A Brief Survey of Punk, Part I

(Editor's Note: Last week, a review of the new release from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs sparked a debate about the origins of punk rock. This series is the result. This is the first of five parts.)

by Jeff Siegel

Punk, truly, has been misunderstood. What, 30 years ago, was the most political music rock 'n roll had ever seen has evolved into equal parts nostalgia, fashion statement and an excuse to get high. This is not to say that punk didn’t always contain those things; it is, after all, part of rock 'n roll. Rather, those things weren’t punk’s reason for being. Rage was. Disgust was. Revulsion was. You can argue about whether punk started in the United States or Great Britain, but what’s important is that it came of age on the other side of the Atlantic. Talk about a petri dish: Britain in the mid-1970s was stifling and rudderless, a society and a culture without direction that looked to the past for structure and was afraid that the future would not be exactly like the past.

This disgusted the punks. Surely, they thought, there had to be something better than menial jobs, run-down housing estates, and Prime Minister Edward Heath’s Conservative Party. It is difficult, three decades later, to comprehend Heath's Britain, the malaise on one hand and the great empire arrogance when there was no empire to be arrogant about. A fellow Conservative, Daniel Finkelstein, has written that “I regard Edward Heath as an absurd figure. Aside from being unbelievably rude and self-important, he was also spectacularly wrong on almost every conceivable occasion.”

This is the society the punks knew: Absurd, wrong, self-important. Then, at more or less the same time, Britain’s economy collapsed, thanks to the 1973 Arab oil embargo and an industrial base that was nearly obsolete. Unemployment would almost triple in the decade after Heath, while inflation averaged 15.9 percent between 1974 and 1980. All of this made anarchy and nihilism, to say nothing of concerted political action, not just attractive, but imperative. Is it any wonder that one of the first punk bands was called The Damned? Or that one of The Damned’s first songs was "Feel the Pain?"

(To continue on to Part II, please click here.)

(Photo of The Damned circa 1976 from Stiff Records. To see The Damned playing "Smash It Up" and "I Just Can't Be Happy Today" from 1979, please check below.)

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Dale Stewart said...

I agree with your assessment of punk. Even though thuggery and drug use was here and there in the punk scene in the 80's it was never our main reason to be. The scales were tipped in favor of the positive by redeeming factors such as a visionary leadership which set a stage of opportunity for creative cutting-edge types. Now all the leadership is gone and the long-dead body of punk has been hijacked by whoever wants it. Punk lost it's conscience and the scales began to tip to the negative when Tim Yo died in 1998.
Dale Stewart

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