The history of punk: How 3 chords changed the world

Before it changed the world, we have to know how punk came to be.

Punk’s ingenuity, simplicity and timelessness have made it a pillar of musical expression. What is the three-chord trick? Punk music, just like pop, followed a simple template. I-IV-V. That’s the one-four-five chord progression. Not only is it catchy but it is simple, leaving room for the message, which is what punk is all about.

Whether it be Kanye West declaring himself a punk, the sound of Nirvana or hearing a Ramones song and singing along, punk has become more than just music. It’s a way of life.

For something so important and influential, it begs to wonder how it came to be. Who made it happen and how did they do it…

the angels
Photo by Roberta Bayley

Eddie Cochran and Little Richard

Punk: Eddie
Photo: GAB Archive

Despite being tragically killed at just 21 years old while on tour in England, Eddie Cochran’s legend is firm. Not just his image, but his sound was unlike any other. On the track, Somethin’ Else, Cochran’s swagger, sneer and especially, guitar sound, was an inspiration to many. These include Johnny Ramone of the Ramones and Brian Setzer of the Stray Cats.

Punk: LR
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives

Similarly, Little Richard’s image, voice and subject matter of lyrics influenced a generation. As the first man to openly wear makeup on and off the stage, his sexually suggestive lyrics and persona in general paved the way for other performers in his wake, especially in punk. This includes David Bowie, Lemmy and Iggy Pop.

Iggy Pop

Photo: Barry Plummer

Speaking of Iggy, born James Newell Osterberg Jr, but now fondly called The Godfather of Punk, has an influence unmatched by any other. Inspired by Little Richard, Jim Morrison and James Brown, Iggy’s energy and scream heralded a new era of rock n roll. It wasn’t about how good it was but if it was honest or not.

It was Morrison’s influence that showed Iggy that one’s performance was important, but their words were essential. Morrison’s poetry and texture within his words were pivotal for Iggy. And it was Iggy’s lyrics like: “I’m a street walking cheetah with a heart full of napalm,” from Search and Destroy, 1971, that gave the drive for later punks to pour as much poison into their words.

The Velvet Underground

The velvet underground
Photo: Gerard Malanga

Similar to Iggy Pop, few bands have been as influential on music as, The Velvet Underground. The band’s completely individual and unique sound paved the way for punk, goth, shoegaze, industrial, art rock, indie, noise, and endless others. To them, there were no rules and it was beautiful.

While their debut, The Velvet Underground & Nico, from 1967 is their classic, it was White Light/White Heat, 1968, that caused a catalyst in music. Overtly conscious to make the nastiest record ever made, the sludge and grime lasts for days when listening to it. Its influence is unparalleled.

David Bowie

Photo: Mick Rock

One of Lou Reed’s fans was David Bowie. Like the Underground, an entire article could be spent on Bowie. However, suffice to say, his continuation of muddy guitars with influences from his work in theatre as a mime, allowed rock music to become theatre.

While Ziggy Stardust transformed live performance and ignited the imagination of teenagers all over the world, he still had guitar player Mick Ronson. Songs such as Hang on to Yourself and Suffragette City, from The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, have become staples in punk and hard rock n roll catalogues alike. Their simplicity and energy mixed with the performance inspired the Sex Pistols, Ramones and The Germs.

New York Dolls

Photo: Michael Ochs Archive

While they didn’t reach the world like Bowie, the New York Doll’s influence is just as powerful. Speaking for men who dressed as women 24/7 in 1971.. they sure had balls! New York City in the early 70s was a genuinely dangerous place if you were invisible, much less dressing in drag and proudly doing so.

Their sound of 3 chords with excitement fuelled New York and ignited a new form of music. Not simply wearing makeup and going on stage, but living in it every day. Where Bowie and Marc Bolan were tasteful, albeit peculiar to some extent, the Dolls were sleaze.

Before their demise, they were shortly managed by British manager and designer, Malcolm McLaren. McLaren had arrived in New York on business before managing the Dolls and taking their sound, attitude and image back to England. There, the Sex Pistols were formed.

