It began with a handful of East Berlin teens who heard the Sex Pistols on a British military radio broadcast to troops in West Berlin, and it ended with the collapse of the East German dictatorship.
Punk rock was a life-changing discovery. The buzz-saw guitars, the messed-up clothing and hair, the rejection of society, and the DIY approach to building a new one: in their gray surroundings, where everyone’s future was preordained by some communist apparatchik, punk represented a revolutionary philosophy—quite literally, as it turned out.
As these young kids tried to form bands and became more visible, security forces—including the dreaded secret police, the Stasi—targeted them. They were spied on by friends and even members of their own families; they were expelled from schools and fired from jobs; they were beaten by police and imprisoned.
But instead of conforming, the punks fought back, playing an indispensable role in the underground movements that helped bring down the Berlin Wall.
This according to Burning down the Haus: Punk rock, revolution, and the fall of the Berlin Wall by Tim Mohr (Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2018).
Today we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall! Above, punks gathering on Alexanderplatz in East Berlin in 1981; below, the iconic punk anthem Überall wohin’s dich führt by Planlos, recorded live in 1983.
BONUS: The East German punk scene is reimagined in the 2001 film Wie Feuer und Flamme; the group in the clip is performing Überall wohin’s dich führt.
Notoriously difficult to categorize as both a genre of music and as a social movement, riot grrrl has come to be acknowledged as one of the most significant crossovers between politics and sound: feminism as music, music as feminism.
Riot grrrl embraced and propagated feminism through its music, lyrics, performances, zines, and everyday activities. It complicated the notion of gender-based aesthetics in both music and in fashion, demanding attention and pointing out the hypocrisies present in our social norms. In addition, the music and movement worked to expose the social and personal concerns of girls that were habitually excluded from the mainstream, including sexual abuse, anorexia, and body image.
Through its incorporation of feminism, riot grrrl attempted to give a voice to girls, allowing for a self-representation that had never been accessible before. Yet their efforts at reappropriation also led to some alarming contradictions in their feminism. Riot grrrl’s use of irony and reworking of traditional gender roles and mores in some cases actually acted to reinforce those culturally sexist ideas of women. These complications deepened the political and social implications of a group of women trying to re-size control over how gender played out in our cultural landscape.
This according to “I predict a riot: Riot grrrls and the contradictions of feminism” by Shayna Maskell, an essay included in The Routledge history of social protest in popular music (New York: Routledge, 2013, pp. 184–97).
Above and below, the pioneering riot grrrl band Bikini Kill in the early 1990s.
The Kominas is a Pakistani-American Desi punk band known for its iconic role within the punk-inspired, Muslim-affiliated music culture self-labeled as taqwacore.
Since its national tour in 2006 the group has been creating a radically translocal social geography comprised of musicians, listeners, artists, filmmakers, and bloggers on- and off-line. The Kominas concocts a transnational sound, combining elements of Punjabi and punk music, while on social media the band members contemplate their troubled sense of national belonging and build a diasporic space that is digitally produced and unified by minoritarian politics.
This according to “Mapping The Kominas’ sociomusical transnation: Punk, diaspora, and digital media” by Wendy F. Hsu, an essay included in 2nd Inter-Asia Popular Music Studies Conference (Asian journal of communication XXIII/4  pp. 386–402).
Below, live in Morocco in 2017.
Queercore is a loose community of like-minded individuals who have developed a culture of fanzines, films, art, and music. Initiated in Canada and the U.S. during the mid-1980s, queercore spread throughout North America and Europe during the 1990s and 2000s.
The movement was inspired by feminist, postmodern, and queer theories that rejected binary understandings of sexual identity as homosexual/heterosexual and gender identity as man/woman. These theories were put into punk practice to confront heterosexist society.
Central to queercore are all-girl bands whose music confronts lesbian invisibility, misogyny, homophobia, and sexual violence, and who create vital spaces and communities for different ways of doing and being queer. These bands and artists draw on discourses of girlhood, femininity, womanhood, lesbianism, and queerness within radical music-making, lyrics, and performances affiliated with DIY queer culture.
This according to “Queercore: Fearless women” by Val Rauzier, an essay included in Women make noise: Girl bands from Motown to the modern (Twickenham: Supernova books, 2010, pp. 238–58). Above, Team Dresch, one of the bands discussed in the article, in the 1990s; below, one of the band’s more recent performances.
From her time as a young performance poet in New York in the late 1960s to her current position as punk rock’s éminence grise, Patti Smith has foregrounded the image of the poet as privileged seer.
Smith’s romantic impulses can be viewed within the context of her activity in the Poetry Project at St Mark’s Church, the preeminent public face of the East Village poetry scene of the 1960s and 1970s. Her complex negotiations between her understanding of the poet as visionary and the adamantly playful, diffuse, and collaborative aesthetic characterizing downtown New York’s poetic community fed into the development of her performative stance as proto-punk rock icon.
