Punk Not Dead
By Sean McLain


The term punk is thrown around pretty loosely these days. Once an almost ineffable way of life, the term has been reduced to a fashion statement or an easy way to categorize pop bands with crunchy guitar riffs. Anyone looking for a definitive example of punk need look no further than Jack Rabid, publisher of the independent music manifesto, The Big Takeover. Rabid does not sport a Mohawk or wear safety pins. A musician himself, his various bands do not sound like blink-182 or any other faux-punk rockers. In fact Rabid, who can speak knowledgeably about almost any subject, seems more like a history teacher than he does the unofficial godfather of punk rock journalism. Not surprisingly, he has flirted with the idea of teaching and may still pursue the vocation. For now, he's content to be a music historian, authoring the ongoing biography of independent music.

For over 20 years, Rabid has published The Big Takeover on a shoestring budget. The 200 page bi-annual tome began humbly as a one-page newsletter for the New York punk band, the Stimulators. Gradually, Rabid began to write about other bands from the New York scene and beyond. Applying a truly punk work ethic to the publication, Rabid and his contributors write about the music that matters to them. They are beholden to no advertisers or corporate sponsors. Further cementing the magazine's independent credibility is the fact that The Big Takeover only became profitable after 15 years of publication.

The Big Takeover contains hundreds of reviews of punk and independent albums, interviews with bands and accounts of live performances. Although a devotee to late-1970s punk, Rabid covers any band that is making innovative music, whether it's stadium-fillers such as Radiohead, indie stalwarts such as Fugazi or newcomers such as Idlewild. Rabid's emotive, first-person writing style demonstrates his visceral appreciation of music that is devoid of sterile analysis.

Rabid occasionally displays a bias for the music of his teenage years. Now nearing 40 years old, he contends that his youth was the last golden age for popular music. When asked if music is currently in an artistic slump when compared to the late 1970s, Rabid says emphatically, "Oh, yes. Of course I think so. Twenty years from now, as we look back on this period, will we have the same fondness for it? I don't think so."

While this attitude may seem curmudgeonly on his part, Rabid can hardly be accused of living in a temporal vacuum. He can always find enough albums to put in his top 40 every six months (plus hundreds of honorable mentions.) He even contributes to the current music scene himself, drumming in his latest band, The Last Burning Embers. From the very beginning, Rabid's goal has been to produce a thorough, uncompromising and fiercely independent guide to any music that is ignored by the mainstream press. In the process, he has rescued deserving bands from obscurity, influenced the way journalists write about
music and provided a primary source for music historians to study for years to come.

I spoke with Rabid recently about the current state of music, the effects of MTV and his own definition of the word punk.

Gadfly: How have your views on music changed since you started the magazine?

Jack Rabid: When I began the magazine, I was a teenager, and a teenager looks at the music scene much differently than someone in his 30s. Obviously, music scenes are in a constant state of flux. At some points they're great and some points they're very moribund. I was very fortunate that at fifteen, sixteen the music scene I stumbled on was in full bloom. I think it's pretty much universally agreed that during '77, '78, '79 and '80 there was just a whop-load happening. Admittedly, most of it was out of the eye of the average rock music fan. But if you were willing to do a little research and self-discovery, there was an endless array. To this day, all the collectors tell me that they can't even find it allóthey can't even find out about it all.

But my views on music have changed. As a young person you encounter music as a much more pure thing, and as you get older you learn more about what goes into it. You learn about the business end. You learn how musicians are. I've had an exposure to music from the inside that most people will probably never get, and that's bound to color your views toward cynicism. On the other hand, when I find a band that I really like, it just makes me appreciate them even more because I know what they put up with and had to go through to get where they are now.

The media has spent the last 20 years trying to co-opt what was once known as alternative culture for the purpose of marketing and the quick buck. This seems to make it hard for a movement to develop.

Yeah, well, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, I blame MTV for everything in this world (laughs). I'm the last generation that grew up with live music as a mystical event, as artists being interesting enigmas, as it being an absolutely fantastic thing to be at a concert. I can gauge by comparison the different reactions of people from being at concerts. Obviously, there's still a fair amount of excitement at concerts. It's not like people just walk up there and yawn. They're paying 25 dollars for these things. But the energy in a place like the Palladium or Max's Kansas City or any of the places I used to go was driven by the lack of access, I think. People thought rock music really, really meant something. When it became televised on a constant basis like that, when videos took over from live shows, I think that changed everyone's viewpoint. I think it cheapened the experience of a live gig. A live gig is really where rock communicates the most, not only between the artists and the fans but between the fans and other fans, who then create new bands so there's more stuff going on.

When I came along, I thought punk was amazing. I thought underground rock was just absolutely stunning. But I also had enough awareness of rock history to think that this was merely my time, my chance, that this had happened for years, going back to Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong. Or going back to Jerry Lee Lewis, Gene Vincent or Carl Perkins. This is just what happened. You have these exciting gigs and exciting music scenes and all kinds of interesting people who want more out of their life than to be bland and complacent who would make this music, go to these shows and have this great social scene. I thought I was just the latest. I didn't know I was among the last. I had no way of knowing that this was a formula that would largely dissipate in the face of MTV.

