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What is punk?


“A guy walks up to me and asks, ‘What’s Punk?’. So I kick over a garbage can and say. ‘That’s punk!’. So he kicks over the garbage can and says, ‘That’s Punk?’, and I say, ‘No that’s trendy!'” – Billie Joe Armstrong

As the above quote suggests, punk is simultaneously accessible and elusive. It is an attitude, an art form, and a music genre; it is something to aspire to while also being the very thing you turn away from in fear that it will be standardised, made mediocre, and destroyed by its self-aggrandising commercial image.

While punk as a movement formulated in the undercurrents of society, it buoyed to the surface by 1975. It laid itself bare and vulnerable to the media and record labels, who would instantly find a way to monetise it.

The Ramones released their self-titled debut record in 1976 and after their tour in Britain, helped ignite the counter-cultural movement in the UK as the musical landscape was just as ripe there as it was in the US. An aspect of punk rock found its political roots in the left-wing spectrum and was highly critical of ‘free-market Capitalism’, one that also found its roots in iconoclasm and anti-commercialism. Although punk rock is not strictly a left-wing phenomenon, punk doesn’t necessarily have to be political, even. However, particularly with bands like The Clash, Marxism gave punk some of its revolutionary energy.

As a music genre, punk rockers swore to rebel against machoism and the self-importance of the mid-1970s rockers. Songs pre-dating as early as the late 1950s exhibited some early important punk aesthetics, such as ‘Love Me’ by The Phantom in ’58, who resembled a vampiric version of Elvis Presley. ‘Psycho’ by The Sonics, ‘I Hate You’ by The Monks, and ‘Surfin’ Bird’ by The Trashmen – as their names would suggest, all helped shape early rockabilly-turned-psychobilly sounds which later matured, with the help of The Stooges and The Kinks, into more of the familiar sounds we associate as punk rock.

The term ‘punk rock’ was initially coined to describe what we would now more commonly call ‘garage-rock’ of the 1960s. Drummer of the Ramones, Tommy Ramone, stated: “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.”

(Credit: Alamy)

What is punk?

“Punk is musical freedom,” Kurt Cobain once said. “It’s saying, doing and playing what you want. In Webster’s terms, ‘nirvana’ means freedom from pain, suffering and the external world, and that’s pretty close to my definition of punk rock.

The term ‘punk’ was initially just a label coined by the media, as it so often happens in the music business. Journalist Greg Shaw, writing for The Rolling Stone, first used the term to describe The Guess Who in 1971. Shaw wrote, “Good, not too imaginative, punk rock and roll.”

The term punk began appearing more frequently after that, in particular when describing bands from the 1960s. Journalist Dave Marsh also used the term when describing the psychedelic-garage rock band Question Mark and the Mysterians when writing for Creem. 

During the latter part of the 1960s, psychedelic sounds conjured up through the prism of fuzz-laden guitars began to cross over to the realm of proto-punk. While psychedelia was very much a product of the hippie counter-culture, there also existed a darker side, an underbelly. The attitude and velocity of Jimi Hendrix could even be considered proto-punk: he was one of the first to burn guitars on stage. By the same token, one could say that The Who were vital in introducing destruction into the development of punk when they tore the stage up after their sets. From this spawned the dirty underground Detroit rock ‘n’ roll animals, The Stooges. Their original name was The Psychedelic Stooges.

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In my mind, Iggy Pop and the Stooges are the fathers of punk; from Iggy Pop’s stage antics, incorporating saliva, blood, sheer attitude, and furious guitars; the only other band that was doing this at the time was another Detroit band, The MC5. While The MC5 would bear some resemblance to the hippie rockers, Iggy Pop was constantly shirtless, wearing a dog collar, and cutting himself with broken glass bottles. Fellow Detroit rocker Alice Cooper bridged the gap between glam and punk by infusing cross-dressing with horror. 

While the Stooges and MC5 both released their debut albums in 1969, it was only a couple of years prior when the Velvet Underground were cooking up something more deceivingly sinister. Their debut in ’67, The Velvet Underground & Nico, felt like it was removed entirely from any cultural movements happening at the time, although Lou Reed was getting his source material from the streets of New York City.

To fully bring Reed’s streetwise songwriting to fruition were John Cale’s avant-garde flavour of twisted viola screams, strange guitar tunings, and never-before-heard guitar feedbacks. While the Velvets’ music isn’t quintessentially punk, it taught punk the importance of being cerebral and the general ‘I don’t give a fuck’ attitude. Case in point: the Velvets’ could never keep a gig in the earlier days; they were never asked back to venues. Despite this seemingly backwards approach to trying to make a living in music, Velvet Underground was anti-commercial, anti-social, and just about anti-everything.

