Happy Birthday, Punk
"In 1977, I wanna go to heaven. No Elvis, Beatles, or the Rolling Stones ... " -- The Clash, 1977Pop music has developed in countless directions over the last 20 years. Although each new development is geared towards youth, no single generation has a hold on the aesthetics and style of new music. Older music is not discarded, but reshaped, recycled, re-interpreted, sampled, quoted and re-mixed. The result is that 40 years of pop music can co-exist on equal ground.Twenty years ago, it was quite different.The punk movement of the 1970's was a first in the history of pop music. Rock and Roll in the 1950's and 1960's was a music designed and performed expressly for young people. It was not the music listened to, or enjoyed by adults.By the 1970's the kids who had grown up with rock music were now the adults in charge of making, producing, and selling this music. The idea of music as being for and of kids was lost now that adults were listening to that same music. The music matured, became acceptable and legitimate. However, underemployed and undereducated working youth making music for their peers, showed no desire to appeal to older rock and roll fans. They felt those fans sold pop music into profitable and submissive acceptance. Hence the arrival of the Ramones and the Sex Pistols acerbic and anti-establishment music and attitude.In the late spring of 1976, Sire Records released "Ramones," the debut album of four New York musicians, who had all taken the surname, Ramone. Though millions were unaware of this album at the time, this album was a landmark in the history of pop music. It holds a place with such landmark records as "Pet Sounds" and "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" (1966-67) and "It Takes a Nation of Millions" and "Straight Outta Compton"(1988). But in 1976, few noticed, fewer cared.In 1976, the year of the American Bicentennial, music fans were coping with the ongoing hype of a much hoped for Beatles reunion, the accessibility of sensitive singer-songwriters, the demise of Deep Purple, the post Physical Graffiti aimlessness of Led Zepplin, and the journey to mega-stardom for Fleetwood Mac and The Eagles. So, the arrival of "Ramones," with 30-plus minutes of amphetamine-fueled, low-fi, gut wrenching rock and roll was a welcomed whack in the back of the head to those who would become a part of the punk movement.By the mid-1970's, the first three Velvet Underground albums had been out of print for much of the decade. With the exception of Loaded (which remained in print since its 1970 release), a person was fortunate to find bootlegs or the occasional European compilation of the Verve Records releases which featured inferior artwork and vinyl pressings. Lou Reed's "Metal Machine Music, Rock and Roll Animal," and "Live" were high points in his otherwise inconsistent work. John Cale's Fear, and the Cale-production of the Patti Smith Group's debut album were promising signs of better music to come.Where there's smoke ... If America couldn't figure out what to make of the Ramones, the English certainly did. The Ramones' concert in London on July 4, 1976, helped to ignite the movement which would radically change the increasingly established face of pop music.The Ramones concert served as flint and tinder, helping to bring the Sex Pistols and The Clash into musical focus. Thus began a domino effect which helped further the careers of the pre-goth mysticism of Siouxie and the Banshees; the angry, grinding sound of the Damned; the power pop sounds of the Buzzcocks, and Boomtown Rats; the mod-inspired fury of The Jam; the visceral songwriting of Elvis Costello; and the electronic erotica of Ultravox.The punk movement revived the power of two guitars, bass, and drums, the core of a stripped down rock band. This music began to conflict with the emergence of electronic music groups. Brian Eno, the master conceptualist worked with Ultravox and Devo, producing the debut albums of both groups, and leaving his mark on their frigid soundscapes.In 1976 and 1977, there were debut releases of Blondie and the Talking Heads. These albums, when listened to alongside "Ramones," showed there was not one punk sound. All of this music was ignored by the media and rock music radio. Scared off by the word "punk", all underground music had to make inroads by word of mouth, through independent record stores, and through DJ's such as Rodney Bingenheimer on Los Angeles' KROQ. The punk movement in Los Angeles was influenced