The punk movement, if you consult a history book, started in the mid 70s and lasted only a couple of years before it fizzled out, with the inevitable disbanding of The Sex Pistols. But the movement itself is far more complex and multifaceted than that which a single band offered. In order to understand the reasons such a volatile and vital movement took place, we need to first look at what drove punk to the fore in the 70s, and why this movement eventuated in the first place.
Step back from the first punk performance in the mid 70s to the late 60s. What were some of the world events that attracted people to the idea of punk?
The Vietnam War was in full swing, beginning in 1965, and was a war that would change our attitudes about wars in general, and also The West’s position as “world police” in conflicts. For example, the 5 month conflict in Khe Sanh, where over 5 times the explosive power of the Hiroshima blast were dropped in the area surrounding Khe Sanh during this time, showed just how out-of-depth the American and allies forces were in this war. This was highly publicised in the USA, Europe and Australia, and drew condemnation from the people at large. This was just one of many battles in Vietnam that illustrated the futility of wars, and it is generally agreed that the allied powers lost this war due to unpreparedness to fight in such a hostile environment.
The conflicts in Vietnam are often seen as the catalyst to the hippie movement worldwide, where people were urged by Timothy Leary to “Turn on, tune in, drop out” in 1966, or in other words, become self aware, and self reliant. The trappings of hippiedom are often seen as “Peace, love, happiness”, but pacifism, in the face of such brutality, didn’t really quench the need for change.
1968 was a momentous year of tragedies and hope. University students in the USA held rallies against the government and the war, and called for a more inclusive curriculum for African Americans. France was drawn to the brink of another revolution by student protests in March of that year. Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated at a hotel in Memphis. The Apollo 6 mission was launched. The musical “Hair” was launched on Broadway. Andy Warhol was shot by Valeria Solanas. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was opened for signatories. European nations were on edge because of the Cold War. The earth was as close as it has ever come to all-out nuclear war, and it was frightening. Protests, violence, and hope for a better future abounded, but the litmus test for the sentiment at the time was music.
Most remember the late 60s as a time for Joan Baez protest songs, Peter Paul and Mary, and for the tunes by of Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix. But in New York there was an underground movement of music that was in full swing, talking of the strife and difficulties of modern life.
Formed by Lou Reed and John Cale in 1964, The Velvet Underground were making paired back, drugged-out tunes about the low life in New York City. Tunes such as “Waiting For My Man”, “White Light, White Heat”, and “Rock and Roll” featured a rawness and a vitality that the likes of the hippie movement weren’t even nearing. The jangly guitars, the hammering of piano keys, off-key singing, and the drug-addled haze of the music created a fresh and new way of approaching music.
In another part of the country, Lincoln Park, Michigan, another sound was emerging. Heavy guitars, heavy beats, and a raucousness in sound that hadn’t been explored before. With the telltale ejaculation of “KICK OUT THE JAMS MOTHERFUCKERS!”, MC5 were creating fast, heavy music that seemed to encapsulate the frustrations of the times with a brutal clarity. Best known for their often covered song “Kick Out The Jams”, MC5 hold their place as the common ancestor of both punk and metal.
A further precursor for punk, came from a man named James Newell Osterberg, from Michigan, began his career as a singer in a blues band, and after moving to Chicago, was influenced by bands such as MC5. Renaming himself “Iggy”, and forming his band, The Stooges, Iggy Pop burst onto the scene with a show of raw power that was difficult to ignore. His song “I Wanna Be Your Dog” from the self titled album The Stooges spoke of a nihilistic relationship, where he’s happy to be nothing more than the dog. In a direct connection to The Velvet Underground, the hard hitting piano riff is played by none other than John Cale. The 3 chord song is a powerful example of proto-punk, and features a sound that would be repeated by others who would come to follow.
To say that punk arose several years later from these 3 acts would be to do the punk movement an injustice. Like any moment in history, there are always more ingredients in the lead-up than can easily be encapsulated in a few sentences. This, does, however, serve as platform from which to launch the next section of the history of punk, and for this, we move back to New York City, and a little club called CBGB.