Blank Spectacle: The Long Shadow of the '60s on Punk
Death Wish advertisement, from Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper, 9 August 1974
by Nicholas Rombes
Sixties, punk as an affirmation of
Mark Perry, the founder of one of the earliest punk fanzines Sniffin’ Glue, has said, “Although [punk] was entirely connected to the hippy politics, it was entirely the natural progression of hippies’ ‘anti-establishmentism,’ I think. You couldn’t wear bells and flowers to freak the powers out anymore and there was a perfectly logical line from the San Francisco hippies to the London punks.”
Punk’s heroes were the hippies, but this could never be openly acknowledged (“kill yr idols”). It was the pop stars of the sixties who articulated through their music the radical potential of rock ‘n’ roll to threaten cultural orthodoxies; the problem was that by the time punk emerged, this had been exposed as myth. Punk did not have to reject the hippies because, by 1974 they were fast approaching obsolescence anyway. As Paul Virilio put it, “When the American state refuses to help New York in a time of crisis, when hospitals and schools have to shut down, when social aid is cut back and the city is no longer cleaned, it’s the dissolution of the city in its own outskirts, the future popular self-government of civil fear.”
And indeed, from the outside, the United States must have looked as if it were imploding in the mid-seventies.
“To me,” John Ellis of the Vibrators said in 1977, “the ideology of punk doesn’t differ so much from that of flower-power, except that this is 1977. That is: we’re fed up with the things that are going on around us that we have no control over.”
And Jello Biafra once noted that, “Spiritually, I think that punk was in tune with the early hippies.” In truth, hippies and punks shared a sense that rock ‘n’ roll was, elementally, a social movement, an expression of solidarity of us against them. But punk was also a bitter reminder of the early days of the proto-punk bands that would become super groups, for at one point the Beatles, the Stones, and the Who were just a bunch of young lads playing their music before small, enthusiastic crowds. The difference is that most punk bands, with few exceptions, did not last long enough to be seduced by their own images. And, of course, punk disavowed the very notion of “quality” itself; with the release of Sgt. Pepper’s in 1967, there was no turning back, and it took punk to strip away the veneer of professionalized, risk averse mediocrity that the shape of music had assumed by 1975. In 1978, Bob Dylan, in an interview with Philippe Adler, was asked, “What do you think of punks?” He responded: “I don’t know much about this movement. I’ve heard some records and seen some groups. I think that above all they’re releasing a lot of energy and that’s important, but, to be frank, I mostly listen to good music.”
Sixties, punk as a rejection of
A 1973 review in Creem of a book by Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and Ed Sanders called VOTE! begins like this: “I hope the next book company that signs the primo ‘counter-culture / revolutionary’ bigmouths to a big fat book contract goes bankrupt.” Were it not for the indulgence, the excess, the utopianism of the sixties, there would have been less for punk to mock, to hate even. By the early to mid-seventies, even places that were bastions of countercultural thinking and production—like Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Berkeley, California—were revising and sometimes rejecting outright the whole extended thought / extended music of that decade’s later years. An ad in a 1974 issue of the underground newspaper Ann Arbor Sun for the radio station 106 FM put it this way: “A question posed by many of the respondents to W4 Listens dealt with women entering the broadcast industry. With the advent of Top 40, the deep-throated fast-talking male machine has dominated and created the image of radio. The industry is rapidly moving away from this mid-60s mentality. FM is penetrating the radio scene, and women are penetrating FM.”
