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Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Punk. - appendix 1: reservations about the mythos from someone who Wasn't There.

There are all kinds of unshakable myths surrounding punk that get trotted out again and again as canon. Having grown up with this accepted doom, it tends not to occur to one to actually analyse these myths – and it causes a surprised double-take when one does, and realises these things aren’t necessarily 100% correct. First of all, that “Music had all got pompous, stagnant, tired and boring”: Certainly, there were a fair amount of extravagant rock behemoths, snoozesome trad-rock noodlers, tired hippy hangovers and comfortable, polished MOR blandophiles who were brought down a peg or two by punk’s immediate, straight-up energy and Heath-Robinson approach. Sure, there was plenty of slick, shiny mainstream commercial pap – but then there always is. There may have not been a lot in the top ten album charts of those years immediately before punk that would appeal to da kidz on da street; but, in retrospect, the sheer volume of now-iconic names producing seminal albums full of vibrant, innovative music in the first half the ‘70s makes the charts of the last couple of decades look shamefully paltry and inconsequential. A lot of it may have quite understandably looked distant, dull and alienating to your average stroppy teen living in squalor on an inner-city council estate; but I’m (the) damned if I’m going to adopt the perspective of a stroppy teen as my considered musical-historian-style overview. And yet people do. Whoever they are. Punk’s gravitational claim on credibility is so powerful that everyone just accepts that this was, apparently, the case – and blithely write off the majority of musical output of the time without really thinking specifically about what or who it is that they’re writing off – or whether they properly agree with that. The “serious” music papers may well have been full of prog, and, ok, that’s hard for a lot of people to stomach. Not everyone’s cup of pretentious herbal tea, but it’s not quite fair, or even accurate, to call the more bonkers, out-there, experimental stuff “dull” and “stagnant”, and only the more high-profile were into expensive theatrics. Glam and art-rock was also rife, and an admitted influence on punk, particularly the likes of Bowie and early Roxy Music on the Bromley contingent. Where was this desolate dark-age of music, this terminally tedious and infuriating desert of artistic authenticity? Was 1975 really that bad? Maybe you had to be there.
One thing that is certain is that punk certainly changed the music industry – in many ways for the better, but not in all... In reality, for all the overblown corporate guff it crippled, it also killed off swathes of interesting, artistically credible acts with its conservativism – what they were doing simply went out of fashion. And make no mistake, punk was always about fashion, and image in particular – which brings us on to the next myth – “Punk was back-to-basics, no frills, unpretentious”: Back-to-basics, yes. No frills, yes. Unpretentious, y... noooooo. Punk was staggeringly self-conscious and affected, in the way that only surly teens can be. Every time I see footage from ’76-’79 there is always a slightly uncomfortable moment when all the accrued mythos falls away, just for an instant, and I simply see a gaggle of silly puffed-up spotty yooves gurning away like naggy toddlers and trying that little bit too hard to look nonchalantly wise-assed and intimidating. Grr, look how obnoxious we are. And then I remember that these are icons, worshiped by thousands, and shudder at how age has jaded me. Now that’s nihilism. But punk, as I said, was always about image. It marked a new high in style-over-substance – as long as you had the look and the attitude, the music didn’t really matter – so long as it was fast, simple and nasty. Not that punk didn’t have plenty of good tunes – but it was the image and attitude that drove it, that was the break-through, and if we’re talking about impact on the music industry, that’s one less savoury aspect of punk’s legacy – it ratcheted up the importance of look and attitude for all the po-faced cooler-than-thou underground hipsters. That’s an irony – while the prog crowd may have had a fondness for big theatrics on the stage, their personal image was not really an issue – they were, by and large, thoroughly average looking unassuming blokes with poor personal grooming. Meanwhile, the punks were, in their own way, every bit as image-obsessed as the glam crowd – but often more militant, because their image was about “authenticity”. In this respect Sid Vicious really is representative of the whole thing – only in the band because he looked good, had buckets of ‘tude, and would provide good theatrics –yes, theatrics – on stage and in interviews – never mind that he contributed nothing musically. John Lydon would eventually grow weary and stifled by his own image (and Malcolm McLaren’s insistent control of it) and form Public Image Ltd., who’s first single Public Image drips with palpable distain for the image-obsessed. Punk was eating itself – pretty much marked the beginning of the end for purist punk.
The likes of Malcolm McLaren always wanted punk to be about fashion, of course, and he will tell you again and again how he created UK punk by importing such fashion from the New York punk scene. Myth #3 – “UK Punk started in New York”: Now, in a certain sense I can accept this – there clearly was a big influence from the New York CBGB’s scene that filtered across to UK punk, particularly in many of the fashion touches, and McLaren provides a direct connection here. Also in the simple, stripped-down and sped-up wilful angular ugliness of the sound. But what is infuriating is that when people talk about New York punk and UK punk they seem to just take it as the same thing – and, it’s just... not. The Ramones had long hair, for crying out loud. New York punk such as Patti Smith and the New York Dolls was for arty underground bohemian hipsters, anti-establishment in a grimily subversive way that owed a debt to the likes of the Velvet Underground and The Stooges. UK punk was very much an every-man (or every-yoof) thing, a disenfranchised, working-class youth-movement of sorts – much more political, vocal and angry, from The Sex Pistol’s violent nihilism to The Clash’s outspoken left-wing causes. It’s this side of it that really took hold in the UK, and that’s the side of it that fashion hipsters like McLaren never fully intended or foresaw – and yet it’s impossible to understand UK punk without it.
I’m being over-antagonistic, maybe. There’s clearly a lot of foundation in what I’m calling “myths” here, I just have reservations that such things are often over-stated. It annoys me that you can’t question this sacred canon and expect to retain your street-cred, when in fact there is plenty there to question – the reality is never as simple and unambiguous as the mythos. Maybe you had to be there... and well, y’know, I wasn’t.


