How Punk Works

By: Chris Opfer  | 

A Tale of Two Cities: A History of Punk

Patti Smith at CBGB
NYC's "punk poet laureate" Patti Smith (seen here performing with Lenny Kaye from the Patti Smith Group in 1975) made her first appearance at CBGB in 1974. Richard E. Aaron/Redferns/Getty Images

Punk's history is also a story of two cities — New York and London — where a similar sound and aesthetic took hold on largely parallel paths. That is until the Ramones and The Damned hopped in different directions across the Atlantic in the late '70s.

The roots began to form with proto-punk groups of the late '70s. Iggy Pop is often hailed as the "godfather of punk," thanks to the raw, wild sound that he helped capture as a front man for The Stooges. MC5 was a short-lived collaboration whose loud garage rock sound and radical political bent is credited with shaping what was to come next.


Both The Stooges and MC5 came out of Michigan, but it was the Big Apple where punk rock found its home. CBGB quickly became the movement's living room.

The late CBGB owner Hilly Kristal initially envisioned the East Village venue as a country, bluegrass and blues spot when he opened its doors in 1973. Within two years, CBGB became a musical flophouse of sorts for New York City musicians of a wide range of rock stripes. That includes seminal '70s rock bands Television, Blondie and Talking Heads, as well as punk rockers like the Ramones, Mink DeVille, Dead Boys and Misfits.

That's not to mention Patti Smith. NYC's "punk poet laureate" made her first appearance at CBGB in 1974 in the crowd watching a Television concert. Less than a year later, she was she was sharing the stage with the band during a seven-week residency that spawned much of the material for her debut album, "Horses."

"CBGB was the ideal place to sound a clarion call," Smith wrote in her 2010 memoir, "Just Kids." Andersen says Smith served as a bridge between the music of the '60s that preceded punk and what came later in the '80s. When she sang "We created it, let's take it over" on 1975's "My Generation," Smith was speaking for a generation of punk rockers who saw the music of the '50s and '60s move from rebel rock to big business, he says.

"There is a sense of the collapse of the rock culture," Andersen says. "Rock is business as usual and the radical politics of the '60s have proven illusory." The people who turned up at CBGB "were all are trying to have another stab at doing something raw and real."

Other venues like Max's Kansas City, Tier 3 and Club 82 also served as punk havens, but CBGB remained the mecca. So much so that it was the first American venue British punk band The Damned hit when they came stateside in 1977.

The Ramones played their first United Kingdom show less than a year earlier, an interestingly timed Independence Day gig at the Roundhouse in London. They met members of the Sex Pistols and The Clash, a pair of bands who would be the face of the nascent British punk rock scene, at a follow up performance the following night.

"Something analogous is happening in London at this point," Andersen says. "The Sex Pistols are the spark that ignites the dynamite and The Clash is where the politics come into focus. The reverberations quickly became global."