Pick up almost any punk, underground, or New Wave magazine or fanzine from the mid- to late seventies and there’s likely to be an underlying tone of disdain regarding the hippies and the counterculture, which was mocked as being self-serious, apathetic, and thoroughly lacking in the sort of defiant humor that characterized early punk (at least until its so-called hardcore phase). This sentence from the Detroit-area (Dearborn Heights) fanzine Ballroom Blitz—near the end of a review of an album by the Silver Tones—gives some idea: “Most ironically, being based in the hopelessly lost cultural void of Ann Arbor, a notorious mecca for the last surviving remnants of the pseudo-intellectual street people movement that said much and accomplished little in the early Seventies.” Or this one, from Lester Bangs’s 1976 piece on John Denver: “Now, with the collapse of our national ideals it seems only fitting that we have one grand bespectacled avatar to ram them down our throats one last time, along with all that hippie peace and love crap.” Here is another, from Linda Roy’s article “Why I Hate Pot,” from the fanzine Streetlife: “There aren’t many hippies left in our culture (praise the LORD) but anyone who lights up a joint just might as well be wearing MOCCASSINS, love-beads and peace-chains. Pot is a laid-back drug and there is NO ROOM for laying back in the eighties.”
Such sentiments were not confined to the American Midwest, or the East Coast. An advertisement for “The Northern California New Wave Music and Punk Culture Convention/Extravaganza” in Damage, from 1979—with bands ranging from the Dead Kennedys to the Mutants to the Dils—contains this promise: “Celebrate the Cremation of ‘Woodstock.” Later in this same publication, in a short write-up of the Santa Cruz band the Realtors, there is this line: “Since August 1977 they have conspired to reprogram this once-mellow, youthful hippie community into a legion of surfside barbarians.” Sometimes this rejection was both funny and enlightening at the same time. Jeff Raphael, the drummer for the early San Francisco punk group the Nuns, has said that “a lot of people involved in punk were rejects anyway and were dissatisfied with things. The whole ‘sixties thing was peace and love, and that didn’t work.” And in his review of the U.K. music scene in 1977, Max Bell wrote that the New Wave slogans were “hate and war not love and peace” and that punkers sneered at “the hip jargon of a bygone psychedelia with a venom based on real hatred and nihilism.” As Joe Strummer told Caroline Coon in 1976, just a few months after their first live performance: “The hippy movement was a failure. All hippies around now just represent complete apathy.”
Sluggo Fanzine, 1979
In a 1979 Descenes review of a Pin-Ups concert at Studio l0 in New York, James Testa noted that the “joint is overrun by ugly guys with pony tails” and “ugly girls dressed like migrant farm workers” before finally sticking it to the hippies: “The Pin-Ups overcame a lot of troubles when they played Studio 10. Sandwiched between two godawful New York bands and a bunch of speeches promoting marijuana (as if hippies weren’t high enough all the time already), the band played a rave-upset.” About halfway through Ken Russell’s demented masterpiece Altered States (1980; based on Paddy Chayefsky’s 1978 novel of the same name), Eddie Jessup (William Hurt) mockingly defends the radical sensory-deprivation experiments he’s using to reconnect with his primordial ancestors: “I’m a man in search of his true self, How archetypically American can you get? Everybody’s looking for their true selves. We’re all trying to fulfill ourselves, understand ourselves, get in touch with ourselves, face the reality of ourselves, expand ourselves. Ever since we dispensed with God we’ve got nothing but ourselves to explain.” For many punks the narcissistic quest for self-fulfillment was the logical outcome of the sixties, reversed in their music by an even greater—but more stringently ironic—embrace of those values. When the Ramones sang “I Wanna” they were expressing a simple human desire stripped free of its Human Potential Movement trappings.
Sluggo, from Ernie Bushmiller’s comic strip Nancy, was the original bored punk. The Ramones’ song “I Just Want to Have Something to Do” could have been his epitaph, and the great Austin, Texas based punk fanzine from the late 1970s was named after him.
