Saturday, June 02, 2012

Punk's Not Dead

There's a nice irony, that amid the wall-to-wall bunting which serves as BBC news at the moment, as it celebrates first the Jubillee, then the Olympics, that stirred in the mix, to add a bit of spice, is punk rock. Its not a particularly important anniversary - 35 years since 1977, Punk's year zero - but so wrapped up was the original spirit with that Jubilee - from Derek Jarman's film of the same name, to "God Save the Queen", that we've got a campaign to get "God Save the Queen" (Pistols version) to number one, and the "Punk Britannia" series on BBC 4.

I mischievously tweeted that "punk was crap" on Twitter last night; but I didn't really mean it. I was ten at the time, and had more pressing interests ("Star Wars" had just been released after all!) and I was aware of punk well before I'd ever heard it (the Daily Express, our house newspaper was particularly interested in the scene, oddly enough). It was probably a few years before I saw my first punks - after all they didn't make it to the rocky Midlands overnight - and it was three or four years later that friends at school were "punks" by which time the leather jackets had GBH, Anti-Nowhere League, Discharge and Exploited on the backs.

I've picked up punk albums over the years, without them ever being amongst my favourite, but one's still shocked a little by the viscerality of the Sex Pistols astonishing first four singles, or "The Clash" or "The Ramones." Music that raw, still sounds good all these years later. I remember hearing an early Boomtown Rats' track - "She's So Modern" perhaps - and disliking its "shouting" - though perhaps even at 11 or 12 I was discerning between the good and the mediocre!

It's funny watching old footage, and then seeing Top of the Pops, and realising, Sex Pistols aside, what a moveable feast punk was - Stiff Little Fingers' "Inflammable Material" didn't hit the racks till 1979 for instance. But punk - the sound - was very different I think than punk - the attitude. And pretty much every piece of music I got into after 1982 was coloured by punk. Bands such as the Cure, Joy Division, Simple Minds, Human League or the Fall were already veterans by then and this colourful but dark new wave was what I grew up loving. The reductionist sound of those 2nd wave punk bands was fun, I guess, but limited.

Years later, punk's in my record collection, albeit more on the cerebral art school rather than the glue-sniffing side of the tracks; and one kind of regrets that I was not around for such a seismic shift in music. The minor revolutions I saw - the Smiths, Goth, house music - don't really compare. Only Hip Hop has had such a broad cultural impact as punk did. Tony Wilson's oft quoted view of 13 year shifts - 1963, 1976, 1989 - appeared to fall apart in 2002, unless you broaden the defnitiion and not the that the iPod appeared at the tale end of 2001 - a different kind of musical revolution that one, but important nonetheless. If something's coming in 2015 its surely going to be partly fuelled by the ongoing fiscal disasters around us; as well as a bored unemployed youth - a bit like punk maybe.

The punks were generally quite young - as the Punk Britannia first episode points out, the pub rockers who came before them were a little bit old (a point that's made clear in the Ian Dury biopic, Sex, Drugs & Rock and Roll) - so its sad to think we've already lost Strummer, McLaren, Vicious and lesser lights like Epic Soundtracks and Nikki Sudden of Swell Maps.

It's hard to imagine the schizophrenia of Britain in 1977 - punk happening on the same streets as disco went mainstream with Saturday Night Fever.Though it was a schizophrenia that continued throughout much of the 80s, with a split between the "mainstream" and the "alternative" which became codified in the "indie" scene. Most of the punks were signed to the same record labels as their prog and glam predecessors.

Punk's not dead, to rephrase what Zappa said about jazz, it just smells funny..   

Ten great punk tracks.

1. Holidays in the Sun - Sex Pistols
2. Ambition - Vic Godard and the Subway Sect
3. California Uber Alles - Dead Kennedys
4. Armagideon Times - the Clash
5. Babylon's Burning - the Ruts
6. Jigsaw Feeling - Siouxsie and the Banshees
7. Suspect Device - Stiff Little Fingers.
8. Teenage Lobotomy - the Ramones
9. I am the Fly - Wire
10. Typical Girls - the Slits


Jim Murdoch said...

I was nineteen-year-old Civil Servant when punk arrived. I was just married we were expecting our first (and, as it happens, only) kid who was born on the first day on the 1980 Olympics and really too old and—and I know this sounds terrible to say considering how young we really were—too old-fashioned to embrace punk except in spirit. I agree totally, however, with what Bob Geldof said on the revived Juke Box Jury that punk was the enema the music industry needed at that time. It was. I’ve set the machine to tape the whole series of Punk Britannia but I probably won’t watch it until my wife’s next trip to the States. Carrie is not only an American but twelve years older than me and at the time I was enthralled by the Sex Pistols and The Stranglers she was bringing up two kids and listening to country music so my fascination is somewhat lost on her although she is tolerant. She wasn’t here in 1977; she doesn’t get it. She’s just come back from her last trip during which I watched the documentary series The Seventies. I thought it was fascinating. I really don’t remember things being as bleak as they were and I actually look back on the latter half of the seventies with genuine affection; I had some good times then. Interesting choice of tracks by the way. ‘Holidays in the Sun’ was my favourite Sex Pistols track at the time and The Stranglers’ ‘No More Heroes’ never leaves my all-time Top Ten.

Adrian Slatcher said...

Thanks for the reminisce, Jim. Interesting. And, yes, so much of ones feelings for music is based on a time and a place. On the first episode of the doc, Richard Strange tells of how the Pistols supported him and he realised it was all over; "I was too old, by two years" he said.