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By Hein Kaiser

Journalist


Spikes and bondage that set punk free

Punk became a way of life that allowed people to express their opinions on economics, government, racism, and the everyday struggles they faced.


When you think punk, your first thoughts are always leather jackets, studs, spiky orange hair, aggression, and of course, The Sex Pistols. But there’s a lot more to the angry driving guitars and kitchen utensil clanging that drove the music, the massive cultural shift that it produced, and the longtail influence of the movement. 

It was the mid-1970s and the underground music scenes of New York and London saw the germination of the punk movement. It was raw, unapologetic and damn angry. Punk was to become a cultural movement that challenged societal norms, the establishment, influenced fashion, and forever altered the landscape of rock music. Just like rock and roll did before it, but in a more kick-ass in-your-face kind of way. 

The origin of punk rock can be traced back to New where bands like The Ramones, Television, and even The Cramps, with a soupcon of rockabilly, played fast, aggro music that rejected the polished sound of mainstream rock and roll of the time. The Cramps, incidentally, were also the pioneers of psychobilly, which the Psycho Reptiles breathed new life into in the late 80’s, locally. Punk performances were theatrical, their sound gritty, and their influence undeniable.

On the tweed side of the Atlantic, the punk movement was taking root in London, with the Sex Pistols leading the charge. Their explosive performances and anti-establishment lyrics resonated with the disenchanted youth of Britain.

It was pre-Margaret Thatcher and England’s economic regress at the time, leading to the initial pain of Thatcherism, had the youth high on emotion, tripping on anger. The band’s aggressive sound and rebellious image, characterised by torn clothes and spiked hair, became the blueprint for punk fashion.

Punk rock’s sound was a stark departure from the elaborate big hair heroes of the 70’s rock scene. It was fast and furious, and four-letter disenchantments peppered lyrics that often were as inaudible as it was pronounceable in conservative company.

Bands like The Exploited exemplified this with their high-speed outbursts against the system, and tracks like Maggie, an outrageous parody of Margaret Thatcher that referred to the premier in various short form four letter words, was punk at war with the establishment.

The Exploited followed behind The Sex Pistols and The Ramones, a second wave of angry, aggressive sensory assault. Their lyrics spoke of anarchy, politics, and anti-authority sentiments, echoing the frustrations of a generation.

Never to be forgotten is the influence of Californian punk’s Black Flag who, like The Exploited, pushed the boundaries, the envelope, and everything in between. Their intense live performances and improv-ethics made them a cornerstone of the hardcore punk scene. Similarly, the Dead Kennedys, with their biting social satire and left-wing political views, used their music to pick apart contemporary America in the early Reagan years.

Inevitably, as with any trend, it becomes commercialised. However, this does not mean that punk was eventually a sell-out movement. It became, thanks to the Sex Pistols, a fashion statement like the music itself.

It was a way to visually express dissatisfaction with society. The Sex Pistols’ manager, Malcolm McLaren, and designer Vivienne Westwood capitalised on this They were instrumental in creating the punk look. They formalised the image and sold ripped shirts, safety pins, and bondage gear. Along with it, the mohawk in various colours of the rainbow, piercings, and other anti-establishment aesthetics become the go-to physical manifestation of the music’s anger. 

With the music, the emotion, the fashion punk launched a cultural revolution that left its mark on society. It provided a voice for the marginalised and disaffected, addressing issues such as economic disparity, government corruption, and social injustice. It was dark, looking for the light.

Bands like The Clash took punk beyond itself to explore infusions of reggae, dub, funk, ska, and rockabilly a-la The Cramps. Their politically charged lyrics made them one of the most influential bands of the punk era in turn launching post-punk and new wave. Listen to Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran, you’ll hear it.

U2, one of the world’s biggest rock bands, began their career inspired by punk alongside neighbourhood punk band friends The Virgin Prunes. Their early sound, raw and intense, can be traced back to the influence of bands like the Sex Pistols and The Clash. Bono, U2’s frontman, has often cited punk rock as a formative influence, particularly its ability to address social and political issues through music. He said as much in his biography Surrender

Punk also democratised music-making. Some of the artists could not even play the guitar, but they strummed it in emotive strokes that somehow made sense with the yelling. Punk became a way of life that allowed people to express their opinions on economics, government, racism, and the everyday struggles they faced. It was the first major platform that artists and social commentators created that used emotion, shock, awe, and other tools to effect change. They did and continue to do so. 

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