Why a History of Punk Rock Matters

What began as an artistic movement, as an expression of counter-cultural angst, crossed continents into film studios, literature, poetry, theatres, art galleries and catwalks. By the mid-1990s, punk was a global commodity. Green Day, Blink-182 and My Chemical Romance are now household names.

Punk rock, perhaps more than any genre in the history of popular music, is almost impenetrably tangled in ideologies.

What began as an artistic movement, as an expression of counter-cultural angst, crossed continents into film studios, literature, poetry, theatres, art galleries and catwalks. By the mid-1990s, punk was a global commodity. Green Day, Blink-182 and My Chemical Romance are now household names. Punk, the bratty, snot-nosed upstart breed of rock and roll, built on anti-musicianship, built on the rejection of stadium rock, built on a sneering denial of technical skill, built - crucially - on the breakdown of the performer-audience relationship, on the attack against the musical mainstream - punk had now arrived squarely in that mainstream.

Yet the history of punk remains unwritten. Oral histories, biographies, fanzines and critical studies have attempted to codify the meaning of 'punk', and in many ways have offered valuable research on the popularity of punk, its language, forms, associations and movements, its economies, its social makeup, the roles of women and ethnic minorities and its influence on outsiders, including the media perception and critical reception.

But very little attempt has been made to trace the origins of the ideas at the root of punk rock, to understand the intellectual culture or the social and economic pressures that shaped this curious and enthralling bag of philosophies. From Schopenhauerian nihilism to Nietzsche's Dionysian value of art, from the visceral poetry of Ginsberg to the hedonism of Kerouac, the philosophies of punk can be teased out of the words of the progenitors of punk themselves, from the mouths of Joey Ramone, Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Iggy Pop and Andy Warhol. Punk began as a set of ideas espoused, shouted and blasted through power chords, distortion and breakneck drumming.

This extraordinary culture grew up in America. Historians of punk, though they are very few, have hitherto suggested that punk as an identifiable form of rock and roll - with a distinct set of ideas - started or came to fruition in Britain. Tricia Henry, whose Break All Rules! Punk Rock and the Making of a Style (1989) is among a tiny number of scholarly examinations of punk rock, argues that punk in its forms before The Sex Pistols arrived in Britain in 1976 was more a type of "underground rock" that only became the 'punk' that we may identify now with the influence of Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood on the band and the politicisation of the music.

In America, she argues, the "underground rock movement consisted primarily of middle-class youths rejecting middle-class values. In Britain, punk generally represented working-class youths reacting to the bourgeois status quo." In the atmosphere of unemployment in Britain, "when the English [sic] were exposed to the seminal punk-rock influences of the New York scene, the irony, pessimism and amateur style of the music took on overt social and political implications, and British punk became as self-consciously proletarian as it was aesthetic."

The assumption that punk's nature is in some way political is ahistorical. The very term 'punk' has roots in an American outcast culture, as a pejorative word used to describe an anti-social branch of urban society, what Henry terms "the hoodlum, the useless element in society", long before 1977. In fact, the images and ideas of punk owe far more to apolitical cultural memes like Marlon Brando's Johnny Strabler in The Wild One (1953) than to Marxism, environmentalism or anti-Republican civil disobedience.

As Henry shows, the New York "underground rock" scene profoundly influenced British punk and the later, more sharply ideological subdivisions like hardcore and Oi! which took form in the 1980s. And there is no doubt that much of this music was deeply political. But before 1977, before the explosion of what Henry terms 'punk', artists like the Velvet Underground, the Ramones, Iggy and the Stooges, the New York Dolls, the MC5, Patti Smith and more self-identified as punks as part of a new musical movement called punk rock. If we say that punk was not punk until 1976, who were these New York 'punks'? What did they believe punk to be, and why was it important? This history is still to be written. The history of punk as a dialogue, a particular dialect and a movement of ideas can be understood only with a new, cultural history.

A cultural and intellectual history of punk must begin in New York, with the intellectual culture of the punk scene. At CBGB's in Bowery, New York, owner Hilly Kristal and others provided the dancefloor, stage and microphone for hundreds of unsigned bands and thousands of disaffected youths in one of the most rundown areas of the city. Between 1973 and 1977, in the early years of American punk - at the beginnings of punk itself - a developed, sophisticated and dynamic culture grew inside the sweaty walls of CBGB's, now one of the most iconic rock venues in the world.

This culture had at its centre a collection of ideas. Nihilistic, pessimistic, anti-authoritarian and anarchic in its civil and political message; provocative, Dada-esque and theatrical in its artistic expression; hedonistic, experimental and egalitarian in its social values - CBGB's was the hub of these ideas, ideas that were not new but prevalent in 1970s youth culture, ideas that have a peculiar resonance in the growing historiography of the last quarter of the twentieth century. Identities, some forged along lines of gender, race and class, demarcated cultural spaces, the dissolution of the holistic ideals of a 'society', contributed to a growing disaggregation of the social fabric into self-identifying 'groups', with triumphal moves for rights, powers and cultures of their own. Punk, to a large extent, fits into this history: young, urban, American punks were not largely concerned with where they could slot into society, but were overwhelmingly invested in this process of identification, disaggregation and fragmentation.

Moreover, a history of the genre must consider the words and ideas of punk from punks themselves, from the oral accounts and fanzines, interviews and contemporary biographies. This musical movement cannot be seen merely in terms of a radical departure within rock and roll, for that devalues its impact. Historians must begin to place popular music at the centre of cultural histories, in the furnace of cultural creation. This research must attempt to contribute towards an understanding of music that it, like film, art or dance, is as valuable a medium of historical study as all other artistic forms. Punk, by way of an example, shows that music can be as artistically expressive of ideas as film or art, and, by implication, popular music history to be as valuable to our understanding of our cultural past as the history of film or the history of art.

This research must focus on the primary accounts of musicians, promoters, producers, managers, roadies, groupies, reviewers and the voices of the age to highlight that music can carry and transform ideas in unique ways and can, for example, resonate in ways that the cinema or television cannot, can build cultures around itself owing to its own power and magnetism as an art form.


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