Punk – did it really happen the way we remember it?

Who remembers 1977? And punk? Our man Carlos has penned a few words about how punk’s remembered now & whether the true spirit of punk is still alive today.

It’s further in time from now to 1977 than it is from 1977 to the end of WW2. Like the war, the memories we have of the era fade, kept alive in newsreel films and on the vinyl discs we occasionally play on our home entertainment systems.

Surrounded by artefacts, false memories and hagiographies of punk’s proponents, I find myself unsure if Punkâ„¢ ever happened the way we are collectively encouraged to remember it. Oh, something definitely happened, but was it actually the way it has come to be recalled and represented, thirty-something years on?

The choice of 1977 as my pivot for this blog was mischievous. It’s the first and most widely cherished false memory. ”˜Punk Rock’ and ”˜1977′ are inseparably bound together in the UK’s social history. There are reasons for this: it was the second of two extraordinarily scorching summers, perfect metaphors for lethargy and apathy; it was also the Queen’s Silver Jubilee ”“ a nationwide spasm of enforced celebration that begged cultural reaction from the disengaged and the politically aware. A lot of the landmark punk events happened in 1977. Faces from then speak of the ”˜punk rock wars’ with affection. Could it be that whatever happened up until the summer of ”˜77 was the phoney war? Maybe so, but that summer was not the spring from which everything flowed. The current was already strong. In February 1977, the already former Buzzcocks frontman and enigma, the self-styled Howard Devoto stated bluntly: “What was once unhealthily fresh is now a clean old hat.” The context for this astonishing description of punk-in-the-past-tense was his departure from the band he co-founded. Buzzcocks had recorded and self-released their Spiral Scratch EP and thereby achieved everything he wanted to achieve. Punk, and Devoto’s influence within it, was already passé in his own mind. And yet it had barely started.

We need to step aside and define what it is we’re talking about at this point. Have we become so inured to sloppy referencing and shorthand that we now accept ”˜punk’ as a styling, a musical genre characterised as short, angry bursts of guitar-driven music; or worse, an off-the-peg couture elegantly crafted and mass-produced to look ”˜distressed’, laden with the iconography of the rip and the safety pin? The visual evidence of the day does not concur with the shorthand. Punks were adapting whatever they had to hand to make a statement. Punk was anti-fashion, defined by what it was not. Household objects as jewellery, pet collars and military uniform items as daywear, the dreaded swastika and exposed flesh, charity shop shirts and suits slashed and paint-spattered for effect, all deployed to cause a reaction. To be punk you only had to reinvent yourself, even if it was only at the weekend. The punk illuminati chose new names for themselves ”“ a rebirth, a symbolic rejection of the naming systems they came from. Punk was raceless and classless. Paradoxically, within this anonymity a cult of the self flourished joyously.

Most of what we think we know about punk is based on what we have been told by others. I was an adolescent witness, not a participant. Punk happened around me. Since that time, millions of words have been written about the origins of punk, many of them by revisionists seeking to underline their own importance to the movement. But ”˜movement’ implies unified thinking and manifesto. There was no masterplan, no guiding hand. Punk existed in fragments in many places before it assumed its own critical mass: the garage bands of ”˜60s America, the trashy gender-bending post-Bowie glam scene, the atonal minimalism of European art rock, the gleeful filth of Derek and Clive and uncompromising comedy of Richard Pryor for instance”¦ It was all there under the surface already. We had been shocked before but never so systematically and comprehensively under one handy banner.

Music was the conduit (or sewer, to its opponents) underneath the nation’s living rooms. It was the one aspect of punk that was easily understood by those unwilling to think too deeply about it. However, around the music was a cloud of creativity fuelled by the why?/why not? paradox that informed all true punk activity. What punk taught you was that you could only rely on what you could control for yourself. Make your own fanzine, form a band, create your own clothing. Why rely on Top Shop and Melody Maker to tell you what to like? If the culture you made for yourself was uncomfortable and abrasive, so much the better.

The Establishment, of course, reacted in two very predictable ways: outrage and assimilation. Outrage fuelled and validated the punk ethos, making dangerous movers and shakers out of the disaffected. With only three television channels to choose from, the British public found punk hard to avoid or ignore. Punk was also in your neighbourhood. Strong regional scenes grew up quickly, continuously expanding the conditions in which the ethos flourished. That is what made punk unpredictable and dangerous. It wasn’t managed, it wasn’t controlled, it wasn’t centralised. It was a cultural snowball rolling downhill. On the establishment side, influential individuals with no knowledge or understanding of cultural matters were discussing punk’s manifestations like Snow White”˜s Grumpy: “I don’t know, but I’m agin’ ”˜em”.

