In the mid-to-late 1970s a radical youth culture called punk emerged out of the larger rock 'n' roll scene, and developed its own music, attire, and ideology. The Sex Pistols are the best known of the punk bands; their music, like all punk rock, was aggressive, fast, and loud. Punk attire is characterized by dark clothes, outlandish costumes and ornamentation such as colored hair and earrings and bracelets made from assembled items (the quintessential punk earring was a safety pin). Punk ideology is explicitly at odds with mainstream society and rails against contemporary civilization, which is seen as sterile and banal. Punk is heavily critical of existing political, economic, and cultural institutions, yet is ambivalent about creating alternatives.
The earliest forms of punk rock developed in the United States. The Velvet Underground's minimalist music and commentaries about life outside mainstream society inspired a number of bands, but the first group to be considered a punk rock band was the Ramones. Formed in 1974, the Ramones gained a following around New York City by stripping rock down to its bare essentials and playing with near-anarchic energy. Their first album, Ramones (1976) featured a string of songs, most shorter than two minutes, including "Blitzkrieg Bop" and "Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue." The album became a minor hit in the U.S. and a major hit in England, where a number of bands began to pick up on the energetic rock played by the Ramones and fellow New York-bands the Stooges and the New York Dolls that played at clubs like Max's Kansas City and CBGB's. While punk was a minor sensation in the United States, it gained real popularity in the United Kingdom. The first British punk band was the Sex Pistols, which in the three short years of its existence largely created the ideal of the punk rock band.
The Sex Pistols, led by singer Johnny Rotten (formerly John Lydon) and bassist Sid Vicious and managed by Malcolm McLaren, took the music scene by storm when they began playing in 1976, singing about anarchy, abortion, and fascism in some of the most violent live shows and recordings ever heard. The band alienated several recording labels and frightened the establishment, but they also encouraged the rapid growth of the punk scene in England and sparked the creation of such bands as the Clash, the Damned, the Buzzcocks, and others.
Punk made a very visible, shocking, public display. However, with the drug-related death of Sex Pistols' bass player Sid Vicious in 1979 and the demise of several punk bands, some proclaimed that punk was a short-lived fad that had come to an end. The rumors of punk's death were unfounded, and many bands set about to defend the true meaning of punk and extend its musical influence. The most direct development from early punk is the hardcore punk movement that developed during the 1980s, foremost in the United States, but also in England, France, Italy, and other countries, with bands like the Dead Kennedys, Social Distortion, the Misfits, and Upright Citizens. Since the 1980s there have been any number of bands that have echoed the influence of punk, including Hüsker Dü, the Replacements, Soul Asylum, Green Day, Sonic Youth, and the Minutemen, among others. Though the era of punk rock is generally considered to be the years between 1975 and 1980, the punk ethos lives on.
Musically, rock 'n' roll provided an important foundation for punk, as youths who came of age in the 1970s and 1980s were well acquainted with rock bands like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin. Many punk bands learned music by playing other people's songs and it was commonplace among young punks, and even well-known bands, to release cover songs. The Dickies, for example, played fast but melodic versions of Led Zeppelin's "Communication Breakdown" and the Moody Blues' "Nights in White Satin." Bands often performed cover versions of older songs that had historical significance or that made a particularly salient political point. Generation X, for example, performed a cover version of John Lennon's "Gimme Some Truth." While cover songs often signaled respect for past music, cover songs could also represent an ironic comment on or critique of rock and roll. Although cover songs were common, punk ideology derided cover bands that did not play original songs for a lack of creativity.
Despite the powerful influence of rock, punk music differs significantly from its predecessor. Punk songs are generally short, fast, and loud, and place increased emphasis on distorted guitars. Many punk bands use "power" or bar chords, and speed is often emphasized over intricacy. The musical skills of punk musicians are often rudimentary and this lack of virtuosity is connected to an ideology that anyone can write and play songs. Fairly simple songs with basic four-four drum beats are common and many punk bands form with friends picking up instruments and learning as they play. Punk's minimalist three-chord approach and shouted vocals stand in clear opposition to the melodic singing of earlier styles.
