1977: The Year Punk Exploded

1977: The Year Punk Exploded
Charles Aaron WRITTEN BY
Charles Aaron

We weren't innocent lambs by 1977. Even tuba-playing virgins who lived in half-finished, rural Georgia subdivisions knew the times they had a-changed. Television had shown us all about it. Several years before, every day after school, The Andy Griffith Show's kindly Southern sheriff had blurred into the Watergate hearings' kindly Southern Senator Sam J. Ervin Jr., who detailed the antics of our creepy, pitstained pit boss of a president. The Vietnam War had ended infamously as CIA helicopters, sagging with refugees, fled the roof of the U.S. Embassy. "Recession" and "inflation" were a constant refrain. (Who knew what they meant? But they sure made Dad anxious.) My favorite record was the Dickie Goodman novelty 45 "Energy Crisis '74," which took for granted that the government was manned by incompetent boobs. "With me now is the head of the Federal Energy Office," intoned a blowhard fake reporter. "Sir, you hold an important position. What are your qualifications?" Cue "sample" of the Steve Miller Band. "I'm a joker / I'm a smoker / I'm a midnight toker." Then there was the tacky Spirit of '76 marketing flimflam -- the "Buy-centennial" (step right up, get your authentic Independence Hall sawdust!) that begged us all to puff up our denial and get rah-rah about Old Glory. Jimmy Carter, a slippery nonentity with goofy teeth and a reassuring Christian drawl, was elected president, mostly because he seemed like the least harmful option.

I was aware that all this century-altering stuff had happened in the previous decade -- civil rights, antiwar protests, music, movies, astronauts, rakish young rebels forcing decrepit farts to pay them respect. It was an ongoing revelation. But all the important new initials who were supposed to make things better -- JFK, RFK, MLK, Malcolm X -- had been summarily gunned down. And afterward, well, historians would call it a conservative backlash, but as a kid, it just seemed like the grown-ups had regrouped and regressed; I mean, people were actually psyched about CB radios! And why was the only kind of hippie I ever met some shiftless Lynyrd Skynyrd gene defect who would inevitably fall asleep smoking a joint and burn down his trailer? Or the swingin' neighbor who had a water bed, a maroon Chevy Monte Carlo with bucket seats, and HBO?

What, exactly, was the post-'60s future? Put on a smiley-face T-shirt, dream about your friend's copy of Penthouse buried under a mulch pile in the woods across the street, and crank up some yuks from Parliament's Mothership Connection ("Doin' it to ya in the earhole!") or Kiss' Alive! ("When you're down in the dumps and you need something to bring you up, there's only one thing that's gonna do it the way you want it -- cold gin!").

It was implied in what we were taught at school and on TV that history had left the station: Don't worry your head about it. All that craziness is over. The battle's done. Especially in the South, the message was that "the minorities" -- blacks, women's libbers, etc. -- had gotten theirs, and now it was time to get back to business and shut your cotton-pickin' mouth. You boys need a ride to Stars Wars? Maybe we'll pick you up a lightsaber later.

The first time I ever heard a firsthand report of a rock show was from my science teacher, a bitter, overtanned thirtysomething who had just seen Fleetwood Mac and thought it was so amazing how Stevie Nicks, mystical shawl billowing, had walked over to the edge of the stage and offered a fan a sip from her wineglass. Wine. Typical. It made complete sense. The biggest-selling rock album of 1977, Rumours, was produced by rich, luxuriating hippie sophisticates who cavorted like sprites and nymphs and sipped chardonnay.

"Blank Generation"? Never heard it, though it sounds like it'd be the first entry in my diary, if I had the attention span to keep one. "Teenage Lobotomy"? You mean a song can be a two-minute chant about being brain-dead over guitars played by people who actually sound like they're brain-dead? "I'm So Bored With the U.S.A."? No shit, but who has the balls to say that on a record? "Anarchy in the U.K."? What the hell's anarchy? At that point, though, those questions weren't being asked. With the disco-fever and dead-Elvis (R.I.P. 8/16/77) profits rolling in, the music industry served up an even more baroque menu option. Meat Loaf, anyone?

