“If you believe what you’re doing is unique, hang in there. Otherwise, give up, or sound like Nirvana.” – Joey Ramone.
Everything you are about to read is entirely arbitrary. If one thing is apparent in the world of art, it is that nothing has been invented in the literal sense since a rather pretentious Neanderthal excused themself from the hunt to doodle a Buffalo onto a cave wall; the rest has just been a glorious unspooling wave of profound permutations. Punk may well seem like it clawed its way out of the plashy mire of the brutalist, stinking and postlapsarian 1970s as a fully formed incendiary beast, but as the following sketchy timeline will attest, it is very difficult to trace the fuzzed-out Dr Frankenstein behind it all. It remains a genre as chicken-egg as any, no matter how hard I try to disavow that in the following dirge. Don’t say you weren’t warned…
The generalised origins of pop culture is an equally murky pallet, but punk’s rather more monochrome tones seem to set it outside of the conventional world of Elvis Presley and the gathering wind of the Delta blues. Thus, we begin with the moment that rock ‘n’ roll was declared as the devil’s music in a legislative sense. Few tracks have the influence and life experience of the only instrumental song in existence ever to be banned. And while Link Wray’s ‘Rumble’ certainly didn’t invent punk, it is a notable ground zero. After all, if you can garner red tape and a tribe of musical disciples through a simple riff and drum roll, then you know you are propagating something sordid from the upper reaches of the rarefied realm we call energy and atmosphere, or punk for short.
“There was a guy named Link Wray,” Iggy Pop once said, “I heard this music in the student union at a university. It was called ‘Rumble’ and it sounded baaad.” For Iggy Pop, this crystalising moment prognosticated his future in a sonic crystal ball and, needless to say, that his future didn’t involve going to university. “I left school emotionally at the moment I heard ‘Rumble’,” he concludes. Mr Pop was not the only one to have his eyelids peeled off by the track, but its place in the timeline of punk is not merely down to the people it inspired and influenced, or even the prize ribbon of red tape that it sported, but in its rollicking style.
The story goes that Link Wray was playing some drab country fare when a DJ asked his band to play ‘The Stroll’ by The Diamonds; Link Wray agreed, but having never heard of the song, he and his bandmates found themselves in a sink or swim predicament. Wray’s brother, Doug, who in various corroborated reports sounds like a sticksmith who drummed louder than a hurricane passing over a rattle factory, beat out a rhythm with the wrong end his sticks and Wray strummed out a few heavy sustained vibrato-laden chords, which is how he imagined a song called ‘The Stroll’ to sound (it doesn’t). In order to hear the guitar over the pounding beat that Doug was mercilessly concocting, a microphone was placed in front of the punctured amplifier, and the blown-out sound caused a frenzy amid the exhilarated crowd as they basked in a sonic boom that would later become known as ‘Rumble’.
The reasons that this track could be dubbed proto-punk are two-fold. The first of which is its unapologetic simplicity. A wise baby could count the chords in the song, and the drumming is the sort that a greasy-haired lad at the back of music class used to pound out on the high-hats and tom-toms of his inner thighs with his hands. The second reason is elucidated by Jimmy Page, who says: “I would listen to anything with a guitar on as a kid, anything that was being played and all those different approaches and the echoes, but the first time I heard the ‘Rumble’, that was something that had so much profound attitude to it.”
This is a familiar tale; thus, it seems prescient at this point to reflect on the age-old relationship that so many of us have had with punk as we now know it. In short, there is something undeniably disgusting about the genre. The first reaction is often a vile one, but like the curious response of a child to roadkill, it’s a squirm-inducer that you can’t unfix your eyes from.
Therefore, with ‘Rumble’ successfully establishing the basic tenets of punk as attitude, simplicity, blown-out amplifiers and, if possible, a bit of bourgeoisie bedevilling, The Kingsmen, a useless group of scallywag teenagers from Oregon, took up the mantle with the classic ‘Louie, Louie’. And once more, it was red tape that helped to establish the inflammatory side of rock ‘n’ roll. This time, the FBI, an organisation that seemingly has welcomed more well-manicured arseholes than every one of the late Hugh Hefner’s pool parties combined over the years, inadvertently promoted proto-punk by investigating this scratchy song for over two years, believing that the inaudible lyrics contained some sort of secret cold war code.