This according to “‘Nor did I socialise with their people’: Patti Smith, rock heroics and the poetics of sociability” by Daniel Kane (Popular music XXXI/1 [January 2012] pp. 105–23).
Today is Smith’s 70th birthday! Below, her iconic 1974 recording of Hey Joe.
In his classic Subculture: The meaning of style (London: Methuen, 1979) Dick Hebdige addressed the first wave of 1970s punk rock aesthetics in Britain, discussing the contours of a movement that was somewhere between a pop fad and a larger political crisis. By violating a set of social codes in their distinctive ways, said Hebdige, punks had the effect of “presenting themselves…as villainous clowns…treated at different times as threats to public order (or) as harmless buffoons.”
Other contemporaneous observers expressed their perceptions in somewhat similar language. In one of her early dispatches on punk, the British rock journalist Caroline Coon described Captain Sensible of The Damned as having “a front as benevolently mad as a village idiot’s” and the Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten as “a disgraced Angel Gabriel”. Elsewhere, Tom Carson suggested that we view The Ramones in light of “the attractiveness of the comic loser” who is “the closest thing we have to the idea of the holy fool.”
These ideas are certainly undeveloped, but they are not haphazard. They indicate brief, intuitive flashes by the authors that their subjects of concern bear a resemblance to what one could call the sacred clown—an umbrella term for a cast of cultural archetypes marked by marginalia, shame, and destitution, paradoxically expressing sanctification and profanity, stupidity and sagacity, and menace and mirth.
This according to “Reading early punk as secularized sacred clowning” by Lane Van Ham (Journal of popular culture XLII/2 [April 2009] pp. 318–338).
Below, Captain Sensible in action.
Working with a top collector and specialist in the field, RILM has created a new document type abbreviated JZ, standing for Journal Zine—zine being the recognized short version of fanzine, which refers to the self-published fan magazines that proliferated in the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s (when the Internet made them largely obsolete).
Much like the thriving music-journal culture that developed in 19th-century Europe, these low-circulation publications were produced and consumed by key players in the music cultures they took as their subject; today they serve as primary sources that provide valuable insights into the subcultures that shaped the sound of the late 20th century (in the case of punk rock, it was the New York-based zine Punk that provided the name for the nascent musical movement).
We are in the first stage of entering JZ records that give bibliographic information and detailed summaries of key zines in popular music history. A growing number of universities have begun acquiring collections of these important documents.
Above, Joey Ramone, drawn by John Holstrom for Punk #3 (April 1976; click to enlarge). Below, the Ramones at Max’s Kansas City the same year.
Zehn kleine Jägermeister by the punk band Die Toten Hosen, which led the German charts in 1996, is a children’s counting song musically and textually referring to the British-derived Zehn kleine Negerlein and the U.S. Ten little Indians, in which the original set of ten members disappears one at a time through mishaps that are either their own fault or purely accidental.
The ten glasses of Jägermeister, a popular German liqueur, disappear in the obvious and banal fashion; ultimately, the song evokes a meeting between death and the picture of an infantile typical German whose behavior is driven purely by greed, and seems to sound the possibility that the German people could vanish altogether.
This according to “Doitsu no hittokyoku o yomu: Zehn kleine Jägermeister no baai” by Okamura Saburō (Goken fōramu VII [October 1997] pp. 1–23). Below, Die Toten Hosen brings it.
In 2012 Intellect launched Punk & post-punk (ISSN 2044-1983; EISSN 2044-3706), a journal for academics, artists, journalists, and the wider cultural industries.
Placing punk and its progeny at the heart of interdisciplinary investigation, it is the first forum of its kind to explore this rich and influential topic in both historical and critical theoretical terms. The journal is edited by Philip Kiszely and Alex Ogg.
Related article: Patti Smith and Rimbaud
Patti Smith’s direct assimilation of Arthur Rimbaud’s work into hers presents a case of cultural cross-fertilization in which the poetry of a foreign high-cultural figure enters into and influences a popular and countercultural discourse, illustrating how a nonacademic reading of a canonical text can help to produce a musical style that disseminates a message of social deviance.
Smith has foregrounded her debt to Rimbaud in several ways, explicitly referring to him as her major poetic influence and participating in a hermeneutic activity as she transformed his texts into her own. The poet has served as Smith’s most credible archetype of subversive behavior, and his work has provided the richest source for the development of her innovative aesthetic practices.
This according to “Rimbaud and Patti Smith: Style as social deviance” by Carrie Jaurès Noland (Critical inquiry XXI/3 [Spring 1995] pp. 581–610). Below, Smith performs Rock n roll nigger, one of the songs analyzed by Noland, in 2011; listen for Rimbaud’s name around 3:20.
Related article: Punk & post-punk