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The Intangible Ethos of Punk Why Its Subjective Ambiguity Makes It Almost Impossible to Define

With society becoming increasingly polarised and partisan with their ideals, the ambiguity and subjectivity of the punk ethos continue to be as amplified and weaponised as it was when the sonic strain of rebellion saw its inception when Bad Brains and Fugazi had to take back their scene from white supremacists.

Asking the definition of punk will always elicit a wide range of answers, typically subjective and based on personal beliefs. Much like asking someone their take on the meaning of life, asking for a definition of punk leads to diverse perspectives and opinions. The differentiations in opinion can naturally lead to points of contention.

The Ambiguity and Subjectivity of the Punk Ethos

While some may see leftist bands, including politically vocal bands such as Crass and Leftover Crack as punk, others enforce the insinuation that punk should be neither left nor right-wing – it should be entirely anti-establishment. Yet, punk artists have always fallen on either side of the spectrum. There has never been a shortage of conservative punks; Johnny Ramone and Bobby Steele (Misfits) being amongst the most prominent, with the likes of Skrewdriver falling on the more extreme end of the right-wing spectrum.

Leftover Crack at The Underworld, London, 13 August 2009 | Rebeladelica

The existence of Christian punk bands, such as MxPx is also a baffling paradox. Aurally, they are as ‘punk’ as Green Day and Blink-182, but does their piousness preclude a punk attitude? Well, if you consider the punk ethos as one that goes against conformity and authoritarianism and consider that religiosity is one of the greatest examples of authoritarianism, given the submission to authority and conventionality, then you would have to argue that it does.

However, if you regard the ambiguity and subjectivity of the punk ethos, not as a flaw, but as a fundamental characteristic that allows punk to remain an evolving cultural driving force, you can see why anything can and does fly under the banner of punk. The differentiation in meaning, for artists and fans alike, is a phenomenon rooted in the origins of punk. Punk embraces individuality and resists strict definitions. It has done so since its mid-1970s inception which saw the movement erupt as a visceral reaction against corporate mass culture.

The Origin of Punk

Ramones, the Sex Pistols, and The Clash, with their raw sound and defiant attitude, became the embodiment of the punk movement in the mid-70s as a means to drown out the bloated-with-capitalism timbres of Rock n Roll. It was always more than a genre. It was (and still is) permission for self-expression, a celebration of DIY ethics, and an antagonistic force against authority and social normativity.

The DIY aspect of punk further contributes to its subjective nature. Punk has always encouraged grassroots involvement, from creating zines and organising gigs to forming bands and recording music independently. This DIY spirit means that punk is not just consumed but actively created by its participants, leading to a diverse range of expressions and interpretations. What punk means to a fanzine creator in London can be vastly different from what it means to a garage band in New York or a political activist in Berlin.

What was punk – and why did it scare people so much? | National Geographic

Moreover, the punk ethos is marked by a resistance to being pigeonholed or defined by external forces. This resistance is a reaction against the commercialisation and co-optation of music and culture. Punk’s disdain for the mainstream has led to a fluid and evolving identity, one that resists easy categorisation. This fluidity means that punk can be a moving target, always adapting and changing in response to the cultural and political climate. This is efficaciously encapsulated by The Virginmarys with their track, You’re a Killer, which fervently protests the age of division and disinformation with the scathed lines that will always strike a chord:

“Information, in formation
An idiot’s guide to dividing the nation
Grooming the youth to the point of sedation
Where hearing the truth gives a strange sensation
What you see’s not what it seems
The UK’s sleeping sweet American dreams
Democracy is a word shot from the mouth
Of a killer”

The subjectivity of punk is also reflected in its regional variations. Punk in the UK, with bands like the Sex Pistols and The Clash, often had a more overt political edge, reflecting the social and economic turmoil of 1970s Britain. In contrast, American punk, epitomised by bands like the Ramones and Black Flag, often had a more nihilistic and individualistic bent iconography attached to them, which is now increasingly perpetuated in contemporary UK punk scenes.

The Weaponisation of Punk

Just as people fought back against The National Front attempting to co-opt the punk movement when they skewed the meaning of the lyrical contexts within tracks from The Clash and Sex Pistols, and Henry Rollins and Ian Mackaye refused to be passive in their resistance when the frenetic nature of American hardcore attracted Neo-Nazis like moths to a flame, it’s crucial that no form of contemporary xenophobia gets to fly under the guise of punk.

