Exploring 'PUNK Magazine,' The Publication That Defined A Subculture
The punk scene in the ’70s actually began as kind of the antithesis to all of that. But what’s especially interesting is the fact that punk, as a socio-cultural movement at least, could have easily never happened at all. Bands like the Ramones, Blondie, and the Sex Pistols could have been swept under the rug, or turned into something completely different just to stay alive. How, then, did punk become such an explosive global phenomenon?
It’s impossible to point to one person or event as the start of a whole movement, but there was one particular publication that was essential to the punk movement—that helped dig up punk from its underground origins, and bring it into the public consciousness. And that publication is PUNK Magazine. While they may not have invented the term, the magazine was instrumental in defining punk and establishing it as the social movement that we remember it as today. In simple terms, PUNK helped make punk itself into a major subculture. It was this magazine, for instance, that featured an interview with the Ramones in their first issue—mind you, this was when the Ramones were still playing shows in near-empty rooms at CBGB—that eventually convinced Sire Records to sign a recording contract with the band.
But what made the publication truly special was that, unlike the innumerable music and culture magazines before and after it, PUNK wasn’t just about the scene. PUNK was made by and for the scene—that is, people who went to punk shows and punk parties. It was of the scene, like a Dead Boys concert or a roach-infested apartment.
PUNK—while a collaborative effort between talented and enthusiastic photographers, writers, and illustrators—was, ultimately, the brainchild of one John Holmstrom, who moved to New York in 1972 to study at the School of Visual Arts. Holmstrom had the commonly-held, ambitious dream of combining the two things he loved the most—humor writing and punk rock—and had the people, the grit, and just enough money to make it happen.
“We were very consciously starting a social movement.”
He launched the magazine with two of his high school friends, Ged Dunn Jr. and Eddie “Legs” McNeil, out of a tiny storefront on the west side (appropriately christened the Punk Dump). Trying to make money by creating something you’re passionate about is reason enough to start a business, but when it came to PUNK Magazine, the team had something bigger in mind.
“After Nixon was kicked out of office and we lost Vietnam, no one knew what direction this country was taking,” Holmstrom told me. “We just felt this void in the culture, and there was nothing happening. We kind of figured it was a little past the time, that we needed a cultural revolution. And we were very consciously starting a social movement.” Because in the mid-’70s, while “punk” was being used to describe more and more bands in the underground rock scene, no one was thinking about it as a political force—and that’s exactly what PUNK Magazine sought to change.
The first thing one notices when flipping though the magazine—don’t flip too hard, though, these are worth a lot of money nowadays—is that everything was written and drawn by hand. Each segment for each page was manually cut and pasted onto poster board before being reproduced. Since in the beginning, none of the staff had any real experience putting together a magazine, they did the best they could with a ruler and some rubber cement, and the result was something wholly original.
Although it’s been dubbed the “prototypical punk rock zine,” PUNK was a magazine proper, and wanted to establish itself as such. But since it so closely resembled a fanzine, both aesthetically and in content, it was written off by many mainstream publishers as too amateur, not to mention rude and immature. Potty humor aside, PUNK was rife with good, interesting, and no-bullshit content. Interviews were candid and raw; if the person being interviewed was being an asshole, that’s exactly how it would come across in the magazine. But it wasn’t just that PUNK wasn’t afraid to offend, it was that they weren’t afraid to be funny either—according to Holmstrom, this sense of humor was one of the most vital ingredients in the New York punk scene.
The magazine’s first issue, like the 14 that came after, seemed at first like a shot in the dark, but ended up being a hugely successful one; a chance encounter with Lou Reed landed them the perfect cover story. And as the months went on, PUNK’s fanbase grew. People from all over started sending in submissions to the magazine and offering their time and artistic contributions. A lot of people understood that something important was starting to take shape, and they wanted to be part of it. PUNK attracted the attention of artists, scenesters, and club owners alike—people who quickly became local celebrities in their own right.
“It was wonderful,” Legs McNeil remembered. “Doing PUNK Magazine was great because we could do whatever we wanted, you know? So it was kind of like working for the best magazine ever.” And, as you might expect, there was never a dull moment (nor a glamorous one) at the Punk Dump.
“I had my first threesome [at the Punk Dump],” said McNeil. “I was 19 years old. Ged was out of the office, so I—“
“At the office?”
“Yeah, well we lived at the office. and I took them up to the loft beds and I thought, ‘I’m not being… decadent enough.’ And then I thought—that Lou Reed song, ‘Some Kinda Love.’ Put jelly on your shoulder, baby, lie down upon the carpet… And so I thought ‘Oh, I’ll get some jelly from the fridge.’ We didn’t have any jelly. But we had maple syrup, ’cause we had instant pancakes every morning. So I poured the maple syrup over the girls, and we continued fucking. They were gone in the morning, and I was stuck, glued to the sheets. I had to pull them off and I got these horrible rashes.”
PUNK, and the punk movement in general, exploded overseas and morphed into a much bigger animal than anyone in New York could’ve expected. There were also plenty of people, in the UK in particular, who recognized the movement’s appeal, and knew how to market it (like Malcolm McLaren, the Sex Pistols’ manager and a savvy businessman). Regardless, PUNK Magazine saw little of this success. After all, there’s a downside to getting it all right on the first try.
“The same way the Ramones brought out the perfect punk rock album, we brought out the perfect punk magazine,” said Holmstrom. “We did everything right by accident with the first one, and then we just made more and more mistakes.”
The biggest mistakes, McNeil and Holmstrom agree, were probably the two issues that were entirely devoted to a single photo comic, graphic novel style. Never mind that the second of these, “Mutant Monster Beach Party,” starred Joey Ramone, Debbie Harry, and Andy Warhol—or that today they’re considered by many fans of the magazine to be their best issues—the feature-length photo comics were huge commercial flops.
Despite their sporadic successes and cult popularity, one thing after another would continue to prevent them from getting picked up by a publishing company and turning a profit. Times were hard, and the staff at PUNK printed each new issue with the knowledge that it could very well be their last.
As on-theme as it might’ve been for a magazine like PUNK to constantly be staring death in the face, no one ever starts a business hoping it will fail. PUNK was always caught in a weird purgatory between commercial viability and cultural honesty, between appealing to the corporate bigwigs and publishing the shit they thought was cool or important, no matter how strange or off-putting. Tragically, they never struck the right balance, and the magazine folded after three short years.
While it may not have seen the same national and international popularity as that which it gave the punk movement, PUNK is still at the roots of all that grew out of the New York punk scene, and in the hearts and minds of its fans. Ask anyone who was part of the scene, and they’ll know this magazine and how important it was. (They might also have some pretty cool stories.)
40 years later, the spirit of punk is still alive and well. Or, it’s dead as a corpse, rotting since the ’80s. Or, it died in 1976, when bands like the Ramones and the Pistols started getting signed to major labels. It all depends on who you ask. Obviously there’s a big difference between a leather jacket on the back of a beerdrunk rock ’n’ roller, and one carefully hung on a gallery wall. We can’t deny the fact that a distance of four decades makes the punk movement a lot easier for the mainstream to stomach now than when it was actually going on. Regardless, the artists of that era are finally, if belatedly, getting the recognition and celebration they deserve. And for that, I think, we have PUNK Magazine to thank.
Images courtesy of John Holmstrom and PUNK Magazine.
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