History Of Punk Music In England: 1976-1981

Basic chronological history of the punk music in England between 1976 and 1981. Key bands and records, particularly the Sex Pistols and Joy Division.

Punk music and culture has had a great impact on many different aspects of culture, both in its own right and by fundamentally changing the social environment which other western cultures share with it. Despite the wide variety of modern elements of punk, it is generally agreed that the culture began in England in the years 1976 to 1981, when the first and simplest from of punk music began and ended.

There was a recognisable progression in the kind of music being created during this era. This is a progression which went on to result in the pervading influence of punk in areas of the culture where it could never have imagined being influential back during its birth, when it was a youth culture and an outsider culture.

Although punk music, which called itself punk music, was a very English thing until the early eighties, the bands which led Malcolm McLaren to create a band called the Sex Pistols in early 1976 were American, principally the New York Dolls, for the image and attitude, and the Stooges, for the basis of the music. Punk was a reaction against the pretentiousness of the prevailing bands of the mid seventies, progressive rock bands with songs so indulgent and inaccessible to the youth of Britain that there was a palpable gap in youth culture.

The Sex Pistols, led by John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, were one of the first wave of bands including the Clash and the Damned that started playing around London in 1976. They initially played in front of small and hostile crowds but eventually gaining a burgeoning audience who were easily distinguishable by their uniform of ripped clothing and dyed hair. By the time a number of the London bands and some early punks from the rest of Britain played at the 100 Club in a legendary gig that cemented the existence of this new genre of music, punk was a viable term. Almost immediately after the 100 Club concert, the Damned released New Rose, the first punk single, and although it failed to sell, this was not a problem faced by the Sex Pistols when they released Anarchy in the UK a month later. Aided by the wilful controversy of the band's members and an infamous television interview with Bill Grundy, the single made the lower reaches of the UK charts, announcing punk to a wider audience. The Damned released their album Damned Damned Damned to an active culture in November of that year.

In 1977 the Pistols sacked bass player Glen Matlock and brought in Sid Vicious, a fan who could not play the bass but had the image, reputation and heroin habit to court more controversy. In a flurry of publicity, the Pistols signed first to A+M records, where they were dropped after a week and then to Virgin, where they released two more excellent singles, God Save the Queen and Pretty Vacant. Their album Never Mind the Bollocks Here's the Sex Pistols came out later in the year to much acclaim.

Other early punk bands were cashing in on the publicity with records. Some, like The Clash's eponymous debut album, were excellent, but the majority were terrible. The Damned released their second album Music For Pleasure to widespread derision, and as the year ended without any activity from flagship band the Sex Pistols, punk seemed in a bad state considering its ever-expanding and ever-diluting fanbase.

1978 was the year that the first wave of punk bands became washed up, but a newer and more interesting generation swept over their bodies. At the start of the year following a strenuous tour of America Johnny Rotten left the Sex Pistols onstage with the legendary question, 'Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?' As back in Britain a wave of talentless and characterless punk bands released mediocre singles and albums the Pistols remained in America, without a singer but living on the publicity of the film based on their story, Malcolm McLaren's The Great Rock and Roll Swindle. They released a single, Cosh the Driver, with train robber Ronnie Briggs on vocals, but were otherwise out of ideas. In October Sid Vicious' girlfriend Nancy Spungen was found stabbed to death in their hotel room and Sid was arrested on suspicion. However, while the original punks learned the hard way that they could not trade forever on attitude and image, there was a new generation in the wings who adapted the primitivity of the music to something with a purpose.

While the demise of the old punks was signalled in the mediocrity of bands like the UK Subs and the Clash's less popular second effort, there were new bands like the Undertones, who released the perenial classic Teenage Kicks and added pop to punk, and then Joy Division, who ditched their simple punk past as nonentities Warsaw and were signed to Factory records.

1979 saw the death from a heroin overdose of Sid Vicious in February, a death that effectively marked the end of the initial punk momentum. The rest of the year was more encouraging, as a wave of post punk bands released classic albums. The Clash was one of the few original punk bands to escape the decline, as they adapted their music to include reggae, ska and pop elements on their London Calling double album. The Undertones followed up Teenage Kicks with a re-release and then an album of clever punk-pop, while punk was now less centered in London then in the industrial towns, particularly Manchester.

It was here that a new punk scene sprung up and produced, in Joy Division and The Fall, two of the great British bands, whose music transcended any genre. Joy Division released the angst filled paranoia of Unknown Pleasures after some well recieved singles, and its singularly alienated and modern sound of silences, white noise and sparsely driving rock rhythms made it an instant classic. The Fall released two albums in 1979, first the twisted punk of Live At the Witch Trials and then the dark and decidedly weird Dragnet, which marked a departure already from punk.

1980 was efectively the end of punk, as Ian Curtis of Joy Division hung himself shortly before the release of their second album Closer. In the light of his death it is a terrifyingly intimate and despairing album, but still an absolute classic. His death seemed to mark the end of punk's capacity for inspiration, and the Clash released the terrible Sandanista to effectively end their careers while the majority of punk bands either gave up or carried on with no purpose. Bands like the Fall and the Mekons left punk behind almost totally as they continued to make significant music.

In 1981 even the Undertones left punk behind as an influence, and punk as an entity was almost completely dead, but its influence lived on in the whole of youth culture, not present in itself but casting a shadow over everything. The previous four years had had a priofound effect.

© High Speed Ventures 2011