punk rock

   Punk rock is primarily a British musical genre that reached its creative and popular peak during 1977 and 1978. The precursors of punk rock were those American and British groups of the late 1960s and early 1970s who played rock music with an aggressive feel, with loud distorted guitars and nihilistic lyrics. In particular, many of the original punk rock groups formed in 1976 and 1977 were influenced by bands such as MC5, the New York Dolls, The Stooges, The Who and The Velvet Underground. While most punk rock groups drew influence from some earlier bands, they were specific about rejecting the majority of music produced in the early 1970s; in particular, punk rock musicians were disdainful of what they termed the hippie music of progressive rock. Central to any discussion of punk is the band The Sex Pistols. Not the first punk rock group but certainly the most influential, The Sex Pistols formed in late 1975. Shortly after this the band started touring on the pub rock and college gig circuits. Early songs such as ‘Submission’ and ‘Anarchy In The UK’ lyrically mocked what the band perceived to be the conformist and drab nature of British society, against a backdrop of rambunctious guitars and drums. It was not long before The Sex Pistols attracted a fanatical following of punks equally disillusioned with British society and culture.
   The media furore that surrounded early Sex Pistol’s gigs was nothing in comparison to the outrage that followed their actions in December 1976 when, following the cancellation of an appearance by the group Queen, The Sex Pistols were invited to appear on the early evening London television show Today. After drinking heavily before the show, the band verbally insulted interviewer Bill Grundy, and caused a tabloid storm with their explicit language. This set the stage for the release of their ‘God Save The Queen’ single, a week before the Queen’s Jubilee weekend in June 1977. Again tabloid newspapers and the public in general were outraged by the band’s forthright attacks upon an institution central to British society, the monarchy. In particular the record cover, created by the band’s ‘Art Director’ Jamie Reid, created a sensation with its image of the Queen with a safety pin through her nose. ‘God Save The Queen’ was The Sex Pistol’s high point. Later in 1977 the band released their one and only official album, Never Mind The Bollocks. Like all the band’s releases it came in a trademark Jamie Reid cover that mimicked the style of a ransom note, and contained direct attacks on central facets of British culture. The Sex Pistols found that they were unable to obtain gigs in Britain because promoters and venues showed an unwillingness to allow them to perform. Band tensions reached a head following the band’s tour of the USA, and they split in early 1978. The band’s lead singer Johnny Rotten reverted to his real name John Lydon, formed Public Image Limited, and left the punk rock genre. The band struggled on in his absence, but the drug-related death of bass player Sid Vicious led to their inevitable demise. At the same time as The Sex Pistols were attracting media attention, a whole wave of other punk rock bands were forming, notably The Damned and The Clash in London and The Buzzcocks in Manchester. Although none received the same mixture of notoriety and fame as The Sex Pistols, many considered them to be musically more interesting. Although shunned by other punk rock groups, The Damned’s album Damned Damned Damned (1977) was critically acclaimed at the time, and The Damned continue to perform in the late 1990s. The Clash also achieved critical and commercial success with sixteen chart hits in the five years following 1977. Musically and lyrically more sophisticated than The Sex Pistols, The Clash combined the noise and aggression of punk rock with reggae and other Caribbean musics. The Buzzcocks developed a different musical agenda and were influential amongst the indie bands that developed in the aftermath of punk (see indie pop). In the wake of the successes of punk rock’s first wave, many young people began to form their own bands in 1977 and 1978. In particular these bands developed a ‘DIY’ attitude to making music. Bands such as Siouxsie and the Banshees, X-Ray Specs, The Adverts and Sham 69 developed different styles of punk, but maintained a central ethos of opposition to mainstream British society. Either implicitly or explicitly, this political ethos was central to punk.
   The degree to which punk rock has influenced subsequent musical styles is hotly debated. Throughout the 1980s, new bands formed and drew inspiration from the events of 1976 and 1977. In particular, indie bands’ faith in the seven-inch single and suspicion of the LP has been interpreted as directly related to punk’s ‘DIY’ approach. Musically, punk rock has been particularly influential upon American bands, with Nirvana, Hole and Mudhoney all having had chart successes in Britain. These ‘post-punk’ bands developed a similar sound to the stripped-down aggression of the first generation of punk rock bands. Some British rock groups, such as The Wildhearts, Therapy and the Manic Street Preachers also have their musical roots in punk.
   However, some commentators claim that the ‘spirit of punk’ is not to be found in those groups who sound like their 1970s counterparts, but in the house, techno and jungle acts who make music for reasons other than commercial gain. For many of the first generation of punk rock groups, making music was about ‘making do’ with the available technology, and they were therefore opposed to the kind of learned musicianship of previous rock genres. It is understandable that house, jungle and techno acts, with their cheap sampling equipment and their own production technology, consider themselves to be the direct descendants of the first punk rock bands.
   See also: alternative music; new wave
   Further reading
    Savage, J. (1991) England’s Dreaming: Sex Pistols and Punk Rock, London: Faber & Faber (the definitive account of the social, cultural and musical significance of punk rock).
   STUART BORTHWICK

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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