A history of punk divided into two parts: “What Are The Politics of Boredom?” and “Punk and Post-Punk Subcultures: Do It Yourself.” I get emails every week, mostly students, asking for more information. A reading list is available in the books section of my Reviews ‘n’ Rants page. I’m uncomfortable being cited as an authority, however, as much of the information is second hand. Someone even approached me to publish it in a book. I tried to update and improve it, and the result is an expanded Part One. However, I don’t think it merits publishing. Another common question is whether I’ll update it to include the past twelve years. The answer is no. While I do believe that punk is very much alive in the form of micro-scenes around the world, and I even enjoy some of the popular stuff like Rancid, I don’t think that chapter of punk holds much historical interest. Basically punk has evolved into another form of folk music that can be easily learned and played. That’s cool, but to me, the social and musical implications of punk were much more exciting in a specific time and place — specifically its birth in Detroit and New York in the early to mid 70s, and England soon after. Enjoy the expanded Part One!
- Part One: What Are The Politics of Boredom?
- Part Two: Punk and Post-Punk Subcultures: Do It Yourself
by A.S. Van Dorston
Disclaimer: If this seems a bit out of date, the author would like to point out that this was written in January 1990 . . . while laid up in the hospital from surgery, with a steady stream of morphine flowing through his IV . . . in between reading chapters ofCrash by J.G. Ballard. The author would also like to point out that he predicted many future (now past) trends in the music business with alarming acuracy . . . Part One was updated to include information from books like Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of PUNK, Jon Savage’s England’s Dreaming: Anarchy Sex Pistols, Punk Rock and Beyond, and Clinton Heylin’s From the Velvets to the Voidoids: A Pre-Punk History for a Post-Punk World. Students seeking additional sources can go to the books section for a reading list.
The Electric Circus began as a popular New York nightclub, complete with pulsating lights, fragmented pieces of movies, colored patterns and slides sweeping the mirrored walls, strip lighting writhing on the floor, flashing on and off like a demented snake who’s swallowed phosphorus. It was the hippest place in New York for the affluent celebrities, artists and social climbers to be seen.
The downstairs section was turned into a bar called the Dom. According to Ronald Sukenik in Down and In: A History of the Underground, the entire Lower East Side, “all the painters, all the poets, everybody in the world showed up.” There was no attraction except nickel beer. The glorified basement began hosting live jazz and bands that played back in the larger room for dancing. Upstairs the Electric Circus was still going, but had changed from being a Jackie Onassis celebrity place to being a kids’ place. Black kids replaced many of the white East Villagers to listen to the jukebox stocked with soul music.
In late 1964, when the Beatles had just hit America, the Fugs were conceived in the dark recess of the Dom. Originally attracted by the poetry readings, Ed Sanders (proud publisher of a literary magazine called Fuck You, A Magazine of the Arts) and Tuli Kupferberg were two like-minded vermin who together spawned the unofficial origins of “underground” music.
The group worked out their material in other venues like Slug’s and the MacDougall Street Theatre in Greenwich Village. They invented outrageous dances like “The Turkey Gobble” to go along with their songs, released on the debut album in 1965 on the small jazz-oriented ESP label. The label rejected the second set of songs as too offensive. Later released under the title Virgin Fugs, the album epitomized the Fugs’ sense of humor and satire. By making fun of commercial culture (“Caca Rock” and “I Saw the Best Minds of My Generation Rot” written by Allen Ginsberg) and government institutions (“CIA Man” and “Kill For Peace”), the Fugs displayed a healthy disrespect for nearly everything, or an unhealthy anti-social attitude, depending on your perspective. The few things that deserved their respect consisted of the drug and sex culture of the Lower East Side. Songs like “New Amphetamine Shriek” and “Saran Wrap” bluntly and humorously (again, depending on your perspective) brought them to new heights of obscenity. Sanders later became better known as the author of The Family, a book on Charles Manson.
The band inspired many lesser-known contemporaries such as Dave Peel & the Lower East Side, who produced such infamous songs on the album, The Pope Smokes Dope, like “The Chicago Conspiracy,” “I’m A Runaway,” “The Birth Control Blues,” and “I’m Gonna Start Another Riot.”
Another band to play at the Dom, was The Velvet Underground. Lou Reed previously worked as an assembly-line songwriter for Pickwick records, and published Delmore Schwartz-influenced poetry in Fusion magazine. By 1965 he had already written future VU classics “Heroin” and “Waiting for the Man.” He met John Cale at a party and played his songs with an acoustic guitar. Cale was not interested in “folk music.” But he soon realized that Reed’s urban-realist lyrics had less in common with Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, and more with La Monte Young’s avant-garde experiment in dissonance, The Dream Syndicate, which Cale discarded his classical studies in viola to be a part of. The concept of the group was to sustain notes for two hours at a time, an endeavor that was undoubtedly fueled by the acid, opium and grass that La Monte was dealing. They rehearsed seven days a week, six hours a day, until the end of 1965, when Cale started rehearsing with Lou Reed and named their band after a paperback book about sadomasochism written by Michael Leigh in 1963.
By 1966, Reed, Cale, Maureen Tucker and Sterling Morrison had secured a residency at the Café Bizarre, a strange, touristy club with large drinks that contained ice cream and coconut fizz. Paul Morrissey, an associate of Andy Warhol, caught the Velvet Underground and decided it would be good publicity for Andy to manage a rock ‘n’ roll band. After much persuading, Warhol swanned into the Café Bizarre, and was immediately hypnotized by the eccentric group of people singing about heroin and S&M to unsuspecting tourists. According to Morrissey, he secured the deal with Reed and told Warhol, who responded with “Oh uu-uu-uuuu . . . okay.” Once the management of Bizarre figured out what the Velvets were actually singing, they fired them.
Paul Morrissey felt that Lou Reed was an uncomfortable performer, and they needed another singer. He thought of Nico, whom he had met in Paris, and had cut a record with the Rolling Stones’ manager, Andrew Loog Oldham. She added a lot of celebrity cache, as she had had a substantial part in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, and had supposedly dated Brian Jones and Bob Dylan, who’s “I’ll Keep It With Mine” was supposedly written for her. Reed was reluctant, but Cale talked him into accepting her. He ended up letting her sing only three songs, however.
The Velvets were now part of Warhol’s multi-media freakshow unit, The Factory. Warhol put them on his touring “total environment” show, The Exploding Plastic Inevitable. He made many films, featuring random people who Warhol called “Superstars.” Instead of sharing The Fugs’ sense of humor, the Velvet Underground relied on their detailed studies of urban realism, with the powerful interpretation of addiction in “Heroin” (notably lacking any comfortably instructive moral) and “I’m Waiting For The Man.” Friends and scenesters like Danny Fields convinced Reed and Cale that the slide projections and polka dot light shows were corny compared to their powerful music. After firing Warhol, who understandably preferred more artificial dwellings, they recorded the relentlessly abrasive White Light/White Heat in 1968, featuring the epic “Sister Ray,” an unprecedented orgy of squalling noise. After pushing their sound to particularly unbearable limits at a club housing a psychiatrist convention, the band members were offered free counseling. While they eventually became much more influential than The Fugs, their jubilant yet brutal sound and imagery prevented them from selling any more albums on Verve than The Fugs sold on ESP.
Panic In Detroit
That same year (1966), Iggy Pop decided to form a band that would be completely unlike anything anyone had ever heard. After abandoning his stint as a drummer for Sam Lay, of the original Paul Butterfield Blues Band, he formed the Stooges in Detroit, MI with friends who could barely play their instruments. They had very little in the way of programmed musical knowledge to interfere with the ideas they’d be called upon to execute.
Iggy Pop heard The Velvet Underground & Nico record at a party on the University of Michigan campus. At first he hated it. But after a few months, it sunk in. “That record became very key for me, not just for what it said, and for how great it was, but also because I heard other people who could make good music — without being any good at music. It gave me hope” he said.