by the anyone can-do-it attitude of the Ramones and the Sex Pistols. Not as arty as its East Coast counterpart, West Coast punk drew additional influences from post-glam power pop and surf music.Though there were few fans for this music at the time, they were very easy to spot in a crowd. Because it seldom drops below 75 degrees at any time of the year in Los Angeles, anyone wearing abundant leather, chains, pins, metallic accessories, or sleek 1960's outerwear stood out in the sea of OP shorts, Hang Ten tank tops, Hawaiian-print shirts, flip-flops, and feathered hair.Los Angeles record labels, Slash and SST released some of the earliest music from this period. The Germs self-titled debut album and the series of singles from Black Flag were among the first West Coast punk records. Other bands who soon followed were Alice and the Bags, Circle Jerks, Minutemen, Descendants, Dead Kennedys, X, and Fear.Apart from hearing the local bands in concert, kids made every effort to see any New York or English band appearing in town. In the pre-MTV years, there were few options available to those hoping to see groups other than in live appearances. Though music videos were still in their infancy, many groups made promotional clips for their songs which would air on late night TV. The music, attitude, and images of these bands were perfectly suited to this new medium.In 1977, after switching, in one year, from EMI Records, to A&M Records and then to Virgin Records, the Sex Pistols released three 7" singles and one album "Never Mind the Bollocks ... Here's the Sex Pistols." The English press had a field day with the publicity generated from their contract signings and terminations.The American press, however, made an irritated fuss over the flash in-the-pan Sex Pistols. American record companies were fully committed to the excess of progressive rock and the "hey-bud" macho rock of bands like Rush, Kansas, Boston, Styx, REO Speedwagon, Ted Nugent, and Mahogany Rush.In attempting to appease suburban America, Punk was renamed New Wave, which only slightly improved the visibility of these bands. In this country, CBS Records made minimal, and ill conceived attempts to market The Clash, Elvis Costello, The Boomtown Rats, and The Fabulous Poodles. Warner Brothers gave their Burbank/North Hollywood all to the Sex Pistols and Devo. Only Sire, Chrysalis, and Island Records attempted to properly promote the music of the new bands. Fans needed to hunt the independent record shops to find the latest import singles which were not released domestically.In spite of these problems, music continued to move and mutate into new genres. Ska (The Specials, The Beat, The Selecter, Madness); Synth Music (Human League, OMD) and Blue Eyed Soul (The Style Council) began to dominate the new music arena, as well as radio, by the late 1970's and early 1980's. The Clash, The Beat, and Blondie were influenced by, and eventually adopted funk grooves and rap-like toasting.Blondie's "Rapture" from the 1980 LP, "Autoamerican," was the first rap record to be aired on commercial radio in the US. The Clash had begun to work in dub and funk styles on the "Armageddon Time," "Justice Tonight/Kick it Over," and "Bankrobber" singles from 1979-80. These influences culminated on their exceptional, three disc LP from 1980, "Sandanista." John Lydon's post-Sex Pistols group, Public Image Ltd. mined funk, dub, and noise genres with such brilliant results as "First Issue, Second Edition," and "Flowers of Romance." The lead singer of The Beat, Ranking Roger, a master vocal improviser, was known for lengthy toasting sessions in live performance and on the group's 12 inch singles. In the period after the release of "Speaking in Tongues," the Talking Heads began to incorporate African and Caribbean rhythm sections. Many of the bands from the first wave of 1970's punk rock, continued to adapt and grow with new changes in music.The cycles of new music continued to evolve and develop. Ten years after the release of "Never Mind the Bollocks," rap groups NWA and Public Enemy released their first records, much to the shock of suburban America. This music was definitely of the street, and not the result of a record company predicting a new trend. As with punk, this new music helped define a generation of kids with a music which was unintelligible and disliked by parents and older rock and roll fans. The cycle began once more.Christian Matthies is a music critic with Northern Express in Traverse City, Michigan.