Dear friends who love fast rhythms, anarchy, studded jackets and tartan, today we will tell you why Punk is so called!
So straighten your spiky hair and get ready for this story!
The first use of the term dates back to the Chicago Tribune on March 22, 1970, when an album by singer Ed Sanders was defined as “punk rock-redneck sentimentality“.
That’s why we narrate this story right on this date. But let’s start from the beginning, we have to make a big leap into the past!
Etymology of the term punk
William Shakespeare was one of the first to use the word “punk”, whose original meaning in English was “female prostitute”.
It appears, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, that the earliest recorded use of the word is found in a ballad called “Simon The Old Kinge” composed sometime before 1575. This English ballad reminds men that drinking is a sin similar to maintaining prostitutes.
About thirty years later, Shakespeare used the word in Measure for Measure, declaring about a female character “She could be a Puncke” (contemporary translation: “she could be a bit of a whore”).
Over time the word took on different meanings.
In the late 17th century it began to be used to describe a boy who was being kept by an older man for sex. In short, always a nice meaning!
The term was later used as a derogatory insult of various kinds. For example, in US prison jargon, it defined an inmate used for sex behind bars. Or it designated the young male companions of vagabonds.
Eventually, the word became the description of despicable or useless people, petty criminals and inexperienced young people in general.
And then we come to 1970 with the Chicago Tribune and the following year, when US rock journalist Dave Marsh used the word punk to describe – retroactively – the garage bands of the 1960s. Less known is the use of the term to advertise the first shows of the minimalist electronic and voice duo New York Suicide.
Evolution of punk
As we said earlier, also borrowed from prison jargon, the word punk was first used in a musical context in the early 1970s.
In addition to the “redneck album”, the term caught on when compilations such as Lenny Kaye’s Nuggets (1972) sparked a trend and interest in mid-1960s garage rock, made up of bands like Seeds , the 13th Floor Elevators and the Mysterians. Meanwhile, other American bands like MC5, Iggy and the Stooges and the New York Dolls had started using rock to reflect on youthful anguish and, in some way, define it.
By 1975 punk had come to describe the minimalist and literary rock scene of CBGB, the New York City club where Patti Smith Group and Television performed. Also the Ramones performed there, and their 1976 self-titled debut album became an archetype: guitar as a barrier to all other sounds, drums to create the structure and vocals to proclaim slogans of hostility and discomfort.
The Velvet Underground are another piece of this puzzle. Directed by Andy Warhol, the Velvet Underground produced music that often bordered on noise. They were expanding the definitions of music without even realizing it. Punk’s latest primary influence is also found in the foundations of Glam Rock.
Artists like David Bowie and the aforementioned New York Dolls dressed outrageously, lived extravagantly and produced trash rock and roll, which will be reflected a lot in British punk, which we tell you in the next paragraph.
From USA to UK – The Punk culture
The term punk gradually spread to Great Britain, where Sex Pistols were created by Malcolm McLaren (with the help of designer Vivienne Westwood) to promote her London store Sex, which sold fetish clothes full of radical 1960s political slogans.
Heralded by their single manifesto, Anarchy in the U.K., the Sex Pistols established punk as a national style that combined contrasting fashion elements with fast hard rock and lyrics that tackled the frustrations of 1970s teenagers.
Reflecting the social upheaval with a series of songs characterized by sarcasm and a very precise vision of the life and culture of the time, groups like The Buzzcocks The Clash and Siouxsie and the Banshees achieved great successes in the late 1970s.
Anarchist, and libertarian, British punk self-destructed in about 1979. Postpunk groups such as Public Image Ltd and Joy Division replaced the mundane side of the movement with a more intimate point of view, combining rock with the technological rhythms of disco music.
Although the successes in the 1977 Sex Pistols charts (mainly “God Save the Queen” and “Pretty Vacant“) had made Britain the hotbed of a new youth movement, similar developments had occurred in France, Australia and, again, United States.
Tours of British punk bands like The Damned and the aforementioned Sex Pistols fueled major regional punk scenes in Seattle, Washington, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
To mention one tour above all: that of 1979 by The Damned, with their American version, the Misfits. Probably from the poetics of these two bands, with their introduction of horror themes in the punk scene – remember the Misfits logo itself – we took on the use of the skull, almost piratical, as an emblem of punk rebellion.
In the late 1970s, however, punk in the United States was eclipsed by disco music and channeled into another type of musical movement. For example, hardcore, which flourished from the beginning to the mid-1980s and gave a further boost to the bpm of the already accelerated punk.
The full return of punk came only after the success of Nirvana in 1991, coinciding with the rise of Generation X. A generation that identified with the feelings of anger and helplessness already experienced in the 60s and 70s.
Punk, in fact, never died, it has continued to live up to the present day in thousands of bands, take for example Green Day or Blink 182, to name a couple. To get an idea, take a look at this list, which is really neverending!
Neverending could be today’s article, because punk has influenced cultures and subcultures, ideologies, visual arts such as fashion (besides the aforementioned Westwood, we mention Alexander McQueen) and cinema, literary genres (think for example of Jack Kerouac). We will definitely talk about it again!
But why did punk spread so much? And why is it so important? Because it is an archetype of teenage rebellion and alienation.
And because at the center there was a collection of ideas. Nihilism, pessimism, anti-authoritarianism and heterogeneity. Provocation, theatricality, hedonism, experimentation and equality of social values. And again: dissolution of the holistic ideals of society, rupture of the social fabric. Disaggregation and fragmentation.
Since, it is clear, it is really difficult to describe all that is punk, I leave the stage to some of its most significant interpreters.
The popularity of punk rock was, in effect, due to the fact that it made ugliness beautiful (Malcom McLaren)
Punk is musical freedom. It’s saying, doing and playing what you want. In Webster’s terms, ‘nirvana’ means freedom from pain, suffering and the external world, and that’s pretty close to my definition of Punk Rock (Kurt Cobain)
A guy walks up to me and asks ‘What’s Punk?’ So I kick over a garbage can and say ‘That’s punk!’ So he kicks over a garbage can and says ‘That’s punk?’ and I say ‘No, that’s trendy (Billy Joe Armstrong – Green Day)
I came into the punk scene because punk stayed with you, it has taught you something. A lot of the other music of the time left you as it found you (Mick Jones, The Clash)
Undermine their pompous authority, reject their moral standards, make anarchy and disorder your trademarks. Cause as much chaos and disruption as possible but don’t let them take you alive (Sid Vicious)
And my favourite:
Punk rock is just another word for freedom (Patti Smith)