The Punk movement is often seen as a reaction to what was regarded as a blown up and stagnant, self-indulging music scene in the mid-70s. In wider perspective, it is considered not merely as a music genre, but more as a complex mixture of social, cultural, rebellious upheaval of the marginal, disillusioned young white generation, first in the US and UK and then in the rest of the western world.
This essay will try to explore these statements and find out whether any of the two can be considered as the only cause for the emergence of punk.
Music and influences background
One would say that any form of modern music in its initial phase is a protest, by default. That could be supported by numerous examples throughout the music history when rebellious young artists were crossing the boundaries of the conventional music genres and styles and often rejected from the music establishment.
The stylistic music origins of punk could be found in second half of the twentieth century. First it was rock’n’roll of the fifties that shook the post war society with its wild rhythms and raw cords played on electric guitars amplified to produce more “noise”.
The other influences were R&B, country and rockabilly and in the 60s many sub-genres that emerged on the rock music scene like: garage rock, frat rock, psychedelic rock, pub rock, glam rock, and proto-punk.
Although its origins can be traced back as far as you like, with every generation having its own youth sub-culture that shocks the established order (for some Elvis was a punk), punk as we know it today began in the early 1970s.
It was bands like The Fugs, the MC5 and The Stooges that sowed the seeds, but the first groups to take on the recognisable attitude and style were the New York Dolls and Television, who both emerged from a small New York scene. (Ian Young – “A brief history of punk”, BBC News UK Edition).
“As rock ‘n’ roll became bigger and bigger in the ’70s, it was time for another revolution – a return to a basic, raw, three-chord sound, namely, punk. From the streets of New York City and London, punk rock reverberated around the world and turned the rock ‘n’ roll status quo on its head.”
Punk rock was a reaction against certain tendencies that had overtaken popular music in the 1970s, including what the punks considered as superficial “disco” music and pretentious forms of heavy metal, progressive rock and “arena rock”. Punk also rejected the remnants of the hippie counterculture of the 1960s. Bands such as Jefferson Airplane, which had survived the 60s, were regarded by most punks as having become fatuous and an embarrassment to their former claims of radicality. Eric Clapton’s appearance in television beer ads in the mid-1970s was often cited as an example of how the icons of 1960s rock had literally sold themselves to the system they once opposed. (Wikipedia, The free online encyclopaedia).
Punk rock was a “back to the roots” movement, return to a clubs music scene, where band could have a closer contact and exchange with the audience, unlike more and more “alienated super groups” that music industry “catapulted” out of the small clubs into a stadiums in need for more audience and more profit. It was not maybe the music that punks were completely against, but rather the presentation, the shows and the preposterous proportions of so called “rock’n’roll circus”.
Punk rock adopted the simple musical structure and short songs of the early rock and roll – the concise approach with three major cords, two guitars and drums, short and snappy rhythms and lots of energy – something sounding in complete negation with all that had been done before. Their frontal onslaught on all senses actually tried and partially succeeded to disrupt the inert musical scene for many years to come.
The “punk” label first appeared at the ongoing New York music clubs’ scene in 1974-1976, revolving around the forerunners of punk, the avant-garde poet Patty Smith, Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground and bands that played regular gigs at the club CBGB’s in New York’s Bowery district, such as: The Ramones, Television, Blondie, Richard Hell and The Voidoids, Mink Deville, Suicide. During this same period, punk bands were forming independently in other locations as well, such as The Saints in Brisbane, Australia, and The Stranglers, Sex Pistols and later Clash, The Damned and Buzzcocks in London. The early bands usually performed within small nightclubs operated by enthusiastic impresarios and they would remain underground until 1976, when two bands – The Ramones in their London concert at Roundhouse and The Sex Pistols, – made the outside world take notice.
And that was the end of the “quintessential punk” as seen by Bryn Chamberlain in his 1995 article: “Savvy businessman, MacLaren knew that in order to succeed, he and his protégées had to reach the largest number of pop culture participants in the most cost effective manner available. This required a paradoxical shift from the underground scene into the mainstream mass media. The deluge of manipulation and the waves of newly found fame forced on The Sex Pistols caused the original punk to become lost. In spite of placing punks on a world wide stage, success was the end of the quintessential punk and the beginning of punk as a constructed image”.
This brings us to another aspect of punk movement rather than focusing on the music aspect, and that is its social context.
