What about Punk rock in Brussels? Punk rock is an explosive arrival in the history of music. Emerging from the New York underground scene, it submerged the United States, crossed the seas, and found followers all over the world. The conquered territories were filled with its sounds, visual elements, culture and philosophy.
Belgium was not spared from the storm, and many bands were born there. In Brussels, as in many other cities, there are still venues, bars, record stores, where the heart of the movement continues to beat. In this article, Futurgrooves proposes to retrace the tumultuous journey of punk rock through time. Starting from its origins, we will see what it has left in its wake, up to its current manifestations in the capital.
What is punk rock ?
It is the 70’s. While rock music is in full swing around the world, one club, at 315 Bowery in Manhattan, is rocking the New York music scene. Indeed, in the background of the CBGB, artists with famous names performed there on a regular basis. Patti Smith, for example, made the club her HQ and performed until late. She will soon be followed by a multitude of groups: the Ramones, the Cramps, the New York Dolls,… All of them practice a rock with particular accents. They are the pioneers of an unprecedented movement whose impact, will extend to different spheres of society and not only musically. Punk Rock was born, it has started in the dark rooms of CBGB and Max’s Kansas City and was about to undertake its long journey through the world and the times.
In 1976, Malcolm McLaren, a British record producer, becomes the intermediary of this New York experience. Carries the Punk rock in the United Kingdom, and London quickly becomes the epicenter of the movement. A new effervescence, which sees the appearance of groups such as Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Damned. In a dazzling way, Punk started to conquer Europe, and spread to the borders of Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Brazil.
Punk rock is first of all music
At a time when the market has taken over the music scene, rock has become a “mainstream” genre. The institutionalization of which it is the object is manifested in a striking way in the arena – these gigantic concerts – serving to declaim albums financed by the multinationals of the music. Punk intends to oppose to the grandiloquent virtuosity practiced by these groups of Mainstream rock.
Punk is simplified and thundering, with short numbers that are supported by screams and vehement songs. The number of instruments is also reduced. An electric guitar, a bass, a drum and a singer are enough to fulminate in yells of protesting texts, often with a political content, sometimes seeking to scandalize.
Punk rock is also a philosophy
If it stems from music, the Punk movement is embodied in a diversity of arts and spheres of life. It is the expression of anti-authority, of an opposition to the mainstream, of the denunciation of a commercialized, globalized and standardized society, and, more generally, of the rebellion of a youth rebelling against social injustice and the status quo. Punk thus advocates a return to authenticity, to the local scene, and is deployed via small record companies and independent distribution. The promotion of the movement wants to be free from the mass media, and is done through Fanzines, these magazines produced by passionate people for other passionate people.
Punk is also about DIY – Do It Yourself – claiming that it is not necessary to be a performer trained in the best academies to manifest one’s artistic fiber. Anyone has the capacity to become a cultural actor. It is enough to want it and to jump in the adventure with fury. Punk is an invitation to go from being an object to being a subject of history.
Punk did have a considerable impact on the world. At first considered a threat, it had a socializing function that created new identities. The growing influence of the movement was accompanied by a modification of the structures of everyday life. New interpretative frameworks appeared, which were so many fertile grounds for the emergence of new values, new judgments and reasoning, and which translated into new individual and collective practices. There was a turning point in Western history: Punk rock had just redefined codes, redrawn the boundaries of morals.
Like most of the movements that preceded it, the craze around Punk culture went into decline. It was reborn under the impulse of a second wave in the 90s. The worldwide success of Nirvana, a grunge band, brought rock back to the forefront. This favoured the emergence of punk rock artists such as Green Day, Good Charlotte, the Offspring and Rancid.
These emerging bands sold more albums than any other punk rock artists of the 70s, fueling a debate within the movement. Even though the punk philosophy was all about authenticity and refusing to go mainstream, global stars were emerging, wearing all the symbols of this universe. An internal tug-of-war preoccupied many artists, oscillating between the will to make their music known to the greatest number of people, and the will to remain at a local level. Punk tended to become an integral part of the culture.
Despite these developments and the widespread belief that punk rock has been corrupted by the mercantile industry, the underground scene has lasted. An eloquent example is The U. K. Subs, a band from the first British upheavals, still active today. In the continuity of the seventies, Punk rock keeps its influence on the protest music and seems to be able to continue its unrestrained race as long as a desire of rebellion remains. This is how Dick Lucas summarizes it in the documentary Punk’s Not Dead:
“the fact that punk rock endures and will endure is a testament to what punk rock does for all of its fans, it buzzes them with drive, energy, anger or love […] It is this drive that creates the reincarnation of punk rock again and again.”
As for the rest of Europe, the punk wave has largely flooded Belgium. Thus, as early as 1976, the movement started to gather in Antwerp, Liege, Namur and Brussels.
The mythical concert of Patti Smith in an auditorium of the ULB, constitutes a great starting point. Later on, many people started dancing to the Ramones or the Clash in Brussels clubs like the Canotier. An eclectic range of bands, from Belgian bands like Hubble Bubble, to American bands from CBGB, performed here.
Then the capital saw the emergence of its mythical club, the Rockin’Club, in the basement of Forest National. It is in this room of 200 people that amateurs and professionals express their love of the Punk rock in front of frenzied crowds eager of pogo. From this agitation emerge bands made in Belgium like Chainsaw and the Kids.
The Canal district also had a great importance in the development of alternative rock. It was a place where, since the 70’s, famous artists made their first stage. The de-industrialization of the factories and warehouses along the banks of the canal gave rise to a multitude of exceptional spaces at low prices. This attracted an underground artistic activity in need of financing.
The Brussels scene today?
So, it is on the banks of the Willebroek that one of the highest places of Punk Rock in Brussels is located today. The Magasin4 was created in 1994, when a punk band decided to take over a warehouse located at 4, Store street. Without external funding, the concert hall was threatened several times. It was forced to move and is now located on Avenue du Port, while its surface has tripled. Supported by the city of Brussels, it puts forward punk artists, but extends its repertoire to other genres such as psychedelic, ambient, industrial, … As you can see on its homepage, the institution has survived the pandemic, and celebrates this year its 25th anniversary.
In fact, the Belgian Punk scene continues to be active. Among the bands in vogue, we can mention Pink Room, Kookaburra, Baya Computer or Nervous Shake. If Magasin4 is the most emblematic place of the current Brussels Punk rock, you can hear it in many other places. For example, we could mention the VK – Vaartkapoen – where an alternative music program is still going on. As well as the Café Central, in the Halles Saint Gery, or the Cobra Jaune, in the Marolles, which each have their own stage. Or at the Brasserie de la Source, in Tour et Taxi, as well as at the Brasserie de la Mule, in the heart of Schaerbeek.
On top of that, many record shops continue to keep the movement alive, like 72 records, rue du Midi. And then, as for the classic rock’n roll, it is a style which can arouse the interest of everyone, who will come to attend one of these concerts sometimes in a festival, sometimes in a big Brussels hall.
The underground character of Punk remains however, and continues to be expressed in various places, where unknown artists make their instruments scream during punctual events. Is itinerancy the price to pay to keep its purest authenticity? Nomadism rather than institutionalization. Anonymity rather than notoriety. Maybe this is also the spirit of Punk.