Derek Hein on Punk

The exact origin of the punk movement is complex and often a topic for debate. Therefore, it is very fitting that the punks were prominent in London, a city with an equally complex history itself.  The term ‘punk’ was first used in America to refer to the emerging rock music scene in New York City during the early 1970s.  Notable acts that were a part of this famous scene include the Ramones, Television, the Talking Heads, the New York Dolls, and Blondie. There are two main reasons that the punk movement made its way across the Atlantic.

The first reason lies with the Ramones. The Ramones’ 1976 performance at The Roundhouse in London proved to be one of the most pivotal moments in punk rock history as many audience members in attendance soon became the new leaders of the punk movement in the United Kingdom. Those in attendance included members of future, legendary punk bands such as The Clash and the Sex Pistols. The Sex Pistols were perhaps the first band to gain a following in London. Together with manager Malcolm McLaren, the band spearheaded the effort to introduce punk rock to the London music scene. What the Sex Pistols lacked in musical talent, they made up for with their objectionable appearance and provocative lyrics.  Bands like the Sex Pistols were often more focused on their image and creating controversy than they were on their music. Therefore, the band’s musical ability was not what people came to see at their shows. In McLaren’s master plan, he saw that what the punk movement needed was controversy and publicity if it ever expected to catch on and thrive.

Secondary to his role as band manager, Malcolm McLaren also had a job as a fashion designer. While in the United States, McLaren observed the interesting and objectionable fashion that many of the emerging punk groups had developed. Upon his return to London, McLaren and his girlfriend Vivienne Westwood began selling a brand new American punk-inspired clothing line at their SEX boutique on King’s Road.  This punk clothing combined many previous fashion trends and styles of previous decades. Punk music quickly became closely associated with the fashion that many of its performers and fans were wearing.  Clothing options included, but were certainly not limited to, tight jeans, leather jackets, obscene t-shirts, and bulky boots. Furthermore, many punks, both male and female, wore makeup and dyed their hair bright, vibrant colors.  McLaren dressed the Sex Pistols in his line of punk clothes and used them as walking mannequins. Punk rock music and punk rock fashion quickly became an epidemic.

The music of the Ramones and the Sex Pistols (and punk music in general) successfully reached out to London youth and adolescents who felt that they had no place in a British society that was suffering from a devastating economic crisis and record high unemployment rates. The restlessness of the youth was channeled into punk music. The music itself also came in response to a generation of music that the youth could not relate to. They felt that the music of the 1960s belonged to their parents’ generation. Their solution was to make music that they wanted to hear and could easily relate to themselves. As a result, punk music is relatively simple to play. The beauty of the punk band was that it could be formed by people with little to no musical talent whatsoever and they would easily fit right in with the rest of the bands on the scene. Nearly all British punk bands expressed an attitude of angst and social alienation. This social alienation was maintained through their objectionable fashion sense. If their music did not make a sufficient statement, then hopefully their clothing and appearance would.

The era of punk rock in the 1970s died out as quickly as it was conceived. Punk bands struggled to gain acceptance as venue owners began to cancel shows in fear of problems that might be caused by the bands and their rowdy, unsavory fan base. The death of Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious in 1979 marked the decline of the London-based punk scene. As punk music began to evolve, its area of influence moved away from the big city of London to the city’s industrial suburbs. After the initial wave of punk rockers died out, punk music spawned into an endless number of subgenres as new bands continued to emerge and develop their own unique punk rock style. While the true era of the punks was very short-lived, there is no doubt that punk music continues to have its influence on the contemporary rock music of today.  The music and fashion of the punks has been deeply ingrained in today’s musical culture.

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