Being at home for so long I have been looking for places where music can provide a respite. The beauty of having been an early iPod adopter is I have a massive music library with many custom playlists. There was a day a few months ago when I wanted to scream at the world. It felt like tiny things were piling up with little I could do about it. I decided I needed some music. When I saw my “punk” playlist I realized that was just what I was looking for. For the next three hours I vigorously bobbed my head, beat on my air drums, slashed my air guitar, and sneered the lyrics to the air. It was just what I needed. It also got me thinking about punk rock and how it has lasted for 40+ years.
One of the things about rock music in the 1970’s it was a DIY enterprise. There was an industry, but they were also still figuring things out. By the time we got into the middle of the decade it was bifurcating. One was the desire to co-opt more and more of other music. There were concerts which featured an orchestra on tour with the band. It was still rock and roll, but it felt like it was pandering to our parents. Look Mom there’s an orchestra behind the guitarist.
Sid Vicious (l.) and Johnny Rotten of The Sex Pistols
I would learn I wanted my version more stripped down. Which was what I encountered when I was given a copy of “Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols”. This was the music I wanted. It seethed with emotion. I couldn’t see Johnny Rotten, but I knew the lines were being sung with a sneer. I was hooked and began learning of the American versions in The Ramones and Patti Smith. England was the epicenter as many of the bands grew out of a disaffected youth who felt their future was stalled. The Clash, The Stranglers, Siouxsie and the Banshees sang of that world. I can’t say my middle-class American life gave me insight into the lyrics. What did get me was the energy of quick bursts of drums guitars and vocals with an edge. For about seven years, into the early 80’s, the punk rock scene found a niche. Then it faded away a bit.
It all seemed to revive for good in 1994. This time it came from Southern California and the skateboard scene. Literally playing in garages bands like Green Day and Rancid were signed to labels to make records. It would start the second age of punk featuring diverse versions like Rage Against the Machine, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Blink-182, and others. As it was with the first generation the middle-aged dude didn’t necessarily feel the lyrics personally. I did appreciate the energy behind the delivery and this time via videos I could see the sneer behind them.
There is a beauty to any artistic enterprise stripped down to its essentials. Punk Rock is that for Rock-and-Roll. It also makes a handy substitute for a primal scream during the low points of a pandemic.
Back in the late 1970’s I was into punk rock. I can confidently say that most of my contemporaries did not share my enthusiasm for the genre of music. Whenever it was in the cassette player it was greeted with cries of, “Turn that crap/noise/insanity off!” Let me say there was little affection for the likes of The Ramones, The Clash, Sex Pistols, Gen X, or Iggy Pop by many. So why oh why have advertisers turned to that music to promote products?
The first instance of this was the 2005 Diet Pepsi commercial where the cans in the refrigerator were dancing to The Ramones 1976 song Blitzkrieg Bop. Blitzkrieg Bop is one of the seminal punk rock songs by The Ramones and I can say for sure that it never got any significant airplay on any American radio station at the time. In hindsight it has been picked as one of the 100 greatest songs of all time by Rolling Stone. The fact that the commercial came out four years after Joey Ramone’s death just seemed worse to me.
The next instance was also in 2005 as Royal Caribbean Cruise Line began using Iggy Pop’s paean to heroin use, drinking, and overdosing addicts, “Lust for Life”. Again this was a song that never made any kind of impact when it was released and had little airplay. I wonder who the advertising agency is appealing to. Cleaned up addicts looking for vacation ideas? Or is it much, much, much, more cynical? Are they trying to appeal to middle aged people who wish they had the courage to push boundaries when they were younger and now look back in time and see what they were missing?
There have been more examples as when Wendy’s used Violent Femmes “Blister in the Sun”, a song about masturbation, to sell their new fish sandwich in 2007. AARP, yes AARP, used the chorus of The Buzzcocks “Everybody’s Happy Nowadays” to sell the idea that life begins at 50. Cadillac used The Pogues “Sunnyside of the Street” and counted on the fact that the title words were the only thing people would clearly hear from Shane McGowan’s slurred vocals and glide over the first line containing the lyrics about a “heart full of hate and a lust for vomit.”. All of these felt to me cynical as hell but there is a new recent example which just dives under my skin and rasps against my nerves.
In the new Acura commercial promoting their new 2015 TLX mid-size sedan they have chosen the Sid Vicious cover of the Frank Sinatra classic “My Way”. This song was recorded just as The Sex Pistols had imploded and was to be included on the soundtrack to the documentary film “The Great Rock n’ Roll Swindle”. If somebody asked me to pick one song to explain punk rock in the 1970’s this would be the one. It starts with Sid singing the first verse in a mocking parody of Ol’ Blue Eyes including limp wristed effete arm moves and raised eye brows. As the second verse begins snarling guitars take over from the piano and you can hear the snarl on Sid’s face in the lyrics as he completely takes this song apart. Sid’s anarchic version was a gigantic middle finger to everything about music at the time and that doing it My Way meant destroying everything else. This is what Acura is using to advertise their new family friendly sedan. The commercial is supposed to come off like the design team at Acura is doing things their way but really do they think this drab semi luxury sedan is something different than the million other sedans from every other car company? Nope I think they want to convince my generation that punk rock rebellion now includes a four door sedan.
For anyone under the impression that drinking a Diet Pepsi and a Wendy’s Frosty on a Royal Caribbean Cruise on an AARP discount where your Cadillac and Acura are parked back at the lot makes you a rebel or a punk; you’re not. You’re just the victim of a mid-life crisis in musical form.