No Future – The Beginnings of Punk Part 2

In the last piece we explored the social and political climates that led to the beginnings of the punk movement. Up to this point, historians have called the music of the time “protopunk“, a label which is hard to pin down, and even harder to categorise properly. Protopunk, in essence, is any of the multifaceted music of the late 60s and early 70s that moved away from the mainstream music of the time, all of which have the beginnings of the attitudes that punk brought to the fore; sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, having a good time, and not being shafted by “the man” as it were.

As a precursor to the reportedly destructive nature of the punk movement, what became one of the signatures of music of the times was the destruction of instruments while on stage by band members. The Who were known for smashing guitars, and even on one occasion, detonating drum kits with explosives, an event which injured both guitarist Pete Townshend and drummer Kieth Moon. During the 1967 Monterey International Pop Festival, The Who, after destroying their gear, were seemingly upstaged by Jimi Hendrix, who as a finale to his song “Wild Thing”, poured lighter fluid on his guitar, then setting it alight. After smashing it to pieces, he then threw the remains into the crowd. Guitar smashing and instrument destruction would later become a hallmark of punk, as is illustrated on the cover of The Clash’s punk classic, “London Calling” (below), where bassist Paul Simonon is pictured smashing his Fender Precision to pieces during a performance in New York in 1979.

the_clash_london_calling_0The 60s ended with the triumphant and legendary Woodstock Music Festival, where over half a million people gathered party, take drugs and listen to music in apparent defiance of the doctrines of the times. This was the peak of the hippie movement, but among the acts that played at Woodstock were some bands that without, punk may never have eventuated as a movement; The Who, defiantly singing about the frustrations of a generation (“Hope I die before I get old”), Canned Heat, yearning for a life in the country away from the grind of city life (“Gonna leave the city, got to get away”), and the legendary guitar hero Jimi Hendrix, closing off the proceedings on day 4 with a song about jealousy, revenge and murder (“Yes, I did, I shot her, you know I caught her messin’ ’round, messin’ ’round town.”). This was a seminal moment in the history of music, and one that encapsulated the frustrations of the times, with life, government, war, and a new sense of awareness about the world brought on by technology and international mass media.

This clip shows Hendrix in September of the same year, performing “Hey Joe” live in Stockholm.

The early 70s saw the emergence of disco, mainstream pop, stadium rock, metal, and the beginnings of hip-hop and rap. Some popular music, that by earlier standards would be considered as “soft” was now being labeled as rock. Artists like Billy Joel, Rod Stewart, and Barry Mannilow were shoved into the category of “rock”, alongside the likes of Alice Cooper and Black Sabbath, much to their dismay. This had an affect on non-mainstream music too. Bands like The Velvet Underground and The Stooges were still around and performing, but among the unestablished musicians of the time, the first stirrings of punk were about to explode onto the scene, in defiance to the mainstream’s insistence that The Carpenters and Tom Jones were “rock”.

While punk was still only a glimmer in the eye of the music world, the stage was set in the 1970s for this new movement of music to come to the fore. In 1973, a man named Hilly Crystal opened a club in downtown New York City named “Country, Bluegrass, Blues and Other Music For Uplifting Gormandizers”, or “CBGB & OMFUG” later known simply as CBGB. Having been shut down by local neighbors in an earlier venture due to noise complaints, Crystal had a particular ambition to create a venue to bring good, new music to the people. Though his original intent was to be focused on country, bluegrass and blues music, the venue soon became known for its slew of underground bands and new, dangerous sounds.

Elsewhere in New York, a group of high-school friends, Douglas Colvin, John Cummings  and Jeffrey Hyman formed a group that was purportedly the first “punk band”. Adopting their new pseudonyms, Dee Dee, Johnny and Joey (respectively) formed The Ramones in 1973. For reasons of practicality, Thomas Erdelyi, originally their manager, joined the band on drums as Tommy Ramone. Their first performance was in 1974 at Performance Studios, where they exploded onstage, legs akimbo, a scrawny group of teenage kids in leather jackets. Johnny Ramone would start each song with an off-tempo “ONE TWO THREE FOUR”, and each song was over in under two minutes. Then on August 16, 1974, The Ramones played their most publicised gig at CBGB, in what has described as “something completely new”. Their “wall-of-noise” sound, their apathetic swagger, the unpolished sound, the 3 and 4 chord progressions, their catchcry of “HEY HO, LET’S GO”, and the pace of the music, all melded together into the one image.

Cover of The Ramones' self titled debut.
Cover of The Ramones’ self titled debut.

The songs on their self-titled debut album were patently defiant; themes included drug use (“Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue”), horror stories (“I Don’t Wanna Go Down To The Basement”, “Chainsaw”), violence (“Beat On The Brat”, “Loudmouth”), male prostitution (“53rd & 3rd”)Nazism (“Blitzkrieg Bop”, “Today Your Love, Tomorrow The World”), heartbreak and relationships (“Listen To My Heart”, “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend”), and importantly coining the phrase, punk (“Judy Is A Punk”). The songs were raw and real; these were the lives of the youth living in New York City in the mid 70s. This was a stark rejection of the “flower-power” of the 60s, the California hippies, and the mainstream chaff on the radio. This was punk.

Here is a clip of The Ramones performing in September 1974 at CBGB.

This was the beginning of a movement that soon spread from the USA to the United Kingdom. But New York was not the only place that this phenomenon of counter-culture was evolving. In fact, it could be said that The Ramones were not in fact the first punk band, but that it evolved first in, of all places, Brisbane Australia. In the next piece I will investigate the link, and disparity, between the underground pub-culture of Australia, and its relevance to the punk movement internationally.

No Future – The Beginnings of Punk Part 2