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Marching army boots. A drum beat. A guitar chord. A steady bass. A sneering voice growling about a, ‘June holiday in other people’s misery’. I’m fourteen years old and have no idea what I’m about to listen to. I turn the plastic case in all its pink and yellow glory over and over in my hands. The title has a curse word on the front. Bollocks. A real life curse word. I don’t know who let them do it but I think it’s great. The band even has the word Sex in their name. I think that’s even better! On the back there are titles full of words which suggest subterfuge. Bodies. Liar. Problems. And most important; Anarchy. As a fourteen year old sitting in my bedroom in rural Limerick I have no idea what I’m supposed to do with this. It was the second great discovery of my life. The first being when I was around six, realising that the sky and the ground met at a point called the horizon, massively improving my finger painting for years to come. That night for the first time in my life I listen to an album from start to finish. And when it’s over I do it again. And every single day for weeks. This stuff sounded dangerous to me. And when I tell the few friends I have about it they haven’t a clue what I’m talking about. The bands not called Nirvana, or Pearl Jam or even Rage Against the Machine. The band is called the Sex Pistols and I don’t know it yet but they’re the gateway to my first great love. Punk.
That was the first character forming moment I can recall in my life. I made a decision. Whatever this stuff was I was going to find more of it. I wanted to know where it came from. Why it existed. Whose fault it was. And who these guys were so mad at all the time. For ten years Punk worked its way through my core. Starting off as an interest it became the dominant force in shaping outlook on music, society and politics. If the flash point for Punk was between 1974 and 1976 and I am sitting in my room in 2000 I am so far from the point how can I know hear the bang? The truth is that Punk had been speaking to me from a very interesting source for a year already. In video games.
The release of Guitar Hero in 2005 drew frustrated groans from purists. Whining that games like this would take time away from practicing real instruments. That never happened. What it did do was make certain genres and bands instantly recognisable to an entirely new generation. Along with allowing genre fogies to finally live out their rock star dreams. Music hadn’t been pushed to the front in 1999 when I was playing Crazy Taxi and Tony Hawks Pro Skater. But hidden in their soundtracks were The Offspring, Bad Religion, The Vandals, Swingin’ Utters, Lagwagon and most importantly The Dead Kennedys. There were also brilliant bands from every other genre on those soundtracks, and looking at them fourteen years later I can see how good they really were. But when I first heard them I didn’t care. They weren’t Punk. They weren’t for me. As I started to expand my musical library I came up against a new developmental wall. I knew I was Punk. But how would other people know? Luckily there were numerous style guides.
My first official Punk Purchase was an Offspring hoodie. Black (of course) and with the familiar burning skull of the California band. I walked in to the shop looking like one person and left looking like another. It was transformative. This is, of course, the kind of thing that the DIY culture of Punk hated. And rightly. But as a teenager it was a major change for me. The first time I made a decision, independent of the taste of my friends or family. This item set me apart in both my new and old circles. My old circles didn’t like the changes I was making because change is deserving of derision regardless of intention or extent. And in my new circles because the Offspring weren’t considered ‘Punk enough’ for some people. But I didn’t care.
I think, when stuck for something to say to a date or a potential friend, we rely on several conversation starters. One is, ‘So what do you do?’ Another is, ‘Did you see…?’ and to name whatever has been popular on telly that month. The last is, ‘So who’s your favourite band?’ For years I never had an answer. I would list a handful of Punk bands that would either fill the asker with delight or bore them to tears. One day I sat down to answer that question for myself. I listed all the bands I knew at the time. The process involved looking at home many times I listened to an album, how much I liked their politics (very important at the time) and if when asked about a badge on my flak jacket how long I could talk about them. The answer in the end? The Dead Kennedys. And when the follow-up question of which album was my favourite it is now, and always will be, Give Me Convenience Or Give Me Death.
If the Sex Pistols gave me a way in, it was bands like The Dead Kennedys that kept me there. In the same way that first generation Punk bands in the UK, with their Year Zero philosophy, allowed me to rip up my own identity and start again DK gave me direction. In the war for my consciousness the Pistols were on the front line and made big gains. DK came in later and built the infrastructure. I was getting permission to rethink the things around me. Punk gave me the ability to ask questions of the things I saw around me. I became suspicious of the Media, the State and all Religion. The last lead me to almost being suspended from school having turned up one day with a DIY back patch of Bad Religion’s notorious Christian cross with a no smoking sign. I was a teenager. And as teenagers each of us was susceptible to flights of fancy and maybe moments in which our judgement slipped. If I could stand in front of that kid today and give him some advice on the things he should change the decision to wear that would never be one of them.
