Heavy Month

Spotlight: Punk Rock

Calling punk rock heavy in some circles might get you laughed at or perhaps even punched but the evidence doesn’t lie:

  • Loud guitars – check
  • Fast – check
  • Attitude – check
  • High gain amps – check
  • Aggressive by design – check

Fact is, punk is heavy and deserves a spot along side all of the other heavy genres we are featuring this month. So let’s get into this one, it’s going to be a long one.

My first experience with punk rock was at like 12 when a friend got a Sex Pistols album and brought it over to show me. It took me about 8 seconds to realize I fucking hated that band and it turned me off punk completely at the time. Whenever I heard the word punk I thought about Johnny Rotten’s voice and shuddered.

The first band to begin to reverse the musical trauma caused by Sid Vicious’ complete lack of talent was the Ramones. The first time I heard their live album “It’s Alive” and more specifically the songs “Havana Affair” and “I don’t care”, I couldn’t ignore the raw power. Some bands sound better live and The Ramones are one of those bands in my opinion. I was 13 when I heard it, I am 40 at the time of writing this and I don’t think a year has gone by that I haven’t listened to that album. It’s raw, filthy, sleazy and dripping with attitude being made by four guys that didn’t give a shit. Johnny Ramone’s wall of Marshalls was not to be messed with.

The moment that sent my love for punk into the stratosphere was a conversation with a guy named Harris in the summer of ’93 where he introduced me to the skate punk. This was another life changing moment for me because with my interest in punk came my introduction to the local music scene, playing shows and recording. Some genres come and go or make their mark on your style and fade a little but for me punk rock is something I have loved, lived and not only did it influence me as a musician but also as a human being as well. It’s just different when you have an emotional attachment for a genre.

The bands that brought me in all remain very important to me. Harris introduced me to Propagandhi, Lagwagon, Good Riddance, The Offspring, AFI, Rancid, Bad Religion, Strung Out, Pennywise, No Use For A Name, Face To Face, NOFX, Wizo and other bands of the early “Epi-FAT” era. It was thrash all over again, I knew this feeling and it was love to my ears.

It was like thrash but happier and more adolescent. It sounded like metal musicians playing music I could relate with just a bit more but it was still fast as hell, loud, obnoxious and truly aggressive. Best of all is that being a half decent metal guitarist for a young player, I could play ALL of the songs I was listening to and learn them by ear as well. Learning metal songs took weeks and months or even years for me and tab books were both essential and pricey. With punk rock, tab books for this stuff did not exist so I had to train my ear to learn that way. Songs took me hours and days to learn instead of the marathons of the past so it’s easy to see how young guitarists have always been attracted to the punk. These songs weren’t all by any means easy but they were more attainable as a young guitarist.

After the initial boom of bands from Epitaph records and FAT wreck fame came the Swedish Punk Rock Invasion. At the same time Scandinavia was becoming known for it’s heavy metal, it was also becoming known for it’s punk rock. Bands like Millencolin, No Fun At All, Satanic Surfers, Raised Fist, 59 Times The Pain, Refused, The Hives, Adhesive, Pridebowl and Randy brought another sound entirely to skate punk. It was hard to explain how but the Swedish bands just brought a different style of writing to the California and East Coast styles I had heard before.

Ska-punk was also a monstrous part of the 90s. I was never really a straight up traditional ska fan though I have seen many a fantastic ska band in a live setting. Ska-punk gave me enough of the things I liked about ska like the horns and upstroke clean tones but added the distortion and aggression from skate punk. Not a ton to go into on this one but for an example of how ska-punk can be heavy, have a listen to “battle hymns” by the Suicide Machines. It’s a great album with loads of power behind it.

My truest and most complete exposure to punk rock was living in Montreal for about a year and a half in the late 90s. I was 18 years old, living away from home for the first time and also going from a small town to a major North American city. One of the things happening in Montreal in that time frame was punk rock. Montreal was and still is an absolute hotbed for all types of punk, hardcore, ska, ska-punk, rockabilly and really just about any kind of music. In a year and a half I saw hundreds of bands, some I do not recall but I had the chance to see and meet a lot of truly great musicians in venues big and small.