Punk music developed "scenes" centered on bands, clubs, and fans in a particular area, such as Manchester and London, England. The Damned, Stiff Little Fingers, the Jam, and Sham 69 were particularly influential, as were the Gang of Four, the Mekons, and the Delta 5 from Leeds, England. In the United States, the Los Angeles, California, scene produced such bands as Black Flag, Fear, the Germs, X, and the Circle Jerks. Two documentaries—The Decline of Western Civilization (1981) and Another State of Mind (1984)—document the lives of various L.A. punk bands both on stage and off. The Dead Kennedys (San Francisco), the Teen Idols, State of Alert (S.O.A.), and the Bad Brains (all Washington, D.C.), and Hüsker Dü (Minneapolis) were all especially important early punk bands.
Punk was always about more than music, however. For both fans and musicians punk amounted to a kind of lifestyle. From the beginning, punk haircuts and clothing stood in stark contrast to the appearance of rock 'n' rollers. As Dick Hebdige describes, punks rebelled by wearing ripped clothing, black leather, and assembling cultural icons as decoration. Mohawk haircuts, dyed hair, or extremely short cropped haircuts distinguished punks from the typically long-haired rockers. Hardcore attire followed directly from punk, although it tended to be more subdued. Dark clothes, black leather jackets, ripped jeans, sneakers, or boots (especially Doc Martens) were common; however, the outlandish costumes of punk—bright clothes and colored hair—were often toned down. Many hardcore fans simply wear jeans, a tee-shirt (often with a band insignia), and sneakers. In some sense this was a rebellion against the mainstream cooptation of punk dress but it was also an attempt to get beyond an anti-fashion style that was not only a lot of work, but made punks subject to verbal, and occasionally physical, harassment. Less dramatic attire allowed hardcore punks to move more easily between mainstream and alternative cultures. Thus hardcore, while characterized by a louder and more aggressive music, began a tendency back to more mainstream attire.
Punk has offered a radical critique of society and has been noted for its unique ideological characteristics; however, punk has not presented a coherent philosophy but rather a series of related critiques. Punks have been particularly hostile to authority and questioned rules and rulemakers. Rather than focussing simply on politics in the conventional sense, punk challenged the patterns and norms of contemporary social relations. As Dick Hebdige writes, punk has "signified chaos at every level." The politics of everyday life were most central to punk and lyrics question social rules and relationships. Many lyrics are centered on love, relationships, jobs, and so on, but punks put a radical spin on such issues. Punks have aimed to shock and offend and are particularly anti-romantic in their sentiments. Love is frequently referred to only in sexual terms and often quite graphically, as in the Dead Boys' "Caught with the Meat in Your Mouth." Some punks have used Nazi images and ornaments in their outfits, and have made callous reference to such tragedies as the Holocaust in such songs as "Belsen Was a Gas." However, such practices generally reflect an attempt to use images in an ironic sense to question conventional meanings. Furthermore, punks have been by and large anti-Nazi and anti-fascist and have frequently espoused left-wing and humanitarian concerns.
Political issues have been important for many in the hardcore punk scene as well. War, social inequality, and capitalism are common topics of punk lyrics. Maximum Rock and Roll, one of the foremost hardcore fanzines, covers these and other topics in its columns, letters, and interviews. Leftist, anarchist, and communist leanings are prevalent as punks express concerns about politics, the military, censorship, corporate crime, and other issues. The band Millions of Dead Cops (MDC) has attacked government and police authority. MDC also railed against corporate capitalism, calling McDonald's hamburgers "corporate death burgers." While a wide range of political views have emerged from the hardcore movement, most of these political statements were rudimentary, as few had worked out the complexities of the many issues they discussed. Typical of a punk political critique was a catch phrase such as "Reagan sucks."
