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So to Speak Podcast Transcript: Why should we care about punk rock?

Why should we care about punk rock?

Note: This is an unedited rush transcript. Please check any quotations against the audio recording.

Nico Perrino: All right. Welcome back to So to Speak, the Free Speech Podcast, where every other week we take an uncensored look at the world of free expression through personal stories and candid conversations. I am, as always, your host, Nico Perrino.

You might recall a couple of weeks ago we did a podcast on music, music censorship, transgression in music with Nick Gillespie, the Editor at Large of Reason Magazine, and Bob Guccione, who founded Spin and has been involved in the music industry for decades now. And at the end of that podcast, we got talking about punk rock and I admitted to not knowing hardly anything about it. And Nick Gillespie was kind enough to offer to come back on the show and educate me about punk rock and its importance to the cause of free expression, both in music and in culture more generally.

And Bob later told me he knows nothing about punk rock, like me, and would not be good for the conversation. So, we’re gonna have to have Bob Guccione back at a later date. But I do have the benefit of having Matt Harwood, FIRE’s new Vice President of Communications. He joined us last year, I believe, in September, who is a punk rock fan. I remember him telling me – you either had to take off work, Matt, or you were telling me later that night that you wouldn’t be around because you were going to a punk show.

And I also have Jack Whitton on FIRE’s coms team, who is a huge punk rock fan and is himself in a punk band. So, I’m surrounded by people who like punk rock, and talk about punk rock, and I just have to kind of nod my head like I know what they’re talking about. Kinda like with Greg Lukianoff, FIRE President, when he talks about comic books. I know nothing about them. But he is a huge comic book fan, and it hasn’t stopped him from trying to talk with me about comic books for the past decade.

So, Nick Gillespie, welcome back on the show.

Nick Gillespie: Thanks so much for having me.

Nico Perrino: Matt Harwood, welcome onto the show for the first time.

Matt Harwood: Glad to be here, Nico.

Nico Perrino: Nick, I wanna start with you. What got you into punk rock?

Nick Gillespie: You know I’ve been thinking about this a lot since you had told me you were gonna open with this. And I think in a lot of ways it – there was a moment – so, the Sex Pistols, the British band, which is super identified with punk music, in 1976 they were on a British TV show. That was a regional talk show with a guy named Bill Grundy, who was a famously kinda boozy morning show host. And he was sneering at them and saying like, “Oh, you guys are supposed to be punk rockers or you’re outlaws, etc. Say something outrageous.” And Johnny Rotten, and especially Steve Jones, did more than participate in that. And, at one point, Steve Jones, the guitarist, said like, “You fucking bastard. You fucking rotter.”

And in England, it created this moment where it was – there’s a famous headline in a British paper called The Filth and the Fury. Even though it was a regional show, it just became the story of the day that these punks, these sniveling little children of the greatest generation of the people that beat Hitler, were just nightmares. And there were reports of people kicking in their TV sets when they saw this. It just ignited something.

And that story, even though it was in England, it made it over. And I read about it. I remember my brother, who’s older than me, and reading about in either The Daily News or the New York Post. I was living in New Jersey, and we just laughed at the insanity of it, right? First off, that these people would be on TV, and that then people would get so outraged they would kick their TV sets.

And I think, for me, I was born in 1963. So, I was 13 in 1976, which was also the bicentennial year. And I was a boy scout. I marched in a hometown bicentennial parade. But there was a broad sense that something weird and bad was going on in America. That things were not particularly great. And that’s kind of when I became aware of punk music. The Sex Pistols were, themselves, actually inspired mostly by American bands. First and foremost, the Ramones, and a couple of other figures in New York.

So, for me, it was kind of that moment. And what spoke to me about it was the unadorned kind of anger of the music and of the people. But also, and this often gets lost in kind of when people look back at it, it was the fun of it. The Ramones were a short staccato band that just played songs that typically would last two minutes, but they were very direct, very punchy, but also really, really funny. And they were kind of referencing a kind of Hogan’s Heroes world or a world with movie monsters and then making fun of the subject matter and the treatment of love and things like that that you would normally find in a love song.

So, it’s like they – instead of talking about love they would talk about sniffing glue. They would talk about beating people up and things like that in a kind of almost girl group patois that is very funny. And they were making fun, not as much of the parent’s culture, as much as the hippie culture that was immediately preceding them. So, it was funny. It was angry. It was upbeat. It was short. It was to the point. And in many cases, it did speak to this kind of sense of torpor or despair.

Nico Perrino: And Matt, what got you interested in punk rock?

Matt Harwood: I hate to confess this, I think it was Green Day actually got me into punk rock.

Nico Perrino: That was gonna be a question later in the show. It’s like, “Is Green Day punk rock?”

Matt Harwood: I don’t know if they are anymore.

Nick Gillespie: Oh, sure. No. But yeah. Yeah. They definitely come out of it. I mean, yeah, I think so. I mean people don’t want to admit that.

Nico Perrino: They turn their nose up to it.

Nick Gillespie: Yeah. Yeah. But it’s like, yeah, everybody gets that way, right? Where you were there – I mean and punk is terrible for this where it’s like, “Oh, I saw this band play in a men’s room when – or they only had two fans.” And the minute they become popular or other people hear about it, then it’s no longer punk. I think that’s bullshit. And I think Green Day is on the receiving end of a lot of that.

Matt Harwood: Well, I think it’s bullshit, but there also is something about punk rockers playing sold-out stadium shows, you know what I mean?

Nick Gillespie: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

Matt Harwood: You know what I mean?

Nick Gillespie: For sure.

