Ch. 10: Punk: Three Chords and an Attitude


The history of rock ‘n’ roll is a study in contrasts; from commercialism to independent experimentation, from energetic dance to thoughtful ballads, from complex improvisations to simple, 12 bar blues harmonies, from overly produced techno-displays to bare acoustic lines, from power chords to soft violins; from romantic lyrics to lines of socio-political protest. The amazing truth is that no one style in the 50 years of rock ‘n’ roll has ever been in sole possession of the landscape. There have always been competing and often contradictory styles.

While the media was gorging itself on all things disco in the late ’70s, another, radically different style was finding its own alienated path towards recognition. It involved no choreographed dance craze, no technologically superior equipment, no charismatic singers, no studio synchronized sound, and no colorful light show. It billed itself as the antithesis of pop and was the logical extension of sounds created in the New York lofts of the Velvet Underground, lyrics penned by Lou Reed or Jim Morrison and the simplified power chords of Black Sabbath. It was called “punk.”

CBGB, considered by some to be the birthplace of the punk movement

Punk began with an attitude, a look, a way of life, and eventually evolved into a sound. It was an underground urban movement, which like the beat generation of the ‘50s,

In addition to Reed, Morrison and Ozzy Osbourne, Iggy Pop and David Bowie also influenced early punk artists. Iggy Pop and the Stooges played music that was angry, offensive and repetitious. While the Stooges were grinding out a rhythm and series of chords behind him, Iggy often cut himself onstage, hurled mic stands towards the audience, smeared peanut butter on himself and dove into the crowd. David Bowie, in his Ziggy Stardust alter-ego, dressed in androgynous attire and wore extensive makeup, bringing in the era of glam rock.

New York Dolls, 1973

The punk movement began with a New York based group called The New York Dolls. The five men who comprised the group dressed in tight slacks, brightly colored female blouses and scarves, wore heavy-eye makeup and lipstick and climbed into high heels to perform. Their songs, about bad girls, drugs and the New York street scene reverberated from the songs of the Velvet Underground. Though commercial success eluded them, they began the evolution of punk.

One of the underground venues for the new sound was a nightclub called CBGB & OMFUG (Country, Blue Grass, Blues & Other Music For Urban Gourmets), but usually shortened to CBGB. It was the starting place for Patti Smith, a punk pioneer with a Janis Joplin-like gutsy voice. The Televisions also played CBGB, with a bass player who wore spiked hair and torn clothing, a precursor of the punk look to come.

The Ramones, 1977

Another New York band that played the CBGB, The Ramones, built short, fast, high-energy songs with monotone-like vocal lines. The four band members (Joey, Johnny, Tommy and Dee Dee) all adopted the last name Ramone (from an early Paul McCartney pseudonym, Paul Ramon). With songs like “Teenage Lobotomy,” “Blitzkreig Bop,” “Sheena is a Punk Rocker,” “Judy is a Punk,” and “I Wanna Be Sedated” the band became the voice of early punk.

With simple three chord patterns, steady, rapid rock backbeat, hammered chords from a distorted guitar, and lyrics of disconnection from everything else in society, the Ramones crafted cutting-edge sounds. Far from the pretentiousness of heavy-metal rock, the Ramones kept their sound scaled down, not only in complexity, but also in length. They would often jam their way through 30 songs in an hour-long set, barely allowing enough time at the end of one song to begin the count-off to the next.

Though scoring limited success in America, they’re sense of humor, shown through their sometimes-innate lyrics, and simple, straight-ahead style brought rock back to its roots. Their 1975 tour of England did for punk what Chuck Berry did for British rock almost twenty years earlier.

The Ramones at the CBGB club, September, 1974

While American bands like the New York Dolls, the Ramones, the Talking Heads and the Patti Smith Group forged an underground music scene in New York, bands in London were finding a similar path towards musical anarchy.

