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Punk Rock and Selling Out: Where is The Line Drawn?
Selling Out, Breaking up, and Reforming the Band, Through the History of Punk Music.
The debates of punk rock credibility are often rooted in the surmised amount of money that the musicians make or seek to make. The money argument is a purist’s cop out. Critical audiences are quick to point out compromises in ideals. People argue that punk rock is, by its very definition, antagonistic toward the system. The system means mainstream, and mainstream means money. Critical fans seem to accept the way bands write, market, and tour while the initial core of the group is intact as long as no serious changes in sound or representation by labels interfere with the group’s sound and fan base. Selling out is taboo. Don’t make enough money to pay the bills, no matter how counter- productive this demand is. Reunions and reformations have come under fire in the past twenty years. Why? I wonder. The arguments against reformations, reunions, or partial reunions draw skeptics not based on appeal, rather, they seem to irk fans on a more political level. Political forums are fine when they are about the content of the music, not the structure of the band. It’s as though the fans decide when the dream dies. That is the dream of making music for a living. If it ends like it did for Black Flag or The Clash, then it ends, we still have their music. Remember, had Operation Ivy never split up, we wouldn’t have Rancid.
But what if the dream is alive and well, and a group is forced to make a decision to carry on without an original member or disband? What if financial hardships and responsibilities that come with growing up put the brakes on youthful rebellion and angst driven ideology? Because of the relatively underground market of punk rock, the genre does not spawn as many high profile careers as say, hard rock, metal, hip hop, or country music. Young bands may remain virtually unknown for decades before achieving minor cult favorability, or marginal mainstream success. If they take their future into consideration and accept major label offers, they run the risk of being ostracized and alienated within their beloved communities of Mohawk and studded leather jackets.
Historically, unless you were in a band called “The Clash”, or “The Damned”, or “The Ramones”, punk rock would only earn you enough money to pay the electric bill. That is, if you were lucky. Many times, the do it yourself ethos cost more than it brought in. Record sleeves, t shirts, and vinyl records aren’t free, even when they are subsidized by a well-organized fan club. Until 1994 (I use the release of Green Day’s major label debut with Reprise Records as the launching point for mainstream punk rock and as a change in the psyche of punkers everywhere) punk rock and “money” or “career” were not synonymous with each other. The anti-establishment and anti-mainstream roots of the genre as an ideological stance against big budget tours and ten minute guitar solos directly conflicted with the socioeconomic need to pay one’s bills. People crave stability and assurance that they will be able to support themselves in the long term.
This brings me to the meat of the debate. Is it okay to judge anybody who aims to make a living doing what they love musically? Is it up to the fans to decide when a band should hang up their guitars and call it a day? Because of the fragile nature of band relationships, I think they handle that pretty much on their own. For the seasoned veterans, as long as kids keep coming to the shows to hear their favorite bands, and buy their merchandise, there is little anyone on the outside can say or do that will dissuade them. I need to present a good case study here. Who remembers a band called “The Misfits?” The Misfits are a band with a thirty five year history who by only mentioning the name “Misfits” spurn heated debates about which era of the band was the best, which was the worst, should any era after the original be considered the same band, and whether or not they only do it for the money these days. It’s strange that while most bands that go through line- up changes experience similar criticisms, none within the confines of punk rock resound so loudly that they threaten to block out the music. If you are unfamiliar with The Misfits, let me put it into a different context. If you loved The Beatles, how would you have felt if the reformed in 1985 without John Lennon? Or, what if they reformed in 1978 without George Harrison? Would you even take into consideration the talent and musicianship of their respective replacements? What if they were still playing today and Ringo was the only original member still in the band? What if Nirvana reformed without Kurt Cobain, or The Clash without Joe Strummer? What if The Misfits reformed without Glenn Danzig? Wait, The Misfits did just that after a twelve year hiatus and