History and Evolution of Punk Rock
December 2, 2019
Controversy arises when debating about punk rock’s origins, but one thing is certain; it emerged from tangible ideals. The genre of punk rock emerged from the rebellious ideals that stemmed from the reaction of both the bloated money and song length that arose from rock & roll and the disdain for the preceding hippie movement. An abhorrence for the hopelessly commercialized rock, punk artists’ goal was to expunge the bloat of the music industry and get back to the core.
Origins of Punk
A decade prior to the punk uprising, garage rock bands of the ‘60s laid the groundwork for punk bands and artists to come in the ‘70s and beyond. Garage rock possessed the heavy guitar strumming that punk rock is known for, but did not quite have the same upbeat pace and rhythm as traditional punk. The mid to late ‘60s appearance of The Stooges and The Sonics raw, crude emergence went on to inspire the archetypes of punk bands such as Ramones and The Cramps.
The legendary New York City club CBGB did not originate with the purpose of being the birthplace of punk in the United States. Started by Hilly Cristol in 1973, CBGB stands for; Country, Bluegrass, and Blues. Notable bands such as Ramones, Blondie, and Talking Heads emerged from this bluegrass club. While Blondie and Talking Heads went on to develop their own styles, Ramones struck the world with a wave of ingenious punk rock.
Evidently considered to be the first punk rock band, Ramones made a career out of playing two to three chords quickly in a repetitive downward motion. Ramones paved the way for the punk bands to come, proving that, unlike glorified rockstars, you do not need to be talented or good looking to be in a punk band.
Johnny Ramone tells Rolling Stone about the motives of starting the band: “We actually got together because none of us could get girls, we had nothing to do except climb on roofs and sniff glue. Girls only wanted guys that drove Corvettes.”
Punk ignited at different parts of the world virtually at the same time. Across the pond, illustrious punk band Sex Pistols played their first show at the lesser free trade hall in the UK, which many consider to be the birth of punk in the UK. The fresh punk bands of both Australia and London emerged around 1975, relatively the same time that new punk fans were shooting heroin at CBGB in New York.
All punk bands shared a deep love for heroin, a huge factor in the early punk scene. Their love for heroin made them distinct from the general population. At the time, heroin was not a big drug, the fact that people were shooting heroin in the clubs made them a burnout to society. American singer-songwriter GG Allin, labeled under the punk genre, covered Warren Zevon’s Carmelita, a song about heroin use: “Carmelita hold me tighter / I think I’m sinking down / And I’m all strung out on heroin / On the outskirts of town.”
Punk rock commenced a unique “do-it-yourself” attitude, as a way to express their disdain to the heavily bloated, superintended music industry. Both punk artists and fans wished to evade the commodification of the genre, refraining from punk being labeled as the “next big thing” in the music industry. The do-it-yourself attitude involved punks coming along to studios and using old, unwanted music gear, punks self-starting bands, and their own producing of factory records.
The first do-it-yourself EP is Spiral Scratch by the Buzzcocks, which showed that anyone could press their own record; instructions were printed on the record sleeve explaining how to “do-it-yourself”. The English punk band Buzzcocks started a revolution of the “do-it-yourself” motto, making it so punk could exist outside of the profit-oriented record companies. Zines, independently self-published and self-made magazines, were made to promote punk music in the ‘70s without having big-time magazines dispose of punk’s underground style. Attached to these fan-made zines were ‘45 records from a variety of upcoming sub rosa punk bands. Records did not even need the traditional sleeve; most punk rock records were sold in plastic bags. Independent record stores throughout the UK served as a record distributor for these “do-it-yourself” punk records. The new way to handle the production and distribution of punk music was under the radar and independently.
Not long after the do-it-yourself movement, the big players came in, confiscating the independence that many punk bands possessed. The Damned went to British record label company Polydor, and the Buzzcocks went to record label company United Artists. Other punk bands either got pilfered and signed away, grew and got bigger, or were lucky enough to stay underground and keep going.
