In true Rock N’ Roll fashion, punk rock is a vast conglomeration of previously existing genres, dumped into a fiery vat of attitude, and consumed by the individuals who are prepared to reject the mainstream and push conventional boundaries. Even the word “punk” has a number of definitions and interpretations, crafting it into a mystical term definable only on a person to person basis. With such a unique persona, it is far from shocking to learn that punk rock is founded off of the desire to reject the constraints of the traditional and embrace the freedom that resides within the unconventional. This fresh musical and cultural perspective brought forth by punk rock inspired a revolutionary do-it-yourself era, comprised of musicians, artists, writers, and enthusiasts who were intent on keeping punk rock alive and out of the disapproving grasps of the commercial mainstream.
To establish what it is that inspired punk rock’s do-it-yourself and anti-commercial mentality, it is imperative to first understand the historical context of the music that surrounded the time frame in which the punk rock movement was conceived. The specific date of birth for punk rock is up for debate, as punk is considered to be a way of life, undefinable, and ever changing. Though able to pinpoint a punk rock stance out of iconic historical figures as far back as Ludwig Van Beethoven, many consider the first remnants of modern punk to be 1950’s Rock N’ Roll. Sexuality, parental disapproval, often censored by the media; it could be claimed that Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis were some of the world’s initial punk rockers. Though that statement may be argued by some, it becomes apparent that many early 1970’s punk musicians acquired much of their musical and behavioral inspirations through a prior rebellious generation.
Following the 1950’s Rock N’ Roll revolution was the Swinging 60’s. Still heavily endowed with Rock music, the 60’s produced the outrageously impactful British Invasion. Another rock uprising that took the world by storm and rattled conventions, the British Invasion dawned legendary groups such as the Beatles, the Kinks, the Rolling Stones, and countless others who began to play the game of popular music with a cheeky attitude and fresh set of rules. The 60’s then led into a hippie revolution, where people began to push back against the establishment as well as celebrate the emergence of guitar god’s such as Jimi Hendrix. With the early 70’s exposing Glam Rock’s otherworldly persona and controversial experimental fashion, it is safe to say that music was undergoing a massive and influential transformation.
Despite this continuation in the celebration of rock music, this vast genre appeared far from obtainable for the average civilian to conquer, something incredibly rare, nearly god like. John Robb further explores this idea in his novel, Punk Rock: An Oral Historystating that,“the 1960’s hung over everything, a party that everyone heard about but nobody could get into” (1). Placed on a pedestal, unobtainable in the eyes of many, rock had transformed into an incredibly successful, yet exclusive club, with the majority of the world being nothing more than it’s passive consumers.
This feeling of inadequacy met with a burning desire to create is one of the fundamental foundational pillars of punk rock music that eventually led to the do-it-yourself revolution. With nothing to lose and a whole lot of empowerment to be gained, punk rockers thrived on loud and fast songs full of controversial lyrical content, all the while adorned in the most distinctive of garb. This unique approach to Rock N’ Roll crafted a subculture of its own, which was initially ignored by the mainstream media. Meaning, if punk rockers wanted to read about punk rock, they’d have to write about it themselves.
Fanzines, which are magazines typically produced by amateurs for fans of a particular performer or group, have had a powerful purpose within the world of punk rock music. Matt Grimes and Tim Will explored this theme within their piece “Punk Zines: ‘Symbols of Defiance’ from the Print to the Digital Age” stating that, “when punk emerged, fanzines soon became one of the main means through which the new subculture represented and constructed punk musical style and ethos, and they embodied the developing cultural practice of the new DIY culture in the way that they were produced and distributed” (289). Essentially, fanzines were the definition of do-it-yourself. Often written by hand or on a typewriter, these punk journalists would make copies of their material and hand out or sell them to like-minded individuals, creating their own source of punk rock media that embraced swear words, typing errors, and misspelling. Fanzines provided the punk sub-culture with a significant point of reference such as which bands to check out, what fashion was trending, and where exactly were the hippest venues.
To provide a direct example of one of these fanzines is to highlight Sniffin’ Gluewhich is often recognized as the first punk zine, debuting in 1976. Crafting its title from the lyrics of a Ramones song, “Sniffin’ Glue: and Other Rock’n’Roll Habits– indicated the intentionally anti-social stance of the editorial content, but also the place of the journal in a moment of celebrating rock’s earlier, rawer, approach to music-making” (Grimes, Will 289). Fanzines crafted a world of free press for punk rockers, a space where the content was written by punks for punks. It was pure, it was unfiltered, and it was absolutely do-it-yourself. Other popular fanzines to emerge after Sniffin’ Glue were Bombsite, Burnt Offering, Chainsaw, Communication Blur, Jamming, Love and Molotov Cocktails, Ripped & Torn, To Hell With Poverty andVague.
