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Punk rock first appeared during the 70s in the Bowery district of New York, it was basically a bunch of amateur bands who wanted to make music. Studio executives didn’t care much for rock at the time, unless it was something hugely popular like Peter Frampton, Black Sabbath or Led Zeppelin, instead they focused on the saccharine sounds of disco. Most bands were made up of normal blue collar kids didn’t have access to a musical education and as such they chose to make it up as they went along.
But just as it seemed rock music was about to disappear in the spandex and hair of glam rock or the pomp and ceremony of prog rock, Punk rock was born. It was more a philosophy of how to get out and do things. Bands like the Ramones and Talking Heads had to play in an almost abandoned music venue called CBGB’s because no other place would accept them.
The Ramones toured America and the UK in 1977 and in their wake bored kids everywhere wanted to emulate them bought whatever instruments they could find and started to make their own sounds. Most had no real education and no musical values but they had a drive to change musics place in society and created many enduring, sometimes political pieces of musical art as they went.
The powerhouse behind punk rock back in the late 70s and early 80s was a basic ethos .it had to be fun, and stimulating, you didn’t have to have money to invest or a lot of time to spare to become a punk rocker but this was a situation most found themselves in : pennyless and bored. Because everything was cheap, clubs, tapes, instruments, magazines, records it was easy to promote your new band and you didn’t have to follow any conformist rules, or try to please anyone but yourself.
Originators of the sound
While it would be incredibly difficult to write about all of the punk bands of the era there are a few who stand out above all as originators of this new sound that was about to change the social conscious much more than the hippy movement of the 60s.
Taking a lead from Alvin Lucier whose seminal piece “I am sitting in a room” introduced the world to the subtle harmonics of repetition and the use of room reverb to act upon a sound bringing the idea that sound, looped would eventually transpire to into a pure sound called “white noise” were Lou Reed and John Cale. They formed “The Velvet Underground ” in 1965. Reed had previously worked as a songwriter for Pickwick records, while Cale studied the viola, classically, giving both a solid basis in the traditional rules of songwriting but what they added to that was a drive to break all those rules which gave birth to the early concept for the band, which was to try to sustain single notes for 2 hours at a time, which while artistically perfect it was a sound that was not going to sell a lot of records.
1966 saw the pop artist Andy Warhol take over as manager and together they recorded “The Velvet underground and Nico which was released in 1967 to mediocre reviews but it did however include, among other great tracks, the now cult classic track “I am waiting for my man “, a song written from the point of view of a heroin addict travelling across Harlem to buy 26 dollars of heroin and highlighted Reeds blossoming knack for writing realist lyrics and served as a precursor to punks social and political commentary.
New York was to become home to the first punk-rock scene, and was the epicentre from which punk rock spread to later, like London and Southern California. In New York punk didn’t have the immediate impact that British punk had, but its influence is immeasurable. The initial kick start for New York punk came from the New York Dolls, whose trashy Stones like guitar riffs and cross-dressing glam image raised eyebrows amongst the establishment.
The New York Dolls helped to open doors for a host of bands such as the Ramones, clad in jeans and leather and who took the catchy hooks from early 60’s bubblegum-pop and the girl-group sound of Phil Spectors production techniques, but played them as loud and fast as possible. The sound was basic and stripped-down in comparison to the rock giants of the time while their attitude brought a sense of fun back to music, this stood out in contrast to the music of the ’70s. The Ramones quickly became regulars at CBGB’s playing there 74 times in their first year as a band. Although the Ramones still embody the sound that most people class as “punk rock,” the New York scene was very diverse, like minded people brought together by the dream of reinventing rock and roll music. Television broadened their songs into intricate guitar duels. Blondie’s girl group pop and Talking Heads odd art school guitar driven pop were some of the first ventures into what would eventually be called new wave, but their direction placed them in the punk camp at the time. By the early 80s, most of the original scene had died down, the original bands began to become the mainstream or fade away or just simply die due to the excesses that often followed success as drugs, specifically heroin, were prevalent on the scene.
