In the ’70s, punk gave rock music back something it was missing in the ’60s — danger.
As an NBC News report from 1977, quoted on CNN’s “The Seventies,” put it, “This is punk rock and its purpose is to promote violence, sex and destruction, in that order.”
Punk rock put the hippie music of the previous decade to bed and woke up the next generation with a sound that was loud, fast and untamed. It wasn’t just the next thing in music, it was a cultural shock wave with an impact that would be felt everywhere.
Kick out the jams
It started in Detroit in the late ’60s. Bands like MC5 and Iggy & The Stooges put out records that sounded like rock ‘n’ roll stripped down to its underwear, strapped to an A-bomb and sent hurling towards the listener’s face.
The sound would grow to an international roar by the end of the ’70s, with an impact the mainstream could no longer ignore.
Time, in its 1977 article, “Anthems of the Blank Generation,” tried to break down the sound, look and overall aesthetics of punk for the masses.
“In Tokyo, Chicago and Paris, kids are bumping, grinding, loving, hating, wailing to the loud, raucous, often brutal sounds of punk rock… Musicians and listeners strut around in deliberately torn T shirts and jeans; ideally, the rips should be joined with safety pins…. the hair is often heavily greased and swept up into a coxcomb of blue, orange or green, or a comely two-tone … The music aims for the gut.”
‘Hey Ho, Let’s Go!’
Though the seed was planted in Detroit, the first real fruit of the punk revolution grew out of two cities on the opposite side of the Atlantic.
In America, no place was more important than the legendary New York night club, CBGB. There, influential bands like Television, Dead Boys, Talking Heads and Blondie got their start.
But of all the bands to come out of CBGB, none were more quintessentially punk than the Ramones.
They began playing shows in 1974 but their 1976 debut record “Ramones” is credited with laying down the foundation of the punk sound. While ’70s rock gods like Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd filled their songs with ever expanding guitar solos, “Ramones” packed 14 songs in under 30 minutes.
From the opening call of “Hey Ho, Let’s Go!” and guitar riffs of “Blitzkrieg Bop” to songs like “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” and “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue,” the Ramones kept their lyrics and themes loose, simple and fun.
The Ramones went on to inspire a generation of wannabe rockers to buy guitars and form their own bands, spreading the gospel of punk to the world. They proved that you didn’t have to be the next Jimmy Page or Paul McCartney to be a rock star.
Here come the Sex Pistols
While the American punk scene was unfolding in New York, a similar movement was taking place on King’s Road in London.
The street was a popular gathering spot for the members of the counterculture during the ’60s. In the ’70s, it was flooded with punk rockers, helping to produce bands such as the Sex Pistols and The Clash.
While the London punk acts shared a similar style, sound and attitude with The Ramones, in England, their music added a political message. As Time wrote in its article “The Sex Pistols Are Here” from January 16, 1978:
“In Britain, punk is the voice (some would say vice) of working-class kids who cannot find jobs and care not a whit for the traditions of their homeland.”
The UK was in the midst of a recession in the mid-1970s, which left many young people unemployed and angry at their government. This helped attract kids to raw energy and anger of the Sex Pistols and make songs like “Anarchy in the U.K.” and “God Save the Queen” punk anthems.
Music, however, was only part of the reason that the Sex Pistols gained so much notoriety. Their wild behavior and look quickly made them household names and tabloid headliners. Time took note:
“As the four musicians straggled toward the plane at London’s Heathrow Airport last week, it was clear from their appearance that they were not just another Top 40 act. They spat in the air, hurled four-letter words (the mildest was “scum”) at the photographers and with malevolent glares set off shivers in their fellow travelers. Said one woman passenger in disbelief: “What are we flying with —a load of animals?”
At the end of the ’70s, the most influential punk band in the world was The Clash, whose musical experimentation proved punk rock could be more than two-minute long songs with only three chords.
The Clash had all the urgency and importance of the Sex Pistols, but as Time noted in “The Best Gang in Town,” from March 5, 1979, the musical differences between The Clash and the Sex Pistols were vast:
“The Clash, though hardly elegant instrumentalists, makes far better crafted music than the Pistols ever did. The sheets of sound they let loose have the cumulative effect of a mugging, but the songs, full of threat and challenge, never mean to menace. They are, rather, about anger and desperation, about violence as a condition more than a prescription.
“All around London, The Clash sings straight to — and, in a sense, even speaks for — a generation of working-class kids not only cut off from the social mainstream but disaffected from the smug, cushy sounds of most contemporary pop.”
Punk is dead, long live punk
But what would happen to punk when everyone grew up? Like a meteor, the Sex Pistols were hot and bright on arrival but soon crashed and burned. They broke up in January 1978, leaving behind only one studio album and plenty of questions about the future of the genre they helped popularize. Time’s “Anthems of the Blank Generation” wondered whether punk rock would be able to maintain its allure if its fan base continued to grow:
“The biggest catastrophe for punk rock would of course be huge success. How does a rebel maintain his pose while earning $1 million a year?”
Though not many saw it at that time, punk rock had already taken root in popular music and was fast evolving into the next big thing — New Wave.
Watch the finale episode of CNN’s series “The Seventies” on Thursday at 9 p.m. for an indepth look at the transformation of music throughout the 1970’s “From Disco to Punk” and visit Time magazine’s vault for more of its coverage from the era.