The Unsung Rock Subcultures That Influenced Style and Culture
What does rock ‘n’ roll mean to you?
Loud, electrifying guitars? Sure.
Pounding drums? Yep.
Iconic, rebellious style? That too.
Really, though, rock ‘n’ roll is a state of mind. It’s not so much about one specific sound, one specific look, as it is about doing things for yourself, forging your own path, and living life on your own terms. In the 60-plus years of rock, the genre has sprawled in countless directions, from death metal to hip-hop, but what unites them all is a thoroughly DIY spirit, where people have an idea and turn that spark into something beautiful and all of their own.
Sure, they make great music and dress in cool-as-hell outfits, but really, subcultures are about creating a space for people to come together and create something brand new.
That rebellious, countercultural energy is something that Marshall and its electrifying audio gear have been a part of since the company’s birth 60 years ago — join us as we take a brief trip through some subcultures and micro-genres that truly exemplify that groundbreaking, pioneering spirit of rock.
Psychobilly is, at its heart, rockabilly — the swinging, raucous blend of rock ‘n’ roll and country music that shot Elvis Presley to the spotlight in the ’50s — but it amps up the guitars, goes faster (and then faster again) and takes satorial cues from the leather-clad domains of punk and goth, and adds a healthy dose of ’50s pin-up girl. Key parts of the Psychobilly look include shiny, greased-up hairdos, leopard print, leather jackets (lots of leather jackets) and heavy boots — all rock ‘n’ roll staples, but when amped-up with heavy make-up and traditional tattoos, makes for a look like no other.
Psychobilly can be traced back to The Cramps, a beyond-iconic punk rock act emerging from NYC’s late ’70s underground, who sounded kinda like The Stooges soundtracking B-Movies. Led by singer Lux Interior and guitarist Poison Ivy, The Cramps threw together a glorious mess of rockabilly swing, punk rock attitude, sleazy lyrics, and horror film references. Why? Well, why not?
The Cramps’ chaos was smoothed out into a more cohesive genre by bands like The Meteors and Demented Are Go, who took rockabilly’s upright bass, hollow-body Gretsch guitars, and greaser look, then threw it into a fairground hall of mirrors, creating a mutant subculture that looks ghoulish on the outside, but at the end of the day is just pure fun.
Go straight for the jugular with The Meteors’ Psycho For Your Love and Necromantix’s Who Killed The Cheerleader, or if you’d like an entry-level tune to dip your toes into, try Tiger Army’s cover of Lana Del Rey’s “Dark Paradise”.
“We are angry at a society that tells us Girl = Dumb, Girl = Bad, Girl = Weak” reads a 1991 manifesto written by Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna. Bikini Kill, along with acts like Bratmobile, Heavens to Betsy, and 7 Year Bitch were central players in the Riot Grrrl scene (spelled with two or three r’s — however you prefer), a politically-charged feminist movement birthed in the early ’90s Pacific Northwest.
Originating in and around Olympia, Washington, Riot Grrrl was a loud and pissed-off response to misogyny in punk rock and hijacked the scene’s DIY tactics to advance its own feminist message. The movement soon grew into a sprawling network of bands, record labels, zines, and concerts, all run for and by women. While the music sounded like punk — raw, rough, and spontaneous — and the outfits echoed the thrown-together aesthetic of grunge, Riot Grrrl was really about nurturing and promoting feminist issues. DIY zines gave women a platform for ideas that wouldn’t normally be published, while community meetings and live shows were a chance to confront issues that Riot Grrrl bands talked about — domestic violence, sexual assault, the patriarchy, classism, and racism.
While the outfits from the Riot Grrrl era subverted mainstream standards of female beauty at the time, the movement wasn’t about looking cool. “Stop always worrying about what you look like and what clothes you wear, ’cause in the end it’s not important” Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna explained in a conversation with Jerico Mandybur. “What’s important is friendship and being creative. Being part of the solution — something that’s bigger than yourself.”
Riot Grrrl suffered from hostility at shows — bands were regularly heckled (or worse) by boneheads in the crowd — as well as cynical press from the mainstream media, while music publications started throwing the term at any and all women-fronted bands, whether they were part of the scene or not. By the end of the ’90s, the movement’s “girl power” call to arms, which originated in an early Bikini Kill zine, had become the tagline of the Spice Girls. That doesn’t mean the scene was entirely lost to the mainstream — you’ll find a riot grrrl spirit living on today, whether it’s through Russian protest group Pussy Riot or teenage four-piece The Linda Lindas.
Check out Bikini Kill’s Rebel Girl or this viral live performance from The Linda Lindas.
Heavy metal might trace its roots back to the blues, but it’s still mainly seen as a genre for white people. That’s a common misconception — you’ll find scenes of metalheads all over the globe, from Indonesia to Colombia — and case in point are Botswana’s Hellbangers. Members of the scene might go by nicknames like Dead Demon Rider and Coffinfeeder, but metal isn’t a full-time gig for them — most make a living through regular work, they’re farmers, cops, civil servants and working in hotels.