I got to experience things that to this day make me smile. I was right in the middle of a musical movement. The SnoJam tours were a huge part of the skate punk explosion. A Canadian booking agency/label called Greenland/2112 Records would put together the who’s who of punk rock each year for a rip across Canada from coast to coast. The Montreal shows were always much bigger, multi-night events with a few heavier headliners flown in. I had the chance to see SnoJam shows in five different cities with lineups that read like reading the line-up for an all-star team.

Out of that scene came a band called Reset. These guys could PLAY. They were metallic punk gold to me. They had a total banger for a lead guitarist, a bass player that could play Dream Theater, a killer drummer and a good frontman. They always got put on big tours and ended up being a tough act for even the most seasoned of bands to follow. They went on to become Simple Plan and I think they took a lot of shit for that which I didn’t find overly fair given that these guys paid their dues. These dudes ate canned beans in van, slept on floors and worked their asses off so while I’m not Simple Plan fan, I give respect to those guys for working to get where they are. If you know SP but not Reset, give “United we stand tall” a rip.

Moving onto more genres Psychobilly is worth mentioning in here because it’s a hugely guitar dominant genre. I wouldn’t call myself an avid fan of psychobilly but there are bands I really enjoy. This genre is easy to describe by simply saying punk rock + rockabilly = psychobilly but if we have to go a bit deeper you could say it’s punk rock with elements of country and swing. No matter how you describe it, psychobilly is a bad ass genre with a very unique image that has a sort of vintage 50s horror movies meets swing vibe. Typically this genre includes a stand-up bass over a traditional electric bass and this really creates a huge part of the sound. Add in a hollowbody guitar with lots of reverb and you have a basic version of the psychobilly tone recipe.

Pop-punk was never something I really got into fully because I felt the aggression had been replaced by advertisements but there were some bands from that movement that I still enjoy. Where pop-punk lost me completely was when the speed completely disappeared. Even some of the skate punk legends were slowing down their material to fit in with what was happening and it all just kind of died off for a while. The guitar tones in a lot of it are still more than worth mentioning because a lot of these bands had amazing gear and even better sounding album production. Unfortunately, when many people hear the word punk they may think about the severely watered down punk rock scene in the late 90s and early 2K. Early Blink 182, New Found Glory, Alkaline Trio and a few others can provide some good listening but everything seemed to get soggy and cookie cutter in a hurry.

Back to the point, I started playing and attending shows in punk bands immediately, it was so easy to get shows at the time because there was an endless stream of punk, grunge and other bands that you could fit into shows with. Grunge was also still happening at the time so there was always a lot of grunge bands to play shows with where you knew the fans would all get along or at least there wouldn’t be fights. Playing a crap load of shows early on seasoned me as a musician fairly quickly. While there were many small shows with only local bands, even at a young age we were also getting to open for mid level known touring acts. Sharing the stage with experienced bands both from our town and elsewhere gave me the chance to see how it was really done so every show was a learning session.

When I started attending and playing shows, my lust and love for gear also took shape. Prior to that I’d really only seen nice gear in videos or in magazines but now I was getting to see it in person while being close enough to feel the air the cabs were pushing. I would analyze the gear being used by everyone that came through, I asked questions to an annoying extent when talking to the band was possible. Punk rock bands were usually pretty accessible and willing to talk with fans so I took every chance I could to have a guitarist walk me through his or her rig with as much detail as I could pull from it without irritating anyone too much.

The amps I saw in those days were mostly Marshall and Mesa Boogie. The dual rectifier was god like in those days to me. To this day, I don’t know if a better combo exists for punk rock than a Mesa Boogie Dual Rectifier and a Marshall JCM 800. Those two amps mixed together are unbeatable for a number of genres. Scoop some mids out of the Mesa, boost the mids and then tame the high end of the Marshall and you have a legendary tone. In those days it was also common to see either two rectifiers dialed in differently or a rectifier and a Mark IV or V as the combo. It was also common to see bands using nothing but the amp and a tuner because effects just aren’t too prevalent in punk. You might see a wah or a boost pedal but I haven’t seen many punk guitarists with huge pedal boards.