In addition to the do-it-yourself nature of fanzines, punk rock bands initially recorded and released music independently. In 1977, around the time period that punk rock had begun to hit the pavement, “major record labels controlled about 90 percent of the music industry within the United States” (O’Connor X). This staggering percentage of control is what inspired punk bands to continue traveling down this do-it-yourself road. It is also important to highlight that many major labels initially dismissed punk rock bands and their loud music mixed with eccentric dress as nothing more than an unfortunate passing fad, making independent recordings less of a choice and more of a necessity.
John Robb, writer and member of the punk band, the Membranes, recalls the first time he witnessed an independently made punk rock record, “we were at school and somebody brought in a single by a Manchester group called, the Buzzcocks. It was obviously a photo copied sleeve and we had never seen anything like that because record sleeves were always these big glossy…things that we thought some type of proper artist had done. They looked like they had just stuck it together themselves and we thought ‘wow, you can make your own records.” These early do-it-yourself records are what inspired others to join in on the punk rock roller coaster. Rock N’ Roll no longer seemed unobtainable or not for us, it was now possible for anyone with a guitar and a way in which to record.
This liberation of DIY records and independent labels was met with a controversial twist. Due to the inability to distribute in mass, selling 10,000 copies was considered punk rock gold, as opposed to the 500,000 copies sold to obtain commercial gold status. This meant that to stray from the mainstream was to also limit yourself in terms of an audience size and profit. For some, this was what punk rock was all about, staying out of the commercial lime light, crafting a specific niche for the people willing to put in the work to seek it out, but for others it was quite the opposite. Brian Cogan, author of “Do They Owe Us a Living? Of Course They Do!’ Crass, Throbbing Gristle, and Anarchy and Radicalism in Early English Punk Rock” stated that, “most punk bands felt that working within the system was a necessary compromise to get the massage of punk out into the masses…even the most rigorously independent labels have to deal with mid-level distribution systems to get their records into record stores” (78). As with all things punk rock, it was up to personal interpretation as how best to go about releasing music in the most authentic and punk appropriate fashion. Regardless of many punk bands eventually becoming signed to major labels, it was the DIY mentality and backbone that first allotted punk rock the opportunity of being accessible to the subculture through recordings, something that otherwise would not have occurred if they had only relied on corporate record labels.
Punk rock’s do-it-yourself mentality may have begun out of necessity, a mode to consume punk content and share punk knowledge within the subculture, but transitioned into a way of life, being, and form of empowerment. Through the means of fanzines, self-made albums, and independent record companies, punk rock and it’s DIY movement became an absolute revolution, pushing past notions of what made good or bad music. Instead, punks chose to endorse their own music when no one else would, relentlessly promoting what would become a cultural and musical phenomenon.
Cogan, Brian. “‘Do They Owe Us a Living? Of Course They Do!” Crass, Throbbing Gristle, andAnarchy and Radicalism in Early English Punk Rock.” Journal for the Study of Radicalism, vol. 1, no. 2, 2007, pp. 77–90. JSTOR, JSTOR,www.jstor.org/stable/41887578.
Grimes, Matt, and Tim Wall. Punk Zines: ‘Symbold of Defiance’ from the Print to the Digital Age. Manchester University Press, 2014.
Moran, Ian P. “Punk: the Do-It-Yourself Subculture.” Social Sciences Journal, vol. 10, no. 1, 2010, pp. 58.
O’Connor, Alan. Punk Record Labels and the Struggle for Autonomy: The Emergence of DIY. Lexington Books, 2008.
Punk: Attitude. Directed by Don Letts, 2005.
Robb, John, and Oliver Craske. Punk Rock: An Oral History. Independent Publishers Group, 2012.EBSCOhost,ezproxy.mtsu.edu/login?url+http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?d rect+true&db=e000xna&AN=552064&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
“TEDxSalford – John Robb – Punk Rock and DIY Creativity.” Youtube, uploaded by TEDx Talks, 12 April 2010, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=meHrnHjRRu8&t=166s.