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Punk Music

The death of former Clash frontman Joe Strummer has reminded us how original and influential the first punk rockers were. The original punk music scene ran like the careers of many of its stars - burning brightly for a short time before crashing to the ground in flames. But its importance can be judged by the echoes heard in music ever since, as well as the legends and cliches that have grown up around it. One cliché is that punk was less a musical genre than a state of mind - but that was true in the days before it became fashionable to become a punk fashion victim.

Although its origins can be traced back as far as you like, with every generation having its own youth sub-culture that shocks the established order (some say Elvis was a punk), punk as we know it began in the early 1970s. Bands like The Fugs, the MC5 and The Stooges all sowed the seeds, but the first group to take on the recognisable attitude and style were the New York Dolls and Television, who both emerged from a small New York scene.

The New York Dolls, befriended by future Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren, were outrageously dressed, and delighted in disgusting people by doing Nazi salutes and vomiting in front of photographers. McLaren saw something special in Television too - especially their bassist, Richard Hell, whose spiky hair and ripped clothes were taken back to London by McLaren and have been seen on thousands of punks since. On both sides of the Atlantic, more and more young disillusioned white teenagers were looking for an escape from the boredom and constraints of society, with unemployment, racial tensions and social upheaval providing fuel for their fires.

Punk remained an underground scene until 1976, when two bands - The Ramones and The Sex Pistols - made the outside world take notice. Not only did they become hugely successful in their own right, but they also provided an inspiration to people who realised you did not need to be able to play an instrument to be in a band - you just had to have something to say. Legend has it that after seeing the Sex Pistols support one of his old bands, Joe Strummer was moved to form The Clash. Another story says The Clash's Paul Simonon and Mick Jones told The Ramones that their London gig gave the pair the courage to be in a band. Whatever the truth, the Sex Pistols went on to cause tabloid outrage - using some tricks McLaren had picked up in New York - and the punk explosion disgusted as many as it inspired.

Groups like The Clash, The Buzzcocks, Joy Division and The Stranglers followed, and the punk influence has carried through to current rock bands like Green Day, Rancid and Blink 182. And 25 years after the original scene developed, a new US rock sound, using elements of the New York punk scene, has thrown up bands like The Strokes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs - although cynics say their retro looks are more important to them than their originality. As for the original punks, they are now middle-aged and left largely irrelevant by the passage of time. The ranting and raving of people like John Lydon - formerly Johnny Rotten - which made him a figurehead for a disillusioned generation in the 1970s, has now come to make him a figure of cartoon-style ridicule. But the reaction to Joe Strummer's death has proved that we do see the old punks as pioneers who kicked down musical and social barriers, making anything seem possible (Ian Jennings).

Punk music and culture has had a great impact on many different aspects of culture, both in its own right and by fundamentally changing the social environment which other western cultures share with it. Despite the wide variety of modern elements of punk, it is generally agreed that the culture began in England in the years 1976 to 1981, when the first and simplest from of punk music began and ended.

There was a recognisable progression in the kind of music being created during this era. This is a progression which went on to result in the pervading influence of punk in areas of the culture where it could never have imagined being influential back during its birth, when it was a youth culture and an outsider culture.

Although punk music, which called itself punk music, was a very English thing until the early eighties, the bands which led Malcolm McLaren to create a band called the Sex Pistols in early 1976 were American, principally the New York Dolls, for the image and attitude, and the Stooges, for the basis of the music. Punk was a reaction against the pretentiousness of the prevailing bands of the mid seventies, progressive rock bands with songs so indulgent and inaccessible to the youth of Britain that there was a palpable gap in youth culture.

The Sex Pistols, led by John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, were one of the first wave of bands including the Clash and the Damned that started playing around London in 1976. They initially played in front of small and hostile crowds but eventually gaining a burgeoning audience who were easily distinguishable by their uniform of ripped clothing and dyed hair. By the time a number of the London bands and some early punks from the rest of Britain played at the 100 Club in a legendary gig that cemented the existence of this new genre of music, punk was a viable term. Almost immediately after the 100 Club concert, the Damned released New Rose, the first punk single, and although it failed to sell, this was not a problem faced by the Sex Pistols when they released Anarchy in the UK a month later. Aided by the wilful controversy of the band's members and an infamous television interview with Bill Grundy, the single made the lower reaches of the UK charts, announcing punk to a wider audience. The Damned released their album Damned Damned Damned to an active culture in November of that year.