Punk in England was the mastermind of a London art student named Malcolm McLaren, who opened a clothing store and hang-out for disaffected teens. After visiting New York and seeing the emerging anti-fashion style, he returned to London, renamed his store Sex and began selling torn T-shirts, bondage gear, plastic bag clothing, spiked leather, sexually provocative designs– anything that the mainstream found fashionably repulsive and distasteful. The London punk scene, complete with body-piercing and multi-colored spiked hair, was born.

The Sex Pistols, 1977

Foremost among the London-based punk bands was The Sex Pistols, who began their first rehearsals in McLaren’s shop. The band members, who included Johnny Rotten and would soon include Sid Vicious, knew very little about playing music. After stealing their sound system and equipment, the four set out to learn only the most basic elements of music: rhythm and power. They combined raw, distorted power and gratingly hypnotic rhythms with their real talent: the ability to shock, provoke, disturb and incite audiences. Backed by a simple eight-beat rhythms with simple, rapid power chords, Johnny Rotten sang “I am the Anti-Christ, I am an Anarchist” and pleads for total destruction of government and society. It was the message of the Velvet Underground pushed to its musical, philosophic and sociopathic extreme. The Sex Pistols were together for less than two years, with Johnny Rotten announcing the breakup in January 1978.

Few punk rock groups desired to follow the nihilistic despair put forward by the Sex Pistols. In their wake, new bands with diverse influences splintered punk into a wide variety of sounds. The resulting movement would be called the “new wave” of commercial punk.

The Sex Pistols, “God Save the Queen” 1977

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Study Units

An Overview

Ch. 1: Understanding Pitch

Ch. 2: Understanding Musical Pulse

Ch. 3: Understanding Volume

Ch. 4: Understanding Tone

Ch. 5: Understanding Melody

Ch. 6: Understanding Harmony

Ch. 7: Understanding Rhythm

Ch. 8: Understanding Bass

Ch. 9: Understanding Countermelody

Ch. 10: Understanding Structure

Ch. 11: Understanding Instrumentation

Ch. 12: Understanding Tempo

An Overview

Ch. 1: 19th Century: Pre-Foster

Ch. 2: Folk Music by the People

Ch. 3: Popular Music in its Infancy

Ch. 4: Stephen Foster – “Father of American Popular Music”

Ch. 5: The Importance of Stephen Foster

Ch. 6: Scott Joplin – “King of Ragtime”

Ch. 7: The Player Piano – Automated Music

Ch. 8: John Philip Sousa – “The March King”

Ch. 9: John Philip Sousa – Recording Artist and Activist

An Overview

Ch. 1: John Lomax – Recording American Roots Music

Ch. 2: Woody Guthrie – “Father of Modern American Folk Music”

Ch. 3: Leadbelly & Pete Seeger: End of the First Wave

Ch. 4: The Kingston Trio – Beginning of the Second Wave

Ch. 5: Joan Baez – “First Lady of Folk Music”

Ch. 6: Peter, Paul & Mary – Balancing the Message

Ch. 7: Robert Zimmerman – The Beginning of an American Icon

Ch. 8: Dylan in New York City

Ch. 9: Dylan after Newport

Ch. 10: The Importance of Dylan

Ch. 11: Folk Music in the 21st Century

An Overview

Ch. 1: The Roots of Country

Ch. 2: Bristol Beginnings

Ch. 3: The Grand Ole Opry

Ch. 4: Cowboys and the Movies

Ch. 5: Western Swing

Ch. 6: Bluegrass: Hillbilly on Caffeine

Ch. 7: Honky-tonk: Merging Two into One

Ch. 8: The Nashville Sound: Country-Pop

Ch. 9: Rockabilly – Country meets R&B

Ch. 10: Country Feminists Find Their Voice

Ch. 11: The Bakersfield Sound

Ch. 12: Austin “Outlaw” Country

Ch. 13: Neo-Traditionalists at the end of the 20th Century

Ch. 14: Mainstreaming Country in the ‘90s

Ch. 15: Redesigning Country in the 21st Century

An Overview

Ch. 1: What is Jazz?