  1. Great stuff. I'm not sure I meet many people who'd describe themselves as punks. I did once pick up some hitchhikers while driving to Shrewsbury who were following NOFX around the country. Definitely punks, and apparently full time ones.

    I love the early US stuff, so yes the New York Dolls invented punk. So did the Ramones (not only is Judy a punk - Sheila is a PUNK ROCKER) Showaddywaddy and Garry Glitter also invented punk. They were going back to the rock and roll basics as well. Lots of strange stuff going on in the early to mid 70s.

    Another myth for you: Here's one chord. Here's another chord. Here's another chord. Now form a band. It's always put forward as punk's real legacy. Not the music, but the idea that any spotty fuck can become a star. I saw a Kemp claim Spandau Ballet was punker than punk because, while it takes a modicum of skill to play the guitar, pressing a button on a keyboard is so easy, even a Kemp could do it.

    I think that's why it's become culturally untouchable. That anti-talent ethos meant ideals of good singing, musical virtuosity, meaningful lyrics became irrelevant. In which case, how do you judge a band? Speed, anger and trousers?

    Then you've got the politics, the unions strangling Britain, the rise of Thatcher. Then you've got the glamour, the fashion, the anti-glamour, the anti-fashion.

    All this in three years, and it's over. The perfect storm. Packaged up neatly with safety pins for future generations to argue over.

    The big one of course - Pistols or Clash?

  2. Neither: The Buzzcocks, of course.

    I am aware that what I take by the term "punk" is clearly much more precise than a lot of folks... and on a different day I'd be arguing against such pedantry. Influences are unknowably intricate and resist glib, linear, hermetically sealed accounts...

    I read this about a current production of the play Billy Liar at the West Yorkshire Playhouse:
    "Director Nick Bagnall states in his programme note that 'anarchy is key: it's quite punk, this play'."


    Might start looking out for suspicious claims to "punk"-hood in the general media. Watch this space.