FLOWERS AND VOICE OVERS

FLOWERS SCRIPT 3-12-18

 

Micky Greggus

 

London was look like a dive not a very nice place to go to and not a lot of music came out of there so we created our own would Scene with in a scene here and that’s how it started and its rolled on now we’ve got two guys you been with the band for 15 years from Sunderland Tony Van freighter and Andrew Lane as a drummer and bass player respectively we tour all around the world it’s fantastic that vibe everywhere is one of everyone together we’re all in this together kids from all walks of life is fantastic from South America and to Japan to go Europe to everywhere very blessed and lucky to be doing this and why was still walking will will carry-on doing it it was never about a racism – Press got a hold of that trust the working class to have it so mine to make it so mind up about things you know oi was never about racism

Any Rogue elements Windows racism was son found out and sent packing from the scene and we never heard from again but it was never about at six that’s the point of trying to make this all about rock ‘n’ roll football and the way you live your life and that’s all it was politics just stay out

 

 

Neville staple

 

This guy call Sledge  and he’s right tosser my name is Neville staple and and I’m fine and I’m doing a gig tonight Henrique memory of been Ricci come inside to give Rico and we’re honoring him – message to do you original Ska band  and that’s who we followed

 

I was a roadie first and then what happened

Jerry started the bands in the first album and Rico you know how you do it back then no I didn’t until now

 

Garry Lammin

 

Well I was playing in a band called a little roosters at the time  and they had an album  produced by Joe Strummer and JOSE does not throw many bouquets around I think that was a good measure that we had something to say but try and get that through to a record company in those days it was impossible for you to be better off having some sort of skin cancer

 

Tim

Gary Cock Sparrer

I’m trying to keep that quiet

Tim bermonsey joyriders

I’ll see you later Dave

 

Garry

Yeah and that was the other at the bed that was in as well tell us about Cock sparrow

I was planing Cox Barrow my neighbor call Janus like a punk rock band I was the last remember to join Janis and I was trying to make him understand that there was this thing that it was going to be at call Punk I was going over toMalcolm shop in the Kings road on a regular basis Play the songs that I do only written on the way there I was only about 58 and I’m like I got to impress me Malcolm get him to come down to rehearsal I’m sureif you came to rehearsal he biteand take the Band on – it did come down to rehearsal but he didn’t really dig the band at the time at that point in time they went really formulated into a punk rock band and he gave it swerve and I kept in contact with him after that and became friends with him then he passed away some years ago but that was a good memory for me really The media they kind of played the same kind of hands the music industry was the VA and the media and the music industry they whole The ace card did they want to they can dominate this scene and try to manipulate actually go with i’m not actually go with what the kids were into on the street

 

Gary Bushell

on stage at the Ska festival 2015

 

Was absolutely packed to the rafters you add Debbie Harry Andy Warhol in all of the audience any encores singing the songs is absolutely magical absolutely magical what happens with the special selector in particular had decided yet another third way is this Ska all the great American bands like real big fish untouchables sub line all those great bands many of them i’ll still play now and Owe bets to what was started in Jamaica more than 50 years ago and that’s the whole point of this is none of those bands would’ve existed if it wasn’t for the ska originals-

End

Gary Bushell

garden

In 1977 just was little fanzine in East London and and Nme  at that time there which was the big British music paper at the said that Punk was dead they had a funeral session the last rites everythingBig day off but I’m going out I started working on sounds Job it sounds it in December 1978 and I was going out sounds all the time I am in the ruts

 

– skins the members what the specials –  first bands are reviewed with the specials nme saying it was all dead no please see I’m seeing  it wasn’t dead i’m writing about all this new bands watching it develop i going to places with most of the rock journalists wouldn’t go and and as the years went on as it went into

 

 

Gary Bushell

interior scene

Yeah a few Bizrate up with the red action boys after we had all the nonsense in the daily mail and they said we know this is supposed to be about

We know it supposed be working class thing we know that they put just ended up putting oi shows and oi – I knew Mick oh Farrell from the rights work marches that’s how I met him and we met up with him and and other Red action people after the daily mail and they knew the daily mail thing with shit and they knew it was about working class and Gary O she’s was one of these guys and and so hey said yeah we understand what oi is  about its s work in class thing they got it they actually understood what I was trying to do what we were trying to do and they actually put on their gigs / go back and find the newspapers and you will find their find the newspaper is I is advertising oi gigs and oi tours all sorts of things we actually did a tour which was a bit of a stupid name witc id oi hesagainst racism and political extremism but stil against the system 1981 with the business hey been infariot too I just it was Shock- it was just as bad as someone saying you’re is a pedophile and you can’t prove you’re not big can’t prove you wrong because you’re not we felt the same all of a sudden people would like nazi like you like what the fuck you talking about – I was working for socialist worker two years ago in fact I even wrote a piece of the Socialist worker two years agoabout being in the present in the present and Jake out so it’s for me paid the gig in the prison that was a whole article in the Socialist worker written by me and when the Socialist work at reproducereproduce reproduced The article after Southhall-

 

———

Garry Bushell

Heavy simple and turning on the news Hearing Skinhead a riot riots in West London myself oh no what’s happening now let me know when was expecting anything like thatpeople say oh it was planned yeah – plans why would you have taken the girls The kids down there if you’re going down there to smash the place up you did gone you would’ve done it on a night when w West hambecause you didn’t wanted the west ham that and all the conspiracy theories about it and people in papers people try to link it to the death of Blair peach which was most two years before that nothing to do with the venue people just because it packed in the same geographical area doesn’t mean there’s a link to it it’s going down in history books as it was racist he started to be challenged now as Professor Matthew Worley was actually at Young’s skinhead  himself he was into it and he grew up knowing what it really was and that was his command and now he’s an academic he’s going around and with absolute dedication and with absolute dedication spoke track down everyand he could find and he’s written a proper study of it a proper intelligent study of it which actually tears all those myths up go to the trouble of speaking to the people I can remember the very first preconceptions about I could tell you over names I could tell you who they were in the first fans who the first Cox Sparrer were they were all dockers sons

All that lot from popular I’ve got a list of all my life I got a list of all the names right now for something else as I was writing out for something else I can tell you the people of the people were at the bridge house – rejects gig who they were football hooligans team they supported they weren’t all went to West him mostly ex. Skin is all Ex glory a boys it was a very different image it was a very different reality very different image that people have of it

People were from broken homes yeah and that was great family between everybody Sandy Garry yeah it was People and I Danity it gave people comradeship and it gave people a lot of things we Waze new what was right and what was wrong like not of those not I can say without any hesitation none of us like that nazi elements even if they were working class tories they didn’t like the Nazis put on benefit gigs at the bridge house me and Oxton  TomWho is the basis in the foreskins and Oaks and Tom by the way one of the most knowledgeable about soul music he love so and they talking about this guy being a racist hello look at his record collection and we put on things like prisoners rights 🙂 with the proper prisoners rights organization can’t remember but that’s what it was the prisoners rights and we put sold out to massively sold out gigs  at the bridge house about the 200 people in over the fire regulations because when the police so showed up we thought they were coming because of wanted that they were trying to Nick one of the Cockney Rejects entourage being a bit and eat with you know a ducker  and diver who helped himself to some things you should not The rejects they were rogues it was like takings gang muscle you know I took them up to EM I and they would be nicking stuff stuff out the window just stay thieves they stole the first guitar amp they stole there first amp go to the bridge house Nick a drum kit because they had nothing and that was their way of getting started

 

 

Gary Bushell

 

interior continued

Nikolai Nikolai Nikolai crane he was Italian will half Italian Dustman – from Crayfird a good looking guy yeah I guess yeah I told you like how that all happened how we came about should’ve been our other meat from west ham carlton a leech he was the original model it didn’t show up for the second session that is when I got the picture of the wall which I thought was a still from the wonders it was a guy that looked just like that in the wondrous but Idon’t think Nikki crane was that p articulately well known before then I think it be in at one gig where he was once and he certainly did not look like the picture of the picture of him normal doesn’t look like that picture anyway it was a big cock up and Nikki Crane yeah he does propel him to notoriety in the neo Nazi ranks I guess silly got battered I’m I think I can’t remember when it was he did come unstuck I think it was the anti-fascist action and washed and brushed ambushed him that was the end he got out politics after that something to do at forgotten what it was something to do with some irish March what year did he was that I don’t know didn’t even know he died yeah will you get aids he died of AIDS in the closet for a long time he was because Belson and Beth used to say to me she say you know we never fox me what do you mean you makes me strip them off in tie him to the cheer but that’s it that’s our sex life

 

 

Gary Bushell

interior dark

 

cool yeah we used to have some good old pubs there’s one in Deptford call the Albany we go win and they actually had tramps in one bar all the time Actual proper tramps hobos remember going in the wrong bar and the governor said to me oh no mate human beings over at the next bar which is funny oh funny horrible but funn proper tranps in Deptford with strings around their coat coats tied up with a bit of string dogs on leads you know

Gary Bushell

 

interior dark

punk rock open up to Punk

Had a whole list of pub venues that opened up to Punk

Like sing walls – Hope and anchor and Dublin Castle did like that Dublin Castle Camden Camden rich house in canning town he became the first oi venue before the dragon arms and the bridge house till then had ever really had blues bands like hip  rock blues bands all of a sudden  because of the clientele the young clientele were talking to Terry good well I’ll give it a go and he starts having sham 69  the selecter played there is played there the damned and I got the cockney rejects on went from there and he suddenly had the mod Mondays every Monday every Monday they would be purple hearts all the cords or small hours bands like that Rambo for the mod bands it became and an oi pub judge dread came down and one year I think it was my 25th birthday Cox Barrett reformed to play the gig for me and after they re- performed the played  to about 400 people in at 250 capacity club Right we’re coming back we’re coming back I went back for the 26th no I might’ve been the 25th and 26 I had Judge dread and the Four skins just as great it was a wonderful place call the fact that it was in canning town one of the roughest areas one of the roughest parts of England certainly the roughest part of London I never saw any trouble in there because the people who ran it the Murphy’s you wouldn’t mess with them they don’t want any trouble you don’t get in any trouble how do you tell me every Siri get nasty in there was when Mount Batton got blown up dan’s went on stage and then they said this is a song for Mountbatten and it’s called stretch a case and they almost got lynched because that was such a lot of bad feeling about the IRA at that time ira where a principally working class pubs it went military targets and it would political targets they seem to be waging war on the English working class and I think that Ira campaign turned more people right wings more than anything else That was one of the driving forces to get teenagers to the right The fact that these people seem to be waging war on English working class who no way of influencing  the government policy in Northern Ireland  A couple people I’ve spoken to who became involved in the UD a  in London quite heavy people I have been teenage socialists it was the bombing campaign that made them go over to the other side it was a volatile time

 

 

SPEARS energy

exterior fox pub

Well I still got Friends from when I first got into Punkin stuff a lot of people died on drugs will not be a good drugs The good not the good drugs the good drugs are OK stupid drugs are bad i’m 46 now I’m proud of it so yes it’s been about 30 years tell me about media and racism – well racism just didn’t occur

 

 

Steve whale the Business

 

You got to the factory era but facture era was the only time that I can remember that youth that unified the youth against the government

