Punk rock burst onto the music scene in the mid-1970s, but referring to adolescent men, and sometimes women, as “punks” certainly wasn’t new in America. The term has been around forever. The hoodlum youth of the early days of rock, and bad boy stars of the film industry, were routinely referred to as “no good punks.” But there was a big difference between James Dean riding his motorcycle across the big screen in a black leather jacket in the movie Rebel without a Cause in 1955 and the venom-spewing punks of the mid- to late-'70s. Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis were called punks in the 1950s, but no one ever doubted that Elvis loved his mother, God, and country, or thought that he harbored any particular resentment towards anything or anybody. The Rolling Stones were called punks in the mid-'60s and wrote songs that implied drug use (“Mother’s Little Helper”) or alluded to sex (“Let’s Spend the Night Together”), but the Stones still seemed to be rather nice young men under it all. To the Rolling Stones, the self-generated dangerous image was all about good marketing, not any real evil or resentment towards anyone.
So what changed in America that makes the hard-edged, '70s punk experience possible? A few things worth noting: the psychedelic '60s had by then freed rock to talk about real drug use and abuse in vivid Technicolor detail. The sexual revolution, fueled by final FDA approval of the birth control pill in 1960, made having sex, in multiple varieties, an acceptable topic of discussion. The “Women’s Liberation” movement of the '60s and early 70’s had created, by the mid-'70s, a new kind of rock and roll woman: independent and strong-willed, capable of telling her own story without the help and opinions of any man. Protest music of the late '60s had injected real anger into rock lyrics and the style of rock performance. At Woodstock in 1969, Country Joe and the Fish, in a song named the “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag”, invited the audience to spell out the word fuck one letter at a time to start the song. This kind of hard-edged rock was a long way from The Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand”. When you put all these ingredients together you have a new kind of rock: harsh, antiestablishment, and sometimes even anti-social, commonly obscene, free to be angry, overtly sexual, drug-infused, and sung by strong women far more frequently than in any previous era of rock.
But there needed to be reasons for punk rock to exist. Reasons were many. Rock artists and record companies were earning more money in the 1970s then they had ever earned before. Cookie-cutter multi-purpose stadiums (Shea Stadium in New York, Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati, to name just a few) allowed rock artists to make huge sums of money in short periods of time. Stadium concerts required elaborate stage shows, projected imagery, jumbo-screen graphics, and immense sound equipment, sometimes requiring dozens of tractor-trailers to transport. Were it not for all the elaborate theatrics and immense sound systems, the fans sitting at the top of the center field seats would have little to experience other than distorted, amplified sound. Super-wealthy artists could afford to spend months or even years in expensive recording studios producing complex albums that no average teenage rock and roll fan could possibly duplicate on his beginner’s electric guitar with his friends. For the first time in history, rock and roll experiences had become something too big and complicated for the average kid to recreate. At this same time, disco was also popular, in a world of expensive “members only” nightclubs. Complex “unplayable” rock and technology-driven disco may have been exciting to listen to for many, but it was nearly impossible for teens to recreate at home in the family garage. An opportunity existed for the re-birth of new kind of simple, playable rock and roll. Punk rock was this re-creation.
Punk must be divided between the American scene, which came first, and was distinguished by a wide variety of artists each wanting to carve out their own unique sound, look, and style, and British punk, which came later and was far more than a simple musical trend. In Britain, punk became a cultural phenomenon: a fairly unified musical style and a way to talk, dress, believe, and behave. But first, American punk.
There were unknown numbers of kids all across America who were trying to recreate simple rock and roll in the mid-'70s, an “alternative rock” to the big bloated corporate rock product, but a few revolutionary geniuses deserve special discussion.
The Motor City Five, known by everyone as the MC5, entered the Detroit music scene in 1965 and released a series of influential albums from 1969 until 1971. Celebrated for the sheer physical power and brutality of their stage show, the MC5 is credited with moving rock towards the more violent angry attitude that became associated with punk a few years later. Feedback, distortion, and dangerously high volume levels were all part of the show. They abused themselves with alcohol and drugs, helped to found a radical political group, the White Panther Party, and yelled things like "Kick out the jams, motherfuckers!" at their audiences, which in 1967 was a very unacceptable thing to do, but which became a model for the punks of the future.
