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Punk at 30 — a Retrospective on the Filth, the Fury and Fender®

United States
English
Tues., Oct. 30, 2007 — When the first blinding flash of first-wave punk detonated in 1976-77, it wasn’t immediately apparent that an enduring cultural phenomenon was under way. Clearly, something young, loud, brash and reactionary was going on—especially musically—but fads and movements came and went in the cosmopolitan cultural centers of London and New York like the weather.

But if punk passed quickly as a musical phenomenon, it succeeded wildly—and enduringly—as a powerful and worldwide cultural one. After all, in its spiritual home and cultural epicenter, London, punk was never conceived of as a strictly musical movement, but rather as a cultural one that also encompassed art, fashion and politics.

Although mid-’70s punk rock flamed out quickly in England and never really escaped the underground in America, punk’s viral attitude and imagery infected the rest of pop music and pop culture so successfully over the ensuing decades that it’s now simply part of the landscape. Whereas other popular musical movements (i.e., rockabilly, swing) were eventually relegated to niche status, punk imagery and attitude are everywhere, having rained down like fallout to near-omnipresent status. Punk culture is on TV, in the movies, on clothing, online, on newsstands, in art, business and politics.

For its part, Fender played a significant role in the history of punk. Fender instruments turned out to be perfectly suited for its raucous sound, its powerfully arresting look and its iconoclastic DIY attitude and work ethic. Fender instruments had been around for a couple decades by then. By the mid-’70s, it was a big company and everybody was using its gear, from amateurs to professionals; from the prevailing blues-rock masses and reigning rock elite to those who made up rock’s little-known fringes and inhabited its underground. The rock giants of the ’70s were still going strong in 1976, when punk made its first big, sordid splash in the U.K.—Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Yes, Queen, Genesis and many others were still at their height of popularity, embarking on massive world tours, all loaded with an impressive share of Fender gear.

Interestingly, Fender instruments were also being put to equally good use by those who had something entirely different in mind; contingents on both sides of the Atlantic who vigorously—sometimes violently—rejected rock’s more lofty, indulgent excesses. The very same Stratocaster, Telecaster, Jaguar and Jazzmaster guitars—and especially Fender’s stalwart workhorse, the Precision Bass—that were embraced by the old guard were also embraced by the punks, who were poised in 1976-77 to make a bigger, more lasting impact than they ever could’ve imagined. And the same uncannily versatile design elements of utility and aesthetics that made Fender instruments right at home onstage at Wembley in front of millions also made them right home in New York’s cramped, grimy CBGB and London’s venerable 100 Club in front of, well, dozens.

After all, Fender instruments were highly regarded by punk rock’s parents and spiritual progenitors, garage rock, glam and psychedelia. The fact that Fender instruments could take a beating and somehow stay in tune and look even cooler dovetailed nicely with punk’s more abusively theatrical element (nothing new, once again—rock stars had been smashing them and lighting them on fire for years); a use that just didn’t work with all the fancy high-end boutique guitars that had cropped up by the mid-’70s, not that punks could afford them anyway. And what were you going to do—plaster your high-priced boutique guitar with stickers or paint it lime green? Not likely.

In short, Fender instruments were perfect for punk because the more you abused them and the more you personalized them, the better they got, in a way that just didn’t work with other instruments. It was perfect—punk was, after all, a DIY phenomenon, and Fender instruments were originally the DIY products of Leo Fender—a guy who didn’t even play guitar or know anything about them when he first started making them. It was a yet another good fit.

The ’70s first-wave punks who played Fender amounted to a who’s who of the genre (setting aside the many arguments, valid or otherwise, about who and what really was and really wasn’t punk): the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, the Clash, the Damned, the Stranglers, the Dictators, the Buzzcocks, Patti Smith, the Heartbreakers, the Talking Heads, Television, the Dead Boys, the Germs, Blondie, the Avengers, Generation X, the Saints, and many, many others.

And contrary to first-wave punk’s own charmingly contrived guerilla marketing campaign, many of punk’s guitarists and bassists could play their instruments just fine—certainly well enough to make good records.

