I went to Camden’s Barfly in November 2014 to see FrnkIero And The Cellabration. This was the beginning of my friendship with Milk Teeth. The band acted as support and this was the first time I’d seen them play. Our meeting led to conversation upon conversation about the power of music to motivate individuals to create something of their own, bring people together and inspire a sense of belonging. The band have since stayed at my house three times during their UK tours.
I attended the Barfly myself. I went alone. I left as a fan of a band I’d never heard of. I left with friends. Like performance, punk has offered me a way into a community of artists that are interested in the same things I am.
I’ve always wanted to research the links between punk rock and contemporary performance. It feels like the moment to do this is now. I need to begin turning my speculations into formalised thoughts before I graduate.
As my introduction to this blog mentions, my practice has been heavily influenced through being a part of the music scene present in Glasgow. Attending shows has shaped my understanding of community. But it doesn’t and shouldn’t stop there. In conversation with Milk Teeth I’ve regularly spoken about other ways I think music has influenced my understanding of performance.
From a young age, the music I listened to told stories of being an underdog, rebelling against systems and the intricacies of relationships with family and friends. This meant that I’ve always viewed the creation of work and the subsequent live performance of it to be a form of catharsis. I think this is what fuelled my search during my time in youth theatre for theatre practices centred around the self. When I was younger, working with scripts or using existing work as a stimulus felt very alien to me. While I found it interesting, it didn’t feel like it spoke to me as much as the music I listened to at the time. The bands I listened to at the time (My Chemical Romance, The Used, Taking Back Sunday, The Smiths, Bright Eyes and The Misfits to name a few) taught me that performance could be used to tell stories that resonated with the lived experiences of the artist and audience. These artists taught me that performance could have an emphasis on what it feels like to be alive right now.
The bands I listened to also highlighted the importance of the aesthetic of performance. How these bands visually represented themselves – their marketing, their merchandise, their clothing – made it clear where they were coming from. Later I’ll touch on the ‘classic’ aesthetic of punk but for now I’ll speak about how my favourite band – My Chemical Romance – used their look to emphasis the theatricality of their music and live performances. They wore costumes.
I read their clothing as armor. They wore clothing that would visually echo the themes present in their songs. Their aesthetic, married with the material they performed, made them who they were. Musicians thought me about the role aesthetic could have in performance.
Following on from my lessons in aesthetic, it was the work of musicians that taught me that the form work takes must be appropriate for the content being explored. It isn’t just about how something looks but how it is devised, structured and performed that allows it to appropriately and effectively reflect its aims. If you are making work, it isn’t enough to say what you are doing. You have to show your audience, through your working methods, that your work has integrity. If you are making work that is about confronting social norms then why would you work within the expectations or confines that society sets?
Now while punk musicians did not prompt these thoughts, I am trying to paint the picture of where I am coming from. My music taste has developed; my knowledge of performance has grown. Now, I’d like to think about how my current interests speak to one another.
My current understanding of contemporary performance can be illustrated using the writings of Ric Knowles and Josephine Machon. In Theatre & Interculturalism, Knowles states that the term ‘ theatre’ can be used to refer to “all cultural forms in which performers and active or passive participants-audiences coexist in the same space for a set time” (Knowles, 2010). He then goes on to state that he uses the word performance to refer to:
practices that are explicitly concerned with the performative (that is, formative) constitution of identities or subjectivities through ritual, habitual, or self-concious behaviours that occur outside the formal framing of theatre.
These descriptions present the notion that performance is a genre of work that directly concerns itself with the bodies present in the space where work is shared. Performance is theatre but not all theatre is performance. Performance is a genre of work that explores identity and context through a live happening. It is directly concerned with the live moment, the context it situates itself in and the wider world.
Machon, in Immersive Theatres, Intimacy and Immediacy in Contemporary Performance describes traditional theatre practices as being concerned with the following rules and conventions.
The audience/actor (us/them) relationship is defined by the delineation of space (auditorium/stage) and role (static-passive observer/active-moving performer) where the audience is viewing the action ahead of them. This is a theatre experience which, on analysis, suggests it does not matter if you are there or not; the audience could get up and walk out and it would carry on. (Machon, 2013)
By default, I would take this to mean that contemporary theatre practices concern themselves with being of and for the audience. Contemporary theatre must challenge the status quo of the tradition of theatre going. Contemporary practices must consider the role the audience plays within the performance first and foremost. The work must rely on their being an audience.
Contemporary performance is therefore work that is created with an audience, concerns itself with the live moment, acknowledges it is a part of a world-wide context and explores identity and behavior.
What do I mean by ‘punk’?
A book that I’ve found very helpful in my conversations is Punk Rock: So What? This collection of essays, edited by Roger Sabin, discusses the looseness of the term and what it can be seen as referring to depending on conversation or intention.
‘Punk’ is a notoriously amorphous concept. Yet, baring in mind that words tend to mean ‘what they’ve come to mean’, we can work backwards – in a sense – to try to fix certain essentials. Thus, at a very basic level, we can say that punk was/is a subculture best characterised as being part youth rebellion, part artistic statement. It had its high point from 1976 to 1979, and was most visible in Britain and America. It had its primary manifestation in music – and specifically disaffected rock and roll of bands like the Sex Pistols and the Clash. Philosophically, it had no ‘set agenda’ like the hippy movement that preceded it, but nevertheless stood for identifiable attitudes, among them: an emphasis on negationism (rather than nihilism); a consciousness of class-based politics (with a stress on ‘working class credibility’); and a belief in spontaneity and ‘doing it yourself’. (Sabin, 1999)
This description of ‘fix certain essentials’ leads me to the question of what punk means today. If we are to think of punk as a movement then we need to acknowledge it has passed. Why do bands writing music today describe themselves as punk? Why is ‘punk’ a word we use to describe work being created and performed right now?
The foreword of Hardcore, punk, and other junk: Aggressive sounds in contemporary music turns the sentiment behind the previous description into action. Jeremy Wallach says:
Aggressive music was not supposed to change the world. At the outset it was imagined more as a rearguard action, a cathartic outlet. It was what frustrated young men and women turned to when the world didn’t go their way, when it instead attacked them from all sides. Loud guitars and forceful drums drove back the all-out assult on one’s humanity, on dignity, on the right to have a good time. Aggressive music in all its stripes, from the most hedonistic heavy metal to the most politically strident grindcore to the most orthodox punk, is what Lester Bangs called “unarguable affirmation”. It exhorts its listeners to claim the essential humanity in the face of the dehumanizing forces – deindustrialisation, dictatorship, dindividualisation, whatever – that threatened to overwhelm them on a daily basis. (Abbey and Helb, 2014)
While he describes a range of rock music practices, I feel like it is easy to distil what punk might be from his words. Punk is a music practice, heavily based on a loud, angry guitar band sound that is politically motivated and energetic. It responds to the here and now struggles of an individual and the society they are a part of – not unlike contemporary performance practices.
I want to see what other links emerge between punk and contemporary performance practices.
I want to see what these findings offer to my arts practice.
I want to see what my research in this area can offer others.
I want to see if my findings can highlight issues that I as a producer can support artists to work through.
Abbey, E.J. and Helb, C. (eds.) (2014) Hardcore, punk, and other junk: Aggressive sounds in contemporary music. United States: Lexington Books.
Knowles, R. (2010) Theatre and Interculturalism. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire, UK: Palgrave MacMillan, United Kingdom.
Machon, J. (2013) Immersive theatres: Intimacy and immediacy in contemporary performance. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Sabin, R. (ed.) (1999) Punk rock, so what? The cultural legacy of punk. New York: Routledge