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Punk: the cult of personality

Punk might be hard to define, but it's more than just a musical genre, and its legacy is both intriguing and enduring, says George Galanis.

Long before the sterile new sound of bands like Blink 182 and Good Charlotte, punk rock was tearing up the world. Chances are that your parents were grinding up against each other to punk rock long before they were glumly shuttling you off to your music lessons.

Although the word ‘punk‘ summons up images of mohawks, studs, safety pins and anarchist slogans, punk is something much more than this. Punk isn’t just a fashion, and punk isn’t any one particular sound.

Punk has, and always will be, a state of mind and attitude, an idea of both self-sufficiency and community with people who think the same way. The music is just an added bonus. If you really want to understand punk in terms of music and community, you have to know its history.

Before the mid-1970s, ‘punk’ was commonly used to describe a male hustler, a gangster or hoodlum. It was what the police and your teachers would call you; it meant that you were the lowest rung on the ladder.

The first known use of the phrase ‘punk rock’ appeared in the Chicago Tribune on March 22, 1970, attributed to The Fugs co-founder Ed Sanders, when describing his solo album as ‘punk rock — redneck sentimentality’. In the December 1970 issue of Creem, Lester Bangs, mocking more mainstream rock musicians, made ironic reference to Iggy Pop as ‘that Stooge punk’.

The New York Dolls, Iggy Pop, Blondie, The Sex Pistols, Patti Smith, The Ramones and The Clash started the punk revolution back in the early ‘70s. It was a revolution to counter mainstream rock ‘n’ roll‘s massive spectacle stage shows and ever-lengthening guitar solos which became a form of musical masturbation.

Enter The Ramones, and a completely stripped sound, with songs rarely reaching over two and half minutes in length. Johnny Ramone set the standard for punk guitarists, using simple three and four chord progressions and playing them hard using only down strokes. This gave the music a ‘chugging’ sound, essentially taking out any kind of softer rhythm. Playing punk rock on a guitar is a lot similar to pounding one’s fist, and Johnny Ramone is the man to thank for that.

It could have been called ‘alternative music’, but it wasn’t that nice. Punk music was a way for kids to relieve their aggression. It was an underground movement, not just a musical genre. It was a way teens and young adults had for expressing their anger, outrage and energy.

They were pissed at the way adults at the time were running the world. Just as rock and roll had begun as an expression of youth, punk was an expression of angry youth.

At his shows, Iggy Pop, the ‘Godfather of Punk’, would strip off his shirt, jump into the audience and be thrown back on stage. Then he’d start yelling and singing again to get the crowd worked up.

It is impossible to discuss the punk scene without mentioning CBGB’s, the infamous club that became the headquarters for countless bands including The Ramones, Talking Heads and Blondie. Founded in 1973, this lower Manhattan dive quickly became the place for unknown alternative acts to play.

The place was often not packed: if The Ramones were on stage, Blondie would be watching them play, and vice versa. This gave the early punk scene a sense of community they never had before. Finally, they had a place to play at regularly in front of people they knew would listen and enjoy the music (even if they were members from other bands…).

Across the sea in England, alienated youth with a decreasing faith in elected officials became the foundation of the punk movement. By 1976, the economy was faltering; the hippie movement had failed.There were no jobs, no way to get money, and no hope for the future. If love had failed, it was time to let fury have the hour.

The two major bands to come out of the early English punk movement were The Sex Pistols and The Clash. Although they began around the same time, they had two very different sounds and ideologies.

The Sex Pistols debut album Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols made the politics of The Pistols evident: tear down all forms of government; the system has failed. Compounding the band’s volatility was bassist Sid Vicious’ self-destructive relationship with Nancy Spungen and their heroin addiction.

The train wreck quickly spread from Vicious to the rest of the band, and after a brief tour, the band called it quits. Sid went on to have a brief, unsuccessful solo career, before he overdosed in 1978.

