Essential Question

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.

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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)