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What is Punk Rock Music? | Punk Rock Music Bands, Groups & Genre

Jared Bjornholm, Chris Chouiniere
  • Author
    Jared Bjornholm

    Jared has a Masters degree in History from Boston College, and is certified in Massachusetts in Social Studies (8-12). He has taught for over ten years at both college and high school level.

  • Instructor
    Chris Chouiniere

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

Learn about where the name punk rock originated. Also, learn about punk music's influence and evolution as a musical genre as well as its most popular bands and groups. Updated: 11/23/2021

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What is Punk Rock?

Punk rock is a genre of rock music that started in the 1970s in both America and the United Kingdom. It was influenced by earlier genres like garage, glam, rock, and rockabilly, but it also constituted a revolution in popular music by attempting to reject all previous influences and start from scratch. It attempted a back-to-the-roots, do-it-yourself (DIY) musical aesthetic that was often harmonically discordant. It rejected the excesses of stadium rock and the musical complexities of prog rock that were dominant in the early 1970s and instead used basic instrumentation and simple melodies. An illustration in the fanzine Sideburn expressed punk's DIY amateurish spirit: it showed three basic guitar chords, and read "This is a chord. This is another. This is a third. NOW FORM A BAND."

Punk also had an associated social and political movement that was generally left-wing and anti-authoritarian or even nihilistic. It was born in a period when the post-World War II period of economic growth had come to an end in both America and the UK. This gave punk as a social movement a more pessimistic viewpoint compared to the attitude of peace and love in the 1960s--as for example in the Sex Pistols' song "No Future." Some punks, like Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren, also adopted the politics and style of the French Situationist movement and rejected the consumerism of the post-war period, what the Situationists called the "society of the spectacle." Punk's aggressive musical aesthetic was thus meant to challenge what adherents saw as the mindless propaganda of pop music. This oppositional stance also applied to punk fashion, which was often deliberately ugly and featured things like ripped clothing, safety pins, and extreme hairstyles like the mohawk.

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  • 0:01 What Is Punk Music?
  • 1:17 Origins & History of Punk
  • 3:07 Bands and Artists
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Punk fashion from the 1980s, including leather jackets and mohawks.

1980s punks burning an American flag

Punk Rock Definition

The word "punk" had originally referred to a hoodlum, and sometimes to the passive partner in prison sex. It had first been used as a musical term by writers for the Detroit rock magazine CREEM to describe garage rock in the early 1970s.

What is Punk Music?

Musically, punk is characterized by minimal instrumentation (almost always the standard rock lineup of guitar, bass, and drums), simple melodies that are often yelled rather than sung, discordant harmonies, and upbeat, loud, fast songs. The simplicity and aggression of the music were meant as a rejection or parody of popular music and went along with punk's anti-authoritarian or even nihilistic politics. Sex Pistols singer John Lydon said that "The sounds of anger are not melodic."

Punk Rock Groups and Bands

There is some disagreement about whether punk began in the United States or England. There were important punk bands in the U.S. that served as inspiration for English punk, but it was only later in London that punk became a widespread phenomenon.

American Punk Acts

Most early American punk bands came from New York, playing in clubs like Max's Kansas City and later CBGB:

  • The group Television was led by the interlacing guitars of Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd. It was more melodic and complex than later punk.
  • Patti Smith mixed poetic lyrics with avant-garde guitar music.
  • The New York Dolls played an aggressive version of glam rock and wore cross-dressing stage outfits as a parody of the excess of stadium rock at the time.
  • The Ramones played very fast, loud songs, driven by simple repeated guitar chords. Their style of jeans and black leather jackets was widely copied by later punks.
  • The Stooges (the only one of these bands not from New York) were a Michigan-based garage rock band that featured a lead singer known as Iggy Stooge (and later as Iggy Pop) and also known for his stage antics. They sang songs about suburban boredom and hopelessness.

UK Punk Acts

English punk was initially influenced by New York punk. Malcolm McLaren was a British clothing impresario who was exposed to punk in New York. He was impressed by the anti-fashion ripped t-shirts of former Television bassist Richard Hell, and briefly managed the New York Dolls before they broke up. McLaren returned to England with the ambition of promoting a punk band.

Sex Pistols singer Johnny Rotten and guitarist Steve Jones

The Sex Pistols

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Frequently Asked Questions

What was the main message of punk rock?

Punk's political attitude was generally left-wing and anti-authoritarian or even nihilistic, and its aggressive musical aesthetic was meant to challenge what it saw as the mindless propaganda of pop music. It attempted a back-to-the-roots, do-it-yourself (DIY) musical aesthetic that was often harmonically discordant.

What does it mean to be called a punk?

The word "punk" had originally referred to a hoodlum, and sometimes to the passive partner in prison sex. It had first been used as a musical term by writers for the Detroit rock magazine CREEM, to describe garage rock in the early 1970s.

What defines punk rock?

Punk rock is a genre of rock music that started in the 1970s in both America and the United Kingdom. It is characterized by minimal instrumentation, simple melodies that are often yelled rather than sung, and often discordant harmonies. It tends to include upbeat, loud, fast songs.

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