Loud Fast Rules
A new study storms the barriers between punk and metal
Steve Waksman has written one of the more potent and persuasive pieces of recent cultural critiques with this expansive volume that explores the relationship between punk and heavy metal. This Ain't the Summer of Love takes as a given that punk and heavy metal were defining 1980s subcultures--"the two dominant examples of youth attempting to create and hold onto their own distinctive and unassimilable culture," he notes, quoting sociologist Deena Weinstein's essential Heavy Metal: The Music and Its Culture. How he explores them, though, is what gives his book its power.
First, Waksman is obviously a music fan. Ain't begins in a recollection of a punk vs. metal battle played out in reader's letters to Creem magazine in the late 1970s, and liberally quotes these missives' blatantly homophobic and virulent tirades back and forth. Second, Waksman is a skilled observer and informed cultural critic, parsing through the surface of these letter writers' rants to get at their core concerns: the aesthetics of the music, the cultural production and authenticity of the music, and the relationship between genre and group/individual identity of the people who listen to them.
Waksman, often quite brilliantly, fuses the fan and the critic into a rich voice for music criticism. In Ain't, the late 1970s emergence and regional 1980s spread of both punk and metal was a response to rock 'n' roll becoming extravagant arena-sized big business in the 1970s, a familiar idea that receives a fairly unusual exploration: Waksman uses Grand Funk Railroad as his example of the mass spectacle. His first chapter's look at that widely adored, critically ignored "American band" is the first of many curveballs Waksman throws. Ensuing chapters deal with equally familiar names--Alice Cooper, Iggy Pop, the Dictators, the Runaways, Motörhead--in refreshingly creative ways. It helps that Waksman freely alludes to intellectuals such as Simon Frith and the aforementioned Weinstein alongside zine pioneers such as Maximum Rock 'n' Roll's Tim Yohannon and Flipside's Al Flipside, and gives them equal cultural weight in his prose.
By the time Waksman is mining the late 1970s New Wave of British Heavy Metal--Diamond Head, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Raven, Saxon, Venom--he's entering new territory, connecting the independent production and distribution of this era of British music to the explosion of DIY ethos that would prime both punk and metal for the next decade. That value system empowered the conflicting aesthetics witnessed in the stories of two Southern California independent labels that Waksman spotlights. Greg Ginn's SST and Brian Slagel's Metal Blade defined the sonic and visual styles of their genres--SST and hardcore, Metal Blade and speedcore/thrash--and their fan underground's attitudes.
SST and Metal Blade are discussed in a chapter that includes Sub Pop and the proverbial "Seattle sound," the third leg in his argument's thesis that punk and metal aren't divergent genres, but fluid spheres of influence concerning both musical sounds and subcultural ideals that coexist and often inform and shape one another. That sounds like a common-sense realization in the current model of music consumption, but what Waksman--an assistant professor of American Studies and Music at Smith College--also has in his arsenal is music expertise, giving his book an extra dimension. Rock critics have forever been chided for, you know, not actually knowing how to play the music they write about; Waksman's work in Ain't convincingly demonstrates how musical knowledge brings an invaluable dimension to music's cultural critique.
Case in point: He offers the classically informed playing of 1980s guitar heroes (Eddie Van Halen, Randy Rhoads, Yngwie Malmsteen, et al.) as a foil to the democratic anti-virtuosity of hardcore and the increasingly technically adept work of thrash, and demonstrates how tempo (speed) and technique (an awareness of rock history) come into play in the actual guitar sound of grunge. Ain't, in fact, works toward an impressive deconstruction of the Green River song "Swallow My Pride" via its musical and lyrical elements to show how it contains and comments upon nearly 20 years of rock history in how it chooses to use elements of punk and metal. This tour de force discussion--which gives the book its title--starts with Green River's version of the song from its 1985 EP Come on Down (Sub Pop), through the Fastbacks gender-reversed cover version, to Green River's own altered version, featuring Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon on backing vocal, from 1988's Rehab Doll, released after the band broke up. For Waksman, "Swallow My Pride" captures the book's essence, an instance where "[r]esources from the past became the means to counter the orthodoxies of the present and to create a new synthesis that melded hardcore's radical sense of refusal with the ambivalent embrace of heavy metal excess."
Best of all, Waksman prefers theories that are open-ended rather than absolute, and his book isn't trying to change peoples minds. (As in, he makes very spirited argument in favor of Black Flag's 1984 My War, though hardcore purists would, no doubt, still consider the record a metal sellout.) So agree with him or not, This Ain't the Summer of Love considerably raises the bar for engaged exploration of music subcultures.
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