Assimilation, on the other hand, diluted punk to homeopathic levels. Headline ”˜punk’ acts began to fall prey to major labels, whether they did so ironically or not. Some made a success of it in the so-called big time, some did not. Ten months after Devoto’s ”˜old hat’ statement, Belgian cartoon punk Plastic Bertrand was in the charts with ”˜Ã‡a plane pour moi/Pogo Pogo’, a novelty record that mimicked faithfully all the musical and fashion stylings of punk rock. The punk look found its way into the High Street, safety pins and bin liners were ”˜in’ with the kids. Punk became the style du jour. True to its original principles, punk had already found itself to be a bandwagon for musical acts difficult to accommodate anywhere else: sweaty pub rock and r&b acts, art rockers, poets ”¦ The pantechnicon that punk became could not be maintained. It splintered into fragments, it rushed away left and right. It became, as Crass noted venomously, ”˜another cheap product for the consumer’s head’.

So was it all safety pins and swastikas, gobbing and filth? Maybe a bit. There was a punk stereotype partially built on myth, partly on self-publicity that was the very visible tip of a huge cultural iceberg. But punk wasn’t a movement, it was, as Pete Shelley puts it, a ”˜big bang’ and the universe it created continues to expand. It’s a universe with its own very specific physics. You won’t find it in The Offspring anymore, only echoes of the original explosion. You will find it, however, in Thea Gilmore’s laudable anti-corporate stance or in the bedroom urban music producer. You’ll find it anywhere artists and artisans retain control of the means of production and don’t give a fuck about toeing the establishment line.

There’s more punk in a protest about closing libraries than there is in a Green Day album. So 21st century faux-hawked, Sid Vicious wannabes with the bondage trousers/biker leather uniform ”“ I’m afraid you’ve been cheated.

All words by Carlos. More work by Carlos can be found here.

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13 comments on “Punk – did it really happen the way we remember it?”

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  1. Why do writers, when writing about punk, always slip in a reference to Sid clones? Despite the writers view, many punks looked like that. Not because we were morons but because it was a how we liked it. It was also quite a brave thing in the early days.

    Not everyone who looks like a stereotype punk is a poseur. Please remember this.

  2. Brilliant piece of writing. Should be compulsory reading for anyone who claims to know what punk is about.

  3. it think we are all perhaps becoming just a tad fed up now with all this punk nostalgia. Sure, punk was brilliant in its early days, the quality of some of the early bands is well documented but as far as i’m concerned punk was just another great phase of rock’n’roll, maybe the last great spell. I believe that people read too much into it, obviously its so far back now and the same myths/stories about it have been recycled umpteen times. Punk was basically a great rock’n’roll band, the Pistols, who were copied/had a galvanising effect upon, many other bands, some good, others not so good. One of the annoying aspects about the nostalgia fest is some of the downright rubbish said about the 70’s music scene, contrary to popular myth, there were some great groups around in 74/5/6, Slade,the Faces, SAHB,Hawkwind, Thin Lizzy, Groundhogs,Heavy Metal Kids, Pink Fairies etc to name a few. I am also fed up with constantly hearing about how great the Clash were, often its said by people who weren’t there and because they have become the ‘trendies’ favourite ‘punk’ band. Now, don’t get me wrong the Clash were a jolly good group in many ways but all this balderdash about them being ‘the only band that mattered’, what bollocks ! In my opinion The Clash are totally overrated.I am ultimately interested in rock’n’roll, i look upon punk as being an exciting phase of said genre in 1976/77, i don’t see it as the be all and end all as some people seem to. Somebody mentioned Rebellion, yes i think that is quite amusing, especially seeing the ‘poseur peacocks’ walking round Blackpool, people must think that they look like complete jessies and the ‘punks’ themselves think they are so anti establishment and ‘shocking’. They are as a big a joke/dinosaur as the teds were in 77 and, in many ways, just as conservative.

    • Again, why does somebody dressing a certain way mean they are a poseur? If I said ‘look at those idiots wearing jeans and t-shirts’ I’m sure you would think I was being closed minded but it is somehow acceptable to define people who dress like ‘punks’ as fools or being a stereotype?

