Last week, spandex-loving metal elf Bruce Dickinson sat down with folky singer-songwriter (and ex-punk rocker) Frank Turner for interview in the UK Guardian. The two discussed many things: the amount of concentration needed to perform for huge audiences, the secret to Elvis Costello's longevity, how vocals adjust with age, and the absurd nature of bands using Autocues. It was, overall, a very entertaining read -- until Dickinson said that punk "was rubbish."
Now, we know Dickinson's a metal god, we know he's a smarty pants, and we know he's a pilot that goes off to dangerous places and rescues people like a goddamn superhero. But we also know when he's talking out of his arse.
In the interest of fairness, we'll put the whole foolish thing in full context. In the interview, Turner says: "Metal, by some people, is considered a lesser art form, but I feel the only way you can judge cultural impact is by the number of people that are into it." (Turner must think very highly of "Gangnam Style.")
Dickinson replies: "The closest the 'art establishment' ever came to embracing metal was punk. The reason they embraced punk was because it was rubbish and the reason they embraced rubbish was because they could control it. They could say: 'Oh yeah, we're punk so we can sneer at everybody. We can't play our fucking instruments, but that means we can make out that this whole thing is some enormous performance art.' Half the kids that were in punk bands were laughing at the art establishment, going: 'What a fucking bunch of tosspots. Thanks very much, give us the money and we'll fuck off and stick it up our nose and shag birds.' But what they'd really love to be doing is being in a heavy metal band surrounded by porn stars."
There are a multitude of problems with this view, but the most glaring one is that Dickinson is assuming punk, as a culture, a scene, and a genre, lived and died in the mid-to-late 1970s, which demonstrates a remarkable ignorance of an enormous rock subculture and the many musicians and fans who still consider themselves part of it. How has he been in the music business for this many decades and missed it? Maybe Bruce needs to get off Ed Force One (Iron Maiden's private plane) once in a while and get out into the world.
Next. Let's be nice and assume -- based on what is clearly an extraordinarily limited understanding of punk -- that he's talking about the very first wave. Fine. He'd be right about the Sex Pistols. We'll give him that. The Sex Pistols were both involved with, and sneering at, the art establishment thanks to the management skills of Malcolm McLaren. As as a group they were hedonism incarnate. But Dickinson's sweeping statement ignores some fundamentals of the first wave of punk, even if we only stick to one rigid period in one country (Dickinson's native U.K.).
Does Dickinson really think that any kind of establishment controlled the Clash? Or that Joe Strummer would love to be in a metal band so he could have sex with porn stars? (That one is particularly laughable.) Does he really think the upper echelons of the art world were falling over themselves to go and see the Buzzcocks sing "Orgasm Addict" in a sweaty squat somewhere because it was so "rubbish" they could take over?
And if we're going to talk about cultural snobbery, how about the part where Dickinson writes off an entire genre of bands as people that couldn't "play [their] fucking instruments"? Maybe punk didn't have 10-minute guitar solos because they're both self-indulgent and incredibly fucking boring. Not to mention that this kind of show-off wankery goes against the entire ethos of the thing.
That's all before we even get to the first wave of American punk. If there was evidence of the art establishment in the scene in the U.S., it was embodied almost entirely in Andy Warhol's visits to CBGB. But Warhol had been documenting the underbelly and the alternative lives of New York City for many years already -- his interest wasn't limited to punk. The idea that he wanted to swoop in as art overlord is beyond absurd.
So then we get to the drug-related ("give us the money and we'll stick it up our nose") comments. Were there plenty of drugs in punk rock back in the day? Of course there were. It's rock 'n' roll. There are drugs anywhere there are guitars (unless you're in the straight edge hardcore scene -- which most people aren't). Dickinson makes this statement in a manner so patronizing, it suggests that metal has been a drug-free playgroup all these years. Has dude not read The Dirt?
The bottom line is this: Dickinson's answer to a question about metal being written off because of cultural snobbery treats another subculture with a hefty dose of cultural snobbery. He comes off as both petty and ignorant. Has metal been treated as a lesser art form for much of its history? Yes. But crapping on another genre doesn't change that. And trying to act like the metal world is bullied more than any other music form is utter nonsense. Dickinson is undoubtedly an important figure in the history of hard rock. But he would do well to have some respect for fellow artists, whether he understands their music and cultural significance or not.