The History Of Punk: A Genre That Emerged From Rebellious Ideals
The history of punk covers a music genre, a dress sense and a frame of mind.
When the ruckus of punk was first heard, there was a lot of manufactured/overproduced music and art stagnating the airwaves and society. The attention-grabbing DIY sound, clothing style and mentality of punk were all clear indicators that the creative pendulum was finally swinging back.
In this article:
- The origins of punk: where it all began
- The first punk band: [the stooges]
- Punk bands of the 1970s and 80s
- The influence of punk music in fashion and style
- The evolution of punk rock
THE ORIGINS OF PUNK: WHERE IT ALL BEGAN
Punk trickled out from the 1960s garage rock scene as a means of drowning out the preceding hippie movement and rebelling against how commercial and bloated rock’n’roll had become.
When many people dismissed it as noise from angry teenagers, others interpreted the defiant din as the musical score of the current anti-establishment youth.
Punk in the USA is said to have been fully realised in 1974 in New York City’s CBGB music club. As the name suggests, the Country, BlueGrass and Blues club didn’t intend to introduce a new genre of music, but the Ramones and Blondie performed there, and they had other plans.
Likewise across the pond in England. With unemployment and frustration high in the UK, there were a lot of opinions and a lot of steam that needed to be vented; punk was the perfect remedy.
A London band called The Strand formed in 1972 and added John Lydon and Glen Matlock in 1975. They renamed themselves the Sex Pistols and kicked off the punk movement in the UK
THE FIRST PUNK BAND: [THE STOOGES]
Iggy and The Stooges. Credit: aurélien
Originally billed as the “Psychedelic Stooges” and debuting in Detroit on Halloween night in 1967, the Stooges are arguably the first-ever punk band.
Although their look and sound weren’t quite what punk would become known for, their attitude and presence, especially Iggy Pop’s, were textbook punk.
Some who witnessed Iggy’s behaviour while performing thought he was a man possessed. His raw, chaotic energy was something many hadn’t seen before, which was why they couldn’t take their eyes off him.
As well as being credited with the popularisation of stage diving, Iggy was also known to cut himself with glass, flash his genitalia at the crowd, and smear his bare chest with hamburger meat and peanut butter whilst on stage.
As he was a frontman who drew attention like no other, changing the band's name to “Iggy and the Stooges” let everyone know who the main attraction was.
PUNK BANDS OF THE 1970S and 80S
Punk fans may debate until the early hours of the morning regarding the first “true” punk band. As we said, the Stooges may not have ticked all three boxes (sound, fashion and behaviour), but they covered enough to lead the way for others to embrace it and dial it up to eleven.
Other punk bands sprouted up in the 70s and 80s, offering their own twist on the exciting new movement in music. Here are some of the most important bands, and their records, from the early days of punk.
‘BACK IN THE USA’, 1970
MC5. Credit: Frank Schwichtenberg
If your answer to the first ever punk band wasn’t The Stooges, it was probably the MC5. Opposed to Iggy and company personifying punk rock behaviour on the first attempt, the Motor City Five were much closer sounding to punk.
MC5 first started playing together in Lincoln Park, Michigan in 1963 and were automatically lumped into the “garage rock” category. However, with their love for blues, R&B and anything energetic being very prominent, they stood out to people as something new and special.
Their debut album Back In The USA only reached number 137 in the US charts, but the message of what was to come was crystal clear.
The MC5’s proto-punk performances drew crowds from around the world and they’re still active today, albeit with a slightly different line-up.
The Ramones. Credit: Plismo
Others may argue that the Ramones were in fact the first punk band due to them fulfilling the criteria of the sound, the style and the attitude the hardest.
The four-piece from New York City was formed in 1974 and the members all adopted pseudonyms for the stage with the surname of “Ramone”.
Their 1976 debut studio album blew people away and it kicked the door open for others to have a go too, as long as they had a passion for punk rock. |
The main takeaway from watching or hearing the Ramones was that anyone could be a rockstar and that you could get away with quickly playing two or three chords in a repetitive downward motion for a long time.
Being good-looking wasn’t a requirement for punk either, as long as you brought some substance and your own unique style.
‘NEVER MIND THE BOLLOCKS’, 1977
Sex Pistols. Credit Koen Suy/Nationaal Archief
Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols is the only studio album released by London’s own punk rock staple the Sex Pistols.
Because of how present and crucial they were to the punk scene, it’s hard to believe that they had only one record and their initial career lasted just two and half years.
