PUNK 45: The Roots of Underground Punk

Wondering Sound Staff

By Wondering Sound Staff

on 12.10.13 in Spotlights

[Soul Jazz Records' new Punk 45 album charts the rise of underground punk across the USA between 1973-80, and features seminal, obscure and rare punk and proto-punk 45 singles from the likes of Pere Ubu, the Zeros, X Blank X, the Normals, the Pagans, the Lewd and many others.

The album coincides with the release of Soul Jazz Records' massive new deluxe 400-page book Punk 45: The Singles Cover Art of Punk 1976-80, edited and compiled by Jon Savage (author of England's Dreaming, the seminal tome on punk) and Stuart Baker (founder of Soul Jazz Records). The book includes interviews with key figures from the birth of punk including Richard Hell, Seymour Stein (Sire Records), Geoff Travis (Rough Trade) and Peter Saville (Factory), as well as exhaustive biographies on the hundreds of bands that feature in the book.

To celebrate this benchmarking release, we asked Stuart Baker of Soul Jazz to explain why the 45s here, from early proto-punk, garage and no wave bands, definitively capture the spirit of punk. — Ed.]

While punk essentially began in New York in the mid ’70s, with the Ramones, Blondie and Television, its lineage dates back to 1960s garage rock, and a huge number of American bands were to prove significant in its birth. New York gave rise to the Velvet Underground in the late ’60s and the New York Dolls in the early ’70s. Detroit produced the definitive proto-punk groups, the Stooges and the MC5. In Cleveland, Ohio, the Electric Eels (whose violent music would remain unreleased until well after the birth of punk) would kickstart a whole scene of proto-punk and punk bands, including Rocket from the Tomb, Pere Ubu, the Dead Boys, the Mirrors, the Styrenes and more. The Flamin’ Groovies in San Francisco, a garage band out of sync with the West Coast acid rock of the day, would also become a reference point at the start of punk in Britain.

Cleveland, Detroit, Los Angeles, Akron, San Francisco, New Orleans, Seattle, Philadelphia…After its birth in New York, punk quickly traveled from city to city like a demented Greyhound bus. Bands formed and scenes emerged, inspired by newspaper, fanzine and television reports of the punk movement in New York and London.

But in America, unless you were one of the seven or so in the first wave of punk groups from New York, the major record labels were not interested. And after the media coverage of the Sex Pistols swear-fest on the Today program, broadcast in December 1976, coverage of punk in the mainstream swiftly shut down. Consequently, as the only way to get music out to fans, a mosh pit of do-it-yourself independent record labels sprang up, releasing music from thriving local punk scenes.

This album celebrates that scene’s lightening rod journey across America, and the bands that shaped the sound of the American punk underground.

Excerpted from Punk 45: The Singles Cover Art of Punk 1976-80, edited by Jon Savage and Stuart Baker:

David Thomas of Pere Ubu on punk’s influences:

“We listened to everything we could get our hands on. We were fortunate to have great record stores in town and many of us worked in them. If the store you worked in, or shopped in, didn’t have the latest Popul Vuh album then you better not show your face around. If you hadn’t been over to Jimmy’s to utterly consume and digest the split-channel Beatles tapes, then you were a flatworm. If you hadn’t listened to ‘Summertime Blues’ full blast, then you may as well live in Omaha. If you hadn’t snuck into La Cave to hear the Velvet Underground in ’68 then you’d better have heard the bootlegs from those who did.”

Glenn Branca on no-wave New York punk after the explosion of bands like the Ramones, Talking Heads, Blondie and Television:

“We were all broke. We couldn’t make records. We all would have done albums if we could have — but after the Sex Pistols, the labels wouldn’t touch anything that smelled like punk. Sire was bought up by Warners and moved its headquarters to London. All of the small New York labels went out of business.”

Seymour Stein on the term “punk”:

“I don’t like any terms. I’ll tell you the terms I like. Pop, country and western, rhythm and blues, jazz, classical. I considered what the Ramones were doing, back in the mid ’70s, as new music. And that’s what it was. And, of course, people like to put labels on things. What’s bad about labels is that it marginalizes it. You might think I’m crazy, but when I heard the Ramones, I heard pop songs.”

Geoff Travis (Rough Trade) on the DIY ethic:

“We were really post-punk. DIY post-punk — we were too young to get involved with the first set of great punk groups. I mean, had we started two years earlier, and had our distribution up and running by then, we may have been in a position to say to [Clash manager]Bernie Rhodes ‘Why don’t you work with us?’

There was a French group that we really liked called Metal Urbain. We wrote to them and bought 50 copies of their first single, “Panik,” and they were so amazed that anyone would buy their record. One day they all turned up in London asking if we would listen to a tape of their new single and help them release it. We said yes, and that’s how the label started.”

David Brown (Dangerhouse Records) on Los Angeles punk vs. New York punk:

“I detested the Dolls, Television and Blondie in particular. I had known Dee Dee Ramone when I was in college just as some freak you’d run into on the street. The Ramones were so stylized that their record sales flamed out almost immediately, but their image and persona lived on — even for people who had never seen them play. Again, everyone wanted to be David Bowie or Lou Reed which I found a sad situation in the extreme…When the Metrosquad [Brown's band] finally got to play the repulsive Mudd Club in 1980, we used it as an excuse to harass the crowd as much as possible, which was much more fun than actually succeeding with the NY ‘scene’ — which would never have happened anyway.”

Punk 45: The Singles Cover Art of Punk 1976-80, edited by Jon Savage and Stuart Baker, is available from Soul Jazz Records.