So I’m going to give away a good bit of party-trick-trivia: punk group The Ramones are named after Paul McCartney. How so, you ask? When the Beatles were delinquent hustlers in Hamburg Germany, they were prevailed upon to take up stage names. The second bit of “Beatles cred” trivia is knowing what those names were:
1. John Lennon: Long John
2. George Harrison: Carl Harrison (clever)
3. Stuart Sutcliffe: Stu deStael
4. Richard Starkey: Ringo Starr
5. Paul McCartney: Paul Ramone
You learn something new every day! Go out there kiddos and impress your friends!
This fact is a delightful feature in one’s rock-knowledge arsenal because it’s rather counter-intuitive. Why would punk gods the Ramones name themselves after pop-prince, girl culture favorite, McCartney anyway? I’ve always chalked this fact up to an oddity or a charming bit of Beatles-fandom on the part of the Ramones, but as I read “Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk“, my attitude about this fact has taken on larger proportions.
Here’s another bit of trivia: Danny Fields, a central figure in this abject history of underground punk from orgies of Warhol’s factory to the vomitorium of the Fillmore, was the editor-in-chief of none other than teenybopper rag 16 Magazine. Danny Fields was also the manager of (surprise) The Ramones, Iggy Pop and the Stooges, the Doors and The Modern Lovers. In Please Kill Me, Fields refers to Jim Morrison as a “teen idol” (as well as a “callous asshole”, “a monster”, “a prick” and curiously “fat”) he felt that the music of the Doors was “Sophomoric bullshit babble”, and “was garbage disguised as teenybopper”. Aside from being assured that Fields, like, doesn’t mince words, again and again in his half-coherent rants we realize that Fields’ understanding of the underground New York punk movement is inseparable from the bottom-feeding “bubblegum” pop stars featured on the tacky pages of 16.
Naming a music genre “bubblegum” is pretty sociologically revealing. Bubblegum, as we know, is highly processed, infused with artificial sugar, quick to stale, and contains absolutely no nutritional sustenance. Basically, the musical subject of this derisive metaphor doesn’t reach the lofty spiritual heights of exultant human artistic endeavors. I don’t think it’s worth wasting energy figuring in the role of age, class and gender regarding bubblegum: duh. Now, okay, what is Bubblegum anyway? One song that comes to mind is 1969’s “Sugar Sugar” by the Archies, which couldn’t be more of an irredemable piece of junk, topped only in sheer depravity by Simon and Garfunkel’s “Feelin’ Groovy”, which is my own. personal. hell.
Yet, as we confront a central theme of Pop Feminist, we must contend with the fact that music genres are not just somewhat arbitrary, subjective and hotly debatable, they are often conflated with identity categories rather than musicological ones. Listening to The Ramones, it’s clear as day to me that they fit the musicological pattern of bubblegum to a “T”, albeit with a shot of testosterone.
In fact, early punks were quite deliberate to lend authority to bubblegum girl group standards. The Ramones’ only US hit 1980’s “Baby I Love You”, is a cover of the Ronnettes original, the Sex Pistols released “I’m Not Your Steppin’ Stone” as a single, which was originally a Monkees track, and we find that one of the most iconic rock moments offered up by the New York Dolls is when David Johansen opens “Looking for a Kiss” by stating, “when I say I’m in love you best believe I’m in love L-U-V”, which is lifted from the Shangri-Las track “Give Him a Great Big Kiss”.
I’m no expert on the later manifestations of punk rock, but I do know that early on, punks didn’t have beef with disco as is widely believed. The objectionable Goliath against which punk stood opposed was heady “Classic Rock”, which brought rock ‘n’ roll into the elite realm of “great art” with their high-production value and literary virtuosity that appealed to the highbrows of society. The idea of punk is to regress to a back-to-basics, working class model of rock where the mythical disaffected teenager makes great music out of simple chord combinations, devoid of any pretension or aspiration beyond the pursuit of fun.
I’ve argued previously that this shift of rock into “high art” that takes place over the course of the 1960s, creates a gender divide– the lo(w)athed status of Bubblegum and girl culture serves as a foil and distancing mechanism to legitimize the more serious work of their skilled male counterparts (this, of course, is not limited to music but exists as a binary in most professions: the cook/chef the teacher/professor, the secretary/assistant etc). Is it any wonder that in seeking a return to the egalitarian rock ‘n’ roll past, that punks would defer to girl culture to authorize its self-fashioned marginality? Here again, we see the Counterculture v. Counterpublic tension, where these punks wear the troupes of lowliness, but are quite able in most cases to escape the stigma that has rendered the most members of the Ronnettes and the Shangri-Las nameless (which is the case of many early girl groups: the Shirelles, the Chiffons, the Marvelettes, etc), and the Monkess scandalously excluded from the rock ‘n’ roll hall of fame. Nevertheless, it’s easy to see that punk rock is a counterculture movement against counterculture, waging a war in which I posit feminism has a stake.
Another notable point of departure for punks is their idealization of high school and teenage years. As opposed to the roadphilic Beats (the first masculine framework into which most subsequent counterculture movements fit), the punks do not shirk the emasculating era of youth, but rejoice in the naive torments and pleasures of domesticated adolescence under the implicit watch of a perhaps disapproving, but not completely forsaken, mother.
Finally, it seems clear to me now why the only explicitly feminist genre of rock ‘n’ roll, the Riot Grrl movement, would naturally be in the same tradition as punk. It’s not that any feature of punk somehow made a space for girls’ active participation, rather it’s that girl culture made a space for punk— the Riot Grrl movement isn’t a radical break, or the forging of a new path so much as it’s a return to roots, and a reclaiming of a term I’m coining now as “Bubblepunk”.
The Ramones perform “Baby, I Love You”:
The Ronnettes’ original:
An aside: Pop Feminist favorite Billy Idol‘s pop vagabondage is now clear! He failed to commit unambiguously to either masculine punk or feminized bubblegum, choosing instead to situate himself on the troublesome border between the two. Thus, he becomes unintelligible as an identity marker and prompting a pervasive silence by rock journalists unwilling to confront the fact that Idol is the personification of the secret marriage of these two genres. Um. Love him. L-U-V.