:: Friday, April 02, 2004 ::

The Time Has Come Today
Warning: Lengthy post ahead.

Several weeks ago I posted a draft of the introduction to my book-in-progress about Jesus and punk rock. Since then I've been writing and revising chapters 1 and 2, and I figure it's time to unleash another chapter on the unsuspecting public. So here's Chapter 1, "The Time Has Come Today," for your consideration. All comments, good and bad, and criticism, constructive or not, are appreciated.

This should go without saying, but all of this is copyrighted by me. Feel free to link to it -- in fact, I encourage you to do so; I'd love to get more exposure and comments about it -- but don't steal it and pass it off as your own work.


"Time's up! God?s kingdom is here." - Jesus (Mark 1:14, Message)
"It's not ... yesterday ... anymore." - Talking Heads

When I was six years old, my elder and more musically gifted brother, Chris, already a decent rock and roll guitarist at age 14, finally caved to my unwavering pleas for him to "teach me to play something." He showed me how to finger the low E string in such a way as to mimic the opening riff of the Rolling Stones classic, "(I Can?t Get No) Satisfaction." At that moment, I became a true believer. I decided then and there that when I grew up I would be a rock and roll star.

It didn't happen, of course. But throughout my youth, I was enchanted by the dream of playing guitar for some great rock band like the Stones. By the time I was fourteen myself, the fantasy had blossomed into adolescent urgency; I had to get my own guitar. I discovered a scuffed and beaten acoustic with a slightly warped neck at a garage sale. I plucked down ten dollars for the purchase.

My goal was to learn to play the Led Zeppelin classic, "Stairway to Heaven," and see where that might take me. I purchased a book of illustrated guitar chords, and listened to my record albums -- a couple by the Beatles, the Who's "Quadrophenia," Led Zeppelin's "Houses of the Holy" (my favorite at the time) and assorted other rock bands of that time, like Boston, Kansas, the Steve Miller Band, Reo Speedwagon, Thin Lizzie and KISS. The year was 1975, and nothing truly exciting was happening in the pop/rock music world. I spent my time studying my rock history and learning to mimic the rhythm chords of George Harrison.

By 1978, I had graduated to a Yamaha classical. I had the rudiments of rhythm guitar down pat, and was starting to learn the acoustic stylings of some of the popular progressive rock groups of that time -- groups like Yes, Kansas, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer. It was complex, complicated work for an amateur who did not read music, who had learned mainly by ear and a book of chord illustrations. And still I had not achieved my dream of imitating Jimmy Page. But for such a mediocre rhythm guitarist, this kind of guitar rock -- the intricate, soaring solos, tricky chord changes, the art of midrange -- as simply light years beyond my abilities, despite my full devotion over three years of diligent, self-taught effort. But if I were on my way to becoming a rock star, that meant I had to learn to play like Page -- or at least like Ted Nugent, Boston?s Tom Scholz or Gary Richrath of REO Speedwagon. That is what I expected guitars to sound like. That was the conditioning I received at the altar of so-called "progressive" rock.

I was deaf to any alternative voices. I was a prisoner of seventies-era guitar rock, which had progressed from the simpler stylings of the sixties. (Hence the name progressive rock.) Even so, I sensed in my gut something that I could not yet articulate: that the guitar gods were merely dumb idols -- talented, to be sure, but also propped up by expensive equipment and multimillion-dollar stage shows. Despite my visceral distaste for the music, I remained faithful to the Way of rock and roll. I grew up with rock and roll. It was my voice, my soul, my therapy. Rock and roll was my religion.

I wanted desperately to believe.


By the time I'd purchased my first guitar, a musical revolution was under way that would soon explode on the scene and forever alter the future of rock and roll. Within a couple of years, I would hear rumors of such a revolution -- rumors, carried on the evening newscasts, of a new wave of raucous British music, called "punk," crashing upon our shores -- but it would still take some time, in the pre-Internet age, before the revolution actually trickled into the heart of America.

My formal introduction to punk rock occurred one evening in 1978, in the living room of a young married couple, latter-day hippies who hosted nightly drop-in parties a few blocks from my grandmother?s house in Moberly, Missouri. Steve and Sharon were in their early twenties. I was a senior in high school who lived with my grandmother because of a series of family problems: the disintegration of my parents' marriage, my mother's death, my father's struggles to raise my sister and me in a decent, Ozzie and Harriet family way. Steve and Sharon's doors were always open to any bored, alienated kid who wanted to drop in, smoke a joint and let the music work its magic. Most nights I would drop in on them during my walk home from my fast-food job. A few tokes and some tunes took the edge off of the stresses of my angst and eased the boredom of teen life in the Midwest.

There was always a crowd at Steve and Sharon's -- people passing joints around and listening to Fleetwood Mac, Bob Seger or the Eagles. I was seventeen and bored, with no car and little interest in anything other than music and marijuana. Steve and Sharon's house was a refuge from the boredom of school, work, home and life.

