The History of Punk Rock
By: Eric Jaffe
Punk means many different things to different people. Punk is part of the "next" generation's "fumbled attempts to get drunk, listen to the band, get laid, and get the last bus home." (Chamberlain 1) Punk is "really creative rock 'n' roll music that is fun and upbeat, excellent melodies." (Cuellar 4) Punk is "hard-driving, in-your-face music, but at the same time, there's intelligence behind it. That's the thing I really latched on, because that was a combination that is very rare to find." (Cuellar 3) "Part of it [being a 'punk'] is not caring and being what you damn well want to be." (Cuellar 3) "Punk's about boredom and partying, pure and simple." (Cuellar 3) "Punk was a new music, a new social critique, but most of all, it was a new kind of free speech." (Marcus 2)
Just two years after the Beatles hit America (1966), Iggy Pop decided to form a band that would be completely unlike anything that anyone had ever heard. Iggy formed the Stooges in Detroit, Michigan, with friends who could barely play their instruments. They had very little musical knowledge to interfere with the ideas that they had.
Their 1968 performances consisted of an aural background for Iggy's body contortions, self mutilation, dives into the audience, and screamed insults at those who had come only to be entertained, not to be involved in the show. The Stooges' extreme bizzareness did not make them popular like the Doors', whose antics they pre-dated. As a Neanderthal version of the Velvet Underground, the band managed to achieve the distinction of the first true influence on punk.
Ironically, they were signed by the major label Elektra, and their 1969 debut was produced by John Cale. It was highlighted by the classic "I Wanna Be Your Dog," and the pre-punk "No Fun." In "1969," they revealed the source of their outrageousness to be boredom, chanting "another year with nothing to do." They were bored with the music scene, and bored with being poor, a condition that they remained in after not achieving anything above a cult status.
Also from Detroit, MC5 articulated their boredom in a slightly more politicized and distinctly blue collar manner, coming to prominence in the 1968 Democratic Convention riots as figureheads of John Sinclair's White Panther Party.
While their heavy sounding music was not particularly original, (They were largely derivative of the Who.) their attitude inspired many future punk bands, prophesizing the Sex Pistols' with EMI and Virgin. Like the Stooges, MC5 was scooped up by Elektra. They were soon embroiled in controversy over the lyric "Kick out the jams motherfuckers!" When one record store called Harvey's refused to stock the album, the group responded by taking out a full page advertisement in a local newspaper that read "Fuck Harvey's!" Elektra was not amused, especially when MC5 went further and plastered stickers bearing the Elektra logo all over the record store's windows. MC5 and Elektra parted shortly after that.
By 1970, the provocative Detroit scene lured the Alice Cooper away from San Francisco and Frank Zappa's Straight Records to claim the Motor City as their new home. Singer Vincent Furnier, who acquired the name "Alice Cooper" from a Ouija board, expanded upon the theatrics of Iggy Pop's brand of Theater of the Possessed with his own style of shock-rock. With a Theater of the Absurd stage show consisting of garish make-up, live boa constrictors, and toy dolls meeting their death in electric chairs and gallows, combined with the new artistic credibility in the albums "Love It To Death" (1970) and "Killer" (1971), it became increasingly difficult to remain bored in Detroit.
Punk rock is generally considered to have surfaced in 1975, but exactly who the first punk act was is undetermined. If anybody were to tell you that they can pinpoint the first punk band, they are either lying or confused. Many early bands such as Iggy and the Stooges, the MC5, Richard Hell and the Voidoids displayed some aspects of punk, but no band combined all of the elements, in my opinion, until the Ramones gathered in 1975.
The Ramones self-titled debut album, released in 1976, was the first example of punk rock, and they are generally accepted as the creators of the genre. Being tired of music that they considered boring, the Ramones gathered and began to piece their own sound together.
The lack of originality in music was a key factor in the creation of the Ramones' sounds. "No one tried to do anything original, and if they did, it came out sounding like Stevie Ray Vaughan or ZZ Top." (Cuellar 4) Another factor was their lack of technical skill as compared to the bands of 1975.
Their music would usually only utilize a few chords per song, and lyrics were often repetitions of short phrases. Many popular punk bands were often referred to as "Three chord wonders." Because of this, Ramones' songs are characterized by their amateur and aggressive sound. Examples of some of their more famous songs include "The Blizkrieg Bop," "Sheena Is A Punk Rocker," "Cretin Hop," "Pinhead, "Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue," "Do You Remember Rock 'n' Roll Radio?," and "I Wanna Be Sedated."
