In 2016, telling someone you listen to punk or punk rock is pretty much about as vague as saying you listen to rock. Punk has been around now for 40 years… or is it 50 years… or 60? What is or what counts as punk rock? Is punk rock just defined by bands with stupid, obnoxious names, who play two to three minute rock songs that consist of a few chords and are played at a fast tempo? Is punk about having a “don’t give a fuck” attitude? Is punk the musical front for a leftist/anarchist revolution?
Who are the punk bands bands? Are the Stooges punk? The Ramones? Black Flag? Nirvana? Green Day? Sonic Youth? Napalm Death? Nausea? Dropdead? Richard Hell and the Voidoids? Cockney Rejects? Pissed Jeans? Halo of Flies? Butthole Surfers? X-Ray Spex? Devo? Oingo Boingo? Cro-Mags? Dinosaur Jr.? Nobunny? Discharge?
To the average interloper, this may seem like a complete waste of time and trivial garbage. But, it’s worth noting that, as much as genre distinctions are dumb, even John Derbyshire notes that there is some interest in exploring how there’s very little cultural cohesion, even under what allegedly seems to be the same cultural umbrella; in this case, punk rock.
If I’m not mistaken, the term punk rock was first used to describe the debut album by the Deviants, Ptooff! from 1967. The Deviants were a group of quasi-anarchists from the bohemian Ladbroke Grove district of London and were led by counter cultural mouthpiece Mick Farren. Musically the album is a solid mix of Syd Barrett era Pink Floyd and Zappa-style wankery along with social satire. The term “punk” was used literally to imply “no good jerk” or “asshole.”
The term was used again to describe the self titled debut by the Stooges; as in “the music of punks cruising for burgers.” Iggy Pop wasn’t too happy about this classification because it implied that he’s dumb, something that tends to happen when your album consists of three-chord garage rock songs with titles like “I Wanna Be Your Dog” and “No Fun”, and has minimalist lines like “1969, okay/all across the USA/another year for me and you/another with nothing to do/last year I was 21/I didn’t have a lot of fun/now I’m gonna be 22/I say ‘oh my’ and ‘boo hoo.'”
The term came up a third time when Jac Holzman of Elektra records and future Patti Smith guitarist Lenny Kaye assembled the Nuggets box set. They used the term to describe the music of mid-1960s garage rock groups like the Sonics, the Monks, the Seeds, the Count Five, the Zakary Thaks, the Blues Magoos and the 13th Floor Elevators.
By 1974, the term was being used by journalists rather liberally, but without attaching it to any particular sound. That year a journalist asked Aerosmith if they were “punk rock.” Were they? Personally speaking “Rats in the Cellar” tears it up as much as any Ramones, Sex Pistols or Damned song. But, “punk rock” didn’t exist as such when Aerosmith came out, so they were relegated to “hard rock.”
Retroactively the Velvet Underground, Stooges, MC5, New York Dolls, Modern Lovers and Dictators were labeled as punk, but because they came out before 1976, they’re “proto-punk” or something. Uncovered recordings by the Electric Eels, Mirrors, Rocket from the Tombs (all from Cleveland), Death (the black guys from Detroit, not the death metal band), the Gizmos and Simply Saucer reveal more music that roughly fits the “punk” category as already defined by the other bands; well, except for the MC5, whose classic debut, Kick Out the Jams, sounds more like the heavy acid fuzz of Blue Cheer, but that’s another story.
Mainstream critics say that “punk rock” truly “started” in 1976 when the Ramones released their self-titled debut. Did it, though? By that point the Sex Pistols were already eight months into their existence, and the Saints had been together in some way, shape or form since 1973. In 1976, if you exclude Patti Smith and Blondie, the Ramones were the only band that really sounded like a punk band as it was later defined.
However, in 1976, there weren’t any other bands out besides the Ramones, so labels threw Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and AC/DC into the punk genre.
