THE PUNGE: THEORY AND DIVERTISSEMENT
This iPod is dangerous. As I put together playlists, I'm mixing things that ought not to be mixed, finding combinations and connections that perhaps man was not meant to find. Of these, the most potent is - punge
- the intersection of punk and grundge.
When grundge hit, people said it was the new punk movement, and boomer journalists wore their pens to the nub trying to put grundge in a punk place. But they really aren't that similar. Some of the best punk bands were jokers, while the grundge bands were at pains to be humorless. Punk bands were often shooting for pop crossover, so Blondie, the B-52s and others made sure some their songs had fat pop hooks and twinky background noises ("Heart of Glass" is not a pundge song), a game most of the grundge acts didn't play. One of the most remarkable things about "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is that it hit big even though hardly anyone can hum it.
When I talk about punge, though, I'm not talking about the historical movements. I'm talking about an extremely specific mood or frame of mind. It is permeated with sadness and anger. There is not optimism in the usual sense, but there is often a defiant energy. Irony might be present, though in pundge's purest form despair and rage overwhelm it. Pundge is tough and dissonant. It is never expressed in a major key. Instrumentation is often sparse and at least somewhat acoustic . You can generally hear the lyrics, and the lyrics are usually extremely dark. It's music that fucks you up. Heroin is often involved.
Grundge songs that exemplify what I'm talking about are the unplugged versions of "Plateau" and "Lake of Fire" by Nirvana, and the unplugged "Would" from Alice in Chains. Punk songs in the same vein might be "Psycho Killer" by Talking Heads and "Never Say Never" by Romeo Void. Other songs I'd put in the category are REM's "Low" and Juliana Hatfield's "The Lights." As you bring in more songs the definition gets diluted, but this is where it starts.
There aren't many pundge songs, and you can define pundge by drawing a circle of rejected songs around it:
- Bowie's "Suffragettecity" - Tough but too slick. It's not pundge if you can hear the cash registers ringing.
- Petty's "Refugee" - pundge lyrics, but mainstream production values mean it doesn't quite get there.
- Beastie Boys' "Fight for Your Right..." - Sorry, no party songs.
- Sid Vicious's "My Way" - To qualify, the performance by the heroin-addicted singer must be good.
- Clash "Anarchy in the UK" - Pundge is about your mood, not your politics.
The toughest calls are the jokers. What do to with Richard Cheese's
lounge version of "Holiday in Cambodia"? The Dead Kennedys' version doesn't make it because the wall of sound undercuts the pundge sensibility we're after. But Cheese's version, though intended as parody, is pure pundge. The lyrics and instrumentation fit, and he's really singing it, not doing a Bill Murray:
It's a holiday in Cambodia,
it's tough, but it's life...
Isn't that beyond parody? Don't you have to respect that? OK, maybe not. I'm still putting it on the playlist.
There are some obvious pundge acts where I haven't found the right songs, notably Lou Reed and the Pixies. Suggestions welcome...