How was Punk Rock a reaction both to the commercialization of Rock and Roll and to the social climate in late 1970s Britain?


"It's a call to arms to the kids who believe that rock and roll was taken away from them. It's a statement of self rule, of ultimate independence."

--Malcolm McLaren, manager of the Sex Pistols

"That’s a very, very great place to be as an artist, when your imagination is your only limitation. It’s not your ability to play like a virtuoso, it’s not your ability to have your family pay for piano lessons when you’re a child, or to have a well-trained voice or to have gone to creative writing classes. Punk Rock was about three chords, four if you were lucky, five if you were decadent -- and having something to say."

--U2’s Bono on the influence of Punk Rock

By the mid-1970s, the live performances of many successful Rock and Roll bands had moved to larger and larger venues. “Stadium Rock” invited tens of thousands of fans to sit and watch bands perform, often from a great distance, and often accompanied by elaborate staging, massive banks of equipment, sometimes extravagant costumes, and virtuosic solos. Bands such as Led Zeppelin, Journey, Queen, Yes, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer led the field, commanding increasingly hefty ticket prices along the way.

The reaction against this trend began in Britain with the Pub Rock movement, which summoned a return to the raw sound of Rock and Roll and a move away from a growing commercialism. Musicians such as Graham Parker, Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, and Joe Strummer (later of the Clash) played in bands that appeared in small pubs where they could easily interact with their audiences — much as the Beatles had done in their early days in Liverpool and Hamburg. The Pub Rock movement helped pave the way for the emergence of Punk, which put audience participation back at the center of the whole enterprise.

Like Pub Rock, Punk provided an aggressive retort to Stadium Rock and the commercial elements of 1970s Rock and Roll. Bands such as the Sex Pistols and the Clash performed at small, dingy clubs in which the divide between artist and spectator all but disappeared. Audience members often dressed as “punks” and were indistinguishable from the performers themselves. They were no longer spectators worshipping their idols from afar, but active participants whose collaboration was essential to the whole project. So-called "slam-dancing" even found the boundary between stage and dance floor shattered as fans moved amongst the bands.

At the same time, Punk was rooted in the bleak economic and social mood of Britain in the mid-1970s. Unemployment was high, particularly for young people, and a seemingly endless series of strikes led to a “winter of discontent” in 1978. Anger at government policies boiled over into the streets.

The message of Punk was thus anti-mainstream, anti-establishment, anti-commercial, and very angry. As did early Hip Hop in the United States, Punk Rock embodied a “Do-It-Yourself” or “DIY” attitude. Many bands were self-produced and self-recorded. The message was simple: anyone could go out and form a band and make music. Punk put Rock and Roll back in the hands of a young, working-class population, and it did this at a moment when they had something to say.

In this lesson, students will compare and contrast some of the musical and visual elements of Stadium Rock with those of Punk Rock. They will investigate how Punk grew out of the particular musical and social context of Britain in the 1970s. They will then put their knowledge to work in small groups by creating album covers for a fictitious 1970s Punk Rock band.

Sex Pistols Perform in Paradiso, Amsterdam, 1977     |     Credit: Nationaal Archief




Upon completion of this lesson, students will:

  1. Know (knowledge):
    • The historical events surrounding the birth of the Punk Rock movement in Britain
    • The political and social nature of the British Punk Rock movement
    • The participatory nature of the British Punk Rock movement
  2. Be able to (skills):
    • Compare and contrast visual and musical elements of Punk Rock and the so-called Stadium Rock of the 1970s.
    • Trace musical expression to the specific historical context from which it emerged
    • Common Core: Students will evaluate content in text, pictures, and videos and analyze the point of view of the speaker/author (CCSS Reading 7; CCSS Writing 9; CCSS Speaking and Listening 2; CCSS Speaking and Listening 3; CCSS Language 6)
    • Common Core: Students will work with a partner to create and present an album cover using limited resources for a fictional 1970s Punk Rock band (CCSS Speaking and Listening 1; CCSS Speaking and Listening 4)