Tom Snyder was restless and confused, too. As the chain-smoking, bushy-eyebrowed host of NBC's The Tomorrow Show, weeknights at 1 a.m. (produced by Fox News mastermind Roger Ailes), he was both desperate for guests and endlessly curious about what in the heck's going on out there.

So on October 11, 1977, he announced: "We're going to do something called punk rock." He'd just read a Rolling Stone cover story titled "Rock Is Sick and Living in London: A Report on the Sex Pistols," which documented the band's travails, including a damaging live appearance earlier in the year on local London TV, during which crotchety, soused host Bill Grundy goaded guitarist Steve Jones into calling him a "dirty fucker" and a "fucking rotter." As a result, throughout '77, Pistols' shows had been plagued by controversy, either canceled or overrun by wannabe punk hooligans in dog collars. The monarchy-indicting single "God Save the Queen," released in the midst of the Silver Jubilee (a celebration of Queen Elizabeth II's 25th year on the throne), was banned by the BBC. The band was arrested for performing the song on a boat in the Thames. Punk was a tabloid menace -- "the filth and the fury," as The Daily Mirror dubbed it (inspiring the title of Julien Temple's 2000 Pistols documentary). Snyder summed up the article: "It gets into urination, beating people up, bloody noses."

To discuss this grotty phenomenon -- which Snyder plainly asserted started with kids in England and "supposedly reflects their frustration and bitterness" with an economic system that ignored them -- a trio of industry cogs had been lined up. And though the panelists displayed only a passing interest in the subject, in retrospect, they perfectly represented the '70s dustbin of assumptions and ideas that helped spark the punk bonfire in the first place.

The cast: Bill Graham, the smug, scowling "rock impresario" who reigned over '60s rock-concert promotion with ruthless glee; Los Angeles Times rock critic Robert Hilburn, whose beard, V-neck sweater, oxford shirt, and droning selfregard gave him the teeth-grittingly resigned aspect of a middle-school principal; and producer/songwriter/sinister wacko Kim Fowley, who Svengali'd the all-girl, proto-punk Runaways, and at the time of the show was jadedly hustling pop star Helen Reddy and Baltimore "arena rock" band Face Dancer.

Graham: "I don't take lightly when I see a swastika, when I see somebody burning a Star of David, somebody comes out onstage in a Ku Klux Klan costume and makes fun of it. I think the danger is that a lot of people accept it as being funny."

Hilburn: "Tom, the sociological part is pretty much restricted to England; that's where the kids are really angry....Middle-class kids [in America] are pretty content; it's a pretty conservative time for them now. And I don't think they're really going to respond to the safety-pin ethic."

"What's the safety-pin ethic?" queried Snyder.

Hilburn droned on: "When the Sex Pistols started out, they wore tattered clothes held together by safety pins, and it was an example of the unemployment rate."

Perhaps because this was broadcast from California, nobody felt compelled to mention punk's actual roots in New York (via the Velvet Underground, New York Dolls, and Patti Smith) and Detroit (via the Stooges and MC5). Or the fact that 1977 London's miserable socioeconomic situation had nothing on New York's death slide of arson, blackouts, looting, drugs, the Son of Sam serial-killing spree, a race- and gay-baiting mayoral campaign, and widely decried cutbacks of sanitation workers, firefighters, and police (whose union passed out "Welcome to Fear City" brochures at airports and bus terminals).

Regardless, a bewildered Snyder finally blurted out: "Why does punk have to be so mean?" Fowley, in lipstick, rouge, a tight orange suit and holding a flower, cavalierly prattled: "Because most of it isn't entertaining or melodic, so why is there a good guy or bad guy in literature or art or anything? I don't know the question or the answer. The Perils of Pauline, that guy with the mustache, was the first villain in entertainment in America, so maybe these guys are trying to be villains."

Hilburn, obsessed with punk's lack of commercial viability, concluded: "Basically, it boils down, in its rawest form, to a kid with a guitar wanting to make a million dollars, and everyone else in music wants to, too. But the thing that punk says is that 'I don't even have to play the guitar.' "

Even stranger was a cameo by the Jam's 19-year-old Paul Weller, in a natty yellow suit jacket, smoking intently and talking semantics: "Punk is a neon sign that sells commodities," he murmured. "New wave is an attitude of oppressed youth."