While the investigation is the sort of utterly absurd notion that makes you lose faith in authority, in a more symbolic sense, the song did offer up a code for the youth: a) anyone can have a hit record and b) there is nothing quite as subversive as the liberating force of rock ‘n’ roll. Following the explosion of ‘Louie, Louie’, garage band’s sprung up like an acne outbreak, and by the time of the mid-1960s, proto-punk was beginning to look a lot less proto.
All that being said, just because rock ‘n’ roll was getting simplified and scratched-up didn’t mean that punk was inevitable. There were many more strings for the bow to acquire just yet. In fact, if you read a biography on any punk band that burst into existence during the 1970s, then you’ll come across something similar to this: In the strange mix of their snarling sonic output is the glam of David Bowie and T.Rex, the grimy fucklessness of The Rolling Stones and girl-group pop, all hurled into a DIY shaker and poured out shambolically.
While girl-group pop might stand out in that sentence like a sore cock at an orgy, there are many incarnations of the genre that disavow the commercial teeny-bopper fodder that often springs to mind when we hear that phrase. Of all the female four-pieces that sat outside of the usual status quo and spawned a revolution by doing so, the main protagonists in punks prelude were the 1960s phenoms, The Shangri-Las.
Much like ‘Rumble’, the unruly girl group also had a direct impact on a future fellow proto-punk, Iggy Pop. The impending incendiary frontman of the rollicking Stooges recalled: “My cover band… had a professional engagement the summer that we graduated high school at a teen club called The Ponytail in northern Michigan. They served Cokes. And a lot of big acts came through. I got to play drums behind the Shangri-Las, the Crystals, the Four Tops. Learned a lot.”
With iconoclastic lunatics like the young Iggy Pop tapping the drums behind them, their music needed to be befittingly dark. They traversed subject matters that no typical girl group would go near, tackling motorcycle beheadings, heart failure of the spiritual bent and all the darkest pages of a teen’s diary. However, it was darkness tempered with the light touch of pop sensibilities. In short, punk followed a similar principle of finding fun in darkness, being brattish and proud, and swimming against the current of expectations. As Shangri-Las leader Mary Weiss will tell you herself: “The Shangri-Las were punk before punk existed. People thought we were tough.”
Another band that people thought was tough, at least in a prickly arty sense if not the cage-fighting definition, were The Velvet Underground. If the Shangri-Las were fearlessly tackling the shadier side of life, then Lou Reed’s New York indie outfit was mining musical dark-matter in the dead of night. With their Promethean artistry, punk finally had the lyrical oeuvre and depth to match its slobbering attitude and gaudy surface. Perhaps even more importantly than that was their view on commercialism. If the Velvet’s gave less of a crap about scoring a hit single, then they’d be in dire need of an enema. The band were more concerned about serenading the swelling number of poor bastards snagged on the barbed wire of the battlefield of life than appeasing the masses foraging on with the same old pious campaign. This philosophy allowed music to celebrate its underground status rather than furiously scramble towards the mainstream spotlight. It was in the subterranean music jungles that the Velvet’s called home that punk would fester.
One man who soaked in this stinking downtown miasma was a fellow who has already been mentioned a few times already: Iggy Pop and his Stooges. The mantra of the Stooges was summarised perfectly by the aforementioned Lou Reed, who wrote in testimony to their output: “I have always loved Raw Power. I like the sound – the honest sound of young guys trying to break the barrier of stilted moulded sterile rock. And they did. Great guitar and wonderful vocals from Iggy. And inspiration for young men to this day.”
That notion of smashing the status quo of sterile rock to smithereens is an important one. Post-Woodstock, the flowery dream of the sixties, was descending into a concrete sprawl of dystopia. The spaced-out search for enlightenment now seemed misplaced for the new generation. Many flower power devotees would call what followed apathy, but the punks would say they made peace with their predicament and sought exultation in spite of a hopeless dream.