Motivational Activity:

  1. Pose the following question to students and briefly discuss: Is Rock and Roll something you listen to, or something you actively participate in?
  2. Distribute Handout 1: Comparing Musical Performances. Play the short clips of live performances from Emerson, Lake & Palmer, "Nutrocker" (1971)the Sex Pistols, "Pretty Vacant" (1976) and the Clash, "Garageland" (1977).  Explain to students that "Nutrocker" is Emerson, Lake & Palmer's Rock version of The Nutcracker Suite by classical composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
  3. After students have completed the handout, briefly poll students on their answers and discuss with the class as a whole:
    • Why would a Rock and Roll band want to perform a version of a Classical composition?  What does this suggest about how they seem themselves as artists?
    • Do the artists in the Sex Pistols and Clash videos seem to view themselves the same way?  Why or why not? 
    • If you had to describe each performance in a single word, what would it be?
    • What do you think are the main differences between the first performance and the second two? 


1. Divide students into groups of 3-4. Explain that they will be working in these groups to create an original album cover for a fictitious British Punk band of the 1970s. However, before they do so, they must investigate the origins of the Punk Rock movement to have a better understanding of what Punk artists were trying to express.

2. Distribute Handout 2: Punk Rock Discussion Guide and Handout 3: Punk Rock Document Set to each group. Instruct students to use the documents to help them answer the following questions in the discussion guide. (Please note that all of the questions and images below are included in the discussion guide and document set).


  • “Virtuosity” is defined as having great technical skill. For which of the bands in the videos is virtuosity more important?
  • According to the interview with Bono, what was Punk Rock’s attitude toward virtuosity? Does he believe you need to be a virtuoso to make Rock and Roll?
  • Look at the track listings from two different albums. What do you notice about the lengths of the songs? How does the length of the songs on the Clash’s 1977 album reflect what Bono is talking about?
  • Does the music created by the virtuosic artists convey the same message as the music performed by the other groups? How might their messages differ?


  • What do you notice about the performers’ interactions with the audience in the two videos? Is the audience involved? What distinguishes the audience from the performers?
  • How would you describe the role of the audience in this picture of Led Zeppelin

  • How would you describe the role of the performer in this picture of Rick Wakeman

Social Context

  • According to the Graham Parker video, what was the outlook in Britain in the late 1970s? What are some of the specific words Parker uses to describe the general situation?
  • What do you imagine the situation of young people in particular in this period would have been? What words do you think would best describe their outlook on life?
  • Why might young people turn to music to express themselves in this type of situation? If you had been living in this situation, how might you have gone about expressing yourself through music, even if you didn’t have any money or musical training?
  • Do you think a young person living in this situation would have been more likely to attend a Stadium Rock concert or a Punk Rock show? Why? Do you think that one of the performances in the videos best represents the social and political events of the time? If so, which one and why?
  • What do you imagine the music you would have made in this situation would sound like? (Note the words Parker uses to describe two album titles from this period, which include the words “howling” and “anarchy.”)
  • Can Punk Rock be considered a form of protest music? If so, what were the people who created it and listened to it protesting?
  • How might Punk Rock have been empowering to young people in this time and place? Think about the role of the audience, the sound of the music, and the “DIY” attitude of Punk.

Album Covers

  • How are the two sets of album covers different?

Elton John (1975) and Meat Loaf (1977) 


The Sex Pistols (1977) and The Clash (1977)


  • Which covers seem to better represent the idea of virtuosity? The idea of “DIY”? Why?
  • What message do you think the Sex Pistols and the Clash were trying to convey with these album covers? (Note: “Bollocks” is British slang with multiple meanings, but is generally taken to mean “nonsense” or “rubbish.”) Did they make them because they couldn’t afford professional artists to design their covers? What other reasons might there be?
  • Which album cover do you find most appealing, and why?
  • Why do you think the Clash decided to use this cover for their 1979 album London Calling? Compare it to this this cover from a 1956 Elvis Presley LP. What message do you think the Clash were trying to convey about their music? About how they saw themselves fitting in to the history of Rock and Roll?


