June 21, 2013

Punk rock made an impact in the UK only

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.


  1. Great post. Related to this and the thread in the other post, I came across "Riot Grrrl". Shudder. A punk girl movement. I *never* heard any of my friends, peers, anybody utter this term. And most of them were into the grunge scene, loved Nirvana, you get the picture.
    Riot Grrrl was something I only read about when I opened up 17 magazine.

    I strongly lean toward all of the social/political stuff being rammed down the throats of kids who were not that receptive being the cause of the early demise of grunge and especially riot grrrl movements. I can't stress enough how much, and professionally, this was done AND how much it was avoided.

    I found this and it captures so well the social atmosphere back then (you could not turn on the t.v. without some drama working in a fictionalized account of Anita good/ Thomas bad plot, but did the exact opposite when Clinton came along the next year):

    **Please note the weasel words in the first sentence**
    From the wikipedia article on Riot Grrrl:

    In 1991, in what many believe to be an unorganized collective response to the Christian Coalition's Right to Life attack on legal abortion and the Senate Judiciary Hearings of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas—in which Anita Hill accused Thomas of sexual harassment and was mocked by the media—young feminist voices were heard through multiple protests, actions, and events (L7's Rock for Choice) that would later become part of a larger organized consciousness. This consciousness coalesced in late 1991 under the movement known as "riot grrrl".

    Just like in your general comments on punk, they want to attribute far more importance to this movement than it deserves. It sucked so hard (sorry), that they can't get away with it, though. At least for now.

    Here was Courtney Love's criticism, and I think she spoke for EVERYONE:

    "Look, you've got these highly intelligent imperious girls, but who told them it was their undeniable American right not to be offended? Being offended is part of being in the real world. I'm offended every time I see George Bush on TV! And, frankly, it wasn't very good music."

    Yeah. L7. 1994. At Lollapalooza. Couldn't get 100 people to watch their show. I think it was under 50.

  2. The us had its own version of punk called the hardcore scene with hundreds of it's own bands, like gang green, tsol, bad brains each major city had a scene and stable of bands. Do you have a contact email? I had wanted to send you a hardcore scene pic of me and a friend from 1986-7 I thought you'd find interesting

  3. The most punky of punk is hardcore, and hardcore almost defines itself as disqualified from mainstream popularity.

    Punk didn't just influence grunge. Thrash/speed metal is another obvious example, with punk cover songs almost being a requirement for cred. The lineage leading to new wave, post-punk, pop-punk and emo (although Guy Piccioto rejected the idea that it was distinct from hardcore) is too obvious to mention. The connection between it and NWOBHM (yes, you hate the term) is more tenuous since there's often been hostility between the camps, but a number of stalwarts from it have acknowledged influence. Hell, even Billy Joel has said "Glass Houses" was his response to punk.

    Punk is sometimes intellectual, as with Crass for instance. But much of it is among the least intellectual music, aggressively unintellectual even. As Sailer said, it would have been perfect music for Freikorps. Of course, music critics are going to be more interested in writing about "Double Nickels on the Dime" or "Zen Arcade" than "Free Speech for the Dumb", "Beef Bologna", "We Are 138" or the Exploited's "Sex and Violence". Writing about the latter would be like dancing about architecture. What could be written about instead was punk as a cultural movement and the idea that anyone with enthusiasm could learn three chords and form a band.

    Punk did indeed seem to be biggest in the U.K. I suppose Americans affecting a faux Brit accent is thus fair play for all the English musicians that had before used American accents to get beyond a regional niche. Oi seemed to take the provincial Englishness (and anti-intellectualism) of punk to the furthest extent, which makes it amusing that there are plenty of Oi bands all around the world acting like an east end of London that hasn't been in multicultural London for some time.

  4. Punk made a comeback in the 90s in America. My friends were into it bigtime, and I ended up going to two Warped Tours. So there was a demographic for it, but it was in the current falling-crime period.


  5. I don't know how popular punk is now, though. Is the social mileus of the late 2000s early 2010s, much different than the 90s? I don't know the answer.

    For the record, I didn't like punk but went to the concerts for the heck of it.


  6. "I strongly lean toward all of the social/political stuff being rammed down the throats of kids who were not that receptive being the cause of the early demise of grunge and especially riot grrrl movements."

    It's kind of like how girls who think science is neat pick a science major, and figure, well why not go to a Women in Science meeting? Then they get badgered by ideologues the whole time, made to feel inadequate if they don't give 110% toward The Cause, and so on. So they burn out of the scene and go into marketing instead.

  7. "I had wanted to send you a hardcore scene pic of me and a friend from 1986-7"

    I don't have an email for this account, but you could upload it to Flickr and post the URL here.

  8. "Punk didn't just influence grunge. Thrash/speed metal is another obvious example"

    Yeah but thrash/speed metal was even less of a player than original punk. Grunge actually made the charts, was on TV, and was a mass phenomenon. And then pop-punk and emo -- those were even bigger than grunge was.

    So in a good chronicle, there would be a decent chapter on grunge / pop-punk / emo during the '90s and 2000s, and it would begin by sketching its origins or influences from punk.

