In the first of a series of articles examining movements in music which have shaped culture greatly, punk sets us off on a journey of defying societal norms, expressing individuality and rebelling against the unjust.
Punk is a genre which has fluctuated in both its popularity in music and fashion since it came into being. Yet, undeniably, it has ignited important political and social movements which are present in our society today. Punk often stood on the edge of norms in society, looking in with anger and contempt. With the revival and resurgence of punk and post-punk bands in recent years, now more than ever it is essential to look back on the origins of punk and its role in the politics of today.
When proto-punk, with its chaotic guitars and tongue-in-cheek lyrics, evolved into punk as we know it today; a new wave of politically charged music about the abandonment of societal norms, popular music and conventional fashion stunned a society. Bands such as the Sex Pistols, The Clash, and The Ramones dominated the airwaves, uprooting the fairly conservative music industry in the United Kingdom. This music was drastically darker than the decade before. It marked the end of the “peace and love” of the swinging sixties. Instead, the happy psychedelics were replaced by the gritty reality of a nation devastated by unemployment and societal unrest. The innocence of teenage love once crooned by The Beatles was substituted for disorderly bands with political calls to arms, the likes of which denounced the monarchy as a fascist regime in God Save the Queen and demanded Anarchy in the UK. In the political sphere, with the election of politicians like Margaret Thatcher and the emboldening of far-right groups in the late 1970s and 80s; the need for anger amongst young people became more pressing.
Punk became expressly political, with events such as “Rock Against Racism” being used to counter the rise of the far-right in the UK. The split between the left and right was one of the main divides within the punk scene. While the majority of punk bands were explicitly left-wing, other bands took a more right-wing stance on politics; as did their fans. The right-wing punks became associated with skinhead culture, and bands such as Brutal Attack and others became the flag bearers for far-right punks. This divide in itself inspired a response by American punk band The Dead Kennedys in the song Nazi Punks Fuck Off in which they demand that these “Nazi punks” with fascist beliefs are not real punks. This division in the movement often led to fights and riots at gigs, in which both wings of the punk movement were present. However, punk, as we know it today, is almost entirely an anti-racist movement and genre, and actively shakes off any far-right leaning.
A band close to the anti-racist movement were X-Ray Spex, a female-fronted punk band who challenged the traditional values of the UK in the 70s. Their song Oh Bondage Up Yours! was released in 1977. Although described by lead vocalist Poly Styrene as mainly an anti-consumerist and anti-capitalist song, the song features lyrics that directly contrast the old-fashioned and chauvinist views towards women in 70s culture. They ridicule the concept that “little girls should be seen and not heard”, a fiery statement to introduce a song that challenges so much of the society that was thought of as brain dead by the punk movement.
Poly Styrene embodied the ideas of the movement; wearing DIY clothes and providing chaotic and energetic performances, she encapsulated the deviation from social norms that punk fostered. Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren adopted this DIY fashion in their London shop SEX, which, like so much of punk, rocked the traditional British high street with its crude nature. The bold shop and the punk style itself were both perceived as part of the erosion of tradition; abandonment of morals; and decline of “British society”. Punk consistently, as a movement, acted to change the way youth and rebellion was viewed. It moved away from the culture of respect and seeking approval to one of not caring what others thought; doing what you wanted; and acting out against society. By engaging in punk culture, you were making a statement, whether it was intentional or not. Punk let the world know that anger is an emotion that is valid in politics and society.
While a lot of well-known and popular punk was political and inspired a movement around it, bands like The Clash were mostly white, middle-class, privately educated men who were making statements from a position of privilege. As with rock music in general, it had originated in black culture. This could be demonstrated by Bad Brains, a band often credited with being one of the primary influences of punk. Bad Brains, an all-Black group from Washington with both hardcore and reggae elements to their sound, heavily influenced a lot of American punk bands. The band pioneered a lot of the hardcore scene in America, by providing raw energy in their performances and playing venues in New York which had by then spurred an atmosphere of punk around them.
With the many fluctuations and changes in popularity and style of punk itself, there have been revivals since it entered into the music scene. However, in recent times, with similar social settings, there is a new wave of punk, emanating from both the UK and America. An example being IDLES, who examine the toxic masculinity in punk and the UK, and vocalise their love and appreciation for refugees and immigrants in the UK. They bring with this new energy less nihilism than those before, and more vision and anger for change. This new wave has hit America with BODEGA, a band from New York providing satire on the political situation while challenging many taboos in riot-grrrl fashion. In general, this new wave is moving forward and inspiring a movement of positivity behind it, in its culture and its lyricism. Punk gives a voice to those who are angry, and it never flinches.