Every so often, a truly great band breaks through and is heavily marketed by MTV and radio. Do you think that sort of exposure can actually hurt a good band?

It's what John Doe from X used to call reverse snobbism. People only liked X when they were their own little pet band when they were playing the Whiskey a Go-Go. They didn't like them to move up to that higher level where they could sell out the Santa Monica Civic Center and be a really big act. My response to that is, "Do you want a band to stay at the same level all of the time?" They're going to break up. Bands, by nature, want their audiences to expand. It's a funny thing because you have to wonder the motivation of people when they get into something. The punk scene was never more at its purest than
when there were 200 people at gigs. And that was only five or six cities, but clearly that was too small. I was one of those guys (and you hear this all the time) that was the only punk rocker in our school. It's kind of cliché, but I was the only one who had even heard of punk and who had any opinion at all about the bands other than, "Oh, I hear they throw up in airports." People just thought it was completely illegitimate precisely because they had never heard it. This was the time of Dire Straits and the Doobie Brothers. Everybody was into the Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, Kansas, Styx and Boston because that's what the radio was playing. So if you liked this strain of new music that people had never heard, you were a weirdo. Then you add the element about punk being so outlandish and free. That I could go to school wearing those clothes was positively threatening to people. I don't think we'll ever get back to that now. How do you do that now? Tattoos and piercings? Nobody's threatened by that. Twenty years before me, you could threaten people just by growing your hair long.

The 80's were a pretty fertile time for underground music just because of the indie label explosion. Unfortunately, that also opened the doors to all the yahoos coming in and slam dancing and taking a lot of the communicative aspects out of the scene and also kind of set it up so that if you rose to the top of the ranks, you were a sellout. If you made a jump to a major label, then you were a pariah. I can remember saying, "Why is it so bad to be on a major label?" Every band I liked ten years ago was on a major label. The Rizillos and the Dead Boys were on a fucking major. Gang of Four was on a major label. Buzzcocks, Sex Pistols and the Clash were on major labels.

Ian MacKaye [lead singer of Fugazi and founder of Dischord Records] has said he doesn't hate major labels or the bands that sign to them but that he feels sorry for his friends who have signed with major labels because, more often than not, the labels hurt the bands. What's your take on major labels?

We could spend hours just listing bands that have been screwed by a major label. I'm not trying to say it's a good thing to sign a major label, but it's nobody's business except the band's. Why a fan would turn his back on a band for going to a major label makes no sense to me at all. If they're still making good music, then that's all that matters. There're bands that have suddenly turned to shit without signing a major label.

Do you have a definition of punk?

I don't even think I had one in the old days. In fact, I often say what was called punk back then wouldn't be called punk later. Like the Cramps or Suicide. Suicide was a screaming, synthesizer band. The Cramps were a trash rockabilly band. There was really no direct boundary, and I liked it better back then. The Talking Heads were punk. But within a short while of my coming across the scene, the boundaries started to be drawn. Nowadays people look back at Television and Talking Heads and think of them as art rock bands, and they think of Blondie as being a power-pop group. But that's not how people thought back then. It was all part of one Diaspora. I think that was much healthier.

When the Ramones used to play CBGBs, before my time, they had the Talking Heads as their opening band and nobody thought that was strange. By the time I was 18, there wasn't a chance in hell of a bill like that in a small club being successful because people drew boundaries and lines. Ramones fans would not like the Talking Heads in 1980. Talking Heads fans would not like the Ramones in 1980. It's been that way ever since. Everybody splintered off into their own separate scenes. I think it was really unhealthy. We still do that. I put out a magazine that very intentionally tries to mix all kinds of different genres of underground music and place them all side by side. Everybody has their own niche, and I try to break them out of that. I try to get them to embrace old stuff in music like folk and jazz, bossa nova, blues, R&B, soul and other great genres of the past that most people who are younger don't really want to embrace. I don't know if it's a marketing thing, but everybody always seems to have their own niche and they don't want to come out of it. And even those niches seem to grow more narrow. I think a lot of people miss the point about music, I really do. I think that music that really moves you is the goal. I think all these other things like fashion and what is and isn't pure is just a great distracter. People should just have a very personal relationship with their favorite music, and all these other things just seem to get in the way of that.

Do you have any musical guilty pleasures?

I don't believe in guilty pleasures. If it gives me pleasure, why should I feel guilty about it? It's not pornography or something like that. On the other, by virtue of my saying I really like something, people know I've invested a great deal of time and energy listening to it. It's not very likely that a band that really sucks like the Doobie Brothers is going to make a song tomorrow that ends up being played 5000 times by me and being lauded in my magazine. It's possible. On occasion it's happened, but very rarely. Most bands that are terrible and have terrible artistic impulses continue to make terrible music. If at some point a band makes a big change… I remember when Talk Talk first started they sucked—just horrible dance pop stuff. Then they changed and started making esoteric, interesting, creative music, and we said so. I've got nothing against people all of a sudden becoming good.

There're a lot of great pleasures from the '60s that went on to suck. It's still constantly a learning process because I'm always coming across more records from the past that I didn't know about. It's always refreshing for me. I can never get jaded because there's always this inexhaustible field of unknown music that I'm encountering for the first time, both new and old. I can never get to the point where I can say I've heard it all because I don't think it's possible.