Performing arts helped craft the essence of punk; in return, punk has affected contemporary developments in the performing arts, too. Those performers that combine theater, music, and dance are sometimes called a “triple threat”, and punk bands use all this and more, often adding comedy, gesture, vocalization, and posture to their repertoire of live performance skills. More than any other music genre before it or since, punk is—first and foremost—a performing art.
Punk rock is characteristically performative due to factors of both nature and nurture. Its primary period of inspiration was the mid-1950s when rock hit heights of visual excitement rarely reached thereafter. Although there are two decades separating Little Richard, Elvis Presley, and Jerry Lee Lewis from the progressive rock, disco, and singer-songwriters of the mid-1970s, the contrast of performance styles dominating the two eras suggests little connecting tissue.
In their more immediate predecessors, punks were gifted an array of antagonists against which to act out their contrarian nature. Whereas progressive rockers were invariably static on stage, studiously attending to their instruments, punks used movement and positioning as means of breaking down the symbolic and literal distances between artist and audience; whereas singer-songwriters often sat on stools, exuding a stillness that reflected the contemplative seriousness of their lyrical ponderings, punks acted out their rage, scorn, and frustration by physically manifesting these extreme feelings; and whereas disco prioritized machines over humans, its “artists” invariably existing as nothing more than a front for a production team, punk bands were tacitly neo-Luddite, parading primal human behavior in poses not seen on rock stages since the mid-50s.
What separated punk from mid-’70s rock and pop had as much to do with performance styles as with music, and nowhere was this more apparent than at CBGBs, punk rock’s earliest laboratory of live experimentation. Patti Smith, Suicide, Blondie, and the Heartbreakers brought visual intrigue to that scene, but it was the Ramones that most grabbed the attention of the original punk base.
Punk magazine founder John Holstrom notes the dramatic irony at the core of the band’s minimalist aesthetic when he comments, “The Ramones were very theatrical because they didn’t move” (Double, p.39). Just as Antonin Artaud and Bertholt Brecht broke through to audiences by deconstructing the rules of theater, so too the Ramones called attention to rock conventions by inverting or parodying them.
As if capturing the classic rock pose in freeze-frame, the Ramones carried out an ironic choreography on stage, fixed to their spots like statues, legs spread wide, guitars and microphone slung low, eyes fixed forward. The band’s costumes were uniform, too, each Ramone with similar bowl haircuts, ripped blue jeans, white T-shirts, black leather motorbike jackets, and battered plimsolls, a homology in mock homage to the classic street rebel of ’50s (rock) folklore. Each detail of stage-craft was enforced to the letter by leader Johnny, too, including exactly how you walked on and off stage (p.40). And despite their meager financial resources, the band were still willing to splash some cash on an art director, Artura Vega, who maintained consistency of band brand in his stage backdrops and merchandise designs.
Waiting outside at the Ramones’ first show in London in July 1976 were members of the Clash in their infant days. Joey Ramone’s younger brother (and roadie) Mickey Leigh recalls how Mick Jones and Paul Simenon were dressed in the same leather jackets and striking the same tough poses displayed on the sleeve of the recently released Ramones debut album (McNeil, p.231). A few weeks later it was apparent that their influence had permeated much deeper, as the Clash went beyond merely copying the Ramones’ outfits and three-chord riffs, imitating, too, attention to presentations of band unity in their choreography of postures and stage designs. From their elaborate backdrops of war imagery on stage to their at-the-ready performance poses that turned guitars into bayonets, the Clash learned from the Ramones that the power of punk was as much theatrical as sonic.
Representing a parallel path within British punk, the Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten channeled quite different traditions of the performing arts. His unique stage presence developed out of his love of old British comedy, music hall, and Shakespearian drama. According to the man himself, his hunched look and glaring stare were by-products of a bout of meningitis suffered in his youth, but also of his love of Laurence Olivier’s portrayal of Richard III, which Lydon/Rotten describes as “wicked and psychotic, mixed with a fatally cruel sense of humor” (Lydon, p.17). Writing as if a character rather than its creator, he pointedly states, “Johnny Rotten definitely has tinges of Richard III in him” (p.114).
Early observers of the Sex Pistols may not have traced such reference points, but the visual drama did not go unnoticed. Jon Savage described Rotten as “a spastic pantomime villain” (Double, p.38) and punk journo peer Caroline Coon noted his “dramatizing rage”, “performance of rage”, and “Theater of rage” (Lydon, p.78). Long-time associate and band documentarian Julien Temple says of the Pistols, “It was more than a band, it was a theatrical presence on stage. Shock theater that was beautifully defined” (p.77).
Less documented at the time—or since—was how much Ian Dury also influenced Rotten’s on-stage presence. Although pub rockers, alongside other rock veterans, were customarily assigned to the trash heap of the past by many punks, some had a soft spot for Dury, and Rotten was amongst them, frequently attending his shows. Considering Dury’s gestures and demeanor, his body hunched over his mic, leaning on it, holding it, using it as a comic prop, Rotten clearly learned a few tricks while watching him.
Both performers have been upfront about their affection for music hall, too. Rotten described the Sex Pistols as “Musical vaudeville. Evil burlesque” (Lydon, p.114), and Dury invited the aging comedian Max Wall to open his show at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1978. Although the attending crowd heckled the old entertainer into a show shorter than planned, Wall’s mere presence connected a series of dots, allowing us to trace the lineage between Victorian working-class theater, pub rock, and punk.