Social and cultural context
On both sides of the Atlantic, more young disillusioned white teenagers were looking for an escape from the boredom and constraints of society, with raising unemployment, racial tensions and social upheavals.
Malcolm MacLaren, the British rock band manager, once remarked that rock music remained the only form of culture that youth cared about. For the young, everything flowed through rock’n’roll: fashion, slang, sexual attitudes, drug habits, and poses. However, the true reasons for the emergence of punk were more the result of the awareness among a wide mass of young people, initially coming from the working class families or alienated classes in cities, suburbs or the countryside, of the fact that they were the victims of an alienation. They had nothing, no shelter, home, commodities, and even decent food. Their frustration led to a birth of white punk and skinhead movement like the US black upheaval with famous inner city ghetto riots.
Their music was used as a tool to differentiate themselves from dominant society; their hair styles and aggressive clothing were also used deliberately as an instrument of shock. Highly theatrical use of cosmetics and hairstyles: eye makeup covering half the face, hair made to stand in spikes or cut into a “Mohawk, coloured with vibrant hues. Punk clothing adapted or mutilated existing objects for artistic effect: pants and shirts were cut, torn, or wrapped with tape, written on with marker or paint; safety pins and razor blades were used as jewellery; a black bin garbage bags, leather, rubber etc.
Punk bands and fans were often accused of nihilism, reflexive anarchism, hooliganism, and of outrageous behaviour (for instance The New York Dolls were shockingly dressed and delighted in disgusting people by doing Nazi salutes and vomiting in front of photographers). Lots of the disturbance over punk was caused not only by the behaviour of the groups, but of the fans at shows as well. These often appeared to be more of small-scale riots rather than music concerts. Fans spat and threw beer bottles at the band and each other while fights both inside and outside the venue were common, as was the damage to the sound equipment or the premises.
“They expressed a style and ideas that were and still are mostly against all kinds of alienation. That’s why they got in touch with and at times integrated the anarchist movement and philosophy. They took clear stands on essential issues in our societies. First of all against the government, the police, the state and they became political anarchists advocating the uselessness of such institutions”. (Jacques Coulardeau, review on the book “The Philosophy of Punk”, 2003).
Punk lyrics introduced an aggressive openness of expression in both political and sexual matters, usually dealing with urban boredom and rising unemployment in the UK — for example, the Sex Pistols “God Save The Queen”.
They fought against any kind of discrimination: racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, and many others. Female groups became very popular and visible on the punk stage. But they have been very fast assimilated by the major labels, by the media, because young people are a huge market and records, clothing or beauty products are highly profitable. They tried to build some kind of an alternative economy, but it remained marginal and it did not change the world (Dr Jacques Coulardeau).
So, was the punk movement just a reaction most commonly associated with music genre? According to many analysts it was a protest movement, but designed to protest only, not to change anything. “The point is to oppose and to enjoy the ride. Music is never going to change the world, neither is youth, or drugs or sex. Like thunder, a harmless accompaniment to deadly lightning, youth protests sometimes seem to have achieved a goal that has been achieved through a wider consensus”.(“Punk is Bunk”, by Martin J. Willett, 2005). The other author, Gill of the London Times points out that the reason for the emergence of punk was simply part of the “next” generations “fumbled attempts to get drunk, listen to the band, get laid and get the last bus home …”
Some analysts see it as the same, time-tried rejection of existing rules and the noisy voice of change: a statement of discontent through an inarticulate voicing of problems: loud, if not clear, shocking and straightforward. “Punk was a sensational new act to be sure, but basically, it was an adolescent phase with rampant publicity. There were no higher plans or decisions to create “utopian heres(ies)” (Landesman).
It is certainly hard to differentiate between the social and musical causes that helped punk to arise into a large scale movement. One can argue that it was born as a protest against everything, and that would probably be the closest to truth: it opposed some of the music tendencies of the 70s that became mockery to their original sources, glam- rock “stars” with shiny, Hollywood-style over-blown appearances, hollow and musically sterile. It was a social and cultural protest too, of the frustrated young generation marginalized on the edges of society as the remnants of the great movements from the 60s.
It shook the social structures, reminding us that whenever we fall into self-indulged slumber, there would always be a force that grows somewhere along us waiting for the right moment to wake us up. It was probably the last shockwave of the 20th century to sweep over, radical and brief, the global music, fashion and cultural scene in general, forever changing our world and erasing, if just for a moment, the boundaries between “the elite” and the “commons”.