Punk rock 1970-75: urban and urbane

By the time 1971 rolled around, proto-punk degeneracy had begun to gain traction in the underground scene. The anarchist curio of offensive and socially deviant behaviour was adopted by those who were looking to redefine, and potentially collapse, all preconceptions of art that were held at the time. In this sense, there’s a Dadaist potency in the movement, given that within the truest form of the subculture, burns a nihilistic disregard for labels and stereotypes, yet ultimately becoming both a label and stereotype during the latter part of the ’70s and ’80s. For this reason, the 1971-75 bracket of punk was certainly the most startling and truest form of the emergent culture, before the needy hands of ‘cool’ smothered the movement into yet another fashion statement.

Whilst their music may not reflect the typical short, fast, and loud sound, New York duo Suicide embodied the confrontational nature of the genre in both their name and performance style. Despite not releasing their first studio album until 1977, Suicide were kicking around the New York underground scene from ’69. Brewed with pulsating drum beats, eerie synthesisers, and the phased out murmurs of Alan Vagar, Suicide were producing music which was not necessarily to be enjoyed. Disturbing soundscapes pioneered the shift from music and art being seen as introspective forms of pleasure, into mechanisms for external social reflection and turbulence. Vagar is considered the OG chain man, often draped in a motorcycle drive-chain when performing. The influence of the industrialised cityscapes became observable in the sound that they produced, with reverberating sounds of harsh metals and growls churning through the electronic aspects of their sound – foreshadowing techniques which would be deployed in heavy dosage by Einstürzende Neubauten. Devo, who formed in 1972, were also embracing the electronic revolution of the time, instigating what would become a bedrock of New Wave sound into their performances.

 

Alongside Suicide were the New York Dolls (NYD), who crawled out of the underground gutter of societal loathing before any of their counterparts, projecting their seminal sound on a more public platform. NYD’s original drummer, Billy Murcia, OD’d on something or other, and was funnel-fed coffee in an amateur attempt at revival. Unlike a hangover, turns out respiratory failure can’t be fixed by caffeine – huh, who woulda thought. So their attempts didn’t succeed, and in true punk form, Murcia was found dead in a grungy bathtub the morning after. Having recruited new band members, NYD released albums New York Dolls (1973) and Too Much Too Soon (1974). These albums were conglomerates of hard rock and glam rock – espousing chaotic snarls with frantic instrumental components, whilst doused in a healthy amount of eyeliner and hairspray. Their number ‘Personality Crisis’ sees vocalist David Johansen erupt with unapologetic fury, capturing the intense frustration that one might experience when undergoing a mild crisis of a socially induced and existential variety. The lyrics, ‘you walk a personality, talk a personality’, are somewhat prophetic, given that the punk movement inevitably became a stock standard personality which many pulled off the rack, whilst forcing ‘fuck the state’ into as many sentences as possible. Aside from the controversial NYD sound, their popularity was stunted by the retrospective mindsets of their counterparts, with pub owners refusing to book them, seeing the group as a mock-rock band, lead by a talentless Mick Jaggeresque figure. By 1975, their performance attire included red leather suits with hammer and sickle backdrops, which was probably not all that helpful in terms of getting gigs booked either. NYD dissolved in 1977, but were later brought back together by Morrissey for a performance in 2004.

I know that I already wrote about The Stooges in the previous article which covered 1965-70 proto-punk, but I just gotta mention that Raw Power was released in 1974. This album became iconic for its collapse of traditional rock’n’roll, and became a point of reference for the innovative groups which began to rear their heads.

The Dictators (refrain from making Trump reference) were too born from the industrialised cityscape of NYC in 1973. ‘Hippies are squares with long hair, And they don’t wear no underwear. Country Rock is on the wane, I don’t want music, I want pain!’ the 1975 release, ‘Master Race Rock’ encompassed the essence of the counter-culture in explicit criticisms of their tree-hugging predecessors, and can perhaps be blamed for making use of the double-negative cool. The group lacked success during their rudimentary phases, and began their two-year hiatus at the end of ’75.

 

Patti Smith fronted a group which acted as a more palatable transition between the 60s and late 70s scene than most of the other punk groups. Her 1974 EP featured the piano and rather bridled vocals, which seemed to be in tension with the behaviour of other NYC groups. However, it was the lyricism of Smith which landed her as a icon of the era, with tracks like ‘Piss Factory’, and ‘Hey Joe’ from her 1974 EP reflecting a sinister commentary on the monotonous routine-driven existence of her surroundings, ‘Hey, hey sister it don’t matter whether I do labor fast or slow, There’s always more labor after’, with the mindless bodies hacking away towards nothing of consequence. Smith’s social critique reflected a cynical wit and self-assurance which became a common component of (good) punk throughout its lifespan. But more importantly, her involvement in the evolution of punk shifted concepts of what the feminine ought to entail.

The CBGB music club in NYC was at the heart of the subculture, and the home grounds for each of the groups I’ve discussed. CBGB (Country, BlueGrass, and Blues) was erected with the intention of preserving the more soulful side of acoustic music. Clearly, this lofty ideal was crushed by the amps and chains of the punk and new wave movements. The venue was the lifeline of the groups, who otherwise struggled to secure themselves any performance venues  – given the bedlam that began to emerge during their sets. This hub supported the movement in a rather incestuous way, as Suicide made their debut there in 73, with members of Television in the crowd (the artful Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell), who debuted later on that year.  Patti Smith as a music journalist and Blondie were also in attendance.

Whilst the US seemed to be pioneering the movement, Australian groups The Saints and Radio Birdman were inciting the degenerate culture across grungy pubs in Sydney and Brisbane; while The Stranglers and The Undertones took the reins in the UK.

 

In 1974, arguably the most iconic punk rock group ever was formed – The Ramones, and with them, came the iconic rapid-fire 1-2-3-4 count in, and the sinister essence of punk in its most recognisable form. The group planted their booted footprint on the CBGB in August 1974, and released their first batch of anti-establishment anthems in 1976 on Rocket to Russia.  These bands are often said to have caused the punk explosion from 1974-75, as they got the movement kicking from protopunk to punkrock, consequently inspiring the formation of all-gal group, The Runaways in 1975, as well as Talking Heads that same year.  Punk rock was a vibrant force from 1974 and would push forward to form part of the youth zietgeist from 1975 on, before fracturing into various musical genres.

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