Always one to go against the grain, frontman John Lydon, AKA Johnny Rotten, was first spotted and brought to the attention of the other band members while he was wearing a Pink Floyd T-shirt which Lydon had hand-written “I hate” onto.
The Sex Pistols’ sole album reached number one on the UK charts and the single “God Save the Queen” was banned by the BBC and nearly every independent radio station in Great Britain. This made it one of the most censored records in British history.
‘SPIRAL SCRATCH', 1977
The Buzzcocks. Credit: Chris Metzler
Now, this release may not be the most famous, best-selling, or even the band’s favourite, but it’s possibly the most important punk record in history.
The reason for this wasn't what was heard when listening to it, but how it came to be and how the Buzzcocks left the door open for other bands to find their own success.
Spiral Scratch is a four-track EP released in 1977 on the Buzzcocks’ own New Hormones’ record label. Not only did this make them one of the first punk bands to run their own independent label, but they also borrowed money from friends and family to have the initial run of 1,000 records pressed too.
Not wanting to be selfish and pull the ladder up behind them, instructions on how to “do it yourself” could be found printed on the record sleeve.
'COMBAT ROCK', 1982
Paul Simonon of The Clash. Credit: Sands7
Later dubbed “the only band that matters”, the Clash formed in London in 1976 and drew much of their influence and inspiration from the spirit of punk rock.
Unwilling to get lost in the crowd of other acts that were raging against the system, it didn’t take the Clash long to establish their own unique sound by harnessing rockabilly, funk, ska and reggae too,
Combat Rock was the Clash’s fifth studio album. It reached number two in the UK charts and it was certified double platinum in the USA.
The Clash’s worldwide hit “Rock The Casbah” is featured on the record and certainly played a part in the international success of the album and the band. After dealing with conflict within the group, the band reshuffled its members in 1982 and eventually disbanded in early 1986.
The Influence of Punk Music In Fashion And Style
Well, we’ve covered the sound and the attitude, now all that’s left is the fashion that emerged from the punk scene.
Sticking with the DIY mentality of the genre, its clothing style was no different… to begin with. You may be able to walk into numerous commercial stores today and pick up a mass-produced Sex Pistols or a “Punk AF” T-shirt, but the fashion was initially very grassroots.
Many bands would be seen wearing clothing where they’d used a marker pen to cross something out or write something on; some even used a safety pin to attach patches and such. This trend picked up quickly, but there were obviously going to be people who harnessed it professionally.
Fashion designer-businesswoman Vivienne Westwood and her then partner Malcome McLaren owned a fashion boutique on King’s Road in London.
Originally set up with a different name to sell 1950s Teddy Boy goods, and then 1950s Marlon Brando-style rocker merchandise, Westwood and McLaren eventually rebranded their store as “Sex”.
With four-foot bright pink foam letters on the shop-front spelling out the outlet’s name, it was impossible to miss and it soon became a well-known hub for all things punk.
Even if, according to the Sex Pistols’ John Lydon (via John Robb’s book Punk Rock An Oral History,
“Malcolm and Vivienne were really a pair of shysters: they would sell anything to any trend that they could grab onto”.
THE EVOLUTION OF PUNK ROCK
Green Day. Credit: Pamela Littky
As well as with the aforementioned bands, the punk movement rolled on with artistes such as the Velvet Underground, the Slits, and the Damned.
As music naturally does, it began to evolve and divide into post-punk with the Talking Heads and new wave with Blondie. Then it began to split further into sub-genres at the end of the 1970s.
We were introduced to the horror punk subgenre with the Misfits and hardcore punk with the Circle Jerks and the Descendents. They in turn inspired the next generation and we saw the rise of pop punk with bands like Green Day, Blink 182 and Sum 41.
The division didn’t stop there, but to list every single facet of music (and art) inspired by punk would be a job in itself.
Many, if not all of these punk-spawned sub-genres are still performed and enjoyed around the world today; punk fashion also slips into circulation every few years too.
Thankfully, the punk mindset is here to stay as well, and it will (hopefully) continue to appear in history whenever art becomes too predictable, bloated and commercial.
Listen to more punk rock in this playlist:
Cover: Mabg1989, Pamela Littky, Riksarkivet (National Archives of Norway)
For more on punk, read:
- High Tech, Low Life: 5 Illustrators that Mastered the Cyberpunk Aesthetic
- Lush Fantasies: An Overview of the Solarpunk Aesthetic
Elevate the way you listen to punk rock with KEF
Writer | DB Damage
DB Damage is a freelance content writer passionate about creative subjects like music, film, and video games. He studied IT and music technology at college and has a background in managing and promoting local bands.