In noir, tales of wrongful accusation tend to play out on mean streets that reflect social inequalities, which at times do have a nasty way of tilting normally upright people toward moral compromise. Joe Norson, Farley Granger’s character in Side Street (1950), is motivated to cross over to the dark side not by greed but by penury and having a pregnant wife; “I needed money ’cause I had none,” Joe Strummer sings in the Clash’s version of Sonny Curtis’s “I Fought the Law,” and for Granger’s Joe Norson, that pretty much covers it. While punk bands are generally blunter with their politics than noir directors are in their films, both are united behind the mutual cause of the common man, and both are constantly massaging some variation on this question: Why is it so hard to get by?
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Horror movies and heavy metal have long been a match made in a mutually agreeable hell. Filmmakers recognize that the minor-chord ferocity of metal pairs splendidly with the sight of cascading blood. But what makes horror and metal the perfect couple is their shared preoccupation with the supernatural: demonic possession, Satan worship, what have you. Metal performers have enriched their acts with tropes from the horror genre (Ozzy with his bat, Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider with his berserk-clown getup). Inversely, there are slasher films that center on metalheads (Deathgasm, Lords of Chaos) – a cross-merchandizing masterstroke. I say, let the metalheads have horror. I also say, although the link between punk rock and film noir is less explicit, let fans of the latter claim the former as the movie genre’s rightful psychic soundtrack.
This isn’t to minimize the actual soundtrack of classic noir, which is frequently the jazz music of the era, with band members at times assuming their positions onscreen: in Phantom Lady (1944), in Gilda (1946), in D.O.A. (1949), and so on. But the jazz in those films is usually pushing a cheerful, even celebratory mood that’s at tonal odds with noir. (Of course, this can work to glorious effect when the music is used as a discombobulatingly carefree counterpoint to the bad mojo brewing in the club’s shadows.) Unlike jazz, neither punk rock nor heavy metal is much concerned with radiating good cheer, sharing as they do a fixation with danger and depravity. But there’s a key philosophical distinction between the two musical genres. In punk, as in film noir, the raging forces beyond our control aren’t supernatural but human: cruelty, greed, jealousy, the double cross, the fist in the face. That’s not a zombie pointing a gun at Humphrey Bogart, and the gun was the product of a factory, not an incantation.
Both punk and noir operate on the assumption that the Devil most certainly did not make someone do it, and God won’t save us from either a bad guy or our own worst impulses. Anyway, even our best impulses amount to little when the deck is stacked against the guiltless, and the police (and here a signature Laird Cregar role comes to mind) aren’t necessarily the good guys. The plight of the person wrongfully accused was a favorite story line of Alfred Hitchcock – it propels I Confess (1953), Dial M for Murder (1954), and The Wrong Man (1956), among his noir-ier films – and punk bands have employed the plot point as well, as the Circle Jerks did in “Deny Everything,” the Jam did in “Innocent Man,” and the Clash did in “Police on My Back.” The Clash didn’t write that song – Eddy Grant of the Equals, another English band, did – but they sped up, lengthened, and otherwise improved it while increasing the frequency and plangency of the original’s repeated line “What have I done?” The line belongs to the fingered but blameless noir everyman as well.
In noir, tales of wrongful accusation tend to play out on mean streets that reflect social inequalities, which at times do have a nasty way of tilting normally upright people toward moral compromise. Joe Norson, Farley Granger’s character in Side Street (1950), is motivated to cross over to the dark side not by greed but by penury and having a pregnant wife; “I needed money ’cause I had none,” Joe Strummer sings in the Clash’s version of Sonny Curtis’s “I Fought the Law,” and for Granger’s Joe Norson, that pretty much covers it. While punk bands are generally blunter with their politics than noir directors are in their films, both are united behind the mutual cause of the common man, and both are constantly massaging some variation on this question: Why is it so hard to get by? From the start of the punk movement, the Sex Pistols wanted to dismantle, and probably worse, the British monarchy; as the thinking went, why should the shiftless royals have so much when their taxpaying loyal subjects have so little?
And yet for all the spluttering, splenetic urgency of punk’s lyrics, the music’s calling card is its economy: song brevity, sparse instrumentation, and, quite often, scrawny production; this last may be a financial consideration, an upraised middle finger at the fussily overblown approach of mainstream rock acts, or both. But note how the rudimentary musicianship and unpolished vocalizing in punk tidily aligns with the B-movie production values of much classic noir – and also note how neither punk nor noir is even remotely diminished in the eyes of fans by the absence of gloss.
