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An Arcade of the Weird and Wonderful: A Punk Communiqué

During my four years of researching and writing A Cultural Dictionary of Punk: 1974-1982, I discovered (and in some cases rediscovered) many weird and wonderful things. For instance, I learned that the phrase "punk rock music" was used in 1978 on the floor of the House of Commons by British Prime Minister James Callaghan. And also that the pogo dance, so often associated with punk concerts in the late 1970s, was a less ritualized form of frenzied dancing characteristic of some Pentecostal worship services. Here are three of the weirder and wonderful-er discoveries.

Helen Keller
The product of Norman Durkee, from Seattle, the band Helen Keller never played a live show, and recorded only one single, in 1978. But what a single. The B-side, "Dump on the Chumps," is alright, but the A-side, "Surfin with Steve and E. D. Amin" is the most fun, gloom-sodden, terrifying, genre-bending song mentioned in A Cultural Dictionary of Punk. The voice is low and menacing, like someone shouting through gravel into the dark void. But then the soaring, soprano — sung by Valerie Yockey — extravagant and baroque and full of melody; it humbles you that no combination of words can do justice to the weird beauty of this song. "That chorus is a take-off on the Beach Boys," Durkee told me, but instead of "shouldn't have lied, now" it's "shouldn't have died, now." There are facts about Helen Keller, the song "Surfin' with Steve and E. D. Amin," and Norman Durkee that I should tell you:

1. Norman Durkee was born in Tacoma, Washington, in 1943, and sat next to Ted Bundy in class.Norman Durkee was born in Tacoma, Washington, in 1943, and sat next to Ted Bundy in class.

2. The song was written by Durkee and Douglas Beckowitz.

3. Here are the players:
Distorted Electric Piano: Durkee
Lead Guitar: Beckowitz
Bass: Dan Dean (also played the electric drill)
Drums: Fred Zeufeldt
Lead Vocals: Durkee
Background Soprano: Valerie Yockey
Engineered and Mixed by Dr. A. (Richard Maltby) and Durkee

4. As for the distorted electric piano (above), which gives the song its deeply eerie and menacing vibe, which seems to sustain forever, Durkee said: 'The massive rhythm guitar sound is actually a Fender Rhodes electric piano sent through a Peavy PA amp with all the settings set to maximum for distortion and sustain. The sound was so dense I could not play complete chords. I had to play open 4ths and 5ths."

5. As to why punk — and the weird sounds of Third Generation Rock — emerged at nearly the same time in different places, Durkee refers to biologist Rupert Sheldrake and his theory of morphic fields, which suggests that phenomena (biological but also, potentially, artistic) become more possible the more frequently they occur. In other words, lots of strange music was being produced in the mid to late 1970s, in many places, simultaneously, against all reason and logic.

Road Warrior

The Road Warrior
Might The Road Warrior be an allegory for the ideological and aesthetic divide between the hippies and the punks? The film (its full title is Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior) was directed by George Miller and released in 1981. Its costumes and tightly choreographed chaos suggest the punk imagination. There are the Mohawks, yes, and the leather, and the violence. There is Humongous. But beyond that, there is the sad glory of a post-apocalyptic world. "In the future," the ominous voice tells us from the movie's trailer, "cities will become deserts. Roads will become battlefields." Bands like Pere Ubu and Destroy All Monsters from cities like Cleveland and Detroit had already conjured these images; Miller's genius in The Road Warrior was to go outside the cities into the open spaces with their natural desolation and beauty. This is what cities might become, the movie whispered in secret, if we are lucky. The movie's precursors include The Searchers (John Ford, 1956), North by Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock, 1959), Duel (Steven Spielberg, 1971), and Picnic At Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975), where open spaces suggest a sort of blank terror, and where the human form itself is the alien element. In an issue of Stop! magazine, John Holmstrom (of Punk magazine fame) said this:

Road Warrior is the first film to capture the real essence of punk.Road Warrior is the first film to capture the real essence of punk....An underlying theme in this movie is the war between the hippies and the punks. The punks, led by Humongous and starring Wes, want the gasoline that the hippie tribe is hoarding. They kill and rape any hippies they meet up with, they torture them and burn them and get what they want. The hippies live in an armored compound that protects their school busses and gasoline, and wear long hair and robes. Mad Max saves a hippie to pick up some free gas, then joins the tribe after the punks kill his dog.

By 1981, punk had evolved westward, becoming louder, faster, more aggressive. Strangely, the elections of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher fulfilled the punk repudiation of the hippies. But that's another story.

Ephraim P. Noble
I hesitated about mentioning Ephraim here on the Powell's blog, but since the book would not have been possible without him, I felt a certain obligation. Ephraim wrote some of the entries in the book, as well as the fiery, apocalyptic postscript, and is the subject of several entries, as well. His story is long and tortuous. The only thing that matters now is that he lives in the subterranean American tunnels, from where he sends partial and cryptic messages. For reasons that I cannot divulge at this point, I am obligated to release and publish his communiqués, unedited. For the sake of convenience, I do this at the Ephraim P. Noble Archive.

Oh, and he claims to have "invented" punk.

÷ ÷ ÷

Nicholas Rombes is the author of The Ramones and editor of New Punk Cinema. He is professor and chair of the English Department at the University of Detroit Mercy.


Books mentioned in this post

  1. The Ramones: Ramones (33 1/3 Series) New Trade Paper $14.95
  2. New Punk Cinema New Trade Paper $50.25

  3. Cultural Dictionary of Punk: 1974-1982 New Trade Paper $42.25


Nicholas Rombes is the author of Cultural Dictionary of Punk: 1974-1982

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