X-RAY SPEX: MY FIRST PUNK ROCK GIG
It was January 15th 1978. As I queued outside London’s Roundhouse, made legendary by Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd and The Doors a decade earlier, I felt giddy with anticipation. This was the moment I’d been looking forward to ”â or to be more accurate, contemplating apprehensively ”â for more than a year.
In 1976, aged 14, I’d conducted myself strictly in accordance with the unwritten rules of pop’s evolving punk revolution. I’d followed the Sex Pistols’ chaotic rise in the music weekly Sounds, and my fascination with the scene was further intensified when Johnny Rotten’s psycho-rat stare eventually invaded my parents’ living-room via Janet Street-Porter’s London Weekend Show. It’s difficult to convey the extent of the Pistols’ impact from the comfort of today’s ‘chillaxed’ cultural landscape, but it’s fair to say that in the mid Seventies most adults found the band not just distasteful but actually terrifying.
Of course, this negative reaction was a gift for restless teenage pop fans, but for a hostile older generation ”â and in 1976 ‘older’ meant anyone over 20 ”â it felt like society itself was under attack.
Dismissing the weekly anti-punk rants in Melody Maker – letters and editorials condemning the new groups’ musical shortcomings and defending the ‘boring old fart’ bands who faced imminent oblivion – I’d savoured the media’s post-Bill Grundy interview hysteria and secured my copies of The Damned’s New Rose and the Sex Pistols’ Anarchy In The UK as soon as they hit the shops.
Then onwards into the Queen’s Silver Jubilee year: time at last to devour debut albums by The Clash and Damned and numerous brilliantly short ‘n’ sweet seven-inch singles, usually wrapped in picture sleeves and often pressed in luridly coloured vinyl. By late summer I was spending my Saturday afternoons in London’s Portobello Road talking punk and dub in the Rough Trade record shop with owner Geoff Travis; to this extent at least I was in with the ”Ëin’ crowd.
But I had a guilty secret. For in a secret parallel life I was still going to concerts by old-school rock acts like Rush, Uriah Heep, Pat Travers and Robin Trower ”â the same artists I’d admired before punk turned them into pariahs. My hair continued to brush my collar, flares remained my trouser width of choice and my jacket was still denim ”â but with a Sex Pistols badge strategically pinned to the top pocket.
The truth was, as much as I loved this raucous new wave of music, actual punk rockers terrified me. And what’s more, the thought of going to one of their gigs petrified me. After all, according to newspaper reports these borderline life-threatening events were hotbeds of nihilistic mayhem.
So, despite accumulating an impressively punk record collection during 1977, I didn’t see any of the new bands live during this period. And it was only when X-ray Spex announced an upcoming Roundhouse gig at the beginning of 1978 that I finally felt brave enough to take the punk rock plunge.
So on a Sunday afternoon in January, my friends and I pulled on our Harringtons and travelled by bus and tube to Chalk Farm. After making sure our Sex Pistols badges were prominently displayed – to prove our pro-punk credentials if challenged – we filed into the Roundhouse ready to experience our first taste of live filth and fury.
After a year of God Save The Queen and Johnny Rotten getting razored by vigilantes in the inevitable media-generated backlash; of running battles between punks and teds in the Kings Road, outlawed gigs, records banished from the pop charts and the Pistols’ boat party raided by police on the Thames on Jubilee day itself, we were finally about to claim a small part of this revolution for ourselves.
But in our hearts we already knew the game was up, as did all the older, proper punks at the Roundhouse that night. The truth was that something had already changed on Sunday December 31st 1977, as the second hand ticked its way towards 1978. It had always felt as if punk was ‘meant’ to peak in Jubilee year – with the added spice of patriotic passions sure to send the conservative older generation, along with their younger counterparts, reaching for their shotguns to create a perfect pop storm.
And sadly, with 1977’s passing there was a strong sense that we were also leaving punk behind. The Sex Pistols’ US tour in the first weeks of ’78 had kept the chaos alive, but tabloid coverage of Sid’s buffoonery had reduced the tour to a circus and besides, the very fact that the band had flown across the pond reinforced the feeling that Britain’s musical firestorm was fizzling out. And then to cap it all, on January 14th in San Francisco, hours before X-ray Spex were due to play at the Roundhouse, the Pistols had imploded. “Ha ha ha,”Â Rotten had cackled before stomping into the sunset, “ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”Â
Well, yes actually, I did feel cheated. If Rotten had waited just a day longer I would have at least been able to say that I’d attended my first punk gig while the Pistols were still going. But now the band was no more and it felt as if the flame at the core of punk had been extinguished; did it still mean anything without the group that had started it all? The scene would have to do some serious soul-searching in the weeks ahead.
Inside the Roundhouse I dodged between the leather jackets, bondage trousers, zips, studs and crazy coloured freaks – human billboards for the Kings Road boutiques Seditionaries and Boy – and took up position in front of the stage with a certain amount of resignation. I knew I’d left it too late, but despite this sense of failure, the buzz I felt as the DJ filled the room with booming reggae, and again as X-ray Spex burst into their set, was like nothing I’d experienced before: never mind the Sex Pistols, here’s the bollocks!
The audience went crazy, pogoing and singing along with dazzlingly garbed and charismatic singer Poly Styrene as she belted out the already-legendary Oh Bondage, Up Yours, along with I Am A Cliche, Genetic Engineering, Identity, Let’s Submerge and other classics, Jak Airport’s razor-wire guitar and best of all Lora Logic’s blaring sax adding to the dayglo power of the band’s performance.
Suddenly I no longer felt afraid. The crowd was boisterous but friendly, the atmosphere good-natured. And the music was fantastic! If I could have willed my flares to morph into straights there and then I would’ve done; instead I had to go home and reinvent myself over a period of weeks. But soon – thanks to X-ray Spex at the Roundhouse – I was a full punk prospect with a promising No Future ahead of me.
My committment to the cause had already been confirmed on that fateful Sunday night in January. So it was with a solemn sense of purpose that I’d subsequently walked into a Portobello Road shop and bought my first pair of non-flared jeans. With a new, shorter haircut my transformation into visible punk sympathiser was complete – a fact confirmed when I began to suffer harassment from the school teds and bootboys: a truly proud moment.
By spring ’78 a second wave of punk rock bands was establishing itself, with groups like the UK Subs and Ruts appealing to younger fans who’d missed out on the initial live punk explosion; meanwhile original bands like Generation X, Buzzcocks and X-Ray Spex were starting to enjoy chart success, rescuing Top Of The Pops from its post-glam gloom. Sure, punk wasn’t the same as it had been a year earlier, but it still meant something.
It would take a further 12 months for punk’s sartorial style to seep into mainstream fashion but for now the scene’s skinny, spikey look still identified its participants as outsiders, sneered at and even attacked by football yobs and disco normals. And with the arrival of Rock Against Racism in response to the rise of the openly racist National Front, punk aligned itself with the left and was to a large extent reborn as a street-level political movement.
At the start of the year punk had briefly seemed in danger of becoming as anachronistic as those violently insecure Kings Road teds and their Fifties rock ‘n’ roll heroes. But as hundreds of punks marched with rastas from Trafalgar Square to Victoria Park on April 30th for an open-air Rock Against Racism concert including the Tom Robinson Band, Steel Pulse, The Clash and X-ray Spex it became clear that far from being irrelevant, this was a scene with staying power – a political force for good.
As X-ray Spex took to the stage that afternoon I could feel nothing but gratitude to the band and Poly Styrene in particular for helping me forge my own identity more than even the Pistols had done. At last I had the badge plus hair and trousers to match. Thanks Poly, for changing my life.