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A punk with a can of cider.

Punk is a term referring primarily to a youth subculture movement which emerged in the 1970s in New York City and London, England, although the term is used more loosely to denote many subsequent punk subcultures and subgenres. The original punk movement was a reaction to the commercial aspects of music and dissatisfaction with society as a whole, and as such it had a heavy focus on anarchism and rejection of authority.

Origin of the term[edit]

Music critics had already applied the term "punk rock" as early as the middle 1960s to some garage rock bands, and applied it again in the early 1970s to Iggy and the Stooges and the New York Dolls. In this sense, "punk" was used as a slang term for inferior or amateur art, though Lester Bangs in particular applied it as a mark of approbation. When the Sex Pistols and the Ramones brought punk into its own as a distinct subculture and music style, the term stuck. However, a "punk" is also prison and street slang for somebody who is weaker who falls under the wing of a stronger person for protection, often a young homosexual who exchanges sexual favors for protection, and is also street slang for a young outlaw in general (as in "go ahead make my day punk"); it is possible the term was adopted with this meaning in mind as an anti-establishment statement.

Aspects of the punk movement[edit]

Clothing and fashion[edit]

Typical punks wore ripped jeans or plaid trousers with boots, leather jackets, loose fitting or tight t-shirts. The typical punk haircut is a mohawk, or mohican, in which hair at the sides of the head is completely shaved while the hair on top of the head was left alone, or hair was otherwise spiked up with gel and / or soap. Facial piercings were also a popular part of the punk movement and one aspect of it which made getting through airport security very difficult for all parties involved.

One aspect of some of the more outrageous "costumes" was to enable disaffected British youths to remain on the dole, since no potential employer in their right mind would hire a creature so-attired.

It should be noted that punk fashion was and is not limited to any of these aspects of dress.


Punk music, in which the punk movement was rooted, was characterised by a drum kit, bass guitar, electric distorted guitar, and vocalist, with fast paced songs and snarling, shouting lyrics speaking out against authority and other things of that nature. Songs typically consisted of a few chords being smashed out on guitar and were seldom longer than three minutes.


The bands accredited with starting punk, such as The Ramones, did not tend to write political songs (until sometimes later in their careers), although their angst-filled lyrics did explore controversial subjects such as solvent abuse, male prostitution, Nazism, and casual violence. It was the Sex Pistols who most firmly associated the punk scene (at least in the UK) with nihilism and anarchy, most famously in the songs "Anarchy in the UK" (1976) and "God Save the Queen" (1977). At the same time, The Clash became known for their left wing political songs, which were arguably more coherent and focused than the Pistols' more destructive anti-establishment anthems.

Though many of the more well-known punk bands espoused left-wing politics or anarchy, there were some exceptions. The simplicity of punk as a musical medium meant that many people could use it to express their views, including wingnuts. For example, the "Oi!" subculture (a working-class oriented punk movement) came to be associated with white nationalism. Over the years, there have also been a number of punk bands (e.g. Skrewdriver, The Dentists, and the Ventz) which explicitly promoted neo-Nazi politics, hence the name "Nazi Punks".[1]

Despite the presence of racist punk bands, very few of the punk movement's defining bands were overtly racist. There were, however, troll bands such as Fear, the Angry Samoans, and the Dead Kennedys who wrote offensive and satirical songs and sometimes baited their audiences. Many of the defining bands of the 1970s punk scene in the UK (such as The Clash) had strong Reggae and Ska influences and close rapport with prominent Black artists, with whom they saw common cause. Moreover, fans of "Nazi Punk" bands are often looked down upon by other punks, as shown by the Dead Kennedys song "Nazi Punks Fuck Off" (1981).


Original punk bands from the 1970s included Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Sex Pistols, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, The Ramones, The Clash, The Damned, Patti Smith, and The Dead Kennedys, who experienced a mass underground following in the 1980s. Some music historians trace punk's origin to late 1960s/early 1970s bands from the New York and Detroit scenes such as the Velvet Underground, the New York Dolls, Iggy and the Stooges, Death, and the MC5, and many such bands have since been characterized as "protopunk."

