The first wave of punk rock was "aggressively modern" and differed from what came before. According to Ramones drummer Tommy Ramone, "In its initial form, a lot of [1960s] stuff was innovative and exciting. Unfortunately, what happens is that people who could not hold a candle to the likes of Hendrix started noodling away. Soon you had endless solos that went nowhere. By 1973, I knew that what was needed was some pure, stripped down, no bullshit rock 'n' roll." John Holmstrom, founding editor of Punk magazine, recalls feeling "punk rock had to come along because the rock scene had become so tame that [acts] like Billy Joel and Simon and Garfunkel were being called rock and roll, when to me and other fans, rock and roll meant this wild and rebellious music." In critic Robert Christgau's description, "It was also a subculture that scornfully rejected the political idealism and Californian flower-power silliness of hippie myth."
Technical accessibility and a do it yourself (DIY) spirit are prized in punk rock. UK pub rock from 1972-1975 contributed to the emergence of punk rock by developing a network of small venues, such as pubs, where non-mainstream bands could play. Pub rock also introduced the idea of independent record labels, such as Stiff Records, which put out basic, low-cost records. Pub rock bands organized their own small venue tours and put out small pressings of their records. In the early days of punk rock, this DIY ethic stood in marked contrast to what those in the scene regarded as the ostentatious musical effects and technological demands of many mainstream rock bands. Musical virtuosity was often looked on with suspicion. According to Holmstrom, punk rock was "rock and roll by people who didn't have very many skills as musicians but still felt the need to express themselves through music". In December 1976, the English fanzine Sideburns published a now-famous illustration of three chords, captioned "This is a chord, this is another, this is a third. Now form a band".
British punk rejected contemporary mainstream rock, the broader culture it represented, and their music predecessors: "No Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones in 1977", declared the Clash song "1977". 1976, when the punk revolution began in Britain, became a musical and a cultural "Year Zero". As nostalgia was discarded, many in the scene adopted a nihilistic attitude summed up by the Sex Pistols slogan "No Future"; in the later words of one observer, amid the unemployment and social unrest in 1977, "punk's nihilistic swagger was the most thrilling thing in England." While "self-imposed alienation" was common among "drunk punks" and "gutter punks", there was always a tension between their nihilistic outlook and the "radical leftist utopianism" of bands such as Crass, who found positive, liberating meaning in the movement. As a Clash associate describes singer Joe Strummer's outlook, "Punk rock is meant to be our freedom. We're meant to be able to do what we want to do."
The early punk bands often emulated the minimal musical arrangements of 1960s garage rock. Typical punk rock instrumentation includes one or two electric guitars, an electric bass, and a drum kit, along with vocals. Songs tend to be shorter than those of other popular genres. Punk songs were played at fast, "breakneck" tempos, an approach influenced by The Ramones. Most early punk rock songs retained a traditional rock 'n' roll verse-chorus form and 4/4 time signature. However, later bands have often broken from this format. In critic Steven Blush's description, "The Sex Pistols were still rock'n'roll ... like the craziest version of Chuck Berry. Hardcore was a radical departure from that. It wasn't verse-chorus rock. It dispelled any notion of what songwriting is supposed to be. It's its own form."
The vocals are sometimes nasal, and the lyrics are often shouted rather than sung in the conventional sense. Punk rock's "hoarse, rasping" vocals and chanting were a sharp contrast to the "melodic and sleeker" singing in mainstream rock. Early punk vocals had an "arrogant snarl". Complicated guitar solos are considered self-indulgent and unnecessary, although basic guitar breaks are common. Guitar parts tend to include highly distorted power chords or barre chords, creating a characteristic sound described by Christgau as a "buzzsaw drone". Some punk rock bands take a surf rock approach with a lighter, twangier guitar tone. Others, such as Robert Quine, lead guitarist of the Voidoids, have employed a wild, "gonzo" attack, a style that stretches back through the Velvet Underground to the 1950s' recordings of Ike Turner. Bass guitar lines are often uncomplicated; the quintessential approach is a relentless, repetitive "forced rhythm", although some punk rock bass players—such as Mike Watt of the Minutemen and Firehose—emphasize more technical bass lines. Bassists often use a pick due to the rapid succession of notes, which makes fingerpicking impractical. Drums typically sound heavy and dry, and often have a minimal set-up. Compared to other forms of rock, syncopation is much less the rule. Hardcore drumming tends to be especially fast. Production tends to be minimalistic, with tracks sometimes laid down on home tape recorders or simple four-track portastudios. The typical objective is to have the recording sound unmanipulated and real, reflecting the commitment and authenticity of a live performance.
