Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



A term originally given to garage-band U.S. rock early-to-mid '60s (Standells, Shadows Of Knight, groups collected on Nuggets, Lenny Kaye's seminal compilation), later to UK music of '76 onwards played by groups such as the Sex Pistols, Clash and Buzzcocks, derived directly from Richard Hell, Patti Smith, the Ramones, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and others playing in NYC in the preceding couple of years, themselves influenced by the Velvet Underground, and the New York Dolls. NYC's iconoclasts had played free in a back room at club CBGB's (Country, BlueGrass and Blues) which became an important nightspot. Hell, with torn T-shirt and safety-pinned jeans, was a big influence: Malcolm McLaren had briefly managed the Dolls in their decline but could not talk Hell into coming to UK, so formed the Pistols in his image. London's equivalent of CBGB's was the Roxy Club, opened in December 1976 in Covent Garden, but it was the punk festival at the 100 Club in London's Oxford Street that notified punk's arrival. If pub rock (see above) had been a reaction to stadia superstars, trying to make rock'n'roll fun again, punk attempted to make it 'dangerous' again, and was more fun for the tabloid media. Fashion with torn clothing, spiky hairdos, safety pins, bondage etc tried to be as iconoclastic as the music, with aggressive, anti-establishment lyrics, basic guitar rock'n'roll played at breakneck speed (some bragged that they couldn't play). Designer Jamie Reid put a safety pin through the Queen's face on sleeve of Pistols' 'God Save The Queen'; typical punk sleeves featured clipped-out newsprint, blackmail-style lettering; Nazi chic was the least attractive facet.
       As major groups signed to major labels, fashion too was commercialized (McLaren's shop Sex had done it first, then the chain stores joined in); the movement burned itself out, surviving into '80s with anarchists Crass at one extreme and fascistic lumpen-punk 'Oi' bands at the other, but the spate of fanzines, independent labels and street activity was all but over by '80.
      The energy survived in New Wave, which found a bigger market in the USA than the original punks; and the lasting influences were two: more women in music (Siouxsie, Poly Styrene, the Slits, many more infiltrated widely [the Slits' lead singer Ari Up, born in Germany, d 20 October 2010 in L.A. aged 48; her stepfather was Johnny Rotten], Chrissie Hynde came from a proto-punk scene in Ohio to form the new wave Pretenders in the UK), and Rock Against Racism had rock and reggae bands on the same bill for the first time: punk interaction with reggae survived in watered-down form in new wave acts Police, the Members and Wang Chung.
      The raw excitement of the unreleased '77-9 era can be found on Strange Fruit, the double Peel Sessions album '88, and in the high-octane pre-reggae doodling of the infamous Y records official bootleg '80, a prime text for the US/UK Riot Grrrl bedroom punk upsurge of the early '90s. A later manifestation of the U.S. garage-band tradition was hardcore, a frantically speedy and rigorous take on basic punk structures: the strenuous touring efforts of such advocates as L.A.'s Black Flag and Washington DC's Minor Threat paved the way for the alternative and grunge scenes '80s-'90s.
      Books: England's Dreaming: Sex Pistols And Punk Rock '91 by Jon Savage exhaustively treated the British scene; an oral history of the NYC scene Please Kill Me '96 was edited by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain.