How Punk Won

Saturday, 12 May 2007

[Picture of caruso]THE music business is all but dead.

It didn’t really last all that long either — but it lasted a lot longer than anyone thought it would.

Although few will shed tears at its passing, as far as I can ascertain, the global music recording business began with a man crying!

[Picture of gramophone]

You see, Mr. Caruso was a famous opera tenor at the turn and beginning of the 20th century — he had it all; he was Italian, good-looking, charming, and a big box office draw. The US Americans grabbed him, to establish the Met. with Toscanini.

The thing was that he sang one particular song in one particular way. ‘Vesti La Giubba’ by Ruggiero Leoncavallo was that song. The opera (Clowns) is a play within a play, and Caruso is singing as a clown who has just a real committed murder — a crime of passion — live on stage, and he sobs, breaking down in remorse. Such passion, such emotion! His interpretation of this song was acclaimed and considered essential listening. Tickets were sold out for every performance of ‘Pagliacci’ (Clowns) at the Met in New York.

But it was not enough for demand — so he recorded the song, and this recording was reproduced in a flat disc format that could be played at 78rpm on a gramophone.

The result was that people all over the world bought a gramophone and the disc of Caruso singing ‘Vesti La Giubba’ with the sob. This means that this song is the first number one hit song, and marks the birth of the music business.

People then owned a gramophone, so they bought more discs by more artists. Mind you, Caruso was a good businessman, and he became the first person to become wealthy from selling records. He made over 250 records and made millions of dollars from them.

Stage Two

Immediately after the world wars there was a strange period. There was focus on citizenship, social change, relationships and family — men returning from war to wives and children. As rationing disappeared, with the rebuilding came an optimism and interest in the modern and new.

New markets were created — and the “teenager” was one market ripe for exploitation; these kids had disposable income, but no commitments yet — this led to drive-in movie theatres, cinemas, dance halls, clubs, magazines, television, fashion and pop music.

Rock’n’roll emerged within five years of the last world war, and then it was manufactured pop music from the likes of The Beatles. As the 1960s came to a close, the music business was fully established.

Stage Three

The 1970s, as cinemas declines, television flourished, but the biggest growth was in music — new sounds, new techniques, new instruments and new genres. The early 1970s were about experimentation and complexity, but within five years there was a revolt by the youth of Britain which was known as The Punk Movement.

[Picture of Johnny Rotten]The whole idea behind the Punk movement was anti-money-making, anti-music-business, anti-recording. It was all about live performance and the right of any young person to express themselves in the audience or in the band. Punk was about claiming back part of the culture exposed by rock’n’roll 20 years before: music that connected with the experience of kids, that involved and engrossed kids, that belonged to kids (and was anti-establishment, and anti-adult).

[Picture of The Clash]While the teenager was invented by social engineering, the music was genuine , being stolen and adapted from black jazz and blues music, but it was possessed by the kids. The market merely exploited this ground-swell. The difference between that and the Punk movement was that the Punk movement was conscious of itself and the business aspects, and it was a rejection of an established million-dollar business machine that produced a diet of music for consumption.

[Picture of The Clash]Punk embraced Jamaican reggae and dub music — music that was not in the control of the music business — it embraced art that was not in the art business, it embraced fashion that was not in the fashion business, as well as poetry and more besides. In its essence it was a British movement of its time and place — accompanying riots, in a period of shortages, strikes and injustices. In a country bombed by terrorists, under threat of nuclear destruction and on the brink of using up all the sources of energy — it was the “no Future” generation. So Punk was not only a grass roots arts movement, but also a political movement.

[Picture of mohican punk]Whereas Hippies tried to stop the American war in Vietnam, and solve the cold war with love and peace, Punks simply came out as angry kids fed up with the people who created this misery — the powers that made their lives hell. Punks rioted. Punks dressed in such a way that they were threatening and unemployable (as if there were any jobs going!). Why conform when it will get you nowhere? Doc martens, spiky hair, safety pins, razor blades, bin bags, Mohican hair cuts, tattoos and piercings — all of which remains today, but back then was exceptionally radical.

Other corollary aspects worthy of thought include the idea that the street’s answer to Irish terrorism was youth riots, pack violence and gangs that became known as skin heads. And the idea that from the Punk Movement, women have been free from hundreds of years of ‘female’ fashion and ideas of beauty. Punk emancipated teen girls to revolt, and to actively choose to be unattractive, to wear mismatched clothes, to look fatter, whiter, more manly and so on.

[picture of sex pistols]


People get the 1970s all wrong all too often.

[Picture of the damned]It was not all about afros, flared trousers and happy times. It was the coming down from the hyped pro-modern post war optimism to a bleak reality. The modern movement had cut ties with the past, we were now in the concrete, high rise, motorway and underpass limbo-like future, floating and disenfranchised. Punk marked the end — for ever — of mass manipulation. After Punk there has been no fashion trend that the entire population followed.

Punk changed everything.

The Punk movement has a legacy: it was when we broke from being governed, and it has had a world-wide effect resulting in things like green party politics, people protesting about issues on the streets, live aid, and the internet.

[Picture of The Ramones]Just as the British punk music scene embraced The Stooges, Talking Heads, Television, Blondie and other New York arthouse rock poets simply because they were not signed and marketed at them, punk embodies anything with that same spirit — that personal freedom to not accept authority’s diet — this is pure web 2.0, this is downloads, this is freeware, this is Linux, this is MP3s, mobile phones with personal ring tones, on demand TV — all this is only possible because of the British Punk Movement.

Punk was a civil war when you think about it; we have a totally different world today as a result. Back then we doffed our caps at the bank manager, we got beaten at school, and we had very little control of lifestyles, choices and habits. We took what we were given and what we could get. Now we can taken what we want from all over the world!

It’s all change still — television and the music business are changing completely, they are losing out to the punks who have grown up and who have brought up children with new values. They are clinging to copyright and back catalogues, but the end is nigh — why buy a CD when you can share or download? In the future, even this will be unnecessary; music will be watched in live performance on demand, perhaps even generated on demand. Alternatively, you will just elect to listen to a piece of music, rather than try to own it in some tangible way.

It is a throw away world. Punk said we should get back to ‘the experience’ — to choose life instead of products, to follow our beliefs and ideas than to belong to a sect or follow a trend. That is how punk has won.

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