Detroit, New York, or UK? Who is the rightful progenitor of this iconic genre of music, fashion, and culture?
With the 40th anniversaries of legendary debut albums from The Clash, the Ramones, and the Sex Pistols within the last few years, there has been renewed interest in the punk rock culture of the 1970s. Along with the renewed interest, the ongoing debate within the punk community and punk fans alike of who is the rightful owner of the punk aesthetic has been revived. Some fans will say New York, citing the Lower East Side as the birthplace of the sound, while others say London because of the British scene, but recently Detroit has also been tossed around as the home of proto-punk bands such as MC5 and The Stooges. In order to understand where punk originated, it’s even more important to understand why.
The Politics Behind Punk
In the decade leading up to the creation of punk, the kids that would later become the scene’s main players experienced more than the generation before them.
The assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, along with the start of the Vietnam War, caused the youth population to turn against relying on the government and their parents for safety and comfort and began to turn towards each other. The counterculture in the ’60s grew out of the need for a youth-led reaction against the ongoing events in the news. This new youth culture wasn’t just trying to shock their parents with Elvis’ hips. They protested against the violence of the Vietnam War and called for peace, love, and unity while also supporting causes such as Civil Rights, Women’s Rights, and the new Environmental Movement popularized by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. To combat all of the negativity they saw in the world, the music of the counterculture was very calm, laid-back, and mellow, even when the lyrics were calling out specific issues and hypocrisies the youth were fed up with.
At the end of the ’60s and moving into the ’70s, the Stonewall riots, the shooting at Kent State University, and the exposure of the Watergate political scandal drove the youth population further away from the adults in their lives and closer towards taking matters into their own hands. One way they did this was to create their own underground communities to shield themselves from the times they were living in.
The Glitter and Glam of Underground New York Theatre
In the mid-1960s, Ronald Tavel, a screenwriter for Andy Warhol’s Factory, founded the genre Theatre of the Ridiculous, inspired by the post-WWII theatre genre Theatre of the Absurd. Ridiculous Theatre works heavily feature queer and camp elements with cross-dressing and drag culture within a story which includes social commentary and critique of popular culture, but is also humorous. Tavel’s contemporary John Vaccaro used glitter as a social commentary vehicle, more than fellow contemporary Charles Ludlam. Vaccaro said in Leg McNeil’s Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk “Glitter was the gaudiness of America…the gaudiness of Times Square. You know, take away the lights and what do you have in Times Square? Nothing.”
Eventually the aesthetic of Ridiculous Theatre would meet the budding genre of glam rock when the play, Pork made an appearance in London and the cast met a young David Bowie. Pre-Ziggy Stardust, the Bowie of the late ’60s was not quite the androgynous rock star that we think of now. Rather, he was in the folk-hippie tradition which the Pork cast was strictly against.
In collaboration with Bowie’s wife Angela, the Pork cast “influenced David to change his image…David started shaving his shaving his eyebrows, painting his nails, even wearing painted nails out at nightclubs, like we were doing. He changed his whole image and started getting more and more freaky.” said Jayne County for McNeil’s book.
When Leee Childers, the assistant director of Pork, returned from London, he saw the influence of the ridiculous theatre on the music in New York as well with the advent of the New York Dolls.
David Johansen, lead singer of the Dolls, had been friends with Charles Ludlam and even had a small non-speaking role in one of his plays. Cyrinda Foxe, an actress and model who is also quoted in McNeil’s oral history, claims that Johansen had “very much wanted to be part of the theater scene [because] the Ridiculous Theater was much more exciting than rock & roll,” but she thinks Johansen’s heterosexuality kept him ostracized from the theater community. Taking the successful social themes from the underground theatre community and adding it to rock music, Johansen no longer wanted to be a part of the community that rejected him because he created his own. “And there was definitely nothing exciting and glittery and fun and sparkly and wild going on in rock & roll until the Dolls came along,” said Foxe. The New York Dolls, although not musically in the punk genre, did have an impact on the early formation of the punk scene, especially in New York.
MC5 and The Stooges: Detroit in the 1960s
Often left out of the punk conversation, MC5 could be considered the first punk rock band, with their highly political lyrics and hard, fast sound which was very different from the protest music of Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger. Releasing their debut album, Kick Out The Jams, in 1969, they pre-date the Ramones’ debut by 7 years, making them, at very least chronologically, the first heavy rock band with political consciousness.
If the politicization in their lyrics creates the foreground for punk, that same politicization was also their undoing. When manager John Sinclair aligned the band with his radical left wing political views and associated them with the White Panther party, a counterpart of the Black Panther party, the band felt that his politics had become too much the focus of the band, not the music. Following the breakout of a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, where MC5 was performing, Sinclair was let go from the band.
1968 was also the year the band was signed to Elektra Records, along with their “little brother” band, Iggy and the Stooges.
