From “The Rock Primer” edited by John Collins published by Penguin Handbooks in 1980
The ‘Punk’ chapter was written by Ian Birch
As the newspapers never tired of telling us, something happened to British kids in 1976-77. Fleet Street, subscribing to the ‘ten-year cycle’ theory of adolescent upheaval, wasted gallons of ink, not on ripped-up cinema seats (1956-77 with Elvis and the Teds) nor on kaftans and ‘meditation’ (1966-77 with the Beatles and flowerpower): this time it was be-leathered teens with multi-dyed hair terrorizing old ladies with razorblades, in time to the loud and angry sound of the Sex Pistols, who set spanking new standards in bad taste and became society’s latest whippingboys. The Rolling Stones might never have existed.
We can spare ourselves yet another earnest discussion on the sociological cause and effect of youthful rebellion, and go straight to the lyrics of the songs that came out of this regeneration of musical energy.
All human dissatisfaction was there: poverty and the dole queue, petty crime, high-rise living, street violence and BOREDOM (relieved where possible by the cheap and fast drug amphetamine sulphate). The collective attitude seemed to waver between mind-crunching nihilism and resignation to an early self-administered death – not in itself new, but taken to new extremes of artlessness. Sniffing glue, surely the tackiest of highs, became the, title of the most famous of all the many fanzines that sprang up with the music, a significant indication that the audience for the ‘new’ sound was closely involved and identified with the bands themselves.
The idea was that anyone with a modicum or even minimum of musical talent could form a band, and that by keeping everything close to home, not only the recording and pressing of the disc, but publicity and distribution as well, one could by-pass the major record companies, which now epitomized the big-star elitism of a dollarconscious rock scene that had become hopelessly out of touch with the fan-in-the-street. That, at least, was the idea; and no one can deny that in the hot summer of ’76 there was a certain something in the air.
But this outbreak of do-it-yourself spontaneity, which was soon producing a dozen new British independent record labels a week, far from being a real innovation, was more an overdue realization of something that had begun ten years ‘ earlier in the USA, where the whole.concept of punk has its musical and stylistic origins. Even the very first followers of British punk, who were motivated by genuine ideals and for whom someone like Mick Jagger was as passe as a Windsor knot, would have had to concede that had it not been for the British beat invasion of America in the early sixties, spearheaded by bands like the Beatles, Stones and Kinks, there would never have been a grass-roots reaction from thousands of Americans who were raring to get stuck into what was virtually a British monopoly of the entire USA music scene.
The result was that around 1964, the aggression , underlying rock & roll, re-awakened in high-school leavers and drop-outs from all over the USA by the British r&b boom, took on new and hybrid forms, reflecting, in some cases superbly, the angst of suburban living, the frustrations of repressive authority and of too much Bobby Vee on the radio. The fans were going to make their own music on their own terms, and although hundreds of amateur bands never even cut a record, the proliferation of small local labels multiplied to the extent that, by 1966, what had started as a rash had become an epidemic of ‘garage bands’, a loose but apt description of the self-taught outfits who were trying for a sound that would give new meaning to the word ‘raw’, but who didn’t have the loot to buy studio time; after all, California surf bands like the Beach Boys had started up in similar fashion only three or four years previously.
Naturally the element of regionalism played an important part in the punk sound of the sixties: just as Liverpool, Manchester, London and Southend evolved their own discernible brands of r&b in Britain, so there were styles peculiar to cities and suburbs in the US, notably in Los Angeles, in San Jose and in Texas. Despite the stylistic divergences, however, what was it that characterized the punk sound of the middle sixties? The basic ingredients were a tinny Vox organ, guitars doctored, according to taste, from fuzz-tone to feedback, 4/4 drumming to keep everything moving forward at a steady pace, and an outrageously sneering vocal style delivered with a disaffected stance reminiscent of, say Reg Presley of the Troggs, whose massive hit ‘Wild Thing’ was in most groups’ repertoire, along with three other seminal influences, ‘Gloria’, ‘Hey Joe’ and ‘Louie Louie’, a riff so fundamental to rock that fifteen years later we find Eno feeding it through a computer, in his spare , time (all in the cause of art).
Those songs, of course, were hits, but groups that managed to reach the charts outside their own town were rarely able to repeat the success. It was only thanks to Dylan songs, a shrewd producer in Terry Melcher (who successfully americanized the English sound) and the positive backing of a giant company like Columbia, that the Byrds achieved what eluded hundreds of other groups – the ability to sell records. Garageband activity was confined mainly to local Saturday-night dances and ‘Battle of the Bands’ competitions.
