Sometimes the version of history that never happened is as interesting as the one that did. No Thanks!, the new four-CD punk-rock retrospective from Rhino, was originally called the wide-open-to-interpretation Ever Get the Feeling You've Been Cheated?
Was it a reference to the fact that the almighty Sex Pistols, whose front man spat those words at the band's final show, are absent from this collection?
Was it the cry of "sellout!" from old punks, who'd rather re-pierce their own noses than bear witness to a glitzy retrospective?
Was it a nod to the way strip-mall bands like Good Charlotte have supposedly tarnished punk's crusty legacy?
Hardly. The Sex Pistols were excluded because of "licensing issues," according to the collection's producer, Gary Stewart. And as the compilation demonstrates, punk has always been a diffuse scene posited on inclusion--even when it comes to fourth-generation, pop-punk descendants like the Madden brothers.
But while the collection's new title is less leering, its dismissive connotations are still appropriate: As its name implies, all preconceived notions about the set's contents and attitude are unwelcome. More than just a tribute to the safety pins, Mohawks and bad attitudes of its originators, Thanks! is the holy grail of 1970s underground music. Almost every seminal punk figure worth a sneer is included--Elvis Costello, the Clash, the Ramones, Black Flag, the Germs, X, the Dickies, Sham 69, Stiff Little Fingers, the Damned, Generation X, the Dead Kennedys--along with bands that began with a harder edge but later took poppier sounds to commercial success (Blondie, Ultravox!, the Jam, the Boomtown Rats, the Pretenders and Talking Heads).
Yet the set also screams with curveballs that don't neatly fit the punk-rock model. There's new-wave paranoia (Suicide, Joy Division), proto-punk drone not far from the Velvet Underground (the Modern Lovers), garage-rock swagger (Iggy & the Stooges), stripped-back poets (Joe Jackson, Patti Smith), post-punk precision (Television, the Cure) and angular noise-funk (the Pop Group, Gang of Four). The inclusion of Smith, especially, demonstrates the care taken here to crush the traditionally masculine image of the genre--as does the addition of anti-commercialism crusaders X-Ray Spex, no-wave brats the Slits, gothic warriors Siouxsie & the Banshees and metal chicklets the Runaways.
"I wanted to convey the feeling of a broad musical movement," Stewart says. "This is the way I look at punk: It's not solely a rejection of established attitudes or established music. Certainly disco, prog-rock, corporate rock had a big influence on this music in a reactive way.
"But a lot of these bands were trying to recapture the best of what had come before them--the best of the '60s and '50s--and loved the British invasion and loved the Eddie Cochrans, Buddy Hollys, Chuck Berrys. So I wanted the package to feel like that--I wanted it to feel like there was a lot of variety, there was a celebration. It's not covering a genre--it's covering a period, a movement, an attitude."
To Stewart, No Thanks! is punk rock as seen through the eyes of 1970s America. In both the United States and the U.K., punk revolved around the idea of creating options. In politically conservative and economically depressed England, punk was partly about constructing gritty, accessible alternatives to the artsy rock of Bowie or Roxy Music. In the United States, punk questioned the notion that disco dreck and pretentious rock were the only acceptable means of expression.
While this might signal elitist separatism, punk attitude wasn't meant to be confined to a vacuum and performed only for like-minded friends. Artists jawing about politics, sex or even boredom weren't doing it solely for themselves; such isolation defeats the purpose of punk as a way to generate choice and broaden minds.
"It's not just a grassroots deconstructionist movement. It never was that," Stewart says of punk's agenda. "The point of making something really good is that people hear it, and it does something to them. If a record is great, for me it's better if a million people hear it than a couple thousand."
Interestingly, Stewart's comment implies that the mainstream and the underground weren't as antagonistic during punk's halcyon days as they're often portrayed now--which might excuse the often-tenuous differences between punk and pop today. Although oft-derided platinum superstars Good Charlotte, Blink-182 and Green Day pushed lightweight neo-punk into the mainstream, perhaps their success has more in common with the original punks than first thought.
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"Another band we all loved in the punk days was Abba," Stewart says. "I remember getting 'Dancing Queen' and 'Anarchy in the U.K.' right around the same time. Abba, for a lot of us, was never a guilty pleasure. Anything that captured a great spirit of rock or pop or grandeur or excitement or spectacle worked for us."
He's got a point. Even the Sex Pistols were often more performance art and social experiment than band, as demonstrated by their obscenity-laden talk show appearance in December 1976 or their roughshod Thames River boat performance to commemorate the Queen's Jubilee in the summer of 1977.
Moreover, the Pistols' absence here is in line with the way the set focuses on the unexpected, detouring from what is supposed to constitute punk. And it isn't a case of Rhino trying to create its own form of history. No Thanks! succeeds because it works so hard to maintain an authentic snapshot of what the time was really like, not the clichéd sneering image or historical revisionism that tends to flatten the vibrant music into two cartoonish, spiky-haired dimensions.
"If I had my way, I'd find a way to put people like later-period Bowie or Tom Petty or Cheap Trick [on the box]," Stewart says. "A lot of poppier things were embraced by a lot of people seeing those bands, because that music represented something different, exciting. Somebody once said punk rock meant buying Never Mind the Bollocks and Pet Sounds on the same day. I'm hoping that almost anybody who buys the set is going to be in for a lot of things they discover and, most importantly, love."