3. After students have examined all the documents and completed their discussions, write the following two sentence stems on the board:

  • Punk Rock was a reaction against______________.
  • The main message of Punk Rock was___________.

4. Poll each group for its completion of the sentences, and briefly discuss the similarities and differences among responses.

5. Distribute Handout 4: Guidelines for Designing Your Album Cover. Distribute a piece of construction paper; crayons, markers, or colored pencils; scissors; and old magazines to each group. Ask students to use the materials, as well as the information in their document sets and the understandings gained from their discussions to create an original album cover for a fictitious Punk Rock band in the 1970s. Students may use any additional materials they have to complete the assignment.

Summary Activity:

1. Ask each group to present its album cover to the class as a whole.

2. Ask each group to explain the choices it made in the design, and discuss each group’s choices with the class as a whole.

3. Ask the class to discuss whether or not each group’s design and choices faithfully represent the ideas of Punk Rock.

Writing Prompts:

1. Ask students to use the two sentence stems above to write a journal entry or essay.

2. Use the following quote from Malcolm McLaren, the manager of the Sex Pistols, as a starting point for an essay or journal entry on the origins of Punk Rock: "It's a call to arms to the kids who believe that rock and roll was taken away from them. It's a statement of self rule, of ultimate independence."


1.  Ask students to investigate the similarities and differences between the early Punk Rock movements in the United States and Britain. Have them watch the 1976 interview with Patti Smith and her performance of "Redondo Beach," as well as the 1978 interview with the Ramones and their performance of "Sheena is a Punk Rocker." To what extent do the ideas of Smith and the Ramones echo the themes about early Punk Rock in Britain discussed in this lesson? In what ways did American Punk reflect similar reactions to popular styles of music in the 1970s? How are Smith and the Ramones' performances similar to/different from those of the Clash and the Sex Pistols? To what extent should early Punk be thought of as a cohesive movement, and to what extent did it reflect differences in both the social and artistic contexts of Britain and the United States?

2.  Using the interviews with Bono and Patti Smith as a starting point, have students create a short musical composition focusing on the idea of “making imagination your only limitation” and the idea of imagination as a source of "liberation."  After viewing and discussing the two clips, invite students (working alone or in small groups) to create a short song. Have students present their songs to the class. 

Discuss as a class: Do students consider these good songs? What makes a song good? Does a song require musical complexity to be “good”? Why or why not?


Common Core State Standards

College and Career Readiness Reading Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 for Literature and Informational Text

  • Reading 7: Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse formats and media, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.

College and Career Readiness Writing Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 in English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects

  • Writing 9: Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening for Grades 6-12

  • Speaking and Listening 1: Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
  • Speaking and Listening 2: Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.
  • Speaking and Listening 3: Evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric.

  • Speaking and Listening 4: Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Language for Grades 6-12

  • Language 6: Acquire and use accurately a range of general academic and domain-specific words and phrases sufficient for reading, writing, speaking, and listening at the college and career readiness level; demonstrate independence in gathering vocabulary knowledge when encountering an unknown term important to comprehension or expression.

Social Studies – National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS)

  • Theme 1: Culture
  • Theme 2: Time, Continuity, and Change
  • Theme 3: People, Places, and Environments
  • Theme 4: Individual Development and Identity

  • Theme 5: Individuals, Groups, and Institutions

National Standards for Music Education

Core Music Standard: Responding

  • Select: Choose music appropriate for a specific purpose or context.

  • Analyze: Analyze how the structure and context of varied musical works inform the response.

  • Interpret: Support interpretations of musical works that reflect creators' and/or performers' expressive intent.

  • Evaluate: Support evaluations of musical works and performances based on analysis, interpretation, and established criteria.

Core Music Standard: Connecting

  • Connecting 11: Relate musical ideas and works to varied contexts and daily life to deepen understanding.