The term “punk” was also used to describe an early Suicide gig, even though Suicide is an electronic duo. “Punk” soon began to describe a scene when John Holmstrom, Eddie “Legs” McNeil and Gedd Dunn, three pussy chasing, drug using, degenerates, started the magazine Punk in 1975 after listening to Go Girl Crazy by the Dictators that Summer for the same reason most people started magazines at the time; free gigs, free booze and free records. Back then the world wasn’t saturated with people who cheaply assemble xeroxed zines in order to receive gimmedats. And, while Go Girl Crazy! is considered an early punk classic, it’s actually more of an early mix of punk and metal and has lots of crazy leads from soon to be Manowar guitarist Ross the Boss, along with humor to boot. I can’t imagine a band today getting away with releasing songs with titles like “Back to Africa” and “Master Race Rock.” Google the lyrics before you throw a fit.
Of course Punk magazine was hardly a “zine.” It was printed on glossy stock and mass produced, not photocopied and sold to a few record stores who were in the know. You know what was though?
Meanwhile, in London, the Sex Pistols had garnered enough of a following of their weirdo, freak fans, who whore bondage gear, swastikas, torn clothes and spiky hair, that people felt a movement was in progress. When they first formed, the only bands on the local club scene were called “pub rock”, which was more or less a cross of rockabilly and 70s boogie rock – Kilburn and the Highroads, Dr. Feelgood, Ducks Deluxe, Bazooka Joe, the 101ers (who featured Joe Strummer when he was in rockabilly mode) and Eddie and the Hot Rods – essentially revivalist music, and the Sex Pistols wanted none of it. Their first show was supporting Bazooka Joe, who featured Adam Ant on bass. When the music started to go in the Pistols’ direction, a few “pub rock” bands, mainly the Stranglers and the Vibrators, sped up and toughened up their songs and became “punk.” In punk’s first few months of coverage by the underground press, Eddie and the Hot Rods were included under the punk umbrella as well before being unceremoniously jettisoned.
In New York in 1975, there was something resembling a cohesive underground music scene as well. There was of course the Ramones, the Heartbreakers – featuring former New York Dolls Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan and former Television bassist Richard Hell; NOT the Tom Petty band – Television, Patti Smith, Blondie, Wayne County and the Back Street Boys, Talking Heads, Suicide, the Miamis, the Mumps, the Shirts, the Tuff Darts, Mink Deville, Sun, Steel Tips and Sic Fucks among others. By 1976, there would be Richard Hell and the Voidoids (after Hell left the Heartbreakers) and the Dead Boys.
The Ramones were of course the big boys on the scene and signed with Seimore Stein’s Sire label in the Fall of 1975, releasing Ramones in April of 1976. To the mid ’70s rock crowd, who were used to longer songs by well trained “musos”, the album was really left field. The group performed 14 basic songs in under a half hour with barely a guitar solo on any of them. The lyrics are about beating up annoying kids and similarly annoying girlfriends, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, sniffing glue and Nazis. And the album cover photo has the guys on the front looking less like a band and more like a group of derelicts who’ll mug you outside the liquor store… in an era of arty prog rock with elaborate cover paintings of fantasy landscapes, who wouldn’t listen to that? In hindsight, it seems as the though Ramones, with its all down strummed bar chords and similar sounding two minute songs, had less of an impact on the groups that immediately followed and more of a direct influence on the hardcore punk and thrash metal bands of the next generation. Although Ramones songs still had the 1-4-5, Chuck Berry and Eddie Cochran style riffs that other punk bands used and plenty of oldies-style pop melody, there was a stridently, aggressive, militantly metal approach to Johnny Ramone’s playing; he even admitted that he copped his entire guitar style from the “da-da-da” approach of “Communication Breakdown” by Led Zeppelin.
It’s almost ironic then that this 28 year old Republican was a direct influence on a bunch of antisocial 15-18 year olds of the soon to exist American hardcore punk scene, but that’s another story for another post. Since there wasn’t a wide circuit of underground venues for the Ramones to play, for their first tour, they were forced to bring their loud, fast and primitive sound to the audiences of bands like Boston and Blue Oyster Cult. Needless to say the crowd reaction in most cases wasn’t great. However, when they played London on July 3rd and 4th of that year, the who’s who of the punk scene attended their gigs. They were originally set to play before their Sire label mates, the Flamin’ Groovies, who first decided it would be best if the Ramones headlined, then changed their minds at the last minute. Needless to say, the Ramones performed in front of 3,000 people at the Roundhouse, and the Flamin’ Groovies performed in front of a nearly empty house. For the historically obsessed, the Stranglers opened the gig.
