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 PunkÃ¢âÂ¢ 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. ”ËPunk Rock’ and ”Ë1977′ 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 ”â 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 ”Ëpunk rock wars’ with affection. Could it be that whatever happened up until the summer of ”Ë77 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.”Â 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 passÃÂ© 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 ”Ëpunk’ 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 ”Ëdistressed’, 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 ”â 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 ”Ëmovement’ 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 ”Ë60s 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”Â¦ 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”Ës Grumpy: “I don’t know, but I’m agin’ ”Ëem”Â.
Assimilation, on the other hand, diluted punk to homeopathic levels. Headline ”Ëpunk’ 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 ”Ëold hat’ statement, Belgian cartoon punk Plastic Bertrand was in the charts with ”ËÃâ¡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 ”Ëin’ 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 ”Â¦ 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, ”Ëanother 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 ”Ëbig 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 ”â I’m afraid you’ve been cheated.
All words by Carlos. More work by Carlos can be found here.