Detroit 1967 was a desolate place due to the decline in the city’s once proud motor industry, in which a young Jim Osterberg heard The Velvet Underground and hated them at first but he later said that:” once it had sunk in it- gave me hope “. Bringing the chaos of the velvet underground to the garage sound of the suburbs with the intent of sounding unlike anything ever heard before the stooges had arrived and Iggy pop was born, arguably the most electric front man in the history of music whose contortions, self-mutilation, stage diving and penchants for encouraging stage invasions by the crowd (of which I was once part of) all served as a theatrical backdrop to the apocalyptic sound of the band.
Their first album titled the stooges hit in 1968, produced by the velvet undergrounds John Cale, it introduced the world to Protopunk through the classic ” I wanna be your dog” and the iconic “no fun” which plays out like an anthem to boredom and disassociated youth.
The stooges only released 3 albums during their initial run, the self-titled debut, Fun House and finally raw power in 1973 which was produced by David Bowie and is considered to be one of the cornerstones of early punk.
The stooges disbanded In 1974 due to pop’s ever increasing heroin addiction but a few decades later and following a hugely successful solo career in 2000, a clean and sober, 60 year Iggy pop took the original line up back on tour and released a new album ” the weirdness “.
The stooges were introduced into the rock and roll hall of fame in 2010 and continue to tour today, even after the death of founding member Ron Asheton.
The Los Angeles punk scene was the last of America’s big punk cities to develop but it wasn’t as diverse or as adventurous as New York or Detroit or even London. Of all the cities with a punk scene L.A. has proved to be the longest-lasting. Punk mutated from hardcore to alternative rock, then back to a more pop oriented sound in the 90s and continued to thrive on the east coast. L.A. punks played a hard and fast brand of punk; most L.A. punk was very thrashy, with an overall tougher attitude than the arty New York scene or the amateur sound of London or Detroit. Leaning toward more aggressive punk, the west coast became the base for punks change to hardcore, with Black Flag leading this new scene into the ’80s.
Another important band to rise up from the Bay area scene in san Francisco was the Dead Kennedys, whose political lyrics and attitude ensured that they became one of the defining bands of the hardcore scene. Inspired by British punk the highly political views of lead singer Jello Biafra the Dead Kennedys became known as the most dangerous band in music as they frequently agitated Christians and right wing politicians. Their most famous song California Uber Alles was an uncompromising attack on the then governor of California, the very right wing, Jerry Brown, who was recently voted back into office following the departure of Arnold Schwarzenegger.
While England wasn’t the birthplace of punk it was the place where punk had the greatest influence. It was seen as music of rage and rebellion. British punk was inspired by pub rock and glam rock, but the main influences were the original New York punks like the Ramones and the Velvet Underground. In a country caught in an economic downturn, punk invaded the fabric of society in England and was feared by the media and the establishment. The first and most influential English punk band was the Sex Pistols, who hit in 1976 and made an impact by inspiring every punk band that followed them. Their guitar riffs set the stage for British punk as an entity, and their politics and behaviour got them demonized in the media and attacked on the streets but it turned them into heroes among their fans. The other main British punk band was the Clash, who were the most politically idealistic group of the scene and also the most musically diverse. They incorporated rock and roll and reggae into a new sound and are known to this day as “The only band that ever mattered “.The Buzzcocks wrote moody punk-pop and went on to write one of the defining songs of the era in “Teenage Kicks” a triumphant anthem to youthful pleasure.
The Sex Pistols and the Clash both signed with major labels as the indie style distribution of records had not been fully conceived yet, however, their DIY way of doing things helped to create an independent scene around the UK.
The first wave of British punk ended with the Sex Pistols’ breakup in January 1978, but the scene remained intact until about 1982. By that time, the original punks had expanded their sounds into a number of subgenres like pop-oriented new wave, the arty post-punk scene, hardcore, and early alternative rock much as it had done in America but in England it was done with more intensity and darkness, for proof of this you need to look no further than the back catalogue of Joy Division easily one of the most intense bands to ever grace a recording studio, owing thanks for this to Ian Curtis’ dark desolate lyrics and instrumentation that seemed to reverberate from the bowels of fears greatest fears.