    "But much of it is among the least intellectual music, aggressively unintellectual even."

    I posed "cerebral" in contrast to "corporeal." It's not music that your body wants to respond to. Bouncing around to punk only appeals to people with no coordination or kinesthetic "intelligence".

    Y'know, like if some piece of junk food is just pure sweetness, with nothing else in the flavor profile, appealing to people with a sense of taste so blunted that it only goes "oh yeah! oh yeah!" to sweetness... that's not gustatory greatness there.

    And where it was influential, i.e. the UK, it certainly was intellectual. It was a manifesto-issuing kind of movement -- pretentious, self-important, with self-annointed leaders guiding us into the Great New Era, beyond the benighted outdated past.

    The "music" was more of an instantiation of a list of abstract principles, rather than an organic, spontaneous creative impulse. Like all those boring Dogme 95 movies, or again like Bauhaus architecture and design -- a fulfillment of pre-scripted principles, rather than a creative impulse.

  9. Christ, the Sex Pistols are still issuing pompous manifestos. When they were invited into the R&R Hall of Fame, they didn't just send back a letter with a drawing of the British "fuck you" fingers on it.

    They had to detail the intellectual principles leading to the conclusion that they could not accept -- that the museumification of rock would kill rock itself, etc. etc. etc.

    Punk was more like performance art than popular music.

  10. "The lineage leading to new wave, post-punk, pop-punk and emo ... is too obvious to mention."

    New wave derives almost nothing from punk. It had attitude, and the singers got angry every now and then, but otherwise they were polar opposites. For one thing, there was such a range of emotions explored, not just nihilistic anger or bratty up-set-ness.

    No, new wave drew more heavily on disco than on punk -- the sound that the punks hated the most (along with prog / stadium rock).

    The funky, body-moving bassline is a staple of new wave, and that comes straight from the disco / funk scene just before new wave. Bernard Edwards from Chic gave birth to John Taylor from Duran Duran. In fact, when he died, his bass was bequeathed to John Taylor.

    There's basically no musicianship in punk, whereas new wavers could play their instruments and compose very well. For example, look up punk classics on Pandora, and see what percent have "thru-composed melodic style" on them -- that's harder than just rehashing the same simple verse and chorus structures.

    Then look up the new wave bands and see how much more common it is. Particularly on Heaven 17's album The Luxury Gap.

    Et ceteraaaa....

  11. "The connection between it and NWOBHM ... is more tenuous ... but a number of stalwarts from it have acknowledged influence."

    They don't sound very similar either. Again I'm talking about these things primarily as music. Most people who dig punk don't actually like music that much -- it's one of the few genres that they're into, and it curls their toes to hear just about anything else, especially if it's helplessly enjoyable.

    The Maiden / Priest / Scorpions / Etc. sound has such virtuoso musicianship, operatic vocal range, and a view toward the entire album's composition (concept albums never died in metal), not to mention much longer songs... it's light years beyond punk, as music.

    Sure, again, '80s metal had attitude and occasionally got angry, but they go through a much broader range of emotions. It's bogus to attribute punk influence to any scene that had any attitude. In this case, you can already see metal's early attitude in the Doors, Black Sabbath's early stuff, Iron Butterfly, and so on.

    It's not nihilist, angsty anger like in punk -- it's a much more righteous anger, driving the singer and listener toward some larger goal where they triumph over those who are oppressing them.

    And so, '80s metal took the time to write patriotic anthems to rally the metal army to battle, like "United" and "Take On All the World" by Priest. These weren't sonic manifestos proclaiming their outsider status from the mainstream, and leaving it at that. It was a patriotic, group-binding anthem.

    Punks never felt that emotionally connected to one another, let alone to anyone else. Metalheads had that band of brothers mentality and behavior.

  12. agnostic--i put it on flickr, oddly my mom dug this up and sent it to me the day you posted the pics of teens in the 70s-80s and i just thought you'd find it interesting, im the one on the left approx 16-17 my friend was 18 or 19 i think, it was taken at the big bohemian hangout in philadelphia "South st" that was always host to a rolling carnival of punks, skinheads, a few hippies, street kids and local rich kids etc


  13. I like prog as well as punk, despite being opposites. I suppose both genres took pre-existing aspects of rock and then heightened them. I recall recently (maybe it was Dave Weigel's long-form on prog) someone trying to come up even more minimalist and opposite of prog, and coming up with surf rock. And I dig Man or Astro-Man? as well (with "A Simple Text File" arguably being experimental enough to qualify as prog).

    The distinctive thing about NWOBHM as opposed to its predecessors is much less blues influence. Sabbath & Zeppelin were really particularly heavy blues rock bands, with occasional touches of folk, jazz or pop in as well. Motorhead might have insisted they were still just a rock & roll band, but overall it was metal for metalheads (a constituency that wouldn't have existed had the aforementioned bands not created it). It also had more of a tendency toward nihilism, which was accentuated in thrash and subsequent genres. There were "epic" uplifting songs as well, which are the obvious inspiration for power metal. I'm in the minority preferring the Paul Di'Anno era precisely because that tendency was kept in check, even though Dickinson is the more talented singer (just as Dio is more talented than Ozzy). "The Number of the Beast" is still great though.