Matt Harwood: It just doesn’t compute. But for me, outside of that then, it became – I was a skater kid, and I was the uncool skater kid in the sense that I rollerbladed. So, that was like rollerblading, and you ran over rails and ramps all those type of things. So, the bikers hated us. The skateboarders hated us. But just watching skate videos, man, I just got plunged into it. And it’s exactly what Nick is saying. It’s just like fast music. It’s rebellious. It’s individualistic for the most part. So, that’s really what attracted me to punk rock, particularly the antiauthoritarian aspects of it.

Nico Perrino: Where did the name “punk rock” come from? Nick, you used when – in reflecting on that Bill Grundy story you say he kinda calls them punks.

Nick Gillespie: Right.

Nico Perrino: They’re degenerates or whatever.

Nick Gillespie: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

Nico Perrino: Did that come as a result of folks like Bill Grundy calling these rockers that? Or did it predate that?

Nick Gillespie: Yeah. I think it already predated that a bit. And I’m sorry, I’m blanking on the earliest iterations of it. And there’s a great deal of historical excavation that goes into this. But there was a magazine, a zine really, called Punk in New York in the early ‘70s. And part of it is a “punk” was somebody who was a gay consort in prison. You would punk somebody out. You would just use them sexually and things like that.

And so, as a lot of terms of identification, this happens. The Quakers were called “Quakers” by their enemies and then they kind of take it on. Or there’s a certain version of this with African Americans and gays and whatnot. Like to take on the term “queer,” “punk” was kind of like that. And again, it was kinda playful and funny. And it came to signify instead of being – you know Frank Sinatra in the ‘50s would refer to people as little punks. They’re just beneath contempt and weak and all of this kinda stuff.

And punk, I mean it was the people behind Punk magazine and then the scene really that was starting to congregate in New York in the early to mid-‘70s where it really became the kind of term to – in a weird way also, and this is something worth thinking about, the bands that played at a place like CBGBs, which was the kinda shrine of punk, they were not aesthetically that similar.

There’s a lot of difference between the Talking Heads, the Ramones, Blondie, Fear, the Bad Brains. I mean it’s just like it – what mattered was that they were all kind of in the same place at the same time or acknowledged each other as this alternative to what was considered mainstream, dull, boring, overblown, overproduced kind of hippie culture. And it really is the – in a way punk was the second half of the baby boom rebelling against the first half of the baby boom.

And so, that’s who they were first and foremost in dialogue with. And specifically in England in 1976 Eric Clapton was like – there was graffiti in England during the ‘60s, “Clapton is God.” He’s like the Pope of hippiedom, the Pope of the ‘60s – of the high ‘60s, and he gave a slurred, drunken speech at a concert where he was promoting the candidacy of a guy named Enoch Powell, who was a racist, strange politician in England, and he was like – who was very nativist. And Clapton slurredly said that “Enoch Powell is right that England should be for the English.”

David Bowie, at the same time, another high late ‘60s, early ‘70s rock star, a giant – selling out the entire planet in these stadium tours, was speaking fondly of fascism and of Hitler. And there was a group that founded a group called Rock Against Racism. And it was younger people who were identified with the punk music scene saying, “These are our old, fat, braindead, drunken, boozy, extravagant, cavalier, idiot older brothers and that’s who we’re fighting against.

Nico Perrino: Nick, I wanna clarify, and Matt, maybe you can help out here, what you mean by they – punk rockers being aesthetically dissimilar. Right? Because when I think of pop music, I think of the style being fairly similar.


Nick Gillespie: Yeah. Yeah.

Matt Harwood: Yeah. I don’t agree with that.

Nick Gillespie: You guys know music in a way that I do not. I only listen to it. But when you listen to an early band that is part of the CBGB scene and part of the punk scene as Television, which had Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell, who ended up leaving the group. But if you listen to them, these are exquisitely produced and polished songs with unbelievably advanced playing. They’re long. They’re lyrically opaque and poetic. You have that on the one hand, and then you have something like early Ramones where the songs are a minute – a minute-and-a-half long. There isn’t even a solo. There may be two chords. And the message is, “Beat on the brat with a baseball bat.” So, when I say that it’s – there’s a lot of difference.

Nico Perrino: Oh, okay.

Nick Gillespie: Yeah.

Nico Perrino: I see what you’re saying.

Nick Gillespie: Yeah.

Nico Perrino: There’s a lot of difference between the other music that was being made at the time. I thought you meant punk rock because itself –


Nick Gillespie: Well, within the punk – yeah, within the punk movement Television was one of the founding bands of CBGBs. Somebody like Patti Smith even who is raw and is – maybe is considered pre-punk. I find the attempt to kind of create really sharp and meaningful divisions, it’s kinda hard. But they were very different styles. And if you went to a CBGBs in 1978 or something like that, you might hear three bands that have little in common other than the fact that they are in CBGBs.

Nico Perrino: Matt, do you agree with that?

Matt Harwood: Yeah. I mean I think there’s a large variety of punk. I mean I can only speak around my age, which was the ‘90s and the ‘00s and things like that. But, I mean, there was emo, which was kinda like your suburban kids whining over their girlfriends, which I loved when I was a kid, and I was acne scarred and all that type of stuff. That was incredible. There’s screamo, which is kinda like a metal punk, in a sense, where it was from really, I would say, beautiful, beautiful singing to just coughing and screaming.

Nico Perrino: It’s like The Used. Yeah.

Matt Harwood: Yeah. Like, yeah, The Used. I would say The Used are more – yeah. The Used are screamo. I was thinking more like a band, which interestingly enough, to talk about diversity, and especially viewpoints, is someone like Under Oath, which is a Christian band from Florida that was a screamo band.

And then you have like the Buffalo hardcore scene, which are vegans and straight edge. There’s Christian core. I mean basically you can attach anything to core. There’s Christian core. There was a band that I loved as a kid called Shelter. It got me into Eastern philosophy.