The night I discovered punk, seven or eight of us were sitting in a circle on the living room floor and listening to the usual tunes -- probably Rumours, the new Fleetwood Mac album, which Sharon loved. Steve, kicking back in his hand-me-down easy chair, asked us if we wanted to hear "something different" and produced from his peach crate of LPs an ugly, Pepto-Bismol pink album adorned with amateurish block lettering. "NEVER MIND THE BOLLOCKS" proclaimed the block letters at the top. Just below, in smaller and different type, was presumably the subtitle, "HERE'S THE SEX PISTOLS," with the band?s name, "Sex Pistols," printed in ransom-note lettering, cut from newspaper headlines.

Steve slid the disk onto the turntable and cranked the volume. What I heard blasting from his Pioneer speakers was amazing, unthinkable, and disturbing.

No satisfaction

You see, I thought I knew something about rock and roll. The youngest of five children, I grew up listening to my elders' music -- British Invasion groups like the Beatles, Rolling Stones and the Dave Clark Five and, later, guitar virtuosos like Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton. My older brother, Chris, imparted to me a lust for the six-string.

If the devil had all the good music, as Larry Norman once proclaimed, then even Lucifer's well of inspiration seemed to have run dry by 1976. The rebellious, rockabilly edge of fifties rock, the Mississippi blues-inspired British invasion, Phil Spector?s "wall of sound" girl groups, the radical hippie idealism of the sixties, all of which fueled much of rock's protesting -- all had been washed away after Watergate. Everything sounded tired: Journey, REO, Nugent, the works.

The world of music, politics and pop culture had gotten weird. The United States elected a peanut farmer/Sunday school teacher for president, soul and funk had morphed into disco, and the biggest rock band of the era, the Eagles, released a record called Hotel California that, if many of the rock critics were to be believed, would be the salvation of progressive rock. Reviewers labeled it an instant classic, and a lot of my friends believed and bought the record. But when I first heard it, all I felt was disappointment. Even with the addition of Joe Walsh, the former James Gang singer-guitarist who later had his own AM hit (the wahwah peddle-laden "Rocky Mountain Way"), couldn't free the record from the bonds of its own pretense. Hotel California did nothing for me, other than reinforce that sense of imprisonment I felt in my gut. Even the lyrics of the title song ? "You can check out any time you want/but you can never leave" ? left me with a sense of hopelessness.

My faith was weakening.

Show me the way

My friends and I weren't the only ones desperate for someone or something to lead us out of this pop music wilderness. As British writer Jon Savage explains in his thorough examination of punk rock's roots, England's Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock, and Beyond, musical attitudes in England were "repressed and horrible." Radio rock had become "a pompous, middle-class facsimile of the anarchy" that existed in the fifties. With the music industry firmly in control and "conning everyone," Savage writes, "how could that industry's 'Rock' retain any trace of Rock'n'Roll's original teenage revolt?"

By the following year, pop music descended deep into the abyss the following year. Dreadful disco -- led by KC and the Sunshine Band, the Bee Gees and Donna Summer ? commandeered the charts, while Peter Frampton -- whose "Frampton Comes Alive" double album came to define the excesses of '70s-era stadium rock -- spearheaded prog rock?s meager attempts to reclaim the radio with a few singles, "Show Me the Way," the ballady "Baby I Love Your Way" and the abbreviated-for-radio version of the concert jam "Do You Feel Like We Do." But neither disco nor prog rock could claim the year?s top radio hit. That spot belonged to "You Light Up My Life," a sappy (but no doubt sincere) love song to Jesus by Debby Boone, daughter of fifties crooner Pat Boone.

So, two years after Hotel California, this was the musical environment I found myself in. But I was about to be jarred out of my slumber.

The cacophony I heard at Steve and Sharon's house that night -- led by Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones' trebly, high-feedback assault on my senses and sensibilities, the perfect intro to Johnny Rotten's demented shrieks -- was unlike anything I'd heard before. Jones stripped rock guitar of all artifice, paring it down to pure, loud noise. (Writing about The Sex Pistols' final concert, which actually occurred before my on-vinyl encounter with the group, rock critic Greil Marcus called Jones' sound more like "a guitar factory instead of a guitar.") It was rock and roll -- no doubt about that -- and perhaps the purest rock and roll to be heard since the days of Eddie Cochran and Buddy Holly. But it was also disturbing, unsettling, and exciting. Jones' raucous rhythm guitar, combined with drummer Paul Cook's strong, rhythmic pounding and Glen Matlock's thunderous bass, and topped off by Johnny Rotten?s volatile, squalling vocals, created sounds that were nothing short of an attack. More than a defiant shout into my world of anomie and complacency, the Sex Pistols sound was a siege upon the walled cities of rock and roll.

The Sex Pistols shook me to the core, as they did almost anyone who heard them for the first time. I felt a wave of nausea mixed with excitement wash over me -- an experience similar to the sickening butterflies I felt whenever my first girlfriend dumped me a few years earlier, or when I discovered at age seven that Santa Claus did not exist. A year or two down the road, the Rolling Stones would capture the feeling with a simple one-word song title: "Shattered."

