Lyrical Elements of Punk

Warner Bros. publicity poster for the Sex Pist...

Warner Bros. publicity poster for the Sex Pistols’ album Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. The poster text is composed of selected lyrics from the band’s song “God Save the Queen”. On the left: Johnny Rotten. Inset, left to right: Paul Cook, Sid Vicious, Rotten, Steve Jones. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Punk rock bands often emulate the bare musical structures and arrangements of 1960s garage rock. Typical punk rock instrumentation includes one or two electric guitars, an electric bass, and a drum kit, along with vocals. Punk rock songs tend to be shorter than those of other popular genres—on the Ramones‘ debut album, for instance, half of the fourteen tracks are under two minutes long. Most early punk rock songs retained a traditional rock ‘n’ roll verse-chorus form and 4/4 time signature. However, punk rock bands in the movement’s second wave and afterward have often broken from this format. In critic Steven Blush‘s description, “The Sex Pistols were still rock’n’roll…like the craziest version of Chuck Berry. Hardcore was a radical departure from that. It wasn’t verse-chorus rock. It dispelled any notion of what songwriting is supposed to be. It’s its own form.”

Punk rock vocals sometimes sound nasal, and lyrics are often shouted instead of sung in a conventional sense, particularly in hardcore styles. The vocal approach is characterized by a lack of variety; shifts in pitch, volume, or intonational style are relatively infrequent. Complicated guitar solos are considered self-indulgent and unnecessary, although basic guitar breaks are common. Guitar parts tend to include highly distorted power chords or barre chords, creating a characteristic sound described by Christgau as a “buzzsaw drone”. Some punk rock bands take a surf rock approach with a lighter, twangier guitar tone. Others, such as Robert Quine, lead guitarist of The Voidoids, have employed a wild, “gonzo” attack, a style that stretches back through The Velvet Underground to the 1950s recordings of Ike Turner. Bass guitar lines are often uncomplicated; the quintessential approach is a relentless, repetitive “forced rhythm,” although some punk rock bass players—such as Mike Watt of The Minutemen and Firehose—emphasize more technical bass lines. Bassists often use a pick due to the rapid succession of notes, which makes fingerpicking impractical. Drums typically sound heavy and dry, and often have a minimal set-up. Compared to other forms of rock, syncopation is much less the rule. Hardcore drumming tends to be especially fast. Production tends to be minimalistic, with tracks sometimes laid down on home tape recorders or simple four-track portastudios. The typical objective is to have the recording sound unmanipulated and “real,” reflecting the commitment and “authenticity” of a live performance. Punk recordings thus often have a lo-fi quality, with the sound left relatively unpolished in the mastering process; recordings may contain dialogue between band members, false starts, and background noise.

Punk rock lyrics are typically frank and confrontational; compared to the lyrics of other popular music genres, they frequently comment on social and political issues. Trend-setting songs such as The Clash’s “Career Opportunities” and Chelsea’s “Right to Work” deal with unemployment and the grim realities of urban life. Especially in early British punk, a central goal was to outrage and shock the mainstream. The Sex Pistols classics “Anarchy in the U.K.” and “God Save the Queen” openly disparage the British political system and social mores. There is also a characteristic strain of anti-sentimental depictions of relationships and sex, exemplified by “Love Comes in Spurts,” written by Richard Hell and recorded by him with The Voidoids. Anomie, variously expressed in the poetic terms of Hell’s “Blank Generation” and the bluntness of the Ramones’ “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue,” is a common theme. Identifying punk with such topics aligns with the view expressed by V. Vale, founder of San Francisco fanzine Search and Destroy: “Punk was a total cultural revolt. It was a hardcore confrontation with the black side of history and culture, right-wing imagery, sexual taboos, a delving into it that had never been done before by any generation in such a thorough way.” However, many punk rock lyrics deal in more traditional rock ‘n’ roll themes of courtship, heartbreak, and hanging out; the approach ranges from the deadpan, aggressive simplicity of Ramones standards such as “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” to the more unambiguously sincere style of many later pop punk groups. Wilhelmina McFadden

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