Since people love to compare the Ramones with the Sex Pistols, the Pistols’ songs are all longer and slower than those of the Ramones. Johnny Rotten might have had the more brash, snotty and typically “punk” voice with his “nyeah-nyeah”, overly anunciated sing-shouting, but Steve Jones was a much better guitarist than Johnny Ramone, Paul Cook is a tight and solid drummer and, for cryin’ out loud, Glenn Matlock tried to teach the rest of the Pistols Beatles chords; Sid Vicious was a talentless joke and was rarely even plugged in when he played live, but hey! Listen to anything by the Pistols and tell me they’re not a tight, hard rock band. And no, the band never sang about being on the dole and they weren’t “assembled” like a boy band; they were an organic band who wrote and performed their own songs. If you’re looking for “assembled”, that would be “jail bait rockers” the Runaways. Malcolm Mclaren seemed too stupid to ever manipulate people the way Kim Fowley did.
Thanks to the Pistols and, spefically Johnny Rotten’s spiky hair, torn up t-shirts and blazers, safety pins and snotty delivery, by late 1976 the 100 Club became punk central and London now had a number bands that mimicked the Pistols in either look or sound. The Clash copied the sound of the Ramones, threw in some Who riffs and spewed Marxist drivel. The Damned played fun party songs about well… I still have no idea what “Neat Neat Neat” is about! Summer of 1976 in England was considered the “Summer of hate” by some.
Manchester featured the Buzzcocks, Slaughter and the Dogs and the Drones, and the Saints were imported from Brisbane Australia after their self-released, debut single “(I’m) Stranded”(b/w “No Time”) caught the ears of EMI. While merely a curiosity in the States, in the U.K., punk “went viral” in December of 1976 when the Pistols appeared on the Today Show with Bill Grundy, and guitarist Steve Jones cussed out the talk show host for his gross, drunken behavior. Next day the Pistols were public enemy number one, and all but three of the group’s nineteen U.K. dates with the Clash, the Damned and Heartbreakers were cancelled.
As for independent labels vs. major labels, my thoughts on this are as follows: as mentioned before, the Saints put out their first single themselves, and it lead to a deal with EMI. In the States, the dinky Ork label released the Richard and the Voidoids EP Another World and Devo released their first single “Jocko Homo” (b/w “Mongoloid”) on their own Booji Boy label, so I’m still stumped as to why the Buzzcocks get all this credit for spearheading “D.I.Y.” with their first release, the Spiral Scratch EP; especially since they soon signed a major label deal and other bands had already released their own singles or had been on independent labels. Hell, in the States the art-pop performance group the Residents had always released their albums in limited runs on their tiny Ralph label. It’s also worth noting that, while technically the Ramones were a major label band, that’s only because Sire was bought by Warner Bros. almost immediately after they signed the deal. Prior to that Sire was actually a pretty small label that handled garage and bubble gum music.