All I knew at that moment, as Rotten's high-decibel wailing pierced through the smoke-filled air, was that if this noise was the new sound of rock and roll, then everything was about to change.

Most of us did not like it at first. The Pistols were as alien, in their way, as the love songs of killer whales. Sharon begged Steve to return to the comfort zone of Fleetwood Mac, but Steve, to his credit, pressed on; he thought the Pistols deserved a fair hearing. By the end of Side 1, I was growing accustomed to the noise. But even as I left Steve and Sharon's that evening, my ears still ringing with the sounds of anarchy, my gut in knots as though I'd just stepped off a roller-coaster, I held fast to my dream of learning how to play "Stairway to Heaven." I was having trouble departing from the way of my rock-and-roll youth.

Hey ho, let's go

Even we isolated teens in Moberly, Missouri, were not immune from the revolution. In the coming months, Never Mind the Bollocks was on the turntable at almost every party. By the time I graduated high school in May of that year, "Anarchy in the UK" was as familiar to me as the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack.

A few weeks after my initial exposure to the Sex Pistols sound, a high school friend introduced me to another seminal punk recording, the work of a band of leather-jacketed hooligans from New York City who called themselves the Ramones. Their sound was a weird mix of old-time rock and roll ? part Chuck Berry, part surf music, part Phil Spector-inspired girl groups ? all cranked up to eleven and moving at supersonic speed. The Ramones cranked out relentless power chords, hammering drumbeat and a thumping, hyped-up bass line in a hurry. None of their song lasted more than three minutes. This was the antidote to Frampton, the opposite of stadium rock and long, wailing guitar solos. The Ramones' tunes sounded almost like pop, but with a kinky twist filtered through dark, humorous lyrics satirizing drug use, prostitution, world politics and child abuse, and laced throughout with Nazi symbolism. The sound hearkened back to the days of early rock but touched on a range of taboo and bizarre subjects no pop singer in his right mind would sing about -- at least, not in the 1960s.

The Ramones' debut album, recorded in the spring of 1976, "now sounds laughably simple," writes Savage in England's Dreaming. But "at the time it was brutal and divisive. After hearing it, everything else sounded impossibly slow."

It wasn't just the lightning speed and minimalist textures of their music that drew me in. The voice, and the words, were equally as powerful. The songs that make no grand social statements, no prophetic utterances. The Ramones are not the Clash or Sex Pistols. They weren't railing about anarchy, no future, or riots in the streets, as were those two popular British punk bands. They were either singing about weird, stupid stuff -- about sniffing glue, a loudmouth, a girlfriend, or beating on a brat -- or were churning out feel-good, poplike tunes that echoed fifties-era sock-hops, like "Let's Dance" or "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend."

There's also something about the voice of lead singer Joey Ramone. It is haunting ? at once affected yet detached, both human and robotic, resonant of the struggle of the individual in a mechanistic, dehumanizing world.

As a wannabe guitarist, what I loved best about this group was -- of course -- the guitar. The songs rode on lightning-fast but simple, even pedestrian, rhythm guitar chords. Any fool who knew two or three power chords could play a Ramones song. There was hope for me after all.

The song that kicks off this album, the high-energy "Blitzkrieg Bop," has risen to the status of unofficial punk anthem (and more recently, a sales pitch for automaker Nissan). The song -- with its throbbing bass line, manic power chords and "the biggest crash symbol sound this side of '76 Trombones'" -- today "stands out as a declaration of independence, the Commie Manifesto of punk," writes sociologist Donna Gaines, a lifelong Ramones fan. The song's legendary status made it the choice to kick off a recent four-CD collection of punk's greatest hits. But the band didn't set out to write the theme song for a punk revolution. The Ramones wrote "Blitzkrieg Bop" as a pop song, a response to the Bay City Rollers' 1976 hit, "Saturday Night." The Rollers' opening chant of S-A-T-U-R-D-A-Y night! became, in the Ramones' hands, Hey ho, let's go! "We thought we were a bubblegum band," said Joey Ramone, adding, "there was no punk movement."

So the Ramones thought of themselves as a bubblegum band. And the earliest Christians thought they were Jews. From such mistaken identities sprout revolutions ? new genres and new religions.

That first Ramones album was also my first punk purchase. Although, like the Ramones themselves, I didn't think of them as a punk band. For one thing, the Ramones were an American band, and punk, to my way of thinking, was a British phenomenon. The Ramones were true to their American rock and roll roots. They weren't rebelling against anything, as far as I could tell, other than the long, numbing prog rock of the era. What I didn't know at the time was that The Ramones actually inspired the British punk movement. The Sex Pistols, Clash and Buzzcocks were just finding their voice when the Ramones toured England in 1976.