New Wave[edit]

Many bands emerged simultaneously with the arrival of early punk, sharing the punks' energy and DIY underground origins but not their nihilism or anger, and musically borrowing from a broad range of styles like glam, progressive rock, 1960s pop, funk, surf, and even disco and metal. At first, the press lumped them in with punk but they soon got their own description, "new wave". Such artists included Talking Heads, Devo, John Otway, the Fabulous Poodles, Blondie, the Dickies, the Brains, Television, Elvis Costello, and the Boomtown Rats. Some early British punks, most notably The Clash and Gang of Four, expanded their repertoire in response and likewise became more new wave than punk. New wave became a catch-all term inclusive of everything from the most obscure punk to some rather commercial rock outfits like the Cars and Tom Petty, and all points in between. Eventually, new wave became commercialized with the help of MTV, to the point that it was more or less synonymous with early 1980s pop, in such groups as Duran Duran, Human League, Missing Persons, Men At Work, the Fixx, and so on, to the chagrin of true punks. At that point, the term "new wave" fell out of favor as it was hardly "new" anymore, the less commercial new wave acts were re-framed as "alternative" and found a home on college radio, and punk once again arose as a separate scene re-affirming its anti-commercial roots.

Riot grrrl[edit]

Riot grrrl is a feminist-oriented sub-genre of punk which started in the early 1990s. This movement is often personified by the likes of bands such as Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, and Excuse 17. Riot grrrl sought to create a safer space for female punks who, at the time, were often shoved to the back of punk shows and subjected to various forms of sexism within the scene. This attempt to shift how women were treated in the punk scene was personified by Kathleen Hanna's regular call for "All girls to the front!" Common topics of riot grrrl music centered around addressing sexual and domestic assault, patriarchy, and female empowerment. [2] [3]


Post-punk is a more experimental form of music influenced by punk rock, but introducing elements of electronic, funk, dance, and art rock into the form. One of the more popular bands to play this style during its heyday was U2, though they ended up shifting away from it. British post-punk groups tended to focus on leftist politics (Gang of Four, The Pop Group) or gloom and angst (Joy Division, Siouxsie & the Banshees, Public Image Ltd), while American groups tended towards a more detached, mechanical approach (Pere Ubu, Suicide, early Devo).

Post Punk laid the groundwork for and fed into the alternative music scene of the 80's; introducing a range of experiments and genre-fusing that would heavily influence styles ranging from the epic gloom of goth rock, the clattering menace of industrial, the jazz-punk fusion of No Wave and the jagged guitars and rhythms of American indie rock.

Hardcore punk[edit]

The demise of the original punk scene and the commercialization of new wave did not deter punk for long. In the early 1980s, a new punk scene arose, trying to be louder, faster, angrier, and more nihilistic than the original punk scene. Labelled "hardcore punk" or simply "hardcore" (no relation to the electronic music genre also called hardcore), these bands included Black Flag, Husker Du, the Dead Kennedys, Minutemen, Fear, the Angry Samoans, the Circle Jerks, Minor Threat, Bad Brains, Agnostic Front, Deadline etc. in the U.S., while the U.K. saw a new and explicitly leftist political punk scene in such bands as the Exploited, and the anarcho-punk movement led by Crass. Sub-subcultures arose within the hardcore scene, such as the anti-drug and anti-alcohol straight edge movement.

Hardcore is today usually remembered as simply "punk" rather than as a distinct "hardcore punk" scene. While the scene shunned commercialization, related genres emerged by the late 1980s, influenced by both hardcore and metal, which were openly commercial. Thrash metal (Metallica, Megadeth) and grunge are two of the biggest examples. (See "Selling Out" below.)

