Craig Leon

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BBC (2002): Punk Rock USA

From the BBC (2002)
Two parts, starts Saturday 23rd March, 20:00 – 21:00

Last year Radio 2 looked at Punk Rock in Britain. This time around we look at a very different beast – American punk rock and its successor New Wave music. The series is presented by Craig Leon, who produced both Blondie and The Ramones.

Although the term punk had its origins in the Beat generation writings of Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, it wasn’t until the 60s that bands arrived on the scene whose sound could, in retrospect, be seen as the origins of punk rock.

Groups such as The Standells, The Count Five, The Sonics, The Kingsmen…all you needed was three chords and an attitude. Inspired by the sounds of the British Invasion, the music was often raw, unrehearsed and untutored. Taking the rhythm and blues raunch of The Yardbirds, the melodic heart of the Beatles and the sheer sonic ferocity of The Who and The Kinks as models, US garage rock flowered briefly in the period between 1965 and 1968.

Motor City Madness
As the 60s drew to a close, music started getting harder. Up in Detroit The Stooges and the MC5 were making music perfectly suited to their origins in America’s industrial heartland. The Stooges stuck a middle finger up at the peace and love generation. Fronted by the provocative Iggy Pop, they developed a reputation for confrontational live shows and lurid excess.

The Stooges and The MC5 eventually imploded in the face of public indifference. American music in the early 70s was dominated by the airbrushed tones of Californian country rock and mellifluous singer songwriters such as James Taylor. But in New York a scene was developing around the Max’s Kansas City club. Its figureheads were The New York Dolls, a trashy glam punk act led by David Johansen. Their music was a mix of Stonesy swagger, heavy metal raunch and glam rock sleaze, but it was their gender bending image which raised most eyebrows. Famously dissolute, the Dolls failed to cross over into the wider market, but managed to record an influential debut album.

Blitzkrieg Bop
New York can claim to be the hotbed of American punk in the 70s. Perhaps the first great punk record to surface in the wake of the Dolls was Horses, the debut from young poetess Patti Smith. A stunning mix of poetry and garage rock, Horses showed that rock wasn’t condemned to artless posturing. Her androgynous look and fiercely intelligent demeanour ensured Smith’s notoriety.

CBGBs, a club in New York’s Bowery district, became the centre for a burgeoning punk scene as diverse as it was influential. On the one hand were the gloriously gonzoid Ramones, whose two minute anthems celebrated everything that was dumb and glorious about rock and roll. On the other were the arty sounds of Talking Heads and Television who represented an altogether more cerebral approach than the Ramones’ blitzkrieg bop. There were also the brooding presence of one time Television bassist Richard Hell, whose ripped t-shirt and vacant expression would be adopted by a certain Malcolm McLaren as fashion statements.

And then there was Blondie. Fronted by Deborah Harry, Blondie were to prove the most succesful of the CBGBs bands. By grafting a punk attitude onto what was essentially a pop sound owing much to the girl groups of the sixties, Blondie enjoyed massive commercial success, giving birth to the so-called New Wave, essentially a watered down version of the scabrous punk emanating from New York.

Teen Spirit
By the 80s, New Wave music was the mainstream in American pop. Punk retreated underground and adopted ever more extreme forms. In California the Dead Kennedys spearheaded a scene which became known as Hardcore. Across the states local scenes developed in opposition to the hegemony of MTV. In Minneapolis, Husker Du and The Replacements kept the punk flag flying. Meanwhile, Sonic Youth maintained New York’s reputation for arty alternative guitar rock. Up in Washington State, though, a scene was brewing which would bring punk into the mainstream once and for all.

When Nirvana released Nevermind in 1991 it spearheaded the grunge movement, essentially a mixture of punk and metal which dominated the American music scene for much of the 90s. Kurt Cobain’s songs connected with disenfranchised youths across the world, making him an unwilling icon for Generation X. It’s often been said that America was 20 years behind the UK in embracing punk, but with Nevermind the USA finally got it. Today’s US punk bands, such as Green Day and Blink 182, are altogether less angst ridden than Cobain and his ilk, but the inspiration remains the same – get up on stage, have a good time and make some noise!

As the late great Joey Ramone would have said – GABBA GABBA HEY!

by Mick Fitzsimmons ©BBC

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