4 Skins: Punk and the Concrete City
April 22, 2019
Punk is urban music. Though there are notable exceptions, the genre largely evokes the city. It sounds of abandoned buildings, bulldozed blocks, and outrage emanating from London and New York (and Los Angeles and Jakarta, and on and on).
Despite metropolitan associations, direct links between punk and the city can often be quite amorphous. Yes, fury and iconoclasm, abrasive squealing feedback, gritty distorted guitars–these might seem better suited to the town than the country. But that's not much to hang your hat on. In the end, punk often remains in the orbit of a more loose spirit, diagnosed by the critic Greil Marcus as negation: "real or symbolic violence, blasphemy, dissipation, contempt, ridiculousness," an act "that would make it self-evident to everyone that the world is not as it seems."1
If the city haunts punk as a missing referent, its absence from 1970s New York is particularly glaring. Though the network of punk musicians and fans was woven tightly into the fabric of Downtown—from CBGB and the Chelsea Hotel to Lower East Side squats and graffiti-coated subway cars—songs from that era don't explicitly address urban circumstances as often as one might expect.
There are counter-examples. For example, The Ramones' "53rd & 3rd" provides a vivid portrait of Dee Dee Ramone's time spent working the streets as a hustler, while Jayne County's "Max's Kansas City"—a precise description of CBGB's chief rival—stands out for its quasi-ethnographic depiction of the local music scene:
Despite such exceptions, '70s New York punk largely retains a more general bohemianism, inherited from artists such as Lou Reed and Patti Smith.
It is somewhat striking that the social character of New York should go unremarked. By the 1970s, the city held deep associations with ills and blight, dating back to the antebellum years when livestock roamed waste-drenched streets (and continuing to the present, when a recent study found the city to be the globe's largest producer of trash). The flaws of the city gained a particular contour during the 1970s, when it became a test case for neoliberal reformers seeking to wage war on the public sector. It was in this era that, as environmental historian David Stradling reports, a visiting mayor proclaimed he was witnessing "the first tangible sign of the collapse of civilization."2 By the 1980s, in the heart of the heroin epidemic and as homelessness was skyrocketing, many locals were inclined to agree.
The short-lived group 4 Skins was one of the first bands to use punk negationism to speak directly to this environment.
4 Skins were really a band of exceptions. Their very name is exceptional, given they share one with the more infamous BritishOi! band of the same era.
The group was also difficult to place in the punk of their day. They were too serious for post-punk, too heavy for the CBGB stage, and too funky for the comparably un-groovy sound of hardcore. Perhaps worst of all for their chances of success: they were Outer Boroughs kids in a Manhattan genre, and had black members while playing in a genre often dominated by white artists.
4 Skins have mostly been left out of punk history, a testament to the ephemeral character of the genre. The group released only two records on a pair of fly-by-night labels. Their 1980 single, "I'm Mad" b/w "When I'm Gone" (Grove, 1980), was quickly followed in 1981 by a 12" EP, White Neighborhood (Beatnote, 1981). Then: nothing.
Though their output was limited, 4 Skins were unique for constructing a detailed sense of New York as a living space. The group's songs are relatively minimal, both textually and musically speaking. But they pack a density of references into their lyrics, conjuring up rich webs of associations. For example, "White Neighborhood" is a vivid fantasy depiction of working class aspiration, imagining that wealthy whites all look like magazine photographs, owning houses in in Miami, riding around in limousines, and eating French cuisine.
Most striking is the group's 1980 single "I'm Mad." The song transforms punk's abstract negativity into a pointed response to lived experience. 4 Skins showed that punks should not just be upset, but upset in response to the flawed dynamics of their social infrastructure.
4 Skins, “I’m Mad/When I’m Gone,”, Grove, GR-001, 1980.
Lyrically, the song is straightforward enough: a list of things that make the narrator mad. The song starts, perhaps predictably, in a rather nihilistic vein:
I'm mad at the rat race
I'm mad at your face
Love ain't the only feeling, that makes me burn
I'm mad at the sadness
Mad at the madness
Looks like I've reached the point of no return
If the song stopped there, it would do little to depart from a standard punk narrative of unfocused anger, rage tossed out in the general direction of the world at large. But 4 Skins also include descriptions of New York as a locale:
…at high rent
…at dollar bills
…at 9 to 5
4 Skins did not provide the most exhaustive study of the city. But they sublimated New York's flaws into a musical affect of negation. Coming on the tail-end of a scene at times inclined to free-floating aestheticism or escapist camp, 4 Skins offered a largely unprecedented engagement with concrete reality.
In this sense, they were also one of the first to transform Marcus's promise of negation: from a total rejection of the world as currently configured, to a lens through which to envision a better city.
Jarek Ervin is a writer and teacher based in Philadelphia. His published work focuses on art, culture, and politics.
Jarek Ervin, "4 Skins: Punk and the Concrete City," Enviro-History.com, April 22, 2019, http://Enviro-History.com/fourskins.html.