It might have got record companies to finally wake up to a few grotty upstarts doing it for themselves, but the nothing in the real world changed.
Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated? A neat narrative seems to have sprung up around punk and been fed back into popular culture. Anyone who believes everything they read will probably see it as happening like so: The Sex Pistols release the single “Anarchy In The UK” out of nowhere, and it immediately plunges Britain into a musical Year Zero, the sonic equivalent of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, rendering everything that came before it as obsolete, while simultaneously causing a political uprising to sweep across the nation. But as the Boris Johnson-backed Punk London celebration launches in 2016 to celebrate forty years of the genre, and Malcolm McLaren’s son Joe Corré promises to burn £5million worth of punk memorabilia as a protest at its complete appropriation by the mainstream, maybe it’s worth having a re-think about punk's genuine legacy and what parts of it should have been tossed on the bonfire many years ago.
Funnily enough, scouring the internet to find opinions about punk actually being shit is quite hard. I found just one article proclaiming this fact, from The Guardian in 2002 and written by Nigel Williamson. I wasn’t able to contact Williamson, who has presumably gone into hiding from angry punks gobbing all over his face. In preparation for my own article, I have bought a waterproof poncho and some Speedo goggles.
If you can remember 1977 – and I just about do – then you’ll have noted that the radio wasn’t actually filled with the Sex Pistols and Siouxsie and the Banshees. My parents, or your parent’s parents, were listening to Radio 1, and it was all Boney M and David Soul at the time. When punk was first born in the UK, there was indeed some outrage, and perhaps a torch was passed reluctantly from the old to the young, but to write off that period as some sort of national awakening which rendered all other music produced in 1976 and 1977 useless is ridiculous. Lou Reed, Bowie, Queen, ELO and Dylan all had fine albums out in 1976, and 1977 saw Kraftwerk as well as Giorgio Moroder and Donna Summer produce some of the most seminal and forward-thinking records ever made.
The other big myth concerning the concept of punk was that it was actually good, when in many ways it was not. The Sex Pistols and the Banshees were alright, but in all honesty, the former was essentially a glamrock boyband assembled by Malcolm McClaren, and the latter was a gang of goths. Who else was there? The Clash? A bit blokey. The Damned? They were okay, but they didn’t get really good until much later. Adam and the Ants? Much better when they ended up on Top of the Pops as the sexy pirates of pop. The Buzzcocks? Could have done with a decent producer. The Stranglers? A bunch of misogynists. And then there were the also-rans like Sham 69, Generation X, and X-Ray Spex, who arguably haven’t stood the test of time.
Punks were trying to counter rock n’ roll by playing rock n’ roll themselves, only terribly. They also adopted the swastika, which might have seemed clever at the time, but whichever way you try to justify it now, was pretty boneheaded. Punk had energy apparently – well so, unfortunately, does Olly Murs. Even the Slits – who I desperately wanted to be good, especially after reading Viv Albertine’s excellent Clothes, Music, Boys – can feel a little average, with only sporadic moments of brilliance. But don't just trust me on this. I decided to canvas the opinions of some real punk experts to lend this whole thing just a hint of authenticity.
“I'm not sure that I can really help much with your article,” wrote Penny Rimbaud, the co-founder of seminal anarchist punk band Crass, who declined to be interviewed when I told him about the direction of my piece, though his reasoning was fairly eye-opening. “Yes, I have been and am critical of much of what punk was and came to be, but most of that criticism was, I believe, constructive – attempts to fire imagination and creativity within a movement that had at one time great potential for social change. Indeed, most of the punks of the day who I know, or have met since then, have remained very active in this respect both creatively and politically. Certainly the first wave of punk (Pistols, The Clash, etc,) was little but an extension of Tin Pan Alley culture, but what followed (led, I believe, by Crass) was a radical and often life-changing movement that changed many lives and had deep effects within mainstream culture.”
He then added, “Having read your message, it seems to me that your criticism is very much based on the early London-based punk which, as I've said above, was little more than music business hype. What happened after that was vibrant and inspiring to thousands of people across the globe, and I have no desire whatsoever to be critical of that. In short, we talked the talk and walked the walk and, in our own way, changed the world.”
What Penny says is interesting, and I also happen to agree with him, in that it’s UK punk’s first wave that this piece is all about (because let’s face it, the American bands that came before, like the New York Dolls, The Stooges and The Ramones, were pretty damn cool). It’s not that I have a huge problem with The Sex Pistols – I enjoyed Never Mind The Bollocks as an album – but it’s all the dross that attached itself to what they were supposed to represent: the Adverts, ATV, the Cockney Rejects, The Mekons and so on. There’s this argument that punk, as part of an excoriating counterculture, changed things, but that argument feels misinformed.
Sure, it might have got record companies to finally wake up to a few grotty upstarts doing it for themselves with glue sticks and badge makers, but nothing in the grown-up world changed. The Tories still got elected in 1979, the baby boomers still got rich and fat, and there were still three million unemployed in the 80s, even if some of them were singing “no future”. These days, you only need to take one look around you, at David Cameron’s apathetic Britain, to realise that punk’s political influence was relatively minor.
