In the late 70's a new musical culture took hold, most notably in Britain and New York, which caused adulation, fear and much inspiration. Punk’s impact on musical history was huge, despite its relatively short life span. But just how did this subculture come about? And how did such an important movement end so quickly after beginning?
The Clash, left to right: Mick Jones, Paul Simonon, Nicky "Topper" Headon, Joe Strummer.
Photo: Daiana Constantino @ Flickr
The precise start date of Punk is unclear, partly because of its emergence in different places. For example, the 60s Peruvian band Los Saicos (The Psychos) are seen as the first Punk band. However, it is generally agreed that Punk began in both New York and London. There, bands such as The Velvet Underground and The Stooges became huge influences on the likes of The Ramones, Wayne (now Jayne) County and Johnny & the Heartbreakers, causing a natural shift to Punk in New York. These artists, and others including Blondie and Talking Heads, played at the famous CBGB club. And it was here that Malcolm McLaren first saw Punk music. After an unsuccessful attempt at managing New York Dolls, Malcolm returned to London, and used his Chelsea fashion boutique to recruit a front man for his band. His new group would soon become The Sex Pistols.
This came at the same time as Punk rock in the UK was emerging, growing from the Pub Rock scene. At the time Britain was experiencing high unemployment and widespread social unrest, resulting in a sizeable population of angry young people with time on their hands. Many had become unimpressed with the music of the time, and with the perceived excesses of Glam Rock and the belief that it had strayed from the rawness of Rock and Roll, music also began to lose a lot of its political meaning. The Sex Pistols didn't create Punk in the UK, but they were crucial to its growth. Their early shows often descended into near riots, with the contempt demonstrated by their crowds to them only matched by the band’s contempt for the crowd. However, they succeeded in gaining a following, and many of these new converts went on to form their own bands, including The Clash, The Damned and Siouxsie & the Banshees.
Photo: badgreeb RECORDS @ Flickr
However, Punk wasn't confined to New York and London. The Sex Pistols famous performance at The Lesser Free Trade Hall in Manchester exemplifies this. Headlining a gig set up by Manchester band Buzzcocks on the 20th July 1976, in attendance were people who would go on to form The Smiths, Joy Division and Mark E Smith of The Fall, making it one of the most important gigs in British music history. In Liverpool, Eric's hosted many Punk gigs, most famously The Ramones & Talking Heads and The Clash, both in May 1977. The second of this has been cited by many people who would comprise the Liverpool music scene of the 80s as influential, including Julian Cope (The Teardrop Explodes), Ian McCulloch (Echo & The Bunnymen) and Pete Wylie (Wah!).
The Sex Pistols used shock tactics to gain notoriety, such as swearing on television, controversial lyrics, and performing on a flotilla on the Thames before the Queen’s silver jubilee after the banning of their single “God Save The Queen”. Their only album, the provocatively named “Never Mind The Bollocks, Here's The Sex Pistols”, was an influence on many later artists. It's angry, anti-establishment (both the political and musical establishment) sentiment resonated well with the youth at the time, and can be seen to encapsulate the Punk attitude. The Clash were perhaps more sophisticated than The Sex Pistols, especially lyrically. Described as “Thinking Man's Yobs” by the NME, their lyrics often talking about political and social issues, for example in Washington Bullets and Career Opportunities. Most Punk bands held left wing beliefs, with many, such as The Clash and Sham 69 taking part in Rock Against Racism. However, Punk fans came from across the political spectrum, as shown by the Dead Kennedys’ song ‘Nazi Punks Fuck Off’.
Eric's Club on Mathew Street in Liverpool, notable for many punk band's early performances. Photo: RF LEWIS 495 @ Flickr
So when, and why, did Punk die? According to popular Punk magazine Sniffin’ Glue, the death of Punk was The Clash signing to CBS in January 1977, while other people claim that Punk isn't dead. However most people would suggest the death of Punk was closer to the end of the decade. The specific time of its death, like that of its birth, is unclear. What's easier to see is the reasons for its demise. One reason, somewhat paradoxically, was its success. Increased commercialisation was in conflict with Punk’s ideals, and the increased popularity caused a conflict between those seen as true punks and those seen as poseurs. Also, key to Punk’s success was its ability to shock, which inevitably wore off. Some bands, such as The Sex Pistols, broke up, while others such as The Clash branched out into other genres.
Many bands have been influenced by Punk, such as New Wave and Post-Punk bands (Joy Division, Echo and The Bunnymen, The Jam etc). The influence has continued, with many landfill indie noughties bands citing The Clash and The Sex Pistols as influences, often in an attempt to seem edgier than they actually were, and also with Pop Punk bands such as Green Day and Blink 182. It's not so much the music of Punk itself which has influenced, a large part of it has been the DIY attitude, which can be seen as many bands who may be musically different to traditional Punk bands. This attitude lives on, over 30 years after the “death” of Punk.
Edited by: Will Fawcett