Two Worlds of Punk

Don Lett’s documentary “Punk: Attitude” provides some food for thought. Interestingly  the term “Punk” was very loosely thrown around in this film. Early 50’s Rock and Roll was punk. 60’s counter-culture hippies (!) were punk. The Ramones were punk. Nirvana was punk. Devo was punk. Even the internet was punk. In short, any cultural happening that fell outside mainstream culture and had some swagger or attitude was considered Punk.

I am interested in American Punk vs British Punk. (Quote Eddie: “That is like comparing 2D and CG animation. They are two very different animals. How can you compare The Sex Pistols with The Ramones?”)

Strongly tied to musical sensibility/bands. Musically, “Punk Rock” follows from blues-based rock… through to  The Velvet Underground, New York Dolls, Iggy Pop, Ramones… etc. The flowchart would look something like this: Blues/RnR –>  Glam rock –> Punk —> Hardcore Punk, Grunge.


While it certainly is true that the British version of punk rock was
intimately based along class lines, this simplistic version fails not
only to recognize that punk rock is primarily an American creation, but
also is distinctly American in its relationships with both taste and
the generation of cultural capital.

In America, taste, or liking the correct bands in the punk canon,
became the dominant signifier of punk rock. American punk was far too
geographically diverse to form the closed communities of style that
marked most European punk. If there was no set dress code, the only way
to identify fellow punks (especially in the days when school dress
codes were more rigid in most of the country) was by wearing the
correct button, scrawling the correct band names on a notebook, or
wearing the right band patch provided passwords and codes that only the
initiated understood. As American punk positioned itself intentionally
outside of the mainstream of American music, and even increasingly
outside of the major label dominated music industry, having the correct
taste in bands became a sort of cultural capital, or form of “musical
currency” that legitimized those in possession of the necessary
knowledge. (An example of this, although based on a British book, is
the movie High Fidelity, where record store employees obsess
about music and define a proper customer by their breadth of knowledge
and musical taste.) Thus, becoming a punk involved learning a canon of
“acceptable” music, and in a very real sense, becoming not just a
purist, but also a musical elitist.

…American punk rock really was always about taste, about defining
oneself as outside the mainstream, not through economic situation or a
mythologized class consciousness, but through a secret society of
musical taste where ones’ identity was validated through what one
accepted and rejected as legitimate forms of musical expression. In
many ways, this is no different than other forms of musical fanaticism,
but punk rock’s canon of authenticity was by no means a static one. The
canon was always capable of revision as endless debates of what was and
was not “punk” began to dominate the ‘zines and public discussions
about punk rock.

BRITISH PUNK: Influenced by American Punk bands but was more strongly tied to rebellion against the UK political climate, the music (disco) and fashion  of the 70s. Punk was a DIY street culture. Malcolm MacLaren, Vivienne Westwood, haircuts, safety pins, ripped clothing, individualism in fashion etc. The British Punk flowchart (according to Dick Hebdige & Ted Polhemus) might look more like: Reggae/Ska (Skinheads) —> Punk  —> New Wave, Goth, Two-Tone


The two versions of punk, the antecedent American and its British descendent,
were very different. British punk was aggressive and violent it demanded immediate
change and had no interest in working for the solution. The
Sex Pistols typified British Punk
with such songs as “Anarchy in the UK,” which did not give a thought to anarchy’s
effect. American punk seemed lazy by comparison. It was sarcastic where the
English was violent and poetic where the former was illiterate. The American
originator offered lessons for the British to copy, and the British pushed one
step further, thus gaining more recognition.”

…Britain’s success with popularizing punk came from the consistency of its musical and
visual output; years of redundant offerings eventually hit home. Names like the
Clash and
Damned, and the
Sex Pistols finally registered with
their audience, and British bands developed a uniform fashion code of
belligerence. New York’s punk was not as easy to categorize; its scene revolved
around an eclectic melting pot of influences. Whereas British punk meant
aggression and immediacy, its New York antecedents combined aspects of aggression
and immediacy with everything from bubblegum pop records to French bohemian poets
(Savage 86). New Yorkers were not dressing to shock; their aesthetic was strictly
come-as-you-are, which for Manhattan’s glamour and intrigue was statement enough.


Make The Music Go Bang!
Punk and The Imagery of Nostalgia

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