We called it America: the intellectual roots of American punk

josh white explores the figures that inspired the AMerican Punk movement long before the british explosion in  the 70s.

In the UK, when we think about punk, we usually think about the Sex Pistols. We think about fluorescent mohicans, clothes pins in noses and gurning and snarling aplenty. Some of us might think about Joe Strummer, or Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, whose situationist SEX shop on King’s Road in London became, in many ways, the cultural and geographical epicentre of the British punk movement.

But across the Atlantic, they might take a rather different view.

In the United States, punk began some time before the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks. The reflexive intercontinental relationship between US and British punk has clouded the contemporary understanding of punk’s origins. From 1976, after the Sex Pistols and punk exploded in Britain, American bands borrowed heavily from the image and style of the British aesthetic. By the 1990s, some of the biggest cheeses in US punk, like Rancid and Green Day, had aural lineages traced straight from the jangly bass lines of The Clash’s Paul Simonon – bands who also wore the kind of sardonic post-fascist attire inspired by Westwood. This transport of ideas, along shipping routes between the Old and New World, distorts the history of punk, disfigures our understanding of where and how it began. Moreover, this entanglement obstructs our grasp of just what was so important, perpetual and revolutionary about punk: its ideas.

Not only were American punks and proto-punk bands the progenitors of what we now recognise as punk (the popular style, the image, and so on) but they also the propagators of a set of ideas that, throughout the 1970s, developed into a full-blown restatement, by young Americans, of a uniquely American cultural individualism.

The first bands in punk history were not called ‘punk’ at all. The Velvet Underground have a decent claim to be the first punk band, though were never identified as such. Indeed, whilst credited with being part of the making of punk, they are still generally considered a little too indie, a bit too art house. Tricia Henry, whose Break All Rules! Punk Rock and the Making of a Style (1989) is one of very few decent studies of punk’s ideas, defines the band as ‘underground rock’. With manager Andy Warhol on board, Nico and the Underground used insane multi-platform roadshow ‘The Exploding Plastic Inevitable’ to confront and intimidate audiences. Sexually explicit, silly and tonally cataclysmic, the band smashed contemporary comforts with performances designed to provoke hostile reactions and deliver visceral entertainment.

This was the antithesis of The Beatles’ ‘Love Me Do’. Here, young Americans were kicking back against cultural collectives and social norms, against the mainstream. Here, in infant form, was the spirit of punk’s core values: individualism, confrontation and wit. New York, housing bands like the Underground, The Stooges and, later, Blondie, The Dictators and The Ramones, were the vessels of energy, cohabitation, union, struggle, intellectual expression and the explosion of what would become punk rock. The ideas that we might now associate with punk – like socialism, anarchy and pacifism – were late attachments to the genre. 1977 New York represents the crest of the founding ideas and philosophies of punk, which can be followed back to two distinguished threads in American thought: Emersonian individualism and the Beat movement.

Ralph Waldo Emerson is arguably the greatest public intellectual in American history. Before Capote, Hemingway and Chomsky, Emerson was a celebrity. Emerson, prophet of individualism, self-reliance and the folly of the ‘consistent mind’, had a powerful impact on American popular culture in the mid-nineteenth century. His seismic influence on, amongst others, Friedrich Nietzsche, Henry David Thoreau and Emma Goldman, meant that his ideas on the conquering of the American mind via free, unrestricted thought and self-expression are still entrenched in American politics and culture today. Though not the world’s first individualist, Emerson’s unique brand of disputatious reason is analogous with punk’s confrontation, its reliance on provocation as a process to resolution. ‘Shoot ’em in the back now/What they want, I don’t know/They’re all revved up and ready to go’ from The Ramones’ eponymous ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’ (1976) is a fine example of this combative lyrical exposition.

The Velvet Underground’s John Cale remarked in 1995 that the early days of the band were like Beat poetry. The songs, he said, were peppered with ‘pitter and patter rhythms’, like John Kerouac’s frantic prose in On The Road, or the leaps and returns of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. New York punks started to weld the individualism of the Beats to a witty nihilism. Take, for example, the beauty of Blondie’s ‘X-Offender’ (1976): ‘Walking the line, you were a marksman/Told me that law, like wine, is ageless.’ From the Beats’ sexual experimentation, anti-materialism and expressions of the (apolitical) individual will, punk borrowed the values that would differentiate it not just as a new genre, but as a distinct and valuable epoch in American cultural history.

Though, in the UK, punk would come to be associated with working class struggle and anti-Thatcher resistance, no such political element exists in the genesis of punk’s ideas. In New York, Malcolm McLaren took from Warhol and Lou Reed and transferred the outlandish dynamism of 1960s proto-punk shows to London’s underground rock scene. It was only when punk reached Britain did its political tangents start pinging off. In the 1980s, American punk became far more invested, thanks to this reflexive cross-Atlantic relationship, in political ideologies. But even into the 1990s and beyond, punk never lost its individual centre, its lust for dispute, its cheek and its cynicism. We owe this to the Americans. And we owe so much of our musical culture to the influence of punk rock, to its enthralling ideals and its unique values.

Josh White is a freelance writer who reviews music for BBM Magazine whilst also working as the Politics editor for Newturn Magazine. More of his writing can be found at joshwhitesays.co.uk.

5 thoughts on “We called it America: the intellectual roots of American punk

  1. Well done, Josh. Emerson was indeed a punk as were all the Transcendentalists – at least they inhabited the punk ethos. I think Uncle Walt – Whitman, that is – could be included in your list of progenitors. Finally, I don’t think it’s fair to compare ’62 Beatles with The Velvets. In many ways, particularly musically, the early 60’s were very much an extension of the 50’s. By the time The Velvets entered the scene, The Beatles were singing about revolution, civil rights and such.

  2. Pingback: We called it America: the intellectual roots of American punk « the thinksplats of josh white

  3. Umm, no. I was in the East Village as punk was taking off, and it didn’t have any intellectual roots whatever. At one end was Richard Hell and mindless self-destruction; at the other, the Ramones and mindless mindlessness. It had become evident that we weren’t going to save the world with drugs, promiscuous sex, self-righteousness, and ignorance, and we decided to be stupid and jump around instead. It suited our talents better.

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