Music History

Punk Crock: How We Have the History of Punk All Wrong

I just missed the original punk rock explosion of the 1970s, so my experience with what actually happened is somewhat removed. Like everyone else who was born too late, I’ve had to rely on first-person accounts from old punks, books, magazine articles, vinyl and CDs.

Punk broke out 1976 and 1977 and burned brightly until sometime in 1979 when the “two-chords-and-a-sneer” attitude finally outstayed its welcome, evolving and fracturing into something that became known as New Wave, post-modern, post-punk and alternative. As Tony Wilson, the head of Factory Records, once said about the vibe of the music and the people who made it, “Things moved from ‘Fuck you’ to ‘We’re fucked.'”

But back to the original punk thing. The Baffler has this interesting look back on what actually happened during those days. What we remember today isn’t exactly the way it was.

For a movement that famously proclaimed there was no future, punk rock has had a remarkably durable half-life. Forty years after Television’s legendary residency at CBGB, the world is awash in punk. In the last twenty months, former Village Voice rock critic and punk champion Robert Christgau wrote a memoir about his downtown New York youth, Kim Gordon published her memoirs, Viv Albertine published hers, Richard Hell released the paperback edition of his, Patti Smith released the follow-up to her National Book Award–winning memoir, and HarperCollins signed Lenny Kaye, Smith’s guitarist, to write a memoir of his own.[*] Ramones fans can look forward to a forthcoming Martin Scorsese–helmed biopic and a documentary promising new footage of the seminal band, whose last founding member perished in 2014.

Punk has cracked the upper echelons of the tech sphere too. Earlier this fall, in a pictorial called “The Stylish Men of Tumblr,” the New York Times introduced the world to Pau Santesmasses, a thirty-nine-year-old product manager whose own Tumblr account is devoted to “modern architecture, skateboarding, and punk rock”—thus apostrophizing a movement of self-professed anarchic rebellion as if it were a tasteful accessory. Photographed atop the grand, dramatically lit staircase in his employer’s Manhattan offices in a pristine gingham button-down, skinny khakis, and shockingly clean sneakers, Santesmasses described his shirt as a “punk-slash-mod thing.”

Such sanitized invocations of punk have overrun what the Times would doubtless call stylish street fashion—thereby, of course, enacting the final consumerist enclosure of a movement that began as street fashion. This summer, walking near my old apartment in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood just outside Boston, I spotted a wholesome-looking college dude in expensive glasses, spotless sneakers without socks, and a Ramones T-shirt tucked into a pair of pressed, front-pleated khaki slacks. Although the Ramones’ presidential eagle had long joined the Rolling Stones tongue and the Pink Floyd prism in the pantheon of meaningless, ubiquitous screen-print designs, something about seeing this particular prepped-up lickspittle in a Ramones T-shirt gave me pause.

Having come of age well after punk did, I have no good reason to be startled by a dork wearing a Ramones T-shirt or a tech executive name-checking punk in the Times. I started high school in 1992, the year in which two punk-inspired records, Nirvana’s Nevermind and Pearl Jam’s Ten, outsold Whitney Houston, Eric Clapton, and almost everyone else. As a result, self-identified punks—apparently a clannish lot—spiraled into a recursive identity crisis brought about by the sudden omnipresence of fuzzy guitars, anomie, and sock hats.

This is good stuff. Keep reading.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 37921 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

3 thoughts on “Punk Crock: How We Have the History of Punk All Wrong

  • nirvana is not punk. pearl jam is not punk. alternative is not punk. new wave is not punk. 1978 is not and never will be punk. riot grrl is not punk. hardcore is not punk. the viletones are not punk. steve albini is not punk. if it doesn’t look sound and act punk its not punk. children born a hint too late are just as non-punk as children born today. none of you are punk. ‘punk in theory’ is not punk. punk is true individualism. none of you are punk.

  • Punk case studies whether it be in USA, UK or in Estonia are impossible to separate from their social contexts. Of course they are going to be different. As usual, the commentators here on punk in the USA can’t escape from social difference and as they indulge into ‘Volvo drivin’, ‘Starbucks drinking’ type commentary.

    Let’s just accept punk as an expression of ‘I’m not like them and this is my reaction’. That satisfies me.

    Without a doubt, the most punk people on the planet right now are those destroying UNESCO heritage sites in the Arab world. I don’t agree with them I just think it is a pretty punk act. Reminds me of Lyndon’s ‘I Hate Pink Floyd’ T shirt.


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