Listen, you can’t talk about the Punk ‘movement’ without talking about Punk music. And you can’t talk about Punk music without talking about Punk culture. It is a cyclical thing: which came first, the music or the culture?
Well, either way, the first rule of Punk is that there are no rules; rules are made to be broken; rip it up and start again. So, we are going to start by talking about Punk before it existed.
Before we had punk, we had Glam. Glam was a phenomenon which swept across the world, but mainly it was at work in the UK and the US. Glam Rock was characterised by flamboyant, sparkly, shiny, big looks. Big hair, platform shoes, bright makeup on everyone: gender-bending, camp, performative glamorousness.
Glam Rock was a spectacular bustle of newness and excess. Although Punk initially came largely from similar demographic as Glam Rock — people who wanted to challenge expectations, smash normalcy and challenge the monolithic music of the sixties and early seventies — eventually the aesthetic of Punk was at odds with Glam.
Punk was a do-it-yourself attitude held together with pins. Ripped jeans and frayed leather was the response to the sleekness of Glam and the homeliness of the previous generation’s hippy culture. So, it is hard to put a finger on the very beginnings of Punk and it is useless to try: the very nature of the movement is contradictory and contrary so it is best to just say; the mid-seventies.
In the UK in the seventies, there were relatively few jobs, no money, unpredictable public services due to strikes and lack of (Conservative) government funding. Teenagers coming of age in this decade were absolutely disenfranchised, and reasonably felt that they were being shafted by the establishment. As such, they had more than enough to rebel against.
This political dissatisfaction was a key element of the success and pervasiveness of the Punk movement in the UK. When he returned from managing the New York Dolls in America, one of the first and most well known Punk bands, Malcolm McLaren brought the American Punk aesthetic to the British Punk philosophy.
With his partner, Vivienne Westwood, who is to this day one of the most famous fashion designers in the world, McLaren opened Let it Rock on the King’s Road where the couple sold outfits that became progressively more challenging, more provocative and more ‘Punk’ until they were compelled to rename their shop SEX. Westwood made clothes for The New York Dolls and for McLaren’s British Punk band; The Sex Pistols thereby becoming the unofficial atelier of the global Punk movement.
Westwood and McLaren’s designs were extremely political, and extremely controversial. They included a shirt featuring an inverted crucifix overlaid with a swastika, and the jagged word ‘DESTROY’ along with a t- shirt featuring a print by Jim French of 2 bottomless Cowboys, famously worn by Sid Vicious. The music that came from the Punk movement was similar in its controversial nature.
Although the Sex Pistols weren’t what you might call musically gifted, their one and only studio album Never Mind the Bollocks is so famous because it was so ‘Punk’. It made fun of the establishment, and was completely wild, anarchistic and unselfconscious. The music is aggressive, shocking and not at all skilled, but it encapsulated the high octane vibe of punk as it was originally conceived: a desperate scream at the systems that had let the country down.
Crucially, Punk Rock music was made by anyone who could hold an instrument: everyone was as relevant as each other, and so while the Glam Rock era was characterised by unrelatable excess, anyone who wanted to be a Punk could be one. This was emphasised yet again with the fashion that became associated with the movement. Ripped jeans, shirts, dresses etc were standard, and garments could be held together by safety pins, tape, and a prayer.
Everyday items could become part of an outfit: bin liners, washing up gloves, even work boots. As Punk has morphed to fit into new generations, punk fashion has become less and less eye-catching. Modern punk looks are based around Normcore — a total destabilisation of consumer culture, rather than the traditional eye-catching mohawks and knackered leather jackets of the seventies and eighties.
In many ways, the US and UK Punk scenes have overlapped to include much of the same ideology, behaviour and aesthetic. Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen were staying at the infamous/famous Hotel Chelsea when Spungen was killed, binding the transatlantic movements together in the history books.
If Punk is a brand new concept for you, or if you just want to engage with the culture a bit then here are some records to listen to, books to read and films to watch to immerse yourself in the vibe.
Records – essential listening:
Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols by the Sex Pistols
The fluorescent yellow and pink cover, the raw, tuneless vocals, the anti-establishment message… this record is very typical and very much
Read next: What is Gamelan music?
Cut by The Slits
The group that cemented the place for feminism in the Punk movement, The Slits were a pioneering ensemble and this is their best record. Listen to it for a fusion of reggae beats with crashing guitars which typifies much of what we recognise in Punk music and remember that the group was blazing a trail for other all woman rock bands in the future.
New York Dolls by New York Dolls
This loud glammy band did a lot of work toward making the androgynous sleeze of Punk well known and successful. This is their best album and it is widely considered to be one of the best Punk records ever made.
Horses by Patti Smith
Patti, the poet, the proto John Cooper Clark, the artist. Her record is strange and moody and she sits on the other side of the androgyny as the New York Dolls, wearing tailored suits and crisp shirts. Patti was another Hotel Chelsea resident whose work has been continually influenced by the cultural hot spot.
Also listen to: Damaged by Black Flag, London Calling by The Clash and Ramones by Ramones.
Books about Punk
Girls to the Front by Sara Marcus
This book details the feminist movement as it happened within Punk culture. It has a big focus on the Riot Grrrl revolution and it exudes the excitement and hopefulness of second wave feminism.
Clothes Clothes Clothes, Music Music Music, Boys Boys Boys by Viv Albertine
This is a memoir from the Slits guitarist which lays out the experience she had as a punk musician in the most bold and vulnerable way. Viv allows her readers to immerse themselves in her own life as a Punk Rocker which is fascinating from any perspective, but particularly for anyone wanting to understand Punk better.
Oh So Pretty: Punk in Print by Rick Poynor
Punk is such a visual genre that there had to be a photo book in this article somewhere. This catalogue collects many very famous images from the punk movement: lots of Vivienne Westwood images, lots of album covers, but also plenty of lesser known images such as pictures of civilian punks and street wear.
Films about Punk
Suburbia (Penelope Spheeris)
This film is another really good way to get a visual understanding of the Punk movement. Set in Greater LA the film follows a teenage runaway who is taken in by a Punk Gang. IT is a good perspective that is an alternative to the normal New York or UK points of view.
SLC Punk! (James Merendino)
Again, SLC Punk! Basically shows Punk as a reaction to unchallenging, unrewarding suburban life. This time, in Salt Lake City. The film is a comedy rather than a drama which is a refreshing take on Punk media and it shows Punk as listless and delinquent rather than moving and thoughtful.