Punk rock is now firmly established as an aesthetic choice: groups forming today draw from a range of influences, all downloadable from iTunes, and make decisions accordingly. But many punk bands were great because their members had no choice but to play punk rock. Either they were too musically incompetent, or too fucking angry — or both, ideally — to play anything else but three-chord, loud, fast, verse-chorus-verse-chorus anthems.
But what happened when some of those pre-iTunes punk bands, like, practiced together for a few years? Their musicianship improved. And often their increased competence led to some VERY BAD DECISIONS. And by VERY BAD DECISIONS, I mean heavy metal.
Don’t get me wrong: metal is fine. Metal, in fact, rules. My first album was Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid.” I still love the metal. But punk rock is a minimal aesthetic and heavy metal is maximal. I don’t know if that’s a word, but I’m going with it. When punk and metal mix, very bad things happen. Let’s explore.
- Bad Brains. Have you listened to the “Black Dots” sessions? Holy shit that was some amazingly tight, fast punk cranked out by very young Rastafarians (!) in 1979. Unfortunately, by 1986, with “I Against I,” they had fully crossed over into “metal virtuoso” territory, and went downhill from there. I would have preferred they went totally reggae, an aesthetic that worked well for the motherfucking Clash. But metal sunk Bad Brains.
- Suicidal Tendencies. The first Suicidal album was a thrash masterpiece of L.A. Chicano rage. The second? Who knows, no one can listen past the first song. And Infectious Grooves? They were the worst of every possible genre compressed into a single terrible band.
- Ramones. My first Ramones Album was one of their most metal: “Animal Boy.” My second was the Phil Spector-produced “End of the Century,” which sounds like it was released in 1960. I was very confused about the Ramones for a long time. I did ultimately worship at the shrine of the first three albums, but let’s face it, from “Animal Boy” onward, they were a heavy metal band.
- Circle Jerks. I can listen to the first Circle Jerks album, “Group Sex,” pretty much indefinitely. 14 songs in 15 minutes – damn! The other day I tried listening to their fourth album, “Wonderful,” and did not make it past track three. There is even a metal parody on that album called “American Heavy Metal Weekend” but they don’t seem to realize that the whole fucking album is bad metal parody.
- Green Day. “Dookie” is a pop-punk masterpiece. Their followup, whose title no one can remember*, failed because it had too many guitar solos and metal riffage. Lesson to punks: No one cares how well you can play your guitar! I’m told Green Day remains somewhat popular despite their forays into the dark metal arts. (*Oh right — “Insomniac.”)
- Black Flag. I still love Black Flag. Now there are two Black Flag reunion bands touring around. Want to know why the the “unofficial” FLAG will win over the “official” Black Flag? Because Greg Ginn is way too metal and smokes way too much dope. (See also Rollins Band: Metal with the vocals way too high in the mix.)
- Dirty Rotten Imbeciles (DRI). I have never knowingly listened to this band but I have a story about them. When I was 14 and getting into punk, I asked my older punk friend to make me a list of albums I should get (at Specs, the now defunct Miami record store that carried vinyl imports and such). One of them said I should get some DRI — “anything but the album ‘Crossover.'” I am pretty sure I know why that is the album to avoid, and what territory it was “crossing over.”
There are many more examples. I will add to this list as I think of them. In the meantime, be punk, or be metal, just don’t be both if you want to not suck. I get that no band can stay together for any length of time and not want to evolve. I’m all for bands evolving. I’ve stuck with the Flaming Lips all these years. I’ve helped introduce my kids to the Beatles and I love listening to how much they changed in just 10 years. But the punk-to-metal thing is not evolution; it’s bastardization, it’s pollution, it’s like when you try to make a kick-ass volcano and you mix baking soda and vinegar, but there’s no explosion: it just kind of foams and dribbles and smells bad.