Home > Notes From Athens > Punk Archaeology: Some Preliminary Thoughts

Punk Archaeology: Some Preliminary Thoughts

Kostis Kourelis recently included me on his list of Punk Archaeologist — a complete honor!

My attraction to punk, I think, comes from the self-consciously ironic quality of the early punk movement and its easy resonance with the predominant character of much of the academic discourse.  This should be no surprise as the punk mentality was crystallizing at the same moment that intellectuals were trying to understand the implications of Hayden White’s Metahistory and M. Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge. Both works, but particularly the former recognized the ironic as the dominant force in modern intellectual life. Such spirit of the ironic is captured in the Velvet Underground’s first album cover which showed a realistically rendered banana with the instructions “Peel slowly and see”. Peeling the banana lead the viewer to discover the bright pink (and obviously phallic) unpeeled banana inside. This somewhat alarming discovery behind the ordinary banana encapsulated the ironic spirit of the M. Leigh book The Velvet Underground which reported on the sexually “deviant” practices underlying the typical suburban landscape. Peeling the banana and listening the album revealed the hidden tensions existing within even the most mundane elements of society.

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The band, the Velvet Underground, occupies a central place in the emergence of the punk rock movement, first in New York and around the world. The vivid urban scenes narrated by Lou Reed, John Cale and company helped to situate punk in an urban context. Kourelis has brought to the fore this celebration of the urban and linked the punk ascetic with the notion of squatting.

The idea of occupying urban space, however, reflects the mixed roots of many of the pioneers of punk rock. While some punk rockers with clearly urban roots (particularly such key players in the New York scene like The Ramones (Queens), David Johansen and Johnny Thunders (Staten Island and Queens respectively), many the genres early heroes were suburban: Lou Reed (Long Island), Richard Hell (Kentucky) and Tom Verlaine (Morristown, NJ – Hell and Verlaine met at a suburban high school in Wilmington, Delaware at around the same time that Bob Marley was living in downtown Wilmington (ca. 1965-1966)), Paul Westerberg (and the Replacements – Minneapolis), Bob Mould (went to Macalester!), Iggy Pop – Muskegon, Michigan. In fact, punk rock was closely associated with (and perhaps developed from) the idea of the “garage band” which only made sense in a suburban, post-war context. While playing in a garage was another aspect of the squatter aesthetic, it also implied the centrality of the car and reflected their membership in (and rejection of) a suburban middle class.

In fact, the urban world created by many punk bands brought to life the fears, myths, and contradictions derived from the typically suburban origins of the musicians. The image of the urban painted by these musicians resonated with suburban kids throughout the country (including me when I first heard it). Punks viewed the city from a decidedly suburban perspective. In punk rock, the city was both intimidating and full of chaotic creative power (the ordinary, mundane, working classes who struggled to survive in the twilight of American urbanism rarely make an appearance in the early New York punk music). The earliest and perhaps most seminal expressions of the punk rock aesthetic, Velvet Underground with Nico is a great example of this; songs like “Waiting for My Man” and “Run, Run, Run” summarize a feeling of urban alienation and danger. Some of this intensity seems to conjure up the earlier fascination with the “urban” best summarized in Norman Mailer’s essay “The White Negro,” which extolled the virtues of the hipster many of whom, like many members of the punk movement, were second and third generation immigrants who retained some urban ties while at the same time seeking to reposition their identity at vital fringes of American urban culture.

The ironic in punk derives largely from the relative bourgeois background of many of the genre’s greatest lights. Punk created an urban experience that was both exotic and predictable. They glamorized the suburban perspective of the urban by filling with exotic characters, like drug-dealers (“Waiting for My Man”, “Run, Run, Run“), violence (“Guns of Brixton” or Iggy’s “Search and Destroy“: “I’m a street walking cheetah with a heart full of napalm | I’m a runaway son of the nuclear a-bomb”), distorted sexual tension (“I Wanna be Your Dog”) and ambiguity (“Blank Generation” – totally ironic, a generation “under erasure”; the album cover shows Richard Hell with an open shirt exposing the words “You Make Me ______” written on his chest.) that found open contrast to the seemingly controlled and superficial suburbia. Thus, punk held up the “declining” urban centers against the boring, mundane, and predictable suburbs while at the same time reifying the growing criticisms of the city offered by its suburban critics. The punk rock stories and life styles recycled a suburban vision of a vital urban energy for suburban (re)consumption. They understood at least to some degree the importance of the “safe media” of records, but that recorded performances had to capture the live feeling and excitement of “excursions” by suburban fans to such iconic venues as Max’s and CBGBs. The raw listening experience of punk album evoked the experience of live shows and made the particularly punk image of the urban mobile. At the same time, the heroes of the punk movement performed their own pilgrimage and gained the requisite authenticity through short residence at the Chelsea or Albert Hotels. Of course so many of the pioneers of punk not only celebrated the chaotic culture of the urban world of the suburban imagination, but also succumbed to the image that they in many ways created, dying violent deaths or struggling with drug addiction.

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There is every evidence that many punks understood the irony of their own position. Punk rockers who experimented with narrative in their music, such as Lou Reed, openly embraced the ironic in their lyrics (e.g. The Velvet Underground’s “The Gift”). Punk bands regularly covered old standards (my favorites are the Germs  “Round and Round” or Johnny Thunders’ live version of “Do you love me?”, but see also Sid Vicious “My Way” et c.) or borrowed and distorted melodies from earlier pop standards (echoing of course the practices in Hard Bop and other jazz idioms two decades earlier). Their intentionally cacophonic versions of these tunes not only reified the enduring value of the music from an earlier time, but also sought to distort, disrupt, and appropriate it for subversive purposes.  Punks translated the safe features of “classic” pop music into barely recognizable, distorted, burned out idiom of urban space in a highly-referential and explicitly counter-cultural performance.

Punk, in my analysis, foreground the process of translating the sense of place.  As Kourelis has pointed out, their self conscious use of architectural fragments in their cover art, which was designed to evoke the urban context for their music (but consider the Replacement’s Let it Be with its more suburban setting), set the stage for their music.  This work of translating and transposing the experience of space has featured significantly in almost all archaeological approaches to the past (and the present as well!).  Punk rock and archaeology both foreground the necessity to communicate the meaning of place.  The act of uncovering, of excavating in an archaeological context (“Dig slowly and see“) presupposed an ironic tension between the surface of the ground (or the expected view of a landscape) and the “reality” that emerges from excavation (or, in the case of landscape, intensive investigation).  On the one hand, it may be fair to argue that irony represents the quintessential narrative mode of late/post modernity (as it coincides so well with the major epistemological positions of the modern world), but on the other hand, punk and archaeology both embrace a spatial aspect of this ironic mode of narration that keys upon the unexpected energy of neglected, hidden, and dangerous places and seeks to translate the energy and knowledge of this space into media appropriate for broader consumption and use. 

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Categories: Notes From Athens
  1. Laura Gawlinski
    February 19, 2008 at 10:44 am

    You might be interested to know that Iggy Pop is published in a classics journal:
    “Caesar Lives,” Classics Ireland 2 (1995): 94-96.
    http://www.classicsireland.com/
    (see the editorial note too)

  2. Corbouman
    April 6, 2009 at 6:44 pm

    James,
    please listen to this !!
    /Users/corbouman/Music/iTunes/iTunes Music/Herman Brood & His Wild Romance/Cha Cha

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