Where did punk start? Who cares?

Remember that song that little lamb puppet used to sing? You know, the one that never ends? Yeah, it’s probably in your head now, sorry. But anyways, if that’s the song that never ends, then the debate that never ends is over where punk rock got started. Some argue that it began in Foggy London Town (hereafter referred to as FLT), while others maintain that it started on the dirty stage (or maybe even the bathroom) of CBGBs. Or people that prefer Vegemite to real food often protest that the Saints, out of Brisbane, had a record out before the Sex Pistols and almost before the Ramones. In fact, when the guitar player from the Queensland band heard the Ramones for the first time, he said “the Ramones have stolen our sound.” (Heylin, 51)

Well I’ve had enough of this debate and I’ve decided to do everyone a favor and settle it once and for all: WHO CARES? IT DOESN’T MATTER THAT YOU CAN’T FIND THE EXACT STARTING POINT. If you could, it wouldn’t mean as much.  The fact that punk rock was sprouting up all across the world says A LOT.

If punk rock, at least in its early stage, can be considered a reaction to what was going on in the world at the time, wouldn’t it make sense that it wouldn’t just happen in one place? And if you are reacting against, say, the excesses of mainstream music and the focus put on virtuosos you have NO HOPE of ever being as good as, what do you do?

You play fast. 
You play loud.
You put no importance on skill. 
You’re all attitude.  

It’s the most logical reaction really.

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9 Comments on “Where did punk start? Who cares?”

  1. Lime Says:

    Hey! You might have just put your finger on why grunge ain’t punk. Obviously Cobain thought he was a punk, wanted to be in a punk band, and so on. But gosh darn it, maybe he had just a bit too much skill to be a punk?


  2. Hahaha, well it wasn’t that a lot of the punk rockers weren’t skilled, they just didn’t put importance on it. D. Boon and Mike Watt from the Minutemen for instance, who had a background in CCR-esque rock, found they had to stop playing at their usual skill level so they’d be accepted into the scene. But the funny thing is that by doing so, I would argue the Minutemen were able to become more creative and find their own sound.*

    And as for Cobain, well, he was certainly innovative, but there wasn’t anything mind-blowing about his guitar playing. My buddy Steve once sat down one afternoon and played along with all the songs on Nevermind with never having tried to play them before. But that said, my buddy Steve certainly is skilled, no debate about it.

    *Legend has it Watt also started wearing flannel in tribute to John Fogerty, where some say the beginnings of “grunge fashion” can be found.

    The Minutemen “This Ain’t No Picnic”

  3. Lime Says:

    Damn, you’ve stymied my attempt to troll your blog. Let’s try her from a different angle. You figure that there is any particular political orientation that is needed to be punk? Do you have to be against the establishment and swinging at least moderately to the (political) left to be punk? (Meaning serious bands, not MTV pop-punk acts, like Sum 41 for instance, and also leaving aside pre-70s guys because of the difficulty in comparing political/social circumstance, as punk as Woody Guthrie may have been).

    This was another reason I could never quite swallow Nirvana or Pearl Jam being ‘punk’ bands. Cobain was seemed to have a problem with lower-class rural North American rednecks, if ‘In Bloom’ is any indication, and Eddie Vedder seems to have developed into the archetypal white, urban, save-the-whales, put-Bush-on-trial-for-war-crimes, my-ecological-footprint-is-smaller-than-thou’s liberal sometime in the mid to late 90s, meaning they were both sort of left, but not in the radicalised anti-establishment way that the bands you normally think of as ‘punk’ from the 70s and 80s were.


  4. Stereotypically, if you were going to categorize punk politics, they would be swinging to the left and and anti-establishment. BUT, there were punks that were republicans, like Johnny Ramone, and many involved in various scenes were right wing and even fascist. It seems to me that through punk, people could be exposed to political views that were not mainstream and well-known. You went to a punk show and you’d be interacting with a group of people on the fringes, saying and doing things you wouldn’t see normally. You’d open up a punk fanzine and you’d see letters from readers with different ideas on how the world should be run, what authority should mean, and how people should treat each other.

    And of course, there were varying degrees of extremism within the punk scene. People could be going there just for the music, or to become informed of new political ideas, connect with others that felt the same way you do on certain issues…or one could become part of something far more radical, such as with the case of Direct Action, a group from Vancouver in the early 1980s. A member of the group was Gerry Useless from the Subhumans, and they carried out a series of “actions” against the property of companies and government organizations that they felt were harming the world. Not everyone in the punk community agreed with their actions of violence, but when they were arrested, bands like D.O.A. and the Dead Kennedys got behind them in support, and to raise awareness of the issues that those in Direct Action felt so strongly about.

