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Johnny Rotten and Steve Jones from the Sex Pistols, Copyright: picture-alliance/Photoshot
Johnny Rotten and Steve Jones from the Sex PistolsImage: picture-alliance/Photoshot

How the punk movement was launched 40 years ago

Heike Mund / kbm
September 20, 2016

They were known for their colorful Mohawks and anti-establishment attitude. After the Sex Pistols played at London's 100 Club Punk Festival in 1976, the budding punk scene was thrust into the mainstream.

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It was all a bit spontaneous - spur of the moment. The British concert organizer Ron Watts had met Malcom McLaren, the manager of the punk bank Sex Pistols and booked the guys as prominent headliners for a punk festival he'd planned in fall 1976.

As warm-up acts, he'd booked The Clash and Siouxsie and the Banshees - punk bands that had just come together. McLaren also got a few unknown groups from working-class areas on board, as well as French punkers Stinky Toys.

And so, the 100 Club Punk Festival was born - and, with it, the punk movement that would last into the late 1970s and still influence music today.

The birth of the punk movement

The 100 Club Punk Festival took place over two days in London's Oxford Street. There was plenty of alcohol and no shortage of drugs. There were even a few injuries among the visitors.

Iggy Pop, Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa
The godfather of punk, Iggy Punk was a role model for many punk bandsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Most of the bands were totally unknown. But the punk musicians who appeared at the festival quickly came to dominate Britain's independent music scene. Wild improvisations and throaty vocals embodied the attitude of an autonomous young generation that didn't have a chance at finding a job - and not just in Britain, but throughout Europe.

"No future" was the motto of many bands - and cans of beer their daily response. The punks' stage outfits were daring and unconventional, with a lot of black leather, dog collars around their necks, safety pins in their ears and flourescent-colored Mohawk haircuts.

The British establishment was shocked. But the rebellious youth there and in continental Europe had found its new heroes. Punk bands sprouted up everywhere.

'I don't want to turn into my old man'

By the summer of 1977, most music magazines had already featured the best known punk bands on their covers. The successful Sex Pistols even managed to turn the signing of their record contract into a high-profile press event - complete with police security.

Showmanship and shock factor weren't new with the Sex Pistols. Long before their debut, American singer and guitarist Iggy Pop, the "godfather of punk," slashed his chest live on stage with a glass shard.

What was new, however, was the level of aggression and desire for destruction that had developed. In this regard, the punk movement had long surpassed the long-haired hippie generation and well-established bands.

Supertramp, the Rolling Stones, Genesis, Pink Floyd and Emerson, Lake & Palmer set the tone in the music charts during the mid-1970s. Many of the gurus of the 60s who had broken from the mainstream - Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison from The Doors - were long dead.

The group Sex Pistols, signing a new recording contract with A&M Records outside Buckingham Palace in London, (l/r) Johnny Rotten, Steve Jones, Paul Cook, new bass player Syd Vicious and the group's manager Malcom McLaren, Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa/PA
In 1977, the Sex Pistols made a show of signing a deal with A&M for their provocative album 'Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols'Image: picture-alliance/dpa/PA

"Especially among the hippies, there were many that had an extreme reaction to my hair. For them, the world was divided into short-haired nerds and long-haired cool people. So I didn't fit into their dialectical world view," said German punk guitarist Gode.

Disdain, desperation and destruction dominated the punk musicians' protests against their parents' conservative viewpoint and society's penchant for consumerism. "I don't want to turn into my old man," sang the German band Ton, Steine, Scherben at the end of the 1970s.

'It was so much fun to provoke these people'

The fashion industry quickly recognized the commercial potential of the punk lifestyle. Fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, a punk herself, even integrated distinctive punk trademarks into her collections. And in late 1977, fashion magazine "Vogue" presented Sex Pistols lead singer Johnny Rotten on its cover - fully decked out in his punk garb.

The media establishment, including in Germany, jumped on the bandwagon and published long reports about the punk movement and individual bands. Germany's most popular youth magazine, "Bravo," sold posters of the Sex Pistols, the Nina Hagen Band and local punks Die Toten Hosen.

Vivienne Westwood with a poster she designed with the song title Anarchy in the UK by The Sex Pistols is at right, Copyright: AP Photo/Alastair Grant
Punk fashion queen Vivienne Westwood with a poster she designed with the song title 'Anarchy in the UK' by the Sex PistolsImage: AP

"That really fascinated me. These guys looked totally different. Short, funny, grimy hair and torn clothes," said the guitarist for German punk band Male. "And then there was a funny article about punk in the newspaper. I didn't even know that that was punk."

Chrislo Hass - who played synthesizer for Minus Delta, Deutsche Amerikanische Freundschaft (DAF), and later founded the cult band Liaison Dangereuses -, explained what motivated the punk movement: "The 70s were the epitome of petite bourgeoisie. That's why it was so much fun to provoke these people."

From outsiders to mainstream stars

Four decades later, punk is a pillar of the mainstream culture industry. Elements of the scene can be found in the fashion, design and music scenes.

Nina Hagen at a demonstration in Vienna in 1979, Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa
Nina Hagen, pictured in the late 70s, used her opera skills for punk soundsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The amateurs that shocked the music world back then with harsh sounds and provocative texts have since split into subgenres like New Wave or punk rock. Bands like the Tote Hosen are counted among the world's most successful musicians and have sold millions of records.

In honor of the 40th anniversary of the 100 Club Punk Festival, a series of events - including film screenings, discussions, readings and exhibitions - are currently planned in London's most prestigious cultural institutions, including the British Library.

The three-chord minimalism that characterized the punk sound has often been copied and borrowed by genres like Neue Deutsche Welle, hard rock, ska, metal and techno. Die Toten Hosen, like punk grand dame Nina Hagen, have hung on to their eccentric live performances - and done well with them. Today, they both belong to the establishment.

Campino from Tote Hosen at Rock am Ring 2015, Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa/T. Frey
Campino from Tote Hosen shows he's still got it at Rock am Ring 2015Image: picture-alliance/dpa/T. Frey
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