As some readers may be aware, by this point the celebrations in London of the fortieth anniversary of punk rock are over. For the capital, 1976 was the year- the year in which the Sex Pistols emerged into the full light of publicity and scandal, the year in which (in November) the first, recognised ‘punk’ singles were released, the year in which it all happened. For the rest of the country, though, it was the next year during which the previously metropolitan movement filtered down to smaller cities and towns and developed into a significant national cultural force. For the rest of the UK, January 2017 represents the beginning of the fortieth birthday, not its conclusion.
It is arguable that, by the beginning of 1977, some of the original musical force of punk was already spent. This is suggested by a report written by Janet Street Porter in The Times in late November 1976 concerning a new ITV music programme, the London Weekend Show (Nov.29th, p.11). She described how “Punk rock has been stealing upon us for some time now, with the original tales of torn clothes cobbled together with safety pins being superseded by more bizarre ones concerning punk fans transpiercing their cheeks Afghan zealot style, with those same safety pins.” Already we can see that a ‘uniform’ has been adopted, inspiring a generation of copycat provincial fans and a host of 1980s fancy dress party costumes comprising bin bags, fishnets and safety pins. (In this regard, see too my earlier post ‘White riot?’).
This aspect of the report might be dispiriting, but there was a hint of something else: “Punk, one gathered, meant an angry aesthetic negativity, bred in the dole queues and motivated by a hatred for the musical establishment. No expertise needed- anyone could do it.” For all the art-school pretensions and canny entrepreneurialism of Malcolm McClaren, a movement had been sparked which was inclusive and democratic and which encouraged DIY self-expression. That had to be something to celebrate- then and now.
Street Porter interviewed John Lydon in his dressing room at LWT. With his “calculatingly gimlet eyes,” he ‘crackled with infantile defiance’ pronouncing what could be taken as a punk manifesto:
- “Don’t accept the old order- get rid of it.”
- “Rod Stewart is for mums and dads.”
- “Don’t have any heroes- they’re all useless.”
For those of an impressionable age who lived through this, these words can still represent a call to action. The Times was more cautious in its assessment of the genre, however, making reference to fashions in post-revolutionary Paris (!) and concluding: “Some of the forces these anti-musicians are unleashing may prove not to be so nice… All art demands order, shape, ritual; punk rock, in its present inchoate state, can only be a transient phenomenon.”
In the immediate aftermath of the infamous Bill Grundy interview with the Pistols on Thames teatime television, The Times’ prediction of transience seemed reasonable. Dates booked for their ongoing tour around the country were cancelled or restricted. For example, a gig at University of East Anglia was only allowed to proceed on the understanding that there “must be no repetition of the bad language.” The mealy-mouthed piety and tergiversation of the Norwich students is depressing enough, but it is indicative of a national change of mood.
Originally, punk had been seen as harmlessly juvenile, even a little cartoonish, what with the sniffing of Airfix glue and characters called Captain Sensible, Rat Scabies and Johnny Rotten. Now, all parts of the press seized the opportunity to berate the new movement. The Pistols were a “monstrous group … singing their appalling song about the queen.” They were “disgraceful,” “deplorable,” “rubbish,” and “objectionable.” Punk rock was accused of “dragging standards down to an aggressive yelp.”
And yet. Although, as Tony Partington argued in The Times on July 30th 1977, the Pistols had initially appeared to be “resigned to early obscurity” they had nonetheless touched a nerve- responded to a need. They had taken music “back to the basics- speed, sweat and style.” Perhaps their appeal, and that of others like The Clash, was “to the emotions, not to the intellect; an attitude, not a message” whilst the proudly proclaimed anarchism of the movement was at best half-formed- “politically, the new wave has been more of a damp squib than the Sex Pistol’s ‘potential H-bomb.'” It was true, too, that behind the “squalid little incident” on Grundy’s show, there lurked what the newspaper called “the grubby face of mass punk promotion.” It was the product of “a certain kind of private enterprise with public significance,” using the media for free publicity and status, even though the product being promoted was “not musical talent, but outrage, anarchy and behaviour calculated to disgust and shock.” In this context, it may be understandable why anarchist punks Crass declared ‘Punk is dead.’
Nevertheless, despite the reservations and criticisms, something novel had been started; around Britain young people had been inspired. In early June 1977 Richard Williams reviewed a gig by Burlesque at London’s Sound Circus. He sadly acknowledged that “The advent of punk rock has changed the face of pop music … Suddenly entire genres seem redundant.” In this light, 1977 was the year for most of Britain, the year when bands were formed, labels and fanzines set up and singles recorded.
There is still much to celebrate in 2017.