"Punk" means "rotten wood" but is more often used in the colloquial sense of "worthless stuff" or "worthless person". This latter usage occurs in Shakespeare as well as in modern American parlance. After the Beatles, in 1964, achieved a huge triumph in the U. S., a large number of homegrown imitators attempted to emulate their success. Before this, groups who played their own instruments and wrote their own songs had been in the minority in American rock, the pre-Beatles post-rock'n'roll era having been dominated by solo singers (Roy Orbison, Neil Sedaka, Del Shannon, &c.), vocal groups (Shirelles, Marvelettes, Miracles), songwriting teams (Lieber-Stoller, Goffin-King, Pomus-Shuman) and occasionally producers (Phil Spector) who created "product" in assembly-line fashion. So these new groups, who months before had been unable to play instruments – and who, to the technically minded, still were unable - and had instead been driving trucks or serving gasoline – appeared moronic and opportunist and were soon labelled punks (or so the story goes). Most successful of these – although none of them were very successful – were the Standells and ? (Question Mark) and The Mysterians. Their subject matter was the usual boy and girl stuff, but later on, in the wake of Bob Dylan, "protest" became fashionable (Orpheus, the Seeds). The original punks were swallowed up in the psychedelic movement and the hippie universal love cult which followed when rock "went soft". The point is that the punks represented roughness, hardness, gaucherie and an uncompromising, nay-saying, anti-philosophical attitude. Their legacy, albeit mixed with poeticising, can be heard in the work of the Doors – Jim Morrison's revolutionary gestures tended rather to express hatred for the establishment than love for the whole world. But it was in their comparatively simple sound, compositions, and arrangements that the Doors can be heard to be true heirs of the original punks. But by the time of the Doors (1968), the term "punk rock" had ceased to be much used and until the arrival of the Ramones (1976) remained a historical one.
There were, however, other forerunners of punk contemporary with the Doors and from its point of view more important than they were. The Flamin' Groovies began at about the time of the original punks. They came from San Francisco and were deemed grossly unfashionable rock'n'roll revivalists while the acid-rock groups Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead were enjoying success there, the home city of all of them. They've survived despite a lack of success and periods of years without a recording contract. Actually, they never were '50s revivalists (except in the sense that their idols, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones had been: they played and still play rock standards) but have remained true to the spirit of the '60s: Flamingo and Teenage Head, their early '70s masterpieces, are mostly Stonesish, while Shake Some Action (1976) actually improves on the early Beatles. Nowadays, fashionable at last, they are more popular than before, though that isn't saying much. They remain, unlike the British punks, apolitical: they are fun for fun's sake.
By contrast, the MC5 were extremely political, affiliated as they were to the White Panther political group; they fitted in well enough with the most activist wing of the hippies. Their music, however, eschewed psychedelia and was simple and loud as can be heard on their albums Kick out the Jams and Back in the U. S. A., issued at the end of the sixties. Such crudity of music and politics has been much emulated in the punk rock "explosion" of the last two years. Similar in sound, but even more nihilistic in attitude were the Stooges, whose leader, Iggy Pop, has recently re-emerged under the wing of David Bowie. The Stooges (1969), Fun House (1970) and Raw Power (1974), the latter the most celebrated of all Iggy's records, have strongly influenced the Sex Pistols et al: the Sex Pistols recorded Iggy's No Fun as the flipside of Pretty Vacant, while the Damned sound musically to have been influenced by the Stooges alone. Iggy's in-person antics – vomiting on stage, breaking glass and cutting himself with it, attempting, sometimes with success, to rape members of the audience of both sexes – contribute to his image as rock's maddest madman. (Cf. the much more stagey show of Alice Cooper – pretending to hang himself &c. - in which the gestures of frustration are far less authentic.) Similarly unfashionable during the psychedelic era were the New York group, the Velvet Underground, whose music, whether tender or gentle or cacophonous and apocalyptic – they influenced experimentalists like Can as well as punks – always seemed to recall an earlier, more innocent age. Deriving much from the complex personality of Lou Reed, the Velvets were unpunkishly literate, but their attitude was always cynical, sick and disillusioned. As Lou Reed grew more disenchanted, the music became more and more simplistic, as on 1969 and Loaded (1970): the group's drummer, Maureen Tucker, was incapable of more than time-keeping, over which Reed and Sterling Morrison strummed a rapid rhythm and Reed threw away the vocals. The Velvets became, during the decline of the psychedelic era (1970 onwards), a byword of punk excellence (even though they had ceased to exist), their musical abilities limited in contrast to the technical wizardry of Yes, ELP, Genesis &c. and so channeled into playing perfectly in the only way they could play, a position deliberately adopted later by the Ramones and now quite normal. Meanwhile, the Velvets' attitude had some influence on the "glam-rock" phase (1972 – 1973): Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music elaborated Reed's obsession with glamorous decadence, and their music, very sophisticated though it was, had similar echoes of the past. The New York Dolls, among the most "glam" of the groups of this time, created some stir by sounding like the Stones and being as decadent as possible: they didn't survive but one of them, Johnny Thunders, is around now with his punk rock group, the Heartbreakers. The Dolls were perhaps not original enough and so were condemned to be honoured posthumously with the epithet "before their time".