Never mind the Sex Pistols

Social movements don't begin and end neatly, on time or in any kind of orderly fashion. They sprout from seeds borne on winds of the past and dropped on disparate soils. They take root beneath the surface in the compost heap of culture, then appear as a slender, tender shoot before they are recognized fully for what they are. This is especially true for the messy cultural movement known as punk. Most observers date-stamp the emergence of punk as being sometime in the 1970s, in either London or New York. The founding fathers of punk: either the Sex Pistols or the Ramones; take your pick. But the truth of the matter is that punk grew from disparate earlier influences. The "original" punk of American rock goes back to the sixties, to groups like Detroit?s MC5 and Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground in New York. Punk's influences include the Beat poets of the fifties, and even perhaps the Dada art movement of the early twentieth century.

I really didn't understand punk's social significance until around 1980. By that time, punk was supposedly dead, according to critics in the know. But in Columbia, Missouri, where I was studying journalism in 1980 and getting a late start in my punk rock education, the punk and "new wave" scene, a broader offshoot of punk, was small but strong. Energetic, no-name bands would perform at a club called The Blue Note, which was located in a converted warehouse. The bands ranged from local blues groups to reggae, ska, punk and new wave, and included a few bands with cult followings and record contracts, like the Modern Lovers (a legendary band that inspired the New York punk sound), the Waitresses (a short-lived band most famous for its song "I Know What Boys Like" and the theme to the short-lived TV show "Square Pegs") and the Violent Femmes.

After two years of community college in my hometown of Moberly, Missouri, I went on to the state university in Columbia, hauling with me boxes of rock albums, only two of which -- Ramones and Blondie's Parallel Lines -- could be considered truly punk. I also owned a couple of borderline-new wave records -- the Cars? debut album and the Knack?s one and only Get the Knack -- which I would try, without success, to pass off as punk-worthy to my more musically savvy college pals. Most of my records weren't even worth packing for the trip.

A friend from Moberly and I shared an apartment with two guys from the big city -- St. Louis -- who would broaden our musical vistas. Tom was a true Ramones freak; he played their second album incessantly. Dean turned me on to The Clash's new double album, London Calling, which has since become my favorite record of any genre. Other friends in the apartment complex introduced me to new wave influences like Talking Heads, Devo and the B-52s. None of us were punks in the fashion or lifestyle sense; none of us sported mohawks, pierced ears or ripped T-shirts. We were clean-cut, fresh-faced college kids, maybe a bit nerdy. But we loved the music, and the way it spoke to our souls.

To me, punk music was more than rebellion against the rock-and-roll powers that were. Punk said it was okay to be different, that it was okay to not fit in. The creators of this movement didn't fit the rock star mold, and they were okay with it. The Ramones were a bunch of misfits, the Talking Heads a group of geeky art students, and the Sex Pistols a gang of reprobates. Their songs spoke to the unpopular, the uncool, the geeks. Songs like Devo's "Mongoloid" and the Talking Heads' "Psycho Killer" glorified miscreants and weirdos. "Blank Generation," by Richard Hell and the Voidoids, one of the seminal bands from the New York movement that also produced the Ramones, Blondie and Talking Heads, came to define punk for more spectacular acts like the Sex Pistols. Malcolm McLaren, the London fashion guru-turned-svengali who managed the Sex Pistols, calls Richard Hell "a definite, 100 percent inspiration, and, in fact, I remember telling the Sex Pistols, 'Write a song like "Blank Generation," but write your own bloody version,' and their own version was 'Pretty Vacant'."

On another level, punk told us we didn?t have to be popular to be accepted. Punk says, Shave your head or grow your hair long -- it doesn't matter to us. Rip your shirt like Johnny Rotten or wear leather like the Ramones or skinny ties like Joe Jackson. It doesn't matter; you'll fit in. You're accepted, just as you are.

This, to me, is the foundation of punk's theological offerings -- subject matter that parallels Jesus' theology quite nicely.

All the young punks

As a musical movement, punk actually began more than a decade before I first heard Never Mind the Bollocks. Like many other American adolescents in 1978, I thought punk was a British import. I was wrong. The roots of punk run at least as deep as the underground sounds of New York and Detroit in the mid-1960s.

By 1965, a group called the Velvet Underground was performing in New York's avant-garde art clubs. The group "addressed such taboo subjects as sexual deviancy ('Venus in Furs'), drug addiction ('Heroin,' 'White Light/White Heat'), paranoia ('Sunday Morning') and the urban demimonde ('All Tomorrow?s Parties'). In so doing, they brought rock and roll into theretofore unexplored experiential realms with a literary and unabashedly adult voice." The Velvets' approach fit neither the popular rock and roll of that time nor the folk music scene of Bob Dylan and company.

At the same time, a raucous sound began to be heard in Detroit, where James Osterberg, taking the name Iggy Pop, formed "a band that would be completely unlike anything anyone had ever heard," called the Stooges. Around the same time another Detroit garage band, the MC5, started kicking out the jams. Combined, the Velvets, Stooges and MC5 are often considered the founding fathers of the punk sound that came of age in the seventies.

