Punk rock is a rock music genre that developed between 1974 and 1976 in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia. Rooted in garage rock and other forms of what is now known as protopunk music, punk rock bands eschewed perceived excesses of mainstream 1970s rock. Punk bands created fast, hard-edged music, typically with short songs, stripped-down instrumentation, and often political, anti-establishment lyrics. Punk embraces a DIY ethic; many bands self-produced recordings and distributed them through informal channels.
The term “punk” was first used in relation to rock music by some American critics in the early 1970s, to describe garage bands and their devotees. By late 1976, bands such as the Ramones in New York City and the Sex Pistols and The Clash in London were recognized as the vanguard of a new musical movement. The following year saw punk rock spreading around the world, and it became a major cultural phenomenon in the United Kingdom. For the most part, punk took root in local scenes that tended to reject association with the mainstream. An associated punk subculture emerged, expressing youthful rebellion and characterized by distinctive styles of clothing and adornment and a variety of anti-authoritarian ideologies.
By the beginning of the 1980s, faster, more aggressive styles such as hardcore and Oi! had become the predominant mode of punk rock. Musicians identifying with or inspired by punk also pursued a broad range of other variations, giving rise to post-punk and the alternative rock movement. By the start of the 21st century, pop punk had been adopted by the mainstream, as bands such as Green Day and The Offspring brought the genre widespread popularity.
The first wave of punk rock aimed to be aggressively modern, distancing itself from the bombast and sentimentality of early 1970s rock. According to Ramones drummer Tommy Ramone, “In its initial form, a lot of [1960s] stuff was innovative and exciting. Unfortunately, what happens is that people who could not hold a candle to the likes of Hendrix started noodling away. Soon you had endless solos that went nowhere. By 1973, I knew that what was needed was some pure, stripped down, no bullshit rock ‘n’ roll.” John Holmstrom, founding editor of Punk magazine, recalls feeling “punk rock had to come along because the rock scene had become so tame that [acts] like Billy Joel and Simon and Garfunkel were being called rock and roll, when to me and other fans, rock and roll meant this wild and rebellious music.” In critic Robert Christgau’s description, “It was also a subculture that scornfully rejected the political idealism and Californian flower-power silliness of hippie myth.” Patti Smith, in contrast, suggests in the documentary 25 Years of Punk that the hippies and the punk rockers were linked by a common anti-establishment mentality.
Throughout punk rock history, technical accessibility and a DIY spirit have been prized. In the early days of punk rock, this ethic stood in marked contrast to what those in the scene regarded as the ostentatious musical effects and technological demands of many mainstream rock bands. Musical virtuosity was often looked on with suspicion. According to Holmstrom, punk rock was “rock and roll by people who didn’t have very much skills as musicians but still felt the need to express themselves through music”. In December 1976, the English fanzine Sideburns published a now-famous illustration of three chords, captioned “This is a chord, this is another, this is a third. Now form a band.” The title of a 1980 single by the New York punk band Stimulators, “Loud Fast Rules!” inscribed a catchphrase for punk’s basic musical approach.
Some of British punk rock’s leading figures made a show of rejecting not only contemporary mainstream rock and the broader culture it was associated with, but their own most celebrated predecessors: “No Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones in 1977,” declared The Clash song “1977”. The previous year, when the punk rock revolution began in Great Britain, was to be both a musical and a cultural “Year Zero”. Even as nostalgia was discarded, many in the scene adopted a nihilistic attitude summed up by the Sex Pistols slogan “No Future”; in the later words of one observer, amid the unemployment and social unrest in 1977, “punk’s nihilistic swagger was the most thrilling thing in England.” While “self-imposed alienation” was common among “drunk punks” and “gutter punks,” there was always a tension between their nihilistic outlook and the “radical leftist utopianism” of bands such as Crass, who found positive, liberating meaning in the movement. As a Clash associate describes singer Joe Strummer’s outlook, “Punk rock is meant to be our freedom. We’re meant to be able to do what we want to do.”
The issue of authenticity is important in the punk subculture—the pejorative term “poseur” is applied to those who associate with punk and adopt its stylistic attributes but are deemed not to share or understand the underlying values and philosophy. Scholar Daniel S. Traber argues that “attaining authenticity in the punk identity can be difficult”; as the punk scene matured, he observes, eventually “everyone got called a poseur”.
Wilhelmina McFadden Punk Goddess, Toronto Ontario! firstname.lastname@example.org
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