If the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the UK” was music to your ears (and no, we can’t write the lyrics in lower-case letters—we tried), and if Abba’s “Dancing Queen” made you squirm with disgust, then you just might be punk. If the hippies were just a bunch of damned long-hair, nature loving freaks and you preferred to spend your time in alleyways and abandoned buildings instead of in the park under trees, you were almost certainly punk. And if you shaved your head and wore safety pins in your ears instead of painting flowers on your body…well, there’s just no denying that yes, you were officially punk.
Punk rock counterculture was the most shocking youth movement the world had yet seen. In the wake of the peace and love hippies, the punks defiled decency and snarled at courtesy. They were loud, angry, repugnant, and proud of it. Just as the hippies rejected the mods’ plastic existence, punk culture scorned the hippies and their brotherly love. Punks practiced brotherly hate, or at least universal disgust.
Hippies wanted peace and love, but there was a small faction of youth who threw it all away for confusion and disorder. This was the young generation that watched as their older brothers and sisters gathered together to protest the war, realized that things didn’t get much better, and felt the hard reality of life hit like a punch across the jaw.
This younger generation, dubbed ‘punk,’ turned against the past, and embraced the urban decay they witnessed as an aftermath of the war. They saw only a life of unemployment, financial recession, and hopelessness for the future. In fact, the war cry of this gathering of despondent and desperate youths was “No Future”—exactly what they felt they looked forward to.
In America, the initial rumblings occurred as an extension to the psychedelic mod music movement, with ‘proto-punk’ groups like the Velvet Underground and Iggy Pop’s the Stooges. Andy Warhol’s Factory, and the Electric Circus (where all the beautiful had gathered for the psychedelia and listened to Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix) were hangouts for this new aggressive and confrontational scene. Change was in the air, but it was overshadowed by the hippie culture, and punk continued to stew on the back burner...waiting to blow its top.
It wasn’t until 1971 that the godparents of London’s punk movement, Malcolm McClaren and Vivienne Westwood, opened a small shop for Teddy Boy revival style, Let It Rock. The shop’s success, even with its placement on the wrong side of King’s End (as opposed to the end dominated by the swinging 60’s shops), proved that there was a counterculture world desperate for an expression of rage, angst and hopelessness.
As Kings Road became ‘World’s End,’ as the punk shops were known, McClaren and Westwood transformed their rocker style to fetish wear with Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die fetish wear, then settled firmly into punk’s grasp with SEX in 1975. This was it. The beginning of the end.
Punks were the scourge of society: they were confrontational, and they demanded attention with their shaved heads, day-glo colored Mohawks, silver studded and spiked leather jackets, torn stockings, combat boots and body piercing. This was unlike anything the civilized world had ever seen.
And then came McClaren’s gathering of itinerant youth: the Sex Pistols. Four brash kids who used to hang around SEX were turned into the preeminent punk band in 1975 when McClaren, who became their manager, dubbed them the Sex Pistols. The ultimate in shock rock, the Pistols were about as foul and famous as punk rock could be. Sid Vicious, the infamous bassist who died of a heroin overdose in the midst of his prime, wore heavy chain padlocked dog collars, practiced self-mutilation, and had a characteristic snarl that the fans (and media) loved.
The punk contingent followed the example of the self-made Pistols: don’t know how to play an instrument or sing? Do it anyway. DIY—do it yourself—became the only way to be punk. There was no collective, only anarchy and destruction (and deconstruction when it came to fashion) to fuel the fires of the punk lifestyle.
Making your own clothes didn’t mean working with patterns and sewing machines; it meant ripping, tearing, shredding and then safety pinning them back together. Pantyhose and fishnets were purposely ripped, then paired with Scottish kilts, torn disco skirts, or even garbage bags.
Jeans joined rubber and leather fetish wear, and t-shirts were spray-painted or scribbled on with markers, forming vulgar slogans or anarchy symbols. Safety pins took the place of buttons, razor blades became jewelry, and combat boots were the shoe of choice. Black leather jackets painted with punk slogans and studded with spikes and safety pins were a necessary part of the uniform for both boys and girls, as was a scowl and a bad attitude.
Not even hair escaped the DIY belief, as razors sheared heads, gelatin dyed hair, and glue stiffened hair into tall liberty spikes. Mohawks were dyed crazy colors like purple, green or pink by the likes of Jell-o or Rit-dye, or—for those who could get it—by the first punk hair color, Manic Panic. Hair became the best expression of the punk phenomenon: weekend punks could dress up for part-time attention, but only the dedicated turned their hair into shock locks.
Anything that reeked of luxury was scorned, then blatantly mocked and destroyed. The first punk kids were the young working class, but as the restlessness felt by the rest of the generation was understood, even middle class kids became slaves to punk. Kids finally had an outlet for their anger and confusion, and they expressed it through their tattered clothes and aggressive looks.
Kids flocked to underground clubs where they could congregate and listen to the new street music and dance their spastic, violent dance called slamming. New York’s CBGB gave rise to Patti Smith, Television, Blondie and the Ramones. The year was 1975, and punk in the U.S. was officially alive and kicking.
Punk rock was more than music or clothes—it was an attitude for the new way of life. Punk gave a voice to the restlessness, despair and anger the new generation was experiencing. They felt hopeless about the future and their lives. They just didn’t care about the stuff their parents did, but they did care about their music and their alienation.
By the early 80’s, punk was fading, evolving and dissolving into gothic, new romantic, and even skater subcultures. But punk will never die.