Although Britain wasn't the birthplace of punk rock, it was the place where punk had the greatest musical and cultural impact, catching hold as the ultimate music of outrage and rebellion in a way it never quite duplicated in America.
British punk was partly inspired by the back-to-basics rock & roll of the pub rock movement and the anything-goes theatrics of glam rock, but the main catalysts were early New York punks like the Ramones and the New York Dolls.
Arriving in a class-conscious country struggling through an economic downturn, punk seemed to threaten the very fabric of British society, giving voice to the rage of the lower class and the dissatisfaction of the nation's youth.
And it did so in the loudest, fastest, most confrontational way possible.
The first and most influential British punk band was the Sex Pistols, who hit the scene in 1976 and made an immediate impact by directly inspiring just about every British punk group that followed.
Their simple, raw, stripped-down guitar riffs set the blueprint for much British punk, and their provocative, playfully subversive rhetoric got them demonized in the press and even physically attacked on the streets. The other key British punk band was the Clash, who were not only the most politically idealistic group on the scene, but also the most musically eclectic, incorporating early rock & roll and reggae.
Yet even early on, the scene was quite diverse: the Buzzcocks wrote tense punk-pop tunes full of witty romantic confessions; the Jam tempered their social criticism with mod-inflected celebrations of British youth;
the Damned were a riotous bunch of yobs who beat out the Sex Pistols to release the first British punk single ("New Rose"); and X-Ray Spex was just one group to prominently feature female members.
Regardless of their musical approach or lyrical subjects, what these and other British punk artists shared was a crackling energy, a distaste for the overblown mainstream music of the time, and a liberating sense that anyone -- regardless of technical skill -- could pick up an instrument, get on stage, say whatever was on their minds, and bash out some glorious noise.
The Sex Pistols and the Clash both signed with major labels, the only outlets then available; however, their D.I.Y. aesthetic helped create a thriving independent music scene around the U.K
. The first wave of British punk ended with the Sex Pistols' breakup in January 1978, but the scene remained fertile -- and its sounds recognizably punk -- until about 1982.
By that time, the remaining original punks had expanded their sounds, and British punk itself had mutated and splintered into a number of subgenres: pop-oriented new wave, arty and challenging post-punk, icy and forbidding goth-rock, anarchist hardcore punk, and early alternative rock.
Punk rock (or simply punk) is a music genre that emerged in the mid-1970s. Rooted in 1960s garage rock, punk bands rejected the perceived excesses of mainstream 1970s rock.
They typically produced short, fast-paced songs with hard-edged melodies and singing styles, stripped-down instrumentation, and often political, anti-establishment lyrics. Punk embraces a DIY ethic; many bands self-produce recordings and distribute them through independent record labels.
The term "punk rock" was first used by American rock critics in the early 1970s to describe 1960s garage bands and certain subsequent acts. When the movement now bearing the name developed from 1974 to 1976, acts such as Television, Patti Smith, and the Ramones in New York City; the Sex Pistols, the Clash, and the Damned in London;
The Runaways in Los Angeles; and the Saints in Brisbane formed its vanguard. Punk became a major cultural phenomenon in the UK late in 1976. It lead to a punk subculture expressing youthful rebellion through distinctive styles of clothing and adornment (such as deliberately offensive T-shirts, leather jackets, studded or spiked bands and jewellery, safety pins, and bondage and S&M clothes) and a variety of anti-authoritarian ideologies.
In 1977, the influence of the music and subculture spread worldwide, especially in England. It took root in a wide range of local scenes that often rejected affiliation with the mainstream. In the late 1970s, punk experienced a second wave as new acts that were not active during its formative years adopted the style.
By the early 1980s, faster and more aggressive subgenres such as hardcore punk (e.g. Minor Threat), street punk (e.g. the Exploited), and anarcho-punk (e.g. Crass) became the predominant modes of punk rock.
Musicians identifying with or inspired by punk also pursued other musical directions, giving rise to spinoffs such as post-punk, new wave, and later indie pop, alternative rock, and noise rock.
