Punk Rock, Evolving Music Trends and My Experience With The Inevitable “Sell-Out”

Last night, as I watched a YouTube video from the 70’s of a live rendition of Edgar Winter’s “Frankenstien” with Rick Derringer on guitar, wearing quite a smashing little gold lamé jump suit number I might add, I couldn’t help but be a bit disgusted at the overt display of LOOK AT ME in the performance… the likes of which I never seemed to connect with at the time!

Rick Derringer

Now this was one of my favorite tunes of my early teen years growing up… and it’s just now that this occurs to me… why is that? I mean, sure, I get it – that’s what the business… er – I mean ART FORM was all about then right? Rock like a mother fucker with manly chops dressed like a girl. What’s not to like? But the difference between Kiss’ “look at me” and the Edgar Winter’s “look at me” is that Kiss NEVER took themselves so seriously.

Kiss

Though at times, this ‘glitter’ era of rock n’ roll was less musical and more theatrical, it was a necessary step that pushed us forward out of the doo-wop, bee-bop phase that hung on to mainstream music despite the 60’s influence, and well into the ‘MC5 Kick Out The Jams’ attitude that eventually lead to punk rock.

The MC5

Music fans eventually got sick of the hairspray and spandex and over-self-indulgence and began to ask the question aloud, “what happened to rock n’ roll” and “when did we become so bloody androgenous? This widened the gap between what WAS a musical and artistic innovation, and the musical PRODUCT it had become. And in that gap, PUNK ROCK was born, a musical genre that NEVER took itself seriously… or DID it?!

Something Old, Something Borrowed, Something New

David Bowie

When punk came along in the mid to late 70’s, even though I was heavily into the the chops, glitter & theatrics of bands like T-Rex, David Bowie, Alice Cooper and Yes, I was relieved that there was ‘something more’ than dressing up in women’s clothes and ‘vogueing’ while you HAPPEN to be playing music.

T Rex

So I morphed into a punk with Zeppelin roots, Beatles sensibilities and a Bowie fashion sense – “and just how’s THAT working’ out for ya’ Mike?!”

Alice Cooper Band

Actually, it worked fine for a while as I was enjoying the newness of my new found punk rock attitude and all the seeming ‘freedom’ it brought with it.

Yes

Clothes, unimportant. Hair, unimportant. Job, education, social standing… all VERY unimportant – this was a “Made For Mike Shannon” movement! Note Exhibit A below (no it’s not named Exhibit A, I just typed it for effect). This was 1980, in my first year at Carlton U. in Ottawa playing in a band called “Syph Hillis and the Nocturnal Emissions”. Yes, I was proudly an Emission! But considering the name of the band, and the year, and the fact that we were playing “Someone’s Going To Get Their Head Kicked In Tonight” by the Rezillos… the drummer clearly did not get the memo regarding the shifting trends where hair style was concerned. If I sucked at the drums, the hair most assuredly would have been an issue. But as it turns out… I ROCKED!

cropped-the-nocturnal-emissions.jpg

But the message, the protest… THOSE where what was important! “COOL… that seems like a pretty good cause”, I thought! So I latched on to the mantra that embodied punk rock… “Don’t do what THEY say you should do!” and I was ALL IN! Until, I realized, over time, that what they were ACTUALLY saying was “don’t do what THEY say you should do… do what WE say you should do!”

And It Starts

This startling revelation came out in living technicolor when I stood on stage between sets in a punk club in Ottawa in 1981 and proclaimed into the mic, “I don’t care what you fuckers think, Led Zeppelin ROCKS and the Beatles are BRILLIANT”… cricket, cricket, cricket.

Led Zeppelin

I was practically ostracized from ‘the scene’ for that remark. But only the punkiest of punks commended me saying, “that was one of the most punk rock things you could possibly do.” And I realized that they were, in fact, correct by the purest definition of ‘punk’. It was all about be yourself, make no apologies, no filtering, no censoring. Well this endorsement from the scene’s most ardent punks kept me afloat, but it was clear that MOST of everyone didn’t get that at ALL and I was labeled as a glitter rock infiltrator of their punk rock ranks, a pretender, and (the worst insult of all) a SELL OUT! Looking back, perhaps I should have cut my hair. But I said it, and I’m sure it cost me a couple of drum gigs at the time, but I was glad I stuck to my guns because the truth of the matter is that Zeppelin really DOES rock god damn it and the Beatles ARE fucking brilliant! And no movement in the world can refute those 2 facts.

The Beatles

So as time would tell, it was my detractors that were exposed as the posers and are probably, just now in their advanced years, ready to admit that the Led Zeppelin that they grew up with, but eschewed for their new found punk rock attitude – or more accurately – succumbing to peer pressure, are actually really fucking good! But for 30 years, they forced themselves to not like them just to be excepted into a club that has long since lost it’s relevance. Dying trend followers can be quite stubborn at times… and very amusing.

The Dreaded Sell-Out Monker!

So in musical styles and trends and fads… we come full circle in public attitude and perception – right back where we started… making virtually no dent, over time, in the public vernacular as we so loftily hoped we would. This leaves us with only with a marked influence on fashion and the actual style of music played during that time, which tends to change religiously every 10 years no matter HOW punk rock you are. But for the HOLD OUT punks of the 80’s with your hair spiked up and Macy’s safety pin & zipper motorcycle jackets, at least you’ve got the wives of Coral Springs, Florida to blend in with fashion wise.

