On Mohawks and Black Eyeliner
By Christopher Bates
Introductions and Disclaimers
The varying genres of music and its classification are one of those subjects that should be added to politics and religion as subjects that shouldn’t be brought up at the dinner table. Friends have been lost, family members thrown out, and strangers beaten when arguments over who were truly punk or the original emo band arose. With such an explosive subject before me, there is bound to be collateral damage. I apologise in advance for not including a favourite band. I will attempt to investigate the differences between punk and emo from a historical perspective. My task will not be easy. I can already feel the trolls smashing keys under bridges and hordes of ravenous fans igniting torches. Fearless, I shall try to enlighten the masses and not anger wizened bibliophiles of music history too much.
“Hey Ho, Let’s Go!”
The origins of punk rock cannot be simplified to single moment were Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious crawled out of cess pit on the outskirts of London. Many critics and music historians attribute the birth of punk to the underground rock scene in New York and Detroit in the mid-sixties (Meissner, n.d.). In 1966, two years after Beatlemania, Iggy Pop formed the Stooges. It was to be completely different to what was proliferated on the airwaves at the time. Instruments could hardly be played and as Jaffe states “They had very little musical knowledge to interfere with the ideas they had.” (Jaffe, n.d.). They were ultimately bored with music, bored with the inevitable poverty they would live in, and bored with the society they found themselves in that would result in music that was loud, unruly and exciting to see live.
It was not till punk luminaries the Ramones released their self-titled album in 1975 that punk became a discernible genre. They came to embody the following music philosophy, “”PLAY’IN [sic] IN THE BAND…FIRST AND LAST IN A SERIES……….” in which the author displays a rough sketch of a guitar neck with the fingering for an A (with the caption “THIS IS A CHORD”), an E (caption: “THIS IS ANOTHER”) and a G (caption: “THIS IS A THIRD”) and the final pronouncement “NOW FORM A BAND.”” (Meissner, n.d.) as found in the December 1976 fanzine Sideburns. Anthems like “Blitzkrieg Pop” and “I Wanna Be Sedated” are punk rock classics to this day, often exciting varying classes of misfits and social abnormalities to pogo.
Crossing the Pond
The United Kingdom at the time was a bleak place, particularly for the youth. Youth unemployment was on the rise with little hope of working class teens and young adults of improving their lot in life. This created a social malaise and frustration amongst the youth, yearning for something new musically. Much of rock music at the time was all about the guitar solo and ten minute long epics. On the 4 July 1976 an event was about to forever change the musical landscape. The Ramones first toured the U.K. and played at The Roundhouse (louderthanwar, 2012).
That night has forever been etched into the history of punk. It has now transformed from historical fact to myth. Different accounts of the night put members of both the Sex Pistols and the Clash there while others put them at The Black Swan, another famous punk venue, playing a gig. Regardless, the gig helped ignite a passion for many who witnessed. It helped propel the British punk seem to heights it would achieve in the late seventies. The formation and history of just the Sex Pistols have filled many a biography and documentary. Likewise with the Clash who were at one point regarded as the most important band in the world (Salewicz 2006, 329).
Through the Sex Pistols and their manager Malcolm McLaren, the then manager of Sex, a shop that came to define punk fashion. Doc Martens, torn shirts, safety pins, and mohawks came to be identifiers of who you were. Punk fashion was intended to be inherently ugly and completely different to what was seen as British values at the time. Rude, spitting, with safety pins in cheeks they came to be a counter culture movement of the angry and bored (Hennessy 1978, 13-24).
We Want It Faster and Angrier!
In the late Seventies, punk rock in the U.S. morphed into something faster and angrier. It was to be called hardcore punk. Taking the DIY ethos found in punk to new heights, every city or town big enough to have a scene suddenly developed one (Cooper, n.d.). Two cities, in particular, would have a major influence on hardcore and music in general. Those being Los Angeles and Washington D.C. From Los Angeles came Black Flag and the Dead Kennedy’s, while Washington D.C. brought the Bad Brains and Minor Threat to the attention of kids wanting some kind of escape and a feeling of belonging. Through hardcore “Punk… continued to seem both vital and volatile for [so long] because its ideals of rebellion [had] always included self-awareness regarding incorporation” (Nehring 86). To this day hardcore as a genre has an immensely loyal fan base with thriving scenes across the globe including far-flung countries like South Africa.
Even Harcore Kids have a Softer Side
From the Washington D.C. hardcore scene came a new sub-genre. Rather than lyrics that focused on social commentary or political activism, bands such as Rites of Spring began composing lyrics that were deeply personal and introverted (“A History of Emo Music”, 2008). Although the music itself was still inherently hardcore in composition and attitude, emotional hardcore came into being. Although not considered emo, Fugazi helped paved the way for later emo bands to be more expansive in sound and inspiration. By abandoning the conventional roots of hardcore and incorporating a funk imbued post-hardcore sound into their music (“A History of Emo Music”, 2008).
Up until 1994 what came to be known as emo music was still a fringe movement. It wasn’t until Sunny Day Real Estate was signed to Subpop, the label which signed Nirvana and Soundgarden, propelled the band and emo music in general to relative commercial success. The falsetto lyrical style on frontman Jeremy Enigk has been echoed by subsequent contemporary emo bands (“A History of Emo Music”, 2008). However, the application of the emo moniker has not been done with any kind of consistency with bands themselves often shunning the label. Often bands that saw themselves as indie-rock were labeled as emo.
By 1998 emo was becoming a widespread term, even appearing in Teen Magazine which portrayed emo as a “hot trend” (“A History of Emo Music”, 2008). This obviously caused more bands to want to shed the label. Despite bands wishes becoming part of the mainstream resulted in commercial success for bands like Fall Out Boy, My Chemical Romance, Paramore, and Panic! At the Disco.
As with punk, once a scene developed so did a certain loose dress code which identified you as belonging to the scene. Skinny jeans, dyed black hair generally swept over the eyes, studded belts, your favorite band shirt, dirty converse and heavy black eyeliner became their uniform. Often in popular media, those who associated with being part of the emo culture were mocked. Emo became a term of ridicule as much as it was a cultural identifier. Shows like South Park poked fun at the similarities between being regarded emo and goth (“Emo: History and Origin” n.d.).
Apples Falling Certain Distances Away from Trees
Now comes the finally part of this quest. Vaunted critics are already planning what vitriol to send in binary form my way. Many an important band has been left out and era-defining events glossed over or completely ignored. The following list of differences is by no means an exhaustive list. To every point below exceptions exist. With one more disclaimer released to try and prevent a tidal wave of hate from two camps, here is my list of differences between punk and emo seen from a historical perspective:
- Lyrically punk music tended to express its anger outwards, whether it was at governments, injustice or societal ills. Emo focussed on the internal struggle of the writer. It was introverted in approach, dealing with emotional turmoil.
- Punk music, in terms of music composition, was stripped back and DIY rock. It didn’t require you to have any great technical skill. Although Emo is essentially derived from punk, hardcore punk, in particular, it has come to incorporate more influences and genres to make it unique. Panic! At the Disco is a great example of this as they seem to genre bend at will.
- Although an ultimately superficial difference the associated fashions differed between punk and emo. Whether it was Doc Martens, leather jackets, mohawks, and torn clothing, mended with safety pins, or the dirty converse, Thursday t-shirts, skinny jeans and dyed black causing visual impairment each had a certain style of dress that acted like cultural markers for which group they belonged.
So concludes what I feel are the major differences between two counter cultures that came to define entire generations.