year-and-a-bit since the release of their debut album Dogrel. After a whirlwind year of touring, the band have returned mid-hype with their second album, A Hero’s Death. The new record steers away from Dublin streets and Joycean allusions, diving instead into the introspecting headspace of endless gigs. On the album’s title track, vocalist Grian Chatten insists – half-sincerely – that ‘Life ain’t always empty’. The lyrics may be rooted in personal experience, but the meaning reflects a generational paradox; a sustained feeling of both hope and hopelessness that clings to today’s youth as the world tips into a cross-section of chaos.
These days, the post-punk message tends to swing between abstract, broad-brush ideas and emotive storytelling that places listeners in the landscapes of modern life. Perhaps it speaks to the discrepancies of gendered experience, but female artists tend to fall into the latter category. Billy Nomates (real name Tor Maries) offers a convincing case for the power of lyrical rebellion with her self-titled debut album released in early August. Maries shines an unforgiving light on a Brexit-brink Britain that is as monotonous as it is abrasive. Grungy, off-beat and spoken word in style, it’s not a clean-cut record (and that’s kind of the point). These songs are about more than just the perceived enemy, but also the complexities of navigating activism when you’re poor and tired. ‘I want to save the whales too / But it’s a fucking Wednesday afternoon’ Maries speak-sings on ‘Hippy Elite’, her voice dripping with sarcasm.
Billy Nomates isn’t the only one-woman band pushing beyond the boundaries of uncomplicated anger. Mercury-nominated Nadine Shah is known for her fearless examination of everything from the Syrian refugee crisis to her personal identity as a British Muslim and northener. In her new album Kitchen Sink, Shah digs into a dichotomy facing many a millennial and Gen-Zer as they find a once obtainable future of house-ownership and children is both hard to grasp and boggling to consider. The title track offers sage – albeit cutting – advice: ‘Forget about the curtain twitchers / Gossiping boring bunch of bitches’.
Contemporary punk doesn’t get everything right, of course, and privilege and opportunity still play a huge part in which acts find big audiences. Perhaps most glaring is the movement’s lack of racial diversity (a discussion that has continued unresolved since James Spooner’s 2003 documentary Afro-Punk). While its ideology has typically been weighted towards the left, punk’s inception was predominantly concerned with anarchy over political leanings (hence the sad but undeniable existence of ‘Nazi punk’).
Sex Pistols’ iconic single, ‘God Save the Queen’, was originally titled ‘No Future’ – this idea of lapsed freedom feels even more relevant today as we enter the thick of the climate crisis. Though the anti-monarchy ideas favoured by Sex Pistols were radical for their time, under the lens of 2020 they seem borderline simplistic in a world that has grown even more fissile, greedy and fractured. Modern post-punk has evolved past caricature ideas of simply ‘sticking it to the man’ – yet its image and core message is still indebted to the movement’s early adopters and – crucially – early fans.
To make punk music in 2020 is to blend the personal and the political so that the two are inseparable; today this music rarely makes it into the charts, but that doesn’t mean it’s not reaching considerable audiences in the streaming age. Most of all, the persistence of this movement shows a continued dedication to not go quietly – even when the prospects seem bleak and the change incremental. Punk is about attitude: the leaders might change and the future might waver, but the insistence on making noise about it all continues to live on regardless.
Caragh Medlicott is a Wales Arts Review contributing editor.