Why punk is dead, and Hugo Burnham may be right

Yes that’s right, punk is dead,”¨It’s just another cheap product for the consumers head.

I was 15 in 1977 and was an impressionable young man. The musical “events” of late 1976 and 1977 had an effect on me that has never really worn off. Those musical events shaped my life.

I was a teenage punk in a small town halfway between Nottingham and Derby. I went to see as many of the bands as I could. I had tickets to see the Sex Pistols at the Kings’ Hall ”“ if memory serves me right – in Derby, but the gig was cancelled: and I’d missed them at the Boat Club in Nottingham a few months earlier. But them aside, I’d seen pretty much all of the other punk bands by the end of 78. But what was a punk group? Were the Pop Group a punk group? Were ATV a punk group? Was Elvis Costello a punk? Were the Clash a boy band?

I didn’t know. But what I thought I knew was that punk was an attitude. I was prepared to get thrown out of school for wearing Never Mind The Bollocks badges bought from the small ads of the NME; I was prepared to give up my education to be in a band that was utterly hopeless ”“ and was convinced that it was that utter hopelessness, the wholesale lack of talent, was what made us a real punk band. The band was called Vice Squad ”“ before the Beki Bondage lot ever came along ”“ and we played one “gig” and had to escape. We had no drums, we used cardboard boxes, and we had no bass ”“ just two guitars, the cardboard boxes and our crazy singer: Chris. The rockers who saw our “show” wanted to kill us. We thought we must be doing something right.

In 1978 Crass declared that punk was dead. I agreed. I enjoyed PiL and some of the other stuff that came after: but, for me, punk was dead and was better dead. It had a completeness now that it was dead: it hadn’t dragged on for too long. It was far from perfect, but at least, to me, it had seemed valuable.

In the 80s I ran a label called Ron Johnson Records. It was a commercially hopeless label: partly because I was a hopeless businessman, but more so because I was a hopeless idealist ”“ and wanted the music on the label to be, in some way, true to that punk-inspired spirit of no compromise: all about the now.
Recently I wrote an “article” outlining why I thought Big Flame were such a brilliant band: because they stuck to their manifesto and burnt out like an incandescent star ”“ no tarnished copy books there ”“ just their four singles and a compilation ep. In that article I mentioned, in passing, without too much thought, that I felt that Big Flame’s sticking to their (laughing) guns was somehow more noble than the behaviour of bands like the Gang of Four and the Pop Group who had recently(ish) reformed. Why? I asked myself.

Hugo Burnham, drummer of the Gang of Four ”“ who, along with the Pop Group, were, and are, one of my favourite bands of all time ”“ contacted me and lambasted me for suggesting that there was something wrong with bands like them reforming. We had a frank and ultimately friendly exchange of views. Hugo accused me of being ageist, and, on reflection, I had to agree with him. When I suggested that bands such as G4 were now only doing it for the money, he pooh-poohed that: and he would know, I guess. When I suggested it was for reasons of ego, he suggested that I was being jealous. I thought about that, and thought he was probably right too: my band ”“ a little known venture called Splat! never did more than headline at the Melkweg in Amsterdam ”“ and yes, I suppose I am jealous of bands that achieved more than mine did. If the spotlight had fallen longer and more lovingly on us ”“ maybe we’d be reforming now, thirty years later.

But”¦ I still found the Sex Pistols reunion gigs unwatchable, and I still wonder why the bands that I idealistically watched in 76, 77 and 78 want to do what (some of them at least) accused The Who, The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd of doing: i.e. churning out the same old stuff year after year. PiL I could get, because it was a new incarnation and a new direction. If Gang of Four wanted to make music now, why not use a different name? Why trade off the past? I understand that the music is still meaningful to its fans; and I understand that some of the sentiments are as relevant today as they were thirty-five-odd years ago. I understand that. But the cardboard box thumping teenage punk in me thinks, wasn’t it better left alone? I even get the “spreading the word to a new audience” thing. But then, I still come away thinking it still seems a little Bruce Springsteen somehow. In 1977 when the Pink Floyds of the world were being criticised for being dinosaurs their careers had been going on for, maybe, ten years. Yes, rock music was still a fledgling entity in the 70s with a twenty-odd year history ”“ so, now, with sixty-odd years of history behind it, the parameters have changed. In the 70s there weren’t any bands from 30 years earlier who could come out of retirement. And if there had been, would I have wanted to see them? Who knows.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. For me, the bands with short, complete, careers ”“ often with members whose deaths caused the bands to cut their careers short ”“ are somehow more meaningful. Nirvana playing in 2011, would it be the same? I don’t think so. And would Kurt Cobain want to do it? I don’t think so either.