No Wave and Post Punk
After the initial punk breakout of 1977, a number of bands were inspired by the DIY. spirit of punk. Instead of just copying the sound of the Sex Pistols, many of these bands adventured into making more experimental music, taking leads from a range of artists and styles, such as Roxy Music or David Bowie, disco, dub and Krautrock. The result was Post-Punk, a more adventurous and arty form of punk, it wasn’t any less angry or political but it was more musically complex and diverse. The most popular bands like Joy Division or the Cure created dark, electro oriented sounds with realistic lyrics of a dark broody past and melancholy future while others had a lighter guitar-based musical approach but their lyrics and music often used traditional pop/rock song structures. Post-punk eventually developed into alternative rock in the 80s but this brief period still resounds today in the music of Interpol and A Place to Bury Strangers.
No Wave was a short-lived, avant-garde offshoot of 70s punk.it was based almost entirely in New York between78-82. Like the post-punk movement that was primarily in Britain, no wave drew from the arty side of punk. When British post-punk was mostly cold and desolate, no wave was harsh and confrontational. Most no wave bands were fascinated by the noise that could be produced by an electric guitar feeding back into the speakers, making it an important part of their music. Melody was not important as most no wave bands concentrated on producing a noisy racket. The best known no wave album is the compilation No New York which features songs from the Contortions, Teenage Jesus, DNA and Mars. Because of the harshness of the sound none of the no wave performers ever really broke out to wider audiences the exception here was Sonic Youth who fused no waves distorted noise with desolate lyrics and became underground legends after adding more melodic structure to an already chaotic sound.
The Ethos of Punk and DIY
From the mid70s, punk had emerged as a social and cultural phenomenon. Giving a voice to the hopelessness of its young audience in a time of economic upheaval not unlike what we experience today. Punk music was full of political views, opposition and controversy as a response to the bloated egos and rambling solos of many of the rock bands of the 70s.In England punk music was the means for a social attack on the British monarchy and the starched white shirts of the conformist old guard government. Angered by the system English Punk groups influenced a whole generation to question authority and speak out against what they saw in society to be rotten.
Punk groups became the force which influenced the young generations of musicians. Through punk rock music, young people found a way to express themselves. The d.i.y. ethic was mainly reflected in their clothing, hairstyle and artwork.to the early punks the polished production values of the mainstream music was something to be ridiculed and punk rock soon became something that anyone could do. People did not have to be perfectly presented or trendy in order to perform punk music. The important thing was to be able to get up on stage and play from a place within you that spoke only of truth and passion for the music.
American punk groups were less controversial than those in England but they satisfied the need in America for abrasive and anti-mainstream music. The underground punk movement of the 70s in America produced groups that either evolved from punk or applied its DIY ethics to different form of music and in doing so secured punks legacy in the alternative rock and Indie scenes.
The punk era was a turning point for independent labels and the DIY ethos. Indie music evolved in the garages of America and England, where young people were figuring out what they really could do with their guitars and electronic equipment and that was to inform the people of injustices and inequalities in society that had previously been abandoned to the wolves in the hopes that they would simply be forgotten about and the government could simply continue fooling the people into thinking that everything was perfectly well in the world and the government was in control of everybody’s future.
Without punks questioning authority there was nobody questioning authority on a global stage and when that happens society as a whole diminishes, governments got away with genocide of their people and hid behind the veil of democracy and freedom, allowing all kinds of atrocities to happen both within their home nations and on foreign ground. In the 21st century with governments bailing out banks and rekindling wars at the cost of human suffering I think the time is right for another wave of the punk movement to begin. After all it has been over 30 years since the original movement and in time people forget and become complacent, we as a society cannot allow this to happen. We have a voice and we should choose to use it to shout from the rooftops pointing out the mistakes of governments, big business and anyone who choose to subvert the progress of the human race by squashing the poor into submission so they can further line their pockets with money acquired through bloodshed and fear.
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