While the word punk has been around since the 17th century, popping up in William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure back in 1603 (bearing a much different and rather sullied meaning), punk as we know it didn’t truly become a musical and cultural force until 1976.
There were glimmers of its impending arrival in occasional sonic flare-ups around the country, when a small number of garage-rock bands would independently goose their primitive sounds with lyrics that dripped with rebellion, attitude, sarcasm, danger, or a combination of all four.
CBGBs became a clubhouse of sorts and later the cradle of punk civilization almost as soon as it opened its derelict doors at 315 Bowery in December 1973
There had been hints of what would become punk rock as far back as 1963, when The Kingsmen mumbled the first debatably dirty lyrics of “Louie Louie,” and again in February 1969 when Detroit’s MC5 released their flamethrower of a song “Kick Out the Jams,” followed six months later by The Stooges’ psychologically seditious “I Wanna Be Your Dog.”
While these were all powerful and disturbing songs, the bands that created them — and the above examples are just a small handful — were isolated by geography or chronology.
In order to evolve into a new form that bristled with stripped-down, unruly defiance, this small groundswell needed to grow larger and more widespread — and it needed a reason to raze what we were listening to. Plus, it needed context, a spiritual center — more of an incubator from which to develop. That is what CBGB-OMFUG’s provided.
A tiny run-down bar on New York’s Lower East Side, located underneath a rather infamous flophouse called the Palace Hotel, CBGBs became a clubhouse of sorts and later the cradle of punk civilization almost as soon as it opened its derelict doors at 315 Bowery in December 1973.
By March 1974, owner Hilly Kristal had given Television its own Sunday-night residency, soon to be followed by appearances by an early version of the Patti Smith Group, a proto-version of Blondie called the Stilettoes, and of course The Ramones, who were the figureheads of the entire scene, with their adopted identical surnames, genre-busting, no-longer-than-two-minute songs, black leather jackets, tight jeans, and high-tops. By the end of 1974, they had played CBGBs 74 times!
By 1975, the Talking Heads, Mink DeVille, Tuff Darts and The Heartbreakers — the group that featured Television’s Richard Hell and Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan from the New York Dolls — all got their turn on the tiny beer-soaked stage.
While New York was home to this first punk scene, it soon took root elsewhere, spreading to London and Southern California. It already lay dormant in the urban industrial landscapes of Cleveland and Detroit, waiting for a propitious moment to uncoil its louder, faster, harder ethos.
The New York homegrown version of punk didn’t have the immediate revolutionary impact on its birthplace that British punk would, its influence is incalculable; 40 years later its reverberations are still being felt.
Would there have been a Sex Pistols had it not been for the New York punk scene in general and The Ramones in particular? If you ask John Lydon, the erstwhile Johnny Rotten, it’s resolutely yes, as he told Spin in 1997.
“The Ramones to me were never really punk; they were closer to Status Quo,” he said. “The record company wanted to shove us into that CBGB’s world of New York, but that’s a world of foolishness.”
There are as many theories about why punk rock is as there are punk-rock progenitors, but like all good revolutions, this one was born out of discontent.
Punks bemoaned the lack of substance and meaning in the music of the day, the superficiality of disco, the preciousness and self-consciousness of prog-rock and the overweening bloat of stadium rock. They also disdained the government — more prevalently in Britain, brought on by ongoing garbage strikes, rampant unemployment, lack of opportunity for the underclasses and the rise of Thatcherism from 1975 to 1990. This was the “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” moment codified in the film Network, and by most of 1976’s songs, which heralded the very beginning of punk.
Punk may have started in 1976, but it surely didn’t end there.
By the ’80s it evolved into hardcore and lived between the crosshairs of new wave and post-punk with bands such as New Order and The Cure, while the Midwest birthed snotty malcontents like The Replacements. The following decade shattered our eardrums with grunge (Nirvana), unfurled with emo, the Riot Grrrl movement, hit the mainstream with the likes of Green Day and The Offspring, and lives on today in the retro garage rock of Parquet Courts.