By 1977 “punk rock” was being marketed by bands, labels and ‘zines such as Sniffin’ Glue as the new genre/movement that the kids were into. The Ramones toured as support for the Talking Heads, who Johnny Ramone hated because he thought they were wimps. The Dead Boys toured the States and the U.K. with the Damned, the Clash toured with Richard Hell and the Voidoids and the Stranglers with the Dictators. And sooo many excellent records were released in punk’s halcyon days. Here are a bunch you should buy or steal:
Leave Home – Ramones
Rocket to Russia – Ramones
Road to Ruin – Ramones
Never Mind the Bollocks… Here’s the Sex Pistols – The Sex Pistols
Damned Damned Damned – The Damned
Music for Pleasure – The Damned
Machine Gun Etiquette – The Damned
Rattus Norvegicus – The Stranglers
No More Heroes – The Stranglers
Black and White – The Stranglers
The Raven – The Stranglers
L.A.M.F. – The Heartbreakers
So Alone – Johnny Thunders
Young, Loud and Snotty – Dead Boys
We Have Come for Your Children – Dead Boys
Pure Mania – The Vibrators
V2 – The Vibrators
Manifest Destiny – The Dictators
Bloodbrothers – The Dictators
Marque Moon – Television
Adventure – Television
Pink Flag – Wire
Chairs Missing – Wire
154 – Wire
Blank Generation – Richard Hell and the Voidoids
Talking Heads ’77 – Talking Heads
More Songs About Buildings and Food – Talking Heads
Fear of Music – Talking Heads
The Modern Dance – Pere Ubu
Dub Housing – Pere Ubu
(I’m) Stranded – The Saints
Eternally Yours – The Saints
Prehistoric Sounds – The Saints
Radios Appear – Radio Birdman
Aspirations – X (Australian band)
The Clash – The Clash
London Calling – The Clash
Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! – Devo
Duty Now for the Future – Devo
All Skrewed Up – Skrewdriver
Another Music in a Different Kitchen – Buzzcocks
Love Bites – Buzzcocks
Singles Going Steady – Buzzcocks
A Different Kind of Tension – Buzzcocks
Live at the Witch Trials – The Fall
Dragnet – The Fall
Real Life – Magazine
Public Image/First Issue – Public Image Ltd.
The Scream – Siouxsie and the Banshees
Cut – The Slits
Do It Dog Style – Slaughter and the Dogs
Germfree Adolescents – X-Ray Spex
Can’t Stand the Rezillos – The Rezillos
Crossing the Red Sea with the Adverts – The Adverts
Tell Us the Truth – Sham 69
The Feeding of the 5000 – Crass
Another Kind of Blues – U.K. Subs
The Undertones – The Undertones
Inflammable Material – Stiff Little Fingers
999 – 999
Separates – 999
A cursory listen will reveal that “punk” was pretty darn diverse, and while some might take exception with me throwing the Talking Heads or Television into the list because they’re “art rock” or Public Image Ltd., Magazine and the Fall because they’re “post-punk”, I feel the Fall are sufficiently punky, especially since I’m including Wire and Pere Ubu, who are in the same “art-garage” wheelhouse, and I focused on the “punk era”, which falls between 1977-1979, not the strict “punk genre.” Also what if a band like the Slits started as a punk band, but became “post punk”? It’s clear that some bands thought of punk as a throwback to 50s rock ‘n’ roll with edgier lyrics, some thought of it as a springboard into the future and some didn’t consider themselves punk at all, but had no problem scoring points with the spiky hair set. Some bands, such as the Saints and the Clash could be classified as punk on their first albums, but then moved onto something else entirely and began to establish new audiences and/or lose their old ones. I also deliberately excluded the second Clash album, Give ’em Enough Rope, from the list because, frankly, it sucks.
As mentioned, while punk seemed to make a splash in England, it didn’t mean shit to the average American, who would rather buy albums by Pink Floyd, Foreigner, the Bee Gees or Fleetwood Mac. Independent labels, major labels? It really didn’t mean much to the average music consumer in the late 70s, and later the Damned bitched that they didn’t make a single cent off of their first album, which came out through the tiny Stiff label.
By 1979, it became clear that punk was going NOWHERE as far as the record buying public was concerned. The only hits that came out of it were mainstream crossovers like the Patti Smith/Bruce Springsteen duet “Because the Night” and pop/disco hits by Blondie. The college art crowd dug the polyrhythms and African inspired, new wave funk of later Talking Heads albums like Remain in Light, while Devo scored a hit with “Whip It.” The only other thing that came out of punk was mainstream power-pop. To the average American, the Cars and the Police were punk bands.
The Sex Pistols U.S. tour in early 1978, where they only toured the South until they hit San Francisco, made some good copy, but it caused the average American, who tuned into Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, to think that punk was nothing more than a sick joke imported from the U.K., a second British invasion, but one where they wanted to send the invaders back. It also didn’t help that, after seven concerts, the Sex Pistols broke up, causing labels to lose interest in promoting American punk bands. The Ramones were kept on Sire until 1992 more or less as a tax write off.
By 1979, as far as American labels were concerned, the punk rock “movement” that they helped foster in the traditional way was dead. Of course, what’s dead in the mainstream grows and festers in the underground.