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Sunday August 24, 2008

The politics of punk

People who don’t understand its ethos have yet again labelled punk rock ‘undesirable’ – shouldn’t an Opposition party know better?

SOMETIME last year I attended a concert by legendary Los Angeles punk rock outfit NOFX, right here in Kuala Lumpur.

There had been no publicity, only glimmerings in the underground scene, but the venue was sold out on the night and the mosh pit (if you need to ask what this is, you ain’t punk) was dense with writhing, leaping bodies.

I was there with a fellow 40-something, and when one of my favourite tunes was playing, we both shouted along to the chorus.

A 20-something turned to me and said, “Wah, so old also you like punk rock, ah?”

The young whippersnapper was subjected to a compact five minute history of punk, a discourse punctuated by us punching our fists in the air in tune to the grinding three-chord sounds of NOFX.

The portly and decently clad NOFX singer and bassist ‘Fat Mike’ Burkett could hardly have inspired young and impressionable Malaysians towards chaos and anarchy during the band’s concert here. –

Darn kids, get off my lawn. We grognards are the original punk generation, you’re just a bunch of followers.

If that young kid, a self-proclaimed fan of punk rock, could be so ignorant of what the movement was all about, I guess I should be more tolerant when our political parties and moral guardians get it wrong, too.

But Avril Lavigne? The guys from PAS Youth are against Avril because her music has undesirable elements like “rock and punk”? Whoa, that’s a double braaarrrp wrong answer right there!

She ain’t punk, though some of her tunes may sound like it. But even if she was, why would an Opposition party that’s part of an alliance battling for reformation and socio-political change want to stop the music that best exemplifies such aspirations?

Sigh, darn kids. Punk rock isn’t just loud music, you know. Its beginnings in the 1970s was all about change. At times chaotic and anarchic, but it was about change and transformation and going against established norms. Raging against the machine.

(And yes, the now-defunct Rage Against the Machine merged two types of street music – hip-hop and punk – to become the most relevant rock band of its time.)

Isn’t that what Pakatan Rakyat was telling us to vote for? To make a difference? To stand up and be counted? To make a stand?

Listen, if you had wanted music to fuel your election campaign, you could not have done better than to have pored over some of punk rock’s classic numbers to find the right song or two.

Yeah, we had Jeff Ooi, now a bona fide Member of Parliament, taking out his electric guitar to strum some tunes at a pre-election ceramah. Jeff, I hope you didn’t play some “evergreen” numbers, mate. You should have made a “public service announcement ... with guitars!”

That’s the start to The Clash’s Know Your Rights. Yup, a punk rock song.

Of course, in the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that even in the earliest days of the punk rock movement, there were already poseurs – punk rockers who weren’t really punk.

Indeed, there was a feeling that The Sex Pistols, right there at the vanguard of the movement with bands like The Clash and New York’s The Ramones, was merely a marketing stunt thought up by their manager, Malcolm McLaren.

Pistols lead singer Johnny Rotten (his less-punk appellation is John Lydon) has consistently scoffed at this, in his usual gnarly, snarling fashion.

He still maintains there was real anger and cynicism about what was going in working-class Britain in the 1970s.

Sure, other punk bands stood for other things. The Ramones didn’t have any message for the masses, didn’t really stand for anything except returning rock ‘n’ roll to its energetic, rebellious roots.

It was a time when rock music had become so showy and orchestrated that even acts like Billy Joel were being categorised under “rock ‘n’ roll”.

There were nihilistic punk bands, there were party punk bands, like The Damned. There were bands trying to make a difference, while others were experimenting with a new (and in a way, old) form of artistic expression.

There were angry bands, and angst-ridden bands, leaving proto-punk and post-punk bands in their wake.

About the only thing they had in common was they stripped down bare to the music, and had a strong do-it-yourself ethic.

No, you didn’t need a great voice, a virtuoso guitar player, or an expensive studio to process your sound. All you needed was a message, some chords, and a gig.

Indeed, Bob Dylan, in All Along the Watchtower, sang that all he had was “three chords and the truth”. That’s punk rock right there.

Sure, some people like it because punk rock sounds great when it’s played out real loud.

And people who are pissed off find it expresses their mood perfectly. It’s true that anger can be destructive, but it can be cathartic too.

But mostly, punk rock is music for people who take an interest in what’s happening around them.

I still find it hard to believe that some socio-politically aware people don’t listen to punk rock. It just doesn’t compute.

So punk rock isn’t part of Malaysian culture? Maybe that’s our problem right there.

A. Asohan, New Media Editor at The Star, is happy that his daughters like the White Stripes at least.