We called it America: the intellectual roots of American punk

(This is an extract of an article for The Phonograph, which was picked up in the Guardian’s featured blogs of the day for April 1st. The full article can be read here.)

In the UK, when we think about punk, we usually think about the Sex Pistols. We think about fluorescent mohicans, clothes pins in noses and gurning and snarling aplenty. Some of us might think about Joe Strummer, or Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, whose situationist SEX shop on King’s Road in London became, in many ways, the cultural and geographical epicentre of the British punk movement.

But across the Atlantic, they might take a rather different view.

In the United States, punk began some time before the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks. The reflexive intercontinental relationship between US and British punk has clouded the contemporary understanding of punk’s origins. From 1976, after the Sex Pistols and punk exploded in Britain, American bands borrowed heavily from the image and style of the British aesthetic. By the 1990s, some of the biggest cheeses in US punk, like Rancid and Green Day, had aural lineages traced straight from the jangly bass lines of The Clash’s Paul Simonon – bands who also wore the kind of sardonic post-fascist attire inspired by Westwood. This transport of ideas, along shipping routes between the Old and New World, distorts the history of punk, disfigures our understanding of where and how it began. Moreover, this entanglement obstructs our grasp of just what was so important, perpetual and revolutionary about punk: its ideas.

Not only were American punks and proto-punk bands the progenitors of what we now recognise as punk (the popular style, the image, and so on) but they also the propagators of a set of ideas that, throughout the 1970s, developed into a full-blown restatement, by young Americans, of a uniquely American cultural individualism.

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