History of Punk Music

Punk concert

The history of punk music is a history that encompasses many of the biggest names in music, bar none. The full story of punk music could fill many books and is still evolving, but it is possible to trace some major moments in punk music and develop a timeline of the evolution of the sound.

The History of Punk Music - The Basics

A clear definition of punk music is hard to come by, especially today when the sound has changed so much that it means many different things to many different people. However, when discussing the early days of punk music, it is typical to talk about the UK punk scene and the U.S. punk scene.

Before delving into the differences between the punk scenes and era, it is possible to make some generalizations about punk music. Punk music grew out of a so-called punk subculture that was a reaction against disco culture and a general increased sense of materialism -- primarily in the U.S. and UK initially, and then around the world. Punk culture was anti-establishment; in a sense, the principle ethos was reject mainstream culture and rules, period, without any specific direction or goal to be met by the rejection. From this subculture, grew punk music, and the rejection of rules spilled over in the music. Punk music is not always technically well played or well sung, and the songs as a rule are short, in your face tunes that are energetic and passionate, yet don't share many characteristics with the "songs" that came before it.

Punk culture and music got its start in New York and London during the mid 1970s, and punk music crossed over into the mainstream in the late 1970s.

The Early Punk Scenes

The first wave of punk came primarily out of bands from New York and London.

U.S. Punk

The epicenter of the U.S. punk scene was CBGB's club in New York City. Artists like Television, Patti Smith, Mink Deville and The Talking Heads were instrumental in developing the scene, and Tom Verlaine of Television started a record label to release music by the band involved in the scene. However, the inspiration for these CBGB's bands can be traced back to the New York Dolls, who were playing the New York clubs in the late 1960s and are generally considered to be the first punk band.

The watershed moment for New York punk that brought the scene and the music form its mass popularity was the entrance of The Ramones in 1974. By the late 1970s, The Ramones were a household name.

UK Punk

Former manager of the New York Dolls, Malcolm McLaren moved to London and opened a shop to cater to London punks called Sex. From this shop, the seminal UK punk band was born, The Sex Pistols. The Sex Pistols played their first gig in 1975 and with McLaren as manager, the band soon rose to stardom. From this London scene, the UK punk scene grew to include bands like The Slits and Siouxsie and the Banshees. The Clash is the band on the London scene, which was generally more political than the U.S. scene, that really pushed punk music into the mainstream.

Punk Artists

Many important bands influenced punk bands and were later influenced by punk music. Some of the most influential ones are:

Pre-Punk Bands

  • New York Dolls
  • Velvet Underground
  • MC5
  • The Stooges
  • The Modern Lovers

Punk Bands

  • Television
  • The Sex Pistols
  • Patti Smith
  • The Ramones
  • The Clash
  • The Slits
  • The Talking Heads
  • Buzzcocks
  • The Fall
  • Subway Sect

Post Punk Bands

A genre called post punk arose in the early-to-mid 1980s that included bands that blended punk music and ethos with influence of other 80s music, like New Wave (which itself was influenced by punk):

  • Josef K
  • Felt
  • Joy Division
  • Bauhaus
  • The Smiths
  • New Order
  • The Birthday Party
  • The Cure

The Legacy of Punk Music

Like most music related questions, you'll have a hard time getting people to agree upon what is and isn't punk music, which modern bands are making punk music, and which modern bands are making which variation of punk music - and of course, what music genres count as variations of punk music at all.

Even though it's hard to reach an agreement on what bands today are making punk music and which are not, everyone can agree that there ARE still punk bands today and that punk has influenced some other kinds of music, including:

  • Hardcore
  • Rockabilly
  • Pop-punk
  • Oi
  • Riot Grrl
  • Queercore

To delve more deeply into the history of punk music, check out this great punk profile by music webzine Fast 'n' Bulbous.

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History of Punk Music