November 21st, 2006.
What is punk rock?
This is a question of serious, impassioned debate within many circles, one of which is Food for Thought, the little café within Washington’s hallowed Black Cat club.
There is very little upon which all sides can agree upon bar the obvious. Clay Aiken is not punk rock. Eating pork rinds in a pick-up truck: clearly not punk rock.
But knitting needles? Totally punk rock.
See where the complication sets in?
When young college graduates who grew up idealizing punk philosophy enter the white collar industries — well-known for providing the necessary antithesis against which the character and appeal of punk was originally carved — they struggle. Not long previously, they’d been telling each other about how they would never sell out, and how they knew they would differ from the generation of ex-hippie CEO-types who, not uncommonly, happened to be their parents.
“A 9-to-5 office monkey? Harumph!,” our friend would exclaim at the vegan co-op, pinning up his Feminist Solidarity flyer as the proto-reggae primal magic of the Slits pumps from the old sound system.
“Maybe in, like, thirty years or something…but even then, it’s hard to imagine.” The other volunteers nod agreeably.
Three months following which we find this same individual within a massive Art-Deco edifice, nodding and articulating at interviews, shaking hands by a water-cooler, copy and pasting company signatures into his Outlook Express account.
So, can one really achieve what is commonly considered impossible, and fuse the hard-fought punk gene of his formative years to this vastly different, barren landscape of inter-cubicle emailing and such other “knowledge economy” realities? Undoubtedly, many have been tried before, and though these suit-and-tie anarchists, these power-breakfasting riot grrrls might possibly exist, they haven’t exactly made themselves very visible.
The Living End has a reputation for thunderous, all-out rock and roll live performances, and last night’s Black Cat gig was clearly no exception. Their first album was seminal in my early Australian high school years, and eight years after its release, it was with a certain combination of nostalgia and national rock duty that I arrived at the show.
Not many people seem to like their latest album, “State of Emergency,” and I have to agree with the general verdict of: “too much pop, not enough punk.” Thankfully, they mixed the unspectacular new tracks with plenty of popular fist-pumpers from their early catalogue, including the funky anti-developer-themed “All Torn Down” and anti-death penalty sing-along that is “Second Solution.”
The End trio are musically seasoned and very tight, and they play a style of punk rarely heard within the current musical landscape. Oft-associated with the Clash –punk’s most musically innovative group — and 80s heroes the Stray Cats, the End are strongest when playing hard and fast rockabilly. 10 years following their breakthrough, this remains the heart of their musical vision. I think rockabilly is so inherently pleasing because it speaks to the core essence of rock and roll; its helter-skelter marriage of country and R&B music was the first real white permutation of what was previously exclusively black musical territory. Infused with the additional charge of punk rock, as the Living End does so successfully, rockabilly is utterly compelling: slap-back rhythms scream youthful excess, political sloganeering demands for scream-a-longs and fist pumping galore.
Last night, Chris’ voice was as full and tuneful as ever, his thunderous riff thrashing as pleasing to the feet as his solo chops were to the head. Towards the end of the set, he played an extended contrapuntal solo jam. I found it a little too messy and directionless, but fun nonetheless, and besides…this is supposed to be punk. As I’d hoped for, Scott hopped up on to his double bass several times, thumping away swiftly at the under-utilized but oh-so-stylin’ instrument. Andy Strachan, formerly of Polyanna (another popular Aussie rock group), seems to have settled in admirably to what must be one of the more coveted positions in Aussie drummer circles.
It was during the extended introduction to crowd favorite and greatest Aussie anthem of the 90s, “Prisoner of Society,” that I could resist no longer, throwing myself into the mosh pit and reveling in the sweaty stench, the heaving pulse of the crowd, the spit of full-throttle singing.
“Cause I’m a brat! / And I know everything and I talk back!,” I yelled, staring into the similarly crazed eyes of some greasy-haired high-schooler, “Cause I’m not listening to aaa-nyyy-thing you SAY!” This, as temporal and small as it seemed, felt right. It was about as close to punk truth and self-righteousness and liberation as I’d gotten since leaving my teens. Borrowed time though it might have been, I couldn’t imagine a single place I’d rather have been during that song than flailing around to the Living End at the Cat.
Afterwards, I felt rejuvenated: it was two delicious, wholesome minutes of a recently android-aping life picked up and thrown into the furious fray.