So, it’s funny. Like all the things that I loved as a kid kinda came out of punk rock and the bands that I would listen to. Very much colored my politics, my ideologies, all those type of things. A lot of the reading that I did was tipped off by the punk rock musicians that I listened to.

Nico Perrino: That’s interesting because I see some of those bands, metalcore, coming out of metal more so than punk rock. Because I grew up a metalhead. I was into bands like Metallica and AC/DC and a band named Iced Earth was one of my favorites. But also, more death metal-like bands like Children of Bodom and In Flames and Soilwork. And I see those later bands that you talk about, the screamo bands, kind of coming out of that lineage more so than anything else.

Yeah. There might be some convergence between the two genres, but when I think of punk rock, and again not familiar with the genre, or maybe I’m more familiar with it than I know. I think back to that Tom Morello story, Matt, from the interview that FIRE sponsored with him where he talks about seeing Joe Strummer in concert.

And Joe Strummer had a Music Man amp on top of – like a small Music Man amp on top of a chair, and that was his amplifier at the concert. And Tom Morello, who was just a young kid at the time, had a Music Man amp on top of a chair in his basement and that’s what he’s practicing. That’s what inspired him to say like, “Oh, I can do this too because that guy I just saw on stage last night has the same setup as I do.”

So, when Nick talks about kind of a not overproduced sound, kind of a grungier sound, sorta like, “Who the fuck cares whether I’m playing out of a Marshall amplifier” sound, that’s what I think of as punk rock. Like I’ve got a ceiling fan and an amp and a microphone and a guitar and that’s all I need sort of approach, which as you get –

Matt Harwood: A do-it-yourself ethic 100% too.

Nick Gillespie: Yeah. That, I think, is a big part of punk in a broad way. And it changes and evolves over time. But the DIY nature of things where the bands overall that defined punk, I think, in the ‘70s did not have music – most of them did not have any kind of musical training or elite musical training. They didn’t have record labels. They didn’t have practice spaces and things like that. And they absolutely pioneered a strong DIY ethic of, “We don’t know what to do, but we’re gonna create a world, we’re gonna create a music, we’re gonna create a scene, we’re gonna create labels, and we’re gonna release this. And then kind of – and then they moved into a kind of more conventional space.

So, I think rather than the aesthetics, I guess getting hung up too much on the aesthetics of, “Does The Clash sound like the Talking Heads? Do they sound like The Cramps or something?” Kind of, but not really, I think. And then it’s more that they have a similar ethos, which is protesting on some level, being very alternative, and not necessarily in a sniffy or showy way, but it’s like they are doing their own thing. And they’re doing it in relation to what came before them.

I see punk and I think a lot of culture is like this. It’s kind of a dialectical experiment or experience. And just as rock music was in dialogue with folk music and the kind of Sinatra/Bing Crosby crooner stuff in the early ‘60s, punk then was in a dialogue and a dialectic with what – groups like ELP. Groups like Yes. Groups like Genesis. Progressive rock, which to their mind, had generally become bloated and stupid and talking about elves and Norse mythology or something in a silly way, right? They come at it in a much more stripped-down, kind of a stark way.

Nico Perrino: What is the first – and I know this can get difficult, but what is the first punk band? Metal, it’s often pegged to Black Sabbath, right? Correctly or incorrectly. Rock and roll you harken back to folks like Elvis Presley. And I know there are many people who take issue with that. So, we could get hung up on this conversation, but when you think of kind of the paradigmatic punk band that kinda started it all, or at least brought it into popular culture, who do you guys think of?

Nick Gillespie: I mean I think of the Ramones because they started playing together, I think, in 1975 and they – and then their first album came out in 1976 and it really – it did not sell well. In a lot of ways, it was kind of like the Velvet Underground almost 10 years before, where they released an album that was drastically out of step with the times. And it didn’t sell well, but it really affected the people who heard it.

Just like people said this about – I think it was Brian Eno said this about the Velvet Underground, that the record didn’t sell very well, but everybody who bought it started their own band. Something like that happened with the Ramones who then influenced the guy who helped create the Sex Pistols. And when the Sex Pistols started touring England, something similar happened as well.

So, again, I don’t get too hung up on, “Okay. What is the very first instance of this or that?” But there’s a bunch of bands and acts, mostly in New York City in the early ‘70s. There are protogroups. A lot of people talk about someone like Patti Smith or The Stooges who were kicking around. And there you can hear kind of the rawness and the lack of kind of sophistication on some level is very important.

Matt Harwood: What’s interesting is too, what you’re saying, Nick, because I think I even heard a song from Little Richard from the ‘50s that I was like, “That is a punk song.” Like it was just fast and driving and it was in the three minutes. And then you also have MC5 with Kick Out the Jams, which is just ferocious punk energy before I think anyone would’ve called anything punk. But I tend to agree with you. I think if you’re gonna settle on something, it’s probably gonna be the Ramones.

Nico Perrino: So, you guys are talking about how punk rock was a response to the culture of the day or there was culture that came before it. I don’t think of punk rock as being mainstream culture, but you guys might disagree. I think of it more as kind of a response to kind of prevailing culture.

Matt Harwood: Hot Topic’s made a lot of money off of it.

Nick Gillespie: Yeah. Well, you know what is interesting about it, and there’s a fantastic book called Babylon’s Burning by Clinton Heylin, who’s a British pop music writer. A rock writer. And that takes punk from its early beginnings, both in the US and in England, and then takes it through Nirvana and kind of Green Day.

And I think it’s worth thinking about that punk in its early heyday, which is maybe ’75 – ’76 to ’77, maybe ’79 at the latest, it didn’t really – especially in the U.S., it didn’t sell a lot of records, but then it slowly influenced more and more things until you get to a point like Nirvana and Green Day, which clearly are indebted to punk and are riffing off of that many of its sensibilities and were the biggest bands in the world. They were as big or bigger than a group like U2 or Bruce Springsteen or REM ever managed to be.

