The main line on punk ends in its total, miserable failure. As it turns out, most people who make a fetish of amateurism are making excuses to stall for time while they learn what they’re doing. Steve Jones, the Pistols’ guitarist, went on to a career as a Los Angeles session man, a real pro who landed numbers on Miami Vice soundtracks and actually started up a band called The Professionals. This wasn’t selling out. This is who he was all along, and so too most of his peers and progeny, who mustered up the guts to say something only to find they had nothing at all to say.
Most of the writing on punk holds that it was, ultimately, a glimpse at an uncompromising future that never actually arrived. Unlike Bangs and Christgau, though, who loved punk for what it wasn’t—soft, slow, tentative—Marcus saw it for what it actually was. For him it was a sensibility, and not a theory, one that more than anything was about a vague sense that the world was not as it should be. And this is likely why he was one of the few to notice that the Winterland show was not the end of anything at all.
Punk—call it loud, fast rock and roll played in the mid- to late-1970s by the first generation to whom Bob Dylan and The Beatles were hoary old relics—was a lot of things. It was the inevitable result of some of the stranger musical experiments of the 1960s and the invention of cheap recording technology; it was an inchoate reaction to the same anxieties that would soon put Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in office; it was the perfect cultural expression of eternal adolescent alienation; it was a fad. For a few months in 1976 and 1977, the papers and the television carried ominous warnings about feral youths listening to incomprehensible ranters who dyed their hair green and wanted to overthrow the government and set everything on fire. The Sex Pistols, who denounced the Queen as not even being human, were banned from the British airwaves; rock critics briefly exulted and then forgot about the whole thing.
Marcus shows no real concern with those few brief months in 1977 when punk was capital-I Important and every broadcast in England led with a picture of some young unfortunate with a safety pin through his face. Nor does he have anything much to say about the parallel scene in downtown New York, where, he notes, “most punks seemed to be auditioning for careers as something else.” He has little interest, in fact, in most of the canonical punk rock with which I was obsessed at age fourteen, when I cajoled my mother into buying this book for me, and with which any number of fourteen-year-olds are probably just as obsessed right now: Television, Minor Threat, Hüsker Dü, and the Minutemen aren’t mentioned at all, and the Ramones once, in a passing reference to their tiresome shtick.
What does interest him is a lot of strange music of which I’d never heard. Much of it I wouldn’t discover for many years, partly because many of the records were, quaint as it seems today, physically unavailable in the United States at a price I could pay, and partly because the heterodoxy of what he was describing was just intimidating: it was music I’d never heard anyone else speak up for, which seemed to come from a world at a right angle to the one I knew. Most of what he recommended was quite brilliant. These were (mainly) English groups with such fantastical names as Essential Logic (“imagine Alice forced to get a band together and play for the Red Queen a modest, perfectly intentional demolition of the ability to take anything at face value”), Delta 5 (they “accept the inevitability of love but maintain their suspicions”), Gang of Four (“leisure as oppression, identity as product”), and The Mekons (“collective self-realization through playful art against a backdrop of social strife”).