New York in the 1970s was a city of rebirth. A new scene was emerging that would later be recognised as the dawn of New York punk, a specific strain of the genre that was the grimy, tightly-wound cousin of its British counterpart. Names like Iggy Pop and the Stooges, the Ramones, Patti Smith, Johnny Thunders and the New York Dolls all came from this melting pot of the young and disillusioned. Even established names like Bowie and Lou Reed wanted in on the action once they saw how revolutionary it could be. Discontent was bubbling up in the city and punk was the spark that lit it up.
The punk scene in New York began not so much with the violence and vitriol most typically associated with the word, but with disenchanted poets and artists seeking to create their own counter-culture. People like Patti Smith and the band Television gravitated to the Big Apple looking for a sense of belonging that they’d never found in their home towns. They became the epicentre of a movement that sought to do away with the status quo and instead establish a new way of making, appreciating and distributing art.
For Smith, this meant experimenting with poetry and music, eventually creating her seminal debut album Horses. Smith used her position as quiet observer to soak up the atmosphere around her and translate it into cerebral yet punchy lyrics. These words were then laid over music that ranged from the orchestral to a familiar stripped-down guitar sound. Television’s Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell also became two people of note on the New York scene. Together they built a cult following for their band and began to establish places like C.B.G.B.’s and Max’s Kansas City as key venues on the punk circuit.
The entire scene was a fusion of ideas, with new ones constantly erupting out of fiery friendships and love affairs between the thinkers and dreamers involved. Hell left Television just as they started to make it big, instead forming another important punk band, The Heartbreakers, with ex-New York Doll, Johnny Thunders. The New York Dolls had been one of the earliest bands involved in punk and their wild behaviour, penchant for women’s clothing and snarling vocals have proved inspirational for many musicians over the years. Punk was fluid by nature and, as such, things could often get messy.
Punk may have exploded onto the public consciousness through the music of its forerunners, but the punk ethos infiltrated into every aspect of popular culture. The reverberations can still be felt today in the continued popularity of homemade ‘zines, the organisation of independent punk shows and the D.I.Y. attitude of modern artists everywhere. New York punk in particular introduced an idea of rebellion inspired by a city filled to the brim with creativity and novelty. It fed into the restless, artistic vibe of the city, drawing world famous artists like David Bowie and The Clash to its magnetic pull.
Legendary film director Martin Scorsese has always borrowed heavily from the vast catalogue of punk rock music for the soundtracks to his movies. From the use of Sid Vicious’ ‘My Way’ in Goodfellas to Devo’s cover of ‘(Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ in Casino, the work of Scorsese is peppered with references to the punk scene of his beloved New York City. Today, you can recreate the vibe of a classic 70s-set Scorsese movie by bringing up a punk playlist on Spotify, kicking out the jams at Pokerstarscasino and flicking through some vintage photos of the scene at i-D magazine. It’ll feel like you’re right there between De Niro and Joey Ramone! Just remember to don your leather jacket and torn jeans to get a real feel for it.
The punk ideology spilled over into journalism and media production, giving rise to publications like Creem magazine and Punk magazine. These music rags were essential for the dissemination of the punk philosophy and vital information about gigs, happenings and venues. They featured infamous music journalists like Lester Bangs and Legs McNeil, of which the latter has gone on to write books and create podcasts about the very same scene he was reporting on back in the 70s. Bangs died in 1982 at the age of 33 but he achieved cult status during his short life. He wrote the way that punk sounded: confrontational and sometimes offensive, but ultimately intelligent and boundary pushing.
There can be no doubt that the New York punk scene was explosively influential not only in America during the 1970s but across the world and still is to this day. The musical artists involved like the Ramones, Blondie, the Pretenders and Lou Reed went on to have phenomenal success both in and out of the world of music. Iggy Pop of the Stooges and Debbie Harry of Blondie fame were icons of the movement back then and remain so today, staying thoroughly involved in the modern music scene. Whereas punk was created as a transitional, mercurial reaction to the staid and boring mainstream, it’s proved to have just as much sticking power as its more conservative contemporaries.