Matt Harwood: And Nick, to your point, Kirk Cobain would’ve called himself – that Nirvana was a punk rock band.

Nick Gillespie: Yeah.

Matt Harwood: There was just the overlay with Grunge.

Nico Perrino: How much do you need to understand New York City in the ‘70s to understand punk rock?

Nick Gillespie: I think it helps. And then it’s also interesting to think about San Francisco and L.A., which were the other two big hotbeds of this. And actually, let me take that back, Cleveland, Ohio. Cleveland and Akron where bands like The Pretenders and Devo came out of and the Dead Boys and Rocket from the Crypt and Pere Ubu. And again, take a step back a little bit. And Detroit or the industrial mid-West.

Part of the backdrop of punk on the East Coast and industrial mid-West was economic collapse. Or not even. Like a rusting out where it was just that what – the people who were making this music, their parents had moved to these places because they were vibrant and dynamic. And by the time these people were coming of age in the ‘70s, that was all – it was either definitely gone or you could just see it sliding away.

So, I think that that sense of economic malaise, but also a kind of cultural malaise. It was post-‘60s. The ‘60s ended in a fury of cataclysmic events. Failures and finally an end to Vietnam, but a loss. The decline of economic opportunity. In New York City in the 1970s, from ’70 to ’80, the city lost about a million people. Something like 10% of its population. It was kind of on its heels. And that’s certainly true of Northeastern Ohio and Detroit.

When you go to the West Coast, there was something – in San Francisco in the ‘70s, and there’s a great book called Season of the Witch by David Talbot about the kind of broad weirdness of San Francisco, but you had everything from Black Panthers killing people to the Mayor and Harvey Milk being shot to death by another city supervisor. Jim Jones of the People’s Temple was there until he vacated. Serial killers were all over the place.

And in L.A., both in L.A. proper as well as in Orange County, which was a big kind of crucible of this stuff, there was a sense of decay and of being left out. Whether you were white or if you were an emerging ethnic group, it was just like, “Yeah. The American dream doesn’t exist here. It’s really kinda morphed into something creepy and scary and just uninteresting.

Matt Harwood: Nick, in the beginning for you, just the early groups because I just didn’t follow them as much, what were their politics? Were they mostly socialist? Because I remember growing up, the politics of all the punk bands were socialists.


Nick Gillespie: No. Yeah. That, I think, comes a little bit later. And my colleagues, Ed Reese, and Brian Doherty wrote a great piece for us in 2000 or 2001 called The Strange Politics of Millionaire Rockstars, which kind of speaks to this. And Rage Against the Machine are like, front and center there because Rage Against the Machine clearly, openly, and truly indebted to punk, but then they had a very ridiculous kind of – the worst kind of dumb socialist policies about everything.

In the early days, I would say punk was kind of – I don’t wanna say it was anarchistic because it wasn’t a political program. Part of it was in opting out of all of that kind of stuff. And the Ramones famously – Johnny Ramone hated communism. They hated communism. Tommy Ramone, who was the drummer and the producer, his parents were Hungarian refugees. They were anti-communist. And, in a profound way, Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols was always railing against communists.

And so, I think the politics of punk, especially in the early days, was very heterodox. It was definitely anti-authority. It was anti-fascist. It was anti-communist. It was anti-corporate. It was anti- kind of mom and dad. But it was especially anti-big brother and big sister.

Meaning like the Eric Claptons of the world were just unendurable. What happened in The Clash and a group called Gang of Four, which is phenomenal, in England really kind of spearheaded a narrowing of the political rhetoric of punk to something that was much more kind of doctrinaire late ‘70s, early ‘80s kind of socialist. Friendly towards either, if not the Soviets, then to the Sandinistas or to Castro or to these other emanations of what we all recognized at the time, but then the world recognized by 1990, was a failed ideology.

Nico Perrino: When you’re dealing with counterculture movements, including music like punk rock, you often find examples of censorship. And Nick, when I asked you and Bob Guccione on the last podcast, “Did punk rock ever face censorship,” you guys both kind of chuckled at me. But I truly just don’t know much of the history.

Matt was telling me, as we were coming up with our Free Speech and Other Dirty Words video series, in which we interviewed Tom Morello and Melissa Etheridge, we were trying to come up with artists who have had something to say historically about censorship. And Matt brought up Danzig and the song Mother, which I guess is about the PMRC and censorship.

So, I’d love to hear some of the stories. Nick, your conversation or your story about Bill Grundy, I think, kind of speaks to some of this as well.

Nick Gillespie: Yeah. Well, of course they were on TV when they said it, and it led, but England also. The UK had weird things where the Sex Pistols had a massive hit. They sold a lot of records in England. God Save the Queen, which was released around the Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, and it made fun of her, “God save the Queen. She ain’t no human being.” And when they would move up the charts, that song title would be blacked out because England has more open censorship or had more open censorship. And so, the Sex Pistols were topping the charts in England, but it would either be redacted or a blank slot at the top of the chart. So, in that sense, it’s censorship.

There was another kind of – it’s not censorship per se, but the Sex Pistols went through at least two record deals before – and they kept getting dropped by their labels because they were like, “No. This is too hot to handle.” And then finally Virgin Records, Richard Branson’s outfit.

Which, ironically, the first album that Virgin Records – Richard Branson started out selling used records, but the first new production that they released was Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells. I mean it’s very prog-rocky. And Mike Oldfield who made the label, it’s very prog-rocky, long, kind of classical symphonic type stuff, but Branson was the one who picked up the Sex Pistols record and released Never Mind the Bollocks, which is – it stands as one of the great debut albums of all time. And so, it got played, but not as much on the radio as you might think in England.

