The first wave of punk rock was "aggressively modern" and differed from what came before. According to Ramones drummer Tommy Ramone, "In its initial form, a lot of [1960s] stuff was innovative and exciting. Unfortunately, what happens is that people who could not hold a candle to the likes of Hendrix started noodling away. Soon you had endless solos that went nowhere. By 1973, I knew that what was needed was some pure, stripped down, no bullshit rock 'n' roll." John Holmstrom, founding editor of Punk magazine, recalls feeling "punk rock had to come along because the rock scene had become so tame that [acts] like Billy Joel and Simon and Garfunkel were being called rock and roll, when to me and other fans, rock and roll meant this wild and rebellious music." In critic Robert Christgau's description, "It was also a subculture that scornfully rejected the political idealism and Californian flower-power silliness of hippie myth."
Hippies were rainbow extremists; punks are romantics of black-and-white. Hippies forced warmth; punks cultivate cool
. Hippies kidded themselves about free love
; punks pretend that s&m
is our condition. As symbols of protest, swastikas are no less fatuous than flowers.
—Robert Christgau in Christgau's Record Guide (1981)
Technical accessibility and a Do it yourself (DIY) spirit are prized in punk rock. UK pub rock from 1972-1975 contributed to the emergence of punk rock by developing a network of small venues, such as pubs, where non-mainstream bands could play. Pub rock also introduced the idea of independent record labels, such as Stiff Records, which put out basic, low-cost records. Pub rock bands organized their own small venue tours and put out small pressings of their records. In the early days of punk rock, this DIY ethic stood in marked contrast to what those in the scene regarded as the ostentatious musical effects and technological demands of many mainstream rock bands. Musical virtuosity was often looked on with suspicion. According to Holmstrom, punk rock was "rock and roll by people who didn't have very many skills as musicians but still felt the need to express themselves through music". In December 1976, the English fanzine Sideburns published a now-famous illustration of three chords, captioned "This is a chord, this is another, this is a third. Now form a band".
British punk rejected contemporary mainstream rock, the broader culture it represented, and their music predecessors: "No Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones in 1977", declared the Clash song "1977". 1976, when the punk revolution began in Britain, became a musical and a cultural "Year Zero". As nostalgia was discarded, many in the scene adopted a nihilistic attitude summed up by the Sex Pistols slogan "No Future"; in the later words of one observer, amid the unemployment and social unrest in 1977, "punk's nihilistic swagger was the most thrilling thing in England." While "self-imposed alienation" was common among "drunk punks" and "gutter punks", there was always a tension between their nihilistic outlook and the "radical leftist utopianism" of bands such as Crass, who found positive, liberating meaning in the movement. As a Clash associate describes singer Joe Strummer's outlook, "Punk rock is meant to be our freedom. We're meant to be able to do what we want to do."
The issue of authenticity is important in the punk subculture—the pejorative term "poseur" is applied to those who associate with punk and adopt its stylistic attributes but are deemed not to share or understand the underlying values and philosophy. Scholar Daniel S. Traber argues that "attaining authenticity in the punk identity can be difficult"; as the punk scene matured, he observes, eventually "everyone got called a poseur".
Musical and lyrical elements
The early punk bands often emulated the minimal musical arrangements of 1960s garage rock. Typical punk rock instrumentation includes one or two electric guitars, an electric bass, and a drum kit, along with vocals. Songs tend to be shorter than those of other popular genres. Punk songs were played at fast, "breakneck" tempos, an approach influenced by The Ramones. Most early punk rock songs retained a traditional rock 'n' roll verse-chorus form and 4/4 time signature. However, later bands have often broken from this format. In critic Steven Blush's description, "The Sex Pistols were still rock'n'roll ... like the craziest version of Chuck Berry. Hardcore was a radical departure from that. It wasn't verse-chorus rock. It dispelled any notion of what songwriting is supposed to be. It's its own form."
The vocals are sometimes nasal, and the lyrics are often shouted rather than sung in the conventional sense. Punk rock's "hoarse, rasping" vocals and chanting were a sharp contrast to the "melodic and sleeker" singing in mainstream rock. Early punk vocals had an "arrogant snarl". Complicated guitar solos are considered self-indulgent and unnecessary, although basic guitar breaks are common. Guitar parts tend to include highly distorted power chords or barre chords, creating a characteristic sound described by Christgau as a "buzzsaw drone". Some punk rock bands take a surf rock approach with a lighter, twangier guitar tone. Others, such as Robert Quine, lead guitarist of the Voidoids, have employed a wild, "gonzo" attack, a style that stretches back through the Velvet Underground to the 1950s' recordings of Ike Turner. Bass guitar lines are often uncomplicated; the quintessential approach is a relentless, repetitive "forced rhythm", although some punk rock bass players—such as Mike Watt of the Minutemen and Firehose—emphasize more technical bass lines. Bassists often use a pick due to the rapid succession of notes, which makes fingerpicking impractical. Drums typically sound heavy and dry, and often have a minimal set-up. Compared to other forms of rock, syncopation is much less the rule. Hardcore drumming tends to be especially fast. Production tends to be minimalistic, with tracks sometimes laid down on home tape recorders or simple four-track portastudios. The typical objective is to have the recording sound unmanipulated and real, reflecting the commitment and authenticity of a live performance.