By the end of 1967, punk groups had either just disappeared or evolved into one of two very different directions: Bubble-gum, like the Shadows of Knight, and psychedelia, like the Seeds. For a typical rise and fall saga of a mainstream punk band, Greg Shaw’s appraisal of the Standells in ‘Who Put the Bomp!’ magazine, summer 1974 makes excellent reading. Their decline led them first to cabaret in Las Vegas, and thereafter, in a reformed version, to the small clubs in California – a full circle of sorts.
As Middle America absorbed the summer of love, the ever-increasing violence of cities such as New York was bound to spark off a rock sound that had more in common with personal rebellion than cosmic revolution. In Detroit the MCS somehow managed to combine both qualities on a searing album of modern rock & roll called Kick Out the Jams – raw, electric music that was not to be forgotten by the British new wave of the mid seventies. ‘If you take everything in the universe and break it down to a common denominator, all you’ve got is energy it’s the level we communicate from – that’s the essence of the urban sound’: this is how the MCS’s Wayne Kramer saw the group’s role in 1968. Iggy Pop of the Stooges, who, like MCS, came from Detroit, had a more ‘heroic’ influence on British punk due to his wild and distasteful sense of depravity filtered onto record in three chord fashion by the Velvet Underground‘s John Cale in 1969.
The Velvet Underground were a vital catalyst for all that was best in the British new wave. Their mechanically insistent rhythms, an extension of the organ-dominated sound of Sir Douglas Quintet and others, provided the raw material for groups like the Ramones, who needed only to speed it up to achieve a combination that was rarely missing from the speakers, if not the airwaves, of the UK in 1976-77.
In 1965, the Falling Spikes became the Velvet Underground, of which Lou Reed and John Cale were the hub. Their involvement with Andy Warhol has been grossly oversold; in effect, the band toured with a kind of ‘total show’, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, which featured films, dancers and a light show – psychedelic self-expression NY-style. Over, the next three years the Underground, in all its various forms (Doug Yule replaced Cale and’ Yule’s brother Tommy later stood in for Mo Tucker), were to produce music that was very much of its time; the fact that on albums like White Light, White Heat they were also distinctly ahead of their time meant the inevitable lack of commercial success. Their influence was not to be felt at a popular level until Bowie emerged in 1971.
The early seventies saw bands playing in ever bigger venues, moving further away from their audiences in every sense and creating the astrodome mentality. James Taylor also appeared, the first of a series of singer/song-writers who churned out Hip Easy Listening, music marked by its bland sensitivity. Despite this trend, there were areas where groups kept alive and developed the garage-band approach. The New York Dolls strutted their trash aesthetic, sparking off en route a localized upsurge of new bands, the most commercially successful of which turned out to be Kiss, a gimmick-laden package at the fag-end of glam-rock. Interestingly, the Dolls’ last manager was Malcolm McLaren, who tried to reactivate the band in early 1975 with an image of chic Marxism. It failed, but gave McLaren invaluable experience for his forthcoming Sex Pistols masterscheme.
Media coverage became increasingly important. It contributed hugely to another emergent scene that, during 1974, centred on two New York clubs, CBG B’s and Max’s Kansas City. Throughout the next two years, they played host to a vast influx of new outfits who frequently swapped personnel. Richard Hell, for instance, a pivotal figure whose approach (poetic neurosis) and dress style (spikey hair and ripped T-shirts) had a profound influence on British punks, moved from Television to the Heartbreakers and finally to his own band, the Voidoids.
This crop also included Blondie, the Ramones, Talking Heads and countless others, some of whom enjoyed brief fame on compilations like Live at CBGB’s and Live at Max’s, Volumes I and 2. The first act, however, to get hitherto unprecedented attention was Patti Smith, an occasional music critic who turned her rockbased poetry into electrifying songs.
In London, pub rock had begun as a reaction against heavy metal headbangers and the now moribund glitter-rock, whose originator, Marc Bolan, though very different in style, introduced the punk notion of a three-minute, arrogant flash. Pub rock was important because it brought music back into the small venues, at reasonable prices. It also provided an important breedingground for several figures who broke at the same time as British punk. Elvis Costello sharpened his teeth in Flip City, Nick Lowe had paid long dues in Brinsley Schwarz, while Ian Dury emerged from Kilburn and the High Roads.