I think in the U.S. – I was thinking about this because another great early kind of punk group that was big in CBGBs was Wendy O. Williams and the Plasmatics. And they would do things like cut their instruments in half using a chainsaw. She would wear a bikini made out of whipped cream that would start to dissipate as she was performing. She was arrested for public indecency in Milwaukee and things like that.

A lot of these records just didn’t get airtime in the U.S. And I don’t think – it wasn’t censorship per se, but it was clearly – it was discouraged by officials as well as corporate entities. And one thing to remember, which is hard to recover in this moment of just the cornucopia where you can hear everything ever done all the time. There weren’t that many outlets for – public outlets, whether you’re talking about broadcast TV, there were three channels and a bunch of UHF channels. And even radio stations. There were many fewer radio stations and most of them did not play this kind of music.

Nico Perrino: Yeah. Well, I think censorship is a very specific kind of thing. But I think of punk rock as pushing the boundaries of what can be said in polite society. And that, of course, has free speech implications. Here at FIRE, we talk about a culture of free speech in where people have the freedom to be who they are and speak their minds and have the artistic freedom to kind of experiment with new modes of expressing themselves.

So, it doesn’t need to be censorship per se where you have the government coming in and arresting you on stage for having a whipped cream bikini or whatever, but it can be kind of a stultifying culture of orthodox your conformity. The sort of conformity that, in fact, John Stuart Mill condemns in his famous treatise from the 19th Century on liberty, which was a revolt, in that sense, against Victorian England.

But, in this case, it sounds like you’re saying it’s not a revolt against sort of conformity unless you think of hippie culture as a sort of conformity, which I guess you might.


Nick Gillespie: Yeah. Which they definitely did. And when you think about it in terms of the recording industry again, which has gone through massive shifts just in the 21st Century, but it really started exploding or imploding in the ‘90s. And we’ll come back to Rage Against the Machine in a minute, but a lot of the punk bands were either signed by smaller labels, so like Sire Records, which was run by Seymour Stein who died recently. And he released a lot of the early punk bands because he liked it. But it was a smaller label.

In England, labels like Stiff Records and Rough Trade released a lot of stuff because the major labels wouldn’t do it. Virgin, at the time, was not a major label. In the U.S., a group like the Dead Kennedys created Alternative Tentacles. Greg Ginn, who was the founder of Black Flag started his own record company. Another record company, SST Records. Another in California, Slash Records, released groups like the Germs because you couldn’t – there was no way Warner Bros, there was no way Columbia, there was no way RCA, they weren’t going to touch these bands.

And in this sense, I think one of the great kind of relatively underappreciated aspects of punk is by creating all of these different records labels that were often times lo-fi and shaky and short-lived, but it helped start this kind of decentralization of cultural production that we are living in now. Some people bemoan it, but it’s just – part of what they were rebelling against was the kind of centralization of cultural production. And it had gotten to such an insane degree.

Famously in the ‘60s Columbia Records, which took a while to embrace rock because rock was seen as a fad in the late ‘50s through the early ‘60s, but by the end of the ‘60s they were gigantic and they would put ads in Ramparts Magazine, which was like a far-left magazine that is phenomenal. Find it online if you can. The back issues are great. But Columbia Records would put ads in Ramparts Magazine, which was a hardcore left-wing progressive anti-war magazine that did some great journalism. Columbia Records would say, “The man can’t bust our music,” and it would be a promotion for Columbia Records. And they were the man.

But this is how the ‘60s counterculture had gotten to a point where they were kind of dominating everything, but they were still pretending to be dispossessed and marginal. And that’s the real people who were marginalized and disgusted by that in the ‘70s were the punks. And they were like, “Fuck you.” And to their credit, instead of just shutting up or going home, they started to produce their own outlets for this kinda stuff, including creating their own clubs, as well as record labels and magazines and things like that.

Nico Perrino: Yeah. Did the zine culture come out of punk rock?

Nick Gillespie: I don’t know if it came out of it, but it definitely enabled it. And when you look again, Punk Magazine – and there’s a fantastic oral history of punk called Please Kill Me by Legs McNeil and a coauthor. And it’s recapturing how square American culture was, or global culture was, is worth doing because we face different challenges now. People will be like, “Oh, there’s too much diversity in offerings. Or there’s too much to read,” etc. 50 years ago, 60 years ago, it was the inverse, right? Or it was different.

And to understand that and to understand the anger and the pent-up frustration that that created and that that also – it was in the cultural sphere, but also in the economic sphere. This is kind of a jump, but corporations like Apple and even Microsoft were seeing themselves in dialogue with IBM or AT&T or older computer companies and they were like, “Fuck it. We’re not gonna be like that. We’re gonna be more distributed. We’re gonna be more open. We’re not gonna make people wear the same clothes. White collar workers wear uniforms just as much as garbagemen or assembly line workers.”

And the ‘70s was a moment where there was a lot of decay, but out of that came this push to disperse and decentralize economic and cultural production, which I think is very liberating and it’s a way of routing around maybe not censorship per se, but that kind of stultifying oppression that says like, “You’re a little bit alternative. You’re a little bit off. So, we’re not gonna give you a platform.”

Matt Harwood: Yeah. I would suggest that that’s also what made punk rock so cool for me was I had to go to an independent record store to buy anything that I wanted. There was the discovery of going through the CD racks and finding an album cover that just spoke to you and you’d buy it. Most of the time it sucked, but sometimes you find that one album that just speaks to you and it’s the thing I would just play and wear out forever.

But also, to Nick’s point too, in the ‘90s there are certain subgenres of punk, like hardcore and stuff, that gets incredibly puritanical, right? You get the straight edge movement and vegan movements in the culture, and they are violent. I mean you go to shows, you’re wearing leather sneakers or something, you’re getting decked. It’s like that. You’re drinking? They’ll beat the shit out of you.