The Stooges’ 1968 performances consisted of an aural background for Iggy’s body contortions, self-mutilation, diving into the audience and screamed insults at those who had come only to be entertained, not to become involved in the show. The Stooges’ extreme bizarreness didn’t make them popular like the Doors, who’s antics they pre-dated. As a neanderthal version of the Velvet Underground, the band managed to achieve the distinction of the first true influence on punk.
Ironically, they were signed by the major label Elektra, and their 1969 debut was produced by John Cale. It was highlighted by the classic “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” and the pre-punk “No Fun.” In “1969,” they revealed the source of their outrageousness to be boredom, chanting “another year with nothing to do.” They were bored with the music scene, and bored with being poor; a condition they remained in after not achieving anything above a cult status.
Also from Detroit, MC5 articulated their boredom in a slightly more politicized and distinctly blue collar manner, coming to prominence in the 1968 Democratic Convention riots as figureheads of John Sinclair’s White Panther Party.
While their heavy sounding music was not particularly original (they were extremely derivative of the current sound of The Who), their attitude inspired many future punk bands, prophesizing the Sex Pistols’ conflicts with EMI and Virgin. Like the Stooges, MC5 was scooped up by Elektra. They were soon embroiled in controversy over the lyric line “Kick out the jams motherfuckers!” When at least one record store refused to stock the album, the group responded by taking out a viciously declamatory ad in a local underground paper. Elektra was not amused, especially when MC5 went further and plastered “Fuck You” stickers bearing the Elektra logo over the record store’s windows. Band and label parted company shortly after.
By 1970, the provocative Detroit scene lured the Alice Cooper away from San Francisco and Frank Zappa’s Straight Records to claim the Motor City as their new home. Singer Vincent Furnier, who acquired the name “Alice Cooper” from a Ouija board, expanded upon the theatrics of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable and Iggy Pop’s brand of Theatre of the Possessed with his own style of shock-rock. With a Theatre Of The Absurd stage show consisting of garish makeup, live boa constrictors and toy dolls meeting their death in electric chairs and gallows, combined with the new artistic credibility in the albums Love It To Death (1970) and Killer (1971), it became increasingly difficult to remain bored in Detroit.
The collective Detroit music scene became the most frequently cited influence of punk bands starting in 1975, and continuing through the next 15 years to many current post-punk bands.
I Love The Modern World
Back on the East Coast, an 18 year-old kid named Jonathan Richman was excited after hearing the Velvet Underground’s 1970 farewell album, Loaded. He use to perform unaccompanied in a park in Boston until he formed the Modern Lovers because, said Richman in an immortal quote, “I was lonely.” He also wanted to follow up his own revelation of V.U.’s lyrical terrain and manic drone, with the help of future Talking Heads keyboardist Jerry Harrison and future Cars drummer David Robinson.
Again, former Velvet Underground maestro John Cale guided another young legend by producing the first and last Modern Lovers album in 1971. Richman abandoned the aggressive worship of sex, drugs and other decadent vices in favor of a fresh romanticism of the modern world. “Roadrunner” celebrated neon road signs, convenience stores and power lines in the spirit of The Velvet Underground’s “Rock and Roll.” “Someone I Care About” replaced sexism and macho egotism with sensitivity and respect. “I’m Straight” and “She Cracked” were uniquely eloquent expressions of angst. “Pablo Picasso,” “Girlfriend” and “Government Center” displayed the playful humor that Richman would later become identified with.
By the time punk was underway in 1977, Richman’s teary-eyed optimism and fantasy came forth in the form of silly children’s songs at a time punctuated by bitter nihilism. Nevertheless, the Modern Lovers served their role as a stepping stone toward the first punk era by further defining the possibilities of exciting minimalist electric rock and roll.
The next step took the form of the New York Dolls in 1972. By adopting an androgynous stage presence with dresses and makeup, and relying on a more raunchy post-Rolling Stones crunch, the Dolls took Richman’s innocent exuberance and deflowered it.
The Dolls started playing regularly at the Diplomat Hotel and the Mercer Arts Center in the middle of SoHo, which featured a small theater, a cabaret room, a bar and a conceptual art room called the Kitchen. No one knew what to do with the Oscar Wilde Room, so the Dolls wound up performing there. Their audience started with the cast of misfits, drag queens, speed freaks and refugees from the tail end of the sixties Warhol scene who inhabited the Oscar Wilde Room, and Max’s Kansas City, where they would perform with the Magic Tramps, fronted by former Warhol superstar Eric Emerson, performance artist Alan Suicide and drag queen Wayne County. It became so fashionable to see the Dolls, that people went to be seen seeing the Dolls. Among the celebrities were David Bowie and Lou Reed, watching and learning.
The band were mostly inept musicians, yet their act transcended camp. Their earnestness and enthusiasm was inclusive, encouraging their audience to grow with them as they developed. Johansen had the showbiz shtick down pat with his Jagger-like leers. Johnny Thunders’ guitar playing was harmonically unstable and unpredictable, like John Cale’s viola in the Velvet Underground, resulting in a sound like the screech of the New York subway. “People who saw the Dolls said, ‘Hell, anybody can do this.’” said Johansen. “I think what the Dolls did as far as being an influence on punk was that we showed that anybody could do it.”
While still negotiating a contract with Mercury Records, the band was sent to England to open for Rod Stewart. Having never played before more than 350 people, an audience of 13,000 was quite a shock. The show was a success and they became the toast of the town. A bidding war immediately started. The elation was cut short when drummer Billy Murcia died at a party when he was abandoned in a tub while choking from a mix of alcohol and Quaaludes. The band nearly broke up, but decided to continue, adding Jerry Nolan. Many of the offers for record deals were withdrawn by companies fearful of the band’s image as drug addicts. They eventually signed with Mercury. Typically, Murcia’s death resulted in the publicity that made the Dolls a smash. “We were living this movie: everybody wants to see it, and we were giving it to them” said Sylvain Sylvain. They quickly recorded an album produced, and slightly watered-down, by Todd Rundgren. Nevertheless, they managed to pound out a few apocalyptic songs of rebellious youthfulness beaten into a realization of a bleak future, like “Looking For A Kiss,” “Lonely Planet Boy,” and “Pills,” which told stories about kids whose only aspiration left is avoiding boredom, yet they don’t particularly mind the fact.
In August 1973, with several other London King’s Road shops, Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s clothing store, Let It Rock, was invited to exhibit designs at the National Boutique show at New York’s MacAlpin Hotel. They didn’t sell any clothes, but McLaren did meet the New York Doll’s Sylvain Sylvain. The Dolls had actually been to the Let It Rock shop on their first visit to London, but McLaren wasn’t around. Under the Dolls’ aegis, the Let It Rock crew were moved into the Chelsea Hotel where they rubbed elbows with celebrities like Alice cooper, Andy Warhol and a young poet named Patti Smith. McLaren had found his celebrity clique, and they made him feel at home.
When the Dolls returned to Europe in November 1973, McLaren followed them to every date. Many of the Doll’s antics would foreshadow the Sex Pistols’ publicity stunts, such as taunting the audience of the Old Grey Whistle Test, David Johansen making Nazi jokes, and Johnny Thunders walking off an airplane in front of the entire European press and — bl-a-a-a-a-g-g-h-h! — throwing up. McLaren had also encountered Iggy Pop that year, when David Bowie was producing Raw Power in England. “I found Iggy incredibly vain, because he was an incredibly handsome character,” said McLaren. “But I wasn’t taken with Iggy in the same way as I was with the Dolls. I think one of the reasons was because Iggy was less about fashion. I think it’s a stupid thing to say, but it’s the truth; I didn’t see the fashion about Iggy.”
McLaren’s immediate reaction to his experiences with the Dolls was to give his shop a makeover, selling black fetish wear, abandoning and enraging their once loyal Teddy Boy clientele. He was on the verge of marrying his experience with subcultures, art and politics. In April 1974, McLaren gave his first extended interview for Nick Kent of the New Musical Express. The piece was called “The Politics of Flash.” In a May 1974 letter to Roberta Bayley, he wrote, “I’ve written lyrics for a couple of songs, one called ‘Too Fast To Live Too Young To Die.’ I have the idea of the singer looking like Hitler, those gestures, arm shapes, etc., and talking about his mum in incestuous phrases.”