    Just as with people involved with the wider American punk scene had a range of political beliefs and levels of extremism, the Pacific Northwest Bands were diverse in this way as well. Yes, Cobain certainly did have a problem with lower-class rural North American rednecks, but I think that mainly drew out of how those rednecks treated people that were different from them. He didn’t see these people as open-minded, but intolerant of other lifestyles, such as his sister’s (heck, he probably wasn’t happy with his father’s view of that either, hence the song “Been A Son”).

    Vedder may have always leaned towards the political tendencies you describe. He was very vocal about how he felt about abortion from the get go, and it seems like he’s always tried to stay true to his values, an outlook that perhaps drew him to the music scene in the first place.

    I think you are right that neither of them were anti-establishment, but on the left…but they were at the same time very much supportive of those who were. Vedder writing “Fugazi” on his arm during a television interview or Cobain getting a K Records tattoo show that they still felt a strong bond to the others in the punk community that more fully exemplified the stereotypical punk political leaning.

    Activism and exposure are the two big words I would use to describe punk politics – one doesn’t have to agree with what a band is saying to them, but at the same time there’s nothing wrong about thinking about what they are saying, and measuring it up against what your values are. Having an open dialogue is never a bad thing.

    And you mentioned pop-punk bands, and it’s funny because even they can, at times, get involved with politics…like in last decade’s punkvoter campaign. At the time I had a big problem with musicians preaching to me about how I should vote because I saw them as trying to think for me too, but even my anger at them caused my level of engagement on the issues to increase. I had to think about what I stood for before I could conceive why I had a problem with it. And of course, if I’d voted in the American election, I’d probably of voted for the same person as Fat Mike (unless he voted for Nader).

  5. Vijayaputra Says:

    Yeah, I think you raise an excellent point Rylan. Looking for the “birth-place” of punk music is as ridiculous a historical topic as investigating the first place gunpowder was developed in Pre-Modern Europe or who first developed the first flying machine. Such a view of history (in my opinion) is one dimensional and often clouded by a desire by certain individuals and/or groups to enrol a historical event or phenomenon into a grande narrative (e.g., a nationalistic history). Indeed, it is far more interesting to investigate the socio-cultural context in which these punk scenes emerged from and what independent and interdependant factors led to their unique and similiar development For instance, why do Joy Division and Nirvana both explore gloomy themes in their music and yet sound different? What different and similiar factors led to their emergence and to what extent did the former band really influence the latter? What impact did each have on the broader punk music movement and pop culture in general in their respective time periods… I can go on but will leave this to the punk experts.


  6. Well I think if you are going to be making a comparison between Joy Division and Nirvana, the wider socio-cultural implications are indeed important, but mainly in regards to the ways they affected their respective frontmen. The similarities between Ian Curtis and Kurt Cobain are many – both could write dark, penetrating lyrics, both suffered from terrible debilitating health problems, and both killed themselves. But there were differences too, most strikingly that Curtis killed himself when Joy Division was on the verge of success, and Cobain killed himself once Nirvana had it.

    It’s not surprising that although the songwriters touched upon some of the same themes, their bands had sonic uniqueness. They were each coming out of a unique time period and geographical location with different social, cultural, and political factors involved. Even so, you’ll find musicians singing gloomy lyrics in any era. It’s already pretty evident what impact each band had on the broader punk music movement and pop culture in general and what factors led to their emergence…as for to what extent did the former band influence the latter, that’s a good issue to raise. I think with how things turned out for each of them, there is a tendency to link the two closely together in hindsight since they both died young, and they both left behind a wife and daughter when they could have instead chosen to leave the music business behind. If Cobain had not of died, then this blog comment probably wouldn’t exist.

  7. Stacy Says:

    Lambchops rocks!
    Great chatting with you at O’Byrnes.
    Goodluck with the thesis


  8. […] pp. 1-5 A Cultural Dictionary of Punk, pp. 26-27, 169-170, 234-238 Please Kill Me, pp. 163-173 “When did Punk start? Who Cares?” The Philosophy of Punk, pp. 21-41. Playlist: The Sonics – “Strychnine” Rocket from the […]


  9. […] 1-5. A Cultural Dictionary of Punk, pp. 26-27, 169-170, 234-238. Please Kill Me, pp. 163-173. “When did Punk start? Who Cares?” The Philosophy of Punk, pp. 21-41. Playlist: The Sonics – “Strychnine” Rocket from the […]


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