Similarly, punk lyrics, like noir screenplays, are known for their muscular minimalism. There’s not much straining for figurative language in punk: songwriters more typically shoot for directness – an artistic choice, but maybe a defensive one as well? As many a punk rocker and noir protagonist know, being misunderstood by a cop, a thug, or an overheated hothead can cost a person dearly. That would arguably be a noir protagonist doing the storytelling in the Jam’s “Down in the Tube Station at Midnight,” a first-person account of being on the receiving end of a subway ambush.
Although punk missed the classic-noir era by a couple of decades, having developed its initial head of steam in the mid to late 1970s, some storied punk bands’ names – the Damned, Minor Threat, Gang of Four – could have passed for titles of golden-age noirs; in the case of Vancouver’s D.O.A., their name is the title of a golden-age noir. And it’s not difficult to stumble across a punk song that shares its name with a classic noir: without trying too hard, I can point to “Kiss Me Deadly” (Generation X), “Concrete Jungle” (the Specials), “Born to Kill” (the Damned), “Cry Baby Killer” (the Flesh Eaters), and “No Questions Asked” (again the Flesh Eaters). Not that a lot of early punk bands would have wanted to cop to looking backward for inspiration, and here lies a juicy paradox.
Early punks were determined to face front – “No Elvis, Beatles, or the Rolling Stones,” the Clash insisted in “1977” – because punk was about thinking for oneself, which meant questioning authority, which meant that parents were suspect and their nostalgia smelled funny. And yet the very musicians who wanted to upend the older generation’s traditions were raiding Mom and Dad’s closets. Scads of punk bands have affected the bedraggled-greaser look, at least partly in revolt against the craven excesses (screechy colors, volumized hair) of arena rockers, and here again the Clash deserve special mention. Someone unfamiliar with the band who leafs through the English photographer Pennie Smith’s The Clash: Before & After, a collection of black-and-white photos of the group on tour, would be forgiven for concluding that the book’s provenance is 1953, not 1980: it presents four young men in fedoras, trench coats, slicked-back hair, biker jackets, bowling shirts, suspenders, and the odd straw hat. The Clash’s infighting shortened their career – the self-described only band that mattered lasted about five years in their only lineup that mattered – but they played the long game with their look, a replica of the classic-noir era’s timeless cool.
By now you can probably guess that if I could crown one band the musical avatar of noir, it would be the Clash, and while I’m mad with power, I’m going to give 1982’s Combat Rock the prize for Noir-est Punk Album of All. Recorded in a pre-Disneyfied New York, Combat Rock leads off with “Know Your Rights,” a mock public-service announcement that outlines the institutional hypocrisy that gets a cop or a fat cat off the hook for murder. “Ghetto Defendant” is a scenic look at the most mean and least clean of drug-blighted streets. The album’s final track, “Death Is a Star,” is an elegy for scary movies, its refrain “Smoking in the dark cinema/See the bad go down again.”
“Dark cinema” is exactly right: Hollywood casts a stardusted pall over Combat Rock. “Sean Flynn” pays its respects to Errol Flynn’s son, a photojournalist who, while on assignment in Cambodia in 1970, was abducted by communist guerrillas and never heard from again. Travis Bickle of Taxi Driver shows up in “Red Angel Dragnet,” as does Lauren Bacall in “Car Jamming” (“I thought I saw Lauren Bacall/Hey fellas? Hey fellas?/Lauren Bacall!”). Of course, the Clash had already honored a golden-age film great on their most hallowed album, 1979’s London Calling. “The Right Profile” is about Montgomery Clift, who starred in Hitchcock’s I Confess and another A-picture noir, A Place in the Sun (1951). Clash front man and bookworm Joe Strummer, who had read Patricia Bosworth’s 1978 biography of the doomed actor, wrote the song’s lyrics, one verse of which is,
New York, New York, Forty-Second Street
Hustlers rustle and pimps pimp the beat
Monty Clift is recognized at dawn
He ain’t got no shoes and his clothes are torn
It could be the opening scene in a noir. And in case it bears mentioning, Clift’s demons weren’t vampires or swamp monsters.