The literature on popular music devotes far too much attention to what was essentially a regional phenomenon -- punk rock in the UK. If the scope were "British rock" or "British popular music," it would deserve a good look. But elsewhere in Europe, and even in America with its similar pop leanings, punk left virtually no mark at all. If you were young and around New York or L.A., you might have had some contact with it, maybe been part of its "cult following," but otherwise not.
This highly regional nature of punk seems to go unmentioned -- or, it's more like the writer will mention that it was most popular in the UK. Well, yes -- it was only popular there.
To avoid pointless squabbling about what "really" made an impact, let's just take an objective look at what was hot at the time -- what made it onto the charts. I'm looking at year-end charts because there's too much variation on a weekly basis in who's being played on the air. The year-end charts sift through all of that stop-and-start activity and give a more representative picture of what was big at the time.
Here are the Billboard Hot 100 singles for the year of 1977, the birth of the punk movement. No punk songs at all. At the bottom of the page, there's an expandable table that will take you to other years. Click on any year from 1977 through 1984, the latest year anyone would accept for punk being an "in" thing, and you'll find no such songs.
There are songs by groups associated with, or who flirted with punk rock at some point in their careers. Blondie has four year-end singles, all non-punk and more dance-y and new wave-y: "Heart of Glass" ('79), "Call Me" ('80), "Rapture" and "The Tide is High" (both '81). Joan Jett's punk song "Bad Reputation" did not make the charts, although her hard rock anthem "I Love Rock 'n Roll" and her hard rock cover of "Crimson and Clover" both did (in '82). Similarly, the punky "We Got the Beat" by the Go-Go's did not make it, while their poppier songs did: "Our Lips Are Sealed" and "Vacation" (both '82), and "Head Over Heels" ('84).
After leaving the punk scene for a mix of new wave and hard rock, Billy Idol made the charts with "Hot in the City" ('82) and "Eyes Without a Face" ('84). Despite heavy airplay of the punkier "Dancing with Myself" on MTV, it did not make the year-end charts. "Our House" by Madness made it in '83, although that too is pretty far from their punk roots, and is more poppy. Likewise, when The Clash made the charts in '83, it was with "Rock the Casbah" -- a song that is too slow, too long, too exotic in tone, and too danceable to qualify as punk.
Now, is this method being unfair -- only counting what was so broadly accepted by the mainstream that a movement like punk has no hope of making it? No, not if we look at the UK year-end charts here. They go up to 150 singles, so to make the same comparison, stick to just the top 100. Click on 1977, and boom, there they are: "Peaches" by the Stranglers and "God Save the Queen" by the Sex Pistols, with other songs by them within the rest of the 150. "Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn't've)" by the Buzzcocks made it in '78, and in '79 the Sex Pistols charted twice more with "Something Else" and "C'mon Everybody".
In 1980, no more punk bands are represented among the top 100 singles, although there are three by punk bands that made it into the top 150: "My Perfect Cousin" by the Undertones, "Bank Robber" by the Clash, and "Baby I Love You" by the Ramones. By this point, new wave, post-punk, synth-pop, and two-tone ska were starting to take over. In fact, "Hong Kong Garden" by Siouxsie & the Banshees just barely missed the top 100 "way back" in 1978.
I'm sure I missed a few songs whose names I don't recognize, so this is somewhat of an under-count. But the basic picture is clear: punk caught on with mainstream audiences in the UK in the late '70s, and even lasted into the early '80s at a lower intensity, while it failed to resonate with mainstream audiences in the rest of the Anglosphere or continental Europe.
I realize that some discuss punk rock to the extent that it influenced later, more popular bands, most notably the grunge phenomenon of the early '90s. In that case, the right way to write the history would be to skip over punk as a major period, and in the period on grunge, introduce it with a brief re-cap of punk. Unless, again, the topic is restricted to British pop music history.
It's not as though the English-language music literature devotes much attention, let alone full articles and books, to Italo Disco -- even though I'm guessing the average American who had the radio on in the '80s will remember "Tarzan Boy" by Baltimora, while those tuning in during the '70s probably couldn't remember any of the classics by the Ramones. It really was more of a niche thing here, and mostly restricted to New York and L.A.
And it's not like the case of rap music, where one country has produced all of its songs but all of the Anglosphere has adopted them into the mainstream over the past 20 years. Not only were the major punk bands from the UK, they were only popular within the UK.
Time to read a lot less about punk, and a lot more about new wave / new romantics and synth-pop. If punk didn't make that much of an impact, we must only be reading so much about it because it has a special resonance with nerdy critic types (namely because it's more cerebral and attitudinal than it is corporeal and, y'know, musical), and because they want to push their personal faves into the historical accounts even if they weren't that important. If the goal is critical appraisal, then fair enough. But in what are supposed to be dispassionate chronicles of what was going on when in popular music, the balance is still way off.
It's about as bad as chronicles of design and architecture that devote way too much space to Bauhaus in the '20s, when it was a non-force -- it only became popular in the mid-century with its descendants, the International Style -- while the flourishing of Art Deco is relegated to special-focus books. What total bullshit.