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?”
“and you like The Undertones, 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)