“The Filth and the Fury” screamed the headline of the Daily Mirror on 2nd December 1976. It could just as easily be the title of a Sex Pistols song, but was, in fact, the newspaper’s and the media in general’s reaction to the Pistols now infamous appearance on an early evening TV show on which the band used “the filthiest language ever heard on British television.” It was the shock of it all that grabbed the headlines, but for some kids in Britain the Sex Pistols were already cult heroes, offering choices they understood.
Punk Rock was DIY music that was exciting but most importantly was within reach, rather than the staid, overblown, sounds of bands like ELO, ELP, Yes and particularly Pink Floyd – bands that stood for everything a self-respecting punk disliked… hated, even. And while punk is about the music, music is after all its creative hook; it’s just as significantly about being different.
When music, fashion, art and attitude combine in the way they did when the Sex Pistols first appeared on the London scene in late 1975 they immediately offered a heady mix. It was also a mix that was in part orchestrated by Punk’s very own Svengali, Malcolm McLaren. The back-story to British Punk was fueled by the “Small c” conservative media, eager to warn their poor unsuspecting readers about the Barbarians at the gates of polite society. Most people over the age of twenty-five in the year that Margaret Thatcher became leader of the “Big C” Conservative Party (1975) intuitively hated punk. While many had not even heard the music, they just knew Punk was not for them.
Punk Rock was not invented in London in the mid 1970s, but it was honed to perfection, not just by the bands that played it, but also by the media, record companies and most of all the fans. For disparate reasons all had a stake in wanting something – anything – to be “the next big thing”. Some have suggested that rockabilly artists were the first punks, offering a dynamic musical alternative to all those big hat-wearing country and western singers from Nashville. Earlier still the zoot-suit wearing, be-bop loving, jazz hipsters had caused outrage championing a form of jazz that was as outrageous at the time, as Punk was three decades later.
By the very early sixties in pre-British Invasion America, the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean offered something very different to what New York’s Brill Building songwriters were force-feeding not just the USA but the world. Too many songs about too many boys named Bobby, the moon and June and a lifestyle that no self-respecting hip teenager was craving. For the Beach Boys it was all about hot rods, and having Fun, Fun, Fun; they were called rebels, rather than punks.
Rebels they might have been, but they very definitely had a cause and that’s another essential ingredient in what makes Punk Rock, its antecedents and what came later so important to music as a whole. And yet whatever went before, nothing rocked quite like Punk Rock. It was all about energy and getting over your musical manifesto as quickly as possible, in which case rockabilly may have a case as Punk’s long lost ancestor.
Out of those early sixties American surf and guitar bands, and as an alternative to the British Invasion, came one of the first bands to be labeled punk – The 13th Floor Elevators. Their 1966 album, The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators, certainly has many of the hallmarks of what we have come to think of as Punk. Simple, driving, short songs that are crammed full of attitude and energy.
Malcolm McLaren, the man once called the Colonel Tom Parker of the Blank Generation, had learned from those that had plied the Svengaliesque trade of pop management before him, most notably Andrew Loog Oldham – who was pivotal in creating an image for The Rolling Stones. Oldham did so much for the anti-establishment bunch of thinking musicians not content to tow the conformist doctrine of “popular music artistes” – an image that for the early part of their career at least, the Beatles were happy to embrace. Musically, the Stones had steeped themselves in the Blues and R&B but were not the musical antecedents of Punk Rock. Having embraced the Blues with the passion of devotees they very definitely wanted to be different from the suited and booted Beatboom bands of the early 1960s – just like any self-respecting Punk band they wanted to redefine the status quo.
A decade or more before the London Punk scene took off The Stones were pilloried for peeing in garage forecourts, for failing to show respect for authority and for daring to dress and behave like “cavemen” -as more than one newspaper described them. Indeed for most parents in Britain in the early 60s, the fact that the Stones were rumored not to wash was just about as shocking as it was possible to imagine. It was an image that was fueled by statements from Oldham that enquired of suburban families, “Would you let your sister go with a Rolling Stone?” Today the antics of the Stones seem tame when compared with what was to follow, but McLaren, like Oldham, adopted the simple precept that it was not enough simply to play great music – bands need to be noticed, to invoke a reaction, even or perhaps especially, if it was outright hostility to break free from the pack.
Musical polarity has always been a key factor in the progression of pop and rock and initially, the bands that were considered as being the taproots of punk were very definitely pitting themselves against the lazy, crazy days of the Summer of Love and the Californian hippie idyll. American youth, at least some of them, had had enough of beads, kaftans and floaty lyrics – what they wanted was hardcore and Detroit was a city ideally placed to launch the counter-offensive.
In the “Motor City” The Stooges and The MC5 soon became big, although the MC5 hailed from Lincoln Park (now there’s a name for a band) and the Stooges from Ann Arbor, both in Michigan. Both bands were wild and some of their music was primitive – aspects of later punk bands that would divide audience and critical opinion. The Stooges, called, “the punkiest band in history,” in 1972 by critic Lester Bangs had their debut album produced by John Cale the former bass player with The Velvet Underground.
It was the Velvet Underground and Nico and their self-titled debut album that has been named as one of the most important albums of the 1960s; when it came out in 1967 it sold badly, maybe selling only 10,000 copies, but as has been often quoted, “Everyone who bought the album formed a band.” They had become the Velvet Underground in 1965, adopting their name from a novel about sexual subculture in the early sixties and were driven musically by Lou Reed’s songwriting and classically trained Welshman John Cale’s bass playing. Andy Warhol became the band’s manager and by the time of its release, The Velvet Underground and Nico created something of an art-meets-music template from which later punk would in part be fashioned.
By the early 1970s the New York Dolls were taking Punk attitudes and music in a new direction, albeit with a healthy dose of Glam. Their self-titled 1972 debut album was produced by Todd Rundgren, a former member of The Nazz – a band that also had an influence on many that followed and who had included a number of proto-punk tracks on their debut album. Some have argued that the New York Dolls were more Glam Rock than Punk Rock, which may be true, but it’s the influence they had that makes them so important. The Dolls broke up in 1975 having reigned supreme over the New York Punk scene – the fact that they wore makeup on the cover of their first album hurt their sales, ironically something that never hurt David Bowie.
Anyone who saw early incarnations of T-Rex playing their electric music on stage will know there’s a healthy dollop of punk sensibility in their musical approach – even way back 1972 Marc Bolan was being hailed as “a dainty punk”. T-Rex, a favorite of The Damned, like the New York Dolls, had energy to burn and it is another ingredient in the Punk Rock movement of the later 1970s that was so important – the raw power and excitement of punk played in the sweaty London clubs was irresistible. Back in the USA The Ramones, Heartbreakers, Blondie, Television and a host of other New York City bands were being labeled as Punk Rock and fans were flocking to the city’s clubs like CBGB, Mothers and Max’s Kansas City. At this point, New York City was the Punk Rock Capital of the world.
Malcolm McLaren and his girlfriend, the designer Vivienne Westwood, had a fashion shop on the Kings Road that had already gone through several incarnations, having been called variously “Let it Rock” and “Too Fast To Live Too Young To Die” before in 1975 it was rebranded as “SEX”. McLaren and Westwood had visited New York City and wound up supplying the New York Dolls with their stage gear. By 1975 McLaren was managing the Sex Pistols, the fact that their name incorporated the name of his and Westwood’s shop was no mere happenstance. Marketing was always central to McLaren’s mission.
At the Sex Pistols first gig in November 1975 John Lydon wore a ripped Pink Floyd T-shirt, not in homage, but because they were a band that stood for just about everything the Pistols were not. John had scrawled “I Hate” on it, which summed up his and the band’s attitude not just to the music of the overblown pomp rock mainstream, but to just about everything else as well. As lead singer Johnny Rotten, as John Lydon had renamed himself in early 1976 said, “I hate hippies… I hate long hair, I hate pub bands. I want to change it so there are more bands like us.” It was the type of cri de couer that could have come from many of the bands that had gone before and many of those that followed.
By the time God Save The Queen, the quintessential punk record (which ironically was initially called No Future) came out first on the A&M label in March 1977 and then again on Virgin in May after the Sex Pistols were dropped by A&M, Punk was already showing signs of repeating itself. The Sex Pistols one and only studio album, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols came out on October of the same year; thirty-five years on it sounds as fresh and exciting as it did the day it was released.