There was also a splitting of punk during the 1990s into various obscure micro-sub-genres along with the related arguments over how many bands can fit on the head of a pin, much as is also the case with heavy metal: crust punk, metalcore, grindcore, vegan straight edge, riot grrrl, Celtic punk, noise, cowpunk, and dozens of others. A short-lived branch of 1980's punk rock was "Funnypunk", which mixed humor with the raucous music. Bands in this genre included Screeching Weasel and Adrenalin O.D. Most of the current underground punk scene is made up of bands playing a style of hardcore punk (usually "old school" hardcore, crust punk, powerviolence, and grindcore).

Street Punk[edit]

Street punk is a genre that got its start in the '80s in the UK, mainly influenced by the Oi! punk scene. It emerged around the same time as the hardcore punk scene in America, and although some bands took some influence from it, it was musically distinct. Though influenced by Oi!, street punk bands were darker and heavier but retained the melodic songwriting and the focus on writing catchy songs. The bands generally focused on a DIY and working-class ethic. Though some bands were political, many others stayed away from such topics. The lyrics were often darker and more violent. Prominent bands included The Exploited, GBH and The Varukers. This style directly led to the D-beat style of punk, which in turn was a major influence on crust punk, as well as several metal bands (especially in Sweden). In the 90s, a new street punk scene emerged in the States with bands such as The Casualties and Defiance who were influenced by the original bands and merged it with American hardcore, influencing a generation of new street punk bands. Many modern street punks are sometimes dismissed as being "fashion punks" by detractors for heavily emphasizing the "punk" looks of mohawks, spiked and studded jackets, etc., though it should be noted that the more outlandish looks started with the original scene.

Selling out[edit]

The mythology of the original punk movement is that it was an outcry against rules, regulations, privilege and authority. As such, punk was originally an "underground" movement, in which bands played not for financial gain, but to register disgust with the established order. Punk bands that signed to major record companies rather than remaining independent or unsigned were regarded by many die-hard punk fans as "sell-outs". This has led to the claim today that the idea of punk and the punk movement is "dead", due to the lack of a strong underground punk movement reminiscent of the '70s. Some teenagers today can be seen sporting badges reading "Punk's Not Dead," on their shoulder bags, although die-hard punks would most likely disagree with this.

Some veteran punks (and numerous people you see commenting on YouTube videos of new age "punk" bands) from the original 1970s outfits reject the idea of punk today in bands that claim punk-ness but say and do everything which suggests otherwise. The best example today is the band Green Day, which gained mainstream popularity in 1994 with their album Dookie. After the group signed to a major record label, many original fans regarded them as sellouts, and after a new surge of popularity due to 2004's American Idiot, this view again came to light, particularly as they continued to claim to be "punk", despite expensive video shoots, starting themselves up before shows with eyeliner, and the actual music digressing from original punk themes, leading to John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) of the Sex Pistols and PiL calling them a "wank outfit".[4]

In truth, punk was taken over by marketers almost right out of the gate. The Sex Pistols were assembled by visual artist and fashion designer Malcolm McLaren, and their clothing designed by McLaren's then-girlfriend and fellow fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, in order to promote their London boutique SEX by way of deliberately controversial shock tactics. John Lydon, before he became Johnny Rotten, had no musical experience and was plucked off the street by McLaren on the basis of his look, an experience that led him to refer to McLaren and Westwood as shysters. The rise of hardcore punk in the '80s was, if anything, a reclamation of a heavily commercial product by its fans. Grunge is another example, its purported anti-commercial stance (along with angst and "slacker" posturing in general, in the form of "I suck, everything's my fault, I'm a creep, nobody cares, I'm so depressed" type lyrics) being turned into a commercial selling point once the major labels jumped onto the "Seattle sound" and started signing every band in the Pacific Northwest, which pretty much made it impossible for any genuine punk expression after that point to be seen as anything but posturing. A few artists couldn't handle the cognitive dissonance. Kurt Cobain of Nirvana infamously blew his brains out over it, while Eddie Vedder's commitment to principles eventually got his band, Pearl Jam, into a nasty fight with Ticketmaster over price gouging that essentially derailed their mainstream success for the rest of the '90s. Others, like Layne Staley of Alice in Chains, fell into downward spirals of drug addiction. The rest made a lot of money and paved the way for pop-punk bands like Green Day, post-grunge bands like Nickelback, and eventually outright pop acts like Avril Lavigne, Good Charlotte, and Simple Plan who dressed in punk fashion and played vaguely punk-sounding guitar music but otherwise had nothing in common with the genre. In a way, punk had come full circle since the days of the Sex Pistols.