So, it can take some pretty dark turns. So, in the sense of it’s against a predominant culture almost always, but it can take these really weird turns if that dominant culture is, say, boozy. Or they think kids are getting drunk too much. It’s like, “No. We stand against this. We’re straight edge. F-you. Don’t do this around us or we’ll kick the shit out of you.

Nico Perrino: Yeah. It’s funny because you think of the counterculture being kids who drink and do a lot of drugs, right? And here, the counterculture it’s almost like that is at its pinnacle of culture in the ‘90s. And now you’re having the counterrevolution to that. Whereas you had the straight edge movement, which I remember in the early 2000s when I was a band – in a band. The straight edge movement was something. I remember it had a significant following. I don’t know if it – I don’t hear about it as much as I used to, but in the same vein, I’m also just not as attached to the music scene.

Matt Harwood: Yeah. I think it was starting to peter out, Nico, by the time you were playing. I felt like it was at its – it kinda went through waves. I think there was the ‘80s wave, with Minor Threat, and then it comes back with bands like Snapcase and things like that in the ‘90s.

Nick Gillespie: And it also comes and goes partly when you have a bunch of people in music die. I mean Kurt Cobain was both the beautiful spokesman, kind of like the final evolution of Jim Morrison or something 10 or 15 years later, but also clearly, he’s a pretty good argument against doing drugs. So, these different types of subcultures all are constantly in ebb and flow based on who’s big and who’s not. Because again, a lot of it is how do you differentiate yourself against either your contemporaries or your immediate predecessors.

Nico Perrino: What do metalheads think of punk rock, right? They seem to have similar ethos in a certain vein.

Nick Gillespie: Yeah.

Nico Perrino: Or they can be counterculture. They can sometimes dress similarly, though I think of metalheads, at least in the ‘80s – ‘70’s and ‘80s of having long hair. I don’t often think of punk rockers that way. Did they get along?

Nick Gillespie: I think it varied, but you look at groups – you mentioned Glenn Danzig and the Misfits played a lot at CBGBs and they were definitely part of that because of the sound and also the subject matter. A lot of the – it’s also interesting to think about a lot of these older people as kind of they are kids who were raised by TV. So, that means a lot of watching World War II movies that were rebroadcast and monster movies on TV. So, there’s a lot of that kind of theme.

There was a band that was great, and they ended up having record label problems, which really prevented them from becoming as big as early as they should’ve been. The Cramps, who kind of formed in California and partly in Ohio, and then kind of hit it big in New York in the late ‘70s. And they did what was called Shockabilly. So, it was kind of a mix of rockabilly music and kind of monster movies.

And you would get – they could get along. And people like Ozzy Osbourne, on a certain level, was definitely one of the godfathers of punk on some level, but then there’s also the Blizzard of Ozz where he’s a fat, drunk, arena rocker. That’s kind of risible. But I don’t think anybody’s gonna dispute the riffs of Black Sabbath as being important.

Somebody like Motorhead is a fantastic kind of bridge. Where Dave Grohl, who was in Nirvana, and Nirvana is a band that brought Pat Smear, who was the guitarist for The Germs, a really great, but super short-lived, super punk band out of L.A. Dave Grohl will never miss an opportunity to play – to have played with Lemmy. And he gave a eulogy that is beautiful at Lemmy’s funeral, which you can find online. So, there’s a lot of interplay and cross-hybridization.

Matt Harwood: I mean, one of my favorite songs of all time is the Ace of Spades. And I’d argue that’s a punk song. That’s not a metal song to me.

Nico Perrino: Oh, that’s funny. I think of that as a metal song.

Matt Harwood: Do you?

Nico Perrino: I also think of the Misfits – I think of the Misfits as kind of a metal band too.

Matt Harwood: No.

Nick Gillespie: They are. Yeah.

Matt Harwood: The Misfits are not.

Nick Gillespie: No. They’re both.

Matt Harwood: No.

Nick Gillespie: They’re both.

Matt Harwood: No way.

Nick Gillespie: Yeah.

Matt Harwood: No way.

Nick Gillespie: The other thing that is interesting, and this is something that punk did, and certainly metal does, although I would tip it more to punk, is the costuming and the kind of creation of identity. And again, in this, they’re not being original. I mean David Bowie did this and people before him. But it’s playful. And it’s like I get the sense that the Misfits take themselves less seriously than say Queensryche. And all of my music illusions are dated.


Nico Perrino: Yeah. Really.

Matt Harwood: Yeah.

Nick Gillespie: But where the Misfits or Gwar, they’re having fun with it in a way that maybe Queensryche or Slipknot is kinda taking themselves a little seriously.

Nico Perrino: Yeah. I think just as humans we wanna be able to draw bright lines between things and you just can’t with music, right? Although I will say that Nirvana was not metal. Nirvana did its damned best to kill metal, in my opinion. At least ‘80s metal, as we knew it.

Matt Harwood: But did you like the hair metal, Nico?

Nico Perrino: Yeah. I liked the hair metal. I liked it more than I liked Nirvana, for example.

Matt Harwood: Really?

Nico Perrino: But it was after Nirvana came and became popular and bands like Green Day that the metal genre started to change. Metallica cut its hair, right? You got albums like Load and Reload, which were divergent from the Black album or And Justice for All. Although, I do think I’ve rediscovered those albums and they have some deep tracks that I think are pretty – are some of Metallica’s best works. But, in any case, at least when I was growing up in the ‘90s and ‘00s we looked at those as sellout albums, right?

Matt Harwood: I had the Black album, right? The Gadsden flag on it too.

