“Vol. 1” CD (Garden of Delights CD 123)
A convincing argument about the development of American punk rock was that it was the first moment in the history of white rocknroll when the musicians no longer pretended to be black. After Elvis, the Beatles, the Stones, and all the rest, punk was an honest form of rock music, which at last admitted that striking a black pose was increasingly untenable for rockers bloated on white America’s corporate cash, especially in light of the small progress American society had made during the years of rocknroll’s development against its systemic racism—progress that crystallized exactly how far society still needed (and needs) to go. Coupled with this argument is one about punk’s inherent racism, or, as Seth Sanders and Mike O’Flaherty write, in “40,000,000 Ronald Reagan Fans Can’t Be Wrong” in The Baffler #15, “Punk was also the first white rock music to confront the racial divide and take it as a fact of life . . .Punk’s frankness about race bled over into winking acceptance of the racial divide.” These authors look to the Ramones in the first sentence and the Electric Eels in the second.
Theirs is a canny argument, but it is limited, like so much punk historiography, because it fails to see the full complexion of punk rock. The argument relies, for the most part, on the name-brand bands, even though the Eels might not usually be considered as such. Hugely important to the shit-fi pantheon, the Eels were, in their own way, as marginal as you could get, but their self-imposed marginality from mainstream white America differs from that of blacks or Latinos, which is anything but self-imposed. Musical marginality falls into a different register from race-, gender-, or class-based marginality, though they are often interrelated. As Sanders and O’Flaherty elaborate, when the Electric Eels “used lines from a KKK pamphlet, did it matter that ‘Let’s pull the triggers on the niggers’ was blank irony, that there were probably no black people in the club?” At first, this question seems pretty damning because the shock value of such a statement is nil if the white working-class roughnecks, who famously wanted to beat up the Eels for their play homoeroticism, raised their glasses to such a statement rather than grabbing pool cues and preparing for battle, but on deeper inspection, that word “probably” strikes me as problematic. It might seem impossible to know if there were any blacks in the club, but the historian should attempt to find out the answer definitively (just send the Eels an e-mail!).
More importantly, however, the historian should be aware of how the construction of history itself introduces biases and magnifies lacunae. Here’s the rub: punk rock’s “race problem” cannot be denied or willed away by the myriad good intentions of the idealists who’ve populated the punk and hardcore scenes (especially Europe’s, where the word “class” thankfully ist nicht verboten—well, none of this is quite accurate if we locate punk in a worldwide context). Nevertheless, this problem may be one more deeply attributable to punk historiography—with its fetishization of the retrograde; its focus on the white male groups who actually were able to enter the mainstream’s discursive space; its love of characters like Lester Bangs, who played up the racial divide—than to punk itself. These authors could’ve picked a hundred obscure bands besides the Electric Eels, but their point might not have held. Say, The Bags, Screaming Urge, Pure Hell, Ducky Boys, Bad Brains? Uh, no. Or any all-white bands that did not adopt (crypto-)fascist imagery? I’m not saying these authors are wrong, but they are not exactly right either. There’s just too much to punk to sum it up with blanket statements. The acknowledgment that a band like the Eels deserves mention alongside the Ramones shows that the authors are at least dimly aware of punk’s breadth outside the usual Ramones-Pistols-Clash axis but yet are not quite ready to take it all on. (Still, I gotta say, you should read the whole essay, because it’s lucid, articulate, and intelligent.)