As original Pistols bassist/songwriter Glen Matlock noted, while attending a summer 2007 fashion show at onetime London punk landmark the 100 Club, “They was playing all these records in the background, you know, and they sandwiched ‘I Wanna Be Me,’ which is one of our earliest recordings, with some Bowie track and something else and something else, and, you know, our playing is just as good as on any of the records. I just think when we came out that people were trying to compare us to Yes and Genesis, who were doing, like, 14/8 time or whatever that is, but we weren’t doing that. We didn’t want to do that.”

Fender instruments were particularly popular with punk bass players, who wielded them like weapons. The venerable Fender Precision became almost the de facto punk rock bass right from the start.

“He liked it because it was heavy,” said Arturo Vega, Ramones lighting/graphics director and designer of the band’s famous “presidential seal” logo, of the time when Dee Dee Ramone was explaining to him why he preferred a Fender Precision bass. “He said, ‘You feel it when you play it; you feel it in your body. This is a very strong instrument and you feel it when you play and you feel like you’re doing something.’”

Across the Atlantic, in London, Matlock concurs. When he landed a post-Pistols gig with U.S. punk godfather Iggy Pop in 1979, Matlock said, “I went out and bought a Fender ’61 Precision I saw in a store; played it; loved it, and I’ve never really picked up another guitar, you know—I’ve still got it, 30 years out. The thing with Fender is that they just sound like bass should sound. When I’m recording, you invariably just plug it in and you end up just using the D.I. (direct in) sound. They got it right, you know.”

There was Television’s Tom Verlaine onstage at CBGB, choking his jagged, angular melodies out of a Jaguar or a Jazzmaster. There was the Stranglers’ Jean-Jacques Burnel, using a growling Precision to bludgeon his way through 1977’s seminal Rattus Norvegicus and No More Heroes. There was Chris Stein, wielding a Stratocaster onstage with Blondie. There was Paul Simonon of the Clash, about to smash his Precision on the stage of New York’s Palladium on Sept. 21, 1979, a moment captured by photographer Pennie Smith as the cover of London Calling and one of the greatest rock photos ever taken. Glorious, every bit of it.

“The original aesthetic of the ’77 punk was so strong and identifiable that I think it just keeps cycling back around for generation after generation of kids,” said artist Shepard Fairey (of Obey Giant notoriety). “I think that’s somewhat timeless, and it’s a formula that anybody who has that sort of do-it-yourself spirit can latch on to and use for themselves. So it’s a very viral form of art-making, I think. I mean, it’s what got me going. I think one of the things that holds people back, probably as musicians—I don’t know; I’m not a musician—but definitely, I know, as visual artists, is that they feel they won’t be doing something that’s good enough. And the cool thing about punk is that it has encouraged people to participate whether they thought they were awesome or not. And then, you know, just by participating, you often become awesome.”

And now just look at the world. Look at pop music. Look at pop culture. Punk has infiltrated it all. From the Dead Kennedys to Green Day; from the Police to Black Flag; from the Cure to Rancid to Elvis Costello to the Offspring to the Circle Jerks to Fall Out Boy. It’s everywhere.

“Who would’ve thought 30 years ago that punk artists like the Ramones, the Sex Pistols and the Clash would be inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame?” said Justin Norvell, Fender’s senior marketing manager for electric guitars. “The same music that was vilified and dismissed at the time is now celebrated and honored by the masses. It highlights the fact that sometimes an important cultural movement can happen without anybody knowing it, until it’s too late to deny anymore.”

  • Arturo Vega is an artist who lives in New York City and served as artistic director and lighting designer for the Ramones since 1974. He was most notably credited for the Ramones “eagle” icon that has become one of the most popular rock ‘n’ roll designs in history.
  • Glen Matlock was the original bassist and primary songwriter for the Sex Pistols. He left the band in 1977 but is currently with the reunited Pistols who are performing a short series of live concert dates in Nov. 2007.
  • Acclaimed Los Angeles-based artist Shepard Fairey, rose from U.S. skate-punk movement and is the creator of the “Obey” and “Obey Giant” graphic campaigns.
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