A Brief History of Punk Rock

By Clay Lewd and A-hole the Red
In Justice Issue 21 September-October 2000, paper of Socialist Alternative, US-CWI

[Note by website editor: We've added this article as it covers a topic of interest to some of our readers. We'd be interested in an article from readers from Ireland or Britain or comments by any international readers. Any chance? Just send it in by email.
Thanks. And God save the Queen DID get to number 1.]

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The first strains of Punk Rock music were heard as the Sixties counterculture movement in the US became conscious of a gnawing feeling that change could not be effected on a national level with a flower in a gun. Idealism gave way to outrage.

In Detroit, two bands, the MC5 and the Stooges made their malaise a sonic assault. The Stooges were the OG nihilists - they played because they couldn't care less. The MC5 maintained a hodgepodge pro-revolution, pro-drug philosophy, embodied in their White Panther party, which made them one of the first white bands to assume something resembling a political stance. Their appearance at the '68 Democratic Convention in Chicago marks the beginning of musical outrage entering political perimeters.

Bands like the New York Dolls and the Ramones in New York City copied the Stooges' attitude during the early 70's. It was all about dissolute fashion, dissonant sounds, and above all, doing it yourself. The unholy din began to resonate throughout Manhattan from the Lower East Side from scenes at Max's Kansas City and the Mercer Arts Center. The first newspaper on the scene, PUNK, was begotten in an abandoned storefront by Legs McNeil and Jon Holstrom, thus providing a moniker for this kind of attitude. Little by little, the smells of smoke, spunk, and hairspray drew the curious and the disaffected down to the clubs to take part in the burgeoning movement.

Punk Defined

Punk Rock is a sub-genre of Western Popular Music. Its harmonic roots lie in the bastardized Chicago Blues favored by groups like the Rolling Stones. From the very beginning, Punk thought of itself as a reaction to the commercialization of youth culture. What the Dolls and the Stooges espoused was what has become known as the DIY, or Do-It-Yourself ethic.

By dispensing with pop music's production values, punk rock became something that anyone could do. One does not have to look pretty or play well in order to perform punk music. What matters is that one gets up and plays.

The great conceit of punk rock is the idea that this approach represents some kind of innovation. Yet as with every other genre of Western Pop Music, Punk almost all sounds the same, with a few notable exceptions.

The DIY ethic is little more than reheated petty bourgeois individualistic idealism. Nihilistic pretensions notwithstanding, the idea that one can produce just enough to take care of oneself and those nearest and dearest permeates the punk movement as a whole. This is the founding principle of small businesses.

However, the nature of capitalism is such that a small business cannot survive if it does not grow. The brief history of punk rock illustrates this assertion.

Punk Goes to England...And Back

Citizens of the US are very slow to pick up on marketable musical phenomena. Any form of music that the US claims to have invented had to go to Europe to be appreciated and developed.

The French were the first white folk to appreciate Jazz. The Beatles were responsible for regurgitating Motown standards in a form palatable to white Americans. Jimi Hendrix was too wild for US audiences. It was in Britain that Hendrix was signed to his first record contract, allowing him to develop the electric guitar style that is unequaled in influence amongst musicians of every genre.

Punk was no exception, by 1976, the New York Dolls guitarist Johnny Thunders was seeking his fortune with a new band called the HeartBreakers. When the HeartBreakers hit London, they were observed and audited by future members of seminal Punk bands the Clash and the Sex Pistols.

At the time, Johnny Rotten (future frontman of the Sex Pistols) and company were bored, and pissed off - and in the process of being groomed into a showpiece band by the now-notorious London impresario Malcolm McClaren. After witnessing the HeartBreakers, they adopted snarls and donned apparel that McLaren associate Vivienne Westwood (now a world-renowned fashion designer) cribbed from London's sado-masochistic gay underworld. A few well-staged public appearances, under the name the Sex Pistols, and the United Kingdom was treated to a new brand of heresy - one fit for a Queen.

This touched off the London Explosion Summer of 1977, galvanizing youth to come out in droves to live their lives as acts of rebellion. Thus the Summer of Love was effectively inverted a decade later. And it was with the same na´ve hope that the punks sought to change the way of things.

The Sex Pistols began to negotiate large recording contracts with major labels, signing with EMI in 1977. And soon, after scoring hit songs despite their anarchistic messages, the Pistols were crossing the ocean to America, sailing into a maelstrom of expectation and loathing. The group's behavior, which included expletives on national television, missed appearances and Sid Vicious' escalating drug use, soon led to the termination of their contract. It was too late. The message had been sent. There was money to be made in punk.

The day the Pistols played the Winter-land, SF in 1978 was the day that US punk bands were politicized. The social consciousness of American punk, which had previously been fueled only by nihilism and self-aggrandizement, came into being with Rotten's onstage announcement of the band's breakup, and the words "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?"