MC5 released their debut album the next year and by 1972, the band had broken up.
The Stooges, however, went the distance. Formed only a few years after MC5, their live shows are what put them in the punk canon. Iggy Pop’s self-mutilation and other on-stage antics would become mainstays of punk acts like the Dead Boys and hardcore punk groups like Black Flag.
Signed by Danny Fields of Elektra Records in 1968, their debut album The Stooges was released in 1969 and featured the song “I Wanna Be Your Dog”, which is one of the most important proto-punk songs with its simple three chord riff played continuously throughout the 3 minute runtime. Heavier than the Motown songs of similar length coming out during the same decade, but much simpler and shorter than prog rock songs being recorded by Led Zeppelin and The Who, The Stooges are closer to punk than any other sound being created at that time.
CBGBs on the Bowery: The New York Punk Scene
Iggy and the Stooges would eventually make the move to New York City and join the burgeoning scene coming out of Bowery neighborhood in the Lower East Side of New York City. Two clubs made up the scene in the early days of punk — Max’s Kansas City, where Andy Warhol’s Factory hung out, Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe were discovered, and the New York Dolls were the house band, and the famous CBGB. Started by Hilly Kristal originally as a country, bluegrass, and blues bar, CBGB became a regular place for new punk acts to perform and for other punks to be seen. The band Television, featuring punk legends Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell, was the first band to play regular gigs at the club, after their manager Terry Ork walked in one day and asked the owner if his band could play. Kristal said yes, and soon he had bands such as the Ramones, Blondie, and Talking Heads following after.
Once punks had a regular place to gather, soon a community began to form, complete with their own sound and style. The Ramones are said to be the band that created the punk rock sound that is associated with the scene. Their songs were very short, their playing hard, fast, and loud, and their musical skill limited. Their appearance on stage consisted of basic apparel, leather motorcycle jackets, blue jeans, plain t-shirts, and long hair, all of which went against the mainstream ’70s style.
Also contributing to the punk aesthetic was Richard Hell, the original bassist for Television. Hell’s personal style included shorn hair, which he cut himself and styled in the image of French poet, Arthur Rimbaud, and torn up clothes held together by safety pins.
Representative of the do-it-yourself mentality that is prominent in punk ideology, the safety pin became a major punk symbol. The story goes that New York Dolls manager Malcolm McLaren was so enamored with Hell’s style that when he returned to his native London, McLaren formed a band around the imagery he saw in New York, and thus the Sex Pistols were born.
Anarchy In the UK: Punk in Britain
If New York claims the gritty, raw, and untrained sound of punk rock, then London most certainly claims the visual style and aesthetic of the scene. Inspired by Malcolm McLaren’s visit to New York, the Sex Pistols were more conscious of their visual presentation and outward appearance than their New York counterparts. While Richard Hell shies away from being the progenitor of the safety pin style, Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols took the accessory to a certain extreme, affixing several pins to his outfits and even putting one through his earlobe as jewelry.
The Clash’s Paul Simonon also had a significant influence on the band’s style. He was hired for the band by manager Bernie Rhodes for his personal style and appearance specifically. His art sensibility allowed him to have control in the design of all the band’s visuals, from album covers to promotional clips, to their on-stage outfits.
The Clash in particular added to the socially conscious lyricism of punk, more so than the New York bands. Songs like “London Calling” and “The Guns of Brixton” dealt with issues facing British society in the ’70s while “Lost in the Supermarket” discussed the wealth disparity and “White Riot” handled race and violence. Joe Strummer and Mick Jones were both extremely aware of the social issues plaguing Britain at the time and used their music as a vehicle for protest and to bring awareness to the masses. In that sense, it was the British bands that gave punk its style and political edge.
Punk’s Not Dead: The Legacy It Leaves Behind
It’s hard to determine where exactly punk started, if it can be said that there is any one place that is the sole originator of the genre. Detroit, New York, and London all added their own elements to the scene, but cities like Washington D.C. and Los Angeles can’t be ignored, as they also had large punk scenes. Regardless of who the rightful progenitor is, the important thing to remember is that without MC5 and Iggy and the Stooges getting the ball rolling, CBGB providing a community for a scene to build, and the Clash for adding style and lyricism, punk would not exist as we know it.
Without punk, bands like Beastie Boys, N.W.A., and Nirvana couldn’t have taken these different elements and ideals and further expounded upon them to drive new ideas and create new sounds. There will always be a youth culture that is fed up with the way adults are handling the issues of the world, and for the youth of the ’70s, punk is how they expressed their universal frustration. By each city taking the ideas of the previous and adding their own flare, they showed each other that their feelings of isolation and disenfranchisement were not unique to them, but felt by their peers all over the world. Out of frustration and anger, they created a platform not only for themselves to expound upon, but for peers and future generations of youths to express their ideas and frustrations through a creative outlet, and make some awesome music and art along the way.