A Very Brief History of Punk Music

Posted: January 20, 2016 in Music
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Cover of "The Bassist's Bible: How to Play Every Bass Style from Afro-Cuban to Zydeco(Excerpted from The Bassist’s Bible: How to Play Every Bass Style from Afro-Cuban to Zydeco, with some additional information taken from The Drummer’s Bible: How to Play Every Drum Style from Afro-Cuban to Zydeco, by Mick Berry and Jason Gianni)
The Punk attitude/musical approach surfaced in the mid to late 1960s in, arguably, UK Rock n’ Roll groups such as The Rolling Stones, The Who, and The Kinks. In the United States, around the same time, proto-Punk groups included The MC5, The Stooges (fronted by Iggy Pop), and the lesser known The Count Five. Other less directly related U.S. groups of the time included The Seeds, the Velvet Underground, and Blue Cheer. In the early 1970s, The New York Dolls of the short-lived “Glam” Punk movement continued the trend. By the mid-1970s, the Ramones were playing high energy music which concentrated on rebellious posturing, both musically and lyrically.

In 1977, the British group The Sex Pistols won worldwide recognition with their pivotal album, “Never Mind the Bollocks Here’s the Sex Pistols.” This album firmly established the Punk genre and—hearkening back to The MC5—brought to it overt political content. At the same time, the even more political The Clash debuted with their influential, eponymous “garage-sound” album, “The Clash.”

The rebellious style of the Sex Pistols and The Clash gave rise to countless other UK and North American groups in the next wave of Punk known as “Hardcore,” with bands such as the very political (anarchist) Dead Kennedys, MDC, The Germs, Circle Jerks, and Black Flag leading the pack.

In the 1980s, Punk entered the mainstream through groups like Generation X and the still active, more polished-sounding The Clash. Perhaps, paradoxically, because of this mainstream acceptance, the musical momentum of Punk soon dissipated, despite the 1984 hit movie Repo Man and its popular, all-Punk soundtrack. In spite of its musical eclipse in the mid-1980s, the Punk subculture continued to flourish throughout the decade, providing Punk bands with a supportive (in spirit, if not financially) audience.

Punk music and spirit had a great resurgence in the early and mid 1990s with “Grunge” music and the success of the Seattle sensation, Nirvana. Grunge is to be (slightly) distinguished from Punk in that Grunge bands sometimes employ quiet acoustic passages interspersed with loud, Punk-style sections in their songs, often in a formulaic manner (brilliantly parodied by the Austin Lounge Lizards in their “Grunge Song”). Punk music thrives today through popular bands such as Green Day and Blink 182. A more recent Punk trend is “Garage,” with the most prominent bands being The Hives, The Vines, The Strokes, and the White Stripes (unique in this genre, as they have no bassist). Other notable modern Punk bands include Social Distortion, Jimmy Eat World, Rise Against, Voodoo Glow Skulls, My Chemical Romance, NOFX, Yellow Card, Bad Religion, Fall Out Boy, Alkaline Trio, and You Me At Six.

Musically, Punk is a relatively simple style featuring stripped-down instrumentation — generally bass, drums, one or two overdriven electric guitars, and a lead singer (almost always with no back-up vocals) —and rhythmically and harmonically simple songs which are generally played fast and at ear-splitting volume. (The dynamic range in Punk songs varies normally, if it varies at all, from very loud to unbearably loud.) As defiance is its defining attitude, Punk lyrics usually deal with despair, anger, teenage angst, aggression, and politics. When they are employed, background vocals are often sung in unison with the lead vocal or limited to shouting.

As Punk music and culture had little or no initial support (and outright resistance from) the music industry, Punk musicians developed a do-it-yourself approach, which manifested itself in “indie” record companies, fanzines, self-promotions, tours set up by the bands themselves, and mail-order record sales (the latter as early as 1979).

In keeping with this approach, Punk musicians, bassists included, typically avoid and even shun formal musical training (like early Surf bassists), prefering to learn their instruments by playing in a band. As attitude is respected more than technique, Punk bassists are often less familiar with music than either their drummers or guitarists.

Though many abhor technical expertise, most Punk musicians take great pride in their music’s execution. Playing bass in this aggressive, loud style can take huge amounts of endurance and concentration.

For info on the Punk attitude, see The Philosophy of Punk, by Craig O’Hara. The following quotation from Green Day’s Billy Joe Armstrong serves as a wonderful example of the Punk attitude: “Punk is not just the sound, the music. Punk is a lifestyle. There are a lot of bands around who claim to be Punk and they only play the music; they have no clue what it’s all about. It’s a lifestyle I chose for myself.”

In the film Punk Attitude, by Don Letts, Roberta Bailey, CBGB scene photographer, describes the punk scene: “You didn’t have to wait to start doing something. If you wanted to do it you could try doing it.” Later in the same movie, Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders describes the beginnings of the English Punk bands: “That was the beauty of that scene. Everyone got a band together. And everyone was in a band.”

Discussing the early bands’ musical maturation and their breaking away or moving on from Punk, she says: “Punk inherently was going to have a short life-span because the beauty of Punk music, anyway, was that no one could really play very good. And what happens is that if you get into music, and you actually like playing and you want to make music your life . . . if you wanted to pursue that, inevitably you got better at your craft.”

Contrary to Hynde’s statement, Punk hasn’t been short lived.

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