Punk rock: Expanding the musical palate
I was not a fan of early punk rock. The first album I ever bought was The Beatles’ “White Album,” so multilayered harmonies and substantial melodies were my guideposts.
When the Sex Pistols’ “Never Mind the Bollocks” came out in 1977, I couldn’t understand the attention. They said the F-word on TV in England — so what? They dissed the Queen. Big deal in the UK. Who cares over here? I was always one who thought you needed to be able to play your instrument at least a little to actually be a musician. I still feel that way and think “Bollocks” is one of the great scams of modern music.
I will admit it gave thousands, perhaps millions, the realization that even if they weren’t maestros at their instruments — or maybe even barely adequate — they could express themselves musically and emotionally. A huge positive.
“Punk” is far too broad a term to lump under one banner that covers the Pistols, although they’re a touchstone for many. The essence of “punk” is simple. Change the equation. Break the rules. Forget niceties. Say what you feel in whatever way you want to say it. Sure, play fast if you want — or don’t — but say something.
But there have been many bands that took the punk aesthetic and expanded upon it. Green Day, Rancid, Offspring and others all include melody and harmony without sacrificing emotion or speed, if speed is needed. Green Day has written rock operas, for the love of all that’s holy.
To get to the backbone of the melodic-punk movement, Shawn Ryan however, you must go back to Bad Religion, whose major-league debut came out in 1982, well before any of the others. Bad Religion melds the ferocity of punk with three-part harmonies and melodic choruses. Lead singer/ songwriter Greg Graffin has a Ph.D in the history of science from Cornell. He grew up listening to folk, bluegrass and hymns. So harmony and melody are part of his DNA, but the intelligence of a doctoral program is, too. He has written about the Big Bang, the Middle East, technology, religion, modern society and government, and that barely scratches the surface of his songs.
Bad Religion — along with progeny like Green Day — prove that harmonies and melodies don’t dampen the force of punk. They make it more powerful, give it the ability to reach a wider audience who feel the same way emotionally, but who don’t want to hear someone who picks up an instrument and simply thumps it with a fist to express anger and disdain.
If you can get people to actually listen to what you’re saying, as well as reacting to the sheer ferocity of the music, you’ve won.