UK Punk Guitar: A Style Defined
Bob Leggitt | Saturday, 11 June 2016 |
Whether or not punk rock’s guitar style had a definite beginning is open to lively debate. And for good reason. The punk genre might have had a cultural singularity of birth in the year 1976, but musically it evolved over a period of time. How long a period of time depends on whose word you choose to take.
Some trace punk’s roots back to the 1960s, citing experimental outfits like The Velvet Underground as early punk influences. And particularly if you listen to some of the Velvet Underground’s live material from the latter half of that decade, it’s hard to dispute the relevance. Some might go further and insist that Link Wray had a punk guitar sound and punk sensibilities back in the late 1950s. Once again, that’s not a suggestion I’d argue with.
Others, however, don’t see punk’s musical ancestry as fully relevant until around the mid 1970s. By then, numerous avenues of influence were converging into something that was essentially a complete musical characterisation of early punk rock – just without the branding, or, necessarily, the image.
PUNK’S MUSICAL TEMPLATE
The basic template for punk rock music had been set in the USA, with The Ramones in particular having defined a rough, heavy, direct, and uncompromisingly simple DIY rock format by 1974. Very short songs, no lead breaks – minimalistic in almost every respect but energy. The only thing The Ramones didn’t do in 1974 was say: “Hey; this is called punk rock”.
But whilst UK punk openly nodded to American groups like The Ramones, New York Dolls, Iggy and the Stooges, etc, it also had a strong British line of influence. If you look at some of the British pub rock bands who occupied the London live scene before punk became a thing (Ducks Deluxe, Dr Feelgood, Eddie and the Hot Rods, etc), the guitar styles have a lot in common with the earliest UK punk.
The pub rock guitarists’ style drew heavily on 1950s rock ‘n’ roll principles, often incorporating Chuck Berry-influenced lead/rhythm playing, and/or a traditional 12-bar chord loop. However, with the early to mid 1970s pub rock guitarists, the execution was much more aggressive than had been the case in the ’50s. The guitars would be overdriven, and the tempo often raised for greater urgency. There was also a level of physical aggression in the way the guitars were being attacked.
The sound of those Chuck Berry double-stop lead breaks, delivered at pace, with powerful overdrive, was a theme that ran right through the transition from pub rock to punk. And that ’50s-derived pub rock style was still abundantly evident on the 1976 UK punk scene. Indeed, there’s almost no difference in musical style between the classic Eddie and the Hot Rods format (which was classed as pub rock), and an early Vibrators number like We Vibrate (which was classed as punk). So what actually did set the two genres apart?
A NEW APPROACH
Much of the early development in the field of UK punk went into the visual styling and attitude. It’s a rather bizarre notion to think of punk bands being ‘styled’ in a fashion sense. But the look of punk, in combination with its rebellious, highly irreverent stance and rejection of convention, was what, initially, most set punk musicians apart from the pub rockers before them.
The musical characterisation of UK punk owed a lot to the genre’s ‘Big Three’: The Sex Pistols, The Damned, and The Clash. However, Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers served as an important link between pre-existing American underground rock and British punk. The style of The Heartbreakers’ music in early 1976 (and arguably before that) was technically as much a template for UK punk rock as that of The Sex Pistols.
Because the London scene developed almost entirely off-the-record, it’s difficult to verify who absorbed what, from whom. In the searingly hot and dry summer of 1976 when the buzz of British punk rock was going crazy, there was still nothing available on vinyl, so the early timeline of musical development is hard to chart. What we do know, is that The Sex Pistols, driven from the back seat by Malcolm McLaren, were the main early influence in England. Members of The Clash, for example, acknowledged their witnessing of The Pistols as a turning point in their own approach.
However, attitude was the defining factor in the influence at that stage, so we shouldn’t be too quick to credit The Pistols with defining punk musically. Original punk club DJ Don Letts described the arrival of The Sex Pistols as a “cultural ground zero”, but like almost all other on-the-spot observers from the time, he’s focused on the non-musical elements of the band when differentiating them from previous artists. Mark Perry of the early UK punk fanzine Sniffin’ Glue (and subsequently the band Alternative TV), agrees, citing the explosion of The Pistols as: “Not so much a musical event, but a cultural event.”
So how did punk rock become recognisable as a guitar style?