Cyberpunk is generally considered a science fiction genre, although some have embraced it as a lifestyle. Typically, it focuses on the computer hacker (the malicious type) as the main protagonist/anti-hero. Oftentimes, a hero will have several computers and monitors and will use their computer skills to break passwords, rob banks, or blow things up with a keystroke, all of this in a setting where typically mega-corporations rule over the world more or less openly. For examples of cyberpunk, read pretty much anything by William Gibson (whose Neuromancer basically codified the genre) or Philip K. Dick, or watch The Matrix.[5] The basic point of Cyberpunk is the use of information technology in an attempt to subvert "the system." It is also heavily associated with techno music and Japanese culture (or at least a Westernized image of it), the genre having come of age in the '80s, a time when synthesizers ruled pop music and it was thought that we'd all be working for the Japanese in twenty years. Few real-life crackers probably consider themselves cyberpunks. Some elements of cyberpunk can be seen and heard in the videos by the 1980s band Sigue Sigue Sputnik.[6]


Steampunk is an offshoot of cyberpunk that relies on the use of Victorian technology instead of computers, often drawing influence from the likes of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne. While the term was coined in 1987 by writer K. W. JeterWikipedia's W.svg[7], it was brought to mainstream attention by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's 1990 novel The Difference EngineWikipedia's W.svg, which imagines Charles Babbage's eponymous machine as kicking off a boom in Victorian information technology. Gibson and Sterling intended the story as something of a parody of cyberpunk, combining its dystopian tropes and advanced technology with the real-life dystopia and technological advancement of Victorian Britain, such as the massive body count and human misery racked up by the era's racism, imperialism, social repression, and the atmospheric pollution caused by coal and steam power.

Modern steampunk works tend to be more interested in the style than the social satire. The genre has influenced more recent pop culture, including Tim Burton, Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Terry Gilliam, and Martin Scorsese's Hugo. Steampunk aficionados will often wear neo-Victorian clothing and combine it with modern punk aesthetics. Some will go so far as to build contraptions that actually work. Their calling card is a pair of brass goggles. Isambard Kingdom Brunel is not impressed.


Based on the steampunk analogy, a few other genres have emerged. The first was arguably "gothic-punk", the name given by White Wolf Game Studios to the supernatural dystopian setting of their World of Darkness properties. Recent years have seen the addition of dieselpunk (something of an art-deco aesthetic, based on the technology of the 20s through the 50s), atompunk (also known as "raygun gothic", a style embracing the aesthetic heavily featured in late '40s through early '60s sci-fi), and cowpunk (similar to steampunk, but a little further back and based on the American Old West).

The Lie of "Punk"[edit]

While all said above is necessary to punk's developed cultural leanings, it was never part of the social or political revolution/revolt of which it claimed. The Sex Pistols were a manufactured band created for the purpose of commercial success, an admittedly brave one, but one completely unrelated to the countercultural values which it promoted and undoubtedly convinced people with. John Lydon himself confesses in "The Filth and the Fury" that they were after the money to escape the drudgery of working class life, not to ignite a working class movement as so many seem to believe. Over the years, subsequent punk movements/sub-cultures (anarcho-punk, crust punk, folk punk, etc) took punk's supposed ethics and truly followed them, but the original punk rock "scene" had little to do with what it claimed to represent.

Today the term exists largely as a marketing device, comically far from its legendary origins. Golf Punk magazine attempted to make hitting a small ball cool[8], while Scottish beer company Brewdog promotes its Punk IPA with manufactured controversy of which Malcolm Maclaren would be proud[9].

Why Punk had to happen[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Fun:Why Punk had to happen

External links[edit]

See also[edit]