Celebrating All Things Dieselpunk

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Dieselpunk: Building a Better Future

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And then one fine morning— So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” – The Great Gatsby, by F Scott Fitzgerald

There’s been a recent controversy about the use of the word contemporary in defining Dieselpunk. Johnny Dellarocca, my co-host on the Diesel Powered Podcast, expressed the opinion that the dictionary definition of the word contemporary should allow works of the Diesel Era to be labeled dieselpunk. The purpose of the post is to explain my position on the proposal.

The word contemporary in the context of defining dieselpunk isn’t necessarily the same as defined by Merriam-Webster. For the purpose of defining dieselpunk, the word contemporary is simply a convenient, shorthand method of saying ‘post-Diesel Era’. The end of the Diesel Era depends on who you talk to. Dates generally vary from 1945, 1950, or 1954 though occasionally one will see 1957. In my opinion, establishing the specific end date isn’t as important as the practice of restricting what we label as ‘dieselpunk’ to production AFTER the Diesel Era, regardless of when one sets the end date. I believe that this limit is essential to the identity of dieselpunk.

Someone once told me that she thought that dieselpunk was a mashup. For those unfamiliar with the term, according to Google a ‘mashup’ is “a mixture or fusion of disparate elements.” Dieselpunk combines the zeitgeist of two very different cultural eras. It combines the iconic elements and Modernity of the 1920s – 40s with the current sensibilities and Postmodernism of today. As a result, a dialectic tension continually exists within dieselpunk, which helps to make it such a dynamic and diverse genre.

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” F Scott Fitzgerald

Diesel Era productions cannot meet this requirement of combining the different eras. Even those individuals who were ahead of their time, the cultural milieu that they existed in limited what they could envision. A brief visit to the web site Paleofuture will show how poor predictions of the future have been. For those few who was able to predict the future with some degree of accuracy, the laws during the Diesel Era that regulated fashion, print, cinema, and music made it difficult for them to bring their visions to life. Usually the scope of their success was limited. They were, at best, flashes of light in the darkness of their world.

What should we call these rare visionary Diesel Era productions if they’re not dieselpunk? For the presentations that I give at conventions about the history of dieselpunk, I coined the term ‘proto-dieselpunk’ to distinguish them from actual dieselpunk productions.

There is precedence in other areas for keeping separate the productions of the Diesel Era from the Post-Diesel Era. For example, historians differentiate between the works of Antiquities and those of the Renaissance. I think this is significant because I see a great deal of similarities in the way the Renaissance drew inspiration from Ancient Greece and Rome to how Dieselpunk draws up the Diesel Era. In addition, we also see something similar in the study of Classic Noir and Neo-Noir.

Antiquities are not the same as Renaissance. Classic Noir is not the same as Neo-Noir. Diesel Era is not the same as Dieselpunk.

Dieselpunk is about applying the rich heritage of the Diesel Era to the lessons that we’ve learned with the goal of creating something new and original. Laying claim to the past would be a mistake because Dieselpunk isn’t about living in the past. It’s about drawing upon the past so that we can build a better future.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Your Dieselpunk is Too Small

On a recently episode of the Diesel Powered Podcast, Johnny Dellarocca, at my request, expanded on his post on the podcast Facebook page where he wrote the following:

Hey guys, some here may disagree, but as the "voice of Dieselpunk," the Diesel Powered Podcast has taken Tome Wilson's definition and defined it a little further... To be Dieselpunk there needs to be several key elements:
1) contemporary in origin - from or since the historical Diesel era.
2) decodence - the visual aesthetics of the 20s - 40s (and even the early 50s)
3) sci-fi or alternative technology elements - future tech, magic tech fantasy, etc
4) Punk. This is a counter cultural attitude, not always a physical representation. It is really you the fan expressing your desire to embrace style and culture of another era as a counter statement to contemporary culture.

As I stated on the podcast, I respectfully disagree with Johnny on this. I stand by the traditional definition of dieselpunk that Tome Wilson posted on Dieselpunks.org: “Dieselpunk is an art style that blends the spirit of the 1920s - 1950s with contemporary technology and attitude.” In my opinion, this classic definition allows for more than just science fiction/ fantasy. It also includes neo-noir, anti-heroes, modern sensibilities, and counter-cultural attitudes. These elements are essential to the dieselpunk identity just as much as science fiction and fantasy.