THE SEX PISTOLS GUITAR STYLE
Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones played in a stripped back heavy rock style, normally cranked out on a thick, copiously distorted Gibson Les Paul. His sound and technique was polished and professional, but he filtered out almost everything except the chords, critical riffs, and the briefest of occasional lead flourishes. Sustained chords were broken by accurate palm damping, and there were instances of the classic punk rock semitone chord slide. A seminal use of that sliding semitone technique dominates the intro to God Save The Queen.
Back and forth semitone riffs had appeared elsewhere in both British and American punk (including New Rose by The Damned – the UK’s first punk rock single), as well as in pub rock. But like many of early punk’s musical components, the original inspiration looked to have come from much older music.
What was clear, was that these repetitive semitone patterns became one of the cornerstones of ’70s punk guitar. The immense impact and influence of God Save The Queen, and the role it gave to that semitone pattern, must surely have cemented the technique in the psyche of many, many guitarists. Eventually, the repetitive semitone pattern became prolific enough within the genre to be seized upon as a pastiche of punk music.
Steve Jones’ playing was important in that it fused hard rock polish and power with a ‘garage’ ethos. Despite all the rhetoric about DIY that surrounded punk, Steve Jones’ playing was the opposite of DIY. Tuning and intonation was perfect. Everything was tightly controlled, and there was occasional evidence of quality finger-vibrato. But it made sense. A lot of people loved the sound of hard rock guitar. They just didn’t want all the excess and ‘showmanship’ that went with mid ‘70s hard or progressive rock. Steve Jones delivered on that desire.
THE DAMNED GUITAR STYLE
Original Damned guitarist Brian James was highly innovative, and had a ‘darker’, more elaborate style than the other UK punk bands’ players. Brian James played a Gibson SG, with some pretty abrasive distortion. Although he did incorporate snippets of the pub rock guitar ‘toolkit’, he employed them in an unusual manner, and in new contexts. Brian James was the guitarist who, in a musical sense, moved the punk genre furthest away from its precedents.
The first Damned album (Damned Damned Damned) sounds more alien than the first Sex Pistols and Clash albums. In early Damned tracks such as Fan Club and Feel The Pain, for example, James used discordant riffs to great effect. The guitar playing across the album is spectacular and a lot less submissive to any “back to basics” lore than other early punk. Unlike The Sex Pistols, The Damned used a ‘double-time’ feel on some tracks, and this began right from the first album with numbers such as I Feel Alright and See Her Tonight. The result was a much greater impression of pace. Really fast, mega-energy music.
Alternating chord stabs also appeared on the first Damned album (again notably in See Her Tonight, after each line in the verses, and in the chorus of Fish). And there were major/minor definitions to the guitar chords, which severed the sound from hard rock’s ambiguous ‘power chord’ feel. Indeed, if you listen carefully to the guitar on the first Damned album, you realise that it’s not that heavily overdriven. You can easily make out the rhythm nuances, for instance, and that’s hard to do with heavily saturated distortion. The sound is still tough because it’s bright, and the sharp edge in the overdrive is not smoothed down with EQ.
Brian James was ambitious, and highly accomplished, but his ragged tone and dark, aggressive approach integrated perfectly with the punk ethos. The Damned contributed enormously to the musical separation of punk rock from existing genres. Musically, Damned Damned Damned was almost a revolution in its own right.
All above images except bottom right are screen captured from BBC4 TV series Punk Britannia. Bottom right image, Planet Botch.
THE CLASH GUITAR STYLE
The Clash, meanwhile, had a guitar team: Mick Jones and Joe Strummer. Whilst Mick Jones evidently led the duo, lead vocalist Joe Strummer’s contribution was critical to the overall effect. Strummer would normally provide a pulsating rhythm with a gritty-sounding, but not heavily distorted Telecaster. Jones filled a much bigger portion of the soundscape with a thicker, fatter, and more distorted Les Paul. While Strummer’s playing was normally very basic and quite subdued in the mix, its attack defined punk attitude.
Mick Jones’ playing did encompass the odd variation on rock ‘n’ roll lead guitar, but increasingly, the bulk of his lead work seemed to come from within. Classic Mick Jones lead lines sound like improvised melodies that hit the nail on the head, and were thus standardised and retained. Mick Jones’ natural melodic instinct was rare in any type of music, let alone punk. That gave him an advantage as the genre developed, and other bands were wondering what to do next. If you can keep coming up with fresh musical ideas, you don’t really need to worry about finding gimmicks.