One of the key reasons for the ambiguity and subjectivity of the punk ethos is its foundational principle of individualism. Punk encourages people to think for themselves, to question the status quo, and to express their unique perspectives and identities. This ethos naturally leads to a wide range of interpretations and expressions. For some, punk is primarily about the music and the energy of live performances. For others, it’s a political statement, a way to challenge societal injustices and speak for the marginalised. And for many, it’s a fashion statement, a way to visually express their rebellion against mainstream norms.

So, given that punk is a means of individualistic empowerment which gives people the freedom to challenge social constructs and embrace their autonomy, it is nothing short of fucked up that the Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist (TERF) movement is attempting to infiltrate punk in reaction to people refusing to play along with gender roles anymore, especially if those assigned at birth gender roles are completely at odds with innate identity.

It may require one brain cell too many for people to wrap their heads around the fact that gender is shaped by societal norms and expectations rather than being solely determined by biological or physical differences, but the consequence of that cannot and should not be the demonisation of trans, non-binary, and queer people. Of course, TERFs and their army of gender-critical sheep can’t come right out and say why they feel threatened by trans and non-binary people. They have to convince themselves that there is an existential threat to women and children to feign some form of valour.

On the other hand, it’s entirely possible that they don’t even have the cognitive capacity to realise that their aversion to people who don’t marry themselves to the conformity of gender roles boils down to a fear that their own safety blanket of conformity will be torn away. Perhaps they’ve all got a bad case of gender role Stockholm syndrome.

People who claim to be punk but aren't, TERF edition. : r/punk
Where is the clause in the punk ethos to declare that you can’t embrace your identity if that means you are rejecting arbitrary gender roles and living your life whilst proving that gender is not a fixed or innate attribute but rather a fluid identity shaped by social and cultural context?! I certainly don’t see one.

Don’t believe the “TERF is the new punk” hype. No matter how many garish t-shirts are pressed by the biggest victim-mentality grifter who cries to the Daily Mail and GB News that she’s been cancelled by the music industry for airing her dimly dogmatic views. Just like the evil protagonist in her fellow TERF’s book and film franchise, she isn’t to be named, because every bit of publicity is fuel for her self-piteous fire.

In Conclusion

The ambiguity and subjectivity of the punk ethos are central to its enduring appeal and relevance. Punk is not a monolith but a mosaic, made up of diverse voices and perspectives. This diversity allows punk to continually reinvent itself and remain relevant to new generations of artists and fans. Whether as a musical genre, a political statement, or a lifestyle, punk remains a powerful symbol of rebellion, individuality, and self-expression. However, that doesn’t mean that harmful tropes pushed via the righteousness of punk should go unchallenged. Punk isn’t a free pass to prejudice.

Article by Amelia Vandergast

FloatLikeCandy moved post-punk to the left(field) with ‘The Girl & the Peacemaker’

To sear the post-punk genre with their own brand of authenticity, FloatLikeCandy, scuzzed and fuzzed their latest single, The Girl & the Peacemaker up to the nth degree. As the basslines growl, the garage-y guitars swagger and shimmer through the progressions as the drawling with deadpan conviction spoken-word vocals work to ensnare fans of Nick Cave and Swans.

Far from your ordinary allegory, The Girl & the Peacemaker depicts a dark and murky tale of the grim sadness of war, the death of innocence and the gaslighting tendencies of politicians and warmongers as they win public favour as blood spills. With the ongoing conflict in Gaza, The Girl & The Peacemaker is a tragically timely release that signifies the importance of keeping experimental truth-sayers on your radar.

Stream The Girl & the Peacemaker on SoundCloud and follow FloatLikeCandy on Facebook to be the first to know when the rest of the EP drops.

Review by Amelia Vandergast

Project Revise tended to the wounds of scene victims with their nettled with emo nostalgia single, Take the World

After we joined the Worcestershire, UK three-piece pop-punk powerhouse, Project Revise, in ‘Free Fall’ with their previous release, we’re stoked to announce that they’re back on the airwaves with their nettled with emo nostalgia latest single, Take the World.

