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RockNotes: Punks vs. Poseurs

To anyone who grew up admiring the values and raw energy of punk rock in the late 1970s and early 1980s, yet didn't get a Mohawk or pierce up, there's always been a (sometimes strident) tone of condescension toward we more mainstream fans from the true believers who spent long days fighting the man on streets of the big city, then, exhausted from their virtuous struggle, taking their well-deserved rest on the floor of whatever coldwater squat they could scrounge. These guys always wanted to make punk rock less a cultural movement than some kind of meritocracy: "You have to prove you're good enough to listen to our music, man."

We were poseurs.

On one hand, this let you know you were listening to and/or witnessing something special - at least someone thought it was special, something so far beyond the normal parameters of corporate-controlled thought patterns that it was to be defended fiercely against all comers. And that made it fascinating. But it also doomed punk as a truly influential thing, and I think relegated it to something like a cult, while the music of 1960s - which punk rock reinterpreted so brilliantly and is its ultimate legacy - maintained its flawed and calcifying hold on the nation's mainstream despite the furious attempts of the "non-poseurs" to break it.

punk_rock.jpgThat irksome tendency of punk rockers to be obsessed with authenticity over all else has never waned, which, I guess, may be proof of title of a major new documentary out now called Punk's Not Dead. As long as there are two tattooed people getting into spitting-mad arguments over what constitutes a "sell-out," punk will never be truly dead. Kind of like lefties arguing endlessly over the finer points of Trotskyism vs. Leninism . . . as long as they're groping for the ideological light, the ideology must still be alive out there somewhere. And judging from the discussion about the movie, there are a lot of first-wave punk rockers still out there who are unconvinced that modern bands such as Blink 182 and Good Charlotte even deserve the name "punk."

Why? It's the same old thing with these guys. They can't be "punk" because they've cut deals with corporate sponsors. They're too poppy. They're on major labels. They're copping the style and the images but they have none of the . . . authenticity . . . of their elders because there's a support structure for them. One of the main points made in Punk's Not Dead by producer/director Susan Dynner is that the first wave had to make everything up as they went along - they formed their own club circuits, started their own fanzines, even set up housing networks for touring bands, all without the major labels having any idea what was going on.

Dynner herself was a punk rock hotelier in the early '80s as bands come through her Washington D.C. turf. She also was a proficient rock photographer whose pix became the basis for a many a classic poster and album cover. Now establishing herself an indie filmmaker, she has a pretty compelling and unique perspective on the whole punk rock authenticity question. In her view, the distinctions between poseur and punk are ridiculous. It's all in the eye of the beholder - so true! If only she had been in a position to have her ideas listened to in 1982, maybe punk rock wouldn't have been assigned to the cultural curiosity bin so quickly.

Here are some excerpts from an interview she gave to the American Film Institute as that group was about to screen Punk's Not Dead at the AFI Dallas International Film Festival earlier this summer:

Q: Are the Blink 182s of this generation doing justice to punk music?

Dynner: I think they've redefined it and made it their own in terms of whether or not it's punk. I mean, bands like The Clash and The Pistols all signed to major labels back then. Even bands like UK Subs, who are now considered an underground band who have been playing for 30 years, they were on a major label. They had some film done about them back then. Now kids are doing the same thing today with their bands and they see it as as an acceptable thing to be on a major label, to have corporations sponsor their tours. I mean, that's just the way the world has changed. There are still are loads of underground bands who are still playing in basements who have no interest in going that route, but there are others who are in-between, who see this as a viable career move who don't want to sell out to the man, either.

Q: What about the constant charges of posing in punk rock?

Dynner: It's funny because when you're 13, 14 or 15, being a poseur is a huge deal. When you get older, it so doesn't matter. I mean, it's like, if you're into the music, great. If you're into it because you have something to say, you have statement to make, great. If you're into the politics, great. It doesn't really matter how you get into it. It doesn't matter if you're into it sometimes, and sometimes you're not. It's all how it affects you personally, so I don't really care if people are poseurs or whether they're true punks. It's all up to that individual, I guess.

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Comment from Tim Willette:

I think they've redefined it and made it their own in terms of whether or not it's punk. I mean, bands like The Clash and The Pistols all signed to major labels back then. Even bands like UK Subs, who are now considered an underground band who have been playing for 30 years, they were on a major label.

Setting aside the "sell-out" charges lobbed even at these bands by certain of their contemporaries, it bears repeating that 1977 was a different universe. The opportunities open to, say, the first wave of CBGB bands were extremely limited. Bands in the late '70s that endeavored to operate outside the major label/venue system needed an extraordinary level of dedication not only to their creative work but to the process itself. The DIY approach of Dischord (hand-cutting every record sleeve!) and SST (a handful of guys with no budget calling record stores around the country, pretending to be anonymous Black Flag fans), not to mention bands like Flag and Dead Kennedys playing fans' basements in Alabama because they'd play anywhere they were asked, may have been born of equal parts desperation and cluelessness. But thank god for them.

The facts on the ground in the late seventies were no longer operative by the mid-'80s, thanks to these nutcases' heavy lifting. Certainly by the '90s, the "alternative" label/venue/zine/radio network had been firmly established. Bands now, as ever, sign to majors and play the game for any number of reasons, but "the Clash were on CBS" is the least convincing rationale today. You could at least argue that absent major backing, the Ramones never would have played London and the Buzzcocks wouldn't have played New York in '79. That argument was laughable by the pre-internet mid-'80s and holds even less water now.

I'm with Albini on this -- forget the ethical/authenticity arguments; the best reason to avoid contact with majors is the majors have the muscle to fuck bands over in ways that smaller labels could only dream of. (Also, the true believers who run at least certain indies like T&G and Bloodshot - businesspeople though they may be - have demonstrated time and again that they treat their bands pretty well.) And they dick bands around for sport - this is hardly a secret. Time ago, bands had little choice, but now? Any band that's thinking about hitching their wagon to a major should consider their situation akin to doing a deal with the mob -- maybe not a bad gig as long as you keep the boss happy, but fail to deliver and you're dead. Only an idiot goes on the street for backing when he can get it elsewhere.

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Comments? Send them to Don. And please include a real name if you wish to be published. No poseurs!

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The RockNotes catalog is now available to poseurs and punks, you poseurs! So check it out.



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Posted on September 4, 2007


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