This year marks 40 years since the debut of the Ramones, the band that practically, for all intents and purposes, started punk rock. Magazines and web site articles are pouring in and praising the Ramones, using terms like “American classics”. Surely, while they are classics of rock music and pop culture, the large coverage of the anniversary is somewhat ironic. The Ramones, of course for all their wonderful reputation, never achieved the commercial or critical success of some of their peers while they were still an active band.
History is however kind to the New York group and it’s giving back the credit they were always due in the first place. But it raises an interesting question. Did punk rock actually change the world while the biggest bands of the genre were active? Alternative rock magazines will always cite the emergence of punk as a moment when the earth shook and the landscape of the music industry was changed forever. But was that really the case?
The importance of punk rock (the original host of bands from the 70’s, at least) is similar to that of Grunge music in the ’90s. Both were an unexpected success and both had many followers. Just like those bands, the influence of the music would be cited for decades by other artists and the fashion would be imitated to no end. Nirvana and the Sex Pistols are now part of popular culture, but their success was not enough to erase pop and dance music from the charts as would some magazines have you believe. Their success was large, but brief, while their influence was immense on a selected few. But at no time did punk rock rival in popularity disco/dance music and soft rock balladeers. Those were never at the risk of being made extinct.
This aside, here are some ways in which punk rock did have a lasting influence on the world:
- Commercial success
While not enough to replace arena rock bands or pop acts from the charts, the success of bands like the Clash and Sex Pistols was enough to ensure that record labels were interested in signing similar bands. Since the sound of those groups was far removed from rock radio to begin with, it then created an opportunity for other alternative bands to have a career, where as before this would have been unheard of.
- Changing the themes and sound of the music
The classic rock bands of the ’70’s seemed to have specific interests and would rarely stray from those themes. The arena rockers often sang about girls, fast cars and money. Prog rock groups were usually fans of mythology. But punk rock was snotty enough to have songs created about small things, that other bands might not have considered as potential song material. The Ramones for example had songs about girls and kids having fun. They also had songs about prostitution, scoring drugs, abduction and dysfunctional families. The Sex Pistols famously sang against the powers that be, The Clash tried to defend social causes and Patti Smith made use of her talent as a poet.
- It made playing music acceptable for more people
If punk was really successful at doing anything, it was offering anyone a chance to make music and be part of a band. The music industry had by the mid ’70’s set up a model that was commercially viable, but in which only a select few seemed to be able to get involved. Punk rock offered the promise of playing in a band regardless of technically proficiency or image. Sure, in time those very elements would get treated as a type of punk uniform. But for the time it opened the doors to a whole new range of misfits that brought with them a new vision of what rock music should be.
- It got more successful with time
Bands like the Damned and Television, Patti Smith Group and the Dead Boys are often cited for their importance on the genre. But for many of those groups, the real success came years later, when new groups were emerging and citing them as influences. Some of the singles and albums of the original punk bands were by that point difficult to find and it took the effort of a new generation of enthusiasts to ensure they could be heard. But in recent years, most of those groups have become accepted in popular culture the same way that Elvis, Marilyn Monroe or a brand of soft drink are. The influence of those groups is seen time and time again in music, movies or fashion.
- It returned songwriting to it’s basic elements
By the mid ’70’s critics who had fallen in love with the energy and vitality of rock n’ roll were growing tired of long guitar solos, concept albums and groups that made a spectacle of their success. Punk rock groups were usually started by kids from the working classes, inspired by the same enthusiastic sound that had made people fall in love with rock n’ roll it in the first place. Their songs were usually simple, easily remembered and had a great degree of enthusiasm. Many of the Ramones songs seem to have been built on ’50’s chord progressions only to be then played much faster and louder. Other groups were inspired by the sound of rockabilly or reggae. The Ramones even gave a nod to Elvis on their London Calling album cover. In many ways this helped return songwriting to it’s basics and bred a new generation of writers such as Noel Gallagher or Kurt Cobain.
There is an undeniable influence of punk rock on the world today. The radical elements of the style however have rarely emerged in mainstream culture. All in all the original punks did change the world albeit in a more subtle and it is all part of a movement that keeps enfolding slowly.