Dirty Water: The Birth of Punk Attitude
The Wire, February 2011
by Simon Reynolds
Punk must be the most over-determined event in rock history. The decade leading up to it is so crowded with antecedents that it's hard to see how it could possibly not have happened. Dirty Water runs to two discs but it doesn't come close to exhausting the prehistory of 1976-and-all-that. Indeed part of the fun of Kris Needs's expertly selected compilation is thinking of things that ought to have been included. So the righteous presence of The Sensational Alex Harvey Band's clangorous "The Hot City Symphony" makes one wonder why not The Sweet, whose 1976 hit "Action" simply is punk with a lick of gloss. If the serrated choogle of "Roxette" by Dr Feelgood and the football terrace stomp of "Oo Oo Rudi" by Jook make the cut, why not the Mockney rockabilly of Kilburn and the High Roads's "Upminster Kid"?
These aren't quibbles, though, just the listener's natural response to the compilation's premise. In this respect, Dirty Water recalls Chuck Eddy's heterodox heavy metal guide, Stairway To Hell: there's a similar mixture of what-you'd-expect and stuff straining the genre's definition to bursting point. So you get lashings of what Seventies rock writers called "high-octane" hard rock (MC5, Pink Fairies, Dictators, etc ) but also regular jolts of the aberrant: the multi-voiced babble of Sun Ra's "Rocket Number Nine," the psychotic mandolin busking of Silver Apples's "Confusion".
Proto-punk is inherently amorphous, since roots can stretch back as far and as wide as you care to trace them. The Silhouettes's "Get A Job" and Gene Vincent's "Blue Jean Bop" might be a stretch too far. Closer to Year Zero, there's Peter Hammill's "Nadir's Big Chance", title track to a 1975 album on which the prog rocker took on the alter-ego Rikki Nadir, a "loud aggressive perpetual sixteen year old" playing "beefy punk songs". It's a reminder that "punk" was common rock parlance for years before it signified a safety pin through the nose, from critics describing the young Springsteen as a "street punk" to boogie band Brownsville Station's 1974 LP School Punks.
Named after the Standells's Sixties garage ode to their hometown Boston's river and the "buggers lovers and thieves" clustered on its seedy banks, Dirty Water is a real blast of rock-historical edutainment. But its accumulation of precursors and pre-echoes has one less salutary effect, which is to further erode the sense of punk as out-of-the-blue, a shocking surprise. Archaeological investigations into the prehistory of revolutionary moments do tend to make them seem less of a break with the past than they felt at the time. Ideally, the Dirty Water listener will come away not with the belief that Seventies rock fans really ought to have seen punk coming long way off, but with an enhanced awareness of History's contingent nature. For this anthology points to the possibility that punk might have happened earlier, and differently. Equally, if it could have happened earlier, yet didn't, it's just remotely conceivable that in 1976 it might not taken off at all.