Relations between punk and the mainstream media have always been strained, the latter inclined to either exclude or negatively stereotype the former. During the movement’s formative years, punks were often shown on television, though largely for sensationalist news purposes, (mis) represented as uneducated yobs causing trouble on the streets. When they were invited into television studios, it was invariably to be berated or patronized by some bastion of the establishment, such as when the Sex Pistols and their “contingent” exchanged un-pleasantries with Bill Grundy on ITV’s Today show in December 1977.
Television’s fictional fodder sometimes pushed prevailing stereotypes to extreme degrees, both Quincy and CHiPs responding to the violence surrounding L.A.’s hardcore scene in 1982 with episodes portraying punk kids as criminal aggressors and cops as caring protectors of innocent society, representations at odds with the reports of many whenever these two adversarial groups encountered each other (Ruland, pp.45-48). The TVtropes.org website even coined the term “Quincy Punk” to describe this recurrent convention and “trope” of the medium. Punk Bands Television, the Adverts, Alternative TV, and Television Personalities all have monikers with ironic resonance within the punk world, while songs like The Clash’s “I’m So Bored With the U.S.A.” (1977), Gang of Four’s “5.45” (1979), and Black Flag’s “T.V. Party” (1982) exude the kind of sarcasm and scorn early punks felt about the medium.
If their own music, symbols, and slogans offered rebuttals to mainstreamed channels of communication, so did punks’ means of inter-communication, acted out in “safe” spaces on street corners, in certain record stores, at gigs, or in the coded missives sent out by fan-produced zines. These subcultural zones signaled retreats from mainstream society where what punk was and could be was debated beyond the reach of outside predators and opportunists.
However, it is a myth to think that punk existed only in such spaces, for its formation was just as affected by its occasional forays into mainstream culture. Punk’s willful withdrawal from our channels of communication has been much exaggerated, and few bands (though there have been a few) passed the opportunity to mindlessly mime through their latest chart-bound single on Top of the Pops, their professed integrity no match for their ambitions. Along with The Old Grey Whistle Test, Britain’s most-watched music show, Top of the Pops, provided a rare televisual outlet for bands in Britain during the ’70s.
Two other programs, So It Goes and Revolver, despite (or due to) being hidden in the late-night hours, were much more amenable to the new punk sounds. So It Goes, which aired between July 1976 and December 1977 in only three ITV regions, was the mastermind of Tony Wilson, a trailblazer better known for his later contributions to post-punk as the entrepreneur behind Factory Records and the Haҫienda nightclub. Back in 1976, Wilson was a junior correspondent for Manchester’s Granada television franchise; yet, he somehow managed to persuade his employers to allow him to showcase the burgeoning music scene.
Named after Kurt Vonnegut’s wry hat-tip to fatalism in his 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five, So It Goes was short-lived but hard-hitting, embodying the swagger and cool intelligence of the incipient punk uprising. “Bakunin would have loved it,” host Wilson comments at the end of the Sex Pistols’ performance of “Anarchy in the U.K.”. That episode aired on 28 August 1976, three months before “Anarchy” was even released and long before most of the world was aware of punk. Nevertheless, the irreverent mood of the embryonic movement pervaded all segments of the show, including those provided by Clive James, who, during the Pistols’ episode, used his two-minute guest slot to pontificate about the state of rock at the time, lambasting its out-of-touch bands, journalists, and record executives. The program came to a close—so it goes—after Iggy Pop’s expletive-fueled performance in Season Two proved too much for even Granada’s liberal-minded executives to handle.
The token slot for punk representation was later filled by Revolver, which ran for only eight episodes on ITV in 1978. It was visioned as a kind of anti-Top of the Pops, purposed for Britain’s youth rather than the whole family, host Peter Cook eschewing the fake smiles and smarm Top of the Pops viewers were used to from Jimmy Saville and Tony Blackburn. Cook instead presented in the persona of a world-weary cynic constantly irritated by the rowdy kids and raucous music surrounding him. While his comically disparaging comments echoed the negativism of punk, his grumpy old man caricature also reminded us of the generation gap that was then being re-opened.
American television was no more welcoming of punk, despite the country’s wider range of available channels. One notable exception was Glenn O’Brien’s TV Party, a public access show that was broadcast between 1978 and 1982. Applying a DIY ethos and a proudly amateur approach, O’Brien and co-host Chris Stein (of Blondie) filled the air time with concert clips and interviews with musicians, artists, and performers from New York’s eclectic punk/no wave culture. For locals unwilling or unable to venture into the Manhattan dives where this art was thriving, TV Party was a rare forum where underground acts could be witnessed.
As with television, radio did few favors for the punk movement, denying it air time and censoring many of its record releases. Bands responded, counter-attacking with songs like “Capital Radio” (1977) by the Clash and “Radio Radio” (1978) by Elvis Costello and the Attractions. Both cuts skewered commercial radio for its bland content, blander DJs, and the “anesthetizing” effects of both on the listening public. As much as punk acts were able to reach audiences via live gigs, fanzines, and sympathetic record stores, these were no substitute for the reach a single play on BBC Radio One could bring. Fueled by a combination of resentment and outsider pride, most bands just chalked up radio as one more establishment for their enemies list.
Even though radio, like television, offered only a few portals for punk, these were essential in disseminating the sounds beyond the confines of major cities. In the UK during the early years, besides on a hard-to-hear pirate station or two, punk could only be heard on the John Peel Show, which aired on BBC Radio One four times a week between 10 pm and midnight. Peel’s role in the viral spread of punk cannot be over-stated. Not only did he introduce kids beyond city limits to the new sounds, but he educated them, too, by contextualizing the movement, playing proto-punk forerunners alongside the primary punk acts.