Punk has tended to be very cynical regarding political activism, and emphasizes chaos rather than concerted action. While for some punks this has meant an attempt to avoid politics or just to have fun, for others this critique meant an emphasis on social or personal politics rather than large-scale political concerns. Many emphasize personal politics and promote difference as a value; the Big Boys sang: "I want to be different, I want to make you see, I want to make you wonder is it you or is it me?" Adherence to the local scene for its own sake is important and punks have tried to establish a core set of values that set punk off from mainstream society. Bands like Reagan Youth, Minor Threat, Youth of Today, and Youth Brigade promote youth power as an ideology opposed to conventional adult married and working life.
Anger is common in punk lyrics. Henry Rollins of Black Flag yelled: "Everybody just get away/I'm gonna boil over inside today/they say things are gonna get better/all I know is they fucking better." Void growled: "I'm so fucking filled with hate/I want to decapitate." Boredom is also a common complaint, as Tony of the Adolescents sang: "We're just the wrecking crew/bored boys with nothing to do." Punks launched critiques against hippies and consumerist yuppies alike: the Teen Idles sang "Deadhead deadhead, take another toke/deadhead, you're a fucking joke." "Die yuppie scum" was also a common punk mantra.
While many punks were critical of "hippie burnouts," drug use was and is an element of punk culture and a symbol of punk excess. Punk lore has tended to glorify some of the more outrageous events that transpired under the influence of drugs. Scott Asheton, in Please Kill Me, recounts a story about Iggy Pop: "He was walking down the street and he finally just collapsed. It was from massive amounts of drugs—I mean, you can't take acid and Quaaludes at the same time, it just doesn't work." Similarly, in Please Kill Me, one person describes the night of the death of Nancy Spungen:
Nancy was stoned. She was stoned and she was bragging. She's talking in that fucking cockney accent, you know, being Mrs. Sid Vicious. But it wasn't much of a party because Sid was passed out. Sid did not look like he was going to get up. He wasn't moving. I said, "What's wrong with Sid?" Someone said, "Oh, he just ate about thirty Tuinals." I said, "Oh, he's going to be fun tonight."
The deaths of Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen (the subject of the movie Sid and Nancy, 1986) were particularly vivid reminders of the presence of drug use and violence in the punk scene. Many other drug-related deaths occurred among punks, particularly in connection with heroin use.
However, in response to frequent cases of addiction and overdose, and in the face of legal restrictions, some punks rejected the use of drugs. The Washington, D.C., straight-edge scene, opposed to drinking, drugs, and casual sex, developed alongside the refusal of clubowners to let underage kids into shows. As a compromise, underage kids were allowed in but were marked with X's on their hands to signify that they couldn't buy alcohol. The kids took this would-be stigma and turned it into a symbol of positive self-identification.
Punk identity has been strengthened by the social networks that developed to organize concerts, start 'zines, and spread ideas. Bands and fans established ties across the country (as well as through much of the world) through which they could share common interests, book shows, or find a needed place to sleep. Many punk musicians, ignored by major record labels, produced their own music on independent labels like Dischord, SST, Touch and Go, and SubPop. Punk was particularly critical of the rock and roll establishment. While rock began as a non-conformist youth culture, punks voiced opposition to the cult of rock stardom and the large stadium concerts that clearly separate the audience from musicians. Punk, by contrast, is premised on the idea that anyone can start a band. Punks have also been critical of major record labels and large-scale industry in general and espoused a "Do-It-Yourself" (D.I.Y.) philosophy that emphasizes independent actions and personal creativity.
Centered around punk rock music, the punk movement was an important development in the youth culture of the late 1970s and it remained an identifiable element in youth culture in the late 1990s. Punk was unique for its aggressive and fast musical style, its purposefully shocking visual impact, and its ideological emphasis on chaos, nonconformity, and radical criticism. Punk rock developed as an ideological, musical, and stylistic critique of modern society, and while it is a movement that may be self-limiting in its effectiveness in reaching out to other groups, it has nonetheless had a powerful influence on youth cultures, in particular the emergence of alternative rock and grunge.