So what is all this talk about punk’s, and punk historiography’s, race problem doing in a review of a Swiss-German basement hard/blues rock reissue? It’s there so I can contradict it. Here goes. Because I was not much moved by any music before discovering punk, and I didn’t start to listen to much outside punk for over a decade of so identifying, I now think I was unknowingly infected by punk’s race problem. As my interest in basement ‘70s hard rock grows—due to its affinities with punk, of course—I repeatedly find that what initially prevents me from really going nuts for the music is its bluesiness. Even Black Sabbath, the pinnacle of ‘70s hard rock/heavy metal, gets too bluesy for me at points. Ergo, as the blues is an intrinsically black American musical form, and the basis for all rocknroll until Joey Ramone came along, who, as Sanders and O’Flaherty say, was, “the first white rock singer to not even pretend to be black,” I can’t help but feel that my own distaste for flecks of a black musical idiom was conditioned by its absence in punk rock, the reason for my love of music. So is there a kernel of truth to the generalization made by mainstream punk historians about its white sound? Yet the problem with saying that because I digested the Ramones only slightly more than I did The Plugz or Bad Brains, I thus became a subconscious musical imperialist and racist, is the essentialization of race built into such a statement. It is not that the list of bands above (The Bags, Screaming Urge, etc) comprises bands whose members were not all white, rather it is that the meaning of racial terms is forever unsatisfying and questionable.
Talking about the construction of race is delicate precisely because we must avoid essentialization, which seeks to delimit and codify the possibilities of identity construction with tropes and to create tautologies. An argument that follows the definitions of race to their logical conclusion would be: punk rock can’t be “black” because black people don’t play punk, they play only blues or funk, etc. But inherent to this argument are the opposing stereotypes of what it means to be white or black, a self-effacing opposition that conceals its own dialectic. The whiteness of the Ramones cannot exist without the blackness of the blues, or, indeed, of the ‘60s pop that influenced them, and yet the blackness of the Bad Brains’ sound (ie, the reggae songs) cannot exist without the white British appropriation of a black postcolonial music form—reggae—by Strummer et al. And suddenly, because of these contingencies, as soon as we latch on to what we think these terms mean, they slip from our grasp and become something new, a problem exacerbated by the fact that here we are using them not to discuss people but to discuss music. Such a loaded term as “black,” reified and removed from the everyday, experiential, and multiple historical contexts of its construction, begins to lose any critical usefulness. To say the blues is black music demands a history that is intertwined with the vagaries of consumer capitalism and America’s deeply vexed race relations. What about all the white blues musicians, not to mention white audiences? Is it the blackness of the creators or the listeners that obtains in music history? So we find ourselves at something of an impasse. Casually, it makes sense to say that punk de-blacked rocknroll, but such a statement relies heavily on stereotyping. Scrutiny, which brings up exceptions to the generalizations, makes the issue murkier, not clearer. The questions, put simply, revolve around whether race can be a descriptive term for music, and thus, a surrogate for qualities that inform taste.
Does all this rumination amount to apologism for my own sensitivity to ‘70s hard rock’s overt use of blues-based song structures? At first, this effort might not even make sense, considering that no Ramones song, although Joey didn’t pretend to be stereotypically black as did Mick Jagger, could possibly have been written without the 12-bar call-and-response foundation that was unquestionably built by black musicians, but then we must remember that this musical form entered the mainstream white imagination through its expropriation by white music industrialists. Maybe my taste is actually inherently not racist, because it is not built upon that expropriation!
And then let’s lay another problem or three on top: Vikings Invasion was a pre-punk German-speaking-Swiss left-wing hard rock group playing American-style blues-rock in England, sung in English. At last, the possibilities of the hybridity of a term like “black music” are revealed. In addition to this hybridity is the shit-fi aspect, which is often, though not exclusively, related to economics: Vikings Invasion is caveman-simple rock recorded live in a what sounds like a rehearsal room. There is nothing intricate or subtle about these Swiss dudes’ cretinous playing. They played loud. They played thuddingly dumb. But they also played the blues. And so listening to this CD causes me internal debate: do I enjoy the lo-fi and stupid sound more than I dislike the bluesiness? (I’m at risk of giving you the wrong idea: it’s not that I am repulsed by the blues, more just that it sticks out and distracts me—probably because something like it was, as I said, so notably, and punkily, absent in the formative years of my music listening. An analogy might be this: I love shitty recordings. Someone who grew up listening to professionally recorded music would likely find the “bad” recording of what I love distracting, as I find the blues influence to be.) Luckily, the more I listen to the CD, the more the distraction fades, and I can appreciate both the lo-fi nature of the music and the music itself.