If the psychedelic bandwagon was coasting along through the ghettos of the States and council estates of Britain in a Rolls Royce’s touting unrelatable notions of ayahuasca epiphanies and the search for inner peace amid the drone of the universe, then punk pulled up alongside it in a Mad Max-style convoy, and it had a generation of disenfranchised youth clambering to be there to witness the birth. The Stooges, however, were driving just a little bit too fast. They got to the scene too early and ended in a tailspin. They might have blown up the banal current of dull music, with pictures from their gigs to show that they were covered in the bloodied and bruised remains, but their embers fizzled out and were only retrospectively revived.
Their Manhattan counterparts, however, The New York Dolls, have a direct lineage to punk’s first true outbreak. Every club needs a clubhouse, and the epicentre of punk was The Big Apple; more specifically, it was the CBGB. The ‘Dolls followed the same route as the Stooges, reclaiming the original tenets of rock ‘n’ roll with more atmosphere and attitude than a packed-out Wembley Stadium’s worth of tantrum toddlers. They hurled them all of their old heroes into a sort of DIY shaker, with a bit of inherent New York art scene anarchy and poured it out in a glug of electrically shambolic drug-fuelled performances. As their leader, Johnny Thunders, once said: “The Dolls were an attitude, if nothing else, they were a great attitude.”
Along with that attitude, they had the complexion of Alaskan vampires, clothes ordered at random for the big catalogue of the bad taste store, and an overall oeuvre that sits in the dictionary under the word punk. Most importantly, however, they seemed to find themselves in the right place and time to seize the zeitgeist, usurp the sixties and spawn something entirely new. Musically they were no more important than any of the other sages on punk’s journey, but it was the scene that was stirred up from their sonic stew that gives credence to their patent for punk.
In the CGBG wave that followed, you have Television, Patti Smith, Blondie, Talking Heads, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Misfits, a thousand others, and the band who embodied punk more than any other: The Ramones. Slowly but surely, half Afghan hound, half-mad scientist crossbreed Joey Ramone ensured that the British explosion that followed would solidify the scene globally.
The timeless appeal of the Ramones was best summed up by one such British punk, the poet, John Cooper Clarke, who wrote in the Ramones fanzine, Sniffin’ Glue, the following pithy piece of punk proclaiming prose: “I love Bob Dylan but I hold him responsible for two bad ideas: a) the extended running time of the popular song and b) the lyric sheet. […] In late 1975, I read an article on the Ramones, a four-man gang from Queens. Much was made of their snotty asocial stage manner and the speed and brevity of their songs. […] I bought the LP. The Ramones were and are an enthusiasm of mine. They understood that it was better to have clever lyrics about moronic subjects than the other way round.”
This witty songwriting style and carefree vantage would soon waft over from the States to England, where the Sex Pistols picked up the scent. At their first riotous gig, a Frenchman in attendance reportedly heckled Steve Jones by yelling: “You can’t play!” to which Steve Jones replied: “SO WHAT!”. The rest, as they say, is ancient history. So, I hope that has cleared things up, although I fear we’re no better off than when we started this journey.
See a simplified timeline breakdown, below.
A timeline of punk rock:
Link Wray kick it off
Link Wray releases the distorted and tremolo-heavy ‘Rumble’; the only instrumental song ever to be banned.
‘Louie, Louie’ – FBI
Teen garage rock band The Kingsmen release one-take track ‘Louie, Louie’, its distorted lyrics prompt a two-year FBI investigation
Enter The Shangri-Las
Iconoclastic girl group, The Shangri-Las, shock the music scene with their unruly ways and dark lyrics.
Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground
December 1965 – The Velvet Underground play their first-ever gig at Summit High and soon cause a stir a cult stir with dark lyrics.
’96 Tears’ released by the band ? and the Mysterians becomes the first known track described as “punk”.
Iggy and The Stooges
The Stooges release promo-punk debut album and deliver chaotic live shows.
Enter The New York Dolls
The New York Dolls original line-up plays first performance at a homeless shelter and soon spawn a new scene in Manhattan.
The CBGB revolution
The Ramones begin rattling the CBGB club in New York, soon followed by Television, Patti Smith, Blondie, Talking Heads…
The Sex Pistols take to the stage
The Sex Pistols play their first gig. Steve Jones is heckled that he can’t play, he responds “SO WHAT!” The British punk scene explodes solidifying the genre.