Thursday, February 18, 2016

Dave Laing's "One Chord Wonders": Book Review

How punk was deployed as a reaction against what Dave Laing calls the "gigantism" of AOR, pop and progressive rock is familiar. Laing, an English researcher, chooses a more academic approach. He scrutinizes how late-1970s British punk applies to cultural critique. He incorporates insights from Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault and Julia Kristeva. This reprint of Laing's 1985 semiological analysis precedes Jon Savage's first-hand account, England's Dreaming (1991). Introduced briefly by The Adverts' guitarist-singer, T.V. Smith, One Chord Wonders: Power and Meaning in Punk Rock  takes its title from that band's song, a tribute to D.I.Y. spunk.

Unlike Savage or Smith, Laing distances himself as a scholar. He finds predecessors for punk's nexus within pop culture. In its collision of the authentic with the commercial, punk's predicament echoes that of British folksong proponents in 1899 and London pub-rockers in the earlier 1970s. Movements seeking a return or revival of "basic" music confront those who capitalize on its inherent potential for profit. Craving exposure, musicians often must capitulate to the system. Rejecting one tradition, innovators resurrect another, back-to-basics. Johnny Ramone, cited here, embodies this choice. "We're playing pure rock'n'roll with no blues or folk or any of that stuff in it." 

Instead, punk promoted "artiface, exaggeration, and outrage." One chord wonders turned an insult into a celebration. Distorted sounds and mangled meanings created a "frontal assault" on triple-disc or concept albums of the mid-1970s. However, Laing reports how this music reworked old lyrical themes. Us vs. The Man repeated. Narcissism remained along with protest. Lacking a danceable element, punk stressed exclusivity and negativity. Failing to break out in 1977-1978, punk, Laing asserts, faded rapidly. He notes how broadcasters resisted its disruption and preferred easier listening.

In chapters titled "Formation," "Naming," "Looking," "Listening" and "Framing," Laing dissects the  strategies claimed by punk. Drier at times, if supplemented by data, the middle section of his book muddles along. Ivory tower jargon slows its pace. It revives in its later stages, where a short "picture section" shows how punks adopted their public roles to what Laing defines as the movement's "provisional discursive formation." That is, punk offered positions to adopt, roles to play and rules to adhere to. Laing presents publicity shots, professional photographs taken in concert, and vamping  poses as proof. The last category portrayed one trap punk fell into. Originally seeking to provoke or to subvert, earnestly posing punks "allow themselves to be consumed as pin-ups of sex objects." 

The final chapter, "After," adds an intriguing analogy. Laing notes that prior to punk, new bands felt making an album was equivalent to making a full-length film. Such an artistic effort seemed to overwhelm. Therefore, professional producers and studios had to be recruited and funded. By contrast, Laing reasons, punk was akin to creating a magazine or a paperback. Cassettes around 1980 began to change the way music by amateurs was distributed. Laing contrasts the cost of a hardcover book to that of a photocopy, as fans began to join with musicians to reproduce their efforts cheaply. 

Enriching this study, Laing refutes the claim that most punks came from a working-class background. He compares their class and education to that of beat groups between 1963-1967. He finds little difference in these categories. Such statistics deepen the value of this compact book. It may serve well in seminars or by scholars accordingly, as a critical contribution to Popular Music Studies. 

Finally, Laing places punk within intellectual contexts. Benjamin and Adorno looked at Dada and at the "shock-effects" of radical art, as predecessors to punk, in Laing's estimation. Similarly, he ends with Barthes and Kristeva. They located within the avant-garde "the site of the return of the repressed." Some punks embraced mid-1970s semiotic possibilities of confusion. Fragmenting, discontents chose other fashions, sartorial and musical, to emulate by the decade's end. Diehards chose "anchored meanings" of mohawks, Oi and slogans embroidered across leather jackets. 

What united punk, for one or two years in the later 1970s, was the tension between realistic lyrics decrying conformity and repression and the sonic jolt that undermines musical predictability. Full of paradox, punk in Laing's judgment produced a problem. It set out as a rock alternative, but it had to stay recognizable as rock, to bring in an audience, to sustain a career and to meet industry demands. (Spectrum Culture + Amazon US 5/4/15)

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