The story of punk rock is one littered with impassioned debate over its origins, conventions (or lack thereof…), and relationship with “the mainstream”. This is partly because it was birthed in different locations, at different times, and diverged in different ways. What unites punk though is its do-it-yourself ethos and rebellious spirit borne out of a rejection of much of the popular music in the latter half of the 1960s which laboured under the weight of indulgent rock (10 minute guitar solos anyone?) and hippie idealism. That said, the success of the punk rock movement inevitably brought mainstream success and a subsequent adoption and re-appropriation of its stylings. How to understand this trajectory from a rejection of the mainstream to finding a home within it? And has the core of punk rock been able to maintain its “credibility” and relevance to disaffected youth?
Origins and Meaning
The term “punk rock” was originally applied in the US to the “untutored” rock bands of the 1960s, that are now often known as “garage rock” or “proto-punk”. This includes bands such as The Stooges, MC5, and the Velvet Underground who were unashamedly limited in their technical ability, crude and political, and notorious for playing concerts that frequently broke out into violence.
Also of note as an early influence on the development of punk rock’s hedonism, trashy sounds, and extravagant dress is the “glam rock” of the early 1970s from artists such as David Bowie, the New York Dolls, and T-Rex.
It was only by the mid-1970s though that “punk rock” started to be used much how it is today, thanks largely to the founding of Punk magazine in 1975 which helped to popularize the term and define much of punk culture. Based in New York, Punk was initimately linked with the burgeoning scene in the city, centred primarily around the Bowery District and the infamous club CBGB’s, where bands such as the Ramones, Talking Heads, Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers, and Blondie first started playing out regularly.
By this time, the meaning of punk rock had crystallized and become closely associated with a stripped-down aesthetic and DIY practice, alongside often political and anti-establishment lyrics and sentiments. Largely driven by a rejection of the perceived excesses (and elitism) of mainstream 1960s and early 1970s rock, punk music became characterized by short, fast-paced songs, hard-edged melodies and vocals, and basic technical instrumentation. This pursuit of technical accessibility with a DIY spirit is evident in a well-known illustration of three chords published in the English fanzine Sideburns alongside the caption “This is a chord, this is another, this is a third. Now form a band.”
Punk in the UK
Over in the UK, 1976 was a seminal year for punk rock. At the time, the UK was experiencing a prolonged economic downturn with youth unemployment at a record high. The conditions were ideal for large numbers of angry young people with time on their hands to take to punk as an outlet for their frustration and disaffection.
Enter The Ramones’, whose first British show at the Roundhouse in London on July 4th is often credited as the spark that set off the English punk explosion of that year. Similarly, the Sex Pistols June 4th gig in Manchester at the Lesser Free Trade Hall created a wave of interest throughout the north of England. Early fans of the Sex Pistols included a group that came to be known as the Bromley Contingent who went on to form bands such as The Clash, The Slits, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Generation X (fronted by a young Billy Idol), and X-Ray Spex.
The Sex Pistols brought out their first single “Anarchy in the UK” on November 26th, beaten only by the Damned’s “New Rose” released a month earlier to the accolade of first British punk single. Punk rock had become firmly placed within both the sub and mainstream cultures of the UK.
Punk in the Mainstream
Much of the appeal and identity of punk lies in its rejection of the mainstream and its commercial values. Even those who adopt the dress and tastes of punks, or other subcultures, but are thought inauthentic in not sharing the underlying philosophy are denigrated as “poseurs”.
Punk bands who signed with major record labels were accused of “selling out” in the belief that musicians and culture more generally must be free from commercial influences. As a result, many punk bands self-produce and sell their own records or use independent record labels.
The Sex Pistols signing with EMI records in 1976 for “Anarchy in the UK” is the first notable instance of this tension between mainstream success and subculture credibility. Having been dropped by EMI for swearing on live TV, the Sex Pistols later signed with Virgin Records in June 1977. They then released “God Save the Queen” which propelled punk into the mainstream on a wave of controversy for its confrontational lyrics in the year of the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations. Despite a BBC Radio One ban and several high street music shop chains refusing to stock the single, it sold 150,000 copies in one day and reached number two in the charts.
