Pre-Teenage Kicks or How I learnt to stop worrying and love punk.

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Art & Music No.35 – Autumn 2016

“I don’t like Punk” I said

“What are you talking about?” she replied

“it’s crap, I don’t like it”

“but you like The Buzzcocks, yeah?”

“yeah”

“and you like The Undertones, yeah?”

“well, yeah”

“you’re an idiot…

I was born the same year as Punk and it seemed to add to or even become, over time, emblematic of the existential dread I felt during my first decade. The late ‘70s and early ‘80s were as far as I can see from this remove were full of horror and fear, and the feeling in the pit of my stomach when I try to think back confirms it definitely was. Snatched rememberings of news reports detailing the latest explosions of violence in Ulster, so euphemistically referred to as ‘the troubles’, and the ripples they sent splashing over the sea to the mainland.

By 1984, with Thatcher, the miners strike and mass unemployment it felt like you might never get a job or whatever job you could snag would be taken away from you due to some vendetta against the working class. I may not have understood why there was rubbish piled up in trafalgar square or why the police on horses were charging down on crowds of unarmed men but it certainly seemed scary and dangerous out there on the street.

It was safer inside where I could spend evenings catching dramas I probably shouldn’t have been watching, like Alan Bleasdale’s bleakly potent Boys from the Black Stuff and my days spent being fed warnings of dangerous strangers with their enticing sweets and puppies or that the ghostly figure of death was stalking the local reservoir in search of prepubescent victims. Understandably, like most people, my memories of try first decade have something a jumbled chronology but I am pretty sure it was all topped off by John Hurt warning me not to die of ignorance during an ad break from The Tube as my mum hoovered around me. I wasn’t even exactly sure what it was that I wasn’t supposed to not be ignorant of but based on this lack of knowledge in itself I was pretty much sure I was doomed.

The soundtrack to this cloud of foreboding seemed to be supplied by these terrifying nihilistic hooligans spitting and slam dancing in sweaty back rooms. Angry at the world and seemingly angry with each other – why else would they do all that spitting on each other? I don’t know if I heard any of the music at the time or even saw any footage of them, it is more likely I saw and heard them later, on the “Rock and Roll years”, and have simply edited it in to my memories.

I do recall that I didn’t want any of this ugliness and anger in my life, I much preferred the frothy pop of “Hey Mikey” or the (as I thought at the time) sophisticated romance of “Lady in Red”. I wanted happiness and fun to push away horrors of the real world. It wasn’t till a few years later that a desire for something more abrasive began to bubble away inside me, just in time for Public Enemy to hand me some righteous noise on a fabulously exotic plate. The politicised sermons of Chuck D, preached from the pulpit of Hip-Hop, seemed to come from a genuine fury at a world that still treated him as a second class citizen. Nothing seemed more attractive to this little white teenager than this justified rage and I wanted in.

Punk by then seemed to be more of a joke than a society shaking cultural movement. Kenny Everett’s Gizzard Puke character and The Young One’s Vyvyan Basterd had reduced the shocking visual impact of the original punks to comedy signifiers rather than the transgressive totems they were and the postcard makers of London Town had embraced them to their collective blossom to pose outside Buckingham Palace for the humorous delectation of tourists – fluffy little mohawked kittens to be condescendingly patted on the head.

Out in the real world the only punks I ever saw were outside Manchester’s Piccadilly Records swigging cheap cider and trying to rustle up enough menace to frighten a pensioner or maybe steal some candy from a baby. Punk was neutered and left impotent in a puddle of nostalgia, wallowing in the shallow window dressing of what had gone before. You could go to London’s Camden Market and kit yourself out in full Punk regalia and come out in a rough approximation of the Sid Vicious look.

The final nail in Punks coffin for me was the emergence, in the wake of Grunge, of Green Day and their substandard ilk. Ugly, pointless, noisy music made by middle class boys whining about nothing and hoping to be as big as U2 as they played dress up with their mothers’ hair spray.

