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Kelefa Sanneh on the perverse charm of punk music

Kelefa Sanneh is a writer for The New Yorker, and author of the book, "Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres" (Penguin):

Did I like music? Sure, I did. I acquired and studied a common core curriculum of greatest hits compilations by The Beatles, Bob Marley, and The Rolling Stones. But I didn't start obsessing over music until my 14th birthday, in 1990, when my best friend, Matt Moses, gave me a mixtape.

Sanneh asked Moses, "Do you remember making this mix tape?"

"Vaguely," he replied. "I mean, I made a lot of mix tapes, 'cause that was my primary way of communicating with others at the time."

The mix tape Matt Moses made for his friend Kelefa Sanneh, including songs by the Dead Kennedys, Dead Milkmen, Pixies, Hüsker Dü, Fugazi, and Barry Manilow ("Just kidding," Matt wrote).  CBS News

Moses is the guy who unwittingly changed my life. These days, he is a corporate attorney, while I have been writing about music for more than two decades. That mix tape fully converted me into listening to punk music, and listening to all sorts of other music. I kind of became a professional music listener.

Now I've written my first book, a history of all kinds of music – rock 'n' roll, R&B, country, hip-hop, and one genre that became my first passion: punk rock.

For me, the thrill of punk lay in its negative identity. Punk demanded total devotion to be expressed as total rejection of the mainstream.

Moses said, "It kind of, like, changed everything, I'd say. Angry was fun."

"Were you angry?" Sanneh asked.

"Because at the time, I was in eighth grade, I was feeling pretty angry!"

That year, when The Ramones, who were punk pioneers, were playing nearby, I begged my mom to take me. And while she watched (or more likely didn't) from the safety of the bar area, I spent a blissful hour amid a sweaty group of aging punks and youthful posers all shoving one another and shouting along.

Drummer Marc Bell, known as Marky Ramone, said, "So, you went with your mother? Did she like it?"

"I don't know if she liked it as much as I did," Sanneh said.

"Okay. There you go!"

Drummer Marky Ramone, with correspondent Kelefa Sanneh.  CBS News

Marky Ramone was on stage that night, along with his bandmates who went by Johnny, Joey, and C.J. Ramone.  That crowd (including me) was downright well-behaved, compared to the ones The Ramones used to face back in the 1970s.

Sanneh asked, "What were those audiences like?"

"Crazy. Spitting. They would get the beer just to spit!" Marky laughed.

"Was this a gesture of affection?"

"Yeah, I thought it was funny. I was in the back. I wasn't gettin' it!"

The Ramones helped define the punk movement.

The Ramones perform at the Ritz in New York City, October 6, 1990. From left: Guitarist Johnny Ramone, drummer Marky Ramone, lead vocalist Joey Ramone, and bassist C.J. Ramone. Ebet Roberts/Redferns vis Getty Images

"Did you embrace that term from the beginning?" Sanneh asked. "Or did it take you a few years to get comfortable with saying, 'I'm punk rock. This is what I do'?"

"Well, we were loud, we were very young, some of us were obnoxious," Marky laughed. "I guess that name applied."

Decades later, the music endures – and the look does, too. Back in 1978, when Marky joined the band, he fit right in. 

Sanneh asked, "Did they ask you to get your hair cut in the Ramones style?"

"Yeah, yeah, yeah. I always wore a leather jacket.  I always wore jeans with the sneakers. So, I didn't have to change anything."

"Were you thinking, 'I just joined the greatest band in the world'?"

"No, I didn't think that. I knew there were only a few bands that, when you hear them, you know who they are. When you hear The Ramones, you know it's The Ramones."

The Ramones perform "I Wanna Be Sedated":

Ramones - I Wanna Be Sedated (Official Music Video) by RHINO on YouTube

Many groups borrowed from The Ramones' sound, including a whole bunch of English bands, like The Sex Pistols. And soon after Matt Moses and I discovered punk, grunge came along.

Sanneh said, "All of a sudden, like, the biggest band among our peers, who didn't like our weird punk stuff, was Nirvana, a band led by a dude who liked the exact same records we did."

"And probably some better ones," Moses added.

"Oh yeah. Punk was going totally mainstream."

"Yeah, and I resented that."

Nirvana performs "Smells Like Teen Spirit":

Nirvana - Smells Like Teen Spirit (Official Music Video) by NirvanaVEVO on YouTube

Having learned at 14 to savor the perverse charms of punk, I eventually came to hear just about the entire universe of popular music as perversely charming (or potentially so).


Sanneh said, "I feel like I am a punk. I feel like I'll probably always be a punk. But there was a sense when you were 15 years old in which you really were a punk."

"That's fair, yeah," Moses said.

To this day, Moses and I are still obsessed with music, but at least one of us has grown up a bit. 

Sanneh asked, "Are you still a punk in that sense today?"

"No. I think not," he replied. "I think, good on you for keeping it alive. But that sounds tiring."

READ AN EXCERPT: "Major Labels" by Kelefa Sanneh

For more info:

Story produced by Mary Raffalli. Editor: Mike Levine. 

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