Breaking down the distance between performer and audience is central to the punk ethic. Fan participation at concerts is thus important; during the movement's first heyday, it was often provoked in an adversarial manner—apparently perverse, but appropriately "punk". First-wave British punk bands such as the Sex Pistols and the Damned insulted and otherwise goaded the audience into intense reactions. Laing has identified three primary forms of audience physical response to goading: can throwing, stage invasion, and spitting or "gobbing". In the hardcore realm, stage invasion is often a prelude to stage diving. In addition to the numerous fans who have started or joined punk bands, audience members also become important participants via the scene's many amateur-written and informally distributed periodicals—in England, according to Laing, punk "was the first musical genre to spawn fanzines in any significant numbers".
In August 1969, the Stooges, from Ann Arbor, premiered with a self-titled album. According to critic Greil Marcus, the band, led by singer Iggy Pop, created "the sound of Chuck Berry's Airmobile—after thieves stripped it for parts". The album was produced by John Cale, a former member of New York's experimental rock group the Velvet Underground. Having earned a reputation as one of the first underground rock bands, the Velvet Underground inspired, directly or indirectly, many of those involved in the creation of punk rock. In the early 1970s, the New York Dolls updated the original wildness of 1950s' rock 'n' roll in a fashion that later became known as glam punk. The New York duo Suicide played spare, experimental music with a confrontational stage act inspired by that of the Stooges. At the Coventry club in the New York City borough of Queens, the Dictators used rock as a vehicle for wise-ass attitude and humor. In Boston, the Modern Lovers, led by Velvet Underground devotee Jonathan Richman, gained attention with a minimalistic style. In 1974, an updated garage rock scene began to coalesce around the newly opened Rathskeller club in Kenmore Square. Among the leading acts were the Real Kids, founded by former Modern Lover John Felice; Willie Alexander and the Boom Boom Band, whose frontman had been a member of the Velvet Underground for a few months in 1971; and Mickey Clean and the Mezz. In 1974, as well, the Detroit band Death—made up of three African-American brothers
The Doctors of Madness built on Bowie's presentation concepts, while moving musically in the direction that would become identified with punk. Bands in London's pub rock scene stripped the music back to its basics, playing hard, R&B-influenced rock 'n' roll. By 1974, the scene's top act, Dr. Feelgood, was paving the way for others such as the Stranglers and Cock Sparrer that would play a role in the punk explosion. The pub rock scene created small venues where non-mainstream bands could play and they released low-cost recordings on independent record labels. Among the pub rock bands that formed that year was the 101ers, whose lead singer would soon adopt the name Joe Strummer, a performer who has been called the link between pub rock and punk rock
Bands anticipating the forthcoming movement were appearing as far afield as Düsseldorf, West Germany, where "punk before punk" band Neu! formed in 1971, building on the Krautrock tradition of groups such as Can. In Japan, the anti-establishment Zunō Keisatsu (Brain Police) mixed garage-psych and folk. The combo regularly faced censorship challenges, their live act at least once including onstage masturbation. A new generation of Australian garage rock bands, inspired mainly by the Stooges and MC5, was coming even closer to the sound that would soon be called "punk": In Brisbane, the Saints also recalled the raw live sound of the British Pretty Things, who had made a notorious tour of Australia and New Zealand in 1975
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