Tuesday, 2 June 2009
OI! YOU!: PUNK & THE SLAG-OFF SONG
“I’m in love with myself, there’s nothing else but me.”
“Sex cracked its eyes at me and I’m feeling something – and it’s living inside me.”
We’ll be getting to (and identifying) those opening quotes later, Meantime I’ve been thinking recently about the slag-off song, about how much of a punk style it is and finally reached the point where I’ve come to think of it as the very definition of punk. (Or certainly closer to the bone than post-Situationism, Bakhuninism, the Medieval Free Spirit movement or any of that Greil Marcus bollocks.)
The point of the slag-off song is that it’s not against politicians or parents or anything so vague as “the system” but ups the snot quota by slagging your own friends... or better still your very best friend. It appears little in hippy songs which tend to the unifying, either me-and-you love songs or us vs. them rallying calls. Think of Morrison’s “They’ve got the guns but we’ve got the numbers.” The slag-off never knocks “them” over there but “you” right here, but that alone isn’t enough to identify it. The normal first clue is to hear how the “you” is pronounced, which is often conveniently made the first word anyway. If it’s pulled into a drawn-out sneer of a word (“Ye-e-e-ew!”) it’s probably a slag-off you’re in for.
The godfather to the slag-off song was probably Bob Dylan. I remember as a nipper being actually shocked to hear him start a song with the snotty line “Y-e-e-w’ve got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend”, and then dismantle the fakery of a friendship from there. Nevertheless, it was with punk that the slag-off came into its own.
As a youth I heard Attila the Stockbroker claim punk exemplified Jean-Paul Sartre’s philosophy of existentialism. It stuck in my head precisely because I didn’t get it at the time. Punk, I thought with crude linearity, surely that’s about anarchy. But, as the opening quotes from the Jesus and Mary Chain show, Attila was right. Mark E Smith sang there were only twelve real people in the world (“the rest are paste”), but he must have been in a generous mood that day. To punk’s distorting lens the only real people are you and me, and frankly I’m having my doubts about you. To punk’s accounting, two’s a crowd. To punk’s ideologising you’re always best off by yourself, free to stand in front of the bedroom mirror perfecting your own self-image. (The other face to the slag-off song is the self-song, epitomized by the Pistols’ ‘I Wanna Be Me’, whose tautology-masked-as-profundity sums up this narcissism. Punk took much from Glam, including an almost fanatical devotion to personal self-transformation.)
When other people come in they get between you and that mirror, they try to reshape you and remake you and that’s where the problems start. Cops, teachers and parents are at least open about it. Friends and fellows, they’ll just try the same thing covertly. As the Psychedelic Furs put it, “they just wanna suck you in to being one of them.” From this comes many outwardly odd punk stances, such as glorifying sex but denigrating any form of intimacy.
Psychologically, this is perfectly adolescent of course. In trying to escape your parents’ influence you charge out their front door and then turn everyone else you see around you back into them. Anything to mask the one thing you could never accept, the person around you who’s most like your parents is you. (Or an even simpler explanation would be that the painfully self-aware adolescent is grateful for any excuse to escape the demanding company of others, particularly the –shock! – opposite sex, and such a hardcore-sounding excuse works all the better.)
It’s as easy to dismiss ideologically too. You can quote Jon Savage and paint it as proto-Thatcherite in its denial of any form of collectivity and society. You could even see its emphasis on the self as a constructed identity, where you make yourself as much as you find yourself, as something postmodern.
All of that may well be true, and its juvenilia is quite appealing in an amusing sort of way. After all, so much of punk’s so great because it’s so bad. But is that the whole story? All such movements are by nature contradictory and, beneath the rhetoric of self, even year-of-’77 Brit-punk exhibited plenty signs of collectivity. Bands would forever lend each other equipment, play endless benefits, walk off tours in solidarity with each other at exactly the same time as they’d snidely slag off each other to the NME.
But that alone would be to suggest slag-off songs were some decoy to punk, whereas actually some of my favourite punk songs are slag-offs. There’s a golden rule to punk, more than almost any other musical genre. Some punk was good, while much of it was so bad it was great. Yet the really memorable punk managed to be both bad-good and good-good simultaneously, and it often chose the slag-off song to accomplish this. Mostly it did this by exploiting the ambiguity inside that apparently direct sneering “ye-e-e-ew!” Who was the “you”? Was it a them, an otherwise anonymous subject denounced in public then left to clammily recognize themself in private?
Or was the “you” us – the audience? Didn’t those gormlessly clapping hands, the ones that fed the band deserve a biting? Alternative culture turns too quickly to complacency and a perverse desire to upturn its self-righteous applecart is often just what the doctor ordered. When, for example, the Furs sneered at parties of people “who put on wigs and stuff so they can be themselves”, they were sneering at their and their peers’ attempt to find themselves inside a manufactured image – and rightly so.
Or was the “you” really me, the singer? Was using the “you” a device for the singer to do their laundry, to criticise themselves in public with no-one knowing? I’m thinking particularly of Lydon’s perpetual post-Pistols assaults on the “bourgeoisie anarchist”, but maybe the genuine outward-directed slag-off is but the tip to a whole iceberg of self-criticism.
Other songs stoked up the mystery by making the “you” a deliberately ambiguous figure – maybe a little bit of me, you and them all stuck together with spittle. To quote again from the Furs, I always liked the line about Caroline who “lives in a place in the side of our lives where nothing is ever put straight”. (Maybe the deflected third-person slag is a sub-genre in itself, the semi-slag or something.) Caroline lives in some kind of shadow realm, populated by our fears. Peering in, we can learn from her mistakes. But she lives inside the same three minutes, she can’t change her tune. No matter how many times you play her song she ain’t gonna smarten up. Maybe that’s the place all songs should visit.