I didn’t like punk. I didn’t hate it, that would have given it to much credence, I just thought it was embarrassing and empty and I just didn’t see why so many people cared about it. It couldn’t be just nostalgia, it seemed to matter too much too much to those who had lived through it. It took a late night conversation with my flatmate to change the way I thought about it. She explained that ‘punk’ might be used as a lazy shorthand for a catch-all fuck-you attitude, but the music I genuinely liked for it’s visceral authenticity, records by Buzzcocks and The Undertones, say, was rooted in punk

So I liked some of the music and I believe whole heartedly in the idea of passion over proficiency. I love DIY culture and independent record labels, cottage industries and doing things for the sake of doing them not just for where they might get you. It took my friend all of five minutes to completely dismantle my carefully built wall of disdain for Punk. I don’t think i had ever really thought about it properly, I’d just accepted my gut feeling.

Looking back ,it suddenly became obvious that the nihilism of ‘no future’ wasn’t part of the problem, it was the reaction to it, a mirror held up to the horrors of a society falling apart at the seams. I’d confused the art for the thing that provoked it.

I’m sure that at the time the spiked hair and torn bondage clothing were loads of fun and upsetting stuffy old codgers is never a bad thing, especially with something as superficial as the way you look. It was only later that the Sid Vicious look became a cliche and in fact it seems like it was only a minority that ever did embrace the more outrageous fashions wholeheartedly. Bands like Buzzcocks and The Undertones didn’t need to dress up, in face they dressed purposefully down and just got on with the important business of wringing out a deathless two and a half minutes of musical perfection. When, it was pointed out, Buzzcocks then put out Spiral Scratch in the summer of 1977 – the first independent seven inch – a shockwave was released that reverberated all the way to Acid House and beyond.

There are still plenty of things about Punk that I find questionable: the spitting for one thing and the deification of dubiously talented smackheads Like Sid, for another, but at the very core of Punk is a pearl of energy and passion that can only be celebrated – and the effect it had on the cultural life we all get to live now can’t be overestimated. One I had cleared away all the cultural detritus piled up around it and found my way  to the true essence of the music and the movement, I found I still didn’t like Punk. I loved it.

(originally published in The Saatchi Gallery Magazine Art & Music issue 35 – Autumn 2016)

The Rolling Stones do not exist

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Art & Music No. 34 – Summer 2016

It is 1965 and the world is still in black and white. The Rolling Stones have made the arduous trip north to mime ‘19th Nervous Breakdown’ in a church in Manchester. Resplendent in the perfect mod button-down collar checked shirt, Mick Jagger sashays down a catwalk through a gathering of The Kids. He twitches with electricity almost as if the future ‘Jagger’ is attempting to burst forth from within the frame of this callow youth and stares down the camera lens into the loins of the teenagers at home. 22 years old and filled with unfathomable beauty, danger, sex and nonchalance dripping from every pore, Mick means it. Mick is it.

Until recently, I could have spent an age describing every detail of this performance, which I had seen on some kind of ‘I love the ’60s’ BBC4 documentary at least a couple of times. The reason I remember it so well is that it seemed to me to encapsulate everything iconic about the Stones. It takes some searching but, eventually, I find the clip on YouTube and watch it again. I have the wrong song… it’s ‘The Last Time’. Mick’s got a white shirt on. There’s no catwalk, just the usual stage. The performance is pretty great but it’s definitely not the performance I remember, even if it’s the very one I saw.

I’m now faced with the thought that The Rolling Stones are in fact made from a tissue of repeated anecdotes, a mess of unsubstantiated myths and bare-faced lies. Can the truth be that The Rolling Stones narrative simply occupies a place in my consciousness reserved for myths, alongside Aesop’s Fables, stories from the Bible or my granddad’s tales of World War II? Is the real truth actually in the way the legend, and the way it affects those who hold it dear? Is every version of the Stones in fact a personal construct, a museum of the mind randomly curated over years of pop culture consumption?