Fans of Taking Back Sunday, Funeral for a Friend and New Found Glory will easily find a place on their playlists for the caustic cuts of the guitars, chugging basslines that leave you psyched for the gravity-defying choruses and adrenalizing infectious vocal lines which soar through the lyrics that run through the pitfalls of staying loyal to toxicity within a scene.

Project Revise’s tracks have previously been heard on BBC Introducing and seminal Spotify playlists, including New Punk Tracks, Pop Punk’s Not Dead, Skatepark Punks and Punk Unplugged. Given that Take the World is some of their viscerally viral-worthy work to date, we expect this rancorous hit to take them to the same heights as Hawthorne Heights.

Take the World will be released on October 20; stream it on SoundCloud.

Review by Amelia Vandergast

Jump Jump Joan made sparks fly in their vintage tone-wrapped pop-punk hit, This Night

Jump Jump Joan cruised in on a riptide of surf punk with their stylistically exhilarant standout single, This Night, taken from their debut EP, This is Us, which hit the airwaves on September 1st.

By the time the palpitatingly sweet chorus hits, you’ll be wishing that all pop-punk hits were as vintagely hued as This Night; as momentum drives through the overdriven guitar lines, the lead vocals drape seductively magnetic harmonies over the rancour to create a natural anchor amidst the chaos.

There aren’t many outfits that can hold vocal candles to the likes of Debbie Harry and Dolores O’Riordan, but if any powerhouse can hold their own against the icons, it is the Somerset-hailing ensemble who are already making major waves across streaming platforms and winning favour from the likes of Blitzcat Records and Honk Magazine. We’re stoked to see Jump Jump Joan hold dominion over the UK punk scene in 2024.

Stream This Night on Spotify now.

Review by Amelia Vandergast

Drink the sonic Kool-Aid in Max Diaz’s twangy alt-punk Tour De Force, COWBOY CULT

The cowboy-hating Texan Max Diaz brought his seminal single, COWBOY CULT, to life via swathes of sardonic vitriol, potent enough to make every punky take on garage rock by Fidlar sound like a love letter to the universe.

While the instrumentals weave their way through bluesy entanglements, Diaz uses every lyrical line to roll with the punches in his heavyweight canter; even if you’ve never pulled on a pair of cowboy boots in your life, you will feel every drop of vindicating venom projected by the artist’s devil may care disdain towards his fellow Texans.

You’d think all of the controversy of his Machiavellian attacks on the people surrounding him who are hellbent on seeing the regression of social progress would leave him unpopular, but the streaming stats don’t lie. After racking up millions of streams on several of his tracks, he’s the pissed-off prince that wasn’t promised but rose through the ashes of redneck numbskullery regardless. We fucking adore him.

COWBOY CULT was released with the rest of the artist’s sophomore LP, METANOIA on October 13th; do yourselves a favour and stream the entire Tour De Force in full via Spotify.

Review by Amelia Vandergast

Martin’s Revenge unleashed their gnarled psy-surf nightmare ‘Jack Let Go of the Door’

Martin’s Revenge made the Oh Sees sound like a 90s pop boyband with their latest darkly domineering single, Jack Let Go of the Door, which leads psych rock down a murky and nefarious corridor and surfs up to a gnarled nightmarescape that any fans of aural aggravation will want to repetitively revisit.

After The Eighties Matchbox B-Line disaster left a void in the industry with their departure, Martin’s Revenge has finally filled it with the rolling harbingering drum fills, electrified to the nth-degree guitars, stabbing basslines and drawling vox in their latest release, which revisits a Fear and Loathing-esque drug trip with striking visceralism.

Following the success of their EP, Harry’s Redroom, the Nottingham-based thee-piece is set to let the leash off of their latest EP, VR Porn, on November 6th. After reinforcing and honing their sound significantly between the two releases, Martin’s Revenge has established itself as more than the sum of its parts and the influence of Fugazi, Pixies, Idles and The Jesus Lizard.

Jack Let Go of the Door was officially released on October 23, Stream it on SoundCloud.

Review by Amelia Vandergast

Diablofurs’ Vampires of Rome will sink its teeth into the heart of any power pop fans.

