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Joan Jett (Runaways), Debbie Harry (Blondie), David Johansen (New York Dolls), and Joey Ramone (Ramones) | photo by Roberta Bayley/Getty

New York Rock: The Birth of Punk, an Oral History

Joey Ramone, Richard Hell, Blondie and others describe the organic 1970s movement for nonconformists with an FU attitude

Scenes from 42nd Street in New York City in mid-1970s

“Punk” was a negative term picked up from prison slang (for homosexuals), and before that from Shakespeare (describing a trollop as a “taffety punk” in All’s Well That Ends Well). In the 50s, “punk” defined a belligerent twerp. Rock critic Lester Bangs used “punk” to describe Iggy Pop’s Stooges, and Alan Vega adopted the tag to promote his band Suicide. Punk Magazine plastered posters downtown in 1975 proclaiming, “Punk is Coming!” And people began calling the new acts punk rock.

Iggy Pop with the Ramones in 1976 at CBGB's | photo by Roberta Bayley/Getty
Punk fans watching The Shirts at CBGB’s circa-1975 | photo by Ebet Roberts/Getty

Punk quickly evolved into an “umbrella” movement for nonconformists with an edgy new attitude. A major aspect of punk was its intense reaction to the 70s hippie-esque escapism. Punks espoused “reality,” capturing glitter-rock’s brashness in a bid to refresh rock. That’s why the short hair, fast music, and FU attitude proved so enticing to some, and so threatening to the status quo.

Patti Smith performs at CBGBs in 1978 | photo by Stephanie Chernikowski/Getty

Punk redefined the look and feel of rock. Things would never be the same again.

Punks at CBGB’s in the 1970s | photo by Ebet Roberts/Getty

To its fans, punk reenergized moribund rock. To its detractors, it was amateur hour.

Punk rock kids posted up outside of CBGB’s in the mid-70s | photo by Ebet Roberts/Getty

The U.K. punk explosion of 1977 was inspired by and legitimized the existing New York subculture. Notable scenes occurred in Los Angeles and San Francisco by the next year.

Malcolm Mclaren with the Sex Pistols in the 1970s | photo by Hulton Deutsch/Getty

Circa 1975, Richard Hell was spotted in the East Village in ripped shirts held together by safety pins. Malcolm McLaren, then working with the Dolls, took that image in his head back to London, and with designer-wife Vivienne Westwood, stylized punk-fringe-Downtown-junkie-artist-squalor to high fashion and pop culture.

The Ramones iconic self-titled album cover shot | photo by Roberta Bayley/Getty

Joey Ramone became punk’s key character, not just for his physical presence and status in the scene, but for his support of bands he loved. You’d always see him out, at CBGB or the Clash at the Palladium, or Robert Gordon and Chris Spedding at the Lone Star.



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Steven Blush

Author/filmmaker behind American Hardcore, American Hair Metal, Lost Rockers, New York Rock, and the 70s tennis opus Bustin’ Balls.