Mapping The Unruly History of “Punk”


Punk, an exciting four-part Epix docuseries exec-produced by John Varvatos and Iggy Pop, manages to cover the movement’s various bases: gestation in the late-60s; NYC’s CBGB scene; London’s two-fingered salute to the establishment; the rise of hardcore in DC, LA and beyond. Legendary contrarians like John Lydon attempt to resolve timeworn debates, like whether UK punks ripped off their NYC counterparts (that beef spilled out into a chaotic panel discussion with Henry Rollins and Marky Ramone). But it’s the decision to show those who made it all happen—including Lydon, Debbie Harry, and the Slits’ Viv Albertine, to name a few—listening to the sounds they created and talking about its reverberations that make Punk worth watching.

Punk Epix Trailer

The series kicks off with the man who’s widely considered the godfather of the movement talking about one of the seeds of rebellion planted in his young mind. Iggy Pop says The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” was a welcome reprieve from the “sh*tty” Top 40 of the day and he recalls huddling under the covers past bedtime waiting for it to come on the radio as a kid. Pop says it “sounded like life in the Industrial Age: You were free of the blues, you were free of Perry Como, you were free of mom and dad—you were dangerous. You turned into a monster.”

Related: “Iggy Pop: A Real Wild Child Returns”

The Kinks—“You Really Got Me” (Live on Shindig,1965)

The story picks up with another formative influence on Iggy and future punks: his fellow Detroit natives the MC5. The band’s co-founder Wayne Kramer tells how the anti-war and civil rights protests inspired the MC5 to “Kick out the jams.” As the footage of the band kicking into high gear at the infamously riotous Chicago Democratic National Convention of ’68, we get reactions from those the song inspired: NY Dolls’ guitarist Sylvain Sylvain; Dead Kennedy’s frontman Jello Biafra, who effusively says “this is what changed my life,” and Black Flag singer Henry Rollins, who says the song was “the promise of what rock and roll could be.”

what is punk

Iggy later recalls witnessing a shambolic and unruly Doors show at the University of Michigan’s Homecoming dance in ’67 that inspired him to wonder: If these people with a Number 1 song can do that, what excuse do I have?

“I stopped singing about mice and rainbows and started singing about having nothing to do and no fun and … animal sex,” Iggy goes on to say. About his band The Stooges he says: “No one rocked as hard as we did at that time.” No argument here.

The Stooges—“I Wanna Be Your Dog” (1969 studio recording)

One of the keys to Punk’s success is that it not only features those who helped create the music but also those who acted as catalysts like Legs McNeil, who co-founded the zeitgeist magazine that gave the movement its name, and Zelig-like figure Danny Fields. Fields was the Doors publicist and signed The Stooges and MC5. In Punk, he reveals he was ready to sign the Ramones 15 seconds into seeing them perform at CBGB in 1975, but it took a trip to Florida and a check from his mom to meet the band’s one signing condition—a $3000 drum kit—in order to seal the deal.

Speaking of CBGB, Marky Ramone, Jayne County, Blondie’s Debbie Harry, and Chris Stein bear witness to the grit and the grime that was Hilly Kristal’s famous downtown NYC venue, recalling the dogsh*t on the floor and the inedible chili and hamburgers once served there.

Related: “Rapture Ahead: The Top 10 Songs of Blondie”

“Episode 2” shifts to London and we hear from Lydon, who cites The Kinks and Iggy but also Irish folk songs as key ingredients to his formation. Still very much the contrarian at 63, the former Sex Pistol talks about his distaste for the very word “punk,” citing the so-called dictionary definition of “Mr. Big’s toyboy in an American prison system” to which he deadpans: “I’m afraid I don’t fit that, but somehow the term stuck.” But in classic Lydon fashion, he follows the snark with a moment of insight when he says: “What’s really important to me is what punk turned into: honesty, originality and a genuine feel for my fellow human beings.”

John Lydon and Marky Ramone at post-screening Epix panel “discussion”

Episodes “3” and “4” cover late-70s/ early-80s hardcore and bands like Cro Mags, Bad Brains, Agnostic Front, The Germs, Black Flag and second wavers Nirvana, L7 and Bad Religion. Along the way, Joan Jett, the Slits’ Viv Albertine, and Palmolive, L7’s Donita Sparks are among the women who remind us just how crucial a role they played and continue to play in its ever-expanding reach.

Minor Threat and Fugazi co-founder Ian Mackaye sums up what might just be the most revolutionary thing about punk when he explains why teens continue to respond to it like he did when he first heard it:

“It’s just a piece of plastic spinning in a circle. What’s there to be scared of? It must be the ideas.”

-Colm Clark

-Photo Credit: The Damned pose outside CBGB’s club on the Bowery in New York in April 1977 L-R Rat Scabies, Dave Vanian, Brian James, Captain Sensible (Photo by Roberta Bayley/Redferns/Getty Images)






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4 comments on “Mapping The Unruly History of “Punk”

  1. Robert Borowski

    What about X !!!!

  2. I suppose there is some truth that Nirvana was part of a second wave, but I would say hardcore was the 2nd wave. On the other hand punks from 76/77 wouuld often call anything after that 2nd or 3rd wave. Even the Ruts were lumped in there because their first record came out in 79 (but they had been gigging since 77).

    Grunge was certainly a b*****d child of punk, but its commercialism was a backhanded rejection of punk (as they exploited it). Independent labels became more like minor league farm teams. Although indie rock bands could be different than grunge, its worthy to note that the term indie rock eventually died as a result of this same dynamic.

    Perhaps Emo is a mix of punk and the same influences of grunge. It depends on the band because there are hardcore influenced emo bands and light pop emo bands.

    Gothic rock should also be mentioned since the Damned and Siouxsie helped pioneer it. Bands such as Christian Death and Alien Sex Fiends really blurred the lines.

    Then there is post punk. Sometimes there is little difference between it and punk and sometimes it sounded nothing like punk. Post punk was more of a placeholder between punk and later genres such as indie rock, gothic, grunge and the whole alternative scene.

    Death/Speed metal and cross over hardcore were heavily influenced by both heavy metal and hardcore punk. Yet heavy metal music was more closely related to punk rock than many punks would like to admit. Many punks shy away from conceding Black Sabbath’s influence, but listen to side 2 of Paranoid and you can hear many riffs used by even the 1st wave of punkers. On the flip side, there was a huge difference in philosophy.

    Categorizing punk is like herding cats. There were a lot of waves created by punk. I didnt even mention New Wave because that subject is a landmine (not as much as it used to be, though).

    Thanks for the article…

  3. Punk died the moment Green Day released “Dookie”.
    Long live The Clash.

  4. Johnny O

    The 60’s garage Rock was the catalyst for 70’s punk Rock. Bands like The Seeds, Chocolate Watch Band, The Sonics, The Standells, The Blues Magoos, etc….But, the actual Godfather of Punk came from the previous decade of the 50’s, and he is none other than Link Wray.
    The tune, Rumble, with it’s anger fueled, dirty, dark, mean, nasty, distorted driven powerchord was the game changer. Why he isn’t in the R&R Hall of Fame is a discredit to the establishment.
    Isn’t punk anti-establishment anyway?!

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