A fundamental difference between British and American punk was an age thing. Johnny Rotten and the Pistols were all around 20 years old when they found fame. American punk-rockers were generally mid-twenties and in the view of British punks way more conservative. In late September 1976 a two-day Punk Festival was held at Punk’s spiritual home, the 100 Club in London, and was to Punk what Woodstock was to Rock in heralding the shock of the new. On the first day the Sex Pistols headlined along with the Subway Sect, Siouxsie and the Banshees and the Clash in support. The following night The Buzzcocks topped the bill with Slinky Toys, Chris Spedding and the Vibrators and The Damned lending their support. In the true spirit of punk, some would argue, Siouxsie and the Banshees had not rehearsed any songs so they just improvised, including a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer… this truly was performance art. But never suggest that Punk Rock has anything to do with Art Rock.
Siouxsie, with a look that was intended to shock people, having modeled herself on Malcolm McDowell’s character in A Clockwork Orange, and her Banshees (after going through several incarnations) signed a record deal in June 1978 and released their debut album, The Scream in November 1978 having already had a UK top 10 single with Hong Kong Garden. While some hardcore punk devotees cried “sell-out” (possibly the same ones that orchestrated the “Sign The Banshees” graffiti campaign around London) the band managed to counter-balance a career of punk credibility with success on the charts – with thirty singles charting in the UK.
In the wake of the ill-fated TV appearance that caused such controversy, the Sex Pistols set out on their first UK tour, accompanied by The Clash, The Heartbreakers (featuring ex-New York Doll Johnny Thunders) and for some of the dates The Damned. “The Anarchy Tour” was in support of their debut single, Anarchy in the U.K, but it all ended with many cancelled dates from venues fearing the worst, although it’s not clear whether it was the bands or the fans that they feared the most. In February 1977, Sid Vicious joined the band, but it proved a short-lived and ultimately tragic end for the band; but could it have ended any other way?
The Damned had the honour of releasing the first-ever Punk record in Britain when New Rose came out in late October 1976. It was included on their debut, Damned, Damned, Damned, which was produced by Nick Lowe and released on Stiff Records in February 1977. Like the Sex Pistols they favoured pseudonyms, with original members that included Dave Vanian (David Letts), Captain Sensible (Raymond Burns) and, possibly the greatest punk name of them all, Rat Scabies (Chris Millar). This too was an integral part of the punk package; it was total immersion in the mission. If anyone doubts the energy of punk just muse on the fact that their debut album, which also included the classic Neat, Neat, Neat was recorded in a single day at Pathway Studios in Islington, North London. In a neat piece of juxtaposition, five months later Dire Straits, the total antithesis of all things punk, recoded their demo of Sultans of Swing at the same studio.
According to Paul Conroy, the former General Manager of Stiff Records, “After a lunchtime spent in the Durham Castle, which was next to our office, the Damned would burst in as I was grappling with the minutia of record company life and then proceed to wreak havoc, which usually started with them spilling beer all over my paperwork. Stiff and the Damned were a perfect pairing, they were one of the most exciting bands from that time and we managed to make some great music together.”
The Damned evolved into one of the first bands to be dubbed Goths, along with Siouxsie and the Banshees and The Cure. The Cure had initially been called Malice but by January 1977 were known as Easy Cure in their hometown of Crawley, England. By May 1978 they had dropped the “Easy” at the behest of singer and guitarist Robert Smith, shortly after recording their debut album, Three Imaginary Boys for Fiction Records. Soon after its release, The Cure went on tour with Siouxsie and the Banshees and Smith ended up playing guitar for them one night after their guitarist quit. The Cure, more than any other band, bridged the gap between post-Punk and Goth and were one of the few British bands from this era to have forged an extremely successful career in America.
London was Punk Rock’s spiritual home and kids from England’s Home Counties would make trips to witness the scene – according to Paul Weller, “It seemed so far removed from sleepy Woking… it was the feeling we were trying to capture, we’d make pilgrimages.” The Jam, which Weller and his school friends had started in 1972 as a post-Mod band, had by 1976 embraced the punk scene and signed to Polydor in early 1977 to record their debut album, In The City. Many punk bands were musically less accomplished than The Jam, with their 60s sensibilities and Weller’s skilful, politicised songwriting, making them seem a cut above most bands. The Jam’s energy was not confined to their records and their live shows, just seven months after their debut album they released their second, This Is The Modern World. Energy was key to all things Punk. As Nick Lowe would often say at the time, “It was bang it down and tosh it out.”