Movements are systems and systems kill.ӬMovements are expressions of the public will.ӬPunk became a movement cos we all felt lost,ӬBut the leaders sold out and now we all pay the cost.
Ironically, Steve Ignorant was on tour not so long ago”¦ each to their own I guess.


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9 comments on “Why punk is dead, and Hugo Burnham may be right”

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  1. Spot on. Its nice to see more dissent in the ranks…. So you headlined the melkweg 30 years ago you say? Can we expect to see you at rebellion next year then?

  2. So the Mispelt won’t be playing Rebellion then? After all you have been around far too long.

    This blog reads like an miserable old man gripe blog. So what if bands reform etc…if thet are good they are good. Most reformed bands ove seen are better than some obscure John Peel band who were making music for a hobby thirty years ago. Some musicians are actually into music and not the pose…also how come it’s ok for middle aged men to write blogs about music but not alright to play it?

  3. How can you presumptiously say Nirvana would not have reformed? First of all, had Kurt lived they might well have still been going. Sonic Youth still pull the crowds; Mudhoney never really went away (line-up changes notwithstanding). Kurt was clearly a very ill man, physically and mentally, so for him to have survived would have taken more than him simply not shooting himself – but in a parallel universe he may have gone into rehab, taken a couple of years off or even more and then got back to music – plenty of former junkie rockers have managed to clean up. Or maybe he would have just taken a step back from it all, Grohl would have formed Foo Fighters and carried on much as he did, before one day deciding to take the nostalgia cash. Idealising Nirvana as being somehow morally above that rather ignores the fact that they could have stayed indie/underground but chose to take Geffen’s dollars.

  4. Punk Is Dead, Long Live Punk.

    So the argument rages on. And on.

    Yes, the parameters have changed. I think our perspective ought to be able to change with it.

    Really, labels don’t tell us much anymore as the homogenisation of music gives us more & more variety & diversity.

    I’ll give you one thing, though. The Pistols re-whatever was dire ; in my opinion.

  5. Who cares if punk is dead? There’s some great new underground music around at the moment.

  6. punk has been dead. it deserved it. the only thing worse than punk, was the punks themselves.

  7. I’m in two minds about whether I agree with this, although I enjoyed reading it.

    There are bands out there, punk bands, who have never stopped touring. GBH, Vice Squad, the Damned, the Subs,the Exploited all have never chucked it in completely and then waited for their legacy to make them bigger than they were. To be honest, I don’t give a shit if any of them are “relevant” today musically, because I still listen to their music becuase I like it. I can’t say I’ve looked up any new material they’ve done since I was about 20 (1988), but their longevity and don’tgiveafuck’dness can’t be faulted.

    The reforming bands I find are essentially live museum exhibits. Those people who saw them and grew old with them will tip up to see the gig they saw when they were a kid, as in the main that’s all the play. Younger fans will want to hear live the material they love that was recorded 20 years before they were born. It’s probably about the cash, but for some bansds it’s getting the credfit now they think they never got, and saying “look..we weren’t shit after all”.

    The Pixies are a good example of how odd this whole OAP-tour thing is. They’re still packing out reunion gigs and making packets of loot years after they “reformed”. It isn’t just us old farts who saw them first time around (and grew out of them which probably lead to them breaking up, in part). But they’e bigger now than they ever were. The audience is full of kids who would walk past Kim Deal in the street, but sing along to every word of Dolittle. It’s fucking wierd.

    But one thing remains true, the garlic and sunlight of OAP-reunions is new material. No-one gives a shit about the new stuff, they want the Back to the Future trip to remind them of what they missed, not what they can hear done better by new bands.

    And I’m not smart enough to work out why that’s really rather sad.

  8. Punk is for fags haha

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