Early Years of Punk: What a Few Chords, Drugs, and Angst can do
Gabby Ruggeiro2 years ago

In times of severe oppression and distrust in government, musical movements have served to unite populations through shared struggles. Whether it be jazz in the 1920s, blues in the Great Depression, or rock n’ roll in the 1960s counterculture, music embeds itself into areas of hardship and serves as a timeless relic of the era. Punk rock, a fast and aggressive form of rock music, surfaced as a counter reaction to the mass-produced rock n’roll of the 1960s. Punk defied hippie culture and condemned their overly-idealized beliefs. There is no set time that marks the start of punk rock, instead it is a compilation of bands in the perfect place, at the perfect time. 


Some of the earliest signs of punk are traced back to the Velvet Underground with Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, Moe Tucker, and later Nico. Managed by Andy Warhol, the group was destined for artistic success and an avant garde aesthetic. In the peak of commercialized rock n roll, the Velvet Underground epitomized the “underground” scene of New York city, exploring topics such as sadomasichism, drug abuse, and prostitution. In March of 1967, the self-titled album The Velvet Underground and Nico was released. The revolutionary album utilized many new musical effects including: alternate tuning, distortion, and drones. The album’s blunt and stark contrast against music of the 60s counterculture depicted the reality of life apart from ‘peace and love’.


Motor City Five (MC5) made up of Wayne Kramer, John Sinclair, Fred “the Sonic'' Smith, Michael Davis, Dennis Thompson, and Rob Tyner entered the scene around 1964. With ties to anarchic leftist group “White Panther Party”, MC5 introduced the inclusion of anti-establishment messages to punk rock. They preached total and complete freedom from government entities and urged those to use violence and have sex in the streets. Their radical affiliation with politics directly translated into their first album, Kick Out the Jams (1969). The band’s energetic approach embodied quick chord progressions, guitar riffs, and angry vocals, key elements of modern-day punk. Meanwhile their sister band made up of Iggy Pop, Ron Asheton, Scott Asheton, and Dave Alexander released their iconic self-titled album The Stooges in August of that year. Where the use of melodic distortion, raw vocals, and minimal guitar chords played a pivotal role in the creation of punk rock sound, their live performances created an entire culture of its own. Whether Iggy Pop was smearing peanut butter over his body, rolling around in glass, or buck naked, he aroused his audience and left them wonderfully disturbed. 


In 1971, Andy Warhol debuted his experimental play Pork. Basing his characters off of the diverse crowd of his club “The Factory”, the play featured unapologetic drag queens, sexual deviancy, and an abundance of glitter. The grandiose and exaggerated appearances of the actors satirized camp culture, ultimately branding the term “glitter rock.” Using these eccentric and exaggerated ideals of art, the New York Dolls were born. Johnny Thunders, Jerry Nolan, David Johansen, Arthur Kane and Sylvain Sylvain dressed themselves in pink leather suits, 6-inch heels, and full faces of makeup. The influential group released their self-titled album in 1973, featuring deep, gravelly vocals and heavy power chords. The exaggerated femininity embraced by heterosexual men left crowds utterly speechless and wanting more. 

Around the same time of the gaudy New York Dolls, the antithesis emerged, Television. Made up of Tom Verlaine, Richard Hell, Richard Lloyd, and Billy Ficca, the band joined the New York city scene circa 1973. Dressed in ripped shirts and tattered jeans, Television emphasized musical prowess rather than visual appearance or extreme performances. They established a serious and disciplined demeanor, unlike their CBGB counterparts. In 1977, Television’s first critical album Marquee Moon was released. The fusion of jazz melodies, blues inspired riffs, intellectuality and lack of power chords set the band aside and asserted themselves as a force to be reckoned with. The album was met with immediate critical acclaim, creating future subgenres and entirely new extents to music. 


The defining band of punk rock, The Ramones, emerged mid 70s in New York City. Originating in Queens, the Ramones moved from couch to couch, settling wherever they could for the night. Lacking professional equipment and adequate funding, members frequently turned to prostitution to make ends meet (i.e. song 53rd & 3rd). In 1974, the Ramones played their first gig at CBGB -a former country turned rock club- transforming music history with their pivotal performance for years to come. The three chord melodies, blaring speakers and strong vocals swept the audience unlike any other performer. The Ramones stripped down punk rock to its foundational sound: playing loud, fast, and hard. After witnessing these performances, Legs McNeil founder of Punk Magazine, branded the Ramones as the true, first ‘punk’ band. In 1976, the self-titled album Ramones was released. The album epitomized life in the New York punk scene with topics of Nazism, drug abuse and violence. To this day, many prominent musicians praise their contributions to punk and consider them the greatest band of all time. 


Across the pond, the punk scene also exploded. The Sex Pistols made up of Johnny Rotten, Glen Matlock (later Syd Vicious), Steve Jones and Paul Cook radicalized the movement through their attitude, appearance and nihilism. Inspired by Television’s Richard Hell, Malcolm McLaren (former New York Dolls manager turned Sex Pistols), embraced his ‘tattered’ aesthetic and worked with wife Vivienne Westwood to create a fashion movement around it. The two dominated the punk rock clothing industry, using safety pins, slashed T-shirts, and political propaganda to revolt the public. Styled by Westwood herself, the Sex Pistols embodied the clothing’s cynicism and reflected it onto their public personalities. In 1977, the group released Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. The songs preached anarchy, aggression, and complete disobedience to authority. The album was met with mixed reviews praising their ingenious fierceness and utter stupidity. In the United States, backlash emerged from the American punks, claiming the Sex Pistols polluted punk rock with their excessively abrasive messages and conduct. As a result, the term ‘punk’ was no longer praised for its innovation and artistic influence. It was considered the music of violent degenerates. Record companies withdrew record deals, venues stopped employing bands and many lost hope for the future of punk rock, until the 1980s… 

You may notice I left the end unsatisfying and ambiguous, rightfully so. It is not to say that punk rock stopped after the late 1970s, rather shifted into an entirely different culture under new socio-political pretenses (i.e. Ronald Reagan, Cold War, etc.) But, as much as situations differ among each era, its angst against the bureaucracy remains. The legacy of punk rock is evergreen, there is always a new generation and there always will be a new fight.

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