The thatcher era i’ve seen youth on the street unified against the government what was going on was a paradigm in respect to big business corporate coming in and seeing that this is a great opportunity to make so much money out of this country and thatcher was on board with them and she was probably taking a lot of the flack greedy corporate people who just wanted to make extreme amount of money and then you’ve got the city guys 1980s the Ferrari and Porsche and we just earn millions of day – know why you and Million today because other people in other countries cant eat because you gits  can’t stop being greedy take take take take and that’s what they were lot of kids from the punk didn’t like it and stood up to them was part of our job as a punk bands Street Punk Band oi Whatever it was you want to call it that was our job – of work or riot which was one of the first songs on the business album went down really well people loved that song because it said so much of the time they just about had enough i’ve been exploited by the government laid off from my job being laid off from their job in a country like me not being able to eat in a country like this it’s extremely rich country and people in mine in town. Can’t eat can’t feed their children and you wonder why people of a certain age young age were rising up against it I remember poll tax riot and for me that was brilliant leave the crass organization was behind it it was like a festival feel i’m big stilts and things like that and then suddenly it turns into this monster against the system and there was like thousands and thousands of people Fightin against the police was a bit of a wake up call to the Government because they realize they’re actually in serious trouble people burning things down rising up against the government and that’s when they kind of realize that maybe we gotta stop being greedy stop being servants to the people which they should be that’s what they’re therefore they are meant to serve the people in fact they don’t serve the people they take from the people and they work out Waze like you know now more more more more more canning and worldwide corporate angle is so finally tuned and ripping you off without you even knowing minimum wages slavery the same all aspect where they threaten you to lose your job if you don’t be competitive lose your job and it keeps coming up all the time

 

 

Terry hey’s Easton bad JOSE

And people getting involved because it was kept down because it was a growing sort of like phenomenal him at the time and they did their utmost good like take the foreskins with one more for them that should’ve been up there in the charts in the top 20 for some reason that was not allowed that was not going to happen and that was partly because of their bringing on a white right win thing was it wasn’t it was just an excuse for powers to be at the time to keep working class kids in that sort of scene down

 

Terry Hayes East End bad owes interior  wall

 

On speaking to black friend

 

Oh I’m in a band says oh I’ll check you out eventually check this out on YouTube and that he said you’re in one of those oi bands he said they’re all racist skinheads do you know what that’s why never said you previously that is absolute it’s a myth I said what I’d like you to do is come along to one of the gigs we go to

 

 

Terry Hayes East End Beddo

Interior wall

 

My sister her music always was reggae and that’s when I was brought up on hearing that every day that is my love and today people who know me everybody knows my love is reggae and Punk – are you still play to this day yeah as I say we still try to do it we had the band back in 1980 bit of a problem with our bases guitar he got arrested he got taken away he went on the missing list for quite a few years I would still try to carry-on going to gigs – travel through Europe and follow Cox Farah hour for the following orgy Bargy who were great friends of mine and john from Archibald you would you would always say back to about 2000 get the band back to get the band back  together we talked about it and talked about it and go on about it and then MattKelly from the dropkick Murphys we were at one of their gigs and I’ve been going to see them for many years he said are we were at a gig in Colechester with me and Mickey fitsI drop kick murph us need to around me and says fits he said he was in a band the east and Beddoes oh I was just playing your track I said that one and only track I can’t believe it I’ve known you for 3 to 4 years get the band back together- eventually go back to 2000 and 5 PM on the 25 year all the anniversary of the sex pistols on the boat trip up the Thames Mickey fit quite a few people Punk seen Audrey by to see Bruce and Cox Barrow good crowd of us anyway on that basis so I may keep it since you chose not to yeah we got something going this so it was great organizing so got a few other people and got the band back together not be regional members so many mise the original member we start bureau sing into thousand and five and got back together and started doing again with your plane played at Rebellion then our drama was American his dad was a commander in the US Navy and he works in the embassy and I drama Texas Joe fantastic we were down to do in rebellion in 2006 to play and that was the first week in August his dads term three-year term fitness or in the last day of July 1 of August and on 1 August the whole family flew out and went back to Texas and we had to call a friend to step in Elion show and Matt Kelly from the dropkick Murphys played drums for us on that

 

Terry Hayes December those

 

Does it say that was about 30 years that we didn’t do anything love always love punk rock reggae reggae is my love but Punk is putting rock is punk rock- do you like the Ramones going to see the rooms in the mid-70s when they come over I see them I used to go every year they come over I would go andI always went on my cousin he Jied  me up to go well I was just blown away by them and I’m going to see being in in the punk scene at what time I used to work for my dad’s firm –

 

 

Two more transcribes from Terry Hayesfrom Terry Hayes

 

Lee infra riot – bafta

 

About the always saying we seen was invented by a developer was Gary Bushell he was the feature editor on the weekly paper called sounds and he picked up on these 56 7/2 dozen of working class bandsgo to college you didn’t go to university no formal education but we wrote  songs that we wrote songs that were five or six of us from parts  of London Manchester Manchester and all over – the lyrics far as writing song lyrics I didn’t realize it but maybe I was able to put into song the song lyrics bricks that I could see you around me – I didn’t realize there was any knack to this I thought everybody did this I could do it but maybe not I don’t know different skills and things we will got different skills and I only write about what’s around me that’s all I can do SANDIE in a lot of ways that’s what Punk Poet said anybody can do this Lea no one told me I couldn’t so what you going to be in it to win it so you have a go any y oung people out there you ain’t going to get anywhere anyway I got to be in the bank you ain’t going to be in a band playing games on your computer at home so I’ll Pokémon walk Pokémon got the ice won’t cut the ice

The media seem to be threatened by we music Lee great in it it is amazing that somebody who’s 14yrs old was threatening really Lee well maybe we represented you know something like that we are now idea you know you see his band picture of the national newspaper or something like that to us it’s great you know any Publicitu wax is good Publis it we will long for the ride it was great fun  was fun to us being in and Sandy been international paper and everything and we were only kids they would come up and give you like $10 to seigheil – no one even knew what the heck that really meant right

 

Lee

yeah I mean I don’t know about that we will never leave that wouldn’t do that anyway he did more than likely did happen it is too easy to a twister it how u want it you know that no one’s interested in the papers no national news but his papers they’re interested in more threatening things and as I should think Sandy talking about how it’s different now than it was back then with Social Media as it is now what happen with the music is they targeted it and made it out to be about racism or you can make it Lee will you can make anything anything for you what you want to do you know if you have a peaceful demonstration save 3050 of those people and of course in only 50 cause trouble that makes all them troublemakers demonstration in my book but it’s not true but that’s the perception  – what was oi music about for you

Lee good question it was no absolute definite thing it was certainly antiestablishmentarian on and  to me it was doing your own thing and even doing your own thing and I’m still a believer in doing your own thing we don’t care about getting a major record  deal – we didn’t even think we get a record deal we didn’t even care we were doing what we wanted to do same as the early days of rock music singing about or chanting the same difference same difference just a different generation big I’m sure the early days of wrap music i’m writing about things that are around you-  did  he got big I’m sure the only chapter did that were expected to be anything because I didn’t expect it to be anything big because so well and that’s what they like doing and why not /

Same difference just different debit generation I know raps  got big I’m sure the early chaps it to be anything big because why not- sandeE this film is cool with the flowers and you dustbin I feel like it’s a lost generation with the music at that particular time Lea but I think the generation was lost for a while these days life is s bit more are flexible do you know how many – lost generation as you call it now some of them have made quite a good living  from it all I can make a living for God sakes that indoors with the camera and a computer I’m on eBay also another selling on eBay or something like that so it’s not so it’s not as lost as it used to be I don’t think Sandy I agree with you that’s why I feel like that part of historywe need to tell the story like for instance how many of your fans were you friends with back then

Lee

when you start offyour fans a local then obviously but then suddenly the lines get blurred as you travel around the country or scotland or something people fans back then when’s now though but you know I met many things through the band that’s been amazing amazing people for the bank I feel very fortunate my God we made  no money out of it but that wasn’t my intention anyway but my God people I met some great people

SANDIE

Created history

Lee

Does it create history not knowingly I still find that like really still don’t quite believe that maybe one day when I’m old I will look back and book believe it at the moment and optically believe in creating this history to be honest

Sandy

there’s a punk rock museum I’m in Los Angeles

Lee

Punks each generation just into evolves into you know what was out rages them would be looked at for now boring now but each generation steps steps up from

 

 

Something no you know what was I want you just time would be the boring now you know what is generation steps from the 50s 60s 70s and Mike sal Mark and I guess we were part of the generation that my Tamark of the late 70s early 80s 80s really

 

Sandy

If you’ll like the mediate really miss guided culture of that time every kid in the oi scene

 

Lee

Yeah but who cared I can with media think I don’t care what the media think navigate never do never did that was that was the whole idea of the thing who gives a fuck or toss

We didn’t care

what media thought OK with the media – important what are fans the whatever’s or people who like to music oh no I didn’t care what some newspaper thought Sandy well I know will that will happen to the kids in 8182 lot of them got rounded up to borstals

Lee

Yeah probably if you say Borstel probably 100 probably 85 she deserves it and want to be there or in their right to be there others didn’t just the fact of who they were and where they live it’s one of those things by at the end of it or you know violence and at the end riots but no guns were pulled and no one died is it that no one died over it

A lot of the old-school were threatening see but tickly man you get a younger young man full of testosterone for them this is an outlet for them so I have been summoned to belongon my way to young and I belong to that thing other people and In another gang belong to some other guy know whatever you know it’s nice to belong

 

Matt Worley voice over

 

ntroduction

Teenage warning: Punk, politics and youth culture

                 

                  Words are the most important thing about punk. If I just wanted to pogo, there’s            hundreds of bands I could go and see – that’s just as bad as Disco. What I’m     interested in is people who tell the truth. That’s what I believe in.

                                                                                                            Jimmy Pursey (1977)

 

The mood was tense even before the violence erupted. As a benefit concert organised on behalf of six political activists arrested in the summer of 1978 for conspiring to ‘cause explosions with persons unknown’, the vagaries of the charge and the drawn-out prelude to the trial – which ran from September to December 1979 – served only to affirm the seditious and conspiratorial mind-set of Britain’s anarchist milieu. Among the 500-strong crowd of punks, skinheads, students and veteran politicos gathered inside London’s Conway Hall, any semblance of a good night out had already been tempered by the politics underpinning the event. This was less a gig than a point of reckoning. The state had conformed to type, it seemed, the ‘system’ was closing in: ‘Beware, the thought police are coming’.

Three punk bands were scheduled to play: Crass, an anarchist collective encamped in a communal house located near Epping on the edge of London; Poison Girls, a staunchly feminist and libertarian band originally from Brighton; Rondos, a Dutch group of ultra-leftists with revolutionary aspirations. Among the audience, meanwhile, a contingent of skinheads aligned to the far-right British Movement took up position, provoking skirmishes and feeding off the repressive atmosphere enveloping the hall. The police came and went, with the gig’s organisers assuring them that the situation was under control, before a call was made to members of the anti-fascist ‘squads’ formed within the ranks of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) to mobilise a response. Come ten o’clock and it arrived: a tooled-up mob of battle-hardened anti-fascists forced their way into the venue to beat the Nazi skins into submission. Bottles smashed, fists flew, and the once bullish sieg heils that had punctuated the evening were stifled amidst the chaos. In the aftermath, with Crass unable to play their set, so the police returned with ambulances in tow to tend the wounded and pick over the debris strewn across a blood-stained floor crackling beneath the crunch of broken glass.

Now, the events of 8 September 1979 may not have constituted a typical Saturday night-out in the late 1970s, but they were resonant of a time in which youth culture, popular music and politics intertwined in complex, exciting and often ugly ways. Taken altogether, the identifiable subcultural styles (punks and skinheads), the visibility of political ‘extremes’ (anarchists, revolutionary socialists, fascists), the backdrop of perceived crisis and impending authoritarianism, the violence and the meshing of politics and culture all combine to form a recognisable snapshot of Britain on the eve of the 1980s. Indeed, the purpose of this book is to explore the extent to which the cultural spaces opened up and inhabited by British punk from 1976 informed and were informed by the wider socio-economic and political environment of which they were part. In other words, it seeks to determine the politics of punk as a musical form and youth culture. If punk was an expression of youthful revolt, as it first appeared and was initially understood to be, then what was it revolting against, in what ways, why, and to what end?