Nico Perrino: Yeah. And then you also had nu-metal that came out and eliminated guitar solos. So, we look at the early ‘90s and the rise of bands like Nirvana as kind of an important point of delineation where things started to change with metal. And a lot of it was blamed on punk rock, quite frankly, or at least the popularized punk rock that came out of bands like, for example, Nirvana and Green Day.

I wanna ask why advocates for artistic freedom or free expression or free speech should care about punk rock. I’m not sure we’ve necessarily made the case here for it. And I’m not necessarily sure that a case can be made for it. I think the best case for it, at least as laid out here, is it pushed the boundaries of what was allowed to be expressed within polite society.

And now we’ve kind of reached a day and age – although I was recently talking to some people who are in the music industry who say, “Yeah, censorship of music might not happen in the way it used to, but there’s a lot of pre-censorship going on right now, a lot of music that doesn’t get made, in the same way there are books now that just aren’t getting published, or films that aren’t getting released.”

They say that you see that in the music industry too. So, maybe you need a kind of revitalization of the DIY ethos that punk rock had. But there are channels now to release your own music. I’m thinking of SoundCloud, for example. You see a lot of kind of edgy rap music being released there. Maybe the same thing happens with punk rock. And maybe artists still need those kind of bigger channels in order to release their stuff. And you have a lot of artists who are willing to self-censor so they can get to those channels. I don’t know. But I wanna know what you guys think of why free speech advocates should care about punk rock, if at all?

Matt Harwood: I mean, for me, I think it’s just individualistic, right? It’s the ultimate form of self-expression. There’s not a lot of barriers to entry to it. I mean one of the things that always – I loved about particularly punk rock was the physical element of it. You could go to a show, and you would mosh, and you would get picked up and thrown on stage. There’d be wrestling for the mic.

So, like what Nick was saying, no one took themselves seriously. And what I loved the most was the artists never thought they were better than their audience, generally speaking, right? Ideally you could share the stage with them. And you don’t know, the kid that you handed the microphone to might be the next punk rock lead singer that you’re gonna go to the show and see. So, that’s what I love.

And one of the greatest things too was Philadelphia, when I was growing up, had such a good scene. So, we would go to the Trocadero, which I would say was Philadelphia’s CBGBs, Nick, to a certain extent, which was in an old burlesque building off –

Nick Gillespie: No, no. I lived in Philly in the late ‘80s. So, I’m familiar with what you’re talking about.

Nico Perrino: Philadelphia kinda has the ethos of a punk rock city. I don’t know. When I think of it.

Matt Harwood: So, I always say this – I was just talking to someone about this. So, there’d be a band, and I had mentioned them already. Really obscure band, Snapcase, Buffalo, hardcore band. And I had to worry about Snapcase selling out at the Trocadero. But know that I could go then two days later to New York City and go to whatever venue they’re playing and buy a ticket right there and I’d be standing there with like 20 people.

So, every single time a great punk rock band came to – or what I would consider a great punk rock band came to Philadelphia, they were always talking about Philadelphia. How much we love you. You guys really get us.

Nick Gillespie: To go to that question of, “Why does it matter if you care about free expression?” One of the things that has really changed, and I appreciate what you guys are doing at FIRE to push back against this, but Nico, you emphasize the culture of free speech or free expression is as important as any kind of legal rules and things like that.

And we have a very good Supreme Court which, just recently, ruled in favor of Section 230, of keeping the internet a little bit more freer, saying, “Okay. You parents or people can’t blame YouTube or Twitter or something for radicalizing their kids.” That’s important. And the legal [inaudible] [00:50:25] that the Supreme Court and other courts have been laying down for the past – really the past 70 years is comforting. But we need this culture of free speech.

And I think part of what punk did and continues to do, because I think it’s more of an attitude than an aesthetic, is it is constantly creating new outlets for new types of ideas. Or for oftentimes unspeakable ideas. Sometimes funny, sometimes not. But by doing that, it is – it’s showing what is possible. Sometimes you look at it and you’re like, “Wow. I really don’t wanna do that,” but it’s good once you have that thing in your mind you can say, “Okay. That’s one point on a compass and I’m gonna steer clear of that, but I’m gonna go somewhere else.”

And to Matt’s point, the creation of new venues, the creation of new labels, the creation of new outlets for stuff is really, really important because the culture – it’s kind of like mutations. Almost all mutations in nature are deadly. But every once and a while there’s something that leads to a breakthrough. And I think that’s true of culture. I think that’s true of society. I think that’s true of economics and whatnot.

And punk is that kind of thing where it’s endless mutation. It’s creative destruction within the cultural arena, and that’s what’s important about it, is that it didn’t come up through the channels that we all expect things to come up to. By the time punk gets to the New York Times or it gets to Columbia Records, which became Sony Records, which is where Rage Against the Machine sold its soul to.

It’s good because Rage Against the Machine is like a – they were a phenomenal band. They captured the moment. Part of this Brian Doherty story that’s so good is that he went on a couple of message boards where there were people on there who had finally gotten the lyrics and they were like, “I can’t believe that Rage Against the Machine is such a socialist band. It’s so communistic.” Because that’s a system that punishes individuals and free speech and things like that.

So, it’s like you can have a band like Rage Against the Machine preaching communism on Sony Records, being anticapitalistic, and it’s kind of great and it’s kind of a performative contradiction. But what’s important is all of the stuff that led up to them becoming so big and so popular on a mainstream label. And I don’t think the mainstream is bad, but you want the mainstream and then you want all of these little tributaries that are moving away from it that might redirect it in some way.