A year after The Jam’s debut, Sham ’69 – led by Jimmy Pursey, who came from nearby Hersham in Surrey, had their Polydor debut with Borstal Breakout, which was originally supposed to be produced by the Velvet Underground’s John Cale before eventually being produced by Pursey himself. Borstal Breakout was also predictive of the aggressive punk-noise of “Oi music” and like most great punk records it certainly kept to well under three minutes long.
Another post-Punk band to find success was Killing Joke, who released their self-titled debut album in 1980. While their success at the time was modest in chart terms, they have proved influential on many bands that followed, not least, Nirvana and Soundgarden in America.
Punk’s roots were in America, and after the British Punk Rock of the late 1970s, it seems entirely natural that the music should cross the Atlantic in the other direction and exert its influence on American kids anxious to start bands in the image of what they had seen and heard happening in England. Sonic Youth formed in mid-1981 having settled on their name by combining the nickname of the MC5’s Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith with the reggae artist Big Youth. Given their influences it is perhaps unsurprising that the band initially found far greater acceptance in Europe than they did at home in New York City. It was a situation that largely remained the case with their 1992 album Dirty making the UK Top 10 as well as appearing on other European charts, while barely scraping into the US Top 100.
The American Grunge scene that emerged in Seattle in the mid to late 80s owed so much to punk music in so many ways – the dynamic of the songs, the distorted guitars and also lyrically with the concentration on social themes and society’s prejudices. The stripped-down sound of Nirvana, driven by former hardcore punk band drummer Dave Grohl offered the perfect alternative to the overblown stadium rock of bands like Journey, Starship, REO Speedwagon and Foreigner. Grunge, like Punk, had something to rail against and from its underground status it burst out commercially with the release of Nirvana’s second album, Nevermind in 1991. The album featured Smells Like Teen Spirit, which became a Top 10 single on the Billboard charts and helped the album to the top spot, where it replaced Michael Jackson’s Dangerous.
Alongside Nirvana in making Grunge so popular was another Seattle band, Soundgarden, who were the first band from the city to sign to a major label when A&M gave them a contract in 1989. Their debut for the label, and second album, was Louder Than Love and has been described as “the MC5 and The Stooges meet Led Zeppelin,” although the band’s guitarist, Kim Thayil said at the time that their sound was “as much influenced by British bands like Killing Joke and Bauhaus as it is by heavy metal.”
Californian band, Blink-182 successfully turned Punk into Pop Punk. Their 1999 album, Enema of the State went Top 10 in the USA and their video for the single What’s My Age Again?, which showed them running naked through the streets of Los Angeles caused just the right amount of controversy for a self-respecting punk band. Blink-182 have cited The Cure as a major influence but their far more optimistic lyrics set them apart from pure Punk. One thing that is in direct lineage is the fast-paced nature of many of their best songs.
What made Punk so important? Why has our passion for Punk lasted so long? Well it is the music of course but it’s also the art - the singles, with their fabulous picture sleeves, the album art and the associated graphics, that when put on the cover of any of today’s monthly music magazines guarantees an uplift in sales. But it was also Punk’s anti-sexist stance that offered many female musicians a chance that they may well not have had without it.
Punk music then, as it does now, offers hope. Hope that just about anyone with enough attitude can become a musician. Before Punk there was a sense of the unattainable about music in the early 1970s. Steve Jones from the Sex Pistols is famously quoted as saying, “We thought musicians fell from the sky”. The Sex Pistols and others including The Slits, The Dickies and Eddie and The Hotrods all proved that it was possible to make it. Fanzines such as Sniffin’ Glue played up to the image and supported the myths of Punk. . .but then again was it a myth? One Punk fanzine put it so simply – alongside a diagram of the chords, A, E and G: ‘This is a chord… this is another… this is a third… now form a band.
Bands like The Damned and The Cure both proved there was life well beyond Punk Rock and they and many other bands helped spawn the next generation of musicians; Discharge, Crass and Napalm Death were just some that came out the Punk movement and were themselves very influential. Of course, after the stripped-down angst of Punk came The New Romantics… everything changes, Rock and Pop carry on.
Nevertheless, the memory of Punk will linger longer than most musical genres in our collective minds, especially so if you were born after 31st January 1956, which is Johnny Rotten (aka John Lydon’s) birthday. He was born three days after Elvis Presley made his debut on American network TV… according to some American newspapers he was “nothing more than a punk.”