Therefore, I’m writing another post on the definition of dieselpunk. Once more unto the breach, dear friends…

In my opinion, rather than defining dieselpunk “a little further”, Johnny has instead created new definition of dieselpunk. His new definition would read as follows:

“Dieselpunk is a genre of science fiction or fantasy set in, or containing elements of, the 1920s – 40s.”

If this looks familiar, it’s because Merriam-Webster recently defined steampunk as “science fiction dealing with 19th-century societies dominated by historical or imagined steam-powered technology.” Johnny would therefore define dieselpunk as nothing more than late steampunk and would cause it to lose its distinctiveness. We would simply be exchanging brass for chrome, top hats for fedoras, and steam power for internal combustion. Other than these aesthetic differences, we would be nothing more than steampunks.

As the saying goes, the proof is in the pudding. Let’s look at the ramifications of adopting this new Sci-fi Definition.

Certainly, it’s true that most dieselpunk movies are science fiction, fantasy, horror or alternative history. I don’t deny that fact. The reason for this, in my opinion, is not that dieselpunk is nothing more than science fiction/ fantasy but that science fiction, which is one of several elements of Punk, lends itself easiest for storytelling.

While I still hold that there are dieselpunks movie that are not science fiction/ fantasy, if cinema was the only effect this might not be a major issue. However, the effects go far beyond what movies are included as dieselpunk. It’s in its broad range effect where we see how serious the problem is with the new definition. I will address those dieselpunk movies that aren’t science fiction or fantasy in a future post.

The effects on music by the new Sci-Fi definition would be devastating.

Admittedly, Johnny did agree during the podcast that music posed a challenge for his new definition. John Wofford, another co-host on the podcast, correctly pointed out that some dieselpunk music involves either science fiction or alternative history. Paul Shapera’s The New Albion Radio Hour, A Dieselpunk Opera is an excellent example. We would also get to keep the fantastic dieselpunk band Postmodern Jukebox since Scott Bradlee, the founder and bandleader, describes their music as “an alternate universe of popular song”.

Wofford also commented that Electro-Swing might be considered alternative history. However, I would respectfully disagree and propose that the element in Electro-Swing that makes it dieselpunk is actually decodence and not alternative history.

In my opinion, making science fiction a required element eliminates nearly all dieselpunk music (exceptions being the before mentioned work of Paul Shapera and Postmodern Jukebox). Wolfgang Parker’s Swing Punk is now gone. No more 21st Century Blues of Chris Thomas King. The Swing Ska fusion of Cherry Poppin’ Daddies is out of here. Good-bye to music by the End Times Spasm Band. The Goth Swing of Lee Presson and the Nails is history. Farewell to the 30s Punk of the Squirrel Nut Zippers. Adios to the entire Retro-Swing movement played by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Indigo Swing and others.

Are you, the reader, prepared to kick all of that great music out of dieselpunk? I’m not.

Farewell to Most Dieselpunk Music
The newly proposed Sci-fi Definition would eliminate dieselpunk fashion leaving nothing but Cosplay. A man wearing a fedora, three piece suits, and spats is no longer dieselpunk. Now it requires one to dress as the Rocketeer or Captain America. A woman is no longer dieselpunk if she wears a pill box hat and gloves or an evening dress with an Empire waistline. Now she has to dress as Rosie the Riveter or Wonder Woman.

Are we ready to end the existence of dieselpunk fashion? I’m not.

Farewell to Dieselpunk Fashion

So what would the proposed Sci-Fi Definition mean for those of us Lifestylers? By redefining dieselpunk as being nothing more than a genre of science fiction we will all be included in that ugly and unfair stereotype of the geek that we’re all familiar with. In an opinion piece for the Columbia Chronicle, Luke Wilusz described the stereotype as being, “the image of an awkward, socially inept, mouth-breathing basement dweller who has never spoken to a girl and wouldn’t have the slightest idea of what to do if he were given the chance.” 

While the above stereotype is unfair, this is how many people see hardcore fans of science fiction and fantasy. If the new Sci-Fi Definition becomes the accepted norm then society will view Lifestylers like myself, and many of you, in the same unfair stereotype.