From the suburbs of Ann Arbor, Michigan, Iggy Pop (born James Osterberg) stands alone as an anti-social madman doing what he wanted to do at all times, breaking every existing rock rule, and doing it all with absolute abandon. Nearly a decade before the term “punk rock” existed, Iggy was standing on people’s hands, smearing his body with hot wax, cutting himself with beer bottles and cursing his audiences just to create a shocked response. The audience response, in turn, further fueled his outrageous behavior. Iggy’s band, The Stooges, was there simply to provide a backdrop for Iggy’s outrageous behavior. Iggy was everything that the most popular '70s rock wasn’t. His music was super simple, the lyrics weren’t polite, there was no complex stage show to speak of, and every kid in the audience was capable of singing badly, cursing, spitting, and doing virtually everything else Iggy was doing both for them and to them, all to the horror of their troubled parents. There were no high standards of rock virtuosity to be attained here, only a desire to “break all the rules, do what you want, and have fun doing it”… a teenager’s dream world. Musically, songs like “Lust for Life”, “The Passenger”, and “Kill City” weren’t as easy to perform as Iggy made it all seem, of course. Collaborations with glam star David Bowie gave the early '80s Iggy a decidedly more pop feel. Beneath all the mindless fun though, a real sense of danger seemed to lurk in Iggy Pop. The intense look, glaring stare, and angry demeanor created a “Don’t screw with me or I might just hurt you” feeling that provided a second level of powerful intensity to the man, and the live show.
“Overly sexual”, “outside the norm of society”, "anti-social", and "troubling” -- these are all terms that could be associated with punk. Each of these terms certainly describes the Velvet Underground. Formed in New York in 1965 by pianist Lou Reed, the Velvets released a series of albums that discussed drug use and abuse, and featured explicit sexual lyrics, including sadomasochism, sometimes spoken slowly, so as to intensify their effect. The hippies had sung songs under the influence of or inspired by LSD, but Velvet Underground songs like “Heroin” discussed in vivid detail what actually injecting heroin into a vein felt like in the most disturbing way possible. The Velvets broke all of rock’s established boundaries. The term “alternative rock” certainly describes them, and they may properly be credited with creating the genre. Associated closely with avant garde artists like Andy Warhol, the Velvets were absolutely unique. The band featured a violin player and a female drummer, never pretended to want commercial success, and never really achieved any.
Strutting around in high-heeled shoes, bras, and panties, with lipstick and longhaired wigs, the New York Dolls were a crossdresser’s dream band. They were outrageous, musically primitive, and chemically impaired most of the time. The Dolls were everything parents of teenagers hated, all wrapped up into one wild package. David Johansen formed the band in the early '70s, and their first album was released in 1973. Songs like “Personality Crisis” defined the Dolls’ sound perfectly: driving guitars and wild-screamed vocals combined with the innocent fun and sexual identity ambiguity of '70s glam rock, super simple songs, and a girl-band playfulness. They were rough, obscene, funny, disturbing and wonderfully effective. Unfortunately, like so many of the bands from the early era of punk, the band self-destructed after only a few years of self-abuse.
The Patti Smith Group continued in the avant garde tradition that the Velvet Underground had created. Smith recited her unique intense poetry accompanied by improvised music played by whoever wished to perform on any given day. Her poems eventually morphed into songs, and the songs were different each time they were performed. She spoke/sang about religion, sex, politics, drugs, love and hate, and everything else in between. Smith was best known for her unique interpretations of rock standards. Her take on Van Morrison’s “Gloria” almost defines punk. She begins her version of the old garage rock standard with the line: “Jesus died for someone’s sins, but not mine.” What follows is a poetic assault on religion, mixed with many, but not most, of Morrison’s original lyrics. Smith’s mixing of borrowed and entirely new lyrics was a trademark. She did the same with her version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Hey Joe” and multiple songs by the Velvet Underground and British rockers the Who. She was sometimes profound, sometimes obscene, and sometimes spiritual. Smith was a powerful rock and roll force, singing about life from an entirely female perspective, something that had been sorely lacking from rock in its first 20 years.
Richard Hell put into words the feelings of the new generation of young punks searching for a scene. He and his band, the Voidoids, released an album titled Blank Generation in 1977 that established him as a premiere songwriter of the era. He was young, disgusted, resentful, and musically talented. Songs like “Blank Generation” became anthems for first generation of punks just as songs like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Kurt Cobain and Nirvana were descriptive of the next generation of punks gathering a decade later in Seattle instead of New York.
All of the New York punk mayhem was made possible because of one small dirty bar called CBGB’s in the crime ridden Bowery district of New York. The clientele of CBGB’s consisted of poor disgruntled youth, topless dancers, prostitutes, drug addicts looking to score drugs, and other questionable sorts of folks. The owner of CBGB’s agreed to let Richard Hell perform once a week for a small portion of the door admission, which led to more nights featuring live music. Bands performed for each other night after night, eventually creating a unique punk “sound” that was the product of them all, in much the same way that bands performing for each other in San Francisco clubs and ballrooms a decade earlier had created the “San Francisco sound”.
If there is a most influential band in creating the punk look and sound, it is probably the New York quartet the Ramones. Super-simple songs played at wild tempos, with the melody carried by the electric bass, the Ramones went back to the way rock used to sound in the '50s and early '60s. Songs were incredibly short and often morphed from one into another with only the smallest lyric changes. This music was, finally, rock that anybody with a guitar could instantly play. The Ramones wore torn shirts, black leather jackets like the American “bad boy” movie stars of the '50s, and simply had fun. Their simple, repetitive, three-chord songs were the first albums called punk that made their way across the Atlantic to England. The British punk sound is largely based on the playful pop vocals the Ramones created in songs like “Blitzkrieg Bop”, “Pin Head”, “Teenage Lobotomy”, and “I Want to Be Sedated”.
