This has been an often pondered question over the years and one which has recently entered my mind. I have many friends whom I consider to be and who consider themselves to be punk, yet a lot of them are very different from each other. The umbrella seems to be probably the most undefined and broadest of all the different music-based genres / subcultures and it seems very much to mean different things to different people.
I should state now that I do not consider myself to be any kind of expert on the subject. I play in a punk influenced band and I love the music from all eras, from the proto/garage punk of the 60’s, right through to the melodic pop punk of today. I also respect and identify with the people I have met from most of the eras and subcultures, with the exception of some (not all) from the extreme left and right sides of the political spectrum. I have never considered myself to be a punk as such (my tastes are wide and varied), although I have been warmly accepted as one by many. These are purely my own thoughts and observations, I am not saying I am right and as always, I welcome any comments.
I guess the problem for me arises when you get people trying to overly define punk and more to the point, stating to others what punk isn’t, be that in attitude or musical style.
I personally favour the 70’s punk vibe. I prefer the music a bit more melodic, yet raw sounding and I love what I consider to be and have experienced to be a very inclusive attitude. Everybody is welcome. There seems to be no political or ideological agenda as such, other than "we are all here together", although there does seem to be a common anti-Thatcher/anti-royal sentiment, even now. I have had some great times watching 70’s punk bands and hanging out at the various gigs and reunions of people from that era.
However, I have heard comments from others who have had very different experiences, it seems to be felt by some that the 70’s punks sometimes came across as a bit elitist towards those who came along after.
I like second wave punk myself and again, the people are great but I have found that the 80’s punks tended to be much more opinionated. Politics and ideals seem to play a bigger part, whether Anarchist, Socialist or Nationalist, whether diet is traditional, vegetarian or vegan or whether there are monetary values or beliefs in a society without currency / property and advocate squatting.
I have met people with each of the those beliefs and sometimes I can’t make my mind up whether there is division or diversity in what many regard to be under the general umbrella of "punk". Certainly people from the extremities of political and ideological beliefs will be divided from each other by definition. But aren’t they still all punks?
My gut feeling is that all this talk of politics and ideology digresses too far from the original question. After all, isn’t it supposed to be about the music? Punk was without a doubt a musical revolution. It certainly wasn’t the first wave of teenage rebellion or the first wave of young people who were politically aware but it changed the musical landscape in a way quite like no other movement. I was only a small boy when it was happening so can only surmise what the zeitgeist of punk was like.
It was all about accessibility to music. The teenagers of the time felt disenfranchised from the popular music of the time (such as prog rock and disco) and decided to collectively redefine their own generation. It was all about DIY, independence and supporting the up and coming bands of the time who were part of that. It also reset the boundaries of music. No longer did you have to be a musical virtuoso to be in a band. Why play dozens of chords when only the 3 will do the job? Most of it had a modicum of tunefulness, no matter how primitive or raucous it sounded. It was very much music which was played by their generation for their generation (and anyone else who was into it). This is the element of punk which has not changed over the years.
Paradoxically though, the passage of time has given rise to divisions based on belief and integrity in the scene. The bands of those early generations became popular and a lot of them continue to attract good crowds to venues for (naturally) more money than the less established bands. There are still a good number of people who don’t buy into that and prefer to promote and support the up and coming bands. I think there is some great talent out there and the smaller bands are sometimes just as good and in some cases better than bigger acts.
The problem is that many people like it all and there are only so many punters to go round. This gives rise to disagreements at times. I personally love watching pretty much any punk, be it a band’s first gig or a well established band that have been going for decades. Some prefer to watch the bands they grew up with and some fiercely support the smaller bands in preference. The biggest shame is that not all of us can afford the time or the money to be at every gig all of the time and when there are generally less punk fans than there were in times gone by, it can be disheartening for bands, promoters and venues at times when a gig has a poor turnout, especially when money is lost.
To my mind, it is not always about the numbers. I have been to many quiet gigs with only a handful of people watching and had a great time. Sure, it enhances the night if there are more people there but some of the bands I have seen play in front of 10 people, have played as though there were a crowd of 10,000 in front of them and often for little or no money. Surely that has to be a contender for one of punk’s defining factors?
If you have read all this then thanks for your time. It’s just me waffling on as usual. Please feel free to leave comments below (preferably not on the Facebook thread). I am genuinely interested in peoples’ thoughts on this question.