The time came in 1976 when the Ramones, appalled at the way there was a kid on every block who could play like Eric Clapton, set themselves to revive the style of the original punks. That they were the first to be wholly successful in this, after all, not exactly unobvious aim, owes much to their contriving a style that, as with the Velvets before them – and indeed as with perhaps all the major innovators – sounds at once fresh and original. The term "minimalism" has been coined for it, and certainly they have eschewed all complexities – of arrangement, production and language. What they have kept is rhythm and melody. What they have brought back is speed. After the Ramones, most of the "exciting" rock music of the preceding few years sounds strangely slow and plodding. Their lyrics are deliberately "dumb" in the tradition of comic books, cunningly honed down to achieve a maximum of allusiveness. Some of their songs consist of only two or three lines, repeated a few times. No song of theirs lasts more than three and a half minutes at the absolute maximum. They boast, for example, of playing on stage, without pause, thirteen songs in thirty minutes. Their subject matter is "the kids" or adolescent love or violence on the street but treated, unlike the earnestness of the Britsh groups, with surrealistic inconsequentiality. Boredom and horror are turned into a joke, but a much lighter joke than even Reed or Ferry managed, a joke that almost disappears. The moronic qualities of the original punks have been sophisticatedly exaggerated. The non-original songs they do (Let's Dance, California Sun) are all from their revered period, 1962 – 1964, and are chosen for how closely they approximate to the Ramones' vision. One of their songs, 53rd and 3rd, perfectly encompasses the mentality of a juvenile delinquent who commits an unnamed crime: 'I'm the one they never pick – don't it make ya feel sick? Now the cops are after me, but I proved that I'm no cissy.' Another song consists entirely of 'I don't care about this world, I don't care about that girl'; there is no need to provide the obvious story-line. Occasionally they are tender and regretful: 'Next time, I'll listen to my heart, next time, I'll be smart', or even philosophically optimistic as in Swallow My Pride. The sinister, comic-book surrealism can be sampled in Today Your Love, Tomorrow the World and Judy is a Punk, both of which use World War II military images to sketch fragmentarily characters surrounded by forces of bizarre violence: Ramones creations are invariably victims (after all, this is music for kids), e. g. 'Little German boy, being pushed around', 'Jackie is a punk, Judy is a runt, they both went down to Berlin, joined the Ice Capades, oh I don't know why, perhaps they'll die' and 'Texas chain saw massacre, took my baby away from me, but she'll never get out of there, I don't care'. The music consists solely of spat-out, emotionless vocals, often so poorly articulated as to be incomprehensible, over guitar, playing only chords – solos are of course taboo -, bass and drums. The melodies are excellent, in the best tradition of pop trash, and the overall effect is exhilarating.
Whereas the Ramones' lyrics and melodies have had only a moderate influence, their sound has been highly influential on the British punks. This is probably because the former are so exclusively American. The Britons are also rather less minimalistic although still very much so in comparison to what went before. Technique is irrelevant here too. As with the Sex Pistols, it is important to have just enough, and no more. They and the other original British punks (the Clash, the Damned, the Stranglers) built up a live reputation in clubs like the Vortex and the Roxy before becoming famous and making records. This was not an entirely original situation: for several years previously there had been a phenomenon known as pub-rock, which had spawned such groups as Bees Make Honey, the Kursaal Flyers, and finally Graham Parker and the Rumour. The groups who started in pubs needed energy to survive; one of the fastest of them is Eddie and the Hot Rods who are very nearly punks. They play music for teenagers to dance to, and succeed excellently. But the real punks needed more than energy: they, like Elvis Presley or the Rolling Stones in their respective epochs, needed to shock, and they did this by being as revolting as possible. Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols (sex and violence in the name alone) invented the cosmetic use of the safety pin. Ugly names have become mandatory (Sid Vicious, Rat Scabies, Dee Generate). The Stranglers repel with their male chauvinism and sing of beating up women. Audiences have emulated such studied hideousness. Torn jeans (copied from the Ramones) and dirty leather with metal appurtenances are the uniform. Dole queues and anarchy are sung about. During the summer of 1977 groups sprang up like mushrooms, and the craze has now got to the point where, as is normal in movements in rock, the originators appear more eminent and worthy of attention than the sheep who followed.