Is Vikings Invasion proto-punk? It depends on whether you buy the theory about the shift to punk as being marked by the moment white musicians faced with sober senses the real conditions of their lives and their relations with their fellow men—ie, the racial divide. And if you do, it depends whether you think a band needed to be “white” in sound to be an ancestor of punk. Did Nico’s or the MC5’s race problems, which manifested in quite different, though perhaps related, ways, have anything to do with the lack of discernable blackness in Discharge? I doubt it be could proven. What’s more important is context. This CD’s reissue label situates Vikings Invasion on the periphery of Krautrock, which seems plausible because it was recorded in 1975 and the band hailed from the Swiss/German border. Considering the musical complexity and innovation associated with Krautrock, as well as 1970s Germany’s deep anxiety about the subtlest manifestation of latent fascism (shining a light upon that latent fascism is ultimately what the Red Army Faction intended to do), Vikings Invasion are—well, not easy to pin down. If it can be argued that punk dropping the pseudo-black façade of white ‘60s/’70s music enabled acquiescence to the racial divide, then so too can the patronizing appropriation of black culture be labeled racist, or at least suspiciously acquiescent to “othering.” Or, outside the US, where Vikings Invasion’s micro-press LP was probably never heard (there’s that “probably” again), and acknowledging Krautrock’s “winking acceptance,” to appropriate the term of Sanders and O’Flaherty, of the violently anti-fascist, terrorist Red Army Faction, was sounding black some expression of solidarity with an openly oppressed people? To further complicate the picture, Vikings Invasion used T. S. Eliot’s poetry as the lyrics for two tunes. Surely Eliot, the accused anti-Semite who didn’t find totalitarianism particularly objectionable, was rolling over in his grave when this LP dropped and his words were tossed over left-wing blues-based tunes. At least they didn’t quote Ezra Pound.
Vikings Invasion started out with the name Dreieinkeitsmoses, meaning Trinity Moses, taken from a Brecht play (that’s why, beyond the ‘70s long-hair zeitgeist, I assume them to have been at least modestly left-wing). In addition to Eliot, they used Brecht poetry for lyrics too. Their British record label, which signed them after they won a contest sponsored by Melody Maker in 1975, made them change their name to Vikings Invasion, ostensibly confusing Switzerland with Sweden. The LP was called “Vol. 1,” but no second volume ever appeared. The record is as unpolished a release as one can imagine a big label of the ‘70s producing. It has the feel of a demo, and this CD includes one 11-minute bonus rehearsal track, which does not have a particularly noticeable difference in fidelity from the LP itself, except for a thicker guitar tone and a pretty awesome wah guitar solo. My favorite song is “Listen to Four Guitars on Your Corner,” which you’ll be shocked to learn is one of the heaviest and least bluesy tracks. Two other highlights are the other heavy slugger “Rhapsody on a Windy Night” (right click to download) and “Answer for My Life,” with a title befitting a ‘90s Tokyo hardcore record. Both songs have up-tempo parts (most of the songs are rather slow), and the latter’s is over a minute of uber-simple proto-punk. This nicely done CD reissue includes great band photos and fact-filled liner notes, as well as apparently excellent sound reproduction, sourced from vinyl. “Vol. 1” was bootlegged in the 1990s, but the liner notes inform us, “This bootleg’s sound is a hell of a lousy.” Chances are that you won’t find the original or even the bootleg any time soon. Maybe this humble CD won’t inspire as much introspection in you as it did me, but it does add one piece, if a rather peripheral one, to the puzzle of how punk came to exist, and of what exactly rocknroll consists, especially with regard to race.