There's a New Geek Stereotype in Town: Dieselpunk Lifestyler
Concern About the Classic Definition
Let me address one of the criticisms that Johnny proposes that his new definition solves.

Concern: Doesn’t the Classic Definition open the genre to claiming anything it wants as dieselpunk? Wouldn’t limiting it to science fiction/ fantasy set a needed boundary?

My Response: It’s true that some individuals have criticized dieselpunk as being too broad. This contains some degree of irony when it comes from steampunks since they’re often accused of claiming productions as being steampunk that are not (Doctor Who being the most recent claim of ownership by some steampunks). However, the fact that some dieselpunks go too far with what they claim to be dieselpunk is not the fault of the definition but with the individual’s application. The three components of decodence, contemporary (i.e. post-Diesel Era), and Punk when properly applied provides adequate limits. Let me show how.

1) Decodence – Decodence is that feeling or impression that one gets that says “1920s – 1940s”. It might be explicit such as a storyline set during that period or it might be just the esthetics of the Diesel Era. This helps to fix prior mistakes where some productions were thought incorrectly to be dieselpunk. A Founding Father of dieselpunk, Benardo Sena (“Mr. Piecraft”), made one of the most famous mistakes when he included Mad Max in the landmark article Discovering Dieselpunk (Source: Gatehouse Gazette, Issue 1). I know few dieselpunks who consider the Mad Max movie franchise to be dieselpunk. Decodence limits similar movies from being wrongly included.

2) Contemporary – Contemporary, which in this context is nothing more than short hand for “Post-Diesel Era”, prevents dieselpunks from laying claims to the creations of the Diesel Era. Contemporary sets a time limit on what is and is not dieselpunk.

3) Punk – The attribute of Punk sets an important limit on claiming all current movies with decodence as being dieselpunk. Does it celebrate the anti-hero? Is it neo-noir? Does it contain modern sensibilities? Is it counter-cultural? Does it involve alternative history? Finally, is it science fiction/ fantasy? (Yes, science fiction is punk.) If it doesn’t have at least one of those elements, even if it has decodence and is Post – Diesel Era, it’s not dieselpunk. Punk is the brake that sets the final needed limit.

I hope I’ve made my case well. This isn’t haggling over a minor detail. It’s about the heart and soul of our genre. This new definition would eviscerate dieselpunk. Gone would be most dieselpunk music and all dieselpunk fashion. With dieselpunk as nothing but science fiction, Lifestylers would simply be geeks with fedoras.

Dieselpunk is much grander.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Boss Larry’s Ice Bucket Challenge

Unless you’ve been living in a cave over the last few months, you’ve probably heard of the Ice Bucket Challenge where someone challenges individuals to contribute money to find a cure for ALS (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, or to have ice water dumped on them. There is a Diesel Era connection to this since Lou Gehrig, one of the great baseball players in history, retired from baseball in 1941 due to this disease, which was later named after him.

I was recently challenged Big Daddy Cool Johnny Dellarocca, my friend and co-host of the Diesel Powered Podcast, to take the challenge.

There are two ways you can help to find a cure without getting ice water poured on you. One way is to give the ALS Association. Another is to write your Congressional representative and demand that funding be restored to the National Institute of Health.

Oh and concerning the challenge by Big Daddy Cool. Well, you just need to watch the video for yourself.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Bonjour Batfrog - New CD by Frenchy and the Punk

What makes a song dieselpunk? Applying the basic definition of dieselpunk (zeitgeist of the 20s – 40s, contemporary in origin, and the nebulous characteristic of ‘Punk’) allows for a wide variety of musical formats to carry the label. Examples of dieselpunk music styles commonly recognized include Retro-Swing (Big Bad Voodoo Daddy), Industrial Rock (RPM Orchestra), Electronica (VNV Nation), Swing Punk (Wolfgang Parker), Electro-Swing (Tape Five), Progressive Bluegrass (Nickel Creek) and Symphonic-Opera (Clockwork Dolls).