From art clubs and garages, the movement took root in New York's Bowery. By the mid-1970s, a dingy, run-down club called CBGB-OMFUG (short for "country, bluegrass, blues, and other music for uplifting gourmandizers") had become ground zero for the nascent punk movement. A group called the New York Dolls (a "freakish, mutated glam band" and the first group to be managed by McLaren) built upon the Velvet Underground sound, performing at a club called Max's Kansas City, but with the Dolls' decline by 1974 and the ascendance of the Ramones and groups like Talking Heads and Blondie, CBGB?s became the focal point of the "scene." The Ramones cut their first album in 1976 for a few thousands dollars, then went on tour -- first to New England, and then England, where they influenced British bands like the Clash and Sex Pistols. The New York rockers' performed on British soil on July 4, 1976, the date of America's bicentennial. It was a "metaphorically appropriate" occasion, according to Danny Fields, the Ramones' manager at the time, "because here it was the two hundredth anniversary of our freedom from Great Britain, and we were bringing Great Britain this gift that was going to forever disrupt their sensibilities."

The British weren't exactly waiting for the arrival of punk from American shores, however. McLaren had fashioned a new group -- the Sex Pistols -- from some teens who hung out at his fashion boutique. McLaren actually invented the band as a gimmick to promote his store, called Sex, and the underground fashions he sold there. By 1976, the Pistols had made a name and were influencing a number of other groups -- the Clash, the Damned and the Buzzcocks among the most famous. At the same time, as these bands gained a following, a British alternative press of "fanzines" cropped up in London, Manchester, Glasgow and elsewhere. These cheap, photocopied communiques helped spread the word of the scene more immediately than the establishment music press of that time.

From these disparate events, the punk movement emerged. But what, exactly, did it all mean?

Why don't we call it punk?

The term "punk rock" was coined way back in 1970 by rock critic Nick Tosches. While it took another half-decade before the phrase would take root in the fertile soil of pop culture, its meaning changed little during that time. According to another music writer, Greg Shaw, Tosches? use of the term to describe the approach of garage bands like the Stooges meant that "'anybody' ? that is, any old punk ? 'can do it.'"

By 1975-76, the rock world was ripe for a revolution. As Billboard senior writer Chris Morris explains, "The can-you-top-this? daring of '60s rock had given way, after a round of woeful late-decade fatalities, to music that had become mired in its own softness, smugness, fatuousness, and bloated emptiness." Wrote another critic: "Rock had become dead boring by the mid-1970s. At the top you had arty posers like Pink Floyd with songs that went on longer than minor heart surgery." England's rock scene had stagnated to the point that it was looking to the past for inspiration. On the week the Sex Pistols first performed in 1975, David Bowie's "Space Oddity," released six years earlier, was the number one single, while the top album was "the TV-advertised 40 Golden Greats by Jim Reeves, who had died in 1964."

Entering this void were bands that brought new energy, and a new, refreshing attitude of rebellion, to a stagnant world of rock and pop.

Unconnected to Tosches' writing and inspired by an unknown proto-punk band called the Dictators, three friends from Connecticut -- cartoonist John Holmstrom, entrepreneur Greg Dunn and Eddie "Legs" McNeil, all living in New York City -- decided to create a magazine devoted to their passions, which, according to McNeil, consisted of "McDonald's, beer, and TV reruns," as well as new, obscure musical sounds by groups like the Dictators, which had just released an album called Go Girl Crazy. The three self-described outcasts sought a creative outlet that the traditional musical media was not providing. McNeil despised '70s rock, "because it was about lame hippie stuff, and there really wasn't anyone describing our lives." He wanted no part of yet another rag to promote the current dismal state of affairs. "Then John [Holmstrom] found the Dictators, and we all got excited that something was happening." McNeil suggested a name for the magazine ? Punk ? and it stuck. "The word 'punk' seemed to sum up the thread that connected everything we liked," says McNeil. It was "obnoxious, smart but not pretentious, absurd, ironic, and [conveyed] things that appealed to the darker side."

In England's Dreaming, McNeil further explains the term's appropriateness: "On TV, if you watched cop shows, Kojak, Beretta, when the cops finally catch the mass murderer, they'd say, 'you dirty Punk.' It was what your teachers would call you. It meant that you were the lowest. ... We'd been told all our lives that we'd never amount to anything. We?re the people who fell through the cracks of the educational system." McNeil's ideas of punk coincided with the sentiments of music writers like Lester Bangs and Dave Marsh, who were attempting to "celebrate the unconscious, noisy pop of the mid-1960s" in their writing. Punk, from Bangs' and Marsh's perspective, "was an underclass menace" and "a new pop aesthetic that delighted in Rock's essential barbarism" that was so prevalent in the fifties but which had been lost by the time Bangs and Marsh were writing in the early seventies.

Founded in 1975, Punk, with its amateurish illustrations of the scene's rising stars on its covers and throughout its pages, would become an important literary accompaniment to the musical and cultural scene emerging in New York -- even though McNeil and company had no clue at the time. "It's funny, but we had no idea if anybody besides the Dictators were out there," McNeil says. "We had no idea about CBGB's and what was going on, but I don't think we cared. We just liked the idea of Punk magazine. And that was all that really mattered."