Punk gave me that. It was what I used to shore up the sides of my burgeoning individuality. I really didn’t trust Religion. This was just the sharp end of the wedge. The perfect expression of that. The music of resistance was where I started to draw strength. But, with only one other friend that expressed any interest in Punk at the time, I felt cut off and frustrated. Until it happened. Rancid played in Dublin.
I am not Rancid’s biggest fan. My friend Brian was. And the notion of a pair of sixteen year olds get a train to Dublin by ourselves was the perfect expression of my new found identity. Other Punks! Stinking, sweating, Cider-swillers! The tickets we bought (with his mother’s credit card of course) were seated in the upper tier of the Olympia. We didn’t care. The first thing I remember about that day was being approached by a well-dressed man that informed me to be careful. There were guards around the corner. I asked him why I should be worried? There was an Anti-Globalization March that day and, according to him, I looked like I was part of it. To this day I’m conflicted about his strangely helpful profiling of me as a potential member of a riot.
Standing in line was an eye opener. The bar around the corner was refusing to serve anybody that ‘looks like us’. I was told this by a 6’3 leather jacket wearing mess that I thought looked nothing like me. But his Mohawk was legit looking. Then came the best possible thing at any gig. A scalper. We traded our seats for the standing tickets he was holding and a couple of extra quid. When Rancid hit the stage we were in the pit. The pit is the perfect expression of Fuck-it-all Nihilism for me to this day. The great equaliser. All that mattered was if you could hold your own. Also let no one get trampled. That was important too. Hold your own. Don’t let anyone die under Doc’s and Chucks. I was not yet the 6ft 200lbs frame I am today. I was tall but skinny with a mop of scraggly red hair that stunk on the best days. But when a much shorter mohawked bearer grabbed me said, ‘Go fuckin’ mental!’ and then forced me to pogo I felt a hell of a lot stronger. The next day I stunk. Brian. He stunk. We stunk. We must have smelled like a second train had been rammed into the carriage. I don’t remember the next day or how I felt. There was definitely a ringing in my ears. There always is. I wish I had kept a journal of those early days. But that wouldn’t have been very Punk.
From the moment I first heard the Sex Pistols until my early 20’s it was Punk that defined my identity. If you judge somebody’s connection to anything by their geographical location and age there’s no denying that I couldn’t be further from the point. Luckily that’s a poor judge of anything. The truth is that I took the raw material left over from the explosion and formed an identity from it. Something that is too easy to do. To just wear the clothes. Play dress up with a movements iconography. Something that is perfectly expressed to this day by the prevalence of Ramones t-shirts. The faded eagle a shortcut to experience. No need to live through anything. We can just award you everything you need for a price. A problem highlighted by DK in Anarchy For Sale.
I didn’t know when I first heard that song was they were essentially talking about me. I had, through patches, badges and a flannel shirt, bought the right to call myself Punk. So is there any difference between myself and those Paper-Punks? I stayed. I realised that there are people out there trying to deceive you. To buy into their view of the world. The most Punk thing I’ve heard in a long time comes in the shape of Tyler, The Creator. A Rapper whose songs (typified by Radicals) contain the essentials of a ‘rip it up and start again’ attitude. Aggressive. Unapologetic. Dangerous sounding. If I was fourteen again (please let that never happen) and sitting in my bedroom today it might be Tyler, The Creator’s album Goblin that starts the same process as the Sex Pistols Nevermind The Bollocks did fourteen years ago. An aggressive musical wrecking ball over the young psyche. Making way for dangerous questions.
I am making up for lost experiences now. Concentrating on Punk allowed me to assemble a fragile sense of Self. I could point to a crowd and say, ‘Over there! Those are my people!’ By pushing out what I listen to musically it’s allowed me to discover something amazing. Nothing thought of as essentially Punk is exclusive to the movement. And it never was. There will always be angry young men and women and, no matter how hard we strive, alienation is always a problem. Punk was a flash point in musical history. When everything clicked. The click of a gun just before the shot. That’s happened before Punk. Jazz, the Blues and Rap were just as much violently anti-establishment as Punk was. But Punk got to me first. And, as a first love goes, you could do worse than one that asks you to question everything, get bloody and never let the fuckers grind you down.