The indie duo Frenchy and Punk, known for their minimalist high-energy style of music, (see my review of Hey Hey Cabaret for more about the duo) offers a different way of conceptualizing dieselpunk music in that the lyrics of a song is used to point to the Diesel Era. Their newest CD Bonjour Batfrog has several songs that fit this description.

The subject of the song She Was a Flapper (Ode to Lois Long) is exactly what the title states, which is the Roaring 20s writer Lois Long. The lyrics of the song truly capture’s Long’s amazing spirit. I think Long would be very pleased.

A few other songs on the CD have dieselpunk references. Strangers After Midnight references to a speakeasy while Bringing Out the Dead makes a reference to a “vat of moonshine”.

Frenchy and the Punk new CD Bonjour Batfrog is excellent and I highly recommend it.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

The Cradle Of Country Music

During the summer of 1927, American music was forever changed in a small recording studio in Bristol, Tennessee. Known as the Bristol Session, this set of recordings, which included songs by The Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers and the Stoneman Family, would later be described as the “Big Bang” of Country music not just for their influence on Country music but their influence on pop and rock for generations to come.

The building where the recordings took place is now The Birth of Country Music Museum. NPR recently had a fascinating audio program about the Bristol Session and the museum.
Click on the NPR logo to hear the audio program.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Dieselpunk Shakespeare: Richard III (1995)

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of Shakespeare’s plays and poetry. In 1995, Sir Ian McKellen took Shakespeare’s play Richard III and reimagined it into a powerful dieselpunk play and movie.
In the dieselpunk play and movie, the setting of Richard III is changed from Britain of the 1480s to Britain of the 1930s. The film combines a wide variety of uniforms and weapons to create a yet very believable alternate universe. Early in the film, the uniforms and equipment are largely British however, they do at times still have a Soviet element (note the helmets of the soldiers at the train station when the young princes arrive). As the film progresses, and Richard rises to power, the uniforms turn more and more fascist until it achieves a full SS appearance.

The acting of Ian McKellen is extraordinary in this movie. Deliciously evil is the term that comes to mind whenever I watch it. Rickard III has a powerful cast including Annette Bening as Queen Elizabeth, Jim Broadbent as Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, Robert Downey, Jr. as Rivers, Kristin Scott Thomas as Lady Anne Neville and Maggie Smith as The Duchess of York. The acting, direction and cinematography are superb.

The overall effect makes Richard III into an extraordinary movie. Roger Ebert included it in his list of Great Movies and described it as “perversely entertaining.”

I highly recommend Ian McKellen’s ‘Richard III’.

To read a great dieselpunk review of Richard III check out this article by Cap’n Tony at Dieselpunks.org.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Dieselpunk Themed Beers

The Fourth of July just passed and Americans everywhere where enjoying barbecues, fireworks and hanging out by the pool with family and friends. For many, cold beer was the drink of choice. Beer of course plays an important role in the dieselpunk mythos thanks to Prohibition of the 1920s. Therefore, I thought it might be nice to mention two dieselpunk themed beers that are currently on the market.

Metropolis Lager (Brewed by Speakeasy Ales and Lagers)

Metropolis Lager is the recent beer by Speakeasy Ales and Lagers. It hit the shelves in San Francisco in February 2014 with its distinctive dieselpunk label. Metropolis is found only in the Bay Area and Los Angeles. Unfortunately, the company web site is currently under construction. The official propaganda reads:
“Metropolis Lager pours a radiant gold, with tropical fruit aromas and a delicate floral note. Caramel malts lend a subtle sweetness to balance the dry, crisp character of the lager yeast. Generously dry-hopped with a blend of Mosaic and Saphir hops, Metropolis unites classic German-style brewing and West Coast innovation to create a refreshing yet flavorful lager.”

Dieselpunk Beer (Brewed by World Brews)

Of course, I have to mention Dieselpunk beer. Besides the obvious name, the label art for all three brews (IPA, Porter and Stout) is wonderfully dieselpunk. In addition, the company certainly knows what dieselpunk is for the brand web site reads:
“Once, ours was a dark metropolis rife with corruption and urban decay; our soot-covered city needed to be restored. Fueled with inspiration, we look to what the future holds in our new city — our vision inevitably tainted by a layer of grime. Fuel your vision with Dieselpunk Engineered Ales.”