It’s largely believed that McLaren prefabricated the Sex Pistols from scratch, nabbing the shoplifting Steve Jones in his shop and sensing a connection like a Fagin to Jones’ Artful Dodger. However, Jones was already a rocker who, from 1972-73, methodically stole clothes and equipment from the houses and shows of celebrities like Roxy Music, Ronnie Wood and Rod Stewart. The greatest coup came in July 1973, when they made off the entire PA and very expensive Neumann microphones that were to be used for David Bowie’s big concert at the Hammersmith Odeon. Ironically, the victims of their thefts were also their biggest influences. The group that formed in 1973 around the stolen equipment were called the Strand, after the Roxy Music song. Roxy Music’s greatest innovation was the use of Brian Eno as an untutored synthesizer player. Like the New York Dolls, they made a point to teenagers alienated by inflated prog bands of the era, that style, not musicianship, was important.
By spring 1974, the band had not yet found its focus. Jones had been hanging around McLaren’s shop, and eventually asked him if he knew of a rehearsal space. After a couple months of Jones’ persistence, he paid for a room in the Covent Garden Community Centre. A few days later he stopped by a rehearsal, and witnessed disastrous attempts to play “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love” and “Wild Thing.” But he remained interested. “I had some sympathy with these guys, because they seemed a bit roguish and a bit mad.” The one musician who already knew how to play, McLaren later found in Glen Matlock, a middle-class art student who was obsessed with Mod pop. “I never really got on with Glen,” said Steve Jones, “I found him a bit poncified, he weren’t one of the lads.”
Still bedazzled with the allure of the New York Dolls, McLaren left for New York again in November 1974. He asked his friend Bernard Rhodes, whom he began working with to print slogans on T-shirts, to look after Steve Jones, meaning, “He’s got this sort of group, maybe we can do something,” said Rhodes. Before he left, they collaborated on a new T-shirt that was their first manifesto. It read, “You’re gonna wake up one morning and know what side of the bed you’ve been lying on!” with a list of “hates” on the left, including “Television (Not the group)/Mick Jagger/The Playboy Club/Fellini” and other dead culture, pompous rockers and repressive institutions. On the right were the “loves,” including “Jamaican Rude Boys/Archieshepp/Iggy Pop/Walt Whitman” and mysteriously, “Kutie Jones and his SEX PISTOLS.”
By that point, the Dolls were already in their death throes. Strung out on drugs and alcohol, the band was unsure of what direction to take. While McLaren’s relationship with the group was never formalized, he enthusiastically took the initiative and checked Arthur Kane into detox, booked some shows, and repackaged the band’s look into red patent-leathered Communists, taking language from Chinese revolutionary posters, like “WHAT ARE THE POLITICS OF BOREDOM? BETTER RED THAN DEAD!” It’s hard to say how the British weekly music press would have reacted. But in New York, the scene was tiny, and centered around only one magazine, Rock Scene, headed by Lisa Robinson. After a concert on February 1975, Lisa thought Malcolm was mad. When she confronted Johansen, he said it wasn’t anything serious, which disappointed McLaren. He was much happier with Johnny Thunders’ response to Lenny Kaye, “What’s it to ya?” That was the attitude he was looking for.
A week later, after a disastrous string of gigs in Florida, the New York Dolls were no more. But by then, a whole new scene had developed. It was largely sparked by two Virginia boarding school dropouts Richard Meyers and Tom Miller. The duo were very different people, united by a mutual love of French 19th century poets. Meyers was drawn to New York in 1967 by the literary scene, while Miller was drawn slightly later by his interest in New York as the home of the Velvet Underground, John Coltrane and Albert Ayler. Miller had already been writing and performing acoustic songs, but the were inspired by the New York Dolls. “Me and Tom went together to see the New York Dolls at the Mercer Arts Center–and the Dolls had a lot to do with me wanting to do a band,” said Meyers. “There was just so much more excitement in rock ‘n’ roll than sitting at home writing poetry.” By the fall of 1972 they acquired drummer Billy Ficca, and old friend of Miller’s from Delaware, and became the Neon Boys. Meyers changed his surname to Hell, and Miller to Verlaine. Verlaine believed the excitement in good music came from the rhythm guitar being featured way up front, like the mid-sixties British bands The Who, the Kinks, the Stones and the Yardbirds. For a brief period, Miller and Meyers shared the same commitment to the garageband sound. By April 1973 they had already recorded six tracks, including Hell’s “That’s All I Know Right Now” and “Love Comes In Spurts.” Verlaine played both lead and rhythm guitar. Songs about teenage angst with noisy guitars.
In order to play the songs live, they needed another guitarist, and placed an ad inCreem that said, “Wanted: Rhythm guitarist. Talent not necessary.” Douglas Colvin (later known as Dee Dee Ramone) and Chris Stein (later of Blondie) auditioned, “but I guess they didn’t possess the sufficient ‘no talent,’ or whatever,” said Richard Lloyd. Chris Stein had just begun playing with Debbie Harry in the Stillettoes, but thought the Neon Boys songs were too fast and brutal for his tastes. For nearly a year, the Neon Boys were in limbo. Finally Terry Ork offered to let the band rehearse in his China Town loft and support the band if they accepted Los Angeles transplant and hustler Richard Lloyd as their guitarist. They renamed themselves Television. The two erstwhile leaders decided that onstage alter egos were in order. Miller became Verlaine, and Meyers turned to Hell. “One thing I wanted to bring back to rock ‘n’ roll was the knowledge that you invent yourself,” said Hell. Hell already had his look down — leather jackets, torn T-shirts and short spiky hair. Anti-glam, it recalled Rimbaud, Artaud, and a character in Truffaut’s 400 Blows. It was the origin of what was to become the Punk style. “That’s why I changed my name, why I did all the clothing style things, haircut, everything. . . . That is the ultimate message of the New Wave: if you just amass the courage that is necessary, you can completely invent yourself. You can be your own hero, and once everybody is their own hero, then everybody is gonna be able to communicate with each other on a real basis rather than a hand-me-down set of societal standards.”
Now they needed a place where they could be seen every week, like the New York Dolls had with the Mercer Arts Center, which had crumbled to the ground in August 1973. In March 1974, Verlaine and Lloyd were walking towards Chinatown and came upon a place that the owner was outside fixing up. They asked Hilly Crystal to let them try out a weekly series at his Bowery bar, called CBGB-OMFUG (Country, Bluegrass, Blues, and Other Music for Uplifting Gourmandizers). When he asked them what kind of music they played, they responded with “A little rock, a little country, a little blues, a little bluegrass . . . ” said Lloyd. Television ended up playing every Sunday night for six months. They became popular enough that Kristal inaugurated a ‘Rock only’ policy in December. CBGBs soon became a testing ground for other new groups like the Stillettoes/Blondie, the Ramones, the Dictators, the Heartbreakers, Suicide, Rocket From the Tombs/Peru Ubu, the Dead Boys, Blondie and the Talking Heads. Fellow poet Patti Smith joined Television for a shared a five day residency at Max’s Kansas City in August.
While Television had demoed at least a half dozen songs, including “I Don’t Care,” “Change Your Channels,” and “Fuck Rock & Roll,” Patti Smith was the first to release a single — a feminized “Hey Joe” backed with the autobiographical “Piss Factory,” recorded in June 1974. She had already published two books of poetry, written for Creem and Rolling Stone, and worked in theater with Sam Shephard. She gave Television their first major write-up in the October issue of Rock Scene, with a two-page feature entitled “Learning to Stand Naked.” (see Heylin, 126). The Patti Smith Group didn’t play CBGBs until March 1975, sharing a two-month residency with Television. McLaren returned to New York from the Florida debacle in the middle of the Smith/Television residency, and especially loved Richard Hell, and his recent composition, “(I Belong to the) Blank Generation.” He tried to persuade Hell to front the group he had back home, but Hell was already fighting with Verlaine over the leadership of Television, and was too old and proud to be manipulated. “I just thought Richard Hell was incredible,” said McLaren. “Again, I was sold another fashion victim’s idea . . . this look, this image of this guy, this spiky hair, everything about it — there was no question that I’d take it back to London. By being inspired by it, I was going to imitate it and transform it into something more English.” McLaren already had what he needed, having seen a musical subculture develop overnight that was completely self-generated, mutually supportive, yet potentially commercial, that radiated “intelligence, speed, being connected to the moment.” (Savage, 92) “I had these images that I came back with, it was like Marco Polo, or Walter Raleigh. These are the things I brought back: the image of this distressed, strange thing called Richard Hell. And this phrase, “the blank generation.”