If the essence of punk lies in its energy, tribal communality, and artist-audience intimacy, then the performing art most in step with punk aesthetics is surely dance. The urge to ritualize our connections (to music, to our feelings, to each other, to life) through “folk” dancing is universal, a non-verbal form of (inter-)communication rooted in the very origins of the human species. Punk dancing is but a dot on that historic lifeline; that said, its meanings and functions have recent contexts for consideration, too.
The story of punk dancing includes various chapters, each representing a particular mutation and manifestation. Ever since then-just-fan Sid Vicious started jumping up and down during Sex Pistols concerts, punks have brought assertive movements to their music. Coordinated disco dances like the bump and the hustle were popular around the time of punk’s first wave, and the Vicious pogo came to symbolize a rejection of such mellow formalities of movement. Unharnessed and untamed, the pogo paid tribute to the loose intensity of the band performing, while allowing kids to exorcize their pent-up energies in a dance both idiosyncratic and subcultural in nature.
As the pogo bounced its way around British punk clubs in the late ’70s, a more fast and furious mutation of the punk sound, hardcore, arose from Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. With it came the slam dance ritual, its horizontal communal contact contrasting with the solo verticality of the pogo. As witnessed and experienced by the hardcore few at Black Flag and Bad Brains concerts in 1979, then later introduced to mainstream audiences by Fear on Saturday Night Live in 1981, slamming was a full-contact sport that danced on the edges of assault and battery. It signified tribal unity, too, and came with its own unwritten rule: you might knock someone down but you should also pick them up—before knocking them down again!
As reckless and violent as punk dancing has often been, there is often a method to its apparent madness, even a loose choreography that is unspoken but collectively followed. London School of Ballet prodigy Michael Clark saw beauty in the moves he witnessed when attending punk gigs as a kid in the late ’70s. In the 40-plus years since, he has integrated these moves into a career that earned him a Commander of the British Empire honor in 2014. A boundary buster, Clark blends fashion, design, and music into ballet performances that mix classical traditions with modern innovations. His costumes are as wild and outlandish as any a punk or punk designer has ever paraded; indeed, once, when accompanying the Fall on The Old Grey Whistle Test in 1984, he performed with his troupe bare-assed.
Clark is unconventional regarding his venues of choice, too, as likely to show up at the Glastonbury Festival or Glasgow’s Barrowlands as at a traditional theater. Classical though his ballet sometimes appears, the musical accompaniment rarely is, Clark favoring the ramshackle rhythms of the Fall and Wire over Tschaikovsky or Stravinsky to construct his work around. Even when marketing the Michael Clark Company, he appears to imagine himself as part of an indie punk band, using the visual language of punk for his posters, programs, and flyers and seeking sponsorship from art and fashion sources rather than from traditional dance ones.
The consummate rebel, Clark makes no secret of his disdain for the dance world, including the Royal Ballet School he studied at. For him, ballet has been rigid, restrictive, and stuck in the royal courts of the 15th century for too long. Punk showed him a way out as well as a new way in, an aesthetic vehicle by which ballet could be reimagined, reconfigured, and reconstituted for a progressive new era. Modern dance schools and students have broadened their minds and methods thanks to Clark’s trailblazing, such that rebel factions like France’s “Non-Dance” movement have garnered recognition. They mix theater, video, music, and the plastic arts into a transdisciplinary act that questions the necessity of movement itself. Non-dancers like Jérôme Bell continue both Clark’s legacy as well as punk’s irreverence towards institutional norms.
Many aging punk musicians, too, are turning to the stages of the performing arts once their rock stage performing days are over. Two ex-members of Chumbawamba, Boff Whalley and Alice Nutter, are now active playwrights continuing their activism through a less physically demanding form. Still driven by the anarcho-punk ethos, Whalley co-wrote Riot, Rebellion and Bloody Insurrection (2009), an historical drama about the 19th-century Luddite uprising that draws parallels to Gordon Brown’s Labour government. A musical drama featuring songs from the band’s English Rebel Songs (2003) album, it received assistance from other band members before Chumba’s demise in 2012. In Big Society! (2013), Whalley turned his attention to satirizing the David Cameron administration, writing another historical musical with self-penned songs, this time set in a Victorian music hall.
Alice Nutter also finds the theatrical stage to be an ideal site of transition for punk artists that once performed on rock ones. Both stages allow for political expression, group collaboration, and audience engagement, even if the interested demographic skews older nowadays. Among the recent plays Nutter has written is Where’s Vietnam? (2008), My Generation (2012), and Barnbow Canaries (2016), the latter about female munitions workers during World War I.
As more veteran punk writers turn their skills and experiences to the performing arts, an alternative infrastructure is arising to cater to their aesthetic and political values. Boff Whalley regularly collaborates with the Red Ladder Theatre Company, a socialist co-operative from Leeds that specializes in agit-prop drama. And in Washington, DC, the Taffety Punk Theatre Company operates in as “punk” a way as their name suggests. The group presents—among other activities—spontaneous and unrehearsed “Bootleg Shakespeare” wherever they can find a functional venue. Acting like they are Fugazi on tour, the Taffety Punks survive on a shoestring budget, inviting a local band or theater group to open for them and help spread the word in each town they perform, thus creating a buzz that results in full houses.
Such collaborative and DIY manifestations ultimately reveal that as long as the punk virus continues to spread and infect, there are few areas of culture and society that will not or cannot be enlivened and enlightened by its enduring presence.
Double, Oliver. “Punk Rock as Popular Theatre“. New Theatre Quarterly. Vol. 23. Issue 89. pp. 35-48. February 2007.
Lydon, John. Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs. Picador. 1994.
McNeil, Legs, and Gillian McCain. Please Kill Me. Penguin. 1996.