Imagine, if you will, the musical landscape of 1976. Disco and soft rock rule the airwaves; in November of that year, Captain & Tennille’s “Muskrat Love,” strangely, will go to #4 on the Billboard Hot 100. Mainstream music remains placid, pleasant, and unchallenging, save the occasional sprinklings of prog and harder-edged stuff. “Harder” meaning, in this case, Boston and Ted Nugent.
Now, picture a sonic hand grenade thrown into the center of this safe and serene environment: A deafening wave of crashing guitars and furious, bile-spewing singers set on destroying everything that’s come before it. We’re talking, of course, about punk rock.
The Punk Paradox
“Punk” means many things to many people. For some, it’s a very specific time and place: The musical and cultural upheaval beginning roughly in 1976. Its instigators could be identified by confrontational clothing like spiked leather jackets, and hairstyles designed to shock polite sensibilities.
For others, punk is a nearly spiritual term, enfolding a multiverse of misfits and skeptics into a kind of DIY nation, bound more by their rejection of the mainstream than any particular style or taste.
For our purposes, we’re going to keep it straightforward, and focus just on the music. Though punk rock can claim roots in the rebellious rock ’n roll of the ‘50s and the aggressive sounds and countercultural themes of the ‘60s, it was first and foremost a reaction to the bland and complacent music of the ‘70s.
And while it didn’t have much of a commercial impact—at least at first—it would become a major force in the music world, eventually giving us bands like Nirvana. Over 20 years since that band’s untimely end, their sound and message still resonate with up-and-coming artists in much the same way that previous generations were schooled on the music of the Beatles.
How does a movement designed to smash the system in fact become the system? That’s just one of the many questions the punk movement raised. And if the corruption of the music business was a signature theme for the early punk bands, how did some of them end up forging long careers in that very same industry? More to the point, how can younger artists take inspiration today, following in their footsteps while still finding their own, distinct voices?
Punk: The Early Days
As with any creative movement that blossomed from isolated outposts of pioneers into a global phenomenon, there are many variations on punk’s origin story. We’re going to avoid controversy here—yes, a very unpunk thing to do—and focus instead on the common threads of the movement.
By and large, punk rock was a fast, scrappy, and in-your-face take on existing musical threads. These included hard rock, including bands like AC/DC and Thin Lizzy; lo-fi and aggressive-sounding garage rock, like the Count Five and the Chocolate Watchband, and perhaps most directly, underground artists like the Velvet Underground, Yoko Ono, MC5 and the Stooges, who pioneered a confrontational musical and performative style long before it was considered acceptable (or even possible).
While some early punk practitioners would insist on a strictly DIY approach, the major early punk bands—at least the ones we’ve all heard of—did not. The Sex Pistols, Clash, Patti Smith, Ramones and many others were all signed to major labels (or, in the Ramones’ case, an established indie that was soon to acquire major-label distribution).
This presented a problem of perception. How did one sing about smashing the system while actively reaping its benefits? Some artists wrote songs dissing their former labels—the Sex Pistols’ “EMI” and Stiff Little Fingers’ “Rough Trade” being noteworthy examples—while others railed about the limited programming then available on commercial radio (a la the Clash’s “Capital Radio”). But make no mistake: These artists were not intent on laboring in obscurity.
If punk artists were perceived to be biting the hand that fed them, that proved no impediment to the many record labels eager to sign them. Many of these bands would disappear as soon as they had materialized, but others demonstrated real staying power. Billy Idol and Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders, for instance, would find huge mainstream success by marrying a punk image with overtly commercial hard rock music, while Elvis Costello, building on the template of the DIY “pub rock” movement that fueled many of the original English punks, for a brief moment stood poised to become the next David Bowie, before some very ill-considered and objectionable remarks helped nip those ambitions in the bud.
The Awkward Growing-Out Phase
Like most cultural movements, punk exploded into the public consciousness with a bang, only to largely disappear from view within a few years. But if the sounds and styles of the original punks were no longer fashionable, the movement had created thousands of sleeper cells all over the world. While the ‘80s were characterized in large part by ever glossier pop and arena-rock productions—think Duran Duran’s “Rio” or Van Halen’s “Jump”—a youth movement was brewing literally all across the globe, powered by young people inspired by punk’s DIY ethos, picking up cheap guitars and thrashed drum kits and finding their way.
Unlike the original punk explosion, this movement would have nearly zero effect on popular culture. Bands like Sonic Youth and the Replacements would ply their trade for years to minimal acclaim, surviving—if at all—from record to record at the very margins of the music industry.
When punk—or something akin to it—finally resurfaced, it had changed along with the times. Nirvana’s 1991 takeover of the airwaves was clearly inspired by the original punk movement, but the band didn’t look, or sound, very much like “punk” used to. Instead, Nirvana took inspiration from a broad swath of artists, ranging from the largely unknown—jangly Scottish pop band the Vaselines, trippy Arizona country-punks the Meat Puppets—to the virtually universal: David Bowie, KISS, and Led Zeppelin, among others.
What happened next was, to quote Yogi Berra, “Déjà vu all over again.” Record labels rushed to sign underground artists, and bands with commercially inconsequential followings suddenly found themselves with major-label contracts.
Needless to say, the majority of these signings found themselves dropped after a single underperforming release. Others, such as the Pixies and Pearl Jam, managed to build careers of varying durability by adapting the sonic template and message of punk to fit a new audience.
But if the boom-and-bust model was predictable, there was also something very different this time around. The music this new generation of artists was making was sonically distinct from the stripped-down fury of, say, the early Clash.
Perhaps more importantly, the industry in which they worked had changed. The ways in which music was created and distributed were about to undergo a radical shift; and while major labels still held ultimate decision-making—and career-breaking—power, it was becoming clear that this wasn’t going to last forever. With the advent of affordable digital recording, writable CDs, and not least online sharing, the music industry was becoming decentralized at a breathtaking pace.
Youth of Today
We promised that this article was going to stick strictly to the subject of punk music, but—like punk itself—that stance is going to have to evolve. If many of the original punk artists displayed antipathy—real or feigned—towards their corporate benefactors, today’s artists are less bound to adopt such postures.
For one, the breakdown of the decades-old major label industry means that, as an independent artist, the people you’ll be doing business with will most likely be your peers. They’re people—like your humble hosts here at Songtrust—who believe in a more egalitarian approach to music-making. By and large, they’re focused on the possibilities offered by decentralized production and distribution, and the notion that anyone—not just virtuosos or anointed tastemakers—can make meaningful, lasting art.
So in the larger, spiritual sense, the lasting effect of punk may have little to do with “punk-sounding” music (though the healthy demand for ’77-style punk suggests otherwise). What punk did was to break apart our conceptions of how the music industry ought to function, what kinds of material artists are expected to write, and most of all that, as music creators, we need “permission”—in the form of major-label contracts—to make our art. Whether or not you’re a fan of the raucous guitars and machine-gun drums of the original punk explosion, it’s a lasting and valuable lesson you can carry with you as you make your way in the ever-changing waters of the creative economy.