Island Records offered Television an opportunity to record some songs for a possible album, to be co-produced by Richard Williams and Brian Eno. When Verlaine refused to record any Hell-penned songs, even the ever-popular “Blank Generation,” it was the last straw. Hell stayed for two more weeks, and played on the demos, which included “Prove It,” “Venus De Milo,” “Marquee Moon,” “Double Exposure” and “Friction.” David Bowie and Bryan Ferry were attending gigs and spreading the word. But Hell left to form the Heartbreakers with former New York Dolls Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan, and Verlaine, unhappy with the sound of the demos, decided the band needed more work. They added bassist Fred Smith and their live shows exploded like a supernova. But rather than the spiky, short creations of the past, the band became more improvisational, with jazz and psychedelic influences. “Marquee Moon” extended beyond ten minutes, and “Poor Circulation” and “Breakin’ In My Heart” were also lengthened. “Little Johnny Jewel” was also expansive in structure. Verlaine decided to release it as their first single, starting on side A and continuing on side B. It was probably their least commercial song, and Richard Lloyd quit the band in frustration. Peter Laughner eagerly came in from Cleveland to fill in. He had recorded a recent show Television had played at the Piccadilly Penthouse in Cleveland, and knew all the songs.
Cleveland was the only other city besides New York to continue Detroit’s legacy in underground music. Peter Laughner was the key figure, having formed Cinderella’s Revenge, which broke up in 1973, and most significantly, Rocket From the Tombs. Though they were only together from June 1974 to July 1975, they managed to write three of American punk’s most potent anthems — “Sonic Reducer” (later recorded by the Dead Boys), “Final Solution” and “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” (both recorded by Pere Ubu). Other important bands in the scene were the Mirrors, The Electric Eels, and later Friction and Devo. These bands are fully documented in Clinton Heylin’s From the Velvets to the Voidoids: A Pre-Punk History for a Post-Punk World.
Meanwhile, The Patti Smith Group became the first of the New York bands to release an album. Signed to Arista by Clive Davis, they recorded in the summer of 1975 with producer John Cale, who urged them to thoroughly think through all of their songs. “Land” was expanded into a tour de force with Smith incorporating William Burroughs’ cut-up methods, stream-of-consciousness raps in which Smith surrendered herself to a “sea of possibilities” until she felt like she was in a trance, or even channeling the ghost of Jimi Hendrix, whose Electric Ladyland Studio they were using. “On the last take it was obvious that I was being told what I wanted to know about Hendrix’s death . . . I felt like it was The Exorcist . . . I said ‘How did I die . . . I, I tried to walk thru light’ . . . and it ended up with ‘in the sheets, there was a man’ — it really frightened me.” Horses was released to rave reviews in the fall of 1975.
WATCH OUT! PUNK IS COMING!
Yet still there was no name for this burgeoning scene. It never occurred to most people involved that there needed to be a label, since all the bands had vast stylistic differences. There was, however, a shared sense of community and involvement. While major record labels were always a presence, there was a pride that these bands did it themselves.
The word “punk” first made an appearance in music journalism in a 1970 essay, “The Punk Muse: The True Story of Protopathic Spiff Including the Lowdown on the Trouble-Making Five-Percent of America’s Youth” by Nick Tosches in Fusion. He described a music that was a “visionary expiation, a cry into the abyss of one’s own mordant bullshit,” its “poetry is puked, not plotted.” That same year, Lester Bangs wrote a novella titled Drug Punk, influenced by William Burroughs’ book,Junky, in which there is a line, “Fucking punks think it’s a joke. They won’t think it’s so funny when they’re doing five twenty-nine on the island.” Dave Marsh used the phrase “punk rock” in his Looney Tunes column in the May 1971 issue ofCreem, the same issue that introduced the term “heavy metal” as a genre name. Marsh wrote, “Culturally perverse from birth, I decided that this insult would be better construted as a compliment, especially given the alternative to such punkist behavior, which I figured was acting like a dignified asshole.” Tosches, Bangs, Marsh, Richard Meltzer, Greg Shaw and Lenny Kaye used the term to define a canon of proto-punk bands, including the Velvets, Stooges, MC5, the Modern Lovers and the New York Dolls (DeRogatis, Let It Blurt, 118-119).
Ironically, the band that actually inspired the magazine called Punk came from upstate New York — a bunch of leather-jacketed wise-guys called The Dictators. They formed in 1973 and established a small following in a club in Queens called The Coventry. They found American music pompous at the time, so they took the succinct, hooky songs of British glam bands like Sweet, Roxy Music, Slade and T. Rex, and added their own brand of tongue-in-cheek, loutish humor and American junk culture in songs like “Teengenerate” and “(I Live For) Cars and Girls.” Singer Handsome Dick Manitoba completed the image with a pro-wrestling star persona. Joey Ramone attended many Dictators performances, soon to take a couple of the ideas and run with it.
Sandy Pearlman, manager and producer of the Blue Oyster Cult, helped the Dictators do a demo. Epic Records signed them, they recorded in 1974, and The Dictators Go Girl Crazy! was released in early 1975, al pre-CBGBs. The band did not take the time to flesh out and focus their sound like the CBGBs bands. They did manage to reach some key fans, including Legs McNeil and cartoonist John Holstrom. “All summer we had been listening to this album Go Girl Crazy by this unknown group called the Dictators, and it changed our lives. We’d just get drunk every night and lip-sync to it . . . ” said McNeil. “I hated most rock ‘n’ roll, because it was about lame hippie stuff, and there really wasn’t anyone describing our lives — which was McDonald’s, beer, and TV reruns.”
Holmstrom wanted to publish a magazine with Ged Dunn and McNeil. McNeil envisioned the magazine as a Dictators album come to life. On the inside sleeve of the record was a picture of the Dictators hanging out at White Castle, dressed in leather jackets. “So I thought the magazine should be for other fuck-ups like us. Kids who grew up believing only in the Three Stooges. Kids that had parties when their parents were away and destroyed the house. You know, kids that stole cars and had fun. So I said, ‘Why don’t we call it Punk?” The word ‘punk’ seemed to sum up the threat that connected everything we liked — drunk, obnoxious, smart but not pretentious, absurd, funny, ironic, and things that appealed to the darker side.”
Holmstrom agreed, and became the editor, Dunn, the publisher, and McNeil the resident punk. “And they both started laughing hysterically. Ged and John were both like four years older than me. And I think half the reason they hung out with me was because I was always getting drunk and into trouble and Holmstrom found it constantly amusing. So it was decided I would be a living cartoon character, like Alfred E. Neuman was to Mad Magazine. And Holmstrom changed my name from Eddie to Legs . . . It’s funny, but we had no idea if anybody besides the Dictators were out there. We had no idea about CBGB’s and what was going on, but I don’t think we cared. We just liked the idea of Punkmagazine. And that was all that really mattered.”
Picking up writer Mary Harron, their first assignment was to go to CBGBs to hear The Ramones. McNeil spotted Lou Reed, who had recently released the controversial Metal Machine Music. “So I went up to Lou and I said, ‘Hey, we’re gonna interview you for our magazine!’ You know like, ‘Aren’t you thrilled?’ I had no idea of what we were doing. Then Holmstrom said to Lou, ‘Yeah, we’ll even put you on the cover!’ Lou just turned around, real deadpan, and said, ‘Oh, your circulation must be fabulous.’”