Around the time The Sex Pistols were disbanding, The Clash was making major headway. Their self-titled debut album opened punk up to new avenues and was a preview of the innovation that The Clash would bring into the genre. Throughout their seven-year career, the Clash pushed the boundaries of punk, infusing it with reggae as well as early rap.

At the same time, a similar music-based subculture was beginning to take shape in Australia. A scene was developing around seminal band Radio Birdman and seminal venue The Oxford Tavern (later The Oxford Funhouse) located in Sydney’s Darlinghurst.

By 1976, Brisbane-based punk rockers The Saints were hiring local halls or playing in ‘Club 76’, their shared house in the inner suburb of Petrie Terrace.

In Perth, germinal punk rockers The Cheap Nasties, featuring singer-guitarist Kim Salmon, formed in August 1976. In September, The Saints became the first punk rock band outside the US to release a recording, the single (I’m) Stranded. As with Patti Smith’s debut, the band financed, packaged, and distributed the single themselves. (I’m) Stranded had limited impact in Australia, but the British music press recognised it as a groundbreaking record.  Meanwhile, Radio Birdman came out with a self-financed EP, Burn My Eye, in October.

In February 1977, EMI released The Saints’ debut album, (I’m) Stranded, which the band recorded in two days. The Saints had relocated to Sydney; in April, they and Radio Birdman united for a major gig at Paddington Town Hall. Last Words had also formed in the city. The following month, The Saints relocated again, to Great Britain. In June, Radio Birdman released the album Radios Appear on its own Trafalgar label.

Other Australian punk bands included Johnny Dole & The Scabs, The Hellcats, and Psychosurgeons (later known as The Lipstick Killers) in Sydney; The Leftovers, The Survivors, and Razar in Brisbane; and La Femme, The Negatives, and The Babeez (later known as The News) in Melbourne. Melbourne’s art rock influenced The Boys Next Door featuring singer Nick Cave, who would become one of the world’s most celebrated post-punk artists.

The underground punk movement produced scenes that either evolved from punk or claimed to apply its spirit and DIY ethics to a completely different music, securing punk’s legacy in the glam, alternative and indie rock scenes. The commercial success of alternative rock gave way to another style that the mainstream media dubbed pop punk. A new movement became visible, claiming to be a revival of punk.

By the time the early ‘80s had rolled around, punk was on its way out of the spotlight as heavy metal was taking the stage.  However, punk wasn’t dead; it just headed back to the underground. Out of this environment came the hardcore movement, birthing such bands as The Exploited, Bad Brains, Charged GBH and Bad Religion.

The sound was now faster and more aggressive than early punk, using extremely simple chord progressions played at a very high tempo.

Although hardcore and punk in general were very much under the radar, a loyal following remained. What was needed was a band to meld all the sounds of previous punk together. Enter landmark ska-punk band Operation Ivy.

Operation Ivy were heavily influenced by ska: what The Clash had done in England with reggae, Operation Ivy did in America with ska. After the break-up of Operation Ivy, members Tim Armstrong and Matt Freeman went on to form the quintessential new punk band Rancid, abandoning the ska punk sound in favour of a more hardcore, street punk style. They may not have known it, but Rancid was at the forefront of the 1990s punk revival.

At the end of the 1980s, a band originally called Sweet Children was first noticed. They changed their name to Green Day and set a completely new scene for the next wave of punk music subculture. Their music was very much at the roots of old school American punk, simple progressions and songs about boredom, relationships and frustration. In a sense, punk rock had finally come full circle. Exploding out of seemingly nowhere in the ‘70s, then retreating to the underground for most of the ‘80s, only to emerge once again in the ‘90s.

Punk itself is impossible to define. It is not a product to be sold, nor is it an oddity. Punk is a battle cry for change; a natural rebellion that has to happen after the old guard has become too old.

More importantly, it highlights the idea and belief that if a person really does want to change a society, its norms and its power structures, it starts with them. It lets you believe you have the power to change the status quo, a visionary atonement and a cry into the abyss of one’s own vitriolic bullshit.

George Galanis is currently studying the Master of Global Communications at La Trobe University.

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