by Mitchell Brown, Reporter
The Epix “Punk” series was hurdling on a fast track, documenting an explosive musical movement, the ways in which it has waxed and waned along the way, occasionally imploded, sometimes violently so, only to be reborn and transformed.
The fourth and final episode of this docu-series examines a pivotal era of evolution for the punk rock, the late ’80s into the early ’90s and beyond. This episode could easily be subtitled “Did Success Spoil Punk?”
The ’90s became a transitional period, one marked with conflicting opinions from varying voices. This was the time in which bands like Green Day, Rancid and The Offspring became the next big thing.
There were two common contrasting opinions expressed at the time from those who had spent some time trudging along in the underground – one was the notion that the infiltration of the mainstream by punk and alternative bands was an ultimate end goal.
The other view was that the success and popularity of bands was a betrayal of a set of core subculture values, leading to the watering down of said culture and the sound, the cliché’ cries of “sell out.”
The latter point of view receives limited time in this final episode, and when such a sentiment is expressed it’s presented in a thoughtful way, free from acrimony.
We are introduced to more interviewees in this episode, including Donita Sparks, of L7, Mike Ness, of Social Distortion, Billy Joe Armstrong, of Green Day, Jim Lindberg, lead singer of Pennywise.
An increased variety of voices stands as welcomed addition. With many of the punk documentaries many of the same voices and individuals are often featured, but with this segment, talk time is given to those who aren’t in any as many of these documentaries as frequently.
A musical coup happened in 1991, with the release of Nirvana’s “Nevermind” which saw a major paradigm shift that rendered Paula Abdul and Poison obsolete overnight, paving the way for Green Day, Rancid and The Offspring to have commercial success a few years later.
How did this happen?
What was the bridge between playing small clubs, packing into beat up vans to big time tour buses, stadium shows, MTV and chart “hits?”
The story picks up in the late ’80s, when punk rock as it once was, was all but depleted.
Many had moved on, but Bad Religion were back from hiatus, as lead singer Greg Graffin had temporarily left the band for college to pursue a biology degree, and in 1988, Bad Religion released “Suffer,” an album that stands the test of time and was monumental in its impact and influence, related to the lyrics, the sound, the production, everything about the album.
Brett Gurewitz, former Bad Religion guitarist and founder of Epitaph Records, explains the reason for the sound of “Suffer.” He was spending more time on sound engineering, logging thousands of hours doing engineering, recording various bands. Gurewitz voices a preference for a love of the sound production of major label punk bands of the past and was less of a fan of the more low-fi production of L.A. hardcore bands.
Shortly after the release of “Suffer,” Gurewitz was contacted by professional surfer Kelly Slater, asking to use the music of Epitaph bands in skate and surf videos. He agreed, under the condition that the names of the bands, albums and label appear on screen.
This promotional move paid off for Epitaph – the skaters that watched the videos were more inclined to by music by Epitaph bands. This skate culture/Epitaph connection helped said bands to grow, yet they were still under the radar, growing on an underground level.
During this same period Nirvana was rising out of the underground. The group differed greatly from the punk bands of Southern California that are featured in this episode, yet many of the members interviewed were in agreement that there was an excitement related to Nirvana’s breakthrough, with the awareness that more eyes and ears were turning to “alternative” music because of it.
The question of is/was Nirvana a punk band is tossed around in this episode, with some of those interviewed giving a surprising answer of yes. Noodles, the guitarist of The Offspring, makes the statement he is of the opinion that Nirvana were a punk band and he found the label of grunge ill-fitting.
Noodles states the title of grunge might have been fitting to some of the bands with more directly metal inspired riffs, but not Nirvana, noting the melodic hooks within their songs.While watching, I had to stop and think about what was the grunge sound, what were some of its defining sonic components, downtuned guitars, heavily distorted, influences from ’70s hard rock as well as punk rock, bands that were equally influenced by both Black Flag and Black Sabbath.
Although those elements were present with Nirvana’s music, if you listen to the first Nirvana album, 1989’s “Bleach,” with the first song, “About a Girl,” Beatles-esque melodies and hooks are present, yet the guitar sound is less polished and a bit louder.
I think part of the reason Nirvana was able to become so popular was related to the sonic contrast within their music, unrestrained intensity that was tempered by melody.
In 1991, it was something that had never been seen at mainstream levels. It hit like a bolt out of the blue.
Kim Thayil, guitarist for Soundgarden, whom I was surprised to see, brilliantly hits the nail on the head when he states that to those who worked A&R at major labels, the rise of Nirvana looked like something that came out of nowhere. However, it was really a result of a musical movement that grew organically throughout the ’80s, independent labels, fanzines, tape trading, etc.
Nirvana’s “Nevermind” was the reaching of a critical mass of something that had been bubbling for about a decade prior. Soundgarden, Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. were part of the alternative boom of the ‘90s, with some of their early records released on the SST label in the ’80s.
This episode extends beyond the era of Nirvana, briefly detailing the origins and growth of the Warped Tour, and we wind up in the present, with a brief focus on newer punk bands that are carrying on in the vein similar to the Germs and early Black Flag, along with those who are blending and splicing genres, creating something that doesn’t note for note resemble the punk rock of yesteryear.
The end conclusion on this episode is the idea of “punk” as more of a spirit, as opposed to one particular sound, a spirit of free musical and artistic expression at all costs and without compromise
If that’s the case, it’s a spirit that can never die completely and will shift form and reincarnate itself.
“Punk” is a four-part documentary television series appearing on premium cable channel Epix. For more information on how to view “Punk,” visit the Epix website here.