Their 1973 self-titled debut, is firmly in the collection of most punk fans and hard rock fans, alike. While the legendary band influenced the Sex Pistols, The Damned and Hanoi Rocks, there would never have been a Mötley Crüe or Guns N’ Roses without them either. Morrissey also credits them as his favourite group.

Their bravery and influence will never go away.

Kraftwerk / Neu!

Courtesy of: Fröhling/Kraftwerk

Both from Germany, Kraftwerk and Neu’s influence reaches well beyond their German borders. To say there wouldn’t be music as it is today without them, is the understatement of this article. This electronic quartet became the music, decades before Daft Punk did it. They turned themselves into robots to further add depth to this otherworldly music.

While the music was unlike anything anyone heard, the quartet’s history as an early prog rock band allowed them to use pop song structures. So while the music sounded new, you hummed along like any pop song. It was also their uniformed image. Red shirts and black ties became the image of the time to associate yourself with this new music.

Along with this influence, was that on hip hop. As the new decade of 1980 was welcomed, emerging DJs and rappers, notably Dr Dre, would sample Kraftwerk’s songs. The songs Trans-Europe Express and Autobahn became the foundation of hip hop along with samples from the one and only, James Brown.

Photo by: Thomas Dinger

The band Neu! started in Kraftwerk with members Klaus Dinger and Michael Rother leaving the band to pursue different musical interests. However, while they left the band, synths followed them. Despite Kraftwerk remaining in a 3-4 minute pop song structure, Neu! wanted to explore longer terrain.

While the songs they began to write remained poetically simple, their songs would become hypnotic and last well over 10 minutes. A repeating chord structure played delicately over and over and over, and before long, it felt like you were in the future. Hearing this and knowing it was done as early as 1972 feels like a magic trick.

While both bands aren’t listed with punk’s birth, the sounds of the two bands, respectively, were merged by others who felt similar but used punk’s simplicity to write songs of their own. Thanks to these two bands, synths became cool.

It was also the duo’s individuality. In a very punk way, the length of the songs and defiance to remain true to their vision allowed others to follow. Neu! was a significant influence on David Bowie during his Berlin Trilogy. 

Joy Divison
Photo by: Rex

Suddenly, Joy Division, Magazine and Human League began using punk’s anger with a depth from the chasm of synths layers – and the efficacy of college shirts with punk music. One man joined this group to introduce synthpop.

Gary Numan

history of punk
Credit: Alarmy

While technically, after punk’s inception, Gary Numan’s impact on what happened with synths was iconic. While Kraftwerk forged the way, Numan made it street and accessible. It was 1978 and Numan was in the studio with his first group, Tubeway Army, when he found a Minimoog synth.

Speaking to The Guardian, the singer explained the recording of his debut album: “That was when I saw my first ever synthesiser, a Minimoog. When I turned it on, the sound blew me away. In that moment, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I converted all our guitar-based punk songs into electro-punk numbers.

It was in that moment that synthpop was created. As Numan used punk’s simplicity and rhythm with a synth; its mechanical sound became a new reference point. Despite having the same rhythm as a guitar, it sounded nothing like punk. His image was also heavily credited with what would become goth in just a few years with Bauhaus.

Following this pivotal step in music, Depeche Mode, Soft Cell and the Human League would all follow this new electronic music as the 1980s became the decade of such music. The song, Listen to the Sirens, exemplifies this perfectly.

Punk’s ‘no future’ is now here in the future

‘No future’ became a slogo of the English punk movement that started as a reference to The Sex Pistols’ God Save The Queen but, here we are, 35 years later and punk is still hanging on.

While punk’s explosion continues to be felt and loved, its level of influence continues, and will always evolve. Forget about dyed hair, safety pins and leather jackets, as long as it’s honest, it’ll work. The freedom of no rules will always spark one person’s imagination for many years to come.

Let’s see what they come up with.