In much the same way that the Sex Pistols and the Clash had been inspired by the HeartBreakers two years before, many nascent San Francisco Bay Area punkers were in the Winterland audience that night. Alejandro Escovedo, of the short-lived group the Nuns, said that was the moment that he realized that music could have a social conscience.

First Nail in the Coffin

It is ironic that this statement by Rotten could inspire such a sentiment. A materialist punk fan may have observed that Rotten's question, posed a few songs into the set and followed by an abrupt exit, may have been a simple statement of fact: a show that short of any kind of music is a rip-off.

Even to this day, the Sex Pistols are considered the archetypal punk band: controversy, ragged glory, and terrible musicianship. It is doubly ironic considering that the Sex Pistols, conceived and marketed by a business manager and a fashion designer, actually represented punk rock's first big step towards becoming the very thing it loathed: commercialized.

At this time, the UK punk scene fell prey to insolvency, and bands fostered by an initial approach to musical crossbreeding as experimentation were soon lured by major label money into a cult of personality attitude. The notable exception was the Crass anarchist collective, which maintained its vision by being totally self-reliant - and not accepting major label money. And at the end of the decade the scene moved back underground. They became parodies. The stadium rock band The Police made its television debut impersonating a punk band in a British toothpaste commercial.

Meanwhile, in the US, punk operated on a grassroots level, with a vast network of small clubs and collectives sponsoring shows. The more successful bands, like the Dead Kennedys, started small, independent record labels to release their own material and to give new bands a leg up. Fanzines like Maximum Rock'N'Roll and Omnibus achieved national circulation. The DIY ethic's roots were showing. Punk rock was turning to small business in order to survive.

Punk in the 90's

In the late 80's and early 90's, a number of bands who had made their reputation playing in punk clubs and promoting their self-produced albums on college radio stations broke through to the mainstream. While the first of these bands to cross over could hardly be described as punk bands, the success of REM and Jane's Addiction led to the co-optation of college radio and a nation-wide talent search for bands that could be crammed into the meaningless 'alternative' genre.

The smash chart success of Green Day and Rancid were not far behind. Both groups came out of the vibrant punk scene of the East San Francisco Bay Area. Green Day were recruited to their label by a talent scout who came to their house with his guitar, smoked a joint with them, and jammed with them for awhile.

Rancid and Green Day were both excoriated by their fellow scenesters for 'selling out.'

Since the Dead Kennedys broke up, their former lead singer Jello Biafra has made a name for himself as a political commentator selling spoken word albums paraphrasing Noam Chomsky. He continues to run the DK's former record label Alternative Tentacles as a for-profit service provider. Alternative Tentacles has the mission to provide new bands with an outlet for their music with a guarantee that the label will not tamper with them artistically. The label is financed largely through sales of old Dead Kennedys albums. Jello's former bandmates sue him from time to time.

The Crass, formerly the conscience of Punk, reincarnated as Chumbawamba and had an international smash hit with "Tubthumping."

Johnny Rotten changed his last name back to Lydon and spent years making albums that no one listened to (with his vanity project, Public Image, Ltd). He swore up and down, between condemnations of the Clash, also defunct for years, that he would never reunite the Sex Pistols.

Within a few years of the success of Rancid and Green Day, Rotten was back on the road with the Sex Pistols, with a new album and a tour of sold-out US stadiums.

Thirty years after its inception, it is safe to say that Punk Rock's money is definitely not where its mouth is.

Readers Note added June 28th 2003
These notes came today from a Dublin Socialist Party comrade. Please feel free to send in other comments.
I've just read the 'History of Punk' by those American Cdes. I don't think they really know what they're talking about to be honest. They hardly mention the Clash, the Jam and Siouxsie are left out completely, and Crass (not The Crass as they are called in this article) did NOT turn into Chumbawamba. Some members of Crass joined Conflict, but Chumbawamba have nothing to do with Crass (apart from preaching anarchism). I'd actually appreciate it if you put that little disclaimer up on the site, along with your Editors note. I used to be quite into Crass back in the day, and I don't like to see their good (albeit anarchist) name soiled. Btw the remnants of Crass now live in a commune somewhere in england.

And they refer to The Ramones as an "unholy din". Tut, tut. Even my Da loves the Ramones! They don't seem to realise, that while most of the music was indeed shite, there were some actual bona fide classics songs and albums that make up for all the rest - or at least they hardly acknowledge the fact. And I don't care what anyone says, I like the Sex Pistols. ['Old sitemaster', I agree.]

For other articles from the CWI on music go to the sitemap.

To see more about what the Socialist Party generally stands for visit our main site

To see what the American members of the CWI stand for, visit their site.