Weller didn't perform on the show -- Snyder showed only a 20-second Jam clip and a bit more of the Runaways (decked out in glam-era leather, doing "School Days"). The panel confessed they hadn't heard many punk bands. There was barely a mention of what the music sounded like, even though there were an astonishing number of life-changing (admittedly unpurchased) records released in '77 (see page 67), many on major labels. There was a brief aside that similar groups were cropping up in America (though it was a July '76 Ramones show in London that directly inspired the Sex Pistols, Clash, Damned, and Generation X). What mattered more was that the nation's youth were presumably spewing all over the music that was the soundtrack of '60s social change. Baby boomers had given the world the Beatles, the Stones, Dylan, Hendrix -- real artists who made a difference. Of course, now it was all about limos, drum solos, and concept albums. But who did these ungrateful, nihilistic clowns think they were?

Ironically, one of the savvier '77 punk assessments came from New York Times political columnist/etymologist (and former Richard Nixon speechwriter) William Safire, who wrote: "The success of punk in music and fashion springs from a rebellion against the material success of rebel leaders....They identify with unsuccessful slobs rather than with millionaire musicians who exploit unsuccessful slobs." That's why the Clash sang, "No Elvis, Beatles, or the Rolling Stones" in their song "1977." They felt betrayed by rock's bloated heroes. Of course, Safire had his own reasons for hating the hippie-liberal landed gentry, but when you're right, you're right.

Punk magazine, founded in New York in 1975 by John Holmstrom, Legs McNeil, and Ged Dunn Jr., was a raw in-joke celebration and mockery of the local music scene. The Pistols' situationist skipper Malcolm McLaren took that stripped-down, snot-nosed-teen ethos (which had originated with Creem magazine's Lester Bangs and Dave Marsh), gave it a political spin, amped up the fashion, and "punk" reemerged in '77 as a petulant, visionary toddler, spouting slogans and defiantly peeing his/her bondage pants. Said brat was analyzed, marketed, misrepresented, and dismissed before he/she ever played a note. Some veterans of seminal New York dives Max's Kansas City and CBGB felt the artistic nuance of groundbreakers Patti Smith, Talking Heads, Television, and Richard Hell had been perverted into a gross cartoon. Maybe, but punk was also the most thrillingly subversive cartoon ever in pop culture. It was the hilarious, scary, seething fuck-you that so many of us had been waiting for. The arch posing and furious contempt. The tasteless pranks and withering critiques. The insistence on doing things that would never earn you a penny. The totally baffled adults. Lucky for us, the music even surpassed the caricature.

In late 1977, teenagers Sid McCray and Darryl Jenifer lived across the street from each other in southeast Washington, D.C. They were the rare black kids into what they called " 'doomsday music' -- Black Sabbath, Kiss, Budgie, and Led Zeppelin," as Mark Andersen and Mark Jenkins reported in their 2003 book Dance of Days: Two Decades of Punk in the Nation's Capital. Then McCray saw a TV segment on British punk, went out and bought the Sex Pistols' and Damned's first albums and, when he got home, "went into a violent rage and tore my room up." Proselytizing to Jenifer and his mates in a jazz-fusion group called Mind Power, he eventually converted them, and the greatest hardcore punk band of all time -- Bad Brains -- was born (sans McCray).

"We dug the militancy happening in punk rock," Jenifer testified in Dance of Days. "It said, 'If you have something to say, say it.' A lot of the things we saw our people falling for made us mad at the kind of illusions society was trying to create."

Bands from New York and London, and even some West Coast iconoclasts, still scrap over the title of the first and truest punks (see our three roundtables, beginning on page 72). But a deeper story is the diverse array of provocative (and widely ignored) malcontents, all over the U.S., the U.K., and the world, who also formed bands, xeroxed fanzines, made art, shot films, and put on shows. In a taunting echo of the 1968 student protests that broke out in the U.S., France, Mexico, Germany, Poland, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia, the '77 generation of les enrages realized they had the right to refuse.

