The word “Punk” signifies something of low quality, something not good or cheap, and this word would become the name of an entire music genre and culture that exploded in the ‘70s on both sides of the Atlantic.
It’s been almost 50 years since the explosion of punk in England and the US. Fifty years in which music has changed a lot and, in many ways, has also returned to its roots. There would be a need over and over again for a new explosion like the one that occurred in the mid-1970s, an extraordinary phenomenon of rebellion, of provocation, against society, the bourgeoisie, the “system”. A rebellion in the name of rock which, at the time, caused a resounding shock in culture, fashion, communication, and above all in music.
Punk Rock – The Foundations
Every time there is 2 or more people debating when and where did Punk start, chances are the conversation will end up in disagreement. The main reasons are that different people have different ideas about what Punk rock is, and the fact that the foundations are scattered around many places.
Punk Rock was first used to describe a new wave of ‘60s garage rock bands that lacked musical education and skill, and thus, breaking the rules of music. Bands like the Sonics were slowly emerging from their garages and playing live shows in front of audiences that were responding in more than a positive way.
In the mid-late ‘60s bands like the Stooges and MC5, and their raw Detroit style, were starting to get attention. Their music was crude, their lyrics often political, criticizing society and the establishment, and their concerts were truly violent.
The next card in the deck was the Velvet Underground fronted by Lou Reed and managed by Andy Warhol. Probably without intent, they were moving the boundaries of music.
If we look a little deeper we have to acknowledge that artists like David Bowie and the New York Dolls had a huge impact on punk rock as well.
The First Punk Scene
I know I might get a lot of hate from English punk rockers, but the first “real” punk scene was born in New York, and it is not simply a musical genre, as it represents a real generational break, which takes the form of new perceptions, ideas, styles, attitudes, and sounds.
Bands like the Ramones, Wayne County, Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers, Blondie, and the Talking Heads were starting to perform in the legendary CBGB in the Bowery District. There was a general sense of friendship and they would help each other by sharing influences and ideas. Punk Rock was becoming a movement in the true meaning of the word. Many of these bands would detach from Punk in future years, but they helped shape music history forever.
The first signs of punk are recorded in a record market in a phase of intense ebb around, while rock is losing its vital and rebellious component. Once the hippy counterculture era has become lifeless, disco music is preparing to conquer large audiences of all ages with its harmless invitation to dance, while the progressive rock of bands such as Yes, Genesis, Emerson, Lake & Palmer reaches high levels of self- Satisfaction and seems to have sacrificed the way of rock for a form closer to cultured music.
Meanwhile, In the U.K.
Simultaneously, the UK was struggling with its economy. A lot of young people were without jobs, didn’t believe they had a bright future, and they had a lot of free time on their hands. The Punk movement in the UK was much more political and economic in its roots. It is a contrast to traditional culture and therefore to the social codes and conventions that define it, and not only that, given that punk manifests an equally evident detachment from the now-dissolved hippie dream.
The youth is angry and they’re saying “Piss Off” to everything and everyone.
This is where the beginnings of punk fashion were rooted. Punk fashion was born out of Malcolm McClaren’s shop called SEX. Malcolm had just returned from the US where he failed to create a new fashion trend by trying to reinvent the style of the New York Dolls. He decided that his new project would be the kids hanging in his shop – and the Sex Pistols were born.
Immediately they began creating a loyal following. Young people were gathering around them, and among these the so-called “Bromleys” or “Bromley Contingent”, named after the neighborhood in London they lived in. They would go on and form much of the bands that will one day make punk and music history: The Clash, The Slits, Siouxsie & the Banshees, Generation X, and X-Ray Spex.
Early British punk rock also saw new philosophies and skills being born out of the, at times chaotic scene.
Entrepreneurship and DIY spirit were natural collaterals if the scene was going to survive. There was a proper network of venues where non-mainstream bands could perform and make a name for themselves dubbed UK Pub Punk, which was active in the first half of the ‘70s. Pub punk also gave birth to the idea of independent record labels with low-cost recordings for emerging artists (e.g. Stiff Records).
Punk had originated as an alternative to evermore technical, experimental rock with increasingly non-conventional forms and never-ending solos, as an attempt to strip rock ‘n’ roll down to its basic raw form. It was a no-bullshit art form with its own values and philosophy and it was gaining momentum. The mid and late ‘70s would see it spread across the world like wildfire.
The Punk Explosion
After its initial “childhood” struggles, by the second part of the ‘70s, punk rock had emerged as an established musical genre with a really large and loyal following. It was a movement with its own music, art, and fashion. After the Sex Pistols released ‘Never Mind the Bollocks – Here’s the Sex Pistols’, punk rockers experienced first-hand how much cultural and social influence the movement was creating and they got bolder. Absolute freedom was one of the postulates of the punk rock movement and there were no boundaries (except musical virtuosity), so small groups of bands started forming their own sub-genres.
In 1976 The Sex Pistols, together with the Clash and the Damned set out on their first tour – The Anarchy Tour. Most clubs, fearing violence, canceled the tour dates, cutting short all of the efforts the bands and promoters put in.
