“The ice age is coming, the sun is zooming in
Meltdown expected, the wheat is growin’ thin
Engines stop running, but I have no fear
‘Cause London is drowning, and I, I live by the river”
Such a scene was painted by The Clash in their song London Calling, an anthem for the emerging 1970s punk rock culture in Britain. Put on one of their records and you will notice that their songs speak of apocalyptic worlds, referencing death and destruction, distress and turmoil. Their words spoke to a generation that was rejecting the norms set out by their parents, angered by ‘the establishment’ (a general term for the government, powerful businesses, or institutionalized organizations) and pessimistic about the future. It was a subculture with a wide reach, particularly in cities where living conditions could be tough and work hard to come by.
Punk rock brought together people who had lost hope in values of society and governance at the time. Bands would form organically between friends with similar tastes in style and political opinions, and they would play gigs in old decrepit places within the city late at night. As the culture grew, however, performances became more public and the well liked bands would perform at hotspots in London like the Marquee club – an early Jazz club from the 50s. A quick clip of some footage outside the Marquee club can be seen here:
Notice the clothing and hairstyles of the people waiting in line. At it’s height, ‘punks’ were fairly recognizable in London from their fashion and their reputation for causing riots with or against other subcultures and the police.
Punks clashing with police in the streets of London (Image Source: Pinterest)
Punk rock culture upheld anti-establishment beliefs that shook London society from the 1970s to 1990s. At the time, middle class families whose sons and daughters were running off to catch the next show may have wondered how the movement began in the first place. But the answer to that question is a bit more complex than they may have realized. Evidence shows a long timeline of punk-like ideals that have taken on many forms throughout history.
Punk Culture Origins
Our story begins with an oddball named Diogenes who lived from 404 to 323 B.C.. Diogenes was once described by Plato as “a Socrates gone Mad.” Throughout his life he continuously got into problems with local authorities for behaving indecently (once he was caught eating at the market! A big taboo where he lived, in the city of Sinope). Eventually, Diogenes took to his ideas of rejecting societal norms so strongly that he purposefully lived on the streets, begging for food, and sleeping wherever he pleased.
Diogenes did not have many followers during his time, but his ideas lived on and have been revisited again and again by philosophers. Today he is known as one of the first documented person with anti-establishment views — what appears to be an early vestige of punk idealism.
Entering the medieval era, waves of revolt against the upper class by peasants were brought about by individuals who rejected the unfair power structure of serfdom and called for changes in society. Peasant rebellions were built on the principles of anarchism — the abolishment of traditional government and power systems — and they happened fairly regularly all over the world. And for good reason too. Just imagine starving of famine and knowing that your landlord is enjoying roast beef with his children in the manor just down the road. The overwhelming majority of lower class citizens would reach a point where revolt, even with extremely limited resources, was actually a reasonable option.
While the exact thoughts of rebellious peasants are not recorded (the vast majority of them did not have the opportunity to learn how to read or write), we do find traces of punk-like thinking in the literature of the upper class later on in the 16th century. For example, consider this line from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet:
“What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals! And yet to me what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me—“ (2.2.308-313)
Here Hamlet describes the complete meaningless of life despite its temporary beauty. While Shakespeare himself was likely not a complete pessimist like Hamlet, it does shed light into the doubts he was having about the purpose of life. Especially in the midst of recovering from the death of his son, Hamnet, 6 years before.
Skipping over many resurrections of rebellion, challenging the status quo, and total uprisings, we come to 1883 to meet Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche created the philosophical framework for what many people before him had been trying to pinpoint throughout history. He developed the concept of nihilism — the rejection of finding meaning in life and the acceptance of the inevitable collapse of humanity. In his own words:
“Nihilism is . . . not only the belief that everything deserves to perish; but one actually puts one’s shoulder to the plough; one destroys”
Take another look at the lyrics of London Calling at the beginning of this article and you may find some eerie similarities.
Music began to dive into some of these dark ideas of nihilism and anarchy in the post-WWII era. While new genres of music had been making parents angry for decades before this point, it was bands like The Doors, The Who or The Velvet Underground that began to write lyrics that broke boundaries in popular music. Take this excerpt of the Doors’ The End:
“This is the end, beautiful friend
This is the end, my only friend, the end
Of our elaborate plans, the end
Of everything that stands, the end
No safety or surprise, the end
I’ll never look into your eyes, again”
This song got them into a lot of trouble with nightclubs and radio shows (mostly because of the profanity later on in the song) but it didn’t stop their fan base from growing.
Eventually the music scene developed into 1970s punk rock as the support for the movement grew along with an influx of new bands like Misfits, Ramones, and Sex Pistols. Into the 1980s, the punk scene evolved into other forms that fused genres of rock, metal, jazz, psychedelia and experimental music. The centre stage of post-punk countercultures moved from downtown London to the Monsters of Rock music festival of 1991 to a mix of underground bars and large scale music venues as nihilistic music merged alongside other genres like pop.
Does the punk movement still exist today?
Well yes and no. Certainly the styles and culture of punk does not have the same influence as it once did in the 1960s and 1970s but its ideals live on. An interesting example of punk ideology still having its influences in popular culture was brought up by the radio program Radiolab in which they discovered a video of Jay-Z wearing a leather jacket with the words ‘in the dust of this planet’ on the back – the exact title of a book on the philosophy of nihilism written by philosopher and professor Eugene Thacker many years before (who in fact did not expect anyone would actually read it).
Image Source: SparksHouse
Why do these themes continue to pop up in history? Modern philosophers believe that by forming culture that accepts these dark, depressing thoughts we can learn to accept them and be brave with the idea that “nothing really matters.”
After all, what we create as music is an expression of the fears we have about life. Sharing the thoughts that isolate us is perhaps the best way to overcome them.