More broadly, the book urges historians to take youth and youth culture seriously. If we return to the Conway Hall in 1979 then we find not just a political benefit, a pop gig and a punch-up, but a portal into the construction of personal identities; a forum for expression and dissent; an alternate site of information, communication and exchange. Integral to the current study, therefore, is the positioning of youth culture as a space for social and political development. That is, youth culture should not be understood simply as a model of consumption, or a product of media invention, but as a formative and contested experience through which young people discover, comprehend, affirm and express their desires, opinions and disaffections. This, arguably, was made explicit with the emergence of punk, whose early protagonists raised the standard of ‘Anarchy in the UK’ and set themselves but one criterion: ‘Does it threaten the status quo?’

We are not in the least afraid of ruins: British punk, 1976–84

British punk is synonymous with the Sex Pistols. Though it may be more accurate to see the band as providing a point of convergence for the various influences that informed what eventually became known as punk, there is no doubting that the Pistols served as the fulcrum of a musical and stylistic form that redefined popular culture both in Britain and beyond. If not quite signalling a mythical year zero, then the emergence of the Sex Pistols in 1975–76 offered a critical moment of departure that has since come to shape our understanding of the 1970s. The Pistols tore open the cultural fabric, trashing the past and confronting the present to better refine the future. ‘As soon as I saw them [the Sex Pistols] I knew that rhythm and blues was dead, that the future was here somehow’, Joe Strummer (John Mellor) of The Clash claimed in late 1976. ‘I just knew […] It’s the music of now’.

The origins of the Sex Pistols were rooted in London’s Shepherd’s Bush circa 1973. Steve Jones, Paul Cook and their friend Wally Nightingale, three working-class truants obsessed with The Faces, Roxy Music and the harder-edged r‘n’b bands of the mid-1960s, procured by a variety of nefarious means the equipment necessary to form a band. Members came and went, before a connection to the clothes shop owned by Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood on the King’s Road in Chelsea, known as SEX between 1974 and 1976, helped provide the personnel and impetus to move out of the rehearsal room and onto the stage. SEX, too, framed the band in an assortment of cultural and political signifiers that reasserted youth culture as a site of subversion: the clothes and ephemera that emerged from the shop juxtaposed overt sexuality and fetishism (bondage, rubber) with extreme politics (swastikas, anarchism), irreligion and rock ‘n’ roll. By the time of the Sex Pistols’ first gig, on 6 November 1975 at St Martin’s School of Art in central London, the band was managed by McLaren and comprised Jones (guitar), Cook (drums) and Glen Matlock (bass), with John Lydon, better known as Johnny Rotten, providing the voice.

The impact made by the Sex Pistols has been well-documented. Throughout 1976–77, the band helped forge a distinctive youth culture that challenged the preconceptions of the music industry and provoked a media-driven moral panic that fed into broader concerns as to the nation’s well-being. Essentially, the Sex Pistols offered a negation of everything: ‘No Feelings’, ‘No Fun’, ‘No Future’. In so doing, they initiated what Jon Savage described as an ‘intense process of questioning’ that infused popular culture with an oppositional sensibility that transcended its immediate cultural context. Live appearances were confrontational, during which Rotten often abused audiences already polarised in their response to the Pistols’ aggressively stripped-down rock ‘n’ roll. An air of violence and unpredictability enveloped the band, fuelled by music press stories of gigs descending into chaos and brawls breaking out amongst the crowd. Early interviews, too, focused on tales of vandalism, petty crime and remand centres that gave the band’s members and affiliates a dangerous air of delinquency. Rotten, in particular, projected an attitude that cut through the pretentions and complacency of what he described as 1970s ‘non-reality culture’, demanding a music that engaged with and appeared relevant to life in a period of social conflict and recession. Just 20-years-old and dressed in ripped-up clothing with short spiky hair alien to the time, his first words to the music press were: ‘I hate shit. I hate hippies and what they stand for. I hate long hair. I hate pub bands. I want to change it so there are bands like us […] I’m against people who complain about Top of the Pops and don’t do anything. I want people to go out and start something, to see us and start something, or else I’m just wasting my time.’ ‘Everyone is sick of the old way’, he told Caroline Coon in November 1976, ‘we’re just one alternative. There should be several.’

Rotten’s rallying cry was soon met by those inspired as a result of seeing or reading about the Sex Pistols. Simon Barker, having caught the band at Ravensbourne College in December 1975, alerted his friends and thereby paved the way for the so-called ‘Bromley Contingent’ to form the Pistols’ first core audience. Dressed in outfits inspired by the Weimar chic of Cabaret (1972) and The Night Porter (1974), not to mention the fetish wear pedalled by McLaren and Westwood, the Bromleys – who included Susan Ballion (Siouxsie Sioux) and Steven Bailey (Steve Severin) among their ranks – mediated their loathing of suburbia through a style deliberately designed to shock. In so doing, they helped extend the template for what became punk’s defining look whilst simultaneously taking the aesthetics of SEX into the streets, bars and clubs.

As this suggests, aspirant musicians and artists with similar influences to the Sex Pistols soon gravitated towards the band, providing the personnel for The Clash, The Damned, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Slits, Chelsea and Generation X. Not dissimilarly, pre-existing bands that favoured a rougher live sound (Cock Sparrer, The Jam, Stranglers) were absorbed into what by the summer of 1976 was defined by the music press as ‘punk rock’. Others, such as Stuart Goddard (Adam Ant), Victor Napper (Vic Godard), Marianne Elliott-Said (Poly Styrene), Tim Smith (TV Smith) and Pauline Murray, immediately resolved to form bands or commit to the Sex Pistols in the wake of seeing them perform. In Manchester, Howard Trafford (Howard Devoto) and Peter McNeish (Pete Shelley) helped pioneer punk’s do-it-yourself ethos by self-releasing and distributing their own record – Buzzcocks’ Spiral Scratch EP. Even before this, they had organised two Sex Pistols gigs at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall in June and July 1976 to provide a stimulus to punk’s spread beyond the capital. Back in London, Mark Perry – a young bank clerk from Deptford – initially eschewed playing in a group to write about punk in his Sniffin’ Glue fanzine. Thereafter, a flurry of samizdat magazines emerged from bedsits and bedrooms across the UK to provide personalised commentaries on the gigs, bands and implications of punk’s cultural challenge.

Not surprisingly, such a burst of creativity brought music industry and media attention. By late November 1976, the Sex Pistols had signed to EMI and featured on a series of television programmes to preview their debut single, ‘Anarchy in the UK’. The tabloids had also begun to notice punk’s ‘crazy […] shock-cult’. Things intensified, however, following the Sex Pistols’ appearance on Thames Television’s Today programme on 1 December 1976. Bill Grundy, the presenter, had been expecting to showcase Queen’s latest single, ‘Somebody to Love’, before a last-minute hitch necessitated EMI find a replacement. Instead, Grundy’s ill-prepared interview goaded Johnny Rotten and Steve Jones to swear live on air and thereby spark a protracted media panic that led to the band being dropped by its record label and prevented from playing the majority of dates on its subsequent tour. Amidst front-page headlines and articles bemoaning the Pistols as ‘boorish, ill-mannered, foul-mouthed, dirty, obnoxious and arrogant’, punk was first subjected to municipal bans and earnest moral outrage as to its supposed degeneracy before then being codified and commodified by a record industry keen to appropriate, package and market the ‘new wave’ as saleable product. Punk’s meaning, Jon Savage argues, was refracted through a media glare, reduced to caricature in the mainstream press and probed for deeper significance in the music papers, broadsheets and periodicals.

Despite such co-option, punk retained its potential to challenge and offend. The Greater London Council (GLC) made it difficult for punk bands to play in the capital throughout 1977 amidst rumours of a ‘new wave dossier’ that blacklisted certain groups. Local authorities, venue owners and student committees across the country likewise prevented punk gigs or ensured a police presence at those that did go ahead. Most famously, perhaps, the furore that surrounded the Sex Pistols’ second single – ‘God Save the Queen’ – all but eclipsed the controversies of the Today programme. Released in late May to coincide with 1977’s Silver Jubilee celebrations, the record was predictive of there being ‘no future in England’s dreaming’ and came wrapped in a sleeve that defaced the Queen. In response, the single was prevented from reaching the top of the chart only by the machinations of the music industry, with several retailers refusing to stock the record. A boat trip along the Thames organised to promote the single was then curtailed by river police who arrested members of the band’s entourage, while a cross-party group of MPs sought advice towards banning the single. On the ground, Rotten and Jamie Reid (who designed the artwork for ‘God Save the Queen’) were attacked by royalists goaded by the tabloids’ faux-outrage. But even after the Sex Pistols imploded on their first American tour in January 1978, punk continued to provide a provocative cultural form that existed beyond the realms of the pop charts and high-street fashion. Intermittently, it would re-emerge into the media-consciousness, be it as one of the triggers for the widescale urban disturbances of 1981 or as a site of political opposition to the Falklands War in 1982.

Punk’s transition from subculture to pop culture ensured that its complexities and contradictions quickly unravelled. The Sex Pistols had fused rhetorical populism with cultural innovation; the proletarian credentials of the band and Rotten’s emphasis on engagement were filtered through the art school pretensions of McLaren, Westwood, Reid and erstwhile associates such as Bernie Rhodes (who managed The Clash). Punk appealed on one level because it was visually and aurally exciting; it injected a sense of youthful energy and urgency into pop music. But it resonated too because it captured a mood. Punk gave vent to frustrations of both socio-economic and existential origin at the precise moment when Britain itself was passing through a period of uncertainty and change. In other words, punk’s language, style and iconography (cut-up union jacks, ‘blackmail’ lettering, ripped clothing) appeared to embody the rhetoric of decline and social dislocation that pervaded the media and political discourse of the time. As a result, punk could be read both as a medium for cultural and musical experimentation that challenged conventional socio-cultural structures and values, and as a means of providing a voice for the disaffected, including those Mark Perry described as the ‘kids […] waiting out there in the discos, on football terraces and living in boring council estates’.

Such a tension, between punk-as-art and punk-as-social-commentary, would inform the culture’s development into the 1980s. First, and most obviously, punk began to sub-divide into a mesh of mutating and overlapping sub-scenes. In the wake of The Clash, whose early set-list drew on Rhodes’ advice to write songs relevant to their everyday lives, a number of bands committed to punk as a form of street-level protest. The music was raw and aggressive, the lyrics either depicting the frustrations and excitement of inner-city living or railing against those social, economic and political forces that restricted opportunity. From this, bands such as the Angelic Upstarts, The Ruts and Sham 69 emerged, presaging the Cockney Rejects’ ruck ‘n’ roll to provide a template for the working-class social realism of Oi! Concurrently, punk’s distillation of rock was soon honed to a hardened thrash perfected by early-1980s bands like Discharge and The Exploited. The social commentary remained, but now cast in the shadow of the cold war or bound to the entrenched unemployment of Margaret Thatcher’s monetarist policies. Crass and Poison Girls, meanwhile, produced a series of records and publications that critiqued the various systems, ideologies and institutions that maintained power both in Britain and globally. Seeing anarchy not simply as a provocative slogan of self-determination but as the basis for an alternative society capable of sustaining itself beyond existing state and socio-economic structures, the bands each lived collectively and lent support to a range of radical causes. Inspired by their example, numerous groups – not to mention fanzines, record labels, anarchy centres, squats and campaigns – committed to what has since been labelled ‘anarcho-punk’, with Conflict, Flux of Pink Indians, The Mob and Subhumans among those to the fore.

