Punk and amazement

Punk was against solos. The Ramones, Sex Pistols, Clash made the absence of a guitar hero in their lineups a strength. It was ok to have pre-arranged instrumental elements — the guitar line in the Ramones’ version of “California Sun”, the melodies in Ventures covers — but the idea of soloing was squarely against doctrine.

The doctrine was DIY. Anybody can do this. It’s the people’s music. Three easy chords. Roll Over Beethoven. It was a cause, a manifesto, a revolutionary creed.

But in a sense instrumental virtuosity is more plebeian, more open, more democratic. Guitar heroism is the people’s choice. Guitar heroics appeal to the people. The public demands them.

The reason the public demands them is that heroics are entertaining. It’s not music, it’s acrobatics, true. But that isn’t a drawback for most people. Acrobatics are easier to understand than music! Acrobatics create a climax in the arc of concert that music is hard pressed to match.

Compare Yngwie Malmsteen’s ultra fast metal riffing context to Bill Evan’s complex piano chord voicings on Kind of Blue. Compare stupid but hot drum solos at an arena rock concert to sophisticated but emotionally frigid post-WWII classical music like Milton Babbit. (And leave aside the rare cases where instrumental acrobatics hit the target on a musical level). Instrumental heroics are crowd pleasers.

Purist punk has never been the music of the masses. The people speak with their numbers, and their numbers are squarely on the side of music that not anybody can do. The people want to be amazed by virtuosos.

This is an old story. Cheap thrills or elitist ecstasy — pick one. The thing that amazes me is how punk turned the narrative inside out, so that the thing the people loved (virtuousity) became elitist and the thing the elites loved (purism) became populist.

5 replies on “Punk and amazement”

Very good post.

The key, to me, is for a music to evolve which both permits complete participation and provides scope for instrumental virtuosity. I suspect this music will involve software synthesizers, but also give scope to
new Yngwie’s. The hip hop folks understood in an earlier time that they could use electronica and manipulation of samples to tell a populist story not embedded in amber. I envision an electronic future that looks a lot like 1960s Folkways magazine crossed with Stevie Ray Vaughan goes to Berklee thermodynamics.

well, to split some hairs I saw both the pistols and the clash (and the ramones for that matter) and they definitely had guitar solo breaks but point taken wrt to attitude, esp. at the very early stages. (Note that no matter how “bad” a group of musicians are, if they go on the road for 5 years they can’t help but get proficient at their craft no matter what their attitude is.)

2nd: The whole musical backlash thing (“we’re not Yes/King Crimson/Foghat/etc.”) reached even “real” musicians – Elvis Costello came very close to not hiring Bruce Thomas because he admitted to liking Steely Dan.

but my point was that punk was not just another musical genre in the UK – there it had mass, numbers and broad cultural impact. Punk, like reggae, didn’t happen in the US because, really, there was nothing about to relate to – these were someone else’s fight (having said that, don’t ask me to explain the rise of “urban” hip hop amongst suburban boys lol)

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