numerous court battles for rights to the name and merchandise. None of that would have mattered had Metallica members James Hetfield and Cliff Burton not worn Misfits shirts on stage throughout the 1980’s. Not to say that the original incarnation of the band didn’t have a respectable fan base on their own, only that a band like Metallica played to a much larger international audience. Here is where rejuvenated interest comes in. People who weren’t blessed to be around during the early days of punk rock were beginning to discover some of the gems from the era, and Glenn Danzig’s horror obsessed, catchy croons and yells definitely weren’t going to go unnoticed. Considering the fact that Danzig expanded his own fan base with Samhain, and cultivated a new one to add with his longest lasting, and current, band Danzig, The Misfits wouldn’t be left behind in the lore of Punk rock for very long. With rejuvenated interest comes the logical conclusion to reprint the numbered early records, and if you’re going to do that, why not make some new records? And if an original member doesn’t want to cut new records and tour with a band that he broke up years earlier, then find someone who will. By the time 1995 came, The Misfits original songwriter and front man was on his way to becoming a legend. How do you replace that? In my opinion, they couldn’t have done a better job resurrecting the old moniker. The band became different. The name and imagery didn’t change much, the last two members from the original era, guitarist Doyle and his brother, and bassist, Jerry Only definitely became more proficient on their instruments. It is, however, the addition of new vocalist Michale Graves that draws controversy. Personally, I believe that Graves is a brilliant songwriter, and his vocal capabilities are easily on par with Danzig’s. But people insist on drawing up sides. People like to be comforted by what they are familiar with. Changes and deviations from what certain people believe to be normal, or the rule, forget the exceptions and that frightens them. People aren’t sticking up for one musician by attacking the other (trust me; Glenn Danzig doesn’t need anyone’s vote. He is an Iconic songwriter and singer. He doesn’t have dog in this fight, even though ironically, he is a dog in this fight). Danzig, in his early years, epitomized punk rock and created the horror sub- genre that would eventually influence thousands of musicians and artists alike. But he, for lack of a better term, changed. It isn’t fair that he can’t give one interview without fielding questions about a band he was in thirty years ago. He performs some of the old songs from time to time. Talk of a reunion among fans discredits everything the band has done post Danzig. It discredits Jerry, Doyle, Dez Cadena (I had to throw Dez into the mix. Heck, the guy was in Black Flag) Dr. Chud, and Michale Graves. Michale Graves is an incredible vocalist who introduced matters of the heart in regard to life and death to the Misfits sound and image.
Why not give both singers a non- cognitively biased shot at your approval. It’s funny that forums still spur this debate even though neither of these guys are even with the Misfits anymore. I’ll save the third distinct era of the band for another time. Until then, forgo the politics. Then take that idea and run with it. Listen to what you like because you like it, I believe. I suppose I could have begun and ended with that simple statement. There shouldn’t be guilt associated with musical preference. Some things resonate in some people. If everybody liked the same thing, there wouldn’t be any variety. An artist who capitalizes on an opportunity doesn’t necessarily have to compromise their ethos to do so. The mortgage has to get paid somehow. Why not have a little fun? If The Germs want to reform without Darby Crash, or the Dead Kennedys without Jello Biafra, they should be allowed to do so. Their financial situations should only matter to you if you are their accountants. Buy the records or don’t. If they endorse shoes, and it offends you on the premise that musicians should only endorse musical equipment, what can I tell you? Don’t buy the shoes?
The internet bombards us with opinionated rants, and brings to light feuds that wouldn’t have surfaced otherwise. Have an opinion, by all means, please have your own opinion, but be open to the opinions of others as well. Check out the Misfits if you haven’t already. Check out the other works by Danzig and the solo work of Graves. Have fun with it. Keep an open mind. It isn’t fair to hold artists to a superhuman ethical standard, where if they fail they are labeled as sellouts. Money is more often a perk or obstacle than a driving force with artists and musicians. Things are destined to change. People evolve. Music evolves. Either way, it is supposed to be fun. Music is supposed to enlighten and inspire. We all tend to forget that from time to time.