Styles & Forms | Introducing Punk

In our heads we can all imagine a noise called punk rock. It’s nasty, brutish and short. It’s played on cheap guitars at high speed. In fact it’s possibly played on cheap speed. The songs are basic to the point of wilful stupidity. If they have any message, it will probably be negative. The general effect will not be pretty or romantic. It might even be downright ugly.

And yet this noise will also be ridiculously exciting. Rarely in music has so much been achieved with so little. (‘Here’s one chord, here’s another, now start a band,’ said a fanzine.) The genre that liked to boast of its incompetence and loudly proclaim ‘No Future’ has turned out to be extremely enduring and long-lasting. Its surviving pioneers have lived to a ripe old age. Some of them go on TV to advertise butter, or car insurance. How the hell did that happen?

So let’s take a closer look. For many, the classic punk event will always be The Sex Pistols. Circa 1976 and 1977, they defined the look of punk for all time. Their cut-up aesthetic perfectly captured their chaotic ideology. Its mix of anarchy and commercial opportunism was a barbed-wire bundle of contradictions, caught between a warring band and its management. Others will cite The Clash, who were the ultimate flag-wavers of punk idealism, brought low by contradictions of their own. They never quite reconciled the purity of their image with the realities of global success.

And others would probably point to The Ramones, a New York act who inspired the British scene into being and whose stripped-down musical minimalism remains the essence of the genre. Like Motörhead, a band from the neighbouring territory of hard rock, The Ramones endure as an iconic name, whose logo alone can sell a million T-shirts because it represents an attitude to life.

Yet, not even The Pistols, Clash and Ramones can encompass the whole of punk. The mid-1970s were pivotal to punk and New York and London were its nerve centres, but this was a movement with numerous precedents and many influences. At its peak it would mutate into amazingly diverse forms, and later submerge and resurface, undergo profound changes and periodically purge itself in a return to first principles.

Punk is not limited to one particular place or time, because punk is really an idea. More than that, punk is an ideal, an urge, an instinct. For those reasons its followers can become passionate on the subject. For them, punk will always be much more than a style.

Punk is certainly more than a musical style. From the beginning it had parallels in fashion and graphic design. Since then it’s shown a gift for shape-shifting that lives up to one of its earliest maxims: don’t be content to imitate, go out and re-invent. Down the decades, punk has multiplied in form and merged with types of music that were once supposed to be its...

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