Punk rock lyrics are typically frank and confrontational; compared to the lyrics of other popular music genres, they frequently comment on social and political issues. Trend-setting songs such as the Clash's "Career Opportunities" and Chelsea's "Right to Work" deal with unemployment and the grim realities of urban life. Especially in early British punk, a central goal was to outrage and shock the mainstream. The Sex Pistols' "Anarchy in the U.K." and "God Save the Queen" openly disparaged the British political system and social mores. Anti-sentimental depictions of relationships and sex are common, as in "Love Comes in Spurts", written by Richard Hell and recorded by him with the Voidoids. Anomie, variously expressed in the poetic terms of Hell's "Blank Generation" and the bluntness of the Ramones' "Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue", is a common theme. Identifying punk with such topics aligns with the view expressed by V. Vale, founder of San Francisco fanzine Search and Destroy: "Punk was a total cultural revolt. It was a hardcore confrontation with the black side of history and culture, right-wing imagery, sexual taboos, a delving into it that had never been done before by any generation in such a thorough way". The controversial content of punk lyrics led to some punk records being banned by radio stations and refused shelf space in major chain stores.
Visual and other elements
The classic punk rock look among male American musicians harkens back to the T-shirt, motorcycle jacket, and jeans ensemble favored by American greasers of the 1950s associated with the rockabilly scene and by British rockers of the 1960s. In addition to the T-shirt, and leather jackets they wore ripped jeans and boots, typically Doc Martens. The punk look was inspired to shock people. Richard Hell's more androgynous, ragamuffin look—and reputed invention of the safety-pin aesthetic—was a major influence on Sex Pistols impresario Malcolm McLaren and, in turn, British punk style. (John D Morton of Cleveland's Electric Eels may have been the first rock musician to wear a safety-pin-covered jacket.) McLaren's partner, fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, credits Johnny Rotten as the first British punk to rip his shirt, and Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious as the first to use safety pins, although few of those following punk could afford to buy McLaren and Westwood's designs so famously worn by the Pistols, so they made their own, diversifying the 'look' with various different styles based on these designs. Young women in punk demolished the typical female types in rock of either "coy sex kittens or wronged blues belters" in their fashion. Early female punk musicians displayed styles ranging from Siouxsie Sioux's bondage gear to Patti Smith's "straight-from-the-gutter androgyny". The former proved much more influential on female fan styles. Over time, tattoos, piercings, and metal-studded and -spiked accessories became increasingly common elements of punk fashion among both musicians and fans, a "style of adornment calculated to disturb and outrage". Among the other facets of the punk rock scene, a punk's hair is an important way of showing their freedom of expression. The typical male punk haircut was originally short and choppy; the mohawk later emerged as a characteristic style. Along with the mohawk, long spikes have been associated with the punk rock genre.
The characteristic stage performance style of male punk musicians does not deviate significantly from the macho postures classically associated with rock music. Female punk musicians broke more clearly from earlier styles. Scholar John Strohm suggests that they did so by creating personas of a type conventionally seen as masculine: "They adopted a tough, unladylike pose that borrowed more from the macho swagger of sixties garage bands than from the calculated bad-girl image of bands like the Runaways." Scholar Dave Laing describes how bassist Gaye Advert adopted fashion elements associated with male musicians only to generate a stage persona readily consumed as "sexy". Laing focuses on more innovative and challenging performance styles, seen in the various erotically destabilizing approaches of Siouxsie Sioux, the Slits' Ari Up, and X-Ray Spex' Poly Styrene.
The lack of emphatic syncopation led punk dance to "deviant" forms. The characteristic style was originally the pogo. Sid Vicious, before he became the Sex Pistols' bassist, is credited with initiating the pogo in Britain as an attendee at one of their concerts. Moshing (slamdancing) is typical at hardcore shows. The lack of conventional dance rhythms was a central factor in limiting punk's mainstream commercial impact.
Breaking down the distance between performer and audience is central to the punk ethic. Fan participation at concerts is thus important; during the movement's first heyday, it was often provoked in an adversarial manner—apparently perverse, but appropriately "punk". First-wave British punk bands such as the Sex Pistols and the Damned insulted and otherwise goaded the audience into intense reactions. Laing has identified three primary forms of audience physical response to goading: can throwing, stage invasion, and spitting or "gobbing". In the hardcore realm, stage invasion is often a prelude to stage diving. In addition to the numerous fans who have started or joined punk bands, audience members also become important participants via the scene's many amateur-written and informally distributed periodicals—in England, according to Laing, punk "was the first musical genre to spawn fanzines in any significant numbers".