Cultural Plus: “PUNK” The Magazine That Gave The Movement Its Identity

A Brief History of Punk Magazine, the birth we witness was a never-ending movement.
Left and Right: PUNK Magazine First Edition, courtesy of John Holmstrom

Throughout its history, there have been various arguments about who first coined the ‘punk rock’ terminology. In the early 70’s the word ‘punk rock’ can already be found scattered in the columns of Creem Magazine to NME to define garage rockers from the late 60’s and early 70’s such as MC5 and The Stooges. Often hard-rock outfits such as The Guess Who, Shadows of Knight to Aerosmith (newcomer at the time) were given the tag punk rock. The term appeared in the liner notes of the seminal compilation album Nuggets (1972) which documented psychedelic and garage rock singles from the first wave of the style’s emergence (1965–1968.)

A very short-lived zine called punk magazine (with lowercase styling) was also founded by journalist Billy Altman to document similar subjects. However, it wasn’t until 1975 that “punk” finally had its definitive meaning, after another new magazine based in New York called PUNK released its debut issue during the winter of that year.

During the mid-70’s, a new scene began to emerge in New York, centered around clubs like CBGB and Max’s Kansas City. Nobody had a name for it. The CBGB club owner, Hilly Kristal, called the movement ‘street rock.’ A group of three friends from Connecticut were fascinated by the scene. One-third of the gang, John Holmstrom was particularly inspired by The Dictators and the rebellious teen attitude that the overall scene had brought. He developed the idea to create a magazine and wanted to call it “Teenage News,” which the other member of the gang, Legs McNeil, found really stupid. Legs McNeil then proposed the idea to call the magazine “PUNK.” Holmstrom immediately responded by saying “I’ll be the editor,” and the last of the gang, Ged Dunn said, “I’ll be the publisher”; and they both looked at McNeil and said, “What are you going to be?” “I’ll be the resident punk.” The decision was made in just a few seconds.

Left: Legs McNeil, Anya Phillips & Debbie Harry at CBGB, 1976 by Chris Stein; Right: Max’s Kansas City, 1976 by Bob Gruen.

The word “punk” was usually what people of the establishment (be it cops or teachers) would call the criminals, the school dropouts and the fuck-ups of the society. While the movement was not necessarily by these groups of the society, it almost felt like the lowest of the low got together and started a movement. It became resonant with the people who had been told all their lives that they’d never amount to anything. “The people who fell through the cracks of the educational system,” as McNeil implied.

The word was getting very popular as more journalists started to use the term to describe a new batch of rock heroes in the mid 70’s such as Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen. But overall, the direction that rock music was going at the time was becoming too serious and too pretentious as hard rock/progressive rock music boomed and became the mainstream. So, with that in mind, Legs came up with the name and figured they needed to claim the name before anyone else did it. They wanted to get rid of the bullshit, revive the stripped-down Rock n’ Roll spirit of the 50’s with all the fun and liveliness back to life, which was actually kind of happening at the Bowery scene.

John Holmstrom was the genius behind PUNK. Not only that he was also the outgoing face of PUNK, the person at the magazine whom people trusted, as opposed to his PUNK’s counterpart, the wild “resident punk,” Legs McNeil.

Legs McNeil was the magazine’s mascot. All he wanted was to be forever young and be at a never-ending party and never get bored. Later in his career Legs McNeil became a successful writer. His most notable work called Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk (1997) — titled after the writing on Richard Hell’s infamous t-shirt — was the definitive book that documented the American punk scene.

The last guy, Ged Dunn, was not a punk at heart, but he played an important role in the magazine’s development. He was a smart guy who handled all the publishing and professional needs of the magazine. He was ambitious and he could smell something was going on in the underground New York scene.

The trio were as important as Joey Ramone, Richard Hell and Debbie Harry to the movement. They had provided a medium for artists like Patti Smith to express their philosophy. Through their editorial content, which basically was inspired by and capturing what was going on at the Bowery, PUNK helped create the idea of what ‘punk’ is about: the music, the fashion, and most importantly the attitude. That was how the new generation of rock n’ rollers got their name: punk.

John Holmstrom, Legs McNeil and Ged Dunn in front of their office, also known as The Punk Dump, 1976 by Tom Hearn

In its development, PUNK was quite fast in attracting the attention of people. PUNK magazine was becoming the face of 70’s New York City punk graphics. It had a uniqueness where there are comic elements in it. John Holmstrom always wanted to add comic elements to the magazine and present it in such mannerism. The cover story of its debut issue was an interview with Lou Reed who just dropped a new record Metal Machine Music, but instead of featuring photos of Lou Reed, he drew a figure of Lou Reed as a Metal Machine Man.

PUNK magazine had a considerable impact on many musicians of the time. By ’77, the usual CBGB residents such as Television, Ramones, Blondie and Talking Heads were signed to record labels, after appearing in the magazine. PUNK successfully translated what the scene was about to record executives, especially Seymour Stein, who had a major influence in promoting punk rock and new wave to the mainstream.

But just like any movement that reaches popularity, it will eventually be turned into a commodity. “After four years of doing Punk magazine, and basically getting laughed at, suddenly everything was ‘punk,’ so I quit the magazine.” In 1979 the magazine was closed. But considering the negative and nihilistic energy that PUNK had come with from the get-go, to fail in this term meant to succeed on their own terms.

PUNK magazine has become a great example of how a communication medium could play a fundamental role in successfully building a subculture community and constructing its identity, which impact can still be felt in today’s pop culture.

Written by Jody Muhammad and Kevin Dalimunthe

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