Anarchy in the UK

By the end of 1976, punk was insinuating itself into the global rock-and-roll consciousness. The Ramones' July 4 tour had taken the UK by storm. But now it was the Sex Pistols' turn in the spotlight.

The Sex Pistols had been performing in small clubs throughout England and attracting a small but loyal following among Britain's idle teens. Their concerts often marked by violence, much of it instigated by their opportunistic manager, Malcolm McLaren, the band soon had difficulty finding locales to play. But word of this new band and its unruly music of rant and rage spread quickly. Performing in Manchester in 1976, the Pistols inspired another, lesser-known band, the Buzzcocks. Joe Strummer of the London "pub rock" band the 101'ers, along with future bandmates Mick Jones and Paul Simonon, who would form the Clash in 1976, also drew inspiration from the Sex Pistols, as well as from reggae and ska styles. But Johnny Rotten and company would forever put their mark on punk rock and the world -- and forever define punk as a defiant, chaotic and offensive genre -- on December 1, 1976, when the band appeared live on a London TV program.

The Pistols were creating quite a buzz in England at the time. The band's explosive first single, "Anarchy in the UK," in which lead singer Johnny Rotten proclaimed himself "an antichrist," was climbing the British charts. The group had just signed a big contract with EMI. So after Freddie Mercury of the pop-rock group Queen canceled an appearance on Thames TV's Today show, the Pistols jumped at the chance to fill in. It was a prime opportunity for these rising stars to capitalize on their notoriety and expand their fan base.

The four lads "were like no band ever seen before on teatime TV," recounts Philip Norman of London's Daily Mail newspaper. "Pale and emaciated, with unkempt, spiky hair, they spurned the usual glam rock finery in favour of torn T-shirts and shabby jeans." While accounts vary, several reports indicate that they were all drunk, "having downed a bottle of wine each beforehand in the studio?s hospitality suite." (Some reports indicate that only one or two of the Pistols had imbibed prior to the appearance.) Interviewer Bill Grundy, disgusted by their appearance but apparently just as soused as his guests, tried to goad the Pistols into saying something outrageous. Guitarist Steve Jones obliged, and uttered profanities on live television.

The effect was like pouring gasoline on a fire. "The establishment reacted as if the boys were a four-man plague," Ward explains. Twenty seconds of TV programming "had turned into a national scandal, with all the attendant farce: manic reporters, outraged posturing, and cries for action." The British press covered the event as though a true antichrist had been unleashed upon the world, with headlines blaring from the morning?s papers: "Rock Group Start a 4-Letter TV Storms," "The Foul Mouthed Yobs," "The Filth and the Fury!" are a few of the headlines to appear in the British press on December 2, 1976, and in subsequent issues.

"Overnight," writes Norman, "the Sex Pistols won more notoriety than any pop musicians either before, or since. ... Its effect on Britain's social fabric was cataclysmic. It changed for all the time the way people ? not just young people -- looked and thought and dreamed and, above all, the way they behaved."

Ready steady go

By 1977, punk broke loose of its underground scenes and struck the global pop culture consciousness like a hammer on an anvil. Fueled by the Pistols' antics in England -- where they released the scandalous "God Save the Queen" to coincide with the Silver Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II -- this rock and roll rebellion spread throughout the United States and elsewhere. In England, the Pistols, the Clash, and Elvis Costello all released their full-length debut records, while Blondie, Talking Heads, and Richard Hell and the Voidoids did the same in the United States. Punk's ascendancy did not happen without a fight, however, as the music industry, and later the press, the politicians and "the public at large," actively discouraged the movement. In New York, the scene at CBGB?s turned into a circus, with poseurs infiltrating the turf of the true believers. The Sex Pistols, meanwhile, their scandalous reputation frightening promoters in the UK, where their performances were cancelled left and right, set their sights on the United States. Their U.S. tour lasted only a few weeks, and was marked by turmoil and opposition at every stop. A Tulsa pastor picketed the group's arrival, saying, "There is a Johnny Rotten inside each of us and he doesn't need to be liberated, he needs to be crucified."

The tour ended badly at the band's final concert on January 14, 1978, at San Francisco's Winterland Ballroom. The Pistols played for an hour, then ended the concert with Johnny Rotten posing his question for the ages -- "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?" -- as he dropped his microphone on the stage. Four days later, the band was history.

With the collapse of the Sex Pistols, punk as we knew it -- punk as a volatile, high-energy force, propelled by the media into our collective consciousness -- seemed to disintegrate before our eyes. By 1979, punk?s success ? and its excesses ? began to take a toll. The punk movement hit a crossroads -- one leading to commercial success and the inevitable ?selling out? of consumerism many punk acts railed against, the other leading to annihilation. The Sex Pistols seemed destined for annihilation. But the seeds sown by them and other early groups were beginning to bear fruit.