    There are plenty of punks proclaiming unity (I haven't heard any of the Casualties, but that seems to be a theme for them), but I prefer "I've Had it With Unity" to "Walk Together, Rock Together".

    On a less related note, its a funny coincidence that we have the expressions "Dead as disco" and "Punk is not dead". I can't think of any such saying for prog (another genre closely associated with the 70s), possibly because people don't give too much thought to prog as whole rather than specific bands.

  14. "it was taken at the big bohemian hangout in philadelphia "South st" that was always host to a rolling carnival of punks, skinheads, a few hippies, street kids and local rich kids etc"

    Ah c'mon Dana, just because I wrote an article critical of punk, you think I wouldn't appreciate a good Dead Milkmen reference in there somewhere?

    Yeah, this is me and my friend after ordering some hot tea at the Philly Pizza Company. The waitress said well no, we only have it iced.

    Man, I got so into them around '94 or '95, unfortunately after they'd split up. By the time I was 16-17, I was unconsciously trying to get back to the '80s with college / independent rock -- Dead Milkmen, They Might Be Giants (who were still touring), Camper Van Beethoven, and others.

    At the time it just seemed like there was this huge lull in new music, so let's listen to something good instead. It wasn't consciously retro because it wasn't clear at that early stage of the great cultural stagnation that it was going to last well into the 21st friggin' century.

    What was Philly like at that time, btw? It sounds like there was a lot of local pride, and not much of a chip-on-their-shoulder attitude for not being New York or L.A. Nowadays it seems like every city is desperately struggling to out-do one another to imitate a single, hip city. The Platonic ideal hip city. Places seemed more locally secure and cohesive back then.

  15. agnostic

    believe it or not, rodney anonymous was my first boyfriend when i was 14 lol. i hate whenever i say this but im fairly sure punk rock girl is me, based on the lyrics of the song, especially since my friend tamara (who he was roommates with)and i went through a phase of wearing curtains as maxi skirts with our combat boots and he used to say we dressed like minnie pearl, the girl in the vid has a blue mohawk (i had a thick blue mohawk at one point with him) and puts her feet out the window in the car, which i always did lol

    the scene was amazing, we had 1-2 all-ages shows every weekend with 3 sometimes four bands and there were endless house parties from the college kids, south street was like an open air mall full of boutiques like zipperhead and skinz, that sold trash & vaudeville clothes and the like, there was an anarchist squat in west philly full of homeless gutterpunk kids who all ran around. there were gaudy punks and pre-obesity epidemic goths (that was more what i was, skinheads and kids that barely looked weird at all but just hung around. the hardcore scene in each city was all about local pride--every city had a complement of bands and most actually had a signature sound (oxnard, calif bands were "nardcore", for example).

    my fave local band was Ruin:


    nothing like this exists today, it occurs to me most of the kids running around were the products of divorce and neglect, though i wasnt. there was a total freedom. you could go to south st. anytime of day and just find people to hang out with. it was a great time

  16. agnostic, I was wondering if your thinking on this was going to be that punk rock hit on more in the UK due to a falling sense of national eminence (because that seems like it jibes with some previous stuff you've said).

    punk seems pretty notable in its alienation from mass society and the establishment, the national political culture. seems harder to read whether they were alienated from one another.

  17. Yeah, British society seems a lot more nihilistic than America, after the fall from their Victorian peak. Their mid-century was more desolate (and not just due to WWII -- before and well after), their '70s period had nihilistic punk, and their Millennial era is more everyone-for-themselves than ours.

  18. "believe it or not, rodney anonymous was my first boyfriend when i was 14 lol."

    No way dude! Do you still keep in touch or reminisce about the good old days?

    He and Joe Jack Talcum were nice enough to sign my CD sleeve for Big Lizard, which I sent in the mail with a letter saying how bad it felt to only be discovering them right after they'd called it quits.

    Do kids these days write or send stuff to their favorite music groups anymore? Probably not... no connection, no involvement, on either the singer's or the audience's side.

    "there were gaudy punks and pre-obesity epidemic goths "

    LOL, when exactly did the Victorian goth become the de facto uniform of fat misfits? That's one great thing about a dance club that plays old school goth music -- the only people who dig it are old themselves, before it got hijacked by mopey-whiny males and bitter fat females.

    "you could go to south st. anytime of day and just find people to hang out with. "

    Right, now everyone's so paranoid about strangers that you can't get into any event, no matter how boring and pathetic, without three independently verified references. Places that don't require connections for people to get in -- the mall, main drags, the park, the pool, roller rink, arcade, 7-11 parking lot, whatever -- people just refuse to go to in the first place. No protection offered.

  19. A lot of British journalists came up as music journalists during the punk years, which is why it looms much larger in hindsight.

    I was a young long-hair about town in 1976, and it was quite entertaining to see the hippy student types cutting their hair, ripping their t-shirts and developing spiky attitudes to match the hair. Some, like Joe Strummer of the Clash and Malcolm Owen of the Ruts, did the hippy -> punk transformation in record time.


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