In which I contemplate the validity of including an alt-rock band on a punk-rock compilation

Listening to: Descendents/Black Keys/Punk-O-Rama 8
(I’m all over the map today)

The last Punk-O-Rama compilation I ever bought was volume 9.  The last (and also first!) time I saw The Black Keys perform live was this past Saturday at Virgin FreeFest.

Connection: On Punk-O-Rama volume 8, the last song on the first disk is a track called “Thickfreakness” by a band called The Black Keys.

There’s a good chance I wouldn’t enjoy The Keys nearly as much as I do (or at least wouldn’t have come across them when I did) if it hadn’t been for that Punk-O-Rama comp.

The Keys’ performance this year at Free Fest was amazing.  In a move that thoroughly surprised me, the band opened with “Thickfreakness,” which is also the title track off one of their better albums.  While it took a minute to remember where I had first heard the song, recollecting that it was off a punk compilation CD was a bit surprising for present-day me.

What the heck were The Black Keys doing on a Punk-O-Rama comp?  Looking back at the other tracks, for that matter, what the heck were Matchbook Romance, Atmosphere and The Transplants doing on there? And is Epitaph even running the Punk-O-Rama series any more?

While I couldn’t necessarily tell you why some other unfortunate choices for bands were selected on volume 8, it turns out Epitaph stopped making the comps at volume 10 in 2005.  (Incidentally, I somehow picked up the Hot Water Music track from that comp but nothing else.  Not completely sure how.) It was probably a good idea, because by volume 8 I was already questioning what system of musical qualifications the label was using to decide what bands to include on the “punk” compilation.

Still, it begs the question: With such a variety of musical styles on a compilation that started as straight up punk rock music, which is more punk: Including bands that don’t necessarily fit the genre but still rock, or staying true to punk music and the punk identity?

The Black Keys are not, and never were, on the Epitaph label to my (and Wikipedia’s) knowledge.  Sure, some back-door deal could’ve gone on to get them on the album, but that in itself would not be very punk at all.  More likely, whoever was putting the comp together really liked The Black Keys and wanted a song of theirs included on the album.

And take The Transplants–from the first single the band put out, they were criticized for not being punk rock even though it was formed by punk legend Tim Armstrong of Operation Ivy and Rancid fame.  Part of the problem, I think, is people are afraid of change.  Sure, we always crave new music, but throw a curveball like a style of music we’re not expecting from an artist we think we know and all hell can break loose.  The same holds true for a well-established compilation.

By the time Punk-O-Rama volume 8 came around, I thought I knew what to expect from Epitaph on the comps.  I thought volume 7 was a musical masterpiece with a variety of bands I either already loved and respected or were introduced to on the comp and came to love and/or respect by listening to their albums.  I vaguely remember being surprised and a little hurt when I heard volume 8 for the first time.  2003-rudiegirl must’ve been sitting there thinking, “what’s coming out of my stereo?  Am I listening to the Mortal Kombat soundtrack?  Oh, no, it’s just Tim Armstrong’s new punk-rap band. Right.”

Disappointed as I was at first, good came out of that.  The Black Keys are a band I had put on the back burner for years since then, but truly rock.  Especially live, as I can now say from experience.  But the issue still tugs at my music-senses–they just didn’t belong on that Punk-O-Rama volume, no matter how great the song was.

Since then, as punks have aged and become more jaded, they’ve become more accepting of a variety of styles.  I appreciate much more music than I used to and I try as often as possible to listen to new styles and new bands.  Without that compilation from Epitaph, my experience with quite a few bands might have been very different.  And while I still feel like the label serious stretched the idea of what those comps were going for, I know one thing for certain: I will never, ever enjoy music by Matchbook Romance.

  1. Good post. I think punk is about challenging conventional music trends more than sticking to what’s traditionally punk rock, but too much experimentation might be the end of the genre in it’s classic form.

    FYI Fat Possum Records (which put out Thickfreakness) is an Epitaph imprint focused on blues rock. Epitaph only uses affiliated bands on their compilations (like most record companies) because their primary purpose is to promote the label’s branding and artists.

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