New York City's sister scene was, oddly, in Ohio. There were the ferocious Cleveland aesthetes Pere Ubu and drooling delinquents the Dead Boys (who eventually moved to Manhattan); Velvet Underground obsessives the Mirrors (later the Styrenes); the audience-abusing, post-glam sociopaths electric eels; and screed-heads the Pagans. In Akron, the Bizarros and Rubber City Rebels revved up a hooky buzz, and Devo's multimedia synth-punk spoofed and condemned society as a mutant production line; Kent's male-female trio Human Switchboard conjured organ-drenched drama. Also in the Midwest, MX-80 Sound's arty metallic roar and the slap-happy scuzz of the Gizmos (known for the ditty "Human Garbage Disposal") emerged from Bloomington, Indiana. Minneapolis' Suicide Commandos released their snappy '77 debut, Make a Record, and the trashy Sillies just dismayed Detroit.

On the West Coast, with L.A. glitter guru Rodney Bingenheimer sneaking punk onto KROQ and Slash fanzine's Claude "Kickboy Face" Bessy issuing broadsides, the scene coalesced around the Weirdos and Germs, the twisted electro theatrics of the Screamers (led by Tomata du Plenty, a veteran of San Francisco's acid-spiked drag-queen troupe the Cockettes), and the Ramones-ish zip of the Zeros, featuring Javier Escovedo (later of '80s alt-rockers True Believers) and Robert Lopez, later known as "El Vez." Critic Richard Meltzer and future members of the Angry Samoans concocted the viscera-hurling Vom, with songs like "Electrocute Your Cock." The just-formed X and Black Flag would soon slam everything to an edgier stage.

San Francisco was just as vibrant, with the Avengers, Dils, cabaret punks the Nuns (led by charismatic singer Jennifer Miro and Javier's brother Alejandro), Negative Trend (with future Flipper loonies), the Crime (who notoriously wore police uniforms on the street, as well as onstage), U.X.A., the Mutants and V. Vale's Search & Destroy fanzine. The Feederz and chief instigator Frank Discussion thoroughly spooked Arizona; and Portland, Oregon, produced perhaps the most underrated American band of the past 30 years, the Wipers, fueled by the intensely abrasive, hypnotic songwriting of singer/guitarist Greg Sage (a hero to Kurt Cobain).

Down south, there was the freak scene around Raul's in Austin, Texas, haunted by Randy "Biscuit" Turner and Tim Kerr of the Big Boys; the doomy art-wave of Atlanta's the Fans; and in North Carolina, Chapel Hill's the H-Bombs (led by future dB Peter Holsapple) and Raleigh's Pistols-derived rockers Th' Cigaretz. Back east in New Jersey, the Misfits gave the punk cartoon a horror-flick head butt. And in Boston, a scene thrived, mostly around the club the Rat, with the Nervous Eaters, Real Kids, Mickey Clean and the Mezz, DMZ (led by future Lyres' raver Jeff "Monoman" Connolly), Human Sexual Response, and the Thrills. Teen waif Mark Morrisroe published the zine Dirt, and his later photographic work was exhibited in high-profile art galleries.

After the first wave of U.K. marquee names and unclassifiably brilliant outsiders like Wire, scruffy London notables included the Boys, Chelsea, the Lurkers, Penetration, Subway Sect, 999, the Only Ones, and the Adverts, with their nightmarish yet insistently boppy single "Gary Gilmore's Eyes," about the Texas murderer executed in January '77. Teenage gadfly Mark Perry was the scene's foremost chronicler, with his Sniffin' Glue fanzine, and also played in Alternative TV. A Sex Pistols show in Manchester prompted Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook to form Joy Division, Pete Shelley and Howard Devoto to form the Buzzcocks (Devoto soon left to start Magazine), and the late Tony Wilson to feature key bands on his BBC show So It Goes and later to cofound Factory Records. DIY anarchist punks Crass excoriated injustice with feisty noise collages, art, films, and manifestos from their Essex group home.

