Punk and its pioneers, though they may not have wanted to, changed the face of music as we knew it. Not only that, but they changed fashion, youth culture and brought about an entirely new form of performance and gigging. Its roots are often furiously debated due to the fact that everybody has a different definition of what punk music is and was, mainly because it covers such a broad spectrum of artists, and these artists stemmed off to form so many different subgenres, all with their own unique following and intention. Because of this, its foundation can be found in many different places and stories, ranging internationally, but all with the same catalysts and integrity. Essentially, punk music was created by a selective of innovative youths, with little or no skill or instruction, and this limited knowledge of the rules of music made it then easier for them to break these rules, and create something completely new. It was a natural youthful reaction against older generations considered oppressive and outdated; by the 60s, music had become centred on super-groups such as The Beatles or The Rolling Stones, who would perform in vast arenas and venues giving host to an incredible amount of people, but at the same time shadowing and obstructing any other forms of musical expression. However, the socio-political and economic state of the western world, combined with high unemployment rates, especially among the youth (Malcolm McLaren once stated in an interview that, ‘60% of those unemployed in Great Britain were in fact, only 18 years old’), brought about a new generation of teenagers with strong opinions and a lot of free time.
One common notion is that punk music began in New York, 1974, when the world saw bands such as The Ramones, Blondie, The Talking Heads, and Television appearing on the scene and selling out the classic punk clubs in the Bowery District, most noticeably at CBGB. A year later, the original fanzine ‘PUNK’ was first published and was credited with the first use of the term. The socioeconomics in New York were no different to that in London, and the youth were fighting for the same things, plus, they were all unified by location; and were all local to the area. The New York Dolls (managed by Malcolm McLaren at this point in time) and Richard Hell were both famous (and infamous) for breaking down the barriers on a regular basis at the proto-punk club, Max’s Kansas City, the former sporting red leather patent costumes and a soviet hammer and sickle motif for their stage show, the latter known for his nihilistic lyrics and self styled (and controversial) garments bearing slogans such as ‘Please Kill Me’. Richard Hell is known as the first to spike is hair, the first to rip his clothes, and was generally a leading figure in the origination of punk music and fashion. So much so in fact, that Malcolm McLaren centred Hell as a main influence in the radical aesthetic he took back to Britain with him, and later integrated into his shop ‘SEX’.
Malcolm McLaren and his wife, designer Vivienne Westwood, ran SEX; a clothing shop that created sado-masochistic and bondage inspired fashion, with Westwood as the seamstress. This sculpted the future of punk fashion, and McLaren has occasionally been dubbed the ‘architect of punk ideology’. He later went on to form a band, utilising the useless and angry kids that hung out at his shop, and called them The Sex Pistols, and these would wear the clothes his wife designed.
‘Fashion popularised by The Sex Pistols can be seen as a reaction against, as well as a culmination of, a long line of post-war British subcultures (Mods, skinheads, rastas, rudies)’. (Shannon Price, The Costume Institute, The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
This band would then act as a catalyst for the punk movement in Britain, gaining large levels of media attention and notoriety – by either vomiting in public at Heathrow, or writing songs so controversial that the media would refuse to have them aired. They inspired many more of the British youth to follow in their footsteps; ‘The Bromley Contingent’ was the name of just one group of outrageous punks, fans of The Sex Pistols, (and obviously based around Bromley) who would then, within the space of one year, go on to form some of the most influential punk bands to exist; The Clash, Siousxsie & The Banshees, X-Ray Spex, The Slits, and Generation X (young Billy Idol), among others. The hype created over the Sex Pistols was short lived however, and their first (Anarchy) tour (with The Clash and The Damned in 1976) was ill fated, with most venues, fearing violence, cancelling gigs and tour dates. The following year, the notorious and violent punk, Sid Vicious joined the band. The year after that they dissolved, and then another year on Sid Vicious was found in his apartment, dead from a heroin overdose. The Sex Pistols were pretty much a group of working class, antagonistic and innovative teenagers who some say had ‘turned punk before it had a name’. They used to state in interviews that they were standing up for and representing the lower classes and ‘sticking it to the man’ – who was in this case, everybody else.
However, to state that McLaren and Westwood are uniquely responsible for the coordination of punk (as so many have) would be simplistic and narrow minded. Their work showed a concoction of various influences ranging through McLarens experiences in New York (and his time spent with Richard Hell and The New York Dolls) to Westwood’s creative and imaginative views on fashion; often clothing that has been ‘destroyed, has been put back together, is inside out, is unfinished or is deteriorating,’ or that represents some kind of emotion or image associated with notions such as ‘dirty, ripped, scarred, shocking, spectacular, cruel, traumatised, sick, or alienating.’ They were both undoubtedly leaders in punk fashion, and punk is commonly seen as an early manifestation of deconstruct fashion – a notion that continues to inspire work in the modern day (such as the work of Rei Kawakubo or Martin Margiela). Their work helped capture and magnify the self-destructive and iconoclastic tendencies of the movement, and in creating the media frenzy that they did, they brought music and fashion together like never before, ‘setting the tone of popular culture for decades to come.’
‘Punk was an early manifestation of deconstructionist fashion, which is an important component of late twentieth-century postmodern style, and continues to be seen in the work of contemporary fashion designers’ (Shannon Price, The Costume Institute, The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Despite all this, it is now widely accepted that Punk’s roots actually run much deeper, and can be found in the socio-political and economic state of London and New York at this point in time. The fact that, as McLaren clearly stated, ‘60% of those unemployed in Great Britain were in fact, only 18 years old’, is just one major factor that contributed, and this, combined with the existence of huge super-groups, stuffy critics, and a massive and expensive music industry, was the main ingredient contributing to the evolution of Punk.
As time went on, Punk turned into another victim of late capitalism, and though it was one of the most quickly conceived of all youth sub cultures, it fell victim to mass marketing in less than three years, and by 1980 was pushed out the limelight with the arrival of 80’s pop.
Today, punk has stemmed off to form many other subgenres, some of which are selling vast amounts of records around the world. Punk has been a genre associated with Green Day, The Hives, The Cribs, and noticeably The Fall and bands such as Stiff Little Fingers are still writing, selling out large venues and remaining current and up-to-date with the ‘ever-changing’ modern music industry. Not only this, but Punk has also been combined with Ska music to create a genre in great demand, internationally. It’s fashion has never properly gone out of fashion either, and one will, more often than not, see them daily walking through the streets of town in New York or London. Either that or certain aspects of punk fashion have been used or integrated into the style of something else to create something new, such as ripped clothes, leather jackets, certain piercings etc. There was not one single person, or a couple of persons that started Punk, nor did any single person orchestrate its ideologies or its strategies. Punk is, like Hip Hop and others, just another culture built around the strife of the youth as a reaction against stiff older generations; A natural occurrence in any social scenario where too many suffer under economic and political instability and incompetence, while at the same time, the fools in charge live lavishly – there will always be a reaction.
‘My son has followed fashion since punk. He and i agree that fashion is about sex’ – Vivienne Westwood
‘I’ll die before i’m 25, and when i do, i’ll have lived the way i wanted to’ – Sid Vicious
‘I felt just overwhelmed by input: the Vietnam war and the collapse of the ’60s and the proliferation of media’ it just felt like everything was too much to handle and you just tuned out’-Richard Hell
‘I always feel more comfortable in chaotic surroundings. I don’t know why that is. I think order is dull. There is something about this kind of desire for order, particularly in Anglo Saxon cultures, that drive out this ability for the streets to become a really exotic, amorphous, chaotic, organic place where ideas can, basically, develop’ – Malcolm McLaren