The ‘art’ side of British punk likewise fractured into a number of distinctive sub-scenes. From the Warhol-via-Bowie influences that informed the Bromley Contingent came a more elitist reading of punk’s ‘otherness’, one that took the ‘clothes for heroes’ slogan raised by Seditionaries (the name adopted for McLaren and Westwood’s shop from late 1976) as a means to social, cultural or sexual transgression. The tribes who gathered around Siouxsie and the Banshees and the early Adam and the Ants thereby fed into new romanticism and the proto-gothic ‘posi-punks’ who emerged into the early 1980s. Others picked up on punk’s challenge to the music industry, seeking to confront the expectations and influence of the established sector by forming independent record labels and asserting control over the sound, look and promotion of pop music’s production. This often contained an overtly political or subversive motive. Bands such as the Desperate Bicycles and Scritti Politti saw musical experimentation and independent organisation as a means of resisting cultural and economic hegemony. They, alongside groups such as Gang of Four and Ludus, used pop as a medium through which to critique and expose the mechanisms behind gender relations, consumerism and power. Simultaneously, Throbbing Gristle’s sensory overload of noise and horror augured an industrial culture intended to reveal and break down the processes of social conditioning.

Such approaches were frequently informed by critical theory, be it Marxist, feminist or via literary avant-gardists such as William Burroughs. For those with less overtly political agendas, however, punk more simply provided an opportunity to reinvent popular music, scrambling the codes of rock and pop to create new forms free from the tenets of rock ‘n’ roll or the whims of the record industry. In other words, punk served to open up a cultural space in which to fuse musical styles; to inject new sounds and lyrical content into popular music; to explore new ways of expressing emotions both light and, given punk’s negative impulse, dark. As this suggests, what has since become known as post-punk placed an emphasis on originality and innovation: a ‘new musick’ or a ‘new pop’ that evaded preconceived ideas and genres to perpetuate punk’s tendency to confront, demystify and reassemble.

Second, punk’s dissemination beyond London ensured that it evolved in divergent ways. This has been mapped extensively by Simon Reynolds, whose survey of post-punk explores how the Sex Pistols’ cultural intervention was interpreted and reimagined through the urban, socio-economic and cultural landscapes of places such as Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool, Sheffield, Bristol and Coventry. But it was also a product of punk’s do-it-yourself message inspiring local scenes to develop around venues, shops, fanzines, squats, labels and bands. Many of these came and went, in the process providing loose networks of contacts that proved able to sustain, catalogue and inform punk as a fractured-but-distinctive subculture long after it had fallen off the cultural-conveyor belt of London’s media taste-setters.

Third, punk’s adoption of political signifiers and tendency to social commentary invited divergent interpretation and expression. Early on, McLaren, Westwood and the Sex Pistols’ use of the swastika and reference to anarchy formed part of a more general assault on mainstream culture. These were confrontational symbols, often utilised to provoke a reaction and juxtaposed deliberately to avoid easy assimilation. In so doing, however, punk could not prevent political meanings being projected onto it. Just as members of the far right saw punk’s swastikas and iron crosses as evidence of white youth becoming aware of their racial identity, so some on the left saw in punk a formative expression of socialist protest. From the outset, therefore, punk became a politically contested cultural form. Accusations of fascism soon led bands such as The Clash to better define their stance, presenting themselves as ‘anti-fascist, anti-violence, anti-racist and pro-creative’. They and others aligned themselves with initiatives such as Rock Against Racism (RAR), played gigs in support of political causes and opened the way for bands with relatively distinct political agendas to adopt or utilise punk as a medium for progressive cultural politics. Simultaneously, sections of the far right sought to colonise punk gigs to recruit and mobilise members. Though very few punk bands associated with parties on the right, several had to grapple with the problems thrown up by an audience that included either British Movement (BM) or National Front (NF) supporters.

Finally, punk’s meshing of subcultural styles combined with its rejection of hippiedom, progressive rock and saccharine pop to initiate – or provide a context for – youth cultural revivals to flourish. Thus, the skinhead, mod, rude boy and rockabilly revivals of the period were often infused with a punk aesthetic or attitude that gave rise to sometimes innovative (and sometimes derivative) cultural (re)inventions. Around all this, a debate ensued as to whether punk represented a return to rock ‘n’ roll basics or its decimation; whether it was part of a youth cultural continuum or evidence of its fragmentation. On the street, such concerns were played out in subcultural rivalries that added further division to the fallout from punk’s detonation.

Punk, then, is here defined in its British context and in relation to people and cultural practices inspired or informed by the Sex Pistols. Such a definition recognises that punk was quick to splinter into multiple sub-sects that often conflicted with each other, but suggests continuity existed in at least four ways: a stated opposition to a perceived status quo (cultural, social or political); a disregard for symbols of authority and established hierarchies; claims to provide a voice for the marginalised or disaffected; an emphasis on self-sufficiency and overcoming obstacles that prevent access, expression or autonomy. As a term, punk is used to encompass those associated with its initial ‘moment’ in 1976–77 and those who retained an open affinity to it through to the 1980s. It is also used to comprise elements within the subcultural revivals that formed in punk’s wake and the post-‘77 diaspora that understood punk to have provided opportunity for both musical and intellectual innovation. Punk, therefore, may best be understood as a cultural process of critical engagement rather than a specific musical or sartorial style. It provided a space to revolt, reject and reinvent. ‘You have to destroy in order to create’, McLaren told the BBC’s Nationwide in late 1976, ‘you know that’.

Waiting for the clampdown: Politics, 1976–84

On the b-side of their debut single, ‘White Riot’ b/w ‘1977’, The Clash began a countdown to 1984. The bulk of the lyric, written in 1976, depicted London on the verge of collapse. Unemployment had bred antipathy and ennui. Pop culture, so resplendent in the 1960s, had become redundant. The media, detached from everyday life, offered little more than a palliative, while violence stalked London boroughs both rich and poor. On the cover of the single, Joe Strummer, Mick Jones and Paul Simonon stood with their hands to the wall, as if under arrest. On the back, images of tower blocks, rubble and the police were broken up by texts taken from Hamblett and Deverson’s Generation X (1965) and Cohen’s Folk Devils and Moral Panics (1972) describing youth cultural violence transforming into class warfare. As the song itself builds to a climax, the years are ticked off: ‘in 1977, sod the Jubilee, in 1978 …, in 1979, stayed in bed, in 1980 …, in 1981, the toilets don’t work, in 1982 …, in 1983, here come the police, in 1984!’. The song ends with a jolt, as if the power has been cut and the Orwellian dystopia finally descends.

 

‘White Riot’ b/w ‘1977’ by The Clash

 

Such a scenario chimed with the times. Contemporary analyses of Britain in the mid-to-late 1970s came with titles such as The Death of British Democracy, Britain in Agony and Is Britain Dying?, their attention focused on a stagnating economy and mounting social tensions. On the picket lines, militant trade unionists were accused of wrestling power away from Westminster in preparation for a class war. On the streets, football hooligans and ‘muggers’ became emblematic of a breakdown in law and order, while racial antagonisms spilt over into violent confrontation with the police. From the margins, a resurgent NF emerged to threaten electoral breakthroughs and take its message of race-hate into the inner-cities. The far right, in turn, was complemented by a vibrant – if fractured – revolutionary left infused by the socio-cultural transformations of the 1960s. As the old communist party fell into decline, new social movements and political groupings arose to contest both the inequities of capital and the repressive forces of imperialism and patriarchy. With the empire receding into the background, so the very point and purpose of the UK appeared open to question: Scottish and Welsh nationalism revived; relations with Europe cut across the political battlelines; the Irish Republican Army (IRA) brought its war to the mainland in bloody and spectacular style. And as successive governments searched to find a way out of the snares set by what was a global recession, so plots and coups were rumoured to be hatching amongst disgruntled military men and ‘apprehensive patriots’ fearful of a descent into anarchy and chaos. ‘Declinism’, Andy Beckett suggests, had become part of the ‘British state of mind’ by the mid-1970s, with encroaching authoritarianism and social collapse foreseen as alternate futures for a country that had lost its way.

The background to all this is well-known, even as historians begin to reassess the nature and extent of the ‘crisis’ that continues to inform popular memory of the 1970s. Inflationary pressures inherited from the 1960s had led to a steady rise in unemployment and industrial conflict that combined to inaugurate a prolonged period of socio-economic and political strife. The 1973 oil crisis served only to exacerbate Britain’s problems, tipping the economy into recession and providing the backdrop to a miners’ dispute that precipitated the fall of Edward Heath’s Conservative government in early 1974. Though growth returned in 1975, Britain appeared trapped in a permanent state of disarray. By 1976, unemployment had moved way beyond the symbolic one million mark to reach 1,635,800 (6.8 per cent) in August 1977. Inflation, meanwhile, had rocketed in the early 1970s to almost 25 per cent in 1975 and remained high thereafter.

The Labour government’s response to the problems it (re)inherited in 1974 was initially based on a ‘social contract’ with the trade unions. This sought to curb inflation by limiting pay rises in return for social and legal measures of benefit to the working population. Once a further bout of industrial unrest broke out in mid-1976, however, and the pound fell to an all-time low against the dollar, so the chancellor, Denis Healey, was moved to ask the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a loan. Healey had already cut public expenditure in an attempt to curtail the wage-price spiral in 1975, but the IMF loan was contingent on far deeper reductions amounting to some £2.5 billion. In effect, Healey set in motion the redirection of the British economy away from the broadly Keynesian principles that had underpinned it from the end of the Second World War towards a monetarist policy that was taken up and extended by the Conservative governments led by Margaret Thatcher following her election in 1979.

The full implications of such a shift would become clear in due course. The structural changes on-going within the British economy – away from industrial production towards the service sector – were accelerated. The power of the trade unions was curtailed via a mixture of legislation and set-piece industrial disputes epitomised by the bitter miners’ strike of 1984–5. Large-scale unemployment, which peaked at 3,407,729 (12.2 per cent) in 1986, became a permanent feature of Britain’s economic landscape, while old industrial regions fell into decline from which many have yet to recover. More broadly, the collectivist principles of the welfare state were challenged by those of individualism as the nationalised industries were sold off and the private sector blossomed on the back of cheap credit and government incentive. In the long-term, Britain was to emerge rebranded as a financial and service centre geared towards the interests of the customer and entrepreneur. In the short term, the country was racked by inflation, inner-city riots and intense social conflict as the ‘popular authoritarianism’ that Stuart Hall recognised as the kernel of Thatcherism buried itself in the national psyche.

The late 1970s and early 1980s was therefore a period of significant socio-economic change, during which a heightened political climate was imbued with a sense of engagement and disaffection that facilitated both new ideas and associated reactions. Tensions that had simmered during the immediate post-war years of reconstruction and full employment began to bubble to the surface; the basic assumptions – political, cultural and economic – that gave shape to the so-called ‘consensus’ in British politics from 1945 began to fragment. As a result, Britain’s three mainstream parties each passed through different degrees of readjustment over the last quarter of the twentieth century, while organisations and movements to either side of the political centre became more visible as they jostled for position amidst the flux. Of course, such realignments within the political order were also a product of broader cultural and societal forces: changing demographics, the demands of consumerism and technological advance, shifting attitudes to gender relations, class, race and sexuality. They were, moreover, contained within the geo-political context of a cold war rekindled at the end of the 1970s to raise the spectre of global nuclear confrontation. But the point here is that these developments fed into cultural currents that, in turn, responded to and informed the socio-economic and political changes on-going around them. As The Clash sang about civil conflict and stencilled their boiler suits with slogans alluding to a government crackdown, so they provided a cultural reflection of the media clamour and political discourse that pervaded throughout a country struggling to reimagine itself.

