Let’s just get this out of the way up front. Punk was originally an ethos, not a music genre. And when seen in that context, it explains how so many disparate acts got called punk and played the mother church known as CBGB, maybe the most renowned punk venue in the US. Patti Smith, The Police, Ramones, Elvis Costello, Talking Heads, and others played it’s stages while patrons drank or played pool more so than listened to the music.
In short punk was, “Do whatever the fuck you want”. It was only later as music fans found various styles within the scene they preferred that punk as a genre started to get defined and walls and gates were erected. I forget who said it but the quote goes, “Once punk got a uniform, it stopped being punk”.
In the first wave of punk in the 70s, some punks leaned more new wave like Devo & The B-52’s and others turned to political screaming and fast guitar like Bad Brains and Dead Kennedys, and then there was the more ska/reggae influences of The Clash and even the Slits. Even a band like Talking Heads did a variety of many things considered punk in ethos, including bringing the funk.
And if punk really was an ethos of do whatever the fuck you want then I think we could include people like Prince, Bowie, Queen, Tom Waits, Tom Petty, Bonnie Raitt, B.B. King, Marvin Gaye, Nirvana, NWA and countless others under that umbrella. But under the surface of the “do whatever the fuck you want” mentality was an unspoken rule of counter-culture, of not being mainstream, of not selling out (i.e. making money or having hits).
If Billboard paid you any mind, your punk membership was revoked. Once you became cool you were uncool in the punk world. It was assumed you sold out. And many of the original crew hailed as the first wave of punk bands definitely got successful or got famous. Even if some burned out quickly. And many of them to this day are still well respected in most circles, except it would seem punk circles where to steal a great internet comment, “Most people don’t LISTEN to music, they just wear it like clothes.”
Today if you get on the punk boards of Reddit or other punk threads, punk is no longer an ethos but a sound defined by whoever you ask next. But in general; if the songs are too catchy, the production too clean, the vocals too intelligible, and the playing too skilled- then many will say it is at best pop-punk if not straight up pop.
And heaven forbid it has a horn section or even a single saxophone. Ahem- All hail Lora Logic! And lord help you if you drop a few slow songs on your album. I find confining music to such narrow lanes to be foolish and to be folly and ironically very anti-punk. The only time genres ever seem useful is when saying if you like X you might like Y. But mostly what you get on-line is the elder punks and the younger punks bickering and moving the goalposts to include or exclude whatever band they like or hate. The two most common bands in these debates are Ramones and Green Day. How anyone with any sense of music history would argue Ramones are not punk is beyond me.
Anyway, one thing I know about punk for certain is gatekeeping is CERTAINLY not punk. And it is certainly not new. Not by a long shot, it reared its ugly head in 1978 when Blondie was playing CBGB’s and during the set launched into a new song titled, “Heart Of Glass” (originally titled, “The Disco Song”). This is the song that put them on the charts and front pages and made Debbie Harry a musical goddess for the ages.
“Heart of Glass” was featured on their 1978 album Parallel Lines, an album that makes many best albums of all time lists. The album cover also regularly makes lists with the black and white parallel lines and Harry dead center in white dress looking like disco Aphrodite standing in utter defiance with her bandmates flanking her dressed in matching black suits and skinny ties like some version of a punk secret service.
But the album practically NEVER makes the list of greatest punk albums of all time, which I find humorous (and also annoying and misguided about what punk is). I am almost certain it is because most people who make these lists have use that one disco song to discredit the entire album.
“That one disco song” is key here. Parallel Lines is a total punk record with great hooks and attitude starting with a cover on The Nerves, “Hanging On The Telephone” before launching into the crunchy guitars of one of music’s most iconic stalker anthems, “One Way Or Another”. It’s all pure punk from a-side to b-side! The lone disco song doesn’t even show up until the later half of the second side and it is flanked by two throwback sounds, Sunday Girl channeling the 60s beat girl generation of the likes of Petula Clark, Dusty Springfield, France Gall and on the back end a cover of Buddy Holly’s, “I’m Gonna Love You Too”. A cover version that turns the rock ‘n’ roll up to a pogo dance 11. If you remove “Heart Of Glass” from the record you have an awesome straight up punk album worthy of any best of list. But with that one addition of the funky bass, quirky production, and Harry’s ethereal vocals it becomes a GREAT punk record. If punk was about do whatever the fuck you want. Then “Heart of Glass” is the MOST punk thing on the record or ANY punk record of the period and the most punk move of their career.
“It wasn’t too cool in our social set to play disco. But we did it because we wanted to be uncool.” – Debbie Harry
They also did it because has Harry has stated in interviews, she and her band mates never hated disco and simply wanted to do a disco song. Much like they would tap into reggae with another mega hit, “The Tide Is High” and do some extended rapping on, “Rapture”.
There are pictures of her from the period at CBGB’s of course but there are also pictures of her at Studio 54 with the likes of Bette Midler. They refused to be closet disco fans for street cred in the punk crowd and that I argue makes them and the album Parallel Lines more punk than many of the fans who blasted them when they got tight and groovy at CBGB that one night in 1978.