Back Across the Pond – The Birth of Hardcore
In 1977, something that seemed impossible happened – punk rock got more aggressive, edgy, and brutal. Inspired by the British punk rock scene bands like the Misfits, Black Flag, and Bad Brains emerged forming a new sub-genre – American Hardcore Punk. These bands were godfathers to a more violent music form that would later give birth to legendary bands such as Bad Religion, Dead Kennedys, and Minor Threat.
The early US scene was split between Los Angeles, New York, and Washington. While “west-coast” bands inclined more towards melodic, political punk rock forms, the east coast was more brutal and raw, ultimately embodied in a new sub-genre “New York Hard Core” (NYHC) with bands like Agnostic Front, Madball, and Sick of it All.
The American Hard Core scene completely embraced the DIY ethic of British punk, allowing scenes to bloom all across the US.
Punk Rock in the ’80s
During the ‘80s both Punk and Hardcore suffered a decline in popularity, although there were always loyal audiences supporting the movement and the bands, during this decade it was much more on a local level.
The mainstream media had been hijacked by “Hair Metal” and the new kids were starting to grow their hair long once again. Bands like Motley Crue and Quiet Riot were spreading their tentacles and stealing the show. Arena rock was coming back, and small club shows were going out of fashion.
Although, as the old saying goes, Punk never died, the impact it had on the world during the ‘70s had waned. Bands like the Misfits and Bad Religion were internationally known and loved, but true global recognition would return with bands that emerged in the ‘90s.
The Rebirth of Punk – Pop Punk
In 1989 a band called Sweet Children appeared. They would change their name to Green Day, and together with bands like Offspring, NOFX, and Blink-182 they created the new wave of Pop Punk in the early ‘90s.
Punk rock will see worldwide popularity once again. Although these bands were shunned upon by elitist, old-school punk rockers (and they still are), they went on and sold hundreds of millions of records and opened doors for new bands, keeping Punk everything but dead.
Although the beginning of the ‘90s witnessed even more decrease of the original Punk bands (The Talking Heads broke up, New York Dolls’ Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan died), the mid-nineties would see a significant expansion through the Pop Punk movement all throughout the early 2000s.
Unfortunately, like most music genres played with instruments, punk has been put aside in favor of Hip Hop, RnB, and Pop music. Even though punk bands don’t get much “air time” on mainstream media, the genre is still strong, and new bands are coming out of their garages all the time.
Punk Rock Subgenres
Here are some of the most prominent and significant subgenres that originated from punk rock:
Anarcho-punk is heavily motivated by politics. Its lyrics often convey messages about political issues, including animal rights and anti-government stances.
Celtic punk is punk rock accompanied by traditional Irish instruments, founded in the ’80s by the Pogues.
Cowpunk is a mix of country and punk rock that pays tribute to the old country and honky-tonk bands.
Christian punk is a form of punk with lyrics that carry some form of Christian message.
Death Rock – Early 1980s subgenre with inward and macabre lyrics, dealing with themes of aloneness, despair, and death.
Emo, or emotional hardcore, saw its birth in the ’80s in the DC hardcore scene. Its lyrics are often introspective and emotional, and the music is often more melodic and less-structured.
Hardcore punk rose in the late ’70s and early ’80s in multiple cities throughout the U.S. It’s main characteristics are that it is much faster and heavier than traditional punk.
Pop-punk is a style that has more in common with the Beatles and ’60s pop than other subgenres of punk. In 1994, Green Day’s album Dookie became a huge commercial success, and other pop-punk bands like the Offspring and NOFX quickly followed.
Psychobilly is a blend of ’50s rockabilly music and punk rock that gets its name from a Johnny Cash song lyric.
Riot grrrl was a short-lived but important politically-motivated punk rock movement that focused on feminism and gender equality in the punk rock scene.
Ska Punk originated in London, where many neighborhoods where punk got popular were heavily populated by Jamaicans. It is a blend of Jamaican ska with the heavier beats of punk, and horn sections are often present.
Street Punk or “Oi” started in the late ‘70s as a direct reaction to the first wave of punk bands. Street punks felt that most punk bands were upper middle class and didn’t speak to the blue-collar majority. It is a harsh, raw subgenre dealing with issues like inequality, poverty, and police brutality.
Throughout my life, I have heard countless definitions and descriptions of punk, had discussions about the musical value of punk rock. Had arguments about which is better metal or punk, rock or punk…and was always pissed at the arrogance of elitist, snobbish punk rockers. I’m a lover of heavier music, and although there were always punk songs that I liked, and listened to over and over again, I, myself have never identified with, felt part of, or truly understood punk, and it was only later when I was in my thirties that I took a genuine interest in exploring, and discovering punk rock.
What I discovered is that it’s just rock ‘n’ roll. Just another shape of the thing I have loved ever since my Dad played an AC/DC cassette on our family car’s stereo when I was nine. I simply understood that whenever I listened to the Pistols or Black Flag it was the call for disconformity that drew me, when I listened to the Clash it was the rock’s wild attitude, the aggression that Sick of it All brought was just the rage built inside caused by injustice and not fitting in….they are all expressions of this beautiful thing called rock ‘n’ roll which still has the power to make me feel young and alive in my mid-forties, and it always will until the day that I close my eyes for good.
Hope you enjoyed this article. Feel free to share it with your friends.
Stay tuned for more