The Ramones proceeded to blow the staffers of Punk away with a roaring 18 minute set of short, fast, loud songs. No solos, no blues or boogie riffs, simply raw energy. Afterwards, the interview went well, as they bonded over comic books, sixties bubble-gum music and deadpan, sarcastic humor. “I really thought I was at the Cavern Club in 1963 and we had just met the Beatles” said McNeil. “Only it wasn’t a fantasy, it wasn’t the Beatles, it was our band — the Ramones. But we couldn’t hang out with them that long, because we had to go interview Lou Reed, who was old, and snotty, and like someone’s cranky old drunken father.”
Reed was brutally hostile to McNeil, who didn’t seem to mind. “I read the Lou Reed interview quickly, and I could see that everything that was humiliating, embarrassing, and stupid had been turned to an advantage” said Harron. “And that’s when I knew that Punk was going to work. The crew proceeded to plaster the city with posters that said, “WATCH OUT! PUNK IS COMING!” “Everyone who saw them said, ‘Punk? What’s punk?’ John and I were laughing. We were like, ‘Ohhh, you’ll find out” said McNeil.
“We thought, Here comes another shitty group with an even shittier name,” said Debbie Harry.
“I always thought a punk was someone who took it up the ass,” said William Burroughs.
The Ramones’ “53rd & 3rd” “is a chilling song,” said Legs McNeil. “It’s about this guy standing on the corner of Fifty-third and Third trying to hustle guys, but nobody ever picks him. Then when somebody does, he kills the john to prove that he’s not a sissy.”
“The song ’53rd & 3rd’ speaks for itself,” said Dee Dee Ramone. “Everything I write is autobiographical and very real. I can’t write any other way.” (McNeil, McCain 179)
Contrary to popular belief, The Ramones were not non-musicians. Save for the youngest member, Dee Dee, they had all been in bands previously. Tommy and Johnny had a band while still at Forest Hills high school (where all four Ramones attended) called the Tangerine Puppets, who played the kind of garage punk that later showed up on the Nuggets compilation. Tommy had a band called Butch who were inspired by the Dolls’ trash/glam aesthetic, and played at the Mercer Arts Center and The Coventry. Joey also performed at The Coventry with the T.Rex, Gary Glitter, Alice Cooper and Stooges-inspired Sniper. “I saw Sniper play with Suicide one night, and Joey was the lead singer and he was great. He was really sick looking. I thought Joey was the perfect singer because he was so weird looking. And the way he leaned on the mike was really weird. I kept asking myself, How’s he balancing himself?” When they got together, Dee Dee suggested The Ramones for the name. It was the name Paul McCartney had once used as a psuedonym, and they all took it for their surname. Their debut gig was at the Performance Studio in March 1974, just four weeks after Televisions Townhouse Theater debut.
Blondie’s Debbie Harry and Chris Stein saw the performance. “It was great,” said Harry. “It was hilarious. Joey kept falling over. He’s just so tall and ungainly. Joey couldn’t see very well, plus he had his shades on, and he was just standing there singing, then all of a sudden, WHHOMP, and he was like lying facedown on this flight of stairs that led up to the stage. Then the rest of the Ramones pushed him back up and kept on going.” “About thirty people or so showed up,” said Joey. “We were terrible. Dee Dee was so nervous he stepped on his bass guitar and broke its neck.”
After some rehearsing, The Ramones made their CBGBs debut in August 1974. Surprisingly, Hilly Kristal liked them and agreed to retain them, despite informing them that “nobody’s [ever] going to like you guys.” They began playing double bills with Blondie at both CBGBs and Performance Studio and soon the press proved Kristal wrong. SoHo Weekly News, Rock Scene, Hit Parader, Village Voiceall gave positive reviews. They recorded their first set of demos that faithfully duplicated a live set late in 1974. The music industry had not caught on yet, however. The early Ramones did not yet have the look they became known for. Left over from their glam days, Joey wore rubber clothes and Johnny wore vinyl and silver pants. “We used to look great, but then we fell into the leather-jacket-and-ripped-up-jeans thing” said Dee Dee. “I felt like a slob.”
When CBGBs hosted the first of its festivals of unsigned bands in July 1975, The Ramones drew the attention of The NewYork Times, the Village Voice, Rolling Stone, the Aquarian, the SoHo Weekly News, and the NME and Melody Makerfrom England. While Craig Leon from Sire expressed interest, it would take until January of 1976 for the label to actually gather the guts to sign The Ramones. In the fall of 1975 they recorded a single, “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” and “Judy is a Punk.” The single convinced label head Seymour Stein that The Ramones’ sound could be transferred to vinyl. However, it was pressed upon them that they had to prove themselves to be able to record quickly and cheaply. The Ramones outdid themselves, finishing in a week, spending only sixty-four hundred dollars. “Everybody was amazed,” said Joey.
The Ramones debut was destined to be a commercial failure, with its trebly sound and buried melodies. However, its highest chart position — 111 — equalled the Dolls’ considerably more hyped debut. But the band was disappointed. They actually thought they would be a massive hit and revitalize pop music. That destiny would be left to Blondie and the Talking Heads as architects of new wave pop. Patti Smith released three more successful albums, Radio Ethiopia (1976),Easter (1978) and Wave (1979) before taking a hiatus. She would later make a inspired comeback in the 90s. Although most of the CBGBs crew recorded some brilliant albums, commercial success was not in the cards. Television finally released their towering classic Marquee Moon in 1977 and Adventure in 1978 and promptly broke up. After Richard Hell left, Johnny Thunders and The Heartbreakers released the high-energy L.A.M.F. in 1977, and the next year Thunders released the solo, So Alone. After re-recording ad-nauseum, and possibly leaving their best takes behind, Richard Hell & The Voidoids, with guitarists Robert Quine and Ivan Julian, released the still-stunning Blank Generation in 1977, which ironically sounded a bit like Television, especially their cover of “Walking On The Water.” The Dictators released two more albums on two different labels, Manifest Destiny (1976) and Bloodbrothers (1978) before throwing in the cards. Even Suicide managed to distill its chaotic stage act onto tape.
While the Ramones were one of the longest-lasting bands, recording albums all the way into the 90s, their biggest legacy were the bands that they inspired. The Ramones first show in England was July 4, 1976, at the Roundhouse. People like Paul Simonon and Mick Jones (soon to be in The Clash) met the Ramones backstage and told them that they now had courage to be in a band. The Ramones encouraged everyone to just get out and play.
(Smeared) Lipstick Traces
In Britain, The Damned was the first band to have the privilege of releasing the first punk album. Even Motorhead predated many of the sonic and lyrical characteristics of the Sex Pistols in 1975. Yet academic scholars like Greil Marcus in his recent book Lipstick Traces (1989) put the Pistols on such a large pedestal that stacked on top of them the combined history of the 1918 Dada art movements, lettrism and the Lettrist International in the 50s, and the Situationalist International in the late 60s during the Paris uprisings.
After growing tired of writing about mainstream icons like The Band and Bruce Springsteen, Marcus seemed determined to thread a needle between all of the rebellious artsy/intellectual movements throughout time and space, ultimately sucking in punk through the small, ambiguous straw of Malcolm McLaren’s background as a former art student and situationalist in Paris. It all rests on McLaren, a greedy, exploitative, annoying man who said he created the Sex Pistols so he could sell more trousers and a short time later said, “we wanted to create a situation where kids would be less interested in buying records than in speaking for themselves” (Marcus, 437).
Ironically, McLaren pinpointed the most important aspect of the invention of “punk,” the aspect he cared about least. Punk may have cosmic and sometimes conscious artistic ties to past radical movements, but most of its significance lies within the barriers of language and expression that were broken down. It was a breakthrough in free speech for underclass youth who rarely have a voice, neither culturally nor politically. The fact that the Situationalists had said many of the same things that Johnny Rotten/Lyden and his cronies did is irrelevant considering the difference between the exclusive elitism of the privileged college educated upper-classes and the inclusive unpretentiousness of a largely working-class youth.
