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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