Frith, Simon. Sound Effects: Youth, Leisure, and the Politics of Rock 'n' Roll. New York, Pantheon Books, 1981.
Hebdige, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. London, Routledge, 1991.
Herman, Andrew. "You're in Suspicion: Punk and the Secret Passion Play of White Noise." Canadian Journal of Political and Social Theory. Vol. 14, 1990, 47-67.
Heylin, Clinton. From the Velvets to the Voidoids: A Pre-Punk History for a Post-Punk World. New York, Penguin, 1993.
Laing, Dave. One-Chord Wonders: Power and Meaning in Punk Rock. Philadelphia, Open University Press, 1985.
Marcus, Greil. Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1989.
McNeil, Legs, and Gillian McCain. Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk. New York, Grove Press, 1996.
Savage, John. England's Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock, and Beyond. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1992.
Punk as dress cannot be discussed without at least some reference to its musical underpinnings. It has to be recognized that within the field of cultural studies, it both energized and produced a series of new responses to the theoretical construction of youth culture. Thus, it can be regarded as a formative movement in both its sartorial and visual presentation, and the consequent analysis of it as a subcultural style. It can be further argued that punk culture stands at a pivotal point in the relationship between youth cultural style and its commodification.
The United States
Punk had its roots in inner city America at the beginning of the 1970s. While its inspiration could be traced farther back, as a movement with a set of cohesive identities, New York appears to be its birthplace. But as befits its urban nature, punk cannot be said to have a singular geographic location. Detroit, Cleveland, and possibly Los Angeles are other sites that could also claim an emergent aesthetic and style identified as punk.
One of the many effects of the post–World War II consumer boom within the United States and Europe was an ever-expanding market for goods, particularly within a youth cultural market that led to an active struggle from young people to shape and realize their own identities through the consumption of music and fashion. This popularization of "youth" as "style" and "surface" was in part reflected in the breakdown of distinctions between high and low culture within the pop art movements—of Britain's Independent Group and its U.S. equivalent—of the 1950s and 1960s. In the latter grouping was Andy Warhol and the Factory. Symptomatic of pop, Warhol's work, its repetitive nature, and its insistence in articulating nothing more than the surface engaged with a youth cultural perspective of nihilism that revolved around the adage of "live fast, die young." As such, alongside Warhol's desire to surround himself with a coterie of the young, dangerous, and beautiful, the seeds of an avantgarde music scene began to be established.
Set around Warhol's Factory and the Lower East Side in a time of political and financial meltdown in New York, the music of these artists, in particular the Velvet Underground, reflected the repetitivity and surface of the Factory's output. Playing at seedy venues such as Max's Kansas City, CBGBs, and Mother's, the music of the Stooges, New York Dolls, MC5's, Wayne County, and Patti Smith took their influences from a variety of sources
all intent in demolishing what was seen as the pompous, sterile sound of contemporary music in the guise of "progressive" and "stadium" rock. So a disillusionment with all things commercial and the be-suited executives at the record companies led to a desire to perform music that would shock people to their senses, bringing music back to the poverty/richness of the everyday. While this was going on in the United States, Britain was in the grip of glam rock, a pub rock sound characterized in part by the clothing of its performers that looked to the transgressive in their stage presence. Of these perhaps the most original was David Bowie. Under a string of different pseudonyms and increasingly bizarre record personalities, David Bowie proved influential in his effect on both music and clothing in Britain and the United States.