Spiro T. Agnew
In 1969, vice president Spiro T. Agnew—who would resign in 1973 under a cloud of investigation regarding bribery extortion, and tax fraud—made a series of speeches against the counterculture, protestors, and, radicals. If this makes his speeches sound laughable, they were not, for Agnew’s words were sharp, vindictive, blustery and, above all, theoretical. His critiques of television and media were often as aphoristic and as dissenting as those of Marshall McLuhan or Theodor Adorno. In some strange and surprising ways, he described the conditions from which the violence and anarchy of the punk imagination arose. “A society which comes to fear its children,” he said at the commencement ceremony at Ohio State University in June 1969 (two months before the Stooges’ first album appeared, whose song “1969” begins, “Well it’s 1969 ok all across the USA / It’s another year for me and you / Another year with nothing to do”). “A sniveling, hand-wringing power structure deserves the violent rebellion it encourages,” Agnew said. “If my generation doesn’t stop cringing, yours will inherit a lawless society where emotion and muscle displace reason.” There’s something prescient about Agnew’s dystopian vision: crime rates soared in major American cities as the economy experienced an extended recession, and the violence that animated the imagination of early punk (i.e., the Ramones’ “Beat on the Brat”) is closely related to a film like Death Wish, which was released in 1974, the same year that the Ramones played their first shows.
And, several months later, in October 1969, Agnew said in his speech “Impudence in the Streets” that by “accepting unbridled protest as a way of life, we have tacitly suggested that the great issues of our times are best decided by posturing and shouting matches in the streets. America today is drifting toward Plato’s classic definition of a degenerating democracy—a democracy that permits the voice of the mob to dominate the affairs of government.” After the sixties sputtered into the seventies, and the prospects of revolution that had so terrified Agnew never materialized (and by one other measure, consider that in the approximately twenty-two-year period between 1969 and 1992, a Democrat was president for only four years), punk filled the gap symbolically, suggesting in lyrics, performance, and style the street anarchy that briefly emerged in the late sixties. “But what the hell,” Hunter S. Thompson wrote in 1969. “When Agnew becomes president we won’t have to worry about elections—except as film fantasies and weird scenes from the past.”
Paint it Black (1)
A Rolling Stones song covered by several punk-era bands, suggesting a secret connection that’s difficult to decipher. The Avengers, Television, Patti Smith, Blondie, the Feelies, and many others covered it. The terrorizing thing about the lyrics is the absolute rejection, the absolute negation. It’s like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness boiled down to hot tar. Because the Stones’ song has such melodic force, the nihilism of the lyrics is easy to overlook.
I see a red door and I want it painted black
No colors anymore I want them to turn black
I see the girls walk by dressed in their summer clothes
I have to turn my head until my darkness goes.
Those words are as shockingly negative as anything by the Stooges: one day, histories of rock will acknowledge the radically disaffirmative force of the Stones, whose legacy has been tarnished by longevity. In Steven Soderbergh’s film The Limey, Peter Fonda—playing some breezy, likeable, immoral record executive—describes the sixties to his girlfriend as a sort of dream. But then he stops and corrects himself: what he means by “the sixties” was something very specific, not the entire decade: “It was sixty-six . . . early sixty-seven. That was all,” he says.
“Paint It Black” was released in May 1966, the same month that tens of thousands of anti-Vietnam War protesters picketed the White House. In a poem from that era, “At a March Against the Vietnam War,” Robert Bly wrote:
We have carried around this cup of darkness.
We hesitate to anoint ourselves.
Now we pour it over our heads.
In 1996, black was loaded with meaning: It could refer to race, it could refer to moral depravity, it could mean depression; it could refer to the desire to be blind to the horrors of the world. Ten years later, when punk bands covered “Paint It Black,” the rejection the song embodied must have seemed quaint. Yet it is a testament to the brutality of the Stones’ song that even the campiest punk remake could not dispel the absolute zero that resides at its core.
Paint it Black (2)
There is a cover version of the Stones’ song by the Avengers (released in 1983, but recorded sometime between 1977 and 1979), which threatens to cast the entire terrible and romanticized sixties in a new light. There is a hint of boredom—but only a hint. Of course, the Avengers’ version is faster: Punk was faster, Penelope Houston’s voice was faster, as if the sixties could not be escaped from fast enough, or as if by playing the music of the sixties faster, the entire decade could be replayed as a high-speed car chase. In December 1967, President Lyndon Johnson gave a joint interview for the television networks. The Summer of Love had come and gone. Joan Didion’s essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” had appeared in The Saturday Evening Post in September. The warm mud was now cold. The fog around the children who had come west made them even more obscure. The war in Vietnam was escalating. For the next several years, there would be burning cities in the United States, campus violence, more assassinations, the real threat of anarchy. There was this exchange between Dan Rather and Lyndon Johnson:
Rather: Mr. President, if I may, let’s turn to the subject of youth. I think everyone expects youth to rebel and be restless. But there seems to be an unusually large number of American youth at this particular point in history who feel alienated to the traditional American ideas of God, patriotism, and family. Do you sense this alienation? What be an be done about it?
