The Persistence of Punk (Analysis)
The longevity of The Ramones, X, Nick Cave and New Order belies the genre's supposed short-lived appeal.
It will be 40 years come December 2015 since the release of Patti Smith's Horses on Clive Davis' Arista label, arguably the beginning of the punk movement emanating from New York's underground in the mid-'70s, ushered in by both the Velvets and the New York Dolls, not to mention the Stooges, MC5 and Lenny Kaye's influential '60s Nuggets collection.
Despite its initial boast that "anybody can do it," dispelling the myth of musicianship and putting the tools of production into the hands of the (sometimes) ignorant, punk proved to be quite resilient, even with its back-to-basics approach. The universal mourning over the death of Tommy Ramone sharpens the observation that what his band did wasn't quite as simple as it appeared.
Still, for a musical style that seemed monolithic and ephemeral, punk has outlasted any number of contemporary styles, absorbing influences along the way and mutating into something that has endured in many different forms.
This past weekend, three very different branches of punk and post-punk bands played the Los Angeles area, including hometown heroes X, Aussie blues preacher Nick Cave at the venerable and suitably goth Shrine Auditorium, and Manchester EDM pioneers New Order returning to the Greek, where they last played two years ago after appearing at Coachella last year.
X's triumphant four-night stand at the Roxy has been well-documented, including here. That band, restored to its pristine original foursome — including the death-grinning Billy Zoom, whose minimal rockabilly strumming, along with those country harmonies byex-marrieds Exene Cervenka and John Doe — helped define the group's Americana leanings underneath its sturm und drang speed-punk trappings. That they have survived stronger than ever makes a strong case for their candidacy in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which has generally been kind to punk pioneers like The Ramones, Patti Smith, the Sex Pistols, The Clash and The Stooges, all inducted over the past decade.
At the rate he's going, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame will also have to make way for Aussie Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, a much underappreciated rock icon, even if he sold out both the Shrine Auditorium and the smaller downtown Theatre at the Ace Hotel for two consecutive nights over the weekend.
A true renaissance man who writes novels, poetry and screenplays, the 56-year-old Cave is arguably the most incisive lyricist in rock 'n' roll these days, someone whose legacy stretches back some 35 years to his days in the seminal post-punk noise band the Birthday Party, which relocated from Melbourne to London to West Berlin before breaking up in 1983 to form the beginnings of the Bad Seeds.
A man adept at manipulating the rock mythology of good vs. evil, the black-clad Cave evokes the likes of proto-punk icons such as Jim Morrison, Elvis Presley, Patti Smith,Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Alan Vega and Robert Johnson by exploring the darker side of the blues in songs like "Tupelo," "From Her to Eternity," "The Mercy Seat," "Stagger Lee" and "Jack the Ripper."
There's a knowing post-punk fury to the set, as Cave wades into the audience, touching hands like a rabble-rousing fundamentalist healer, "God is in the House," he proclaims in the song of the same name, "I wish he would come out." He recounts the legend of the devil at the crossroads in "Higgs Boson Blues," a harrowing account of a real-life superstar floating dead in a Toluca Lake pool, name-checking Miley Cyrus and Hannah Montana, the crowd chanting "yeah, yeah, yeah" and "no, no, no" like petitioners in a call-and-response with the singer.
"The Mercy Seat" has all the Spaghetti Western drama of a Quentin Tarantino movie, while "Stagger Lee" has a Patti Smith-like narrative that, along with some chilling piano riffs, accompanies Cave as he wades out into the orchestra, walking along outstretched hands like Jesus on the water.
"I got a feeling that I just can't shake," he admits in "Push the Sky Away," and it may as well be punk's original muse egging him on, the harsh atonal thrust of downtown-N.Y. no wave meeting the eternal blues beat of the Mississippi delta by way of the Australian outback.
Two nights later, on a sparkling summer evening at the Greek, it was New Order, Bernard Sumner's pioneering electronic rock band that rose from the ashes of post-punk legends Joy Division in the wake of Ian Curtis' grisly suicide on the eve of the band's first U.S. tour in May of 1980.
Sumner moved on from that tragedy almost seamlessly, forming New Order with fellow band members, bassist Peter Hook, drummer Stephen Morris, and Morris' girlfriend Gillian Gilbert on keyboards. From the outset — with hit singles like "Ceremony," "Blue Monday," "The Perfect Kiss" and "Bizarre Love Triangle," New Order built upon Joy Division's legacy, but they were more successful commercially then that band ever was, with Sumner both echoing Curtis' haunting vocals and expanding upon the New York City-bred fusion of punk, disco and hip-hop happening in the early '80s, featuring a welcome dash of Neil Young and Crazy Horse thrown in for good measure.
The band returned to Los Angeles after its successful 2013 appearance at Coachella, where they were embraced by the EDM crowd as one of their own, but again without founding member Hook, who split off to tour with his own Joy Division tribute band in 2007, playing full albums in a group that featured his son.
Performing at the Greek on a perfect summer evening, Sumner, now 58, looks less like a rocker and more like a tired British secret service agent — say Gary Oldman in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy — but he more than makes up for that lack of star power with a carefully synched set of accompanying visuals that range from L.A. and N.Y. cityscapes to flashing geometric abstractions, floating clouds, jumping Teletubbies, faux rock bands, and appropriately, a mirrored disco ball.
While remaining true to its dual legacies, New Order plays the hits, sprinkling in two brand-new songs from an upcoming album — their first of new material in almost 10 years, since 2005's Waiting for the Sirens' Call. The rocking "Singularity" and the synth-heavy "Plastic" show off the band's two distinct sides, but both augur well for the future.
Thanks to movies like 24 Hour Party People and the Anton Corbijn's biopic Control, New Order's roots in the legacy of Joy Division and their Manchester roots in Factory Records and the Hacienda remain strong elements in the band's longevity. Sumner pays tribute to that by covering "Isolation" in the set and finishing with an encore coda of "Atmosphere" and "Love Will Tear Us Apart," flashing the group's iconic logo and various reminders of its past without overdoing it. With nods to punk filmmaker Amos Poe (whose Empire II serves as a backdrop to "The Perfect Kiss"), Sumner acknowledges New Order's roots in the New York post-punk scene of the time.
From New York's Lower East Side, punk took root in such far-flung locales as Los Angeles, Melbourne and Manchester and remains a potent force, if not in record sales, certainly in clubs, sheds and arenas around the world.