By 1975 the American "punk scene" had evolved into a subculture characterized by the music of Television, and perhaps most famously The Ramones who wore clothes that reflected their rent boy street personas. Given that many of the musicians had gravitated from a bohemian inner-city scene detailed in the writings of William Burroughs and Alexander Trocchi, it seemed like a natural continuation of this aesthetic. The black leather jacket, T-shirt, straight jeans, and sneakers of the hustler proved the initial look of an American underground scene. While there were those such as the New York Dolls, who followed an English glam rock look of androgyny—made up with leather and knee-length boots, chest hair, and bleach—the majority pursued an understated street look. It was this musical explosion within the United States that brought a youngish Malcolm McLaren over to the United States to manage the New York Dolls where he fell into the punk scene and made clear his intentions to ship it back to the United Kingdom.
The United Kingdom
While it is obvious that Malcolm McLaren and his partner, Vivienne Westwood, are central to any definition of punk, especially in relation to its clothing, it is also clear that the self-aggrandizing machine which is Malcolm McClaren has skewed any historical understanding. In part this is justified, as McClaren and Westwood's string of shops on the Kings Road defined a particular look and McLaren's desire to exploit punk as a scene in the United Kingdom led directly to his management and dressing of the Sex Pistols, the most notorious of all punk bands.
Starting out on the Kings Road in 1972 as Let It Rock a shop that catered to a late working-class Teddy Boy revival, drape coats, and brothel creepers, Vivienne West-wood and Malcolm McLaren's shop then moved through a number of reincarnations, including Too Fast to Live and the fetish-orientated Sex, and later Seditionaries, and finally World's End. As in the United States, McLaren encouraged those who railed against society to hang around the shop. His and Westwood's antiestablishment aesthetic soon earned them a place in the London underground scene. However, we are not talking of the sophistication of New York, but a more rag-tag army of disillusioned teenagers. And it is from this group that the Sex Pistols were formed. Apart from the "rock" posturing of Glen Matlock, the rest of the band—Johnny Rotten, Sid Vicious, Steve Jones, and Paul Cook—were wholly working class and outside any artistic or intellectual clique. While many of the other emerging punk bands had members from an art school background, the Sex Pistols could claim to be the genuine thing: an authentic working-class group of kids celebrating the boredom of their socially proscribed position.
It is this notion of authenticity and working class that, in part, has always demarcated a British and U.S. understanding of punk as a philosophy or cultural experience. Whereas in the United Kingdom youth counter cultures had generally been a central experience of working-class youth—an expression of dissent and isolation from their parents and a reaction against a dominant ideology that on the surface worked to repress their ambition, in the United States the readings had not taken on such class-bound strictures.
The result in the United Kingdom was the publication in 1977, the peak of punk in Britain, of Dick Hebdige's Subculture: The Meaning of Style. Using punk as its central example, Hebdige employed a series of methodologies from Marxism to Structuralism and Semiotics to chart a view of post–World War II British youth cultures that were constructed through their working-class credentials and a desire to react against the dominant powers that appeared to shape their lives. In this analysis, Hebdige applied the notion of "bricolage" as the stylistic combination of disparate coded objects to juxtapose and create fresh meaning to punk dress and style. The safety pin's original meaning as something to hold together a diaper and to prevent injury to the child was pierced through a nose or stuck onto ripped jeans and jackets. Its once certain assigned meaning through was contexually redefined through its wearing as a stylistic device.
In Britain the spectacular nature of punk as a style surpassed that of the United States. Westwood's designs— from "Destroy" T-shirts, bum bags, tartan bondage trousers, safety-pinned and ripped muslin shirts, and sloganed clothing—were a visible affront to a population who, for the most part, regarded long hair on a man as a concern. While youth cultures had previously been vilified within the national press for violence and drug taking, punk directly challenged the dress aesthetic and morals of a conservative nation. Beyond the Kings Road in 1976, 1977, and 1978, the influence of McLaren and Westwood diminished rapidly. Though they may have attracted a contingent of followers in London and their home counties, punk was a nationwide phenomenon and as such developed a style that was perhaps more coherent and less showy than Westwood's ready-to-wear clothing.
