When you think of techno, punk probably isn’t the next genre that comes to mind.
However, did you realize that the history of punk music actually had an influence on techno at the end of the 1980’s, culminating in the formation of Underground Resistance?
Also, techno and punk communities are both underpinned by several shared values.
While it would be impossible to cover all of techno and punk history in one article, in this post you’ll learn some of the history of punk’s impact on techno music and the values the two music communities have in common.
Techno music was at its most popular in the UK in the late 1980’s.
In the documentary Detroit: The Blueprint of Techno (7:40), a reporter asks Derrick May, “A culture that was generated out of a black crowd, a black scene here, then got coopted by white Brits. Why do you think that happened?”
He responds saying, “We have no idea how that happened.”
However, by tracing the origins of techno and punk, as well as the emergence of music genres that grew out of punk in the UK, we can better understand just why those white Brits loved techno so much.
If you know your techno history, then you’re already aware that techno got its start in Detroit, MI.
Funny enough, punk can also trace its roots back to Michigan. More specifically, Ann Arbor (about 40 minutes from Detroit) was home to Iggy and The Stooges.
Their debut album, The Stooges, featured the song “I Wanna Be Your Dog.”
The Stooges was produced by John Cale. He was a former member of the Velvet Underground, another band that proved influential in the development of punk and new wave.
Prior to leaving the New York City-based band, Cale played viola on the band’s 1967 debut album, The Velvet Underground and Nico.
The Michigan-New York link proved to be an important one. As New York was exposed to Michigan’s edgier sound, it gave rise to bands like New York Dolls.
Their single “Personality Crisis” was released in 1973.
It also gave rise to clubs like CGBG.
In fact, throughout the mid-1970’s, CGBG played host to legendary bands like The Ramones, Blondie, and Talking Heads.
No band has had as substantial an influence on electronic music as Kraftwerk. Interestingly, they also took influence from Michigan bands like The Stooges and MC5.
The German band released their eponymous debut in album in 1970, before releasing their first commercially successful album, Autobahn, in 1974.
Kraftwerk’s sound proved to be especially influential on The Belleville Three. In fact, Juan Atkins said, “Around 1980 I had a tape of nothing but Kraftwerk, Telex, Devo, Giorgio Moroder and Gary Numan, and I’d ride around in my car playing it.”
To name every band influenced by Kraftwerk around this time would be impossible, but one notable band they influenced was Throbbing Gristle, the founders of industrial music.
Throbbing Gristle are sometimes referred to as punk. They were even branded the “Wreckers of Civilisation” by British media outlets following their 1976 performance titled Prositution at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts.
However, Genesis P-Orridge, lead vocalist of the band, said punk was “too conventional.”
P-Orridge continually challenged social norms throughout their life. After meeting Lady Jaye in 1995, the two began the Pandrogyne project in which they underwent a series of body modifications to look more like each other in order to become one single entity.
Though their first album was released in 1977, Throbbing Gristle’s track, “Hot On The Heels of Love,” from their 1979 album, 20 Jazz Funk Greats, is now considered a proto-techno classic.
In 1973, Malcom McClaren, who owned a fashion and record shop in the UK, visited New York for the National Boutique Fair during which time he began working with the New York Dolls.
He supplied the band with outfits to wear on stage and joined them on tour in 1973. One year later, McClaren renamed his shop SEX, reflecting the fetishistic style the the Dolls helped popularize.
In 1975, McClaren went back to London after the Dolls broke up. After returning, he helped put together the Sex Pistols, even recruiting notorious frontman Johnny Rotten.
The band released their debut single, “Anarchy in the UK” in 1976.
The following year, the band released their first album, Nevermind the Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols. In the years that came, punk became a major subculture and was especially popular with rebellious youth.
Also released in 1977 were The Clash’s eponymous debut album and Damned Damned Damned by The Damned.
The Sex Pistols toured the UK in 1976 and played a gig in Manchester at the Lesser Free Trade Hall. This gig, while small, had a number of key punk and post-punk figures in attendance, including:
Within two years, Wilson and some of his colleagues launched launched “Factory” nights at the Russell Club in Manchester. It played host to bands like Joy Division and The Durritti Cloumn.
Sheffield-based band Cabaret Voltaire also played at the Russell Club. While the band’s sound evolved quite a bit over time, their track “Keep On” was remixed by Derrick May in 1990.
Factory soon began releasing its own records.
While the label worked with a number of bands, such as A Certain Ratio, the first LP they released was Unknown Pleasures by Joy Division in 1978.
Joy Division had a much more raw punk sound live, but legendary producer, Martin Hannet, introduced new elements during production, effectively ushering in a newer “post-punk” sound.
Joy Division and Martin Hannet continued to build on this new sound on their second album, Closer, released in 1980.
Unfortunately, before the album was released and just days before embarking on a US tour, the band’s vocalist, Ian Curtis, took his own life.
After the death Ian Curtis, Joy Division became New Order and released their debut single, Ceremony, in 1981. Originally a Joy Division track, the band re-recorded it, with guitarist Bernard Sumner taking over on vocals.
The same year, the band released their debut album, Movement.
Then, in 1982, Factory Records launched The Hacienda, a new nightclub largely bankrolled by New Order record sales and royalties.
The club’s name was inspired by Formulary for a New Urbanism, written by member of Situationist International, Ivan Chtcheglov. In it he writes:
“… no longer setting out for the hacienda where the roots think of the child and where the wine is finished off with fables from an old almanac. That’s all over. You’ll never see the hacienda. It doesn’t exist.
The hacienda must be built.”
Situationism was a critique of advanced capitalism and the idea of the Spectacle. Essentially, these theorists believed that everyday life was now mediated through commodified objects rather than directly-lived experiences.
