inessential by Brent Simmons


Yesterday I wrote about listening to bands like X, the Pogues, the Clash, and so on via Napster. There's a sad part to this (which has nothing to do with Napster) which I've never been sure how to deal with.

With punk rock (and related forms: ska, some New Wave, etc.) -- musicians and fans were developing a new aesthetic. The question: how do you push the limits of rock as an art form? The obvious answer, which came from the later Beatles, Pink Floyd, the Moody Blues and similar was to stop doing rock. Hire an orchestra. Do sound collages. Do anything but rock music. The Beatles stopped performing live because they couldn't -- their music had become too complex.

There were other answers to the question. Go back to the R&B roots. Thus the white-boy suburban blues of the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin.

Then there was disco, the aesthetics of ecstasy. Like pornography, disco is utilitarian, art designed to provoke a physical response. Nothing wrong with that, but it doesn't answer the question.

Corporate rock was another answer -- instead of pushing the limits of rock as an art form, let's push the limits of rock as commerce. How many records can we sell if we give the people exactly what we think they want? So you had Chicago, Foreigner, etc.

Then there was Jonny Rotten: "I hate Pink Floyd."

***The Clash: "Phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust."

Back to first principles. Art thrives within the built-in limits of its form. What are the limits of rock and roll? You've got drums, bass, a guitar or two, a lead singer, maybe one of the guitarists sings too. We've gone back to the '50s, before the British Invasion, back to Chuck Berry.

The next question: is rock and roll exhausted? Have we already done everything you can do with drums, guitar, and bass? The Beatles seemed to think so. Led Zeppelin kept at it, but they weren't even trying to do anything new.

A few people had perhaps provided evidence -- Lou Reed, Iggy Pop -- that the possibilities were still wide open, had barely begun to be tapped.

But punk wasn't just a step back to the origins of rock, it was a step forward. To the mix was added anger, but not the contained rage and self-righteousness of the folk singer. Not so earnest either -- listen to the Sex Pistols. Are they absurd, ironic, totally damn silly? Yes. Punk rock was allowed to be ambiguous, funny, outrageous, angry, sarcastic -- as long as it was loud. No more simple naive messages, no more "Love is all you need" sung without a trace of irony. The limits of what you could express were thrown wide open.

Sound followed expression, and expression followed sound, and you got something that sounded like rockabilly played by pissed-off mental patients. Beautiful.

***Blondie is a group

Punk was also a reaction to corporate rock star culture. The idea: anybody could form a band. You don't even have to know how to play. Everybody has something to say. You don't need the suits -- you can Do it Yourself. Let a million punk bands form. Kill all rock stars; kill big record companies.

The barrier between musician and audience began to break down. Was there anybody in the room who isn't in a punk band or doing a punk 'zine? Well, yeah, but ideally not. It was the two-way music scene.


To get back to the top... this new aesthetic didn't last. At one point I thought it was the new way -- but it wasn't, and that's the sad part. Bad things happened to good bands. The culture disappeared. But I still love the music and the vision.

The most exciting area right now is probably techno -- a new aesthetic, which borrows some elements from punk (which borrowed elements from other sub-cultures), is developing there. But it's not rock music. If you love rock you're out of luck.


When I first got on the Web in 1994, I recognized it immediately as a dream come true -- punk for writers. A website is a website is a website, and anyone can create one. DiY plus world-wide distribution. How's that for cool?

(I should say that we recognized it -- Sheila was there too, saying we gotta do this.)

And then a while later we realized that making websites was still too hard. Blah blah blah, years of work -- and now here's Manila, and here's The Two-Way Web.

arf reminds me about Dogma 2000.

Matt Daw suggests some bands to check out. "Rock isn't dead." Matt's right, I'm sure -- but I've been way too busy to keep up. I don't really want to go on being nostalgic for the Clash the rest of my life -- that's a pretty non-punk thing to do, to be conservative in that way. So: what's new and cool? Who's pushing the boundaries, who's unique? You tell me.

Macster is Napster for Macs.

"Woody Guthrie sang about B-E-E-T-S, not B-E-A-T-S." X, I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts.