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The Punk Commandments

The Punk Commandments

By: Hamish MacBain

Punk in 2016 is something else. Green Day are a punk band but operate in the stadium-filling world that punk was supposedly sent to destroy. Punk is now a T-shirt available in H&M or Topshop, as modelled by Justin Bieber or the members of One Direction. Punk now soundtracks KFC adverts. Punk, in the sense of three buzzsaw chords soundtracking the rise of the counterculture, is dead. But the DIY spirit lives on.

In January of 1977, with the anything-is-suddenly-possible blast of punk at its height, a small, rough’n’ready fanzine entitled Sideburns printed a simple diagram of the chord shapes for the guitar chords A, E and G, with a commandment beneath that simply read Now Form A Band. This was a manifesto that spoke directly to the young, poor, frustrated teenagers who had become disenchanted by the overly-complex, detached, indulgent and ultimately untouchable music that rock’n’roll, a couple of decades on from the direct, raw blast of the blues, had become. It was saying that music needed to return to this mentality – to the idea of music from the street being made by people on the street. And importantly, that it was not actually that difficult to do. Because great music of any kind is not about virtuosity. It is about ideas. And anyone can have ideas.

The ethos behind that now-40-year-old diagram remains the route of all that is good and creative in the world. In fact, it’s easier than ever to self-educate way beyond those basic parameters and make something that connects with people. The original punks had to at least buy or steal their guitars. The outlaw music makers of today don’t even have to do that. All the tools that anyone from Stravinsky to Skepta could ever wish for are available gratis, any hour of the day. The route to becoming a music maker is now infinitely more simple than, “This is a chord, this is another, this is a third. Now form a band.” Now you just have to say, ‘I am a music maker’ and get on with it.

But if you do need help, here are ten commandments – commandments are always best in tens – to get you started.


Learn a fourth chord

Three chords can take you a long way in not very long: just YouTube the A-to-D-to-E majesty of ‘Louie, Louie’, one of the most covered songs of all time. It’s brilliant, but the truth is that the punk movement it helped birth quickly moved on. All of the songs on the Sex Pistols’ Nevermind The Bollocks contain more than three chords (‘Anarchy In The UK’ a whopping five), while the Beatles’ ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ – arguably the song that ushered in the over-indulgent prog rock bands the punks were trying to kick against – contains just one (a C, if you’re interested). The three-chord thing was really just shorthand for ‘Learn what you can learn without having to be taught’. But thanks to a gigantic number of websites and YouTube tutorials, it’s easy to copy and learn all kinds of complex chord structures without having to beg your parents for £20 lessons with that weird guy with long hair down the road. Not that you “should” use all of them of course…

Or forget a couple

Industrial pioneers Throbbing Gristle arrived in the wake of punk and responded to the ‘learn three chords’ manifesto by simply saying: ‘Why bother learning any?’. Instead they used all manner of objects (drills, colanders, whatever) to make all kinds of abrasive, strange, new and exciting noises. This approach is still being utilised by hundreds of bands to this day: Skrillex, for example, has incorporated plenty of ‘found sounds’ into his tracks. Anything that makes a sound is an instrument. In fact the tap-tap of keys being pressed as this sentence is being typed sounds suspiciously like the beginnings of a grime banger.

Get back in the garage

Mixcraft, Music Maker Jam, LMMS: there are now innumerable apps that can assist the musically illiterate but fiercely creative in the pursuit of making great songs. None, though, are as startlingly effective as Garageband. Available for less than the price of a Happy Meal, it puts virtuoso-level players of every instrument you can think of in the palm of your hand. One tap, and you have a shuffling jazz drummer who solos on command. A couple more taps, and you have a pulsating two-note disco bassline over the top. From there, you can have complex, plucked folk guitar (one tap per chord, no fingerpicking skills required) or a full orchestra that only orchestra nerds will be able to tell is not a real orchestra. Then, all you have to do is find a quiet spot to sing into your phone and you have a hit single. Damon Albarn made an entire Gorillaz album using only his iPad. If it’s good enough for him...

Read everything

The Smiths assembled their literature-rich worldview from books, and the excellent passionsjustlikemine.com will show you just how much. All of this had to be discovered by hand in the local library or second-hand bookshop. But now the collected works of Aristotle, Homer, Aldous Huxley and Morrissey’s beloved Oscar Wilde are available, for free, at the touch of a screen. If the maxim ‘talent borrows, genius steals’ remains true – it does, and always will do – then what the modern creative has at their disposal is the equivalent of a street full of banks who have all helpfully left their safes unlocked and unguarded for the foreseeable future. Great music is not just informed by other music: it is fed into by art, literature and life. And in 2016 you could pretty much read every text that fed into the young Morrissey’s early lyrics in the best part of a weekend (assuming there is a decent stash of coffee to hand).

Hear everything

Hip-hop pioneers like Dr. Dre would have to spend hours, days, weeks, spinning and respinning every album in their parents’ collection, searching for the perfect few instrumental seconds to loop into a backing track for something new and exciting (NWA’s seminal ‘Straight Outta Compton’ is built around a break from The Winstons’ 1969 song ‘Amen, Brother’). But now, if you have a Spotify account, you have the entire history of recorded music at your disposal (minus Def Leppard, but hey: who wants to be influenced by Def Leppard?). Head to the brilliant whosampled.com to discover the bits of songs that Kanye nicked to make ‘Famous’ famous (a 1969 Nina Simone cover of a Four Tops song), then start looking for your own. Sampling, once doable by only the supremely gifted and practised, has never been easier. There is, as the saying goes, an app for that. 

Skype yourself sane

Increasingly in the last decade or so, bands have not needed to hail from the same postcode. The likes of Animal Collective, for example, often don’t even share the same continent: preferring to put together new material through the modern miracles of email and – if you must still have eye contact – Skype. Closer to home and more recently, Two Door Cinema Club came back from the brink of an implosion caused by six years cooped up in a tour bus together, by going their separate ways (the singer to Donegal, the guitarist to London, the bass player to Los Angeles) and reconvening remotely to put together just-released album Gameshow. Aside from no longer having to squabble over the last hobnob, the benefits of this are obvious: each member gets to bring new cultural experiences and new listening habits garnered from new friends to the table, making for a richer and more diverse final product. 

Socialise

Through a network of fanzines like the brilliant Maximumrocknroll, the America hardcore punk bands of the ’80s built up a network of floors to sleep on and, more importantly, fans to play in front of in towns that they had only ever heard of because of their parents’ road atlas. There are dozens of modern bands who for some time now have been taking this a digital step further, offering in-kitchen gigs to admirers from afar who will in return save them the price of five rooms at the Ramada Inn. There is even a site, betterthanthevan.com, which aims to connect skint touring musicians with people who can offer them a half-decent night’s sleep. Even if you are not in a band and don't want to be in a band but love music, you can help. And if you can persuade them to play a couple of songs for you and your housemates, then congratulations: you have taken your first step as a music promoter.

Fund yourself famous, the first

There used to be a stigma attached to the idea of a crowdfunded album – the stigma being that it was the last resort of those not good enough to get someone else to pay for them to make an album. But Pledgemusic and other similar sites have changed that. There are plenty of huge bands who, tiring of record label interference, have decided to go digital cap in hand to their fans. In 2012, ex-Dresden Doll Amanda Palmer raised a staggering $1.2million for a solo album, with her initial target having been just $100,000: proof positive that there are people out there still interested in buying albums, if you know where to look, and what they want. Palmer had a small but obsessive fanbase who evidently were happy to cough up a bit more money for packages including a signed copy of the record and a chance to meet their hero. At the time, she was pictured on Kickstarter holding a sign that read ‘This is the future of music’. She might just be right.

Fund yourself famous, the second

The DIY ethos of the punk bands initially bore new, exciting fruit: the Buzzcocks, for example, put out the first ever truly independent release in the shape of Spiral Scratch in 1977, which would ultimately go on to sell 16,000 copies: all profit going to the people who played on it. But of course, once it gets bigger than that, and word spreads to people hundreds or even thousands of miles away, it becomes harder to trace just how much a band is making from their wares. Enter record companies, bearing a nice big serving of smoke and mirrors that ultimately works in their favour. This – what is essentially publishing – has long been largely incomprehensible to anyone apart from the big companies themselves. But now sites like Kobalt Music are simplifying the process for bands and artists, making it nice and easy to keep track of just how much they are supposed to be getting paid for every stream, every YouTube play, every anything around the globe. And, crucially, making sure they get paid swiftly. No-one starting out should underestimate the importance of this.

And don't forget to step outside

As much as most of the above can be achieved without leaving your bedroom, it’s important to remember that music only truly exists in the interaction between human beings. Make your music, but be sure to blast it into someone’s real-life face as soon as possible. Only then is it really music. The true spirit of punk will always be about being within spitting distance of your audience. And that will never change.

Photography taken from: Oh So Pretty: Punk in Print 1976–80, From The Mott Collection, with an essay by Rick Poynor. Published by Phaidon 10th October 2016 (£19.95).

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