Punk Music: Definition, History & Bands

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  • 0:01 What Is Punk Music?
  • 1:17 Origins & History of Punk
  • 3:07 Bands and Artists
  • 4:42 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Chris Chouiniere

Chris has taught music and has a master's degree in music education.

Punk rock is more than spiked hair and mosh pits. In this lesson, we'll explore this short-lived, though incredibly influential genre, examining what punk is, where it came from, and some of its most influential bands.

What Is Punk Music?

If you're not familiar with punk music, the Stimulators song 'Loud Fast Rules!' can provide you with a pretty good description. Early punk was exactly as described in this song title: it was loud and fast and often distorted. In the past, punk music generally referred to music that was rough around the edges or wasn't part of the mainstream; there was little to no musical similarity between groups.

Because of the do-it-yourself attitude to punk music production, recordings were generally rough, both in terms of musicality and acoustics. Whereas some rock groups used distorted guitar sounds for effect, punk groups used them all the time, and guitar solos were infrequent. Songs were typically in 4/4 time and followed a basic song structure of verse/chorus/verse pattern.

Lyrically, there was no hiding the meaning of punk songs. Topics were anti-establishment, anti-sentimental, confrontational, and controversial. In general, punk music was meant to offend and upset; it was everything that mainstream music was not.

Origins and History of Punk

If you were to think of musical genres in terms of a family tree, punk's parents would be garage rock and hard rock, while its uncle might be glam rock, and its cousins might be surf rock and ska music. Its ancestral forefather - I know, we're pushing the metaphor a bit - is rock and roll.

By late 1976 and early 1977, punk was finally punk. The Ramones, Patti Smith, the Sex Pistols, and the Clash established the ground work for what the genre eventually became: primal, simplistic, and unpolished. By the end of 1976, the Clash and the Damned had joined the punk scene. A few of the important early punk clubs included CBGB in New York City's East Village and Lesser Free Trade Hall in London.

By the end of the 1970s, established bands had broken up, like the Sex Pistols; evolved like the Clash; or became part of the new punk sound, like the Ramones. The punk music scene quickly splintered into several sub-genres. New Wave, the broadest and perhaps most influential of punk's siblings, was a more accessible, mainstream genre that combined some of the musical elements of punk with more danceable rhythms and polished productions. Anti-beauty and anti-art sentiments so closely associated with punk found their way into No Wave groups. Alternative rock, another sub-genre of punk, became popular during the 1980s and early 1990s. More hardcore groups of the 1990s played grunge, emo, and ska-core music.

Bands and Artists

Early musicians described as punk were more mainstream outsiders, including such different performers as Aerosmith, Bruce Springsteen, and MC5. Influential musicians included Iggy Pop, the 'godfather of punk', as well as the Velvet Underground, whose White Light/White Heat album was characterized by its wildly dirty recording process. The New York Dolls, an important group in what became the glam punk scene, and the Deviants also contributed to the evolution of punk.

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