It doesn’t take a Masters degree for someone with relevant life experiences to understand and appreciate the sarcasm of the Fugs, or the self-honesty of the Velvet Underground, or the crude exuberance of the Stooges. Above all, punk offered a cure for boredom. It offered an escape route for kids who weren’t allowed to participate within commercial culture. Who would have wanted to participate, with suckers paying atrocious prices to peek at the tediously bloated rock-star attitudes of bands like Pink Floyd and Yes? Consumer voyeurism is much more offensive to punk sensibilities than song themes about addiction or slaughtering dolls onstage.
Punk gives the message that no one has to be a genius to do it him/herself. Punk invented a whole new spectrum of do-it-yourself projects for a generation. Instead of waiting for the next big thing in music to be excited about, anyone with this new sense of autonomy can make it happen themselves by forming a band. Instead of depending on commercial media, from the big papers and television to New Musical Express and Rolling Stone, to tell them what to think, anyone can create a fanzine, paper, journal or comic book. With enough effort and cooperation they can even publish and distribute it. Kids were eventually able to start their own record labels too. Such personal empowerment leads to other possibilities in self-employment and activism.
Greil Marcus’ idea of punk’s greatness is that the Sex Pistols could tell Bill Grundy to “fuck off” on television. The real greatness of punk is that it can develop an entire subculture that would tell Bill Grundy and safe, boring television culture as a whole to fuck off directly, establishing a parallel social reality to that of boring consumerism.
It’s 1990 and many people say punk is dead. Others say punk is still dying. Still others say the story of rock and roll is nearly over. Such people have at least learned one thing from punk: they have adopted the same blind pessimism that caused so many bands to burn out so quickly.
Many believers of this theory often see only the superficial qualities of the subculture made visible through the mass media. The fashion and the well-publicized scandals of Sid Vicious and friends were as far as most people saw from outside the subculture. In Facing The Music edited by Simon Frith, Mary Harron reduced the meaning of punk to “the spectacle of middle-class children dressing up in a fantasy of proletarian aggression and lying desperately about their backgrounds.”
Harron attributed her perceived failure of punk firstly toward the bands’ misdirected hatred — toward stars of the previous generation like the Who or Rolling Stones, toward their record companies, toward even their fans with more venom than they directed toward the government. Because they had no “real” political focus, no mass consciousness for social change, nor a single issue like Vietnam, Harron believed punk accomplished little besides reviving the British pop industry before it failed.
Harron went on to generalize that punk’s “second generation” suddenly switched from “anarchy and mayhem to orthodox left-wing politics,” adopting the same ideas of grass-roots networks and alternative distribution systems that the hippies had during the sixties counterculture, adding only rock hype — rebellion and conscious exploitation of the media. She said it was only briefly that punk was able to “exploit hype while challenging it on its own ground, both through its consistent attack on the values of the music industry and by exposing to its audience how that industry worked.” Then their “puritanism” was so bad for the music that “post-punk austerity” began to pall.
Harron’s most amusing generalizationwas yet to come — after simplifying the punk movement into a split into rock and pop, she implied that the two styles transcended and left behind the “punk loyalists” (hardcore?), who clung to the independent labels, the clothes, the sound and “what they saw as the ideals of 1976.” In fact, Harron said, they retreated from the present, evolving to a brand of flaccid and impotent neo-hippies with vegetarian, pacifist and mystic deals. Their determinedly non-commercial musical course was described as “abrasive or dirgelike,” and while they “joined the ranks of other die-hard rock conservatives,” Harron went on to espouse the virtues of disco.
It is clear that Harron merely took a glimpse of the smoke from the forest fires sparked by punk. Underneath the smoke was a whole new opportunity for kids to become active in a culture they could call their own, instead of being force-fed with highly consumeristic advertising of dry commercial culture.
When the superstars of punk dissolved into the corporate rock world, commercial media like Rolling Stone hailed the Sex Pistols and The Clash as the only legitimate icons of punk, and assumed the same thing happened to the whole subculture when members of the respective bands went on to more commercial dance- club success in the form of Public Image Ltd. and Big Audio Dynamite. This is not true. Nor is the other view accurate; that the punk subculture stagnated into a musically conservative, politically passe state of nostalgia.
By declaring the death of a whole subculture just because the founding icons disappeared, the media and its scholars assumed not only that punk left behind a void, but it grew out of a void. Within this so-called void, there was a thriving skinhead subculture, originated either in the late 50′s or the 60′s depending on who’s telling the story. While there is no convincingly authoritative source on skinhead history, there has been enough discussion about it in fanzines fromSniffin’ Glue to Maximum RocknRoll that the disparities in details of the accounts tend to even out.
In the December, 1989 issue of Maximum RocknRoll, John M. Stafford of Washington, D.C. wrote a letter that briefly summarized such accounts of skinhead history. He said skinheads resulted in a fusion of cultures between the white working class of England, immigrant Jamaicans and West Indian Blacks who called themselves rude boys. The ration of whites to non-whites during certain periods are unclear, although the resulting subculture was an undeniable example of cultural pluralism. The rude boys were into ska, a precursor of reggae that fused American R&B with Caribbean rhythms. The mods and other whites were into R&B and Motown.
When the cultures fused, popular skinhead music developed a mixture of R&B, soul and Jamaican music. Throughout the mid 1960s the Jamaican music became more important to the skinhead scene as the music came into much greater circulation. In the late 1960s the music went through many changes, evolving from ska into rocksteady, and finally into reggae. The skinheads who listened to reggae were supposedly at their greatest numbers from 1968 to 1972. The music industry recognized this and the stores were filled with skinhead anthems: “Skinhead Train” by Laurel Aitken, “Crazy Baldhead” by the Wailers, “Skinhead Moondust” by the Hotrod Allstars and more. One of the better known black skinhead bands was Symarip, who produced an album called Skinhead Moonstompon Trojan records.
Fashion was a relatively important part of the skinhead culture. The fashion grew out of the “hard mod” subculture of the working- class East End of London in the mid-1960s. the mods’ tough, clean style was partly a reaction to the androgynous finery of hippies and the sloppiness of the long-haired bikers known as rockers.
Their hair was generally kept at around a half inch in length instead of being completely shaved. A “crop” had practical benefits as well; it required neither shampoo nor comb and couldn’t be grabbed in a fight. They wore T-shirts, button-down Fred Perrys, Ben Sherman shirts, Levi’s , black Swat slacks with suspenders (always referred to as “braces”), black felt “donkey” jackets that wouldn’t tear in the factory or a brawl. While steel- toed Doc Marten boots and jeans were worn to work by the majority of those with blue collar jobs, they would change into tailored suits with silk handkerchiefs, scarves or ties and loafers or brouges (wingtips in the U.S.) for a night out. At dance halls they mixed freely with the West Indian rude boys. Their sussed style did not mean they were always polite. Skinheads were often noted for antisocial behavior such as going hippie bashing and for creating havoc in the soccer terraces. Their feud with hippies was rooted in the fact that the “dirty long-hairs” with bellbottoms and sandals tended to be dropouts from white middle-class society, while skinheads took pride in their working-class, integrated origins and a more dignified style. Unfortunately, they had not yet adopted the hippie-rooted ideals of non-violence.
“It was almost a kind of anti-hippie movement,” said Joe, a Minneapolis skinhead interviewed in the Jan. 31 City Pages. “They didn’t like the style of the long hair. The short hair showed they took pride in their appearance. The hippies didn’t. I’m not saying they were wrong or anything; they just didn’t,” he said. The punk fashion that was yet to develop for another four years would be radically different in attitude and appearance. Originated by the skinheads, Alison Lurie describes the derived punk style in The Language of Clothes:
It featured hair cropped to a fuzz and dyed startling, unnatural colors: often very pale yellow, sometimes red, green, orange or lavender. Faces were powdered pasty white, with sooty eyes and heavy lipstick. In clothing, red, black and white were the favorite colors. Punks wore black leather jackets and jeans decorated with metal studs and superfluous zippers; T-shirts printed with vulgar words and violent and/or pornographic pictures — often images of rape and murder. Artificially torn and soiled clothing, held together with outsize safety pins, exposed areas of pale, unhealthy flesh, which were often bruised and scratched. One favorite accessory was the dog or bicycle chain, which might be pulled tight around the neck or used to fasten one leg to the other. Punk chicks might also wear this costume, or they might vary it with hot pants, side-slit skirts, tight angora sweaters and spike-heeled sandals; their boyfriends favored heavy “shit-kicker” boots.
