A Brief Survey of Punk, Part IV

(Editor's Note: This is the fourth of five parts -- to see part III, click here)

by Jeff Siegel

Critics have been arguing for 20 years about punk’s origins – whether it started in the United States or Great Britain, which was the first punk band, and even how to define punk. This is an angels dancing on the head of a pin discussion, argument for argument’s sake. To understand punk, it’s enough to know what influenced it, and it doesn’t matter where it’s actually from or if there is a dictionary definition of the music.

The MC5 and the Stooges, along with the New York Dolls, are usually cited as punk’s forebears in the U.S. The first two played loudly and quickly, while the Dolls provided even more attitude. In Great Britain, the roots are more problematic, but do include the pre-Tommy Who of "My Generation," with Roger Daltrey’s stuttering vocals and Keith Moon wreaking mayhem on his drum kit. CBGB’s, a club on Manhattan’s lower East Side, was punk’s focal point in the U.S., playing host not only to the Ramones, but to the Talking Heads, Patti Smith, Television and Richard Hell.* (This points to one of the difficulties in this discussion, because the Talking Heads and Patti Smith were almost certainly not pure punk acts, and Television had a very unpunk-like 10:47 song on its first album.) The British counterpart to CBGB’s was the pub rock movement, in which dozens of garage-style bands played a semi-regular circuit of pubs in and around London. Pub rock was more about playing live music to small crowds than it was about any particular kind of music, in direct reaction to the arena rock that dominated the record business. It would be a godsend to the punks, giving them established venues with audiences eager for new music.

Call the Ramones, who played a professional gig in 1974, the first punk bad. Or don’t. What’s more important is what happened over the next several years, and most of it took place in Britain. Malcolm McLaren, who put together the Sex Pistols, may have seen the Ramones play London’s Roundhouse on July 4, 1976 and used that as his vision for the Pistols. (The Clash and the Pistols’ Johnny Rotten were definitely there.**) Or, as McLaren told authors Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain in Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, he stole the Pistols' persona from the New York Dolls, which he managed briefly, and Richard Hell. The first punk single is generally credited to The Damned in 1976, 2:44 of guitar-driven angst called "New Rose" on Stiff that sounds as fresh today as it did then.

After that, the bands just kept on coming. Richard Hell, who had played bass for Television, cut Blank Generation (1977), with the title track’s warning: “I belong to the Blank Generation/And I can take or leave it each time.” The Pistols did Never Mind the Bollocks (1977), and somehow managed to get banned from the BBC and have a hit album at the same time. The single "Anarchy in the U.K." is, in a surprising 3:31, everything punk was, would be, and still is – blistering, if limited, guitars, lead singer Rotten’s complete disdain for the establishment, and a call to arms: “I am an anti-Christ/I am an anarchist/don’t know what I want/but I know how to get it.” The Clash released their self-titled debut (1977), featuring the single "White Riot" and its or-else demand for racial justice – coming from four white guys, no less – and clocking in at 1:56. The Jam, often overlooked in the U.S., contributed In the City (1977), in which front man Paul Weller grafted pop music hooks onto punk’s anger, resulting in songs like the 2:28 "Non-Stop Dancing."

The Ramones saw what was going on, and were both appreciative and more than a little ticked. That led to Rocket to Russia (1977), which included not only "Sheena is a Punk Rocker," but "We’re a Happy Family," "Rockaway Beach," and "Teenage Lobotomy." Each is practically a Kafkaesque essay on American society – and all are about two minutes long with a beat that you can dance to. That may not be genius, but it’s close enough.

*Richard Hell is the stage name of Richard Meyers.

**Johnny Rotten was the stage name of John Lydon.

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

(The cover of The Clash's first release is from CBS Records. To see The Clash perform an R-rated version of "White Riot" in London in 1978, please check below.)

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Bob Andelman said...

You might enjoy this exclusive audio interview with LEGS McNEIL, in which he talks about his books, Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk and The Other Hollywood: The Uncensored Oral History of the Porn Film Industry ; and much, much more.

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