The same year that Blondie became the first CBGB's act to reach the top of Billboard?s singles chart (with the disco-ish "Heart of Glass"), the Clash released their masterpiece, London Calling. But also that same year, the Pistols' Sid Vicious, Johnny Rotten's buddy, who had replaced Glen Matlock as bass player, died of a heroin overdose. Meanwhile, out west, punk took root in Los Angeles, morphing into a "hardcore" version that embraced surf and skater culture along with all the artifice of Hollywood. Groups like Black Flag, the Dead Kennedys, the Weirdos and the Germs burst out of the gates in full fury, unleashing sounds with even more speed than their New York progenitors while embracing the fashion sense of the London punks.

It was the best of times and worst of times. Punk had succeeded, because its message had spread beyond the garages of Detroit and clubs of New York and London to reach kids on the West Coast and even alienated youth in the Midwest, like me. Punk also succeeded in breeding a new generation of "do-it-yourself" entrepreneurs who created their own recording labels and clothing lines. But punk also failed, for in its success it was swallowed up by the corporate rock it railed against, toned down into a "new wave" sound -- or again pushed to the margins by the recording industry, which, finally clued into the movement, found groups that were just similar enough to punk to appeal to a broader audience without being as audacious as the original. The "true" punks, "and even most of the new wavers," writes Chris Morris, "would remain prophets without honor; while their look and some vestiges of their aggression would be briefly appropriated ('My Sharona,' anyone?), their revolutionary essence would be by and large ignored by the mainstream."

By the end of the seventies, in the view of many, like Punk co-founder Legs McNeil, the movement has sold its soul. "After four years of doing Punk magazine, and basically getting laughed at, suddenly everything was 'PUNK!' ... It was very bizarre, because as the Pistols made their way across America, and the hysteria was broadcast on the news every night, kids in Los Angeles, and I imagine the rest of the country, were suddenly transforming themselves with safety pins, spiked haircuts, and ugliness.

"I was like, 'Hey, wait a minute! This isn?t punk -- a spiked haircut and a safety pin?? What is this s---?"

In McNeil's vision, punk "was about trying to get people to use their imaginations again, it was about not being perfect, it was about saying it was okay to be amateurish and funny, that real creativity came out of making a mess, it was about working with what you got in front of you and turning everything embarrassing, awful, and stupid in your life to your advantage.? In short, punk was about redemption. But by the end of the seventies, it had become a fashion statement, and "punk had become as stupid as everything else."

God save the punks

"It's better to burn out than fade away." So sang folk-rocker Neil Young in "My My Hey Hey," his 1979 tribute to -- or requiem for -- the Sex Pistols. But punk rock has done neither. In a brief period in the late 1970s, punk changed the rules of pop forever. In the 1980s, punk mutated unpredictably. Who would have expected a CBGB's graduate to introduce rap to the mainstream? Blondie did so in 1981 with the hit single "Rapture," which made it to number one. Other punk artists -- most notably the Clash, in songs like "Radio Clash" and "Magnificent Seven" ? also influenced rap and hip hop. The punk-rap connections are tight enough to lead observers like black filmmaker and former DJ Don Letts to claim: "Hip-hop is black punk rock."

Today, punk lives on -- not only in the roots of rap and the watered-down "candy punk" of MTV groups like Good Charlotte, but also in more legitimate heirs to the punk throne of the Ramones, Pistols, Clash, et. al. -- groups like NOFX, Bad Religion, 1208 and Rancid.

But for early punks like McNeil, whose serendipitous vision helped lay the foundation for this important musical and cultural movement, watching the heroic music he helped to give voice to devolve so quickly -- whether into nihilism, as with the Sex Pistols, or into commercial success, as with Blondie -- must have been like watching an only child die. Often we, as believers, may experience similar feelings of grief or helplessness as we see movements birthed and movements pass. The spiritual causes we help start or join -- whether they?re connected to the "megachurch" culture of the recent past or the "emerging church" buzz gripping much of western Christianity -- have a habit of becoming precious to us.

Sometimes we mistake the form of a thing for the spirit of it. The form of the movement -- the way we remember it, the static image of it in our minds -- becomes more important to us than the spirit. But as Jesus tells us, the wind of God's Spirit "blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes" (John 3:8, NKJV). We cannot trap the wind of the Spirit as it blows upon the church today; to do so would be to kill it.

As believers, we hold at least one thing in common with the punks who got in on the movement's ground floor: we both tend to be elitist in our approach toward what is "truth." "All pop movements have started with elites -- and none, to that date, more self-consciously than punk -- but there is always a point where the elite loses control," writes Savage. For the punks of the seventies, it comes "when the mass market and mass media take over, a necessary process if that movement is to become pop."

But when that transition occurs -- when a movement outgrows its roots and its message spreads beyond the point of easy control -- the originators must yield some control and allow the movement to burgeon. New York and London, the epicenters of the movement, could not contain the movement, any more than Jerusalem could contain Christianity in its earliest form. As punk spread throughout the world and morphed into new wave, hardcore and other flavors, the genre's elders -- McNeil and others -- no doubt longed for the old wine. But any spiritual movement, if it is to flourish, must continue to change and progress through ages and cultures. The trick is holding true to the spirit of a movement as it grows.