While the fashion served as effective symbolism and identity for early punks, it was soon taken up by many middle and upper-class youths who alienated many punks away form the style. “In the language of clothes,” Lurie said, “the punk style was a demand for attention, together with a cry of rage against those who should have paid attention to these kids in the past but had not done so”: the parents who were too immature or too exhausted; callous or helpless teachers and social workers; a welfare state that seemed uninterested in their welfare and had no jobs for most of them. early skinheads had little use for so much attention and to the superficial qualities of the punk appearance.
By 1972, two new sounds hit the skinhead movement, dub reggae and rock’n'roll. Dub made reggae less interesting to some skinheads, and a long affiliation started to wane. With dub, the heavy influence of rastafarianism and the artists who did not wish to conform to this new standard of the reggae scene soon were relegated to near obscurity. Thus, artists like Laurel Aitken, Prince Buster and the Skatelites were abandoned until the 2-Tone era, and Lee Perry was ostracized because of his active campaign against rasta. Skinheads used to dancing to the straightforward rhythms of ska, rocksteady and reggae had little use for the stoned, slowed-down, spaced-out beats with the bottom frequently dropping out from under them. Perhaps if marijuana caught on with the skinheads as much as it did with the rastafarians, things would have been different.
Reggae was soon replaced by a new form of rock ‘n’ roll when a band of white skinheads from Wolverhampton called Slade started becoming popular in 1973 and introduced the skinhead world to Oi! or pub rock as it was known then. After two hit singles, Slade signed with a major record company and sold out to glam metal. But by then, of course, punk had arrived. While the popular Sex Pistols, The Clash and The Damned attracted a huge following, including many white middle-class teenagers, the skinheads chose to largely distinguish themselves from the spectacle, continuing to embrace Oi! bands like Sham 69, Cocksparrer, Oi Polloi and the 4- Skins. While Oi! music was often difficult to distinguish from ordinary punk by unfamiliar ears, the music reflected a musical style based on the old tradition of pub sing-a-longs, but often much, much faster. The words challenged the bloated corporate complacency of rock just as punk did.
The Essex-based Crass was an extreme example of a band who incorporated the ideals of their lyrics into their lifestyle. Formed in Essex, England in 1976, partly in the Sham 69 image, they soon evolved into an anarchist commune. The band established several independent record labels and an information service. Crass espoused the ideals of anti-violence, feminism, and flushing out hypocrisy in organized religion in the context of their ear- damaging vehemence on their records. By their second album, Stations of the Crass, they dismissed the influential Sham 69 as full of hot air by doing a parody of them called “Hurry Up Garry,” which is also a wicked snipe at the music business. They also summarized their scorn of punk as merely a fashion concept on “White Punks on Hope.” Crass reached their peak in Penis Envy by drawing an ugly parallel between rampant sexism and white man’s rape of nature and society.
While eventually finding themselves embroiled in legal battles with various government agencies, Crass stood as a successful model of dead-serious political commitment in the punk/skinhead movement. Several bands reflected Crass’s influence both politically and “musically,” including The Ex in Amsterdam, The Gang of Four and The Mekons in Leeds, The Au Pairs in Birmingham, The Pop Group in Bristol, The Fall in Manchester and Liliput in Switzerland. Skinheads not into Oi! or Crass temporarily kept the suss alive inside the Northern Soul movement, until it crashed on its face with the rise of disco.
By 1977, the skinhead subculture began facing problems from the fascist National Front, who began using kids who favored the more paramilitary aspects of skinhead fashion, to create disruption. The far right preyed upon the division of the traditional skinhead movement in Britain as the economic woes of the time began to erode the group from within. “It got so there were a lot of working class kids out of work and extremely frustrated with what was going on. That was when it became easy for them to start blaming their problems on the immigrants, who were mostly minorities,” said Joe.
A group of former skinheads tattooed their faces with swastikas and taunted onlookers with “Sieg Heil” salutes, joining Britain’s right-wing resurgence, which Margaret Thatcher would exploit so successfully. Encouraged attitudes were anti-immigrant (and therefore anti-Black), anti-communist, anti-Semitic, and anti-IRA, in that order. In response, a dedicated population of skinheads were inspired to strengthen their cultural pluralism through the 2- Tone movement. To combat the influence of the White Power organizations and spearhead a skinhead revival, most bands mixed both black and white members and the movement was molded around integration. While some 2-Tone era bands were all white (such as Madness, the Shadows and the Oppressed, an anarchist band) or all black (such as the Equators), they shared cultural and musical ideas, creating a hybrid of exciting new music. Writers like Mary Harron could hardly call them conservative.
The National Front recognized 2-Tone as a threat to their foothold in the skinhead subculture, and they did their best to use violence to disrupt shows by the 2-Tone bands. The Specials’s last release, the Ghost Town EP, was a telling commentary on the violence, and it spent eight weeks atop the British charts. But it was basically futile because by the beginning of 1982 most of the 2-Tone bands had broken up. Yet the seeds for their multicultural inventiveness and integrity had been dispersed, and the effects can be seen from a multitude of subcultures to mainstream commercial music.
Baldies & Boneheads in America
The skinhead subculture had already taken root in the U.S. by 1977, where it was viewed as a dramatic but not particularly political variant of punk. There were Black and Latin and Jewish skins, many of whom hung together in the bi-racial 2-Tone bands. The style “stood for unity,” said James DePasquale, 18, who became a skinhead four years ago. “Everybody who had a shaved head, you considered them a brother,” he said in the May/June ’89 issue of the Utne Reader.
With the help of fascists like Bob Heick, leader of a national Nazi youth group called The American Front, fascism also took root in American by 1985, when Nazi skinhead violence exploded at Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco that summer. “There were always idiots,” says Tim Yohannan, editor of Maximum Rocknroll. “Now there’s idiots with ideology.”
Skinheads distinguished each other with the terms “baldies” for the leftist non-racist skinheads, and “boneheads” for the white- power Nazi skinheads. Boneheads had no music scene of their own to speak of, since Skrewdriver was never allowed into the United States, and domestic white-power bands were wooden amateurs who lacked broad appeal. So the bones crashed the punk clubs, sometimes taking a razor blade to the locks of a longhair or ripping an anti-racist button off a peace punk’s shirt.
As in Britain, American punks, skinheads, or “baldies” have fought back in cities like Chicago and Minneapolis, where punks and “ska” skins have joined forces for more direct action. In January, 1989, more than 150 anti-racist skins from at least ten cities came to Minneapolis to form an umbrella organization for the anti-racist skins scattered throughout North America. By the end of the weekend, “The Syndicate” had been organized, and future anti-racist activities were planned.
The Twin Cities emerged as a center of anti-racist skinhead activity in 1987 when a group of baldies challenged the neo-Nazi White Knights. the White Knights were effectively driven out of Minneapolis by a campaign of physical confrontations that reduced the neo-Nazi group to a handful of die-hard white supremacists and their leader, a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
The January Minneapolis skinhead gathering, while predominantly white, included African-American, Native American, Latino and Asian skinheads. The average age of participants was 19. Their passionate desire to clear the skinhead name is rooted in the belief that skinhead culture has something to offer all nationalities.
While the question of racism has been pushed on the skinhead movement, the media seems to ignore what many skins consider equally important: the question of class. The skinhead movement quite explicitly places its hopes for the future of the united action of the working class. It is as much by addressing and twisting the class question as by appealing to racism that the neo- Nazis have been able to establish a beachhead among white working- class youth. There is a deeply felt contempt for the rich in some quarters of American society that can be tapped with either revolutionary class politics or the half-baked Nazism of a Tom Metzger and his racist, anti-Semitic organization, White Aryan Resistance. But while the boneheads were puppets of Metzger, the Syndicate did it themselves.