And I think at its peak and at its core that’s what kind of the punk movement – which also was not simply limited to music. There was a version of punk literature, of punk movie making, of punk businesses. And, Matt, I don’t – is Zipperhead still alive and well on South Street or whatever? But it was an early punk shop. There was Manic Panic in New York and other places where just people were like, “I’m gonna start my own business selling the weird shit that I like, and my friends like, to wear to weird concerts.” And there’s no Hot Topic without that. And then from Hot Topic, there’s no section in Macy’s or whatever.

You’ve gotta be constantly testing the boundaries of what is possible and what is visible if we are going to continue to thrive and know where we are and maybe where we wanna be headed.

Matt Harwood: It’s also a good way to raise anti-authorian children. So, my kids are fed a steady diet of punk rock. So, we’ll get in the car and we’re heading off to a wrestling match and they’ll be like – I probably shouldn’t be admitting this, but they’ll be like, “Dad, put on Fuck Authority by Pennywise,” in the car.

Nick Gillespie: Yeah.

Matt Harwood: And they love the Misfits. They sing all the lyrics. It brings me endless joy.

Nico Perrino: Last question here. This is as much a thought as a question. It might be a compound question. Has punk rock won? When I think of punk rock, I almost use it as a synonym for cool. A synonym for the ability of people to express their individuality. Matt and I often talk about, in our roles as marketers here at FIRE, of making free speech punk rock. Making it cool again, right? Making people understand that the ability to be who you are and to speak your mind gets to the core of what freedom is and that freedom is cool.

Nick Gillespie: I would say I don’t know that it’s won or that it’s cool, but I do think – and this is where I’ve been talking a lot about this lately for a variety of reasons and in a variety of topics, I think we’re using the wrong frame to kind of analyze a lot of what’s going on in contemporary society and we need to. We need to push back against kind of woke activism that is really specifically and explicitly trying to narrow the range of respectable thought in speech and inquiry.

But on another level, I think you’re basically right, Nico, that punk rock and all of that, what it represents, has won a profound victory of – it is just so much more acceptable to be more individualistic now and to pick and choose from the past what you think is important and that speaks to who you are and how you want to express yourself.

My younger son graduated college this past week and I’m in – I’m talking to you from L.A. He went to Chapman University. And when you look at not just the people on the stage who are getting college degrees that are more varied than ever, certainly more varied than in 1976, but the people in the audience and the way they’re dressing. And a lot of times this gets bemoaned as the end of standards because we all didn’t go to this graduation wearing tuxedos or riding our polo ponies there or something.

But, in fact, it’s kind of great. When you think about it, you can work from home. You can wear what you wanna wear. You can eat what you want to eat. You can sleep with who you wanna sleep with consensually. You can marry them. The world is so profoundly better and more individualized and mass-personalized than before. And I think that’s one of the real legacies of the punk rock moment. And it’s a historical moment, but then it’s this kind of ethos.

And I’ll just maybe end with this story, which I’m sure is partly untrue, but it’s a great story that Johnny Rotten would always tell that he got flagged by Malcolm McLaren, the guy who was the impresario of the Sex Pistols and was just a kind of trickster figure in ‘70s and ‘80s England.

But Rotten was wearing a Pink Floyd t-shirt, and Pink Floyd was huge. And Pink Floyd, they’re like – they were a sanctified band. I mean the people that fought in World War II weren’t like, “Oh, I love Pink Floyd,” but everybody else was, “Pink Floyd is great. Pink Floyd, you cannot diminish them.” And Rotten had written, “I hate,” over the t-shirt. So, he had taken a mass-produced t-shirt and personalized it in a way that expressed him.

And that is kind of what punk rock has helped usher in. The ability of us to kind of tailor mass production to what we want – to more like what we wanna say, but also then to create our own individualized version of commerce, of culture, of politics, of love, whatever. And I think that has triumphed. And it’s a much better world. And that’s also another reason to keep the flame alive. The flame of punk alive. And it doesn’t mean, “Oh, you’ve gotta listen to this variant track, this alternate track.” It doesn’t mean be boring about it. It means like, “Yeah. Let’s create a world or let’s keep creating a world where more individuals can do what they want.”

Nico Perrino: Matt, do you have any last thoughts on that?

Matt Harwood: How can I follow that? That’s ridiculous. I’ll just say I think punk is a mindset. Right now, it’s really weird. If you asked me to name a really great punk band that just came out, I probably can’t do it right now. So, I don’t know if punk’s dead, but it’s always waiting in the wings to rear its ugly, individualistic antiauthoritarian head when we need it.

Nico Perrino: Well, punk as a mindset can be alive, while as a genre can be waning.


Nick Gillespie: Yeah.

Matt Harwood: Totally dead. Yeah.

Nico Perrino: Yeah. Totally dead or just waning in popularity, right? I can’t think of a punk band, or at least one that has the cultural import that maybe the Sex Pistols or the Ramones or the Dead Kennedys have. I can’t think of one. But then again, I’m not – what did Mario Savio say? “Never trust anyone over 30.” Maybe because they just don’t know what’s going on with music anymore. I definitely fall into that camp.

But I appreciate you both coming on the show and educating me and our listeners about punk rock and why people who care about individuality and freedom and free speech should understand the genre more. And I hope to do something like this again in the very near future.

Matt Harwood: Great. Thanks, Nico.

Nick Gillespie: Thank you so much.

Nico Perrino: That was Nick Gillespie, Editor at Large of Reason Magazine. And Matt Harwood, Vice President of Communications here at FIRE. This podcast is hosted and produced by me, Nico Perrino, and edited by my colleagues Ella Ross and Aaron Reese. You can learn more about So to Speak by subscribing to our YouTube channel where this video will be housed.

You can also find the podcast, of course, wherever you get your podcasts. You can follow us on Twitter or Instagram by searching for the handle @FreeSpeechTalk. Like us on Facebook at And please leave us a review wherever you get podcasts and send us feedback at And that is We love hearing from you. And until next time, we thank you all again for listening.