This do–it–yourself (D.I.Y.) aesthetic consisted of Hebdige's "bricolage" as the throwing together of a series of looks based around a few staple elements, such as mohair sweaters, tight jeans, and "jelly shoes." There was also the widespread use of secondhand clothing from charity shops and rummage sales—suits with T-shirts and basketball boots, collarless granddad shirts, and peroxided hair—with or without the ubiquitous stenciling and letter art of favorite bands, anarchist slogans, or the Situationist politicizing of groups such as The Clash.
This aesthetic was perhaps more subdued than the Kings Road look, but is more representative of punk as a dress code within the United Kingdom both for individuals and bands such as The Buzzcocks, The Damned, The Adverts, 999, and out on a style limb The Undertones. By 1977 punk's popularity as a musical form had seen by then the infamous Grundy television interviews; the Sex Pistols single "God Save the Queen" reaching number one in the week of the Queen's Golden Jubilee; and the interest of record companies in signing up groups who claimed in any manner, shape, or form to espouse a punk belief.
By 1979 the first stage of punk in the United Kingdom was coming to an end. Its commercial status became assured, from advertisements in music papers such as NME and Sounds advertising punk clothing, badges, and T-shirts to the record companies' desires to promote a gentler, more public-friendly "new wave" and to the release of various compilations that promised to tell the whole punk story. However, punk itself as both a music and a style attempted to change in order to avoid its co-option/commercialization by hardcore bands such as The Exploited and political bands such as Crass. In terms of dress, there was a reengagement with the motorcycle jacket, the use of Dr. Martin work-wear boots, and the introduction of a wide variety of commercial rainbow hair colorants, along with the ubiquitous Mohawk haircut, which, along with a penchant for black, crossed over into both Goth and the New Romantic movements of the early 1980s. It is this look that for many years characterized, and as such became the iconic image of, punk.
As a direct result of the energy of punk and the diffusion of a whole series of offshoots from punk with fanzines such as Punk in the United States and Sniffin' Glue in Britain, it became clear that there was a market for hard-edged youth journalism, which dealt specifically with an urban street scene. Punk fostered the emergence in 1980 of street-style magazines such as The Face, iD, and Blitz. Yet, as a consequence of these magazines trying to locate and expose scenes bubbling up from the streets, it became increasingly difficult for "subcultural" movements to resist commercialization through exposure. And it is this that is perhaps punk's greatest legacy to youth cultural style. While it would be inaccurate to suggest that youth cultures prior to punk were left to get on without the prying eyes of parents and large commercial operations intent on supplying, if not co-opting, youth culture toward their own ends, it is clear that punk stood at the crossroads of a contemporary "lifestyle" aesthetic. That youth culture in the early 2000s is so heavily mediated and prey to the intense gaze of commercial pressures is perhaps one of the less-appreciated consequences of punk as an historical event.
From the sounds of Seattle and grunge, through to a swathe of bands in 2004 that look more like The Ramones than The Ramones, punk has endured. For the fashion industry, its stylistic conceptualization as both "bricolage" and "rebellion" makes it the perfect vehicle to reappropriate the old in the spirit of the new, which gives rise to the interpretation of punk as a seasonal look on a cyclical basis. As such, its legacy is assured within both its musical and stylistic qualities. Yet whether its politics of change or its celebration of the bored and nihilistic attitude of teenagers can ever be faithfully played out again is another question.
Anscombe, Isabelle. Not Another Punk Book. London: Aurum Press, 1978.
Colegrave, Stephen, and Chris Sullivan. Punk. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 2001.
Coon, Caroline. 1988: The New Wave Punk Rock Explosion. London: Orbach and Chambers Ltd, 1977.
Hebdige, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. London: Methuen, 1979.
Heylin, Clinton. From the Velvets to the Voidoids: A Pre-Punk History for a Post-Punk World. New York: Penguin USA, 1993.