By the end of the 1980s, with so many punk bands now signed to major labels, much of the focus on artists selling out had shifted to advertising. One example of this is the Warped Tour sponsored by the skate shoes and clothing brand Vans which since 1996 has put on annual summer music festivals around North America with a focus on punk rock and attracting young audiences. Other sponsors of the event have included Samsung, Apple, Monster Energy Drinks, and the US Army.
The success of the Vans Warped Tour is mirrored by the rise of “pop punk” acts such as Green Day, NOFX, Blink 182, and Sum 41 from around the mid-90s and into the early 00s. Between them, they have sold hundreds of millions of records worldwide and in the process redefined much of punk’s meaning and identity for a new generation from one of anger to angst, satire to toilet humour, and agitation to integration.
Indeed, with Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols peddling butter and Iggy Pop of the Stooges endorsing car insurance, the process of cementing indifference towards the relationship between artistic integrity and commercial interests is well and truly complete.
Punk Rock and Feminism
The 1970s saw a shift of focus from challenging the legal sexism of the state to rejecting societal expectations attached to being born female. Punk was very much a part of this struggle.
In contrast to male-dominated music scenes such as rock and heavy metal, from the very beginning women have been integral to the development of punk. The prominent role of women in punk rock is in part a consequence of its rejection of authority and exploitation, which includes the patriarchal norms of society. As such many women felt more encouraged to not just participate but actively contribute, whether as all/predominantly-female bands (The Slits, The Innocents, Bikini Kill), lead singers (Debbie Harry, Siouxsie Sioux, Patti Smith, Joan Jett), instrumentalists (Chrissie Hynde, Gaye Advert, Palomy McLardy, Kim Gordon), zine publishers/contributors (Riot Grrrl, Vique Martin), or band managers (Anya Philips, Caroline Coon). As one music historian contends, “It would be possible to write the whole history of punk music without mentioning any male bands at all.”
Nonetheless, the scene was and remains predominantly male-oriented with attendant accusations of masculine aggression at gigs in the form of “slam dancing” and mosh-pits, as well as female artists facing greater exclusion and having to work harder to prove themselves. As Viv Albertine of The Slits puts it, “the A&R men, the bouncers, the sound mixers, no one took us seriously… So, no, we got no respect anywhere we went. People just didn’t want us around.”
The influence of women on punk rock extends beyond being better integrated within a male-dominated scene. Linked to third wave feminist emphases on individuality and diversity, social and cultural movements within punk, such as queercore, have also sought to more directly challenge society’s heteronormativity (and that within the punk scene too) whilst also pursuing wider forms of gender expression.
The Future of Punk Rock
Punk rock’s longevity can be attributed to its simplicity and embrace of DIY experimentation and expression. Throughout its history, disputes and fights have been a regular feature. US punks didn’t see eye to eye with UK punks. The Clash never got along with the Sex Pistols. Some bands embraced politics, others preferred pure hedonism. Some punks put great effort into their look, others thought it distracting.
Naturally, as a result, punk has developed and mutated in a myriad of ways. Post-punk, anarcho-punk, psychobilly, new wave, darkwave, hardcore, grunge, and emo are just some of the genres that largely owe their existence to punk rock.
While hard to predict punk’s future trajectory it is clear after 40 years that so long as there are disaffected young people exploited and alienated by commercial society, punk rock will continue to be relevant by providing them with an outlet to express and explore their discontent with others.
Key Moments in Punk Rock History
1974 – CBGB’s in New York opens its doors to punk rock.
1976 – The Ramones release their debut, self-titled album in April.
1976 – The Buzzcocks release the EP, Spiral Scratch, on their label New Hormones. They
are the second punk band to independently release their own music, setting a definitive trend in the scene.
1976 – The Ramones play their first UK show at the Roundhouse in London on July 4th.
1976 – The Sex Pistols swear on live television setting off a moral panic among much of middle-class England. They are subsequently dropped from EMI records.
1977 – Second wave of bands who would go on to spawn the hardcore subgenre emerge including The Misfits, The Exploited, Black Flag, and Crass.
1979 – The Clash release London Calling. It marked a significant change in the band’s musical style, and in the accepted norms of punk, by incorporating elements of jazz, reggae, ska, funk, pop, and rockabilly.
1985 – J.D.s, a queer punk zine,is first published and is widely credited as launching queer punk culture.
1990 – The emergence of Riot Grrrl bands and a new wave of feminist punk.