“Most of us just cannot afford the instruments, so we play on cheap shit,” explained Dumisani Matiha, singer and guitarist of Metal Orizon, in an interview to Huck magazine. “We have been surviving on the music’s DIY culture for as long we can remember.” That do-it-yourself mentality defines the scene — Hellbangers create their own glorious riffs on metalhead and biker style, making their own leather gear and cowboy hats, decorated with chains, studs, and animal skulls, harking back to Motorhead’s iconic Ace of Spades album cover. The fact that these iconic looks have been pieced together from limited means just goes to show that real style comes from attitude and passion.
Lacking the sort of resources available to bands in the Global North, the Botswana scene revolves around DIY shows, often unpaid, where fans come together and worship at the altar of metal for the love of it. “This is the life that I chose” explained Shalton ‘Spencer’ Monnawadikgang, guitarist for Overthrust, to Huck. “The feel of the leather, the rattling sound of the guitar – that’s who I am… and no one tells me how to do it.”
The Hellbanger scene may have a DIY mentality but the Botswanan bands are anything but amateurs — check out Overthrust’s guttural death metal, Metal Orizon’s Maiden-esque power metal, and Wrust’s Sepultura-esque groove.
Coldwave emerged from the ashes of punk in the late ’70s. Less political, and much less guitar-based, the genre drew from post-punk acts like Joy Division and Siouxsie And The Banshees, taking punk’s snarl and DIY attitude and pushing it into more electronic and minimalist territory thanks to Kraftwerk and the proliferation of affordable synthesizers. Coldwave pioneers like Absolute Body Control honed in on a sound where vocals echoed around sparse soundscapes, with grinding rhythm sections reflecting the genre’s lo-fi aesthetic.
While the genre technically descended from punk, Kraftwerk’s pioneering electronic sound was an enormous influence on coldwave — the term was first coined in 1977, when UK magazine Sounds put two members of Kraftwerk on the cover, describing their sound as “new musick: the cold wave”.
If punk fashion was a nihilistic explosion aimed to offend, coldwave artists dressed smarter and gothier, turning black leather and blacker sunglasses, big trench coats and baggy thrifted suits. What’s really worth noting about coldwave style is that tailored, more formal pieces don’t have to look stiff and preppy — these guys proved just how cool a trench coat and suit can look when worn in the right way.
The scene’s do-it-yourself mentality, defined by its tape trading, blurry photos, and lo-fi album art fed a sprawling scene with bands scattered all over Europe. The Netherlands had Clan of Xymox, Belgium gave the world Absolute Body Control, Poland had Siekiera, and Notchnoi Prospect were even working on their own sounds from behind the Iron Curtain in Soviet Russia.
The genre is experiencing a very welcome revival — acts like Molchat Doma and Lebanon Hanover stay true to coldwave’s minimalist blueprint, while Boy Harsher turbocharge the genre to techno speed, while Curses lays out a romantic, dreamier take on the sound.
Curious? Try Absolute Body Control’s So Obvious and Lebanon Hanover’s Kiss Me Until My Lips Fall Off.
When people think of subcultures, they imagine niches developing in specific places, where people with shared values and ideas come together and bring something new into the world. That was the way things went before the internet and social media came along — now, the idea of one specific culture seems pretty outdated, a relic of the 20th century like cassette tapes.
One of the many micro-scenes that emerged from the digital rabbit hole was Seapunk, which was born on Tumblr around 2011 and blended aquatic themes with 3D-rendered net art and chopped-and-screwed rap from the American South.
IRL Seapunks, when spotted out of their natural habitat (Tumblr), could be recognized by their bright neon hair and clothes, which were worn with baseball caps and thrifted flannels. The look hasn’t exactly aged well, but it goes to show that throwing together a spontaneous mix of styles hits just as hard as a luxury statement piece.
It’s hard to tell exactly when Seapunk hit its apex moment — maybe it was Azealia Banks’ “Atlantis” video, Rihanna’s 2012 “Diamonds” performance on Saturday Night Live or the New York Times’ Little Mermaid Goes Punk article. Either way, like so many movements born on social media, left as quickly as it came.
Where previous subcultures were earnest in their intentions and beliefs, many post-internet movements are ironic — all those photoshopped dolphins and mermaids are best taken with a pinch of salt. The idea of cultural spaces existing purely online means they tend to hint at escaping the real world and all its miseries. “Who’s down with creating icepunk or somethin?” asks Youtube user John Doe on a Beachbrat mix. “I wanna feel like a melting iceberg in a world of unicorns and magical dolphins jumping through double rainbows of fire and ice explosions.” Who doesn’t?