The Ramones brought back the two-minute song, creating a sound that many found reminiscent of early rock 'n' roll. Others, blown away by the buzzsaw guitars and unconventional lyrics, condemned them. Legend has it that a touring representative from the A&M label saw the Ramones and got up and left in disgust after only hearing half of a song. Even later, record companies were not thrilled with punk, because it was very unstable. Danny Fields once said "American radio, then as now, doesn't like to participate in anything that is dangerous, or revolutionary, or radical. So [eventually] the whole thing [punk] became a great pile of shit that no one wanted to go near."
The Ramones directly influenced British punk acts, helping to spawn the British punk scene. They played a fourth of July concert in London, which was attended by many members of future punk bands, such as the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Damned, Generation X, and Souxsie and the Banshees. This was the seed for what was to become the huge London punk scene of 1977.
The Sex Pistols took the amateurist style of the Ramones, added a streak of nihilism, creating a sound and an image that is still the ideal in punk rock. The music of the Sex Pistols was even more raw and unrefined than the Ramones'. A fast paced rhythm guitar, sometimes out of tune, was the main musical feature of the Sex Pistols' music. Basslines were slaughtered by the Sex Pistols' most renown member, Sid Vicious, who oftentimes played drunk or on heroin. Johnny Rotten, singer for the Pistols, and Vicious are often seen as two of the "all time greatest punks," contributing so much to the punk style, both musically and fashionably.
The nihilistic lyrics of the Sex Pistols were the crux of their music. Johnny Rotten half sang, half screamed the lyrics over crackling PA systems. Pistols' songs savagely attacked the status quo, making them instant villains. Some of their songs were "Anarchy In The UK," the punk anthem of all time, "God Save The Queen," a harsh rewriting of a traditional British song, and "No Feelings."
The Sex Pistols were largely responsible for the vilification of Punk Rock and its followers, and for their actions both on and off the stage. Lyrics often raised huge controversies, especially the lyrics of "God Save The Queen" and "Anarchy In The UK." Jon savage described the reaction to "Anarchy In the UK": "They set themselves up as national bogeymen. In England, the word 'anarchist' had the same connotation as 'communist' did in the US, raising the specter of an unseen but omnipresent enemy." (Chamberlain 3)
The Pistols' actions offstage made headlines more often than their performances did. During a live interview with Bill Grundy, on the Today Show, they swore repeatedly. Soon after, the BBC was flooded with complaints. There was one incident where a television set was kicked in during an interview. These acts helped to keep punk rock in the public eye and win over many new followers.
Besides a huge influence on punk musically, the Sex Pistols also helped to create the look that came to characterize most punks. The Pistols, particularly Rotten, were characterized by wearing ripped blue jeans and obscene tee-shirts. Their manager, Malcom MacLaren, was also the owner of a fashion boutique called SEX. Seeing the Pistols as a way to help promote his fashions, he began to imitate their style in his work.
The maniac pace and aggression of the Pistols in the UK and the Ramones in the US is seen as the bucket of water that woke rock from a long, Sgt. Pepper's-induced sleep.
Now it is 1990 and many people say punk is dead. Others say punk is still dying. Still others say the story of rock 'n' roll is nearly over.
Many believers of this theory often see only the superficial qualities of the subculture made visible through the mass media. The fashion and the well publicized scandals of Sid Vicious and friends were as far as most people saw outside the subculture. In Facing The Music, edited by Simon Frith, Mary Harron reduced the meaning of punk to "the spectacle of middle-class children dressing up in a fantasy of proletarian aggression and lying desperately about their backgrounds." (McNiel 401)
Harron attributed her perceived failure of punk firstly towards the bands' misdirected hatred; toward stars of the previous generation like the Who or Rolling Stones, toward their records companies, toward even their fans with more venom than they directly toward the government. Because they had no "real" political focus, not even a simple issue like Vietnam, Harron believed punk accomplished little besides reviving the British pop industry before it failed.
It is clear that Harron merely took a glimpse of the smoke from the forest fires sparked by punk. Underneath the smoke was a whole new opportunity for children to become active in a culture that they could call their own.
If promoters and record company executives thought that they could capture the quintessential punk and drag him into board rooms, they were sadly mistaken. It was as futile as trying to capture youth. It was not only impossible, it was stupid to even attempt. The first punk caught in the corporate snare was Johnny Rotten and he quickly died in captivity. Lamenting his capture in a statement at the end of the last Sex Pistols' tour, he said "Have you every felt you've been cheated?" Here he was pondering his own fate rather than those in the audience. Later he would form a band sarcastically called Public Image and wrote the title song which describes a bitter embrace of success seen through the eyes of the quintessential punk:
You never listen to the words I say
You only see me by the clothes I wear...
Or did the interest go so much deeper
It must have been the color of my hair.
Two sides to every story, somebody had to stop me
I'm not the same as when I began
It's not a game of monopoly.
The Public Image, you got what you wanted
The Public Image belongs to me
My entrance, my own creation
My grand finale, my goodbye.