 

I’m a youth, I’m the truth: Post-war youth culture  

Youth cultures have long simmered with a sense of deviance. The teddy boys and girls, born out of post-war reconstruction and armed with a sartorial style that stood resplendent against the bomb site, soon gained a reputation for trouble. They appeared, to the media at least, as dark harbingers of a new age, a perception reaffirmed by their adoption of rock ‘n’ roll as it crossed the Atlantic to re-wire the aspirations of British youth. Teds liked to dance and were up for a fight; they existed in a space somewhere between the home and the workplace. They were working class, territorial and young, a spectacular affirmation of cultural creativity rooted on the street corner but resonant of a changing world.

If the teds can lay claim to being the first recognisable youth culture to emerge into the post-war age, then others soon followed. Some of these gathered around music scenes (folk, skiffle, jazz, soul, ska, rock, reggae, glam), others evolved out of street-level fashions to be labelled mods, rockers, skinheads and suedeheads. All, however, were to some extent informed by the socio-economic shifts that took place after the Second World War. Full employment, growing affluence and technological breakthroughs in mass media and production each served to facilitate an age of consumption. In particular, the post-war baby-boom gave rise to perhaps the archetypal consumer, the teenager, for whom the availability of popular music, make-up, clothes, radios and record players opened the way to innovative, constructed styles of living. Simultaneously, new cultural forms found synergies with emergent political ideas in a fusion that culminated in the 1960s counter-culture. The tendency for popular musicians to take up political causes, or to openly transgress the social mores of mainstream society, complemented a ‘cultural turn’ in leftist politics that embraced youth as a revolutionary force cutting across the old battlelines of class towards a politics of identity. Demographic changes, too, as a result of greater access to higher education, immigration, national service (to 1960) and patterns of employment, served to modify the ways in which young people interacted with each other and wider society. Be it the student radical marching against the Vietnam War, or the pilled-up mod fighting rockers on the bank holiday beaches, youth culture brokered the dynamics of social change.

As a concept, youth culture is relatively new. It was first introduced by sociologists in the United States and used primarily in relation to juvenile gangs and delinquency. Come the 1950s, and attention turned towards the evermore distinctive and visible cultural forms adopted by young people in the years following the war. Charles Radcliffe, a British journalist ensconced in the political and cultural currents of the time, recognised youth culture as a disaffected product of consumer society. In mods and rockers he saw the ‘seeds of social destruction’; he welcomed their ‘rage’ as a sign of simmering anti-social intent. More prominently, the Birmingham University Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) was founded by Richard Hoggart in 1964, giving rise to a series of pioneering papers, books and articles that interpreted aspects of youth culture as sites of ‘symbolic resistance’ to prevailing socio-economic and cultural relations. In such accounts, youth culture was broadly defined as constituting the ways by which young people developed distinct patterns of life and gave expression to their social and material experience. It was, moreover, interpreted through a Marxist lens that placed youth culture in the context of evolving class struggles. Thus, youth ‘subcultures’ – incorporating popular music, sartorial style, language and social space – were understood to provide a means for young people to try and resolve the tensions that existed between their class position, their parents’ generation and the hegemonic values of capitalism. By existing beyond home-life and those social structures (school, work, church, politics) that conspired to shape the adult future, subcultures founded a site wherein young people symbolically reimagined or reaffirmed their (class) identities by adapting and transforming the raw material of consumerism to their own ends.

Such interpretation has been widely criticised. Most importantly, perhaps, a lack of empirical evidence has led to suggestions that the scholars associated with or informed by the CCCS sought to fit youth culture to their own politically-motivated theories rather than any recognisable – more complex – reality. This was compounded by a tendency to focus on ‘spectacular’ subcultures, an emphasis that, first, excluded those who did not fit to a subcultural type and, second, ignored the amorphous boundaries of subcultural identity that allowed people to flit in and between them. Subsequently, the fluidity of subcultural identity has now become integral to the ideas of sociologists examining contemporary youth cultures, for whom cultural ‘choice’ and the act of consumption is less politically charged and more embedded into the multiple ways by which culture is utilised and understood by those involved. In amidst all this, CCCS scholars were also criticised for their spatial and gender bias, ignoring female participation in the youth cultures examined and failing to scrutinise social spaces deemed more likely to be inhabited by young women.

Each of the charges has substance, and studies of youth culture now encompass an array of competing methodologies and approaches. For a historian examining the 1970s and 1980s, however, the theories developed within the CCCS remain pertinent. Not only do they form part of the political and cultural history of the period, but their basic assertions – that youth cultures provide potential modes of resistance and contain distinct (if differentiated and contested) meanings – helped shape contemporary readings of punk. Even before it was named, punk’s gestation related to subcultural tradition via its drawing on youth cultural signifiers to reflect its separation from the socio-cultural mainstream. Elements of teddy boy, mod, rocker and skinhead style formed part of a visual assault that rested initially on rock ‘n’ roll’s primal base. As Dick Hebdige explored in his classic Subcultures (1979), punk engaged in a conscious form of ‘semiotic guerrilla warfare’, using symbols and bricolage to challenge conventional norms and values. Punk, in its music, language and aesthetic, deliberately set out to provoke, disrupt and subvert. By so doing, it provided a means for cultural and political expression through which social commentary and dissent were communicated. Crucially, too, such dissent was often focused on a media and cultural industry that competed to define, appropriate and channel youth’s innovations. A fledgling punk rocker did not need to read the situationist texts compiled in Jamie Reid’s copy of Leaving the 20th Century (1974) to know, as the Cockney Rejects put it, that you had to ‘have a laugh before the press get in, [‘cos] if you give ‘em half a chance, they’ll kill the fucking thing’.

The objective of the current study is to examine the processes and products of punk-related cultures. By so doing, it will assess the ways by which punk reflected, critiqued and challenged the broader cultural, socio-economic and political forces that enveloped it. It will argue, too, that youth cultures may thereby constitute formative socio-cultural and political spaces through which young people develop, experiment and acquire understanding. In other words, they provide portals to alternate points of reference and information that help forge individual and collective identities. To paraphrase Savage, the premise throughout is that the music, artworks, fanzines and ephemera produced by punk-related cultures reflected the world of 1976–84; that they connected to events outside the pop cultural bubble and were understood to do so by many of those involved; that there was something more than image and sales at stake. Throughout, reminiscence will be eschewed for contemporary source material, both in order to avoid hindsight and to capture the moods, language and preconceptions of the time. As this suggests, the aim is not to write a narrative history of punk remembered, but to examine the various ways by which punk was constructed, understood and utilised as a cultural medium at a particular historical juncture.

Such an approach has political connotations. Punk’s basic message was ‘do it yourself’, which in the context of the mid-1970s meant assaulting or circumscribing those cultural, social and political forces that appeared to have suffocated the possibilities promised by the mechanisms of consumption and social democracy. As the first modern youth culture born into recession, the punk generation entered the world and reported back in conflicting and sometimes obnoxious ways. Punk’s impact was such, moreover, that it continued to inform aspects of youth (and popular) culture long into the 1980s, during which time on-going socio-economic and geo-political changes provided ample material to feed further punk’s urge for autonomy.

 

God save history: recovering punk’s past

Why is such a book necessary? From the outset, those involved with punk have sought to control and protect their own history. The Sex Pistols very quickly recruited a designer (Jamie Reid), photographer (Ray Stevenson, then Dennis Morris) and cameraman (Julien Temple) to collate the band’s progress. This, of course, culminated in the quasi-situationist fantasy of The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle (1980), a filmic attempt by McLaren to claim the Pistols’ myth as his own and a classic example of why those who make history are not necessarily best equipped to retell it. The initial point, however, was to secure control of the group’s presentation; to set it against and in contrast to the distorting lens of the media and the all-too-familiar contrivances of the music industry. In fact, punk actively documented itself from the bottom-up. Fanzines such as Sniffin’ Glue were designed to provide an alternative to a weekly music press (Melody Maker, NME, Record Mirror, Sounds) deemed ‘so far away from the kids that they can’t possibly say anything of importance’. Film-makers, including Temple, Don Letts and Wolfgang Büld, captured punk’s grass-roots development in stark documentary form. The first punk books were almost all photographic collections or compiled press-cuttings culled from newspapers and fanzines.

Punk, then, catalogued and reported; it rarely explained. Indeed, attempts to define punk in broader socio-economic, cultural or political terms tended to receive short shrift. Rotten, for example, complained of writers such as Caroline Coon assuming ‘social implications that just aren’t there’ and resented those who sought to interpret or project their own meaning onto his words and actions. The Sex Pistols’ recorded version of The Stooges’ ‘No Fun’ even came with its own counter to such analysis, with Rotten presenting a song about boredom as a ‘sociology lecture, with a bit of psychology, a bit of neurology, a bit of fuckology’.

As a result, punk’s tendency to document but resist explanation has paved the way for three distinct modes of history to formulate around it. First, the earlier recourse to reportage has continued in the form of compiled oral testimonies and compendiums of photos, graphics and ephemera. These provide the basis for most popular books on punk, retaining an emphasis on those involved (re)asserting their take on its origins, content and passing. They remain, moreover, generally entertaining and informative. Over time, as new angles are sought and punk’s battlelines fade into the past, so they continue to throw up choice bits of detail to tickle the punk connoisseur and occasionally shed light on events lost in previous accounts. The curatorial instincts of Jon Savage have, in particular, provided new insights and recognition of the depth, breadth and scope of punk’s influence. At the same time, the transition from contemporary cultural critique to artefact has arguably served to blunt the tensions, innovations and contradictions so resonant of punk. More generally, the relativism and subjectivism of memoir and most oral testimony has precluded and actively denied analytical consideration of punk’s broader meaning and significance. Components of punk’s diachronic and disparate development continue to be excluded in favour of personalised histories, apocryphal stories and the nostalgic hue that surrounds 1976–77.

Second, narrative accounts of punk have begun to multiply as individual memoirs, group biographies and popular music histories find publication. Some of these are excellent. Jon Savage’s England’s Dreaming (1991) will forever remain the definitive study of the Sex Pistols’ rise and fall, locating the band firmly within the cultural, socio-economic and political context of the mid-1970s. Simon Reynolds, too, has catalogued punk’s experimental diaspora in his Rip it Up and Start Again (2005), which journeys through the various ‘post-punk’ scenes that emerged in the Pistols’ wake. In so doing, Reynolds argues that ‘revolutionary movements in pop culture have their widest impact after the “moment” has allegedly passed, when ideas spread from the metropolitan bohemian elites and hipster cliques that originally “own” them, and reach the suburbs and the regions’. That such ideas were often ‘inextricably connected to the political and social turbulence of the times’ is made clear as Reynolds celebrates the musical innovations and intellectual engagement of artists who ‘exposed and dramatised the mechanisms of power in everyday life’ while simultaneously committing to an ethos of ‘perpetual change’.