Meanwhile in Britain, things were far different indeed. America’s economy was fairly strong in the 1970s, but rampant unemployment dominated Britain. Boredom fueled by unemployment, poverty, and resentment of both the class system and the British royalty had all created a level of anger amongst English youth that simply couldn’t exist in prosperous America. An opportunity arose to infuse Britain with a new style of rock and roll to match the level of anger and frustration the youth were experiencing. Enter Malcolm McLaren. McLaren was a successful British businessman, the owner of a sexual-fetish clothing store in London named SEX. McLaren sold leather and rubber pants, whips, chains, bondage restraints and other items that were part of a sadomasochistic sexual sub-culture. While on a business trip to America, he stumbled upon CBGB’s and immediately decided that this new punk scene might be the perfect way to sell lots of fetish clothing back in England. He arranged for a visit to England by the New York Dolls with a live television broadcast and short British tour. The Dolls performed outrageously, and British teens finally had what they had been looking for: outrageous, vulgar music to vent the strong emotions they were feeling. McLaren briefly managed the band in 1974 before their ultimate demise.
If one group epitomized the morphing of British teens’ societal angst and affection for bizarre fashion, the Sex Pistols were this manifestation. A few albums by Richard Hell and the Ramones were virtually the only punk records that the early British punks could obtain, so the Ramones’ unique sound and Hell’s striking attitude became the inspiration for most British punks. The Sex Pistols, assembled in McLaren’s store, disliked each other, disliked their audiences, and made enemies wherever they performed. They played their instruments badly and ridiculed everyone around them. They criticized their government in songs like “Anarchy in the UK”, and even made fun of the royal family in “God Save the Queen”. Their records were banned throughout Britain, and they were all attacked at times and arrested for a range of bad behaviors. Yet their concerts attracted droves of disgruntled youth who in turn formed their own bands to vent their own particular frustrations. While the American punks were quite diverse in style from each other, the British punks all seemed to have the same basic look and attitude in common. British punk was a cultural phenomenon: a way to dress, act, and wear your hair. The Pistols eventually came to America in 1978 for their first and only American tour. All but a half dozen of the dates were cancelled due to violence inside and outside the venues and to the poor behavior of the band itself, bad even by punk standards. Lead singer Johnny Rotten cursed, spit on, vomited on, and insulted his audiences while large numbers of audience members hurled objects at the band. The tour ended in San Francisco. Bassist Sid Vicious quit the band before leaving the country, was soon arrested for murdering his girlfriend, and, while out on bail, overdosed and died in 1979. Johnny Rotten returned to England, but went back to his real name, John Lydon, and pursued other non-musical endeavors.
The Sex Pistols were on the musical scene just briefly but did fantastic amounts of damage to what had been a thriving American punk scene. After the disastrous American tour, few American record companies wanted to touch anything associated with the name “punk”. The Pistols had successfully defined for most Americans unaware of New York-style punk what the music was all about, even though the American punks didn’t look, sound, or act at all like the Sex Pistols. Patti Smith, the Talking Heads, the Ramones, Blondie, and many other New York punks found themselves suddenly unmarketable and forever tainted by the Pistols. So what happened? If a simple name change could make rhythm and blues suddenly respectable as rock and roll in the 1950s, perhaps the same name change trick could work twice. The recording industry tried it, MTV fueled it, and a simple name change worked again. What was punk in 1978 became “new wave” a couple years later, defined now by the exciting imagery of MTV. Many of the biggest stars of new wave were the same acts playing the same punk-inspired music, but they did so now unburdened by the word that the Pistols had effectively destroyed for everyone—punk.
One of the bands that formed early in the British punk explosion that managed to make the transition to new wave and the video world of MTV was the Clash. The Clash sang about more than hopelessness, destruction, sex, and anarchy and embraced many musical styles. The band was prolific, releasing seven albums between 1977 and 1993 and “Rock the Casbah” and “Should I Stay or Should I Go” became top MTV hits . Their music relies heavily on musical influences unique to British punk: Jamaican ska, rock steady, and reggae.
Britain had ruled Jamaica for 300 years ending in 1962, and England had a large, well-established Jamaican population. Poor, persecuted, and angry black Jamaican musicians in Britain used traditional Jamaican musical forms to tell their tales of woe, and in doing so influenced white British teens with which they had anger in common.
The Beatles’ “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” was a nod to the ska style that all the Beatles loved, Led Zeppelin created a reggae groove in 1973 with “D’Yer Mak’er”, and Eric Clapton covered Bob Marley’s reggae masterpiece “I Shot the Sheriff” in 1974. Now the Clash added Jamaican reggae to punk protest mentality with their 1978 single “White Man in Hammersmith Palais” and a host of other tunes. Reggae, thus, became a defining musical characteristic of all British punk.