But whilst Mick’s lead lines sounded very attractive, they were executed in quite a rough manner and always maintained a punk attitude. Unlike Steve Jones, Mick didn’t use any kind of ‘professional’ vibrato. His stark, ‘unpolished’ delivery would come to characterise single-note punk lead as the genre moved along.
However, Pete Shelley – another very early UK punk guitarist – took ‘unpolished’ lead a stage further with the Buzzcocks. Listen to what he ironically described as the “tricky guitar solo” in What Do I Get? and you’ll hear truly audacious simplicity.
In the heyday of British punk rock, the foremost guitar was without doubt a Les Paul. The thick sound of Gibson instruments dominated early punk. True, both Brian James and (later) Captain Sensible played Gibson SGs with The Damned. And early on, Steve Jones could be seen playing a Les Paul Special with The Sex Pistols, whilst Mick Jones initially played a Les Paul Junior with The Clash. But Les Paul Standards or Customs ultimately became synonymous with the hierarchy of UK punk.
Interestingly, the pub rock guitarists who sowed obvious musical seeds for UK punk, had tended to use Fenders. And some figures who’d been part of pub rock and then became prominent in the punk movement (Hugh Cornwell of The Stranglers and Joe Strummer of The Clash, for example), continued to use Fender Telecasters in their punk days.
The Clash’s Mick Jones had also used a Telecaster before the punk era, but had, according to David Lawrenson (who wrote The Complete Guitar Guide in the early ‘80s), been inspired to switch to a Les Paul Junior by Dick Wagner and Steve Hunter’s use of the model on Lou Reed Live. The Gibson bias in the heyday of UK punk was probably more a coincidence of personal influence than a unified, conscious effort to out-raunch pub rock. By all accounts, the 1970s UK punk scene was a hive of envy and one-upmanship, and actually had very little to do with any sort of unity.
The Gibsons were a wise choice though. They were generally better suited to the punk sound in the mid ’70s, because guitarists still essentially needed beefy guitars to overdrive their amps into thick distortion. It was much harder to make a Fender Strat or Tele fill out the sound, given the technology of the day, and the line-up format of most punk groups.
As the punk movement expanded and its DIY element grew, guitar choices broadened. Punk’s message that anyone could set up a band was taken very literally from the start. Not everyone could afford a Les Paul, so the offspring of punk’s initial Big Bang would often buy cheaper gear.
By the mid ‘70s, some big-brand guitars on the secondhand market had been cast aside in professional circles, making them cheap to buy. Arguably, punk and its aftermath revived the fortunes of unfashionable vintage guitars. Instruments such as the Fender Jazzmaster and Jaguar had fallen from grace in mainstream rock. But punk’s DIY explosion saw these now cheap old sloggers creeping back into public consciousness.
Vintage budget and ‘student’ electrics began to find their way onto stages too. The reason these cheaper instruments were easy to integrate into punk was that the music didn’t necessarily place great teachnical demands on the player. In DIY-land, as long as the guitarist could hold down chords and fret the odd single note here or there, the guitar was up to the job.
In some DIY punk, the guitars’ tuning or intonation was not very precisely adjusted. In time, this, in itself, would come to characterise the late ’70s punk rock sound – or at least a facet of it.
As punk morphed into ‘new wave’, and was then taken forward as indie rock in the 1980s, many of the above traits persisted. Minimalism became the mainstream, as excess was increasingly marginalised with the onset of the 1990s. Many of the guitars which had been highly unfashionable in the mid ‘70s, and which punk and its legacy helped re-establish, are ultimate style statements today. Some hard rock styles absorbed punk ideology, and many would say punk changed the face of the rock genre in the long term.
Look at a major rock festival today, and you’ll witness a lot of the things punk fought for. Musically, punk taught musicians important lessons about audience tolerance. About attitude. About the beauty of economy. About self-discipline. Indeed, one of the reasons that the punk guitar style has become so difficult to define is that so much of its ethos is now embedded in the big picture.
Today, we think of many facets of the punk approach, simply as “rock”. Far from being an indication that punk changed nothing, this is really the ultimate verification that punk changed everything. Punk never aligned itself with mainstream rock. So logically, we must conclude that in many ways, mainstream rock has aligned itself with punk.
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