Nice gear in the 90s was far more difficult to afford so many punk rock bands operated with whatever amps they could get their hands on (or steal in some cases). It was really only touring bands that had stacks so it really made the gear look just that much more desirable to us as young musicians. It wasn’t until the pop punk era began in the late 90s that gear became a little more affordable. I think every guitarist remembers their first stack and I am glad mine was a Marshall JCM 800 paid for with my own blood sweat and tears rather than one of those Kustom with a K stacks you could buy for like $100. Louder isn’t always better for young musicians, just ask my parents.

Currently, almost all of my favorite punk rock bands from those eras are still making great music while Blink 182 are making music with Lil Wayne. In fact, many of bands I loved in the beginning have only gotten better with age. Strung Out, Propagandhi, Lagwagon and many other punk rock legends can still pack venues while looking like a bunch of teenagers on stage having the time of their lives. These guys have all grown as musicians so while the music is still very similar, it’s being played with more feel and more experience.

Today punk rock is kept alive not only by the legends that helped to create it but newer bands like Mute, Teenage Bottlerocket, Against Me!, Rise Against, A Wilhelm Scream, PEARS and scores more have kept things alive and well after the fallout from the pop-punk apocalypse cleared. Today’s punk rock has a sound of it’s own but even the huge bands like Rise Against are still playing at least some aggressive and fast paced songs.

I hope my insight can push even one person to seek out the bands in this novel of a spotlight. Here are some more to check out across the different types of punk rock. (Hardcore will have it’s own Spotlight)

Research Albums: (The genres are fairly flexible)

Old School Punk:

  • The Ramones – “It’s Alive”
  • Dead Boys – “Young, loud & snotty”
  • Black Flag – “Damaged”
  • Dead Kennedys – “Fresh fruit for rotting vegetables”
  • Misfits – “Earth AD/wolf’s blood”
  • The Clash – “London calling”
  • Bad Religion – “Suffer”
  • Screeching Weasel – “Boogadada…”
  • Descendents – “I don’t wanna grow up”
  • Operation Ivy – “self-titled”
  • Dayglo Abortions – “Feed us a fetus”

Skate Punk:

  • Lagwagon – “Trashed”
  • Strung Out – “Suburban teenage wasteland”
  • Good Riddance – “Ballads from the revolution”
  • Propagandhi – “How to clean everything”
  • NOFX – “Punk in drublic”
  • Reset – “No worries”
  • Pennywise – “Unknown road”
  • Millencolin – “Life on a plate”
  • Bodyjar – “Rimshot!”
  • No Fun At All – “The big knockover”
  • No Use For A Name – “Leche con carne”
  • BigWig – “Stay asleep”

Ska-Punk:

  • Suicide Machines – “Destruction by definition”
  • Big D & The Kids Table – “How it goes”
  • Voodoo Glow Skulls – “Firme”
  • Reel Big Fish – “Turn the radio off”
  • Rancid – “..and out come the wolves”
  • Goldfinger – “self-titled”
  • Mad Caddies – “Duck & Cover”
  • The Planet Smashers – “No self control”
  • Subb – “High step to hell”

Modern Punk: (post 2000 give or take)

  • Mute – “Remember death”
  • Rufio – “Perhaps, I suppose”
  • The Full Blast – “Short controlled bursts”
  • Rise Against – “Siren song of the counter culture”
  • Daggermouth – “Stallone”
  • Belvedere – “Twas hell said former child”
  • Teenage Bottleneck – “Total”
  • PEARS – “Green star”

Psychobilly:

  • The Living End – “Self-titled”
  • The Brains – “Undead nation”
  • Creepshow – “They all fall down”
  • Tiger Army – “Ghost tigers rise”
  • Reverend Horton Heat – “Space heater”