Evolution of Punk
Sid Vicious, frontman of Sex Pistols, died of a heroin overdose on Feb. 2, 1979, a tragedy which many broach to as the end of punk. Punk clearly went on after the death of Vicious, but it undoubtedly transformed into something else. Punk, in its original and raw form, only existed for 3-4 years.
Traditional punk was transmuted into a genre that exhibited more angst than the already established punk. The birth of hardcore punk came about due to the strict rules and norms that the traditional punk genre built for itself, and hardcore clearly did not fit these traditional punk rock standards. Leading into the ‘80s, hardcore punk swept the nation with a sound of punk that was more fast and angry than ever before. Los Angeles and Washington D.C. were the new scenes for macho, hardcore punk in the United States. Bad Brains, formed in 1977 in Washington D.C. by 4 African Americans, became one of the definitive hardcore punk bands of the early ‘80s.
H.R. of the Bad Brains, CBGB, 1981, one of the Xmas Shows. Photo by Glen E. Friedman#punk #punks #punkrock #punksnotdead #staypunk #hardcorepunk #HR #badbrains #cbgb #history #punkhistory #historyofpunk pic.twitter.com/XjtXGt8sZe
— History Of Punk (@history_of_punk) November 25, 2019
Diving into the lyrics of Bad Brains’ “Banned in D.C.”, Paul “H.R.” Hudson sings about their freedom to travel anywhere they want even if D.C. “bans” them due to their rebellious nature. H.R. also discusses how the band’s strength got them banned from the nation’s capital: “Banned in D.C. with a thousand more placed to go/ Gonna swim across the Atlantic, cause that’s the only place I can go/ You, you can’t hurt me/ Why? I’m banned in D.C./ D.C.”
Hardcore punk turned into post-punk, which in time, straddled into grunge. The term post-punk has become a bit of a drain catcher for anything ranging from Sex Pistols to Simple Minds. The timeframe and labels for when hardcore punk turned into post-punk and grunge are unclear. However, one thing is clear; the ideals the genres shared were indistinguishable. The genres of punk, post-punk, and grunge all rejected the traditional rock aesthetic. Instead, the trio of genres consisted of rockists who were in favor of experimental techniques and non-rock musical styles.
The punk genre coined their own disorderly, anomalous style. Punk fashion suited the lifestyle of those with limited cash due to unemployment or the generally low income that students often experience. Prior to punk, the now glorified ripped-jeans look, emerged from the Ramones, meant that you were poor and had limited clothes. This was exactly the case for Johnny Ramone; he wore ripped jeans because he could only afford one extensively worn-out pair of jeans. English punk rock band Buzzcocks were the pioneers of the safety pin and mohawk look, a prototype of punk fashion. Fashion once considered feeble is now recurring as a result of punk bands influencing generations.
Today, quintessential punk fashion has commodified by the fashion industry. Multi-million dollar companies such as Urban Outfitters and Forever21 are selling their version of “punk” fashion to a colossal audience. Those seeking this “punk” aesthetic can easily purchase commodified clothing items, such as distressed and ripped clothing or punk-inspired slogans or bands. This results in an audience unknowingly wearing punk symbols, degrading the punk philosophy.
Does punk still exist today?
Punk is not dead. While its image may not be prominently seen in the United States, big punk scenes exist around the world. The largest punk scenes of today exist in Japan, Islamic countries, and Mexico. Other large punk scenes include riot grrrl feminist punk, an underground feminist punk movement that began in the early ‘90s in Washington state that has now spread to over 26 countries. This subcultural movement combines feminist consciousness, punk style, and politics. The Eastern Bloc Punk scene also lingers today, and while it may be a blind spot even for punk fans, it sticks to the ideals of punk by staying underground and expressing dissatisfaction with the political and economic situation for the youth in Czechoslovakia and East Germany.
Punk in the United States will inevitably rise again, due to the current state of American politics. History has shown that punks feed off bad politics; as long as the country’s current political climate stays tumultuous, American punk-rock music will rise again.