Ch. 2: Before It Was Jazz

Ch. 3: Jazz is Born!

Ch. 4: Early Jazz Musicians

Ch. 5: Louis Armstrong

Ch. 6: Chicago and Harlem – Hub of 1920s Jazz

Ch. 7: Big Band – Jazz Swing!

Ch. 8: Big Band Musicians and Singers

Ch. 9: Jump Blues and Bop

Ch. 10: Cool Jazz

Ch. 11: Hard Bop

Ch. 12: Free Jazz – Breaking the Rules

Ch. 13: Fusion – The Jazz-Rock-Funk Experience

Ch. 14: Third Stream and World Jazz

Ch. 15: New Age & Smooth Jazz

Ch. 16: Summary – Jazz Lives!

An Overview

Ch. 1: Blues – The Granddaddy of American Popular Music

Ch. 2: Where Did the Blues Come From?

Ch. 3: What Are the Blues?

Ch. 4: How to Build the Blues

Ch. 5: Classic Blues – The Early Years

Ch. 6: Delta Blues – Authentic Beginnings

Ch. 7: Blues in the City – Migration and Power

Ch. 8: Blues in Britain – Redefining the Masters

Ch. 9: Contemporary Blues – Maturity and Respect

Ch. 10: The Relevancy of the Blues Today

Ch. 1: Timelines, Cultures & Technology

Ch. 2: Pre-Rock Influences

Ch. 3: Rock is Born!

Ch. 4: Rock is Named

Ch. 5: Doo-Wop

Ch. 6: Independent Record Labels

Ch. 7: Technology Shapes Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 8: The Plan to Mainstream Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 9: Payola – Rock ‘n’ Roll’s First Scandal

Ch. 1: Crafting Sound in the Studio/Producers and Hit Songs

Ch. 2: West Coast Sound: Beach, Surf, and Teens

Ch. 3: The British Invasion: Two Prongs – Pop & Blues

Ch. 4: Motown and the Development of a Black Pop-Rock Sound

Ch. 5: Soul Music: Gospel and R&B in the Deep South

Ch. 6: The Sounds of Bubble Gum Pop-Rock

Ch. 7: The Arrival of Folk-Rock

Ch. 8: Psychedelic Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 9: Early Guitar Gods of Rock

Ch. 10: Rock Festivals: The Rise and Fall of Music, Peace, and Love

Ch. 11: Anti-Woodstock and Shock Rock Movements

Ch. 1: Technological Breakthroughs

Ch. 2: Electronic Dance Music

Ch. 3: Hip-Hop & Rap – An Introduction

Ch. 4: The Beginnings of Rap

Ch. 5: Old School Rap – Up From the Streets

Ch. 6: Rap’s Golden Age

Ch. 7: East Coast – Political Rap

Ch. 8: West Coast – Gangsta Rap

Ch. 9: The Fragmentation of Rap – Pop, Party & More

Ch. 10: Further Fragmentation – Different Directions

Ch. 11: The Importance of Rap

Ch. 1: Musical Stage Productions in America before the 1800s

Ch. 2: Minstrel Shows and Melodramas

Ch. 3: Stage Presentations in the Late 19th Century

Ch. 4: Early 20th Century: Revues and Operettas

Ch. 5: The Arrival of the Modern American Musical

Ch. 6: Great Partnerships in Book-Musicals

Ch. 7: Musical Theatre Composers in the mid-Century

Ch. 8: Fresh Voices on the Stage in the 1960s

Ch. 9: Two Dominant Forces at the End of the Century

Ch. 10: New Voices at the End of the Century

Ch. 11: New Voices, New Sounds in the New Century

Ch. 12: Musical Theatre Glossary

Ch. 13: Is it “Theatre” or “Theater”?

Study Units also have “Playdecks” – containing hundreds of chronologically organized audio examples of music in the study units, and “Study Qs” for unit chapters.

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