Makos, Christopher. White Trash. London: Stonehill Publishing, 1977.
McNeil, Legs and Gillian McCain. Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk. New York: Penguin USA, 1996.
Perry, Mark. Sniffin' Glue: The Essential Punk Accessory. London: Sanctuary Publishing, 2000.
Sabin, Roger, ed. Punk Rock: So What? London and New York: Routledge, 1999.
Savage, Jon. England's Dreaming: Sex Pistols and Punk Rock. London: Faber, 1991.
Punk was a radical style of the mid- to late 1970s marked by unconventional combinations of elements and materials and a high shock value. It emerged out of London, England, and New York, feeding off of the cities' angry, rebellious participants of music concerts where a new type of music called punk was developing. What began as an antistyle aimed at thumbing its nose at the established norms of high fashion ended up having a great deal of influence on the fashions of the late 1970s and beyond.
There was always a punk element in rock 'n' roll. The Beatles famously wore black leather jackets and played a loud, fast, aggressive brand of rock music before softening their look and sound. What is now called punk is generally dated to 1972, however, when the British fashion designers Malcolm McLaren (1946–) and Vivienne Westwood (1941–) opened their London boutique. First called Too Fast To Live, Too Young To Die and later renamed Sex, the shop sold a variety of black leather and rubber designs and became a central meeting place for those in the emerging punk music scene. An aspiring music manager, McLaren himself helped set the styles that many British punks would emulate. Some of these he imported from the United States. From the U.S. punk musician Richard Hell of the band Television, for example, McLaren copied the idea of the spiked haircut. Achieved by applying large amounts of gel or Vaseline to one's hair and then rubbing talcum powder into it to dry it into spikes that stuck out away from the head, the hairstyle became emblematic of the punk look. Johnny Rotten (1956–), lead singer of the band McLaren managed, the Sex Pistols, helped popularize the style in Great Britain. Other early elements of punk style that migrated from the United States to England included the concept of deliberately ripping one's jeans below the knee, a practice of the New York-based bands the Ramones and the New York Dolls.
In contrast to the colorful, naturalistic garments worn by the hippies of the 1960s, punks preferred almost entirely black, self-consciously menacing clothes. They often composed their outfits little by little from items bought at second-hand or military surplus shops, mixing, matching, and layering as they saw fit. Quite often the garments were torn, colored, or otherwise altered to create a more individual look. Mainstays of the punk's closet included black turtlenecks, short leather skirts for women, tight leather pants or jeans for men, leather jackets customized with paint, chains, and metal studs, and Doc Marten boots. Jackets and T-shirts were often decorated with obscene or disturbing words and images. Besides leather, materials favored by punks included rubber and plastic; besides chains, they liked to adorn themselves with dog collars, razor blades, and safety pins which became a symbol of the punk style.
Punks also blazed their own trails in the area of hair, makeup, and jewelry. When not spiking hair, they were coloring it in a variety of bright hues. Or they shaved part or all of their heads, creating mohawks. Makeup was used to blacken eyelids and lips. Finally, the most dedicated punks pierced their cheeks, noses, and eyelids, often with safety pins.
Punk remained a rebellious style until 1977, when designer Zandra Rhodes (1940–) brought it into the high fashion mainstream with her Punk Chic collection. Her designs offered a tamer version of punk style, including tattered hems with exquisite embroidery and gold safety pins. Her designs helped bring punk to the attention of the rich and famous and paved the way for its acceptance by the mass market. By the end of the 1970s, new wave—a tidier, less threatening variation of punk—had largely replaced it as the style of choice among New York and London youth. However, the punk spirit proved a major influence on the goth, grunge, and some hip-hop styles of subsequent decades.