More typically, however, narrative accounts of punk serve only to absorb it into an ever-more uniform continuum of popular music history that is close to saturation point. With a multitude of monthly music magazines dedicated to rock’s past and countless documentaries regurgitating well-worn legends ad infinitum, so bands such as the Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Jam, Joy Division and The Specials (not to mention US groups such as The Ramones et al) have become dislocated from – or only superficially related to – their historical context. Consequently, punk has been reduced to but another touchstone in pop’s rich tapestry; a distinct musical segue between the 1970s and 1980s. True, writers such as Savage, Greil Marcus, Stewart Home, Tom Vague and Paul Gorman have – to different extents – argued for punk’s place in a ‘secret history’ of cultural dissent that passes back through Situationist interventions, Lettrisme and Dada to even the ‘King Mob’ outrages of the 1780 Gordon Riots and the ranters of the English civil war. Polemical essays, too, have sought to contest or undermine perceived wisdom as to punk’s motives, meaning and import. But even these tend to rely on a choice reading of punk that selects what is deemed relevant to the argument and discards what is not. And if the anarcho-punk movement inspired by Crass and the DIY ethos embodied in the independent labels and fanzines that flowered around punk have recently begun to accord greater interest, then other areas of punk’s dissemination have yet to be judged worthy of serious comment. Punk’s early 1980s resurgence, for example, not to mention the scenes around Oi! and goth’s punky prototypes, remain beyond the pervasive narrative of popular music’s ‘progression’. Too often, it seems, punk’s broader culture – its audience, context, language and politics – is lost beneath the minutiae of who played bass for whoever and inventories of gig dates or record releases.

Of course, debate as to punk’s wider significance once formed the crux of many a contemporary account, not only in the music press but also in political periodicals and sections of the academy. Though it remains a misnomer to suggest that academic studies of punk are legion, the fact that the Sex Pistols emerged in tandem with both the CCCS’ evolving analysis of youth culture and the ‘cultural turn’ on-going across the political left means that we can assert a third strand of punk ‘history’: the theoretical. In truth, most of these are to be found in areas of social science, particularly in the disciplines of cultural studies, politics and sociology. Their objective, meanwhile, tends towards identifying punk’s socio-cultural implications, be it as a semiotic attack on conventional codes of meaning (Hebdige), a paradoxical challenge to the music industry (Laing), or the apotheosis of an art school tradition that sought to marry ‘bohemian ideals of authenticity’ with ‘pop art ideals of artifice’ at the interface between modernism and postmodernism (Frith and Horne). In their wake, many of the assumptions first made about punk – its working-class origin, political affinity and subversive intent – have been held up to scrutiny and found wanting.

More recently, or at least from late 1990s, it is punk’s legacies that have drawn attention. Beyond Roger Sabin’s useful compilation of essays on punk’s broader cultural impact, so a number of exhibitions and heavy-duty compendiums have been collated to trace the aesthetic ramifications of punk’s culture shock. Politically, both RAR and the ‘white noise’ movement aligned to the far right have provided means to assess punk’s racial connotations in a period of acute social tension. David Wilkinson, meanwhile, has drawn from Raymond Williams to apply a cultural materialist approach that locates punk’s politics in the progressive struggles of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

As this suggests, academic work on punk and punk-related cultures appears to be broadening in scope. Not surprisingly, the primary role played by women in punk scenes locally and nationally continues to warrant attention, both historically and in relation to contemporary culture. Class, by contrast, has all but fallen off the agenda, though a recent academic study – by Pete Dale – examines the faultlines between a Marxist and an anarchist reading of punk in order to assess the music’s continuing reinvention and claims to empowerment. Likewise, although Nick Crossley’s 2015 depiction of the social networks that facilitated punk’s cultural impact has little to say on class, his use of network analysis does allow insight into how punk scenes coalesced across England’s towns and cities. Indeed, the formation of a Punk Scholars Network looks set to facilitate ever more insightful work into punk’s transmission, bringing together the expertise of Russ Bestley, Mike Dines, Alastair Gordon, Roger Sabin and others to generate conferences, research and the publication of a Punk and Post-Punk journal.

Despite such activity, there is much to be done – especially from a historical point of view. As things stand, the existing literature remains bookended by highly-theorised accounts that seek to squeeze punk into pre-designated paradigms and numerous popular music histories focused on a particular artist or band. In between, collections of punk ephemera and oral testimonies combine to provide both overwhelming detail and, paradoxically, evermore ahistorical rememberings of punk circa 1976–78. By way of contrast, the intention here is to re-historicise British punk beyond its media moment through to one of its own prescribed end-games of 1984. This means locating punk as an evolving youth culture within a shifting socio-economic and political context, focusing on the substance of punk’s cultural critique and exploring the varied ways by which it served as a medium to comment on and, occasionally, challenge the last vestiges of postwar consensus and emergent neo-liberalism. Punk meant something to a lot people. To some it was just fun, a focal point for a night out and a celebration of youth. To others it was a means of expression, a space for experimentation and a source of inspiration/information. Whatever, it is hoped here to capture something of the cultural and political fission that helped define aspects of British youth culture in the late 1970s and 1980s, giving voice to those who in word, if not always in deed, attempted to destroy the passer-by.

 

Matt Worley chapeter 2

 

 

Chapter One

What’s this for? Punk’s contested meanings

 

                                    It depends doesn’t it? Everyone’s got their own idea of punk […] punk is to any                 person what they think.

‘Hoxton Tom’ McCourt (1982)

 

In December 1982, the music weekly Sounds convened a ‘punk debate’ to discuss an article published just a few days before by its features editor Garry Bushell. The subject was a recurrent one; one that flickered in and out of media discourse from 1977 onwards: was punk alive or, as Bushell now suggested in deliberately provocative fashion, dead?

Ostensibly, British punk appeared to be in relatively rude health as 1982 drew to a close. December’s independent charts were dominated by punk or punk-informed bands, with Crass, the Anti Nowhere League, GBH, The Violators, Theatre of Hate, Sex Gang Children and Southern Death Cult all in the top twenty. Among the albums, Factory and Rough Trade LPs jostled for position with the likes of the Abrasive Wheels, Blitz, Poison Girls, Dead Kennedys and The Damned. Once again, John Peel’s ‘all-time festive 50’ for 1982 was topped by ‘Anarchy in the UK’ and featured nothing released prior to late 1976. His listeners’ chart for songs issued only in 1982 covered the gamut of punk and post-punk styles, topped by New Order but including Action Pact, The Clash, The Cure, The Jam, Josef K, Killing Joke and Siouxsie and the Banshees. Street fashion and even national chart acts retained elements of punk style or attitude across their varied forms. Earlier in the year, too, Crass had proven punk’s ability to retain a subversive intent, spearheading a vocal protest against the Falklands War that provoked questions in parliament and threats of prosecution. Bushell, however, sensed punk’s impact was on the wane, going so far as to ask: ‘does anyone know what punk means anymore?’

 

‘The Punk Debate’, Sounds, 25 December 1982

 

His argument was relatively straight-forward: where punk once offered a challenge, ‘at most to the way society is, at least to the jaded musical establishment’, it had now descended into ritual, imitation and narrow-mindedness. ‘A movement which once stood proudly and profoundly against uniformity is […] just another uniform’, he insisted. Stylistically, the punk ‘look’ had become formulaic (studs, spikes and leather jackets). In musical terms, thrash or wilful experimentation had replaced songs with a point and purpose. Ideologically, punk had sub-divided into what Bushell described as the hippie-inflected libertarianism of Crass-style bands, the art-for-art’s sake impasse of ‘musical radicalism’ (post-punk), and the blunted ‘street socialism’ of an Oi! scene deformed by a mixture of middle-class prejudice, media misrepresentation and far-right encroachment. Punk’s spirit remained, Bushell contended, but punk itself – as a music and a culture – had become conservative and introspective. ‘If you’re going to change anything you’ve got to look beyond what you’re doing, beyond music. Because music ain’t never going to change anything’.

Bushell’s polemic proved contentious. Readers wrote in to reassert punk’s continued relevance, pointing to the prescience of various punk bands and punk lyrics; to the local scenes and squats that incubated creativity; to the excitement generated by what Alistair Livingston of the influential Kill Your Pet Puppy fanzine felt was punk’s basic rationale: ‘to create our own lives out of the chaos’. The debate itself brought together writers and members of various bands to discuss the problems facing punk in 1982, meaning factionalism, media faddism, commercialisation and a fatalism embodied in the nuclear mushroom cloud that decorated many a record sleeve and the discarded glue-bag that littered too many a gig. Not surprisingly, all thought punk remained an important cultural force (even as they recognised punk’s distance from the cultural mainstream). As interesting, however, were the attempts to answer Bushell’s secondary question: what did punk actually mean?

For Tom McCourt, bassist with archetypal Oi! band The 4-Skins, punk meant people thinking for themselves; it was neither fashion nor anything the media said it was. John Baine, otherwise known as the punk-poet Attila the Stockbroker, agreed. He understood punk as a medium through which people could communicate their own ideas. For Vice Squad’s Beki Bondage (Rebecca Bond), punk was about being individual and thinking for yourself. And although the Angelic Upstarts’ Mensi (Thomas Mensforth) felt punk should be working class, it was more generally recognised to cut across such social barriers. Poison Girls’ Vi Subversa (Frances Sokolov) described punk as ‘a reaction to power […] it’s a reaction of the powerless […] We’re expressing something and we’re using music as a medium. But if it stays within there, then we’re going to become either ignored or just so much fodder and so much product […] Punk is about life; punk [is] about taking my life for myself’.

Such broad definition recognised punk’s potential diversity whilst also reasserting an underlying commitment to engage with, comment on and critique issues relevant to everyday life. The problem, it seemed, was that punk’s initial shock had been absorbed by the music industry and its challenge formalised via a combination of media caricature and the emergence of various sub-scenes competing to claim ownership of punk’s original intent. To define punk was to emasculate it. But if punk was about ‘changing things’, as Conflict’s Colin Jerwood insisted, then the question still remained as to the extent and focus of its protest.

Of course, punk had always been open to interpretation. Having emerged to disrupt the cultural equilibrium of the mid-1970s, it did not thereby provide the basis for a coherent or unified movement, be it political or otherwise. From the outset, moreover, punk’s symbolism, negation and iconoclasm ensured that competing attempts were made to explain or direct its apparent disaffection. First in the music press and then in the tabloids and political periodicals, punk was framed by a politicised discourse that sought to make sense of its emergence and subsequent trajectory. Simultaneously, those drawn to – or inspired by – punk picked through the debris left in the Sex Pistols’ wake to find their own means of expression. That these sometimes clashed or appeared contradictory should not be surprising. It was, after all, the tension between punk’s urge to destroy and eagerness to create that allowed its influence to reverberate so far and so wide.

 

Press darlings

Punk, to some extent, was a construct of the music press. Certainly, punk’s British variant was first recognised and then interpreted by journalists writing for the three principal music weeklies: Melody Maker, NME and Sounds. The NME, by 1975, had already focused its attention on a clutch of bands congregated in New York’s Bowery district whose aesthetic drew from the sleazy urbanity of the New York Dolls and Velvet Underground to distil rock’s template and, more importantly, reclaim rock ‘n’ roll for the street-level clubs that once nurtured it. Bands such as the Patti Smith Group, Blondie, The Heartbreakers, Television, Suicide and The Ramones all played stripped-back versions of rock ‘n’ roll that found home under a ‘punk’ label codified by Legs McNeil and John Holmstrom in their magazine of the same name from January 1976. Having existed as an adjective for some time in the music press lexicon of the 1970s, ‘punk’ finally became a noun.

Back in Britain, the impulses that informed New York punk (denoted by Savage as urbanism, romantic nihilism, musical simplicity and a kind of teenage sensibility) were sought and eventually applied to the nascent scene forming around the Sex Pistols. The band’s first live review, by the NME’s Neil Spencer, referred to their playing ‘‘60s-styled white punk rock’, while McLaren’s brief sojourn as the New York Dolls’ manager in 1975 appeared to make the link explicit. The influence of the Dolls, alongside the primal ur-rock of Iggy Pop’s The Stooges, proved integral to punk’s early sound and attitude. Simultaneously, however, interpretations of British punk soon tended to be filtered through a socio-economic and cultural lens that distinguished the Sex Pistols from their US counterparts. Punk in the UK, ostensibly at least, contained political connotations absent in America.