Imagine Sonic Youth came to fame on this side of the Atlantic, they displaced their distorted guitars with analogue synths, and punky power pop ran in the veins of Goo, and you will get an idea of what Diablofurs consummately concocted with the lead single, Vampires of Rome, from their forthcoming album, Welcome to the City of Fun.

The deeply affecting atmosphere in the verses of Vampires of Rome, which holds an alchemic candle to Echo and the Bunnymen, makes the crescendos even more sonically transcendent to experience. While just about anything with a hook gets labelled as an earworm in these lazy days of music journalism, the infectious appeal of Vampires of Rome is far too intoxicating to experience once. From the first shoegazey rings of euphonic bliss from the guitars in the intro to the Teenage Kicks-y energy when the track reaches its momentum, the nostalgic sense of fabled romanticism will sucker diehard romantics and those whose souls haven’t been stirred viscerally since the 80s.

After receiving critical acclaim from Vive Le Rock, being lauded and spun by 6 Music and BBC Introducing and performing unforgettable shows at Rebellion, the Nottingham-based outfit is set to take the scene by storm with their sophomore release.

Pre-order the sophomore LP, which is due for official release on October 27, from Rough Trade and ensure it sells out as fast as the debut album.

Review by Amelia Vandergast

HeadWar has another hit in their grunge-punk arsenal with ‘Ladders’

With their sophomore EP, Bled Dry, the Madison Wisconsin prodigal sons of grunge punk HeadWar forcibly occupied the middle ground between Fugazi, Nirvana and Pantera and took no prisoners.

The self-described icons of awkward exceeded themselves with the catatonic furore which unfurls through every fortified with catatonic contempt progression in their most seminal single to date, Ladders, which is a cutting with razor-sharp lyrical position exposition on the need to socially climb.

The monolithic breakdown which bursts into a riff that would even leave Slayer fans weak at the knees is the ultimate affirmation of the technical skill of the powerhouse, which is otherwise disguised by the speed of the time signatures and lashings of distortion which lends itself effortlessly well to the lyrical lamentation.

Stream the Bled Dry EP by heading over to Spotify.

Review by Amelia Vandergast

The Manchester gutter punks The Battery Farm thrashed out against the indignity of modernity in ‘House of Pain’

From the offset of their career, The Battery Farm have launched aural assaults to elucidate the filth that lies in the stitches of our Tory sleaze-slicked social tapestry. Their most recent single, House of Pain, is no exception as it brings forth a new brand of furore while leaving the snarky antagonism by the wayside to deliver a necessitated depiction of the brutality endured by the working classes.

The protestive volition within the vocal delivery couldn’t make it clearer that the last straw has been drawn in response to the indignity of modern survival; it finds a feral way of communicating that shame shouldn’t be carried by the people doing what they need to get by; it should rot the souls of the late-stage capitalists forcing the masses into degrading subjugation.

With thrash punk drum fills hammering the discontent into House of Pain and Dominic Corry’s guitars carrying their signature kaleidoscopic with industrial dissonance effects to visualise the foreboding and unforgiving climate, the visceralism within the stark reflection of post-Brexit reality couldn’t be more affectingly astute.

If you needed any more convincing that the Manchester-based gutter punks have moved into their Motorhead era, the B-side single, Time of Peace, should suffice. The exposition of living in a time of perpetual crisis is all the more impactful with the atrocities of the conflict in Gaza playing out before our powerless eyes as even the Labour party leader condones the international war crimes.

Stream House of Pain on Spotify or watch the official music video on YouTube.

Review by Amelia Vandergast

Get moving with Johnjames Bruce’s acoustic post-punk hit, Dance

After cutting his teeth as a bass player in the punk outfit The Irrelevants, the Lancashire-hailing rhythm-maker, Johnjames Bruce, found his voice as a solo acoustic artist and started to release his own indie-folk punk music in 2018.

His latest single, Dance, carries the raucous and cutting spirit of post-punk; heavy distortion was surplus to requirement with the swagger of the acoustic guitars, the snarl in the vocals and the snappy percussive backbeat.

If you’re a fan of Pleasure Heads, Youth Sector, and The Walkmen and like your punk hits raw, intimate and uniquely authentic, Johnjames Bruce’s discography will be your new favourite discovery.

Dance was officially released on September 29; stream it on Spotify.

Review by Amelia Vandergast