Johnson: Yes, I sense it. I think we have that condition. And we are trying to meet it as best we know how. I have seen it several times in my lifetime.
I remember the days of the zoot-suiters in World War II. I remember the doubters who thought all of our youth were going to the dogs because of the sit-down movements in some of the plants in our country at certain periods of our country. I remember the doubt expressed about our ability in World War II to take a bunch of beardless boys and resist Hitler’s legions.
There have been some disappointments. But I have visited the campuses of this country. My Cabinet has gone and met with the young people of this country. We deal with young folks every day in the Peace Corps, in the poverty program, in the VISTA program, and in the job camps.
And I think it is a very small percentage that have given up, who have lost faith, who have deep questions about the future of the country and of themselves.
Whereas “Paint it Black” expressed a wish, albeit a dark wish, ten years later the Sex Pistols would scream a phrase that made even wishing futile: No Future.
Advertisement for the Northern California New Wave Music and Punk Convention/Extravaganza in Damage no. 1, October 1979, p. 21.
Advertisement for 106 FM, Ann Arbor Sun, 17 May 1974, p. 25.
Spiro Agnew, “Impudence in the Streets: Address at Pennsylvania Republican Dinner, 30 October 1969” and Rationality and Effetism: Address at Ohio State University Commencement Exercises, 7 June 1969,” in Frankly Speaking. Washington, D.C.: Public Affairs Press, 1970, pp. 44 and 18.
Max Bell, “UK,” New Wave, August 1977, p. 30.
Jello Biafra, in Tony Rocco, “Biafra: 6,591 votes (3%!!),” Damage no. 4, January 1980, p. 18.
Robert Bly, “At a March Against the Vietnam War,” in Selected Poems, 1967; repr., New York: Harper Perennial, 1986, p. 67.
Bob Dylan, “The Philippe Adler Interview,” 3 July1978, L’Express, available at http://www.interferenza.com/bcs/interw/78-jul.htm
John Ellis, quoted in Mick Brown, “The Vibrators: The Punks Who Came in from the Cold,” Sounds, 24 September, 1977.
Lyndon Johnson, “A Conversation with the President,” 19 December 1967, available at http://millercenter.org/president/speeches/detail/5921
Mark Perry, “The Birth of the Glue,” Sniffin’ Glue: The Essential Punk Accessory. London: Sanctuary, 2000, p. 122.
Jeff Raphael interviewed by James Stark, Punk ’77. Stark Grafix, 1992, p. 31.
Linda Roy, “Why I Hate Pot,” Streetlife: The Magazine of Detroit Street Culture, October/November 1980, p. 24.
Joe Strummer to Caroline Coon in “The Clash: Down and Out and Proud,” Melody Maker, 13 November 1976.
James Testa, “Pin-Ups,” Descenes vol. 1, no. 3, July 1979, p. 14.
Hunter S. Thompson, “Letter to John Wilcock,” 17 December 1969, in Fear and Loathing in America: The Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist, 1968-1976, ed. Douglas Brinkley. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000, p. 240.
About the Author:
Nicholas Rombes is the author of Cinema in the Digital Age, A Cultural Dictionary of Punk: 1972-1984, and Ramones, part of the 33 1/3 series published by Continuum. He is a professor and chair of the English Department at the University of Detroit Mercy. His work has appeared in The Oxford American, The Believer, The Rumpus, Exquisite Corpse, Wigleaf, and other places. His website is The Happiness Engine.