As exuberant youth explodes into rebellious adolescence, many of us become drawn to loud sounds that can harness our burgeoning passions and thrashing hormones. Punk has been the music of the misunderstood and marginalized since at least 1977, the year it invaded and forever altered popular culture.
Montreal’s ’77 festival pays homage to that big bang by bringing together punk bands from all eras and subgenres, from young upstarts just making their mark to bands like the Avengers – who opened the final Sex Pistols show over 40 years ago. Joyous noise and angry anthems erupt from three stages throughout the day, inciting crowds to kick up dust or find refuge from the punishing sun in the shadier areas of Parc Jean-Drapeau.
“It’s interesting to see something that was an underground niche culture become a perfectly commercially viable demographic,” commented attendee Santosh Lalonde, himself a renowned growler for punky bands like Bad Uncle and the Unsettlers. “All sorts of punks are represented with such power and positivity – there’s no materialistic bullshit.”
Throughout the day, a steady parade of aging rockers filled the air with breathless hammering against the empire’s evils – “the older, the angrier” quipped Lalonde. There may be cranky rants about the youth of today and the Sudden Impact guitarist looks like he just ducked out of an applesauce line at a nursing home, but the propulsive music remains timelessly visceral.
Before the headliners Bad Religion and Pennywise, the power-pop of Charly Bliss is a refreshing change – the glittery female-fronted band is full of personality and melodic hooks, demonstrating the versatility of punk. From rebel-rousing poetry to blunt odes to getting drunk, both depths and shallows have no limits in the punk scene.
As Kurt Cobain of Nirvana once said, “Punk is musical freedom” – which applies just as much to the performers as it does the freaky fans. Watching a punk show from the frontlines implies occasional jostling from some sweaty ogre spilling out of the mosh pit, but that’s part of the fun.
“The vibe is way more open and inclusive than any other festival,” asserted attendee Josh Campos. “People go to places now to show people that they’re there more than actually being there, living in the moment. That shit pisses me off. Punks have fun in the crowd, if they get pushed around or wet or whatever.”
For me, the festival summons a zephyr of nostalgia for my first concert back in 1996 – Lollapalooza, which included the Ramones and Violent Femmes. This inspired my love of live music, eventually leading me to Montreal to start punky bands like Loco Motives.
While white guys clearly form the vast majority of the ’77 crowd, punk has often been a subversive force in diverse resistance movements and the music is a common gateway into political activism. This is evident in recent bands like Russian feminists Pussy Riot and community collectives like Chicago’s Black, Brown and Indigenous Crew, whose events showcase people of colour and benefit revolutionary organizations.
On the Siksika First Nation, an hour east of Calgary, Carlin Black Rabbit and his bandmates in No More Moments have organized monthly shows and even a music festival to provide a positive outlet for kids and overcome the isolation of living on the reserve. In 2016, Black Rabbit became the youngest person ever voted into the Siksika Nation Council.
“Punk and politics complement each other,” Black Rabbit told Global News. “We are a celebrational punk band – we sing about struggles and sing about the truth. It’s my identity and it’s our outlet, our self-care, our therapy.”
Punk is the embodiment of do-it-yourself empowerment – pick up anything that makes noise and make that noise yours. At ’77 and every punk show, there is a good chance that some unlit flame will get ignited by the incendiary sound and become inspired to start their own band, question the rules, confront the system. Punk is dead, long live punk!