On 10 December 1976, Peel started his show with a warning that it would be in “marked contrast to the programs that preceded it”. Sometimes referred to as his “Punk Special”, the DJ proceeded to try and make some sense of the new movement, asserting that it signaled a break from the past but that certain connections remained. This he illustrated by opening the show with “So Messed Up”, the first song from the Damned’s first Peel “session”. What followed were songs by the Seeds, the Stooges, and Eddie and the Hot Rods, representing mid-’60s garage rock, early ’70s proto-punk, and mid-’70s pub rock, respectively, all significant anteceding genres of punk rock.
“No two people can seem to agree on what it actually is,” Peel muses at one point, his cuts by past and present UK, US, and Australian acts offering evidence of a phenomenon with a largely common disposition but without borders in either sound or source. What was apparent to him, though, was that the new upstarts, he said, “bring an injection of energy and crudity into a rock scene that’s been painfully smug and complacent during the past few years.” Like others, Peel might not have known what punk was exactly, but he knew why its spirit and aesthetics were necessary and important.
Peel embodied and exuded the essence of punk. While the rest of the DJs on his station trotted out the same limited repertoire of pop hits recorded for major labels, Peel prioritized independent recordings from unknown bands; sometimes he even invited unsigned bands to record four-song sessions in the BBC studios that he would later feature on his show. In the process, he almost singlehandedly ushered punk into the hearts and minds of a segment of British youth culture tired and bored with conveyor belt pop.
As an architect of that process, he also helped shape what punk would and could be by promoting its more creative and imaginative proponents and practitioners. This involved a refusal to follow orthodoxy and expectations, even if his more esoteric selections irritated his more conservative (punk) listeners. Ever the provocateur, Peel challenged his audiences to open their ears wider, to challenge their limits of taste and preference, aware that the primary punk template had become repetitious by the close of the ’70s as essentialist groups settled into recycling predictable clichés. Grumble as some did, Peel maintained their loyalty by virtue of his steadfast integrity, displayed in his unwillingness to compromise to sheep mentalities, his unwillingness to pander to corporate (radio) interests, and his willingness to follow his passion for the unusual and the aberrant.
Although there are no equivalents to John Peel in regards to radio contributions to punk culture, Rodney Bingenheimer performed a comparable role in spreading the word during the genre’s infancy in Los Angeles. Whether through his work DJ’ing at the KROQ station or at his English Disco club nights, Bingenheimer kept his finger on the punk pulse, promoting the new noises emanating from London and New York in late 1976, as well as those arising from his own city. Although that scene started in Hollywood, Bingenheimer was not averse to exploring beyond when hardcore started creating a buzz from the suburban beach zones. He was at Black Flag’s legendary debut show at the Moose Lodge in Redondo Beach on 27 January 1979, where he picked up a copy of the band’s self-made, self-produced, self-released debut, “Nervous Breakdown”, which he proceeded to play on his KROQ show.
As with Peel’s program, kids would tape Rodney on the Roq shows, then share them with friends, creating a viral effect that helped spread the word, sound, and scene. “If one person deserves credit for helping open things up in Los Angeles,” Black Flag bass player Chuck Dukowski comments, “that person is Rodney Bingenheimer” (Ruland, p.29). Because Bingenheimer, like Peel, had grown up listening to garage rock, he understood punk as a contemporary manifestation of that tradition. His promotion of garage, glam, and punk during the ’70s and, subsequently, new wave, post-punk, and alternative rock into the 21st century, has earned him an international reputation much like Peel’s: as someone with an eye and ear for the exciting and new as it bubbles up from the underground of youth culture.
Even more consequential for punk’s survival and developments in America has been the nation’s college radio infrastructure, which has been in place since the ’60s. Run by students for their peers out of their own academic institutions, college radio stations have long provided alternatives to the rigid, limited, and commercial playlists that characterize America’s major channels. What is sometimes tagged “college rock” is the accumulation of the preferred music of student DJs over the last half-century, taking in mutations of punk that have been variously called post-punk, new wave, alternative, and indie rock.
If punk subcultures have sometimes displayed separatist or even neo-Luddite tendencies in their preference for live local music over engaging institutional channels of communication, the late 20th-century technological revolution has made the movement less isolationist in nature. The internet has, inevitably, made punk a ubiquitous presence. Via internet radio, podcasts, and YouTube, one’s punk needs and desires from around the world and across its history are now just a click away.
Social media, too, has brought even the most withdrawn individuals and groups into the open where they can connect and converse on their choice of specialized niches. Among the Facebook groups I engage with is the Punk Scholars Network. Its international cast of participants is constantly sharing and connecting around posts pertaining to punk news, memories, opinions, publications, and upcoming activities. As in the larger population, there are many various opinions within punk communities on the merits and values of social media and the internet. Within progressive circles, some reject the internet on the grounds that it is run by exploitative corporations only interested in invading one’s privacy and data mining for profits; others justify their involvement by arguing that they can use the master’s tools for ethical or subversive purposes. The debates that ensue between these factions are no different than those that have always existed whenever punk brushes up against the realities of existing in a capitalist society.
Whatever the virtues—or lack thereof—of its contemporary entanglements with social media, the internet, and other mainstream channels of communication, punk has been inexorably reoriented into mainstream culture by them. Punk music and punk culture are subjected to the inevitable pros and cons brought about by universal technological transformations. They’re just new mediums for punk’s sarcasm and scorn.
Ruland, Jim. Corporate Rock Sucks: The Rise and Fall of SST Records. Hatchett 2022.