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How and Why Punk Rock Developed
Everyone who has been alive since the late 60s has heard the term “punk rock” and has some sort of idea of what it is, whether it be hot pink mohawks, Doc Martens (everyone should have pair, not just punk rockers), or extremely loud, extremely rude music. It has always been the rebellious little brother of rock and roll, and as someone who devoured the Dead Kennedys and the Misfits in my early teen years, it poses great questions to me and others, I’m sure. Like how did classic rock take a detour to the dark side? What prompted this seemingly random change in musical gears? Who was directly involved and why?
If you go to Merriam-Webster and put “punk rock” into the search bar, it will spit you out a very derogatory definition. It claims that punk rock is “rock music marked by extreme and often deliberately offensive expressions of alienation and social discontent”, and while this is somewhat true, it’s not all that punk rock is about.
So I write this to answer some of those questions: how and why punk rock developed, and to maybe shed some good light on a very dimly lit subject.
How punk rock developed
The term “punk” has changed and shifted through the years, just like it’s music. In the late 60s, “punk” described garage bands, groups of teens who got together just to play music, usually on instruments they could barely use. Later in the 70s, punk rock exploded in a cloud of cigarette smoke, safety pins, and boot laces, the music almost an afterthought. It was more about the attitude of being punk. “Punk” continued through the 80s then declined in the 90s; grunge was more in favor and Nirvana was quickly rising to the top of the charts.
Regardless of the term, the kind of punk we know began in the 60s also. Kids were forming their own bands, often playing instruments they had no training in and no idea how to play. This is a strange concept: how can you form a band when you have no clue what you’re doing? But it was because of this lack of training, and because of this lack of musical knowledge that made this music so different and, in some cases, so good. These bands had no grasp of so called “musical boundaries” so they weren’t scared to cross them. Bands like Iggy and the Stooges, MC5, and the Velvet Underground were being signed and a new musical culture began to unfold.
The late 60s turned into the 70s and punk rock took a change in its path yet again. A designer named Malcolm McLaren and his girlfriend Vivienne Westwood owned a boutique in London that sold all sorts of rock n’ roll clothing and memorabilia. Part rock n’ roll, part S&M, these designers were experimenting with kink and fetish wear, and when they met the John Lydon and his motley crew of “band mates,” they saw an opportunity. Dressing them up, and rechristening John Lydon as Johnny Rotten, Malcolm McLaren became the manager of the Sex Pistols. This was a massive moment in punk rock history. It began the badmouthing, anarchy-screaming, disaffected youth trend, along with the wild hair, safety pin piercings, and knee-high combat boots. The music changed as much as the style, and hardcore punk, and the hardcore attitude that went along with it, exploded into being.
Why punk rock developed
The music that the Sex Pistols made was loud, crude, and violent, all tied together with anarchy, nihilism, and rebellion. They sang about how bad the government was, how bad their lot was, how unfair it was, whatever “it” may be. Government played an important role in punk music. Bands like Green Day, with their “punk-rock opera,” American Idiot, that slammed George W., the Dead Kennedys with their song “California Uber-Alles,” talking about California governor Jerry Brown, and The Clash and Pink Floyd with their amazing works with deep lyrics about their deep discontent with the government and what they were doing.
And so, we reach our second question: why did punk rock develop? Plainly, because people didn’t like what they saw. As you can probably tell from lyrics and stunts, punk rockers were unsatisfied, unhappy with something, usually about big, overarching things, like the establishment. When people are dissatisfied, they rebel, and that’s exactly what happened. Punk rockers said goodbye to ordinary things, like jeans without holes in them, and channeled their frustration into music, usually music that will make your ears bleed. Teens, usually hanging on the thin line between normality and insanity as it is, picked up this music and its attitude and used it to show the whole world they didn’t care. Punk rock, in its most basic form is an expression of rebellion and unsatisfaction.
Having said all that, I just want to make sure that we get everything quite clear. Punk rock is not a bad thing. For a lot of teens, it did represent rebellion, kind of a slap in the face to all those “normal” people out there. But for a lot of people, myself included, it represented a strange sort of freedom. It represented the freedom to dress how you liked, to listen to what you liked, to speak out about things you were passionate about. It gave kids and adults the power to show what you believed in, rather than having it all sit inside you, getting old, and stronger and turning you into a cynical, bitter person. It’s empowerment.
So, there you go. Punk rock developed because teens and adults alike were frustrated with the world around them and wanted it to change. It evolved from experimenting garage bands to nihilistic concerts to more mellow and more government-conscious themes. No matter what form it’s in, and even though it’s fallen out of favor, punk rock has changed the music scene and many lives forever.
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