In 1977 the Pistols sacked bass player Glen Matlock and brought in Sid Vicious, a fan who could not play the bass but had the image, reputation and heroin habit to court more controversy. In a flurry of publicity, the Pistols signed first to A+M records, where they were dropped after a week and then to Virgin, where they released two more excellent singles, God Save the Queen and Pretty Vacant. Their album Never Mind the Bollocks Here's the Sex Pistols came out later in the year to much acclaim.

Other early punk bands were cashing in on the publicity with records. Some, like The Clash's eponymous debut album, were excellent, but the majority were terrible. The Damned released their second album Music For Pleasure to widespread derision, and as the year ended without any activity from flagship band the Sex Pistols, punk seemed in a bad state considering its ever-expanding and ever-diluting fanbase.

1978 was the year that the first wave of punk bands became washed up, but a newer and more interesting generation swept over their bodies. At the start of the year following a strenuous tour of America Johnny Rotten left the Sex Pistols onstage with the legendary question, 'Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?' As back in Britain a wave of talentless and characterless punk bands released mediocre singles and albums the Pistols remained in America, without a singer but living on the publicity of the film based on their story, Malcolm McLaren's The Great Rock and Roll Swindle. They released a single, Cosh the Driver, with train robber Ronnie Briggs on vocals, but were otherwise out of ideas. In October Sid Vicious' girlfriend Nancy Spungen was found stabbed to death in their hotel room and Sid was arrested on suspicion. However, while the original punks learned the hard way that they could not trade forever on attitude and image, there was a new generation in the wings who adapted the primitivity of the music to something with a purpose.

While the demise of the old punks was signalled in the mediocrity of bands like the UK Subs and the Clash's less popular second effort, there were new bands like the Undertones, who released the perenial classic Teenage Kicks and added pop to punk, and then Joy Division, who ditched their simple punk past as nonentities Warsaw and were signed to Factory records.

1979 saw the death from a heroin overdose of Sid Vicious in February, a death that effectively marked the end of the initial punk momentum. The rest of the year was more encouraging, as a wave of post punk bands released classic albums. The Clash was one of the few original punk bands to escape the decline, as they adapted their music to include reggae, ska and pop elements on their London Calling double album. The Undertones followed up Teenage Kicks with a re-release and then an album of clever punk-pop, while punk was now less centered in London then in the industrial towns, particularly Manchester.

It was here that a new punk scene sprung up and produced, in Joy Division and The Fall, two of the great British bands, whose music transcended any genre. Joy Division released the angst filled paranoia of Unknown Pleasures after some well recieved singles, and its singularly alienated and modern sound of silences, white noise and sparsely driving rock rhythms made it an instant classic. The Fall released two albums in 1979, first the twisted punk of Live At the Witch Trials and then the dark and decidedly weird Dragnet, which marked a departure already from punk.

1980 was efectively the end of punk, as Ian Curtis of Joy Division hung himself shortly before the release of their second album Closer. In the light of his death it is a terrifyingly intimate and despairing album, but still an absolute classic. His death seemed to mark the end of punk's capacity for inspiration, and the Clash released the terrible Sandanista to effectively end their careers while the majority of punk bands either gave up or carried on with no purpose. Bands like the Fall and the Mekons left punk behind almost totally as they continued to make significant music.

In 1981 even the Undertones left punk behind as an influence, and punk as an entity was almost completely dead, but its influence lived on in the whole of youth culture, not present in itself but casting a shadow over everything. The previous four years had had a priofound effect.

During the early '90s -- nearly a full 20 years after punk happened -- the United States had its first punk rock hit albums and singles, as a wave of bands raised on '80s hardcore and '70s punk worked its way into the American mainstream. Essentially, Punk Revival bands were all traditionalists -- they kept alive the sounds and styles of groups like the Sex Pistols, the Stooges, the Jam, the Exploited, Black Flag, Dead Kennedys, the Descendents, and countless other punk and hardcore bands. Since hardcore mutated into speed metal in the late '80s, it wasn't surprising that these punk traditionalists were heavier than their initial influences, but that is partially what made the music appealing to a mass audience in America -- it was simpler and heavier, much like a faster, harder outgrowth of grunge rock. The first punk revivalists to break into the American mainstream were Green Day and the Offspring, and their success helped solidify cult followings for groups like Rancid, NOFX, Pennywise, and Pansy Division, as well as bring the spotlight to neglected '80s punk bands like Bad Religion and underground punk genres like the third wave of ska revival.

Punk Music News

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