A Short History of How Punk Became Punk: From Late 50s Rockabilly and Garage Rock to The Ramones & Sex Pistols

Seems there was a time when the dominant story of punk was the story of British punk. If you knew nothing else, you knew the name Sid Vicious, and that seemed to sum it up. Maybe it was only in the mid-nineties, around the time Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain released Please Kill Me: the Uncensored Oral History of Punk that more people began to popularly understand the lineage of late sixties garage rock, the Velvet Underground, Detroit’s Iggy and the Stooges, and the early CBGB scene in the mid-seventies crowned by the sound of The Ramones, Patti Smith, Blondie, and Talking Heads.

Now even that story can seem oversimplified, sketched out in brief on the way to discussing the literary triumph of Patti Smith, cultural interventions of David Byrne, career highlights of punk power couple Debbie Harry and Chris Stein, or the many, always fascinating doings of Iggy Pop.

The Ramones roared back into fashion twenty years ago, and the demise of CBGB in 2007 brought on waves of marketing nostalgia of almost Disney-like proportions. Most everyone who pays attention to pop culture now knows that late-seventies punk wasn’t a movement that arrived out of nowhere, bent on destroying the past, but a continuity and evolution of earlier forms.

But the Trash Theory video at the top reaches back even earlier than garage bands like the Monks and the Sonics—typically cited as some of the earliest common ancestors of punk and rock and roll. Punk was “rock and roll bored down to its bare bones,” says the narrator, and begins with a rockabilly artist who called himself The Phantom and tried to outdo Elvis in 1958 with the raucous single “Love Me.” The Phantom himself may not have embraced the label at all, but like Link Wray, he was still something of a proto-punk. Wray’s raunchy, gritty instrumental “Rumble,” also released in 1958, inspired huge numbers of guitarists and aspiring musicians, including young Iggy Pop, who cities it as a primary reason he joined a band.

From there, we’re on to “elemental” tracks like The Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie,” The Trashmen’s “Surfin’ Bird,” The Sonic’s “Psycho,” The Monk’s “I Hate You,” and Love’s “7 and 7,” all clear progenitors of the sound. And the Mysterians, of garage classic “96 Tears,” were the first band to be described as punk by the mainstream press. The Kinks and The Who set templates in Britain while the Velvets perfected sleazy, experimental noise back in New York. The MC5 in Detroit helped bring us The Stooges. The Modern Lovers’ 1972 “Roadrunner” launched hundreds of bands.

The video is a convincing short history showing how punk arose naturally from trends in the late 50s and 60s that clearly pointed the way. Like every such history, especially one undertaken in the span of fifteen minutes, it leaves out some pretty heavyweight figures who should have a central place in the narrative. Irritated YouTube commenters have pointed out lapses like The New York Dolls (see them further up in 1973), without whom there would have been no Sex Pistols. (Proto-punk Detroit band Death does get a mention, though their influence is negligible since they went mostly unheard until 2009.)

Also needing inclusion as early punk pioneers are Television (check them out in ’78) and Richard Hell and the Voidoids (above in 1980’s Blank Generation). And these are just a few missing New York bands. Any devotee of this musical history will come up with a dozen or so more from both sides of the Atlantic who deserve mention in the early history of punk. And that’s why, I guess, that popular history keeps getting told and retold. As soon as it starts to get stale, it seems, there’s always more to add.

Related Content:

CBGB’s Heyday: Watch The Ramones, The Dead Boys, Bad Brains, Talking Heads & Blondie Perform Live (1974-1982)

The History of Punk Rock in 200 Tracks: An 11-Hour Playlist Takes You From 1965 to 2016

Punking Out, a Short 1978 Documentary Records the Beginning of the Punk Scene at CBGB’s

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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Comments (11)
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  • Fred says:

    I didn’t like punk much in the day. Now tho I have a better appreciation for what it was.

  • Gigs says:

    Don’t forget pub rock band Dr. Feelgood with their album ‘Down by the Jetty’.
    Wikipedia: “… Paul Weller and Bob Geldof have also acknowledged the influence of the album, as have Blondie, The Ramones and Richard Hell, who were introduced to the album by Blondie’s drummer, Clem Burke. …”

  • Ace Dexter says:

    Cool Dr.Feelgood background. Clem Burke was also Elvis Ramone- The forth drummer..

  • Sean says:

    Australia also had early overlooked bands as I am sure loads of countries have.. US/England is so centric.
    Check out the Saints/Lobby Lloyd and the coloured balls/X/Radio Birdman to name just a few

  • Dave says:

    Let’s not forget that early 1970s NYC band, The Dictators. Should be considered, along with Iggy Pop, to be one of the punk pioneers of the 70s.

  • pablo alfieri says:

    an interesting documentary but they are left the pioneer band of the punk that were the saicos that were of peru and no reference to rip, the polla records, eskorbuto and cicatriz o paralisis permanente

  • Patricio Temples says:

    Totally agreed, The Saicos have been extremely underrated as true proto-punk pioneers


  • Turd Furgeson says:

    Surprised no mention of Cleveland’s Electric Eels.

  • Pagan Cidergod says:

    I imagine we can all think of bands who should have been referred to in the video as influential. I’m glad you managed a mention of Hawkwind. There’s a whole raft of stuff out there that could have been mentioned in the video – just too much to fit in, and a lot of it is surprisingly psychedelic. German bands Neu, Can and Faust fit the bill – although their material was generally long and jam-oriented it was also stripped down and minimalist, rather like Hawkwind. English 60’s band The Deviants and the band they morphed into in 1970, The Pink Fairies, were the essence of the UK counterculture but they were less like the Grateful Dead and more like the MC5 in both sound and attitude. Hawkwind and The Pink Fairies spawned Motorhead who were a big influence on UK punk bands. Lemmy played bass for The Damned briefly in 1978 and in fact it was Lemmy who tried to teach Sid Vicious to play bass.

  • Edward Marlowe says:

    Two gigs in 1987, filling in when Richie walked, and one reprisal in 2004 for a charity gig. Lovely guy, Clem Burke – a man who very clearly adores his job and is damn good at itg to boot.

  • Harvey says:

    British punk’s roots go back to the skiffle bands in the early 50s. Skiffle typically had both a thrashy sound and a DIY ethos, with bands often made up of working class kids who had to make their own instruments. The songs were covers of North American folk songs, typically those most famously recorded years previously by artists like Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie, but sounding nothing like them. Check out Lonnie Donegan’s early stuff before he reinvented himself in the 60s as a comedian and variety act, and the early recordings of The Vipers Skiffle Group.

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