Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Beatles, a punk band? I don't think so

Radio New Zealand on Saturday replayed a programme in which Kim Hill interviewed New Zealand singer and songwriter Chris Knox for her Playing Favourites segment, in which guests talk about their lives and the music that has influenced them. I’m not sure when it was recorded, but obviously it was before Knox had his stroke last year, from which he is still recovering.

Knox, who is considered a founding father of the punk movement in New Zealand, chose as his first song the Beatles’ Baby You’re A Rich Man, and made the comment that the Beatles were a punk band themselves in their Hamburg days.

With all due respect to Knox, this sort of revisionist bullshit can’t be allowed to go unchallenged. Attempts to confer musical legitimacy on punk by claiming that the greatest pop band in history were precursors of punk won’t wash.

Punks raged against the status quo, but there was nothing in the music of the Beatles to suggest they were remotely interested in bringing down the “system”. The most they did was mock it in a good-natured manner, as when John Lennon famously told the audience at a Royal Variety performance in 1963: “Those of you in the cheap seats, clap your hands. The rest of you, just rattle your jewellery”.

Punk “music” – and I use the word loosely in this context – was all about rage, anger and alienation, whereas the music of the Beatles was essentially joyous. They may have looked wild and subversive by the standards of the time, but there was nothing nihilistic about them. Once people had got over their strange clothes and long hair, the Beatles became the darlings of the conservative British media – which is more than can be said for Sid Vicious, Johnny Rotten and the other rebarbative pioneers of punk.

The Beatles didn’t confine themselves to rebellious rock and roll but fed omnivorously on a multitude of musical influences that included black r ’n’ r shouters such as Little Richard, soul groups (Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Isley Brothers), mainstream, white-bread pop (Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Burt Bacharach) and even music from the stage. A Taste of Honey, from their first album – a song played in decidedly un-cool waltz time – was originally written as the theme for a Broadway production of the same name; Till There Was You, which was part of the Beatles’ repertoire at the Star Club in Hamburg, came from the Broadway musical The Music Man. Later they wrote sentimental ballads such as If I Fell (sometimes self-mockingly rendered in concert as If I Fell Over).

Punk? I don’t think so. The diversity of their repertoire confirms that the Beatles were interested in music for its own sake, not just as a means of making a statement – which was what punk was all about.

Most crucially, however, what irrevocably set the Beatles apart from the punk bands of the 1970s was that even in their early days they were accomplished musicians. They could sing and they could play – especially McCartney, whose creativity as a bass player has never been given due recognition. In contrast, one of the defining elements of punk was that punk bands couldn’t play. This was a point of which they were defiantly and perversely proud.

I recently heard Jim DeRogatis, rock critic (a job description that generally doubles these days as a synonym for wanker) for the Chicago Sun-Times and author of a new book about the self-consciously arty 1960s New York band the Velvet Underground, define the punk aesthetic thus: “You don’t have to learn how to play an instrument or be a virtuoso to make great rock and roll”.

Well, fancy that. If only Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis and Buddy Holly had realised that, they wouldn’t have had to waste all that time learning to play.

Anyone could do it, DeRogatis said; all you needed was a vision and a burning desire to say something. There it is in nutshell: music for people who don’t like music. Two chords were enough for most punk bands.

(Interestingly enough, the Velvet Underground, who are often cited as a key influence on punk, were Chris Knox’s second choice on Playing Favourites. Characteristically, they were playing out of tune – not that anyone would have noticed, or cared.)

Punk legitimised the mad flailings of the talentless. It created a sorry legacy that is still immediately apparent to anyone tuning in to Music 101 on Radio New Zealand, in which some terrifically talented young New Zealand musicians are subjected to the undeserved indignity of being sandwiched between acts that are no more capable of making music than I am of swimming Cook Strait.

The problem with punk was that it placed attitude above musicality and talent. Whether you could play or sing didn’t matter, so long as you adopted the right ideological posture.

Punk represented the politics of envy transferred to rock music. The punk rebellion was given a figleaf of artistic credibility on the basis that it marked the return of rock music to its working-class roots; a rejection of the bloated, over-produced corporate rock exemplified by bands like the Eagles, who would spend months in the recording studios polishing each track to almost sterile perfection. But in essence punk was political: a spiteful bid by the angry, the frustrated, the inarticulate and the untalented to wrest control of rock music from those who infuriated them by being able to play and sing.

Naturally it was embraced with enthusiasm by the rock journalism priesthood, whose only interest in music was as a vehicle for a message. The rock critics generally welcomed punk as some sort of metaphor for the class struggle against fat, corrupt capitalism – which of course it was. But no one should make the mistake of thinking it had anything to do with music, and neither should anyone – not even the sainted Chris Knox – debase the Beatles by smearing them with punk’s noisome ordure.

Footnote: The Velvet Underground song chosen by Knox on Playing Favourites was a typically pretentious piece of gothic nonsense called Venus in Furs, which includes the phrase “love not given lightly”. Interestingly, this is the key line – and title – of Knox’s own signature song. I wonder how many people realise the line was not originally his.


Vaughan said...

If CK survives this caning and rises to say, even worse, that the Beatles were a rap band, please take him behind the bike shed and flog him with a rolled up copy of Rolling Stone.

Anonymous said...

I normally love your curmudgeonly musings but on this occasion, with your footnote, I think you stray into the area of gratuitously kicking a man when he is down.

Karl du Fresne said...

I feel no ill will toward Chris Knox and sincerely hope he enjoys a complete recovery. But I presume that in choosing Venus In Furs as one of his "favourites", he was relaxed about people discovering the origin of that phrase "love not given lightly". So in a sense I was taking my cue from him.

Rob Hosking said...

Knox actually said when he introduced 'Venus in Furs' that people might recognise a phrase in the lyrics.

BEatles, punk? Back in the Hamburg days? Well, who knows? they would hjave been rough as hell but no doubt so were other bands starting out.

Gerry and the Pacemakers played in Hamburg as well, maybe they were once punk, too.

BTW I'm not as anti punk as you, Karl - at its best, it was a breath of fresh air. The Sex Pistols' 'Pretty Vacant' is a great single, with a great snarling vocal and a fantastic riff they pinched from ABBA (Listen to 'SOS').

I don't think punk was 'political' - it just pretneded to be. All that rebel stuff in rock music is jsut marketing.

it's a way of getting people to buy the stuff and is about as political as Mrs Marsh and Colgate.

Rob Hosking said...

God, forgive me the typos in that last comment....

DeepRed said...

Ever seen The U.S. vs John Lennon? Then again, it probably made Lennon more hippie than punk.

blogroll said...

Cos I'm the taxman, yeah I'm the taxman.