Some folks in the Western hemisphere claim that punk rock is the earliest form of outsider music.
Like outsider art, musicians in this wild genre were typically unskilled and played in a raw style. But can punk lay claim to the title of the original outsiders?
Today, we’ll answer that question and provide in-depth knowledge about the untrained arts.
Let’s get rotten!
What Is Outsider Music?
Outsider music is the umbrella term that covers a wide range of styles and abilities. It takes its name from the art movement that focused on a specific type of creative output.
To classify as an outsider, the creator can’t have formal training. Instead, they’re self-taught and don’t cater to the mainstream market. The term is adapted from outsider art and performed by folks without self-awareness that their work isn’t conventional.
They’re happy to be part of the broader landscape, even if they aren’t successful.
Irwin Chusid, a Tower Records magazine Pulse! journalist, is usually credited with the term.
Songs by trained performers that are intentionally “off” don’t fall into the category. Novelty tunes, avant-garde, world music, and camp aren’t outsider. In these cases, creators are sophisticated enough to produce their work for a desired effect, not from lack of knowledge.
True outsider music often comes from mentally ill people or unskilled artists.
Deep Dive: What is Outsider Music?
Why Is It Called Outsider Music?
In the early 20th century, several psychologists noticed their patients were creating art. It wasn’t the refined, studied type of work that dominated the landscape. It was something else.
German and French doctors coined terms that spoke to a specific raw or childlike nature they saw. They used the term art brut to describe their output.
But in the 1960s, Roger Cardinal brought it to America. He translated the term and broadened it to include pieces “made outside the boundaries of mainstream culture.”
Chusid shifted the term and applied it to music in the 90s, and the new outsider movement was born.
Several artists were creating this type of work in America at the time. They included those with intellectual disabilities, mental illnesses, and little to no training. Standouts like Daniel Johnston and Wesley Willis captured their raw, heartfelt attempts in lo-fi home recordings.
Is Punk Rock Outsider Music?
First appearing in New York City in the 1970s, American critics were among the first to use the term punk rock. It described the music of the Ramones, Blondie, Heartbreakers, and the Talking Heads, who made sophisticated, art-influenced records.
On the other side of the pond, the United Kingdom was in a deep recession, and many young people were angry. Adopting this louder, faster approach to rock, they made punk their own.
Bands like Sex Pistols and The Clash voiced razor-sharp political statements through music. While they had widely different abilities, they all came from artistic backgrounds.
Unlike actual outsider music, they all had self-awareness that what they sang didn’t fit cultural norms.
So, if punk rock isn’t the original outsider music, what is? Allow us to introduce Wesley Willis.
Do you know? How Did Punk Rock Get Its Name?
The Story of Outsider Musician Wesley Willis
Wesley Willis was one of ten children from the projects of Chicago. Born in 1963, he had a troubled childhood. He was raised by two of his brothers and the foster system. That ended when he was robbed at gunpoint by his mother’s boyfriend in the 1980s.
Due to the trauma of that incident, his schizophrenia manifested in auditory hallucinations.
From then on, he spent his days on the street creating pen and ink drawings. Each featured scenes of Chicago captured in his rough and raw style. Additionally, he started playing a Technics KN 2000 keyboard and chant-singing original songs. He shouted his frustrations with the world over a simple beat and repetitive chord changes. There’s no denying this was outsider music.
By 1991, musicians from the city’s alt-rock scene discovered Willis and formed a punk band. Called the Wesley Willis Fiasco, they played for several years before breaking up in 1996. At that point, Willis went out on his own and recorded for independent labels like American Recordings.
When he died in 2003, he’d spent most of his adult life chronicling his battle with schizophrenia. And even though some found his work significant, others thought it was exploitative.
Is Daniel Johnston an Outsider Musician?
Daniel Johnston is the perfect example of an outsider musician. In the late 1970s, he began recording on a cheap Sanyon boombox. With no formal training, his piano and chord organ-based songs dripped with sincerity.
After moving to Austin, Texas, he took a job at a local McDonald’s and passed out his tapes. He regularly performed live and, by 1990, was a fixture of the city’s New Sincerity movement.
This group placed authenticity above everything. An artist’s ability wasn’t the primary indicator that they made something worthwhile. Instead, it was their raw creativity. Art brut, if you will.
His cult status was firmly cemented, but he never escaped his demons. On a flight piloted by his father from Austin to West Virginia, he pulled out the key and tossed it. Believing he was Casper the Friendly Ghost, he thought he could fly.
While both he and his father walked away with minor injuries, he ended up institutionalized.
Around that time, Kurt Cobain appeared regularly with a shirt from Johnston’s album Hi, How Are You. A bidding war to sign him followed, even though he was in a mental ward.
Johnston refused to sign with Elektra Records because he thought labelmates Metallica were Satanic. Instead, he signed with Atlantic Records in 1994 and released two albums before they dropped him.
Despite his troubles, Johnston created prolifically throughout his life. Other musicians helped support him. Like many outsider artists, cultural elites embraced his music in his later years. A longer documentary was released in 2006. Then, a short documentary, Hi, How Are You Daniel Johnston, came out in 2015 and reintroduced his story to a younger generation.
Before he died in 2019, he went on a final tour backed by renowned bands at each stop. He died of a suspected heart attack at 58.
Watch the original full-length documentary, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, and the short 2015 film below.
Punk Didn’t Kick Off Outsider Music
By definition, the outsider music label doesn’t fit punk rock. These people created with a keen awareness of their place in the artistic landscape. They sought to cause social and political change by rejecting mainstream ideas of aesthetic beauty.
While some may not have known how to play their instruments, they made a statement nonetheless.
Wesley Willis and Daniel Johnston meet the criteria, including their mental illnesses. Their naive, authentic interpretations of their realities maintain a childlike quality only found in outsiders. To listen to their songs is to see the line between genius and madness blurred. You might not love it, but that’s the point!