Watching this shaky black and white film again, what strikes me most (aside from George Best dancing in the crowd and getting his own on-screen caption) is that Mick doesn’t miss a single camera cue for the whole three and a half minutes. Even then he was the consummate professional, effectively demonstrating how he will sustain this pop band for the next half century. It prompts me to seek out another piece of footage that is dragged up again and again, a mid-’60s interview with Mick, in which he says he’s amazed that the band have managed to stretch this out for the last couple of years but thinks they are pretty well set up for at least another one. It turns out that this is the very first television interview he has ever done and it is Michael Parkinson asking the questions. This well-spoken young Kentish man seems exactly the kind of sensible gent that you would let your daughter marry.

Together these two cuts of film for me embody the dichotomy at the heart of The Rolling Stones. Are they piratical outlaws, swaggering abroad, on the run from the law, sticking it to the man by taking drugs and avoiding paying taxes, living a life of libertine freedom and leaving a trail of satisfied lovers in their wake? Or are they astute businessmen mounting the most lucrative tour of all time, until their next one, with a half century of career behind them.

Back in 1965, Charlie Watts could not look less interested as he kept time for this rabble. He does not even like rock’n’roll, he’s a jazzer; this pop nonsense is beneath him and it has been beneath him for fifty years. It is such a great twist – the drummer in the most successful band of all time is not really that bothered about being in it. As great twists go, though, this one really does not stand up to any kind of scrutiny. I cannot even bring myself to consider how ludicrous a notion it is to spend your entire life doing something you do not like even when you no longer have to. It is also diametrically opposed to my favourite Charlie story, the one that ends …. and he puts his suit on. Goes down there, knocks on his door and then knocks him out. “You’re my singer!”

I genuinely do not really care which Charlie is currently walking around, fully suited and booted at all times, and it doesn’t matter that after this black and white period Mick slowly creates a pantomime armour around himself, making it possible for the Bobby Davro’s of this world to impersonate him all too easily. I’ve chosen my version of the Stones and they are visually frozen for all time on that stage in Manchester.

Then I take another look at that grainy YouTube footage.

The rhythm guitarist strumming away in 1965 is Brian Jones, sporting the most perfect of pop star coif’s but I realise that he does not actually play in my Rolling Stones. Mick Taylor takes up that position. Taylor’s melodic playing is all over the records that really matter to me: Let it Bleed, Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street, but he is nowhere to be seen in 1965 miming for that Top of The Pops audience – and in many ways neither is the lead guitarist.

Keith Richards. Keef. One half of the Glimmer Twins. The finest practitioner of the ancient art of guitar weaving. Keith is apparently the true soul of the band, the outlaw spirit on the margins of society, the keeper of the blues flame that burns at their heart. He really is that guitar-slinging pirate that we want him to be. Keith is not impersonated for laughs by middle aged comedians, he is the archetype by which any rock’n’roller is judged. It takes Keith a while to grow into this towering figure of grizzled musicianship, though, with his arthritic hands permanently fixed in A minor. In 1965, he is a relatively fresh-faced youth grinning across the stage at his mates in barely concealed glee at the bizarre situation they find themselves in. Yet, for me, this is not the same Keith who is permanently ensconced in the basement of a chateau in the south of France, pouring filthy blues out of his fingers through a blood-stained Telecaster that he used to knock an interloper off his stage, but which still stayed in tune. After all, the cat could have had a knife.

My Rolling Stones are a composite. They’re in black and white; Mick is a guileless sex symbol; Charlie is sharp and disdainful (Charlie is my darling); Mick Taylor is floating around at the back, out of sight, and Keith is in his ’70s pomp, festooned with scarves and dagger earrings. This is a band that does not exist for anyone else but me.

(originally published in ‘The Saatchi Gallery Magazine Art & Music, issue 34 – Summer 2016)