For punk culture -- and, I believe, for Christianity -- the spirit can live on through the words and music. In other words, through the message. Sometimes it takes a while for the spirit, the message, to blow fully into our lives and in our churches. We are like the dry bones of Ezekiel's vision; it takes a strong wind to breathe life into us. And sometimes it is up to us to keep the spirit of a movement alive -- not only in our memories, and certainly not only in our traditions, but also in our active, everyday, lived-out lives. To keep the spirit of punk culture alive -- indeed, to allow it to thrive in our spiritual lives -- means more than putting on a T-shirt from Hot Topic or shaving our head or sporting a tattoo. For the message of punk culture, and its spirit, is found beneath the surface of what we think we know to be true about the lifestyle.

Just as Christ calls us, as believers, to shoulder our own crosses and follow after Him (see Luke 14:27) -- to live a life of sacrifice and service every day -- so the message of punk, or portions of that message, calls us to strive for a higher purpose. Scratch beneath punk's callous surface, and we'll find a message that often reflects the Christian ideals, as in this simple line from the band 1208's song "Outside Looking In": "turn your back to the world."

In 2002, twenty-six years after the Ramones released their debut album, they joined Talking Heads to become the first CBGB's alumni to enter the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. A year later, British punk veterans The Clash, Elvis Costello and the Attractions, and the Police joined them. It's taken a quarter century for punk to earn the recognition of the rock and roll elite, but the time did come. As we venture further into the world of punk culture -- its music, its words, its literary and oral traditions, and even its movies -- we shall discover that the time has come to hear what the spirit of punk, a movement decades in the making, has to say to the church of today.

* * *

A brief history of punk
Uncovering the origins of punk may be as fruitless a quest as the search for the Holy Grail. But to lend some perspective to the discussion, here's a brief timeline of key dates in the history of punk.

1965-1968 -- The Velvet Underground record a demo tape at member John Cale's Manhattan apartment. In Detroit, the MC5 and Iggy Pop and the Stooges form.

1970 -- Nick Tosches coins the term "punk rock" to describe the sounds of groups like the Stooges. The Stooges release Funhouse.

1973 -- The New York Dolls release The New York Dolls, perform in New York clubs like Max's Kansas City.

1975 -- The Ramones perform at CBGB's in New York City; the Sex Pistols form in London; John Holmstrom, Greg Dunn and Eddie "Legs" McNeil form Punk magazine.

1976 -- The Ramones release their debut album, Ramones, and perform in England on July 4, 1976; the Sex Pistols release the single "Anarchy in the UK"; British punk bands the Buzzcocks, the Clash and the Damned form; Blondie, Talking Heads and others perform regularly at CBGB's; the Sex Pistols' controversial first appearance on live television ignites a firestorm.

1977 -- The Sex Pistols release the single "God Save the Queen" -- rhyming "queen" with "fascist regime" -- on the Silver Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II; Blondie, the Clash, Elvis Costello, Talking Heads and Richard Hell and the Voidoids all release debut albums; the Sex Pistols release Never Mind the Bollocks; the Sex Pistols begin a tour of the United States.

1978 -- The Sex Pistols break up after their final concert of the U.S. tour, January 14; disco commandeers the airwaves with top singles "Staying Alive" and "Night Fever" by the Bee Gees, "Boogie Oogie Oogie" by Taste of Honey, and a remake of "MacArthur Park" by Donna Summer; led by Sting, reggae-inspired British pop band the Police release their debut album, Outlandos d?Amour; Ex-Sex Pistol bass player Sid Vicious is arrested and charged with murdering his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, in New York City.

1979 -- Blondie becomes the first group from the CBGB's scene to score a number one hit with "Heart of Glass"; Sid Vicious dies of a heroin overdose in February; the Clash release London Calling in December.

1980 -- "Hardcore" punk takes root on the West Coast with bands like Black Flag in Los Angeles and the Dead Kennedys in San Francisco.

1990 -- Rolling Stone magazine names London Calling the best album of the 1980s.

1991 -- Seattle grunge-rock band Nirvana releases Nevermind.

1996 -- The Velvet Underground is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

2002 -- The Ramones and Talking Heads are inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

2003 -- The Clash, Elvis Costello and the Attractions, and the Police are inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The reconstituted Sex Pistols, with original bass player Glen Matlock, go on tour. John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, joins the cast of reality-TV show "I'm A Celebrity...". Rolling Stone magazine's end-of-year compilation of rock's 500 greatest albums includes six punk discs in the top 100: The Clash's London Calling (No. 8) and The Clash (77); Ramones by the Ramones (33); the Sex Pistols' Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols (No. 41); Horses, by Patti Smith (44), and This Year's Model by Elvis Costello (98).

2004 -- John Lydon quits the "I'm a Celebrity..." cast.

:: Andrew 15:49 + ::

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