Punk Clothes

But hey, it’s inevitable! Those in the game long enough almost ALWAYS sell out. No?… is the suggestion here that Siouxie and the Banshees envisioned the “Kiss Them For Me” MTV video when Syd Vicious was playing drums for them in the early days and Sioux couldn’t carry a tune on an oil tanker? How about Elvis Costello, the “angry young man” of the late 70’s who was banned from SNL for a couple of decades because he sung Radio Radio on the air despite their emphatic instructions not to. Perhaps he never saw his collaboration with Burt Bacharach coming 30 years later.

Elvis & Burt

Maybe Lou Reed never envisioned sharing the stage with Luciano Pavarotti to sing Perfect Day in 2001, 29 years after it’s release.

Lou Reed Pavaroti

How about Led Zeppelin being honored IN the White House in 2012? I’m surprised they didn’t throw a TV out of the window to see if they could breach the bullet proof glass. And Paul McCartney?… ok, that’s a bad example.

Except for the very, very few who staunchly hold on to their early punk rock sensibilities, we all eventually sell out so we can latch on to the next big thing and then call people, who were just like we were a month ago, “POSERS”. And those old war horses like Johnny Rotten and Iggy Pop and the Ramones become caricatures of themselves, holding the torch for a time long forgotten, or at the least, shrouded in the present – which is as it should be from where I stand. Guys like that have no choice but to drift quietly off into punk lore insignificance with the inevitable march of time, except in the hearts and minds of those of us who were fortunate enough to be there at the time, during our most formative years.

It is we former punks who look fondly back and tip our hats with respect, admiration and thanks. But that’s where the thanks end for those salty war horses that don’t or WON’T sell out. Sadly, those thanks are often not enough for a 60-something former-rocker who just wants to settle down and live comfortably for the next few decades. It’s unavoidable, eventually, REAL life gets ahold of you.

What Have We Learned?

Through all the stomping, screaming, rocking, dancing, writing, playing, gigging, jamming and protesting… money still drives the bus. The fact is that WE must all eventually make a living, which usually means that we pass the pioneering torch to the younger crowd and move on to earning a living. Out with the old and in with new. It’s only the precious few that can maintain their core ideals and keep the gravy train rolling throughout a life time without becoming a joke. Though we felt our influence was profound, it was really only the sound of the music and the clothes that changed things… while every other seemingly ‘meaningful thing’ that revolved around the Movement-de-Jour was just business as usual.

So as I played Frankenstein, far too loud to be audibly healthy (some things will never change), it awakened my 1970’s glitter rock nostalgia and the reality of what I just expounded upon came crashing down on me. I took a moment then to fast forward my musical vernacular 10 years from that moment to my punk rock years in the 80’s. And sadly, the same equation holds true. Backward to the 60’s… hhmmm. Gurnge in the 90’s? Hip Hop? Country Western? Even classical music is wrapped up and packaged like Pez. After 3 distinct movements over 3 full decades, it became clear to me that NOTHING IS SAFE FROM SELLING OUT!

Trends come and go and at the time, they are “EXACTLY WHAT I’M LOOKING FOR”. But the fact was that you really had no idea what you were looking for. But you DID crave DIFFERENT. And Punk Rock was, for me, that thing! But eventually, like with everything, the freshness wears off, the cracks are exposed, the innovators grow up and move on, the posers take over, the money creeps in and the magic of it all creeps out into the universe only to seep back into the next “different thing”. By the mid 80’s, what was left of the punk movement was only a packaged product to sell to the masses, devoid of any innovation or protest themselves, but armed with a no limit credit card for that $280 Macy’s safety pin and zipper motorcycle jacket and some retro-issue $200 Doc Martins that they can show off at the next ‘fund raiser’ to give off the impression that they’re “with it”… 15-20 years after the fact.

With this, I lowered my head in equal parts of sadness, shame and embarrassment. Sadness for a time long since passed. Shame that I unwittingly took part in this process despite my protesting. And embarrassed that I couldn’t see it at the time despite the fact that I was SURE I knew EVERYTHING! But even with this reality smacking me in the face, killing my buzz, making me sad, I still couldn’t help but crack a smile. I turned off YouTube and fired up my iTunes and cued up The Bad Brains’ “Sailin’ On”. While the tune thrashed around about in my head, distorting all sense of time and reality as that tune always does for me, before the 2 opening bars were finished… the feelings came flooding back into me again, just like music of all genres, all times, styles and cultures does to the people who were ‘there at the time’. I could not help but thrash my head back and forth with the blistering speed of the drums, distortion of the guitars, and barely discernible vocals in this wonderfully substandard recording. And while the angry protest in this thrash reached down and grabbed my balls, it pulled me out of my seat while squeezing out dormant aggression through my 52 year old pours. It was then that I just could not help myself as I assumed the position, and thrashed out the last 2 verses on air-guitar… and I was AWESOME!

Air Guitar

Trends, styles, fads, fashions, cultures and genres – all of them in their hey day were fresh and new and controversial. But they all come, and they all go – and ALL of them eventually succumb to the corporate sell-out machine, leaving behind them a wake of ‘best-of’ records, ‘remember-when’ videos, faded and t-shirts, Johnny-come-lately pretenders and a dying fashion trend that is shown the door only after spending a couple of shameful, demeaning months on the clearance rack. But for this 60’s-70’s rocker… this 70’s-80’s punker… and this 80’s-90’s grunger… each era was resplendent with Led Zeppelin roots, Beatles sensibilities and a Bowie fashion sense… whether I liked it or not. And those formative years were indeed, a magical time.