In the mid-1970s, at a time when pop music (see entry under 1940s—Music in volume 3) was dominated by soft-rock singer-songwriters and disco (see entry under 1970s—Music in volume 4), punk rock burst forth with an angry snarl that reawakened the original rebellious spirit of rock and roll. Like rock and roll (see entry under 1950s—Music in volume 3) in the mid-1950s, punk in the mid-1970s was more than a musical style. It was a new musical style, a new fashion style, a new attitude of political and cultural awareness and criticism, and a new lifestyle. Like early rock, punk challenged both American and British society. Love it or hate it, punk was not easy to ignore. It was an in-your-face movement that demanded to be heard. Punk influenced music and fashion far beyond its core supporters.
The first punk band was the Ramones, formed in 1974 in New York City. The Ramones reduced rock to its original elements of guitar, bass, drums, and singer. They played fast and furious in short songs such as I Wanna Be Sedated and Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment. These songs often commented, sometimes in a humorous way, on the darker side of life. Their energy, creativity, and pure power as a group inspired a whole host of punk bands in the United States and in Great Britain. Both New York and Los Angeles were key centers of punk music and style, producing influential punk bands such as Black Flag, X, and The Minutemen.
In Britain, the Sex Pistols (see entry under 1970s—Music in volume 4) became the most notorious of punk bands with their antiauthoritarian lyrics, their playing style that bordered on chaotic, and their boisterous live shows. Their personal behavior, including the death of bassist Sid Vicious (1957–1979) from a drug overdose in 1979, added to their notoriety. Although the Sex Pistols folded in 1979, the British punk scene lived on in such bands as the Clash, known for their Marxist politics and for pushing punk in new, more musical directions in such albums as London Calling (1979) and Sandinista (1980).
The heyday of the punk movement was largely over by the early 1980s. Many of the original punk bands, including the Ramones, carried on the tradition for many years thereafter. Punk music also influenced other musical trends, most notably new wave music in the late 1970s and early 1980s and in later bands such as Sonic Youth and Green Day. Punk also had an influence on fashion trends. Although that impact has largely passed, in most large cities one can usually find punk bands and punk fans sporting the original punk leather jackets, boots, and mohawk hairstyles. (A mohawk is a narrow strip of hair, usually styled to stick straight up, running from the front to the back of the head. It is created by shaving the hair on the sides of the head.) More important than these fashion trends, punk served to energize rock music at a time when many believed it badly needed it.
For More Information
Boot, Adrian, and Chris Salewicz. Punk: The Illustrated History of a Music Revolution. New York: Penguin Studio, 1997.
Haimes, Ted, writer, producer, and director. The History of Rock 'n' Roll: Punk (video). Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video, 1995.
Laing, Dave. One-Chord Wonders: Power and Meaning in Punk Rock. Philadelphia: Open University Press, 1985.
McNeil, Legs, and Gillian McCain. Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk. New York: Grove Press, 1996.
Miller, Jim, ed. The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll. New York: Rolling Stone Press, 1980.
Punkmusic.com.http://www.punkmusic.com/ (accessed March 26, 2002).
punk / pəngk/ • n. 1. inf. a worthless person (often used as a general term of abuse). ∎ a criminal or hoodlum. ∎ derog. (in prison slang) a passive male homosexual. ∎ an inexperienced young person; a novice. 2. (also punk rock) a loud, fast-moving, and aggressive form of rock music, popular in the late 1970s and early 1980s. ∎ (also punk rock·er) an admirer or player of such music, typically characterized by colored spiked hair and clothing decorated with safety pins or zippers. 3. soft, crumbly wood that has been attacked by fungus, sometimes used as tinder. • adj. 1. inf. in poor or bad condition: I felt too punk to eat. 2. of or relating to punk rock and its associated subculture: a punk band a punk haircut. DERIVATIVES: punk·ish adj. punk·y adj.
The word is recorded from the late 17th century in the sense ‘soft crumbly wood that can be used as timber’, and from the early 20th century in the sense ‘a worthless person’; it may also be related to archaic punk ‘prostitute’ and spunk, ‘courage’.