I was not a punk in high school. However, since in my era and locale (late 90’s, Midwest) my only other mainstream adolescent choices of association were emo, rap-rock, or fourth-wave ska, and my favorite bands were They Might Be Giants and the Violent Femmes, I kind of got lumped in. I went to my share of hardcore shows in my teens, sometimes opening as keyboard player in a decidedly goofy hodgepodge of a band, but somehow it never really rubbed off. I didn’t even own a Clash record until I went to college (and even now my favorite song of theirs is The Magnificent Seven). I switch to Morning Edition when the Ramones come on 103.1 during my commute. And don’t tell anyone, but I don’t really like the Stooges.
This all being said, when asked recently who my favorite punk band was, I could answer without thinking. I even have the album. Wire. Pink Flag. And, listening to the album this morning while doing the dishes, I know why.
First off, I started loving this album as one of the great road trip records of all time. It starts off slowly and ends quickly, few songs are over two minutes long, it works equally well as the background to conversation and as maximum volume screaming accompaniment. I burned the CD off of a friend at a point where I was listening lots of Olivia Tremor Control and Flaming Lips. I was judging songs based on obsessive layering of sound and drawn-out, slowly changing structure. So, naturally, by the time I had gotten through “Field Day For the Sundays,” clocking in at 0:28 with about one chord change, my ass was thoroughly kicked.
But the real reason I’m putting Pink Flag up on a pedestal is because it taught me how to understand what those fifteen-year-old punks couldn’t teach. My generation is so far removed from the seventies (like kids now are from the eighties), that at the time I couldn’t really wrap my head around the difference between, say, the Sex Pistols and the Rolling Stones. After all, they were both rock bands with old british guys that played loud music. The difference between them and between what my friends were listening to– gangster rap, rave music, Oasis,the Mr. T Experience — seemed miniscule. The problem was that all of the punk kids defined their status non-musically, as some strange combination of attitude, politics and style. The music seemed to be as much of an accoutrement as their patches.
And that’s pretty much where I left it. Every time I heard the punk movement discussed it was as a cultural event, with the music as only part of the range of expression. This suited my high school friends perfectly, as teenagers exist pretty much only to socialize — day-to-day identity switching is not only easy but kind of expected. Everything started to fall apart, however, as discussed this kind of stuff with older people. At my tiny college radio station I started talking to people about the music alone, front and center, without context. And I suddenly had a way into the music.
The problem was that I’d never really bought into the idea that punk was about anything but music in the first place. All genres make artist membership based somewhat on credibility, but few besides gangster rap make such a big deal about it as punk. The kids I’d grown up with believed that the music had somehow been generated spontaneously out of sheer attitude, but the hours I spent trying to coax a melody out of my sequencer and drum machine at home told me something else. No matter how stripped down or lobotomized the music was, these bands had to be listening to something, and working hard to replicate it.
Or to destroy it. What struck me as I stood by the sink was how sheerly unfunky Pink Flag is. Once I got past that fact, I could clearly see what punks were reacting against in the 70’s. Nothing political or social. What they were out to destroy was the entire fabricated rock and roll lineage of Delta blues->Memphis rockabilly->drug addled Brit that had been handed up to them as children. These guys had grown up along with the initial peaking of rock and roll, in the late Sixties and early Seventies. And what do you do at the self-declared peak of a genre? Burn it to the ground. Wire’s music recalls a lot of things – Can, Kraftwerk, Broadway Musicals, radio jingles – but only rarely does it make me think of The Stones, or Elvis, or Leadbelly. When it does quote from that sound – the hyperactive vocals on “Start to Move” and “Feeling Called Love,” or the zombie “doo doos” on “Strange,” it’s in a mocking apelike way, sneering at heritage.
All of this is probably old hat to anyone at all familiar with pop history. But I don’t really read those kinds of books or hold those kinds of conversations. I own maybe three hundred CDs, no vinyl. I love Pink Flag because it taught me all of this in the amount of time it took me to clean a dozen plates. And I got to dance a little during the lesson.