“Those of us who were involved in the punk movement vastly overestimated the political importance of what we were doing,” says Joseph Heath, a Canadian professor of philosophy, writer and lecturer, who wrote the book Filthy Lucre: Economics for People Who Hate Capitalism, and co-wrote The Rebel Sell with Andrew Potter, about how they believe the counterculture has been a massive failure, despite misapprehensions that it was successful. “The problem was, we hadn't really learned the lesson that should have been learned from the failure of the '60s counterculture. We all hated hippies – we basically thought they had failed to change anything, then sold out.”
He continues: “We figured our solution was to be more hardcore, and more uncompromising, in every respect, in both our politics and our music. The problem was that we were still buying into the same idea of counterculture, the idea that you could break the system merely through acts of nonconformity. In other words, punks basically had the same theory of revolution that hippies had, we just thought that they hadn't done a very good job of it, and we were going to show them the proper way. Unfortunately, the whole thing was misguided. In a sense, we were insufficiently critical of the hippies, and of the '60s. Not only did their rebellion fail, but the whole analysis that informed their approach to rebellion was totally wrong.”
The countercultural movement failed to change things politically in the late 60s, just as it did in the late 70s as well. Even the soixante-huitards at the Sorbonne – who brought France to a standstill – were quickly forgotten as the wheels of capitalism inevitably churned them up (or at least it looks inevitable now). But if there were so many people willing, then why didn’t any of this insurgency stick it to The Man?
“The countercultural analysis, unfortunately, turned out to be mistaken,” says Heath. “There's no other way to put it. It was genuinely believed that countercultural rebellion would undermine and destroy ‘the system’. In the end though, it turned out that ‘the system’ doesn't actually require mass conformity. So all that ‘rebellion’ just became a new source of competitive consumption.”
Even Lipstick Traces by Greil Marcus, which draws a link between the punk movement and the Situationists in France in the 1960s and the Dadaists of the 1920s, puts paid to the idea that anything changed because of punk. “By the standards of wars and revolutions," writes Marcus, "the world did not change; we look back from a time when, as Dwight D. Eisenhower once put it, ‘Things are more like they are now than they ever were before.’ As against the absolute demands so briefly generated by the Sex Pistols, nothing changed. The shock communicated by the demands of the music becomes a shock that something so seemingly complete could, finally, pass almost unnoticed in the world of affairs.”
John Robb is a singer and bass guitarist with noisy reformed punks The Membranes, as well as Gold Blade, another bunch of noisy punks. He’s also a music journalist, a broadcaster, and the author of Punk Rock: An Oral History, and the most likely person to see as a talking head on the news when they want to talk about punk. He’s been a punk rocker ever since he first discovered it in 1976, nailing his colours to the mast before he’d even heard a note.
“It was the idea (of punk) and even the way it looked,” says Robb, writing from his tour bus in the middle of the night. “This was 1976. There was no internet. You could not hear this stuff. No records were even released and we were in Blackpool, not London. We were marooned in Blackpool. You would see the pictures of the early punks in ‘76 and they looked amazing! When I finally heard the punk bands, they were what I thought they would sound like from how they looked. Hands up we were naive, but we wanted the aesthetic to be true. We were also young and just wanted something thrilling and dangerous to do, and believe me, it could be quite dangerous being punk in the late 1970s.”
I’ve seen Robb play with his bands The Membranes and Goldblade, and I’ve seen him get misty-eyed about the redemptive power of rock n’ roll on stage, and in those moments I’ve wanted to believe him. But then again, artists in many different fields have been discovering that they’re incapable of changing the system ever since the optimism of fin-de-siecle Europe, when the machines of love and grace were turned into the war machines that destroyed a generation. As such, could an art form like punk ever have changed anything really?
Robb thinks it can. “It does, and when it does, it seeps away,” he explains. “The impact it has is hard to notice because it's everywhere. It means academics can write books about how it is not a threat to the system. Friends in Russia, who are slightly older than me, tell me that the Beatles gave them hope in the old days because they sounded and looked like freedom, and that feeling brought down the system in the end.”
Punk might have quelled the excesses of prog rock and AOR, but remember it’s Muse and Coldplay who are headlining the next Glastonbury. And what’s all this about punk being omnipresent in the late 1970s, when in fact the radio was filled with the Barron Knights and the vinegar strokes of disco?
“No-one ever involved in punk has ever claimed this,” says Robb. “This is just one of many narratives that goes unquestioned. Were The Velvet Underground more influential than The Beatles? Are The Fall more important than The Sex Pistols?”
These bands probably mean less to kids now than Slaves or even, dare I say it, Royal Blood, and punk rock is surely now a heritage industry only, recycling former glories as a snotty simulacrum, a genre as fit for the museum as Mozart and Beethoven. “Every great idea stays in culture forever. But why get bogged down in caring about all of this? Is there anything less punk than caring if punk has become a museum piece? By the time it’s been tidied up, we are already somewhere else. There is nothing less punk than caring about what other people think about punk!”
This might be true, although in the words of the great Johnny Rotten, “Question everything!” Which is why I’ve challenged the received wisdom that punk was great and have come to the considered conclusion that the first wave of punk was an overblown phase of youth culture that certainly looked pretty beautiful, but essentially achieved nothing of what it historically lays claims to. Punk didn’t change a thing, despite what the media, and everybody else, will try to tell you.
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