By the time the mainstream had declared the death of punk in 1979, or 1980, or 1981, etc., the influence of punk, the skinheads’s Oi! and anti-racist 2-Tone and the do-it-yourself ethic had spread all over the world. Independent labels were created by the dozens throughout Europe, North America, Australia, and a few countries in Africa. Especially around urban areas, independent fanzines could be found with music critique of all the newly formed bands and their demos, interviews, comics, Xerox art, poetry, fiction, news, investigative reporting, political agendas and more. It was a renaissance for those who were stranded form or chose to avoid the elitist upperclass artists and intellectuals who communicated only with their peers in art and academic journals, and the commercial culture targeted for everyone else who presumably did not deserve to have a voice.
Many people are ignorant of the many post-punk subcultures because they are not as easily pegged and defined as the simpledays of the Sex Pistols. The perpetual process of sharing cultural ideas and developing new hybrids of music blur the distinctions between one style and the next. Punk has evolved into or influenced popular styles like hardcore, hip-hop, jazz/speedfunk, industrial, goth/glam, metal, thrash, speedmetal/speedcore, and other styles that defy labels.
Younger kids involved in musical subcultures are looking back toward the roots of the past generation, reviving ska (for the second time) with bands like the Red Skins, the Potato Five, the Deltones and International Jet Set. They started an anti-racist organization founded in San Diego called S.H.A.R.P. (Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice), in addition to the aforementioned Syndicate. It has already spread to England, Europe and Australia. There has also been a rise of anti-Nazi fanzines like Zoot and Spy Kids. In Washington D.C. there is still a significant group of people who consider themselves sussed skinheads, who are actively breaking down racial and cultural barriers by taking in African-American, Asian-American, Mexican- American, Jewish, immigrant and homosexual/bisexual skinheads into one integrated cultural-pluralistic community.
Hardcore Coast to Coast
Much of the punk and skinhead influence on America developed into hardcore, growing from both the West and East coasts. In California, there were bands like The Dils, Black Flag, The Weirdos, The Avengers, The Germs, The Descendents, Adolescents, X, Minutemen, Dead Kennedys, The Circle Jerks, Bad Religion, Social Distortion, T.S.O.L. (True Sounds of Liberty), The Vandals, Fear and others; in Washington D.C. there was Minor Threat, Bad Brains and other bands on the Dischord label.
Black Flag has often been considered America’s first hardcore band, beginning in 1978. By creating the still-surviving SST label (although it had recently declared bankruptcy), Black Flag single- handedly gave the West Coast hardcore scene international prominence. by the time their first EP Jealous Again came out in 1980, Black Flag had begun touring enough to become a major attraction in nearly every city and inspire others to get into the scene. While Black Flag and their peers wrote cutting songs like “T.V. Party,” about commercial culture and middle class suburban life, the sound they made was predominantly a joyful noise, and they rarely preached to their fans.
The Dead Kennedys became an exception to the West Coast scene when they honed a self-righteously moral attack upon middle and upper-class values. Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, their 1980 debut on I.R.S., contained “Holidays In Cambodia,” their crowning achievement. The Dead Kennedys’s sarcastic diatribes bordered on the overbearing on In God We Trust, Inc. until they redeemed themselves with an improved sense of humor on Plastic Surgery Disasters in 1982. By 1981, they had formed the Alternative Tentacles label which became a grassroots force as productive as SST.
The East Coast had much more in common with the Dead Kennedys than the more hedonistic California bands. While SST was just starting, Minor Threat helped establish the Dischord label. They issued the Bottled Violence EP in 1981, which revealed strong influence from the ideology of Crass and the music of The Ruts. The power of their own influence became apparent when, with one impassioned hardcore tune called “Straight Edge” they called for abstinence from drugs and booze. From that song, Minor Threat unwittingly would create a whole new American subculture which would adopt the same song title. A song that acknowledged both the aspirations and realties of political punk rock inspired a whole generation of skinheads and people without any label to denounce the self-destructive, nihilistic lifestyle that cultural icons like Sid Vicious romanticized. Ian MacKaye, lead singer for Minor Threat, would later emphasize that he was not telling people that they should restrict their own lifestyles. He was merely describing the choices he had made for himself at the time.
Meanwhile, Bad Brains carried on the tradition of the 2-Tone movement to the states, pushing the hybrids even further. The black jazz-rock fusionists from Washington D.C. proved their mastery of hardcore early in their career with the 1980 single, “Pay to Cum!”. On the 1982 ROIR cassette album, Bad Brains featured radically contrasting excursions into dub and rasta reggae amongst the hardcore fury. As the band progressed, they shed some of the hardcore sound to create even more exciting blends of funk, reggae and metal wile continuing to espouse rastafarian principles.
The Rise of Independent Rock
By the mid 1980s, it became nearly impossible to keep track of all the new bands and styles that were helped out by the essential fanzines to get their messages and names out. In addition to all the loyal hardcore fanzines inspired by Maximum Rocknroll based in Berkeley, CA, other fanzines such as Flipside, Your Flesh, andChemical Imbalance have been able to attain an impressive level of slickness and circulation to make a reasonable impact on the independent music scene and its underground subcultures without compromise; resorting to getting paid by corporations and advertisements. They manage to include more variety than the uncompromising hardcore ‘zines than the unadventurous mainstream, with the notable exceptions of New York’s Trouser Press and Chicago’s Matter magazines.
But mainstream culture has become increasingly aware of the multitudes of music coming out of the post-punk subcultures, shown by coverage of the most successful bands from SST, Dischord, Homestead, Twin/Tone, including The Minutemen, Meat Puppets, Butthole Surfers, Scratch Acid, Husker Du, The Replacements, Dinosaur Jr., Squirrel Bait, The Effigies, Big Black, Naked Raygun, Sonic Youth, The Swans, Fugazi, Bad Brains, to hip-hop artists like Boogie Down Productions to several inventive industrial bands and the retro “sludge” movement (The Melvins, Green River, Blood Circus, Mudhoney, Nirvana) initiated by the Sub Pop label in Seattle, reaching back to the pre-punk music of The Stooges, The MC5, Alice Cooper, Radio Birdman and even Blue Cheer and Black Sabbath.
The Fall of Independent Rock?
Suddenly the industries see big possibilities for mass consumption of the bands who once thrived (or starved) in the underground subcultures. A corporation called Joseph-Fox Communications, Inc. even tried to emulate the style of fanzines with a tiny, slick and laughably naive production called New Route: The new route to new music. Douglas Joseph, the Editor- in-Chief and presumably the former half of Joseph-Fox, wrote an editorial in the October 1989 issue where he brought up the Warner Bros.-Time Inc. merger, PolyGram buying out Island and eventually A&M, EMI buying out Chrysalis Records and Virgin Records taking in major equity partners. “CBS Records is owned by Sony, and RCA Records by BMG,” he said, brilliantly concluding that “the music industry is big business.”
Joseph believes that the consequences of big business, the sales, distribution and in-store product placement being leveraged with merchandising, advertising and AOR radio play is a positive influence on the music scene. He believes the Godzilla corporations will generously spread increased profits to employees, stockholders, and most importantly, toward developing new artists. “The future of the record business is with the young artists,” predicts Joseph.
His theory is that stronger companies will be more apt to experiment with new ideas as well as new musicians, such as BMG funding a new “independent” label, First Warning, which is distributed “independently” by Rough Trade. All A&R and marketing is done independently of BMG, although if any band does or says something BMG does not like, they would disappear from the industry as a label-less band. But Joseph says “as the major labels get bigger, there is more opportunity for the independents.” Although independents fear the big squeeze of major labels, the money flowing into the alternative markets from the large companies strengthens the marketplace and supposedly creates more awareness for everyone.
“So,” wrote Joseph, “as long as the music industry is healthy, properly managed and new artists continue to crete interesting music, we will hear great music from both major and [puppet] independent labels.”
It is powerful people like Douglas Joseph and his New Route to brain-death who continue to remind underground fans of the reality of their worst nightmares. Even more dangerous to the underground culture than Tom Metzger’s White Aryan Resistance, it is this continuing threat of the corporate powers to control and exploit the independents for their own convenience and profit that continues to inspire youth around the world to do it themselves.