Punk rock is primarily a British musical genre that reached its creative and popular peak during 1977 and 1978. The precursors of punk rock were those American and British groups of the late 1960s and early 1970s who played rock music with an aggressive feel, with loud distorted guitars and nihilistic lyrics. While most punk rock groups drew influence from some earlier bands, they were specific about rejecting the majority of music produced in the early 1970s.
In particular, punk rock musicians did not like what they termed the hippie music of progressive rock. Central to any discussion of punk is the band The Sex Pistols (Sabin 78).
Not the first punk rock group but certainly the most influential was The Sex Pistols. The group was formed in late 1975. Shortly after this the band started touring on the pub rock and college gig circuits. Early songs such as ‘Submission’ and ‘Anarchy In The UK’ lyrically mocked what the band perceived to be the traditional and boring nature of British society. They were against a backdrop of rambunctious guitars and drums. It was not long before The Sex Pistols attracted a fanatical following of punks equally disillusioned with British society and culture (Sabin 123).
The media furore that made early Sex Pistol’s gigs was nothing in comparison to the outrage that emerged after their actions in December 1976. Following the cancellation of an appearance by the group Queen, The Sex Pistols were invited to appear on the early evening London television show Today. After drinking heavily before the show, the band verbally insulted interviewer Bill Grundy, and caused a tabloid storm with their explicit language.
This set the stage for the release of their ‘God Save The Queen’ single, a week before the Queen’s Jubilee weekend in June 1977. Again tabloid newspapers and the public in general were shocked by the band’s direct attacks upon an institution central to British society, the monarchy. In particular the record cover, created by the band’s ‘Art Director’ Jamie Reid, created a sensation with its image of the Queen with a safety pin through her nose (Sabin 123-125).
‘God Save The Queen’ was The Sex Pistol’s high point. Later in 1977 the band released their one and only official album, Never Mind The Bollocks. Like all the band’s releases it came in a trademark Jamie Reid cover that mimicked the style of a ransom note, and contained direct attacks on central facets of British culture. The Sex Pistols found that they were unable to obtain gigs in Britain because promoters and venues showed an unwillingness to allow them to perform.
Band tensions reached a head following the band’s tour of the USA, and they split in early 1978. The band’s lead singer Johnny Rotten reverted to his real name John Lydon, formed Public Image Limited, and left the punk rock genre. The band struggled on in his absence, but the drug-related death of bass player Sid Vicious led to their inevitable demise (Strinati 89).
However, some commentators claim that the ‘spirit of punk’ is not to be found in those groups who sound like their 1970s counterparts, but in the house, techno and jungle acts who make music for reasons other than commercial gain. For many of the first generation of punk rock groups, making music was about ‘making do’ with the available technology, and they were therefore opposed to the kind of learned musicianship of previous rock genres. It is understandable that house, jungle and techno acts, with their cheap sampling equipment and their own production technology, consider themselves to be the direct descendants of the first punk rock bands.
The Sex Pistols were attracting media attention, a whole wave of other punk rock bands were forming, notably The Damned and The Clash in London and The Buzzcocks in Manchester. Although none received the same mixture of notoriety and fame as The Sex Pistols, many considered them to be musically more interesting. In the wake of the successes of The Sex Pistols, many young people began to form their own bands in 1977 and 1978. In particular these bands developed a ‘DIY’ attitude to making music. The Sex Pistols developed different styles of punk, but maintained a central ethos of opposition to mainstream British society. Either implicitly or explicitly, this political ethos was central to punk rock (Sabin 103).
The degree to which The Sex Pistols has influenced subsequent rock styles is hotly debated. Throughout the 1980s, new bands formed and drew inspiration from the events of 1976 and 1977. In particular, indie bands’ faith in the seven-inch single and suspicion of the LP has been interpreted as directly related to punk’s ‘DIY’ approach. Musically, The Sex Pistols has been particularly influential upon American bands, with Nirvana, Hole and Mudhoney all having had chart successes in Britain. These ‘post-punk’ bands developed a similar sound to the stripped-down aggression of the first generation of The Sex Pistols. Some British rock groups, such as The Wildhearts, Therapy and the Manic Street Preachers also have their musical roots in punk rock (Curtis 60).
In fact, the absence of a symbol of class solidarity made The Sex Pistols more important than it had ever been before. Moreover, punks realized that they no longer had to be passive spectators, for rock ‘n’ roll had always meant self assertion of one kind or another. In this sense, the key punk song is the Sex Pistols’ “No Feelings,” especially the line, which Johnny Rotten screams over their version of the wall of sound, “I’m in love with myself.” What we have here is an assertion, not of a political program, but of the discovery of what Daniel Yankelovich called personal entitlement.
The Sex Pistols made a terrific impact because through them their audience discovered that they didn’t have to go through their lives saying “sir.” It was as though they had discovered the working-class equivalent of black pride, and had realized that they didn’t play the equivalent of Uncle Tom to their betters—or to their peers, either. After seeing them for the first time, Coon noted:
What impressed me most…was their total disinterest in pleasing anybody except themselves. Instead, they engaged the audience, trying to provoke a reaction which forced people to express what they felt about the music. Quite apart from being very funny, their arrogance was a sure indication that they knew what they were doing and why (Coon 70).
For many people, spiked hair and dog collars had become a joke, the domain of soda pop ads and television dramas. But did punk disappear with the utter sell-out of its foremost corporate spokesband, the Sex Pistols? Did punk rock vanish when pink mohawks could be found only on pubescent heads at the shopping mall? If the spectacular collapse of punk rock was also the collapse of spectacular subcultures? What crawled from the wreckage? In what ways can young people express their unease with the modern structure of feeling? A new kind of punk has been answering these questions.
Today, to a certain extent, punk rock means post-punk – a nameless, covert subculture reformed after punk rock. To recap: early punk rock was, in part, simulated ‘anarchy;’ the performance of an unruly mob. So long as it could convince or alarm straight people, it achieved the enactment. For its play to work, punk rock needed a perplexed and frightened ‘mainstream’ off which to bounce. But when the mainstream proved that it needed punk rock, punk’s equation was reversed: its negativity became positively commercial.
As mainstream style diversified, and as deviant styles were normalized, punk rock had less to act against. Punk rock had gambled all its chips on public outcry, and when it could no longer captivate an audience, it was wiped clean. Post-punk, or contemporary punk, has foregone these performances of anarchy and is now almost synonymous with the practice of anarchism. Long after the ‘death’ of classical punk rock, post-punk and/or punk subcultures coalesce around praxis.
The Sex Pistols called attention to themselves with their clothing as well as with their music. The torn clothing, which they wore, like the tattered shirts, the chains wrapped around their bodies, the safety pins in their cheeks, said something of great importance. The Sex Pistols created a fresh moral panic fuelled by British tabloids, Members of Parliament, and plenty of everyday folk. Initially, at least, they threatened ‘everything England stands for’: patriotism, class hierarchy, ‘common decency’ and ‘good taste’ (Curtis 98).
When the Sex Pistols topped the charts in Britain, and climbed high in America, Canada, and elsewhere, punk savoured a moment in the sun: every public castigation only convinced more people that punk was real. Fortunately, The Sex Pistols meant more than excitement in a few clubs and big sales in safety pins. The Sex Pistols also produced one of the great bands of the seventies—The Clash. If rock ‘n’ roll is a universe, The Clash and the Sex Pistols are different planets.
Coon, Caroline. The New Wave Punk Explosion, New York: Hawthorn Books, Inc., 1978.
Curtis, Jim. Rock Eras: Interpretations of Music and Society, 1954-1984. Bowling Green State University Popular Press: Bowling Green, OH, 1987.
Sabin, Roger. Punk Rock, So What? The Cultural Legacy of Punk. Routledge: London, 1999.
Strinati, Dominic. Come on Down? Popular Media Culture in Post-War Britain. Stephen Wagg. Routledge: New York, 1992.