      I don’t look like anything by the way, but it totally annoys me when people automatically assume it’s open season to label certain people with a huge banner of ‘idiots’. Some people, incredibly to you possibly, liked punk for more than 5 minutes and didn’t feel the need to disown it because someone said so.

      • fair comment, i was a punk myself in the 80’s and i think on reflection i was being judgemental re todays punks/rebellion, you are quite right in your comparison with people wearing jeans/t-shirts, i should have realised. I actually loved punk in the 80’s despite what my post implied, its just that as the years have passed with one or two exceptions its mainly the 77 era bands i tend to like now as far as punk goes. I still love Discharge, Anti Pasti and the Anti Nowhere League.

        • Cheers, didn’t mean to sound too harsh. I just hate the way that anyone who ‘looks like a punk’ is labelled as some sort of clone or brainless clown. Maybe they just like it like that and don’t want to conform to your (not you!) idea of non conformity?

          Or should we have all abandoned punk as soon as Siouxsie and Howard Devoto told us to?

    • Very much in agreement about the mid-70s bands you mentioned – I would add the Hammersmith Gorillas, Third World War, Dr Feelgood, Deaf School and Englands Glory – you’re certainly right about the scene at that time very under-ratted

  4. Nice piece,obviously rattled a cage going by the last post.
    Everyone is entitled to their opinion,In mine,The Clash were the best of their kind and out grew Punk,but that’s just my opinion,other people think they’re overrated,that’s up to them.

  5. I really enjoyed the article and agree that revisionist approaches are tending to overshadow what actually occurred. For a short while (similar to Two-Tone and Madchester) there was a period of time that was fueled by excitement above all else, sadly such a recurrence is long overdue. Music and musicians that seemed dangerous in a very conservative 1977 was certainly needed even if the impact was regurgitated by the media into outright fanciful fear. Football matches got tarred with the same brush, as if every time you stood on a terrace you were odds on going to get your head kicked in. Not the reality of course, but it sold papers.

    The Clash were simply a remarkable Rock and Roll band who happened to surface the same time as punk. They happened to be one of the clearest exponents of that sound too, but by late ’78 had already become something much different. Punk in it’s original sense didn’t last long but it spawned a better music scene driven by punk/diy/independent labels for the better part of the next fifteen years.

  6. Good article. Yep I remember 77 well, 18 living in Hastings, high on testosterone, drink and “leb”. Shopping for cloths in Oxfam, questioning authority, angry with the system, grasping the meaning of anarchy as self control, do it yourself. Listened to anything that was different, that shocked, that spoke about how fucked things were (so no disco), Pistols, Stranglers, Buzzcocks, Jam, Kraftwork, Elvis Costello, amongst many. But we also listend to Led Zep, Bowie, Floyd, The Kinks, Small Faces, etc, they were also new to me, they were also, in there time, the counter culture. Just as youngsters today look back at punk.
    The lets do it attitude was what punk meant to me, but it was corrupted and squashed by the rise of the self, individualism, personal gain, rampent consumerism, blatant commercialisation, aka the 1980’s and top down control. But the punk ethos lives on, mainly as an underground movement, mainly in club land, with the ocassional mainstream ripple here and there. And now we have the internet, a medium with which to express from the bottom up, perhaps things will change, perhaps they should. After all the the top down system really worked out well?

  7. Thanks for the comments. I think i was trying to get towards how narrow the modern definition of ‘punk’ is and how the ethos has been kind of lost under the iconography.

    Sid clones – ok, maybe a bit lazy of me, Sid has become a cipher because he died. He’s frozen in time, never changed and I think for that reason he became an icon that maybe he didn’t deserve to be. Or he was the ultimate embodiment of the ‘scene’ because he did what he wanted to do. His look was not itself unique but easy to assimilate.

    Middle aged people like me who grew up around that time have one great thing to thank punk for, and it’s not music or fashion stylings – it’s the feeling that you don’t have to take anything told to you at face value.

    Also, in defence of Green Day – while the Green Day organisation has become a bit of a corporate juggernaut, the guys themselves do a lot of work under the radar with other bands in a spirit more akin to ’76 than 2012.

    • >>Middle aged people like me who grew up around that time have one great thing to thank punk for, and it\’s not music or fashion stylings – it\’s the feeling that you don\’t have to take anything told to you at face value<<

      Now this, is more like it. I know exactly what you mean. Except I do thank it for the music..and the stylings…er.

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