The Stranglers have achieved such a degree of commercial success (two best-selling albums IV Rattus Norvegicus and No More Heroes (both 1977) and a number of singles, particularly Peaches and Something Better Change) that their music can now be heard in respectable lounge bars where the bourgeoisie sip their drinks. The sole reason seems to be the acceptability of their sound, which has faint traces of the Doors and Roxy Music, though far more aggressive than either. It is more of a mainstream rock sound than most punk; they are from middle-class backgrounds and are exceptional in that they aspire to and achieve technical facility in their playing. Their bassist and sometime singer, Jean-Jacques Burnel, is a sex symbol: his chauvinism seems radical now in the light of the women's lib progressive orthodoxy to which the English middle-classes now invariably pay lip-service. But the Stranglers have always commanded the allegiance to genuine punks, and can't (yet) be dismissed as having sold out to respectability. The Damned are the first of the major groups to encounter problems: their flamboyant drummer, Rat Scabies, on whom they depended for much of their charisma, has recently left them. Their stage theatre, with vocalist Dave Vanian dressed as Dracula, all in black, prowling around manically, is rather untypical of punk. The Jam, whose sound is very close to that of the early Who (also important punk forerunners) are distinguished by their patriotism (Carnaby Street). They began by using British national flags on their stage set and were rumored to be supporters of the Conservative Party, whereas in fact they had merely stated that they considered this party would be less incompetent than the Labour government. The flags were eventually omitted because of confusion with the National Front, the British fascist party. The most political groups are the Clash and the Sex Pistols, although their approaches are not the same. Whereas the Clash are the most celebrated doyens of punk orthodoxy, wanting as they do Complete Control of their product (a single of this name was recently issued in response to CBS Records having issued one called Remote Control without their sanction), the Pistols stay more in the objective tradition of Lou Reed: when Johnny Rotten sings 'I wanna destroy passers-by' no-one except those not in the know – i. e., the establishment – believes he might do so. This line is from their first single, Anarchy in the U. K. (1976), originally issued by EMI but withdrawn – along with a highly lucrative recording contract (£ 50,000) – when the Pistols said 'fuck' in a television interview. Their next single was likewise banned by all the leading U. K. record distributors; notwithstanding God Save the Queen reached the top of the charts during the Queen's Silver Jubilee Week (although the song, originally titled No Future, had been composed many months before). 'God save the Queen, the fascist régime, made you a moron, potential H-bomb' went the lyrics in response to which the Pistols were subjected to much violence from the powers-that-be: the police violently interrupted a cruise the Sex Pistols had organised on the Thames, and members of the group and their manager, Malcolm McLaren, were attacked by thugs. Consequently the Pistols came to be seen as martyrs who had triumphed over the whole showbiz (and other?) establishment on their own terms, although in fact many other groups were violently attacked in the "Summer of Hate" of 1977, including the Stranglers and the Damned (often by teddy boys, sometimes even by each other) and the Pistols, apparently unable to play in the U. K. - although they have recently appeared under absurdly harmless-sounding pseudonyms (e. g. the Hamsters) – behaved as premature tax-exiles by touring Sweden and the continent, and further tarnished their "people's" image by putting all four of their singles on their first LP. This is important when we remember that these groups made much of their mark by maintaining close contact with their audiences in contrast to remote idols like Rod Steward and Mick Jagger. As for the violence, it has been said that they partly asked for it by celebrating it in their lyrics, a punk tendency which can be traced to the Ramones (though we have seen the ambiguity of their stance – is "celebrating" the word?) as well as to the climate of the British depression. But of course the stylised violence of the punk scene (safety pins, zips and razor-blades on clothing and/or face, pogo dancing, in which you may land anywhere when you come down – including on someone's foot - , spitting and spraying beer from cans at fans and groups alike) is not the same thing as "putting the boot in". Amid all this, one tends to forget to mention the Sex Pistols' music, which is simplified heavy-metal absorbing innumerable influences none of which stand out. It is the quintessential punk rock sound, and so powerful that considerations of technique seem irrelevant.
- Quote paper
- Gabriele Eschweiler (Author), 1977, Punk Rock. How Did The First Bands Emerge?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/476872