Also key to this theoretical movement was the creation of situations, moments constructed to pursue authentic desires in order to counter the Spectacle.
While the music scene that had grown out of punk seemed to lose explicit political intentions, the radical and revolutionary ideas underpinning them remained.
In 1984, New Order released their international chart-topping single, “Blue Monday.” Unfortunately, because the album sleeve was so expensive, the label actually lost money on every one sold.
Between the release of Movement and “Blue Monday,” the band visited New York, where they were introduced to styles of music like post-disco and electro.
The new single was much more electronic sounding than their previous work, and borrowed heavily from electro music, which was also a key music moment helping shape the Belleville Three.
Even now, Kevin Saunderson plays the song in his DJ sets.
The Hacienda continued hosting traditional live acts and pop-oriented dance nights for the next two years or so, but by 1986 had become a dance club. That year, the club was one of the first in the UK to start playing house music.
A number of DJs were inspired to host these nights after vacationing in Ibiza in 1987. Acid house was popular there, and so was the after-hours style of clubbing.
“In the summer of ‘87 the Dutch turned MDMA into tablets that were easy to sell, easy to take and as strong as fuck, and their importation coincided with the rise of all these clubs like Shoom and Oakenfold’s Project in Streatham, and your night in Clink Street.”
Mike Pickering, founder of Quando Quango, was a DJ at the Manchester club’s “Nude” and “Hot” house nights.
Pickering was also responsible for signing James and Happy Mondays.
Happy Mondays released their debut album, Squirrel and G-Man Twenty Four Hour Party People Plastic Face Carnt Smile (White Out), in 1987. Funny enough, this record was produced by the same John Cale that produced The Stooges.
The band was influenced by the increasingly popular acid house music of the time, as well as Northern Soul.
Northern Soul is a style of Northern English music based on American Black Soul music from Detroit and Chicago. Interestingly, Pickering has talked about the influence of Northern Soul on him as a DJ, and the genre had a big impact on DJ culture.
With the increasing popularity of acid house music and raves and the influence of Motown music through Northern Soul, the stage was set for techno’s rise.
The summers of 1988 and 1989 were referred to as the Second Summer of Love. The era saw the explosion of Acid House music and unlicensed raves. The values of hedonism and freedom drew parallels to the 1967 Summer of Love in San Francisco.
Pirate radio stations promoted the music and underground raves, and ecstasy use was popular.
During the Second Summer of Love, Manchester-based electronic acts were also on the rise, including 808 State and A Guy Called Gerald.
Gerald achieved commercial success with the track, “Voodoo Ray.”
Soon, other Detroit techno songs, like Derrick May’s “Strings of Life,” became staples at massive outdoor raves.
1988 also featured the release of Techno! (The New Dance Sound Of Detroit), a compilation of songs put together by journalist Neil Rushton. The album was signed by Virgin Records, and its effects were felt the following year.
The next year, Detroit’s techno artists started touring the UK, with varying degrees of success. UK artists also visited Detroit to learn from and collaborate with the techno pioneers.
As the first wave of Detroit techno pioneers were achieving success abroad, a second wave of Detroit techno acts was forming.
Whereas the first wave of artists focused more on creating music that sounded good and was influenced by the post-industrial decay of their city, the emerging collective Underground Resistance made their work more explicitly political.
UR believed that the utopian techno of the Belleville Three had been transformed by European and British producers into a a “vulgar uproar for E’d-up mobs: anthemic, cheesily sentimental, unabashedly drug-crazed.”
This new techno edge incorporated a punk ethos, critiquing the commercialization of techno, people in power, and the structure of society as a whole. They had a militant dress code and etched their mission statements into their records.
The change was also noticeable in their harsher sound. The track “Fuck The Majors,” referencing when Detroit police officers beat Malice Green to death, even includes the words, “Message to all the murderers on the the Detroit Police Force — we’ll see you in hell!”
Ironically, the UK’s evolution from punk to acid house and techno, as well as techno’s cooptation by white Brits, gave birth to a new “techno punk” sound in Detroit.
While techno and punk are clearly very different musically, the ethos of punk and the principles of electronic music overlap quite a bit.
By looking at the similarities between the two genres, maybe we can bridge the two communities together.
One of the key values underpinning both punk and techno is the importance of community. This means looking out for others in the community and not always putting yourself first.
For example, if someone falls to the ground in a mosh pit, the first thing you should do is try to help them up so they don’t get hurt.
On the other hand, at a rave, if someone has done too much ecstasy or had too much to drink, the first thing you should do is help them to make sure alright.
While community is a key value for both techno lovers and punks, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be yourself.
In fact, free self-expression is perhaps the most important value for both of these communities.
However, there are plenty of inauthentic takes on the two genres.
For example, there is business techno, which is considered a mainstream commodity. It isn’t meaningful self-expression, but rather a product created for an audience to consume. Likewise, you might consider pop-punk to be in the same vein.
There’s a lot of work that goes into throwing a show or a rave. However, it all starts with a group of people just wanting to do something fun, cool, or different.
Whether you’re one of the people setting up an event or an artist, you are contributing to your community. Even if you’re not directly involved with the set up of the show, you can still contribute.
For example, by buying a ticket to a rave or donating money at a basement punk show, you’re contributing monetarily, helping further the people in your community, and showing appreciation for the work and artistry of everyone involved.
Best of all, you get to go listen to awesome music surrounded by people who love it as much as you!
While techno and punk are very different musically, there’s plenty of common ground in the ethos that each of them promote.
They both challenge the status quo and sit outside mainstream culture. Whether you’re into raving, dancing, or moshing, we all want the same thing: a better future based on free self-expression and love for one’s community.
Techno lovers and punks of the world, unite!