In Ireland, the Undertones dreamed up pop-punk nuggets like "Teenage Kicks," Stiff Little Fingers reflected the country's sectarian violence with the searing "Suspect Device," and Radiators From Space, led by Pogues guitarist Philip Chevron, had a raucously melodic two-year run. Canada was faux-scandalized by the Viletones, the Poles, Teenage Head, the Curse (all girls), the Skulls (an early version of hardcore heavies D.O.A.), and the Diodes (who opened the first Canadian punk club, Crash'n'Burn, in '77). In Paris there was the assaultive, political fury of Metal Urbain -- the first punk group to use a drum machine -- and the poppier, femme-fronted Stinky Toys. The rugged, soulful bray of Australia's the Saints was equal to the best Brit-punk. Other Aussies included the Stooges-loving Radio Birdman; Nick Cave's first band, the Boys Next Door; the Victims (a precursor to Hoodoo Gurus); and the Cheap Nasties (led by Kim Salmon, later of the Scientists). In New Zealand there were the Scavengers, Suburban Reptiles, and the Enemy (led by the slyly deranged Chris Knox). Spain had the inexplicable new-wave costume pop of Kaka De Luxe; and in Germany, punk was the sole province of the most awesomely named Big Balls and the Great White Idiot.

It was like a deafening revolution on a tiny transistor radio.

"Punk was tolerant, it took in groups of people who were alienated, but then there weren't enough of the kind of people involved with punk to change the music press and the industry for the better. My recourse was taking speed." -- Writer Jane Suck, in Jon Savage's England's Dreaming

Of course, it's true that punk's favored image of itself as a misfit refuge -- where men, women, blacks, Latinos, gays, art-school dweebs or shit-job thugs, political zealots or apolitical wise-asses, conniving junkies or thieving strippers could come together and hop like enlightened cretins -- was, ultimately, a pretty hippie-ish pipe dream. And when the media played the violence card, the utopia became a testing ground for straight white dudes who simply wanted to establish their manhood. In the hardcore-punk '80s, as the times became more threateningly conservative and restrictive -- with Reagan, AIDS, and the religious right -- it got downright Iron John. But there were moments.

Like when '77's secret star, X-Ray Spex's braces-wearing singer Poly Styrene, said she'd never be a sex symbol, and if somebody tried to turn her into one, she'd shave her head. (So Britney Spears' meltdown was a punk tribute?)

Or learning after the fact that the Ramones, who I first thought seemed like a bunch of sullen, dopey-clever geeks in the right place at the right time, were a profoundly strange conglomeration. Guitarist Johnny, a.k.a. John Cummings, was a baseball-card-collecting Republican businessman. Towering, golemlike singer Joey, a.k.a. Jeff Hyman, was a sweet, obsessive-compulsive recluse who once went by the nickname Jeff Starship. Bassist Dee Dee, a.k.a. Douglas Colvin, was an Army brat who grew up in Germany, a former hairdresser, and a switchblade-packing fiend who actually turned tricks on "53rd & 3rd." Surviving original drummer Tommy, a.k.a. Tamás Erdélyi, is a Hungarian expat and bluegrass fanatic. And somehow they were one of the most gifted songwriting teams in rock history.

Punk, by nature, is a volatile, sometimes self-destructive, work in progress that you make up as you go along, with no expectation that your band or scene will even exist in a year. It's about the moments when somebody does something that embodies how fucked up the world is, but makes it funny, noble, and poignantly shot through with darkness and light.

That's the spirit of '77, at least for me, and I still look for those kinds of moments. One I'll never forget was in the early '80s, driving to a show at Atlanta's 688 Club, when I saw a familiar local figure standing in the middle of an empty Arby's parking lot. It was sunset and there was a glare, so I stopped and turned around to check. Sure enough -- it was RuPaul. About six-foot-five in combat boots, he wore denim Daisy Dukes, a torn T-shirt, and a fluorescent yellow mohawk (this was well before the "sashay, shante" drag success). He was all alone, feet firmly planted, just staring off into the distance. Why was he there?

For some reason, I was transfixed. Maybe it was that seeing a gay black man in the South, claiming this sad patch of processed-beef-stench asphalt -- like a sublimely pissed-off Sly Stone declaring, "Fuck you for letting me be myself again!" -- was just about the most punk thing I'd ever witnessed. So I watched, until he finally turned and started striding down the sidewalk, mohawk held high. Never mind the bollocks, that's a sex pistol.

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