Iggy Pop fronting The Stooges, 1970. (Credit: Alamy/Sheri Lyn Behr)

Was ‘punk’ a label coined by the press?

“They just go mad with anything, don’t they?” Paul McCartney said during an interview. “They go mad with glitter, and they go mad with Bowie’s haircut. And they go mad with punk, you know. But it’s good, it’s good young music. It’s the kids getting their own thing on, instead of just copying the daddies. It is very like the music everyone used to play. It’s very like the early Who, the doors and stuff.”

McCartney’s comments from 1977 suggest an interesting insight into the idea of ‘punk’. First, that it wasn’t necessarily a new phenomenon, and that punk rockers – especially a band like The Ramones who claimed they just wanted to return rock music to straight-forward rock ‘n’ roll – were just playing rock music from the ’60s. Therefore, ‘punk’ is just a label that was used to identify how rock music progressed by the late 1970s.

By 1977, Chris Bailey of the Australian band Saints, said: “Our audience these days isn’t really punk, because punk is really like – well it’s practically gone at the moment, it doesn’t really exist anymore.”

It begs the question of whether the image of punk was somewhat manipulated by the media; the line is sometimes delicately drawn between the real thing and the imitation of it. The medium that we find inhabiting the grey area insidiously trapped between the two is not music, attitude or lifestyle – these expressions are often easily categorised. On the other hand, fashion moves more freely between the realms of the fake and the real. 

The Ramones during a press shoot. (Credit: Alamy)

What is punk fashion? The iconic SEX clothing boutique kickstarted punk…

Wearing swastikas as anti-fashion was punk’s answer to the empty facade of the hyper-optimism, flower-clad hippies. Punks wore symbols of anarchy, Karl Marx, and highly suggestive, sexually promiscuous clothing. Punk fashion was partly inspired by shock value, and as one shirt from Malcolm McClaren and Vivienne Westwood’s shop, SEX, read: to ‘prick up your ears’. 

The punk attitude served as a warning to the status quo and figureheads of authority. It is hard to truly pinpoint at which point punk goes from being completely and utterly authentic to potentially becoming a spectacle of itself. A breeding hub for punk fashion and the visual aesthetic, and one of the main origins of punk is SEX, a boutique clothing store located in London, ran by Malcolm McClaren and Vivienne Westwood.

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SEX opened in 1974 on Kings Road in London and became instrumental in shaping the look of punk and also served as the perfect hang-out spot for like-minded misfits to assemble and formulate their ideas. When McClaren and Westwood took over the store and transformed it from the prior name, Paradise Garage, the boutique specialised in collecting and selling records from the 1950s: sub-culture clothing such as Teddy Boy gear and other dissident artefacts. Before arriving at the image and brand of SEX which would help solidify the punk attitude look, Westwood and McClaren changed the name from ‘Let it Rock’ to ‘Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die’. This iteration transitioned its collection from ’50s era items to clothing and records from the ’60s subculture.

Many significant figures now associated with punk worked and hung out there at one point or another; Chrissie Hynde from the Pretenders, original Sex Pistols bassist and songwriter Glen Matlock, and Sid Vicious are among the people who became associated with the store. McClaren saw John Lydon (Johnny Rotten) walking down the street, and from just the look of him, McClaren auditioned him for The Sex Pistols: a name that was used as a marketing ploy to promote his shop. 

For punk music, musical skill and talent was secondary to attitude and look. Therefore, fashion played an extremely important role in defining the movement.

Sex Pistols leader Johnny Rotten. (Credit: Kevin Cummins)

Who released the first punk record?

While many would claim the Ramones were the first major band to introduce punk rock into the wider public consciousness, Patti Smith’s debut record Horses, which has since been hailed as one of the pioneering records of punk, came out before the Ramones’ debut, beating the moptops of punk by five months. 

Similarly, in Britain, The Damned released their debut single ‘New Rose’, a month before The Sex Pistols released their genre-defining single, ‘Anarchy in the UK’ in 1976. 

The overall consensus is that The Ramones created the first official punk record – this doesn’t mean, however, that they are the sole creators of the genre, as many other bands came before them who exhibited many of the elements that are associated with the genre.

Punk still exists today, as true punk is a genre-defying, fluid yet hard-as-steel attitude.

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