By the 1990s, punk re-emerged into the mainstream with the success of punk rock and pop punk bands such as Green Day, Rancid, The Offspring, and Blink-182.
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 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..
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, 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
The black punk pioneers who made music history
The meaning of ‘punk’ is hard to define. Is it an attitude? A genre? A willingness not to conform? Despite such ambiguities, punk is streotypically portrayed as the preserve of white, working-class musicians.
Although as Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff pointed out last week, “Punk music is not the sole property of whiteness, even though to people of my generation it may appear that way at first glance,” adding, “Like many facets of pop culture, its historical image has been whitewashed.”
To celebrate the true punk rebellion that has always existed in black culture, and continues to exist today, here are just a few punk pioneers that changed the game and made their mark.
Although 1970s punk band X-Ray Spex were self-confessed underachievers and only managed to release one album, the oddball five-piece created a beautifully discordant soundtrack to teen rebellion that remains relevant today.
Spearheading their distinctive sound was Poly Styrene, one of the most effervescent and influential artists to emerge from the punk movement. “I just want to be like me,” she told NME at the time. “I said that I wasn’t a sex symbol, and that if anybody tried to make one I’d shave my head tomorrow.”
You can’t talk about pioneering figures in punk without mentioning Don Letts, the creative polymath and subcultural icon often credited with injecting the bouncing sounds of Jamaican reggae into the London punk scene.
From spinning reggae records during punk nights at the Roxy, to managing The Slits and starting his own band (The Electric Dread), Letts passed his musical obsessions on to a generation hungry for change.
“Don will always be an influential figure for youth culture in Britain because he channels his experiences and history,” designer Nicholas Daley told us earlier this year. “And he continues to collaborate with a variety of people and is always willing to work with creatives.”
Pure Hell, the leather-clad, tatted-up, brooding four-piece, are often cited as one of the first all African American punk bands, and when they burst on to the scene from Pennsylvania to NYC in 1974, they found kindred spirits in the New York Dolls.
“The Dolls took to us right away,” they commented. “We tended to remind them of themselves when they were younger. Part hoodlums, part musicians, the same mould.” Weirdly, their first album Noise Addiction was released over 30 years later – but better late than never.
Hardcore punks Bad Brains might have been flung out of Washington in 1977, but they sound like any given band you might find these days in some sweaty, cramped basement hangout. Although obviously – they came first. With their lightning-quick drumbeats, intense guitar riffs and lacerating vocals,
Bad Brains pushed sonic boundaries and redefined people’s perceptions of what a group of Rastafarians were like in the 1970s. “I don’t care what people listen to, really,” the band’s bassist Darryl Jenifer once commented. “And I don’t care if black people ever get Bad Brains; that’s not on me. All I got to do is stay inventive and keep doing what I’m doing.”
Long before The Clash, the Sex Pistols or the Ramones came Death, a proto-punk band from Detroit made up of three young black brothers, who started off as a soul band but quickly ditched that sound once they heard the hard, discordant rhythms of The Stooges.
As Peter Margasak wrote in the Chicago Reader, their guitarist “pushed the group in a hard-rock direction that presaged punk, and while this certainly didn’t help them find a following in the mid-70s, today it makes them look like visionaries.”
Their music has since been documented in the 2012 documentary A Band Called Death, a film that has won them a cult following decades after they disbanded.
As an artist who’s emerged in the past five years, Mykki Blanco might seem like an anomaly on this list, but the pioneering punk spirit of NYC’s fearless riot-grrrl rapper shouldn’t be downplayed. With a subversive attitude to gender, genre and artistic medium
Blanco has redefined what it means to be punk in the present day. “I chose the name Mykki Blanco as an homage to Lil’ Kim’s persona Kimmy Blanco and also because I loved the name DeeDee Ramone – a feminine name on a punk rock singer,” she told us in 2012. “I did not grow up rapping; I grew up in the riot-grrrl queercore scene.”
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