The influence of Britain’s music press in the 1970s and early 1980s is difficult to overestimate. Between them, Melody Maker, NME and Sounds helped shape the contours of British popular culture, constructing narratives and interpretations of popular music history that continue to resonate today. From the later 1960s, the music press became a vehicle for writers keen not just to report on the comings and goings of chart-toppers and the hit parade, but to inject a cultural and political significance into popular music that took it beyond the realms of commerce and entertainment. The NME, in particular, gained a reputation as a taste-setter in the early-to-mid 1970s, becoming a gauge for emergent cultural shifts and a gateway to the subterranean worlds of the post-hippie counter-culture and rock ‘n’ roll. Journalists such as Nick Kent and Charles Shaar Murray had honed their craft in the underground press before moving to the NME, from where they seemed to live out – as well as report back on and mythologise – the seedy-glamour of rock bohemianism.

In terms of readership, the three principal music papers boasted sales of 209,782 (Melody Maker), 198,615 (NME) and 164,299 (Sounds) in 1974. Neither the mainstream press nor television provided much space for popular music at this time; the music featured on Radio 1 and programmes such as Top of the Pops was circumscribed to say the least. As a result, each copy of Melody Maker et al., tended to be shared between friends, meaning those reading the papers far out-stripped the number who bought them. By 1979, the National Readership Survey estimated that over three million people read the weekly music press. The impact of punk, moreover, meant both a resurgence in readership (following a mid-70s slump) and a notable change in style and tone. New writers – many of whom began with their own punk-inspired fanzines – emerged to reflect on and charter punk’s cultural offensive. Most famously, the NME advertised in July 1976 for ‘hip young gunslingers’ to revitalise its staff-list, thereby enabling Julie Burchill, Tony Parsons and, ultimately, Paul Morley, Paul Du Noyer, Ian Cranna and Ian Penman to usher in a new generation of music writers. Not dissimilarly, Sounds enlisted Jon Savage (Jon Sage), Jane Suck (Jane Jackman) and Sandy Robertson as its principal punk reporters in 1977, before Garry Bushell joined in 1978 to focus the paper’s attention on the street cultures that flowered around punk. Consequently, Sounds’ readership rose steadily through to 1982, briefly overtaking the NME and, in punk terms, becoming the primary record of its development among the high-street weeklies. Melody Maker, meanwhile, provided space for Caroline Coon to track punk’s emergence before recruiting Savage, Vivien Goldman, Mary Harron and Simon Frith in the later 1970s. Although the 1980s brought cultural, technological and political challenges that effectively neutered the weeklies’ influence, the music press continued to provide a medium through which culture and politics were fused and disseminated. It was, for many, the place where meaning and interpretation of popular music was sought and discovered.

The first writers to seriously engage with the Sex Pistols were Caroline Coon and Jonh Ingham [sic]. Though they wrote for rival papers (Melody Maker and Sounds respectively), both were quick to recognise the band’s significance and produce a series of articles that did much to shape the parameters of how British punk was initially understood. Where Ingham emphasised the Sex Pistols’ difference, Coon applied a sociologically-trained eye to assert the band’s relevance both to popular music and British society in the context of the mid-1970s. Thus, Ingham’s April 1976 piece on the Pistols focused on style and antagonisms. ‘Flared jeans were out. Leather helped. All black was better. Folks in their late twenties, chopped and channelled teenagers […] People sick of nostalgia. People wanting forward motion. People wanting rock and roll that is relevant to 1976’. The music’s energy and power was celebrated; its eschewal of virtuosity turned to a virtue; the aura of violence noted. Most importantly, Ingham gave space to Rotten’s decimation of pop’s recent history: hippies, pub rock and even the contemporary New York scene were dismissed as a ‘waste of time’. Later, Ingham wrote of ‘boundaries being drawn by the Pistols’, boundaries he defined in more detail in an October issue of Sounds billed as a ‘punk rock special’: youth, an irreverence for rock’s pantheon, a predominantly working-class background, a commitment to doing rather than consuming, a rejection of ‘70s style (flares, long hair, platform shoes). Punk was pitted against the music industry and the ‘old farts’ who dominated it. ‘The great ignorant public don’t know why we’re in a band’, Rotten is quoted as saying: ‘It’s because we’re bored with all the old crap. Like every decent human being should be’.

Coon’s interpretation of punk pushed towards more explicit socio-political associations. In particular, she made much of the Sex Pistols’ working-class background, using it, first, to explain their evident disaffection and, second, to distinguish punk from a rock ‘aristocracy’ made up of ageing millionaires no longer connected to their audience. ‘It was natural’, she suggested, ‘that if a group of deprived London street kids got together and formed a band, it would be political’. In cultural terms, this placed the young punks in opposition to the likes of Mick Jagger – who Coon dismissed as ‘elitist, the aristocracy’s court jester, royalty’s toy’ [a reference to his friendship with Princess Margaret] – and the ‘multi-national corporations’ of Led Zeppelin, Elton John and The Who. In contrast to bands such as Pink Floyd, Soft Machine, Yes, Genesis, Jethro Tull and Queen, who comprised ‘middle-class, affluent or university academics’ playing ‘progressive rock’ dependent on musical dexterity, Coon presented punk as a return to street-level music that the ‘average teenager’ could relate to and make themselves.

Class formed the basis of punk’s ire, Coon suggested. Her early interviews with the Pistols, The Clash and The Damned centred on broken homes, criminal convictions and failed education. She probed for political comment and opinion, relating punk’s antipathy towards contemporary rock ‘n’ roll to the ‘increasing economic severity’ of the mid-1970s. Punks ‘reflected and expressed the essence of the society they experienced every day’, Coon argued. Theirs was the ‘violence of frustration’; a rejection of ‘romantic escapism’. ‘In 1967 the maxim was peace and love. In 1976 it is War and Hate’.

As this suggests, Coon and Ingham did much to frame punk as a distinctive cultural form. They helped denote its musical characteristics and drew various bands under its label to provide a sense of coherence. Not only did they highlight punk’s irreverence to rock’s established canon, but they linked such iconoclasm to a sartorial rejection of all things hippie that exposed a generational rupture and placed attention on punk’s audience as much as the bands. Most significantly, perhaps, they invested punk with political connotations that tied cultural disaffection to the socio-economic context from which it emerged. In other words, punk was presented as a creative outlet for a generation coming of age in a period of crisis.

As we shall see, such analysis did indeed reflect attitudes expressed by many of those caught in the Sex Pistols’ wake. More to the point, the various elements brought together to give form to British punk remained in flux and open to interpretation. Almost from the outset, a debate ensued as to punk’s significance and intent. For the NME’s ‘young gunslingers’, punk’s relevance was all too clear. Punk was ‘reality rock ‘n’ roll’, Julie Burchill insisted, akin to ‘being on the terraces’ with an audience comprised of ‘working-class kids with the guts to say “No” to being office, factory and dole fodder’. For Parsons, punk meant ‘amphetamine-stimulated high energy seventies street music, gut-level dole queue rock ‘n’ roll, fast flash, vicious music played by kids for kids’.

Crucially, Burchill and Parsons appeared to capture punk’s spirit in written form. Where Coon’s punk sympathies revealed roots that stretched back to the sixties counter-culture, Burchill and Parsons were 17 and 22 respectively when they joined the NME. Both, along with Sounds’ Jane Suck and Jon Savage’s early writings, offered breathless prose that read as punk felt; they lashed out at non-believers and revelled in punk’s impudence. Burchill, in particular, embraced punk for its clearing a space for new voices (young working-class voices) to enter pop and the media; the music was all but immaterial. Parsons was more earnest, seizing on punk’s social commentary and urbanity to politicise its relevance in the face of the media storm and municipal bans that followed the Grundy incident. Famously, too, Burchill and Parsons embodied punk’s cultural shift by barricading their own space in the NME offices, building a ‘bunker’ from which to do (sometimes physical) battle with the hippies and boring old farts who maintained the rest of the paper.

Over time, as punk proliferated, so Burchill and Parsons’ demands hardened. Those who seemed intent to ride punk’s bandwagon were summarily dismissed. Political rhetoric and signifiers were assessed and judged against a self-defined street-savvy socialism built on class awareness and anti-racism. In particular, those flirting with swastikas or fascism were taken to task. The ‘battle of Lewisham’, in which anti-fascists clashed with NF marchers on 13 August 1977, became bound to Burchill and Parsons’ vision of punk activism. ‘The honeymoon’s over’, Parsons wrote in October, the ‘naïve euphoria of 1976 has subsided enough for everyone to turn on the light, straighten the hem of their plastic bin-liner and work up the bottle for imperative re-evaluation judgements’. Inevitably, such high expectations led to disappointment. By the end of 1977, both Burchill and Parsons despaired of what they saw as the dilution of the Sex Pistols’ genuine rage and the co-option of punk’s early challenge by the media, music and clothing industries. Rock ‘n’ Roll was dead, they concluded, with punk but another illusion of rebellion transformed into commodity.

For others, of course, punk’s politics and form should never have been so rigidly defined. Before joining Sounds in the spring of 1977, Jon Savage used his London’s Outrage fanzine to celebrate punk’s ability to reflect Britain’s social and psychological faultlines, going so far as to predict the development of a ‘peculiarly English kind of fascism’ – ‘mean and pinched’ – with Margaret Thatcher as the ‘Mother Sadist’. Punk, Savage suggested, was a mode of critique rather than a definite answer or solution. It confronted, challenged and gave vent to a disaffection that was resonant but politically ambiguous. Once punk’s shock and provocation had gained space and attention, moreover, so Savage moved to chart its continued evolution. Not only did he predict that the mainstream would fill with punk clones and nouveau pop flirtations with the ‘new wave’, but he held fast to punk’s potential to engage. ‘Fresh energy’ would be provided by the ‘regional centres’, he insisted, while new sounds and influences would be sourced to map Britain’s ‘mass nervous breakdown’ as ‘crisis’ gave way to post-industrial (and post-imperial) stasis.

In effect, Savage pointed towards what he called ‘post-punk projections’: a ‘New Musick’ built on textures (‘harsh urban scrapings/controlled white noise/massively accentuated drumming’) that challenged preconceived notions of punk but reflected the sense of anxiety that would usher in the 1980s. On relocating to Manchester in 1979, he pursued punk’s aesthetic through the scrutiny of bands such as Joy Division, Wire, Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire, focusing on those he felt best chronicled their time and complemented punk’s urge to question and experiment.

Savage was not alone in exploring punk’s impetus beyond the confines of London and rock ‘n’ roll. Integral to the culture’s vitality was the emergence of local scenes that either reinforced or reimagined punk’s template. In particular, punk’s DIY ethos and the expansion of independent record labels ensured the music press enlisted regional correspondents to report back on places where, throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s, punk continued to inspire. The most notable of these was Paul Morley, who kept the NME informed about Manchester before moving to London and cultivating his own theories of pop’s cultural significance.

Morley’s early communiqués from the North West made much of punk’s serving as a pivotal cultural moment. Before the Sex Pistols played the city’s Free Trade Hall in the summer of 1976, he reported, Manchester had not existed as a ‘rock ‘n’ roll town’: ‘it had no identity, no common spirit or motive’. Thereafter, bands began to form, venues opened, fanzines developed and a recognisable community emerged to ‘attack’ the ‘insipidity’ of 1970s rock. As this suggests, Morley located punk’s importance in its opening up ‘all the freedoms that can be imagined’. In other words, punk facilitated new ideas, vocabularies and sounds to reinvigorate popular music at both a regional and national level.

