History of the Punk Rock Subculture

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  • 0:01 Punk in Context
  • 0:33 Early Punk
  • 2:01 British Punk in the 1970s
  • 3:45 Anarcho-Punk & Other Styles
  • 5:31 Punk's Legacy
  • 5:50 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Benjamin Olson
This lesson will explore the significance and content of punk rock subculture. We will travel back in time to punk's origins and follow its development from the early 1970s until the present.

Punk in Context

The punk rock subculture began in the United States in the early 1970s as both a continuation and a reaction to the 1960s countercultural movements. Although punk music was largely an American invention, punk style and attitude was very much a product of British youth culture. Punk began as a reaction against the music, idealism, and aesthetics of the 1960s hippie movements, but can also be seen as a continuation of the political and stylistic upheavals of the 1960s.

Early Punk

The first bands that displayed a distinctly punk sound and sensibility came from an unlikely place of origin: Southeastern Michigan. Two bands in particular standout as being highly formative for punk: the MC5 and the Stooges. The MC5 were well known in the late 1960s for their explosive, politically charged live performances. Although more rooted in psychedelic rock than later punk music, the MC5 are seen as an important precursor to later punk styles. The Stooges and their charismatic lead singer Iggy Pop were even more influential than the MC5. The Stooges played a sloppy, sludgy, stripped down version of rock that expressed a sense of chaos and abandon. Iggy Pop sang nihilistic, guttural songs, like 'I Wanna Be your Dog' and 'No Fun,' that were a far cry from the flower power songs of the era.

In New York City during the early 1970s, a small but highly creative scene was forming around the club CBGB. The Ramones were the most important band from this scene in terms of their relevance to the development of punk. Creating short, fast, minimalist songs, the Ramones brought rock music down to its most fundamental essence. Songs like 'Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue' and 'Judy is a Punk' set the template both musically and stylistically for the punk rock that would come later. The latter song's usage of the term 'punk' would also help to solidify the term.

British Punk in the 1970s

Punk subculture was in many ways established in England. Britain in the years following World War II had experienced significant economic hardships and social fragmentation. Conservative elements in British society emphatically rejected the countercultural movements and left-leaning politics of the 1960s. By the mid-1970s, the British economy was stagnant, and unemployment, especially among young people, was rampant.

British punks wore the sense of failure, hopelessness, and disappointment that many young people felt on their bodies for all to see. Bands like the Sex Pistols, the Damned, and the Clash were the centerpieces of a new British subculture that exposed the chaos, ugliness, and outrage of British culture in the 1970s. Punks were wearing garbage, pins through their ears, and anything that would make them look different. The Sex Pistols coined the catchphrase that summed up the British punk movement as a whole: No Future. Whereas the hippies and flower children of the 1960s sang about the coming of a new era of peace and love, the punks screamed about apocalypse, decay, and failure.

In his seminal analysis of British subcultures in the 1970s Subculture: the Meaning of Style cultural theorist Dick Hebdige writes of punk: 'Clothed in Chaos, they produced noise in the calmly orchestrated crisis of everyday life in the 1970s.' The pandemonium, obscenity and transgression articulated by punk's subcultural style outraged conservative British society, while being capitalized upon by record companies and the culture industry. Many punks became disillusioned with bands like the Sex Pistols and the Clash, dismissing them as sell-outs and rock stars.

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