Younger bands sprang up who would be even more closely allied to the ’76 movement. The, 101-ers yielded. Clash member Joe Strummer, while Eddie and the Hot Rods, a more traditional r&b bluster band, gave some idea of the pure energy that was about to hit. Also, in France, the independent Skydog label kept alive the legacy left by the Stooges, the MCS and the Velvet Underground. One French fanzine, Rock News, mirrored the nascent New York scene more comprehensively than any of its British counterparts (and there were precious few at that stage). Here the word ‘punk’, in fact, was being applied to artists like Nils Lofgren and Bruce Springsteen who, though they embodied a street toughness, had a sophistication that was in no way punk.
But then the Sex Pistols played their first gig at London’s St Martin’s College of Art and, almost immediately, gave the ensuing revolt its style, form, content and direction. Johnny Rotten became Public Enemy Number One, a rebel figure-head for the ‘blank generation’. This was as much the result of Rotten’s savage contempt for everyone and everything as of manager McLaren’s Machiavellian expertise in playing the media and record business, who were desperate not to miss a good thing when they saw it. Throughout 1976 scores of bands started, with the Clash, the Damned, the Stranglers, the Jam and the Vibrators in the forefront. The comingout party took place in September at a punk festival in London’s 100 Club. The movement spread across the country and regional bands popped up everywhere: Manchester was especially productive (Buzzcocks, Magazine, John Cooper Clarke, Jilted John, the Fall). The punk umbrella embraced anything that convention considered amateurish, taboo, anti-social, antagonistic or downright subversive. By late 1977 the major record companies had signed up everything available, the scene had become swamped by blatarit bandwaggoners, groups began to disown the ‘punk’ tag in favour of the less constricting ‘new wave’, the ideals had been quashed or forgotten and exploitation was widespread. Rotten’s departure from the Pistols spelt the end.
And the future? Will Halifax (Yorkshire) or Halifax (Nova Scotia) become the new centre of punk? The current groups have either split up or moved in similar directions to their predecessors. Powerpop, an attempt to make punk into more mainstream pop, recalls such sixties bands as Paul Revere and the Raiders and Tommy James and the Shondells, while electronic outfits like Devo, who reflect the industrialization of modem society, have a cerebral quality reminiscent of psychedelia. Stay tuned.
Essential Punk Singles
You Really Got Me
Their third single and first hit, this Ray Davies song had the kind of howling primitivism tailor-made for garage bands.
A revival of Richard Berry’s original, this became another standard which can still score today (viz Motorhead’s 1978 chart version).
The Beau Brummells
The San Francisco-based Brummells featured twelve-string guitars (before the Byrds) and this half-million seller stood out in a year dominated by the British sound.
Van Morrison’s r&b classic with its virtual one-chord riff was bread and butter to the sixties garage-band repertoire (viz the Shadows of Knight).
Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs
A ‘Tex-Mex’ quintet – this piece of glorious nonsense became another favourite; revived by Eddie and the Hot Rods in 1976.
I Want Candy
Revived by the Bishops in 1978, this was a hit for a trio of producers which included Richard Gottehrer, who was behind Blondie’s first album.
Hang On Sloopy
Rick Derringer’s first band, the McCoys, achieved a US and British monster with this hand-clapper by Bert Berns, producer of Them’s ‘Gloria’.
Paul Revere And The Raiders
With four-part harmonies and a powerful sound produced by Terry Melcher or Bruce Johnston, Top Ten hits kept on coming (‘Kicks’, ‘Just Like Me’, etc).
With this Chip Taylor-penned smash and subsequent singles, the Troggs were the closest a British band came to the sixties idea of punk.
Syndicate of Sound
Like the Count Five and Chocolate Watch Band, they put San Jose on the punk map with this misogynistic ditty, faithfully revived in 1978 by the Banned.
? and the Mysterians
Along with ‘I Need Somebody’, this Cameo release epitomized the ‘Tex-Mex’ sound of punk – adenoidal vocals and treble-increased organ.
A quasi-psychedelic punk single from the short-lived British underground group, which included Marc Bolan and anticipated that man’s reign as glam-rock king.
Get Me To The World On Time
Superficial drug references, echo chambers and reverb – all geared to the A M singles’ market of the day. Cheap, exploitative and fun.
Performed originally in Television, the title track helped christen and define new wave on both sides of the Atlantic.
From Australia’s ambassadeurs-de-punk, ‘Stranded’ contains all the essential ingredients of post-Ramones rock with its whirlwind guitars and headbanging rhythm.
An inspirational, four-track EP from the Manchester new wave band that Howard Devoto subsequently left to form Magazine.
Chinese Rocks/Born To Lose
Formed from the ashes of the New York Dolls, the Heartbreakers had strong material which was ill-treated by diabolical production.
The band Johnny Rotten formed after quitting the Sex Pistols, they made their debut with an ingenious song built around a ringing guitar sound.