Initially at least, Morley embraced a range of punk styles. Though he favoured its more cerebral exponents (Buzzcocks, Magazine, The Prefects, Subway Sect, Joy Division), he recognised punk’s urge to protest, writing favourable reviews of proto-Oi! bands such as Sham 69 and the Angelic Upstarts. Far from bemoaning the death of rock ‘n’ roll, Morley celebrated its rebirth. There must be choice, he argued in early 1979, as he surveyed a burgeoning underground of punk-inspired bands ready to maintain the challenge to radio playlists and the music industry.

Simultaneously, Morley began to warn against those who subscribed to a definitive punk sound or aesthetic. He disavowed any attempt to politically align punk. Punk’s politics lay in its practice, he argued, in its ability to pleasure, surprise, transgress, inspire, question and imagine. The sloganeering of the Tom Robinson Band or blunt social realism of The Jam served only to stifle its potential. Nor did he have time for those he felt offered style over substance. A band such as Bauhuas, for example, who dramatised punk’s foreboding in gothic imagery, were described as performing ‘rehearsed melodrama’ that revealed them to be little more than ‘bullshitters in a fine art shop’. Most importantly, he recognised punk as a catalyst for pop’s perennial renewal. Just as his prose became evermore baroque and infused with hints of postmodern theory, so he eventually eschewed rock in favour of music that sought to redraw the boundaries of pop by avoiding cliché and embracing technology. By the 1980s, he dismissed those clinging to punk as being trapped in a kind of ‘folky traditionalism’, preferring instead to champion groups that at once celebrated and critiqued pop’s pretensions, possibilities and practices.

If Savage and Morley saw punk’s challenging the conventions of cultural form as crucial to its impact, then others found greater purpose in its reclaiming rock ‘n’ roll as a vehicle for rebellion. On joining Sounds in 1978, Garry Bushell reasserted the notion of punk as working-class protest, focusing on bands such as Sham 69, The Ruts, Angelic Upstarts and Cockney Rejects to define an authenticated version of punk mythology; that is, a working-class culture made by and for the kids from the council estates and football terraces that Burchill, Parsons and Sniffin’ Glue’s Mark Perry envisioned back in 1976–77.

Bushell’s take on punk was inherently political. As a young member of the International Socialists (SWP from 1977) he had been quick to recognise punk as a cultural response to the socio-economic travails of the mid-1970s. Not only did he urge his comrades to take punk seriously in the pages of Socialist Worker, but he actively supported RAR and contributed to its fanzine, Temporary Hoarding. Punk reflected the anger of a generation who had graduated from school only to serve their time on street corners and the dole, he argued. It was the SWP’s job to channel such revolt ‘into a real revolutionary movement’. Though he had left the party by the turn of the decade, Bushell retained what he termed a ‘street socialist’ outlook that prioritised collective action rooted in the working class itself. This, in turn, would shape his conception of Oi! as ‘a loose alliance of volatile young talents, skins, punks, tearaways, hooligans, rebels with or without causes united by their class, their spirit, their honesty and their love of furious rock ‘n’ roll’.

From 1980 to 1983, Bushell was punk’s most visible champion in the music press. While record industry and media attention turned to the styles and sounds that supposedly superseded punk, Bushell continued to cover those who proudly bore the label into the 1980s. ‘The anarchy beat stayed on the streets’, he argued in a survey of punk circa 1981, ‘growing, changing, transmutating, diversifying, the bands staying true to their roots or getting forgotten, and finally resurging now stronger than ever’. Punk meant thinking for yourself, freedom of speech and finding room to move, he insisted. It was not about art school pretension but ‘energy and teen rebellion – even when it’s only rebellion against the boredom’. Bushell retained a critical perspective. He chastised those who appeared absorbed into the music establishment (including The Clash by 1979) or prioritised musical experimentation (Magazine, Public Image Ltd). He condemned bands that chose to circumnavigate rather than engage with either the music industry or society more generally (Crass). By conceiving Oi! as a distinct cultural form, he sought to tie punk into a broader stylistic and class-based lineage that ran through teds, mods and skinheads onto punk and 2-Tone.

Punk, then, was both constructed and deconstructed within the music press. Indeed, those who most convincingly defined punk and provided it with a sense of purpose were often moved to mourn its failings once expectations ceased to be met. By as early as mid-1977, ‘punk rock’ had been reduced to a basic sound, ensuring that many bands and journalists looked to move beyond any set definition. Those who retained a recognisable punk style were typically criticised for succumbing to cliché or negating its original spirit of challenge and change. Nevertheless, the shadow of 1976–77 remained cast over much of what followed into the 1980s. The cultural space cleared by punk was understood by most in the music press to have provided the impetus for the critiques of rock and pop’s structures that provoked the innovations of ‘post-punk’ and ‘new pop’. Punk informed the socialist discourse that underpinned RAR and continued to inspire bands such as The Redskins, bIG fLAME and Test Dept – none of whom played archetypal ‘punk rock’. It was also recognised as the stimulus for the independent labels that flowered from 1977 and the social-realist edge that fused punk with ska to create 2-Tone. Even those who charted journeys into post-punk’s more esoteric corners noted a connection to punk’s initial breakthrough. So, for example, writers such as Steve Keaton, Mick Mercer and Richard Cabut plotted punk’s transgressive undercurrent towards a ‘positive punk’ that foresaw goth. Not dissimilarly, Chris Bohn and Dave Henderson followed Throbbing Gristle’s industrial lead through the new musick into a brutalised hinterland that connected transglobal artists revelling in the abject and extreme. For those reading the music papers, such narratives and debate helped make sense of the sounds and cultures that unfolded from 1976, informing their understanding of popular music and providing them with templates and opinions to actively embrace or react against.

 

The Sun says (so it must be true)

If the music press provided multiple interpretations of punk’s emergence and development, then the wider media tended towards a more reductionist reading. Punk became the latest in a long line of youthful ‘folk devils’ that were defined culturally but simultaneously presented as indicative of some deeper malaise. Much of the reporting that followed the Sex Pistols’ appearance on Today was fanciful; the epitome of a fabricated ‘moral panic’ designed to sell copy rather than provide insight on a distinct youth culture. Even so, the version of punk captured in the media glare contributed towards both the evolution of the culture and the ways in which it was more broadly understood. First, the mainstream media’s recoil from punk became part of its appeal, a sign of punk’s impact and proof of the media fallacies that helped fuel its critique. Secondly, media exposure gave greater form and substance to punk’s cultural identity. Though press and television reports often caricatured and distorted punk’s early stirrings, they also fed back into the culture to fashion its myths and codify its signifiers. Third, media coverage enabled access to those beyond the remit of the music papers or early punk milieu. In so doing, it served to raise punk above the level of a subculture. Finally, as Bill Osgerby has noted, the media discourse that enveloped punk contributed to the dramatisation of a wider sense of crisis that characterised Britain in the mid-to-late 1970s. Beneath the mock outrage of the tabloids lay insecurities and socio-economic tensions for which punk provided a ready outlet.

Initially, at least, the mainstream media’s take on punk swung between intrigue and incredulity. Early exposés in the tabloids concentrated on punk style; on the chains, rips and colour. So, for example, The Sun featured ‘Suzie’ (later Siouxsie Sioux) and Steve Havoc (later Severin) to explain the ‘craziest pop cult of them all’, while the Sunday People pictured a young punk (Mark Taylor) replete with nose chain to report: ‘If you thought you’d seen it all, dig this latest line in crazy gear. As you can see, one end of that chain is actually through his nose, the other through his ear … It’s the face of a Punk Rocker, Britain’s latest pop trend. And there’s more to the whole bizarre look than this. Like vividly dyed hair, oozes of make-up, ballet tights and ripped plastic or leather T-shirts. And that’s for fellas. The girls are even more way out. They wear razor blades for earrings as well.’ Though passing reference was made to punk’s being born of economic recession and reaction against rock’s excesses, the emphasis was on punk as fashion.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, more in-depth enquiry came from the broadsheets and features such as those on the BBC’s Nationwide and LWT’s Weekend Show (both 1976). These took their cue from Coon, Ingham and Parsons’ early writings, picking up on the Sex Pistols’ cultural offensive against the pop ‘establishment’ and what McLaren defined as their attempt to ‘transform what is basically a very boring life’. Punk, McLaren insisted on Nationwide, was about ‘kids’ reclaiming rock music, ‘making music from the streets […] born out of a frustration to get something across that is of their own’. From such analysis, the trope of ‘dole queue rock’ briefly embedded itself in the media lexicon.

Ultimately, it was the Sex Pistols’ appearance on Today that fixed the press’ conception of punk. Attention thereafter focused on punk’s anti-social mannerisms – the swearing, the spitting and the violence. Already, punk’s association with the COUM Transmissions exhibition Prostitution, held at the ICA in October 1976, had presaged the furore that engulfed the Sex Pistols. The exhibition, which effectively launched Throbbing Gristle’s mission to subvert popular music, also featured the punk band Chelsea (playing as LSD) and art works that comprised pornographic images and sculptures adorned with used tampons. The media took the draw, reigniting debate on the use of public money to fund the arts and feeding concern as to the extent to which such a ‘celebration of evil’ could undermine Britain’s supposed moral values. Notably, however, the much-repeated quote of the Tory MP Nicholas Fairbairn, that ‘these people are the wreckers of civilization’, was juxtaposed in the Daily Mail next to pictures of Siouxsie Sioux, Steve Severin and Debbie Wilson, all of whom had attended the event’s opening ‘party’.

The media response to the Grundy incident would eclipse all this of course. As expletives and bodily functions became headline staples, so punk’s challenge was distilled into crude caricature: the ‘foul mouthed yob’ with coloured hair and safety pins who, by the 1980s, had become a light entertainment cliché. More immediately, punk appeared to tap into a perennial fear of disaffected youth that found renewed resonance in a period of recession and growing unemployment. If the Sunday People’s verdict on punk was that ‘it is sick. It is dangerous. It is sinister’, then the Daily Mirror felt punk was ‘tailor-made for youngsters who feel they have only a punk future […] a brave new generation of talent and purpose is turning sour before our very eyes’. In effect, any substance contained within punk’s critique was buried beneath media narratives designed to stoke age-old concerns or confirm predetermined opinion. Punk was caught in a media freeze-frame, primed and ready to decorate tabloid tales of street-fighting, glue-sniffing or obscenity for years thereafter. In media terms, punk was but a signpost for delinquency and decay.

 

Bloody revolutions

Politics formed but a subtext of the media’s understanding of punk. Intermittently, concern that punk harboured a fascist germ found its way into a tabloid exposé. The Evening News’ John Blake seemed keen on this angle for a while in 1977, belatedly picking up on punk’s use of the swastika to hint at links to the NF. The controversies surrounding Oi! in the early 1980s also related to broader media interest in the far-right’s attempts to recruit young skinheads. Having been conceived as an amalgam of punk, skinhead and terrace culture, Oi! became headline fodder once a gig featuring The 4-Skins, The Business and The Last Resort at the Hambrough Tavern in Southall on 3 July 1981 was attacked by local Asian youths objecting to the arrival of a large skinhead contingent in an area with a history of racial conflict. Thereafter, the tabloids (and the NME) conflated Oi! with skinheads and racism, a reductionist reading that was nevertheless fuelled by the fact Nicky Crane, a member of the BM, featured on the cