Forty Years Later, Can Punk Still Provoke?
In 1977, punk took hold on both sides of the Atlantic. For guttersnipes from Los Angeles to Amsterdam, the spring sortie from The Clash rang clear:
“No Elvis, Beatles, or The Rolling Stones / In 1977”
As it turned out, Elvis Presley only had a few months to live (d. 16 August 1977). The Beatles were still making so-so solo records, and The Rolling Stones were in repose after wrapping up their worst sequence of studio LPs to date (Goat Heads Soup, It’s Only Rock ’n Roll, Black and Blue).
Over the next four decades, the cycle of punk provocation and moral outrage created some of the most compelling moments in rocknroll history. The expression of anger as an energy and the subsequent popular indignation remained in punk’s favor through the riot grrl years, but what about today? In these difficult times, when anger and outrage serve as our lingua franca, can punk still provoke?
To imagine punk’s future, let’s take stock of seven magnificent moments of punk insolence since 1977.
1. The Sex Pistols’ (Non-)incident at Heathrow Airport (4 January 1977).
Fresh from their legendary exchange with Bill Grundy on Today, the Pistols headed to Holland on a morning flight, allegedly plague-green with hangovers. That afternoon, page one of Evening News condemned, “These Revolting VIPs!” The Pistols reportedly vomited and spat their way through the terminal. “We had been keeping an eye on them in the departure lounge,” noted a KLM official, “because we thought they were thoroughly unsavory.”
EMI’s Graham Fletcher knew first-hand that the report was absolute rubbish. He accompanied the Pistols to Heathrow and, due to their tardy arrival, the band bypassed the check-in desk for KLM. Still, quick-draw MP Robert Adley penned a letter to Sir John Read of EMI that same day. “Surely a group of your size and your reputation,” he imagined, “could forgo the dubious privilege of sponsoring trash like the Sex Pistols.”
Two days later, they did. McLaren appeared forlorn after EMI dropped the band, but soon enough “began to eye the future with a renewed sense of optimism.” With the proper label, McLaren imagined, the Pistols “‘could make a really big deal, [and] get into the movies.” For John Scanlan, author of the sharply concise Sex Pistols: Poison in the Machine (Reaktion Books), this moment marked a key turn in McLaren’s imagination. All McLaren needed to do was generate more headlines in order to monetize the moral panic. McLaren displayed his boldest, truest colors on 7 June, the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, as river police dragged him from the deck of the Queen Elizabeth. “There’s Johnny Rotten!,” McLaren shouted. “Arrest him!” Into the shadows, Rotten escaped.
Others didn’t, of course. The casualties included the band itself (January 1978), Sid Vicious (d. 2 Feb 1979) and, by some accounts, The Ramones. “Whatever chance the Ramones had to get on the radio based on the merit of the music was then wiped out by the Sex Pistols,” according to their manager Danny Fields. “[Punk] became too hot to handle.”
2. Elvis Costello’s Performance of “Radio, Radio” on Saturday Night Live (17 December 1977).
McLaren’s shenanigans paid off well for Elvis Costello, whose LP My Aim Is True (Columbia) landed on the US Billboard’s national list of top requested LPs the second week of December. While the Pistols awaited their visas in London, Costello and the Attractions gladly subbed in on Saturday Night Live.
According to Costello, Columbia brass wanted songs from My Aim Is True. In first half of the show, the band obliged with “Watching the Detectives” and, upon their return to the stage, played two dozen bars of “Less Than Zero” before Costello awkwardly marshalled them to a halt. “There’s no reason to be doing this song here,” Costello told the audience, and counted into a whip-snap rendition of “Radio, Radio.”
Costello later recalled that the storyline for “Zero” about UK fascist Oswald Mosely was likely to be lost upon American listeners. For New Yorkers, especially, the storyline of radio and its fools was not. Critics Lester Bangs and Robert Christgau offered regular broadsides through 1977 against the schlock served up by FM programmers.
Popular music is rarely aesthetically, politically, and commercially effective. By way of a modest refusal, Costello celebrated his connection to the audience instead of “pushing the product” (“Radio, Radio” appeared in the US on This Year’s Model in May 1978). Most importantly, the legend still persists that producer Lorne Michaels issued Costello’s lifetime ban from SNL for offending General Electric, corporate sponsor of NBC and manufacturer of transmitter technologies and transistor radios—and thereby lends credence to the notion that corporate brass once feared the power of post-punk.
3. The LP Cover for The Slits’ Cut (Sept 1979).
The album and its cover were three years in the making, and The Slits wanted to get both of them right. After signing a “complete control” one-album deal with Island, guitarist Viv Albertine butted heads with Island about the LP cover, and won. “We’ve waited so long and been so careful about our output and our image,” Albertine noted in the excellent Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys. “We can’t just let it be taken over by people who don’t understand what we’re trying to do and say.”
Pennie Smith and her Pentax captured the antics of Albertine, Tessa Pollitt (bass), and Ari Up (lead singer), as painted faces yielded to mud-caked torsos. A serendipitous remark resulted in a set of improvised loincloths. “We know we have to have a warrior stance, not try and be all seductive,” according to Albertine. “We want the photo to have the right attitude, not be prurient.”
Cut’s marketing campaign (September 1979) included big posters plastered all over London. Music editors recoiled. A passerby crashed his car. Feminists took opposing stances. Vivien Goldman at Melody Maker got it straightaway: “[Albertine] looks like the statue of Dame Edith Cavell [a WWI hero] … Playboy pinup thrills are not foremost in their minds.” The grooves inside proved equally disruptive. Their homage to dub and reggae anticipated the celebrated departures by The Clash and Public Image Ltd. from the aesthetic orthodoxy of punk.
Such heresy came with a price, and the toll collectors included key figures in the music industry. “No A&R men were interested in us for a long time,” Albertine lamented. In 1981, CBS released The Return of the Giant Slits (UK only), and the band broke up eight months after. The daily physical and verbal harassment was particular exacting for Albertine. “My face got so hard. I walked past a window in Knightbridge and I caught sight of this hard blonde woman, and, my God, it was me.”
Still, Cut solidified The Slits’ legacy with a range of rock rebels, from Kurt Cobain to Carrie Brownstein. “Discovering the Slits and their album Cut was such a formative moment,” Brownstein recalled. “The image of these women caked in mud on the cover was so shocking and exciting.”
4. The Clash’s “Not For Sale” Gesture at the US Festival, San Bernadino, California (28 May 1983).
In December 1982, for the first time in six years, The Clash turned idle. With the success of Combat Rock (May 1982) and a tour with The Who, the band and their manager got their books in order. Even Joe Strummer, the “king of the squatters,” bought himself a flat. In spring 1983, manager Bernie Rhodes inked a $500,000 deal to headline day one of the US Festival. For festival sponsor Steve Wozniak of Apple, the US Festival represented a counter to the “Me generation” of the 1970s. Rhodes, though, dismissed the ethos of solidarity and saddled up for one last gunfight in the American west.
On Saturday, 28 May, with 150,000 people milling about during Men at Work’s set, Rhodes took the festival hostage. In Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer, Chris Salewicz recounts Strummer decrying the $25 entrance fee (which was alleged to be $17 originally), demanding Wozniak cough up $100,000 for a summer camp for disadvantaged youth, and serving as Rhodes’ pawn in an ill-defined standoff. “They didn’t have a fully formed agenda,” noted drummer Pete Howard. “They thought anger was cooler.”
After some frantic negotiations with festival organizers, The Clash took the stage two hours late before a backdrop of two massive banners: “The Clash Not For Sale” and “Sex Style Subversion.” The first sign alluded to Strummer’s frustration with Wozniak’s ties to Apple, and his alleged desire to “re-stag[e] Woodstock for his own ego gratification and tax loss [i.e., a corporate write-off] in his own backyard.”
Other bands had already dispensed with any artifice of authenticity. In 1980, Earth, Wind & Fire danced and swayed for Panasonic’s bottom line, and Jovan Musk sponsored the Stones’ 1981 American tour. If Strummer struggled to articulate his frustration, he clearly sensed the difficulties of maintaining any semblance of politics as a pop star.
The second banner quoted McLaren, Rhodes’ one-time rival, who in 1982 bemoaned the dearth in current new wave acts of “sex, style, and subversion.” Rhodes took great pride in his avant-garde sensibility, but in this moment turned lazy and derivate. Other members of Clash-de-camp were equally exhausted. After years of indulging “rock’n’roll Mick,” Strummer and Paul Simonon were scarcely speaking to Mick Jones.
The post-gig fisticuffs at the US Festival between camp members and concert staff shored up some of the goodwill forsaken over the past year, but its effects were fleeting. “My exclusion from the mock brawl was further proof that I was no longer part of the inner circle,” noted backline roadie Barry “the Baker” Auguste. “With sickening clarity, I felt my time was finally up.”
Contradictions carry weight—a weight The Clash could no longer bear. In September 1983, Strummer and Simonon kicked Jones out of his own band. On his own accord, the Baker soon followed. Two years later, the “only English band that matters” ended with a whimper.
5. The Dead Kennedys’ Frankenchrist LP, the Inclusion of a Poster of H.R. Giger’s “Landscape XX,” and the Subsequent Trial (October 1985).
“I was absolutely floored,” recalled Jello Biafra, upon seeing the work of artist H.R. Giger. “Best stuff since [Hieronymus] Bosch.” At the time, The Dead Kennedys were recording their third LP, and Biafra was inspired to include Giger’s “Landscape XX” (a.k.a. “Penis Landscape”) as a poster insert.
Frankenchrist’s release coincided with Tipper Gore’s tour of Capitol Hill in service to the Parents Music Resource Center. In the spirit of the times, Frankenchrist included a warning sticker: “The inside fold-out in this record cover is a work of art by H.R. Giger that some people may find shocking, repulsive or offensive. Life can sometimes be that way.”
The sticker didn’t discourage Tammy Scharwath, 14, from buying the album for her 11-year-old brother. Their mother, though, sent the poster and a letter of complaint to the office of the state attorney general and—much to her surprise—all the parties involved landed in Los Angeles Municipal Court.
After offering her testimony, Scharwath professed, “I thought it was gross—it wasn’t harmful.” Her mother, too, imagined she had better things to do on a school day than brave LA traffic: “I thought I’d just have to complain … I didn’t realize it would all go to court and be a big to-do.”
Biafra reveled in his role of trickster-as-defendant, describing “Landscape XX” as “the greatest metaphor I’ve ever seen for consumer culture on parade.” The case ended in a mistrial. Over the next ten years, Biafra released four spoken-word LPs, including one on the trial itself. Guarino learned about the albums through his son, a Biafra devotee, and, in 1995, offered Biafra an apology via his advice for other state attorneys: “get out of the area of freedom of expression.”
6. Kurt Cobain as Cinderella at MtV’s Headbangers Ball (2 November 1991).
In the U.S. in 1990, metal ruled the roost. Be it light metal, heavy metal, or Aqua-Net metal, boys with bi-levels and blow dryers dominated charts and sales. But boy bands from Seattle—often with equally important hair—started to muddy the metrics of metal and masculinity. In January 1990, Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell and Kim Thayil appeared on MtV’s Headbangers Ball, and host Riki Rachtman told Cornell, “Axl Rose … thinks that you’re the best singer out there.” Cornell replied, “Whoa,” but proceeded to disavow any friendship with Guns N’ Roses. Thayil in turn slagged the LA rock scene, home of GnR, Warrant, and Great White: too many “tattoos.” (Rachtman’s muscly forearms were well-inked.) For their March 1991, the singers of Alice in Chains appeared ill-at-ease with the metal aesthetic. Jerry Cantrell appeared in cut-off jeans, tube socks, and an Alice in Chains t-shirt, and Larry Staley—with his white-boy dreads and slacker goatee—hardly looked the part either. Neither party, though, prepared Rachtman and his heavy metal heads for Nirvana’s appearance in November 1991, shortly after the release of Nevermind.
Alongside Krist Novoselic, Kurt Cobain appeared in a canary yellow, full-length taffeta dress. “It’s a ball, so I thought I’d wear a gown,” Cobain noted. “[Krist] wouldn’t wear his tux. He didn’t get me a corsage either.” It was Cobain’s most coherent contribution to the tortured ten minutes that appeared on the broadcast—and a small miracle, considering he was, just a few minutes prior, passed out on the floor of the green room.
Luckily, for Rachtman, Novoselic carried the day, as well as the standard for Nirvana’s musical allies. “We hope that we can turn [more mainstream people] onto different types of music, like the underground scene, and there’s more bands out there than these Harley-riding rock bands. That’s kind of like one of our missions.” (Rachtman was—and remains—a Harley devotee, and for the ball often sported Harley-Davidson attire.)
Proclamations of Nirvana-as-David slaying the Goliath of heavy metal were exaggerated. Headbangers Ball continued apace through January 1995. Still, the cultural impact of Nevermind was palpable. As rock critic Gina Arnold noted, “When I heard that Nevermind … had gone to number one the first week of 1992, my first thought was, ‘George Bush will not be re-elected!’”
For Warrant, Great White, and Guns N’ Roses, the days of wine and platinum were numbered. Warrant’s Cherry Pie LP (1990) took two months to go platinum (i.e., 1,000,000 units sold, US sales), and Dog Eat Dog (1992) took two months to go gold (500,000 units sold)—but no further. Their next LP, Ultraphobic (1995), sold upwards of 50,000 copies. Great White and even GnR shared similar fates.
Cobain, of course, died in April 1994—having lived just long enough to see flannel-clad slackers topple leather-clad rockers, and to bear witness to Nirvana’s mission accomplished.
7. Pussy Riot’s Punk Prayer (21 February 2012).
In Lipstick Traces, Greil Marcus’ affectionate history of Dadaism, the Situationists, and punk, he outlines the first principle of punk, circa 1977: “nothing is true except our conviction that the world we are asked to accept is false. If nothing [is] true, everything [is] possible.” Thirty-five years later, Moscow’s Pussy Riot embraced that idea in earnest, the world tuned in, and Russian President Vladimir Putin seethed.
Pussy Riot came together in 2011 as a feminist guerrilla art collective. They staged unauthorized, public performances in Moscow, synced the performance videos to original compositions, and released them on YouTube. Ahead of the Russian election of March 2012, they staged their most daring and notorious (situationist) prank.
Putin was one of Pussy Riot’s favorite targets, in part because of the obsequious fealty he was shown by Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church. For Kirill (whose birth name is Gundyaev), Putin represents “a miracle from God” who has “rectified the crooked path of history.” So, on 21 February 2012, members of Pussy Riot entered Kirill’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, donned their trademark balaclavas, ascended the altar, and mashed up the signature moves of Pete Townshend and Bruce Lee. Videographers captured the moment before security forces bounced them out. Rioteers Nadya Tolokonnikova, Kat Samutsevich, Maria Alekhina retreated to a nearby apartment to edit the footage of “Punk Prayer: Mother of God Drive Putin Away.”
They uploaded the video that night with invitation to “… Mother of God herself [to] ask her to get rid of Putin as soon as possible.”
Patriarch Gundyaev believes in Putin
Better believe in God, you vermin!
Fight for rights, forget the rite–
Join our protest, Holy Virgin!
By 16 March, Nadya, Kat, and Maria were arrested and charged with hooliganism and inciting religious hatred. Just two days before opening remarks, The Guardian profiled the accused as having “done more to expose the moral bankruptcy of the Putin regime than probably anybody else.” Under the duress of fatigue, insomnia, and dehydration, the defendants served as strong allies for themselves, even eclipsing their defense team as they offered motions to dismiss, interrogated the charges, and defied the judge’s order to “stop this mockery!”
The trial itself was a mockery, and was lovingly detailed in Masha Gessen’s Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot. Victims attested to the horror of the defendants’ “devilish jerkings” on the altar. The judge cut off prosecuting attorneys to interrogate witnesses herself, disallowed fair questions from the defense and, on 17 August, found all three defendants guilty. In October, Kat secured release via the efforts of a new lawyer. In December 2013, Putin granted Nadya and Maria amnesty—a decision that many believe was to save geopolitical face ahead of the Sochi Olympics in [?] 2014.
Clearly, punk matters in Russia—and in Myanmar, where the band Side Effect issues public pronouncements (with guitars) against hate speech. And in Indonesia, in 2011, where the Banda Aceh chief of police regarded punks as victims of a “social disease”: “Their morals are wrong. Men and women gather together, and that is against Islamic Shariah.” And in Baghdad, Iraq, in 2012, where 14 “emo” youth paid with their lives for their fandom. “We are the Brigades of Anger,” warned a leaflet circulated in nearby Sadr City. “We warn you, if you do not get back to sanity and the right path, you will be killed.”
Where the anti-liberal stakes remain high, punk (and its variations) remains the ultimate gamble. Long live punk.