This year marks 40 years since the debut of the Ramones, the band that practically started punk rock. Magazines and web site articles are pouring in and praising the Ramones, using terms like “American classics”. Surely, while they are standards of rock music and pop culture, the large coverage of the anniversary feels 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. How big was the influence of punk rock on society really?
History is kind to the New York group and has offered 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 an instance of earth-shattering importance. Something that altered the landscape of the music industry forever. But was that really the case?
The importance of punk rock (the original host of bands from the ’70s, at least) is similar to that of Grunge music in the ’90s. Both were unexpectedly successful 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.
Punk rock has had a profound influence on society as a whole. Here are some of the ways in which punk rock did end up having a lasting influence outside of its narrow borders, on the world:
The commercial success of punk rock
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, whereas before this would have been unheard of.
Regardless of how unlikely it may how once seemed, alternative punk rock bands, punk rock bands, hell, even swing revival bands, had their moment in the eye of the mainstream hurricane.
Changing the themes and sound of popular rock 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.
It went back to the very tradition of garage rock music, the sound made by loud distorted guitars, over dance grooves, and played with enthusiasm outweighing abilities. The bands’ identities were rarely as important as the fans, or, for that matter the high-number of one-hit wonders. Who sang and played 96 tears or Wild thing? You may have not heard of ? and the Mysterians or of the Throggs, but that makes little difference.
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-’70s 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 technical 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.
Punk 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 famous 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.
Punk returned songwriting to its 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. TheClash even gave a nod to Elvis on their London Calling album cover. In many ways, this helped return songwriting to its basics and bred a new generation of writers such as Noel Gallagher or Kurt Cobain. Famous punk rockers and bands are many, even if the scene seemed to swear off the material success and earthly possesions as the very creed of this youth movement.
This is how punk rock changed the world. It infiltrated it in more subtle ways than even the genres originators would have thought possible. Once inside, its essence seeped into that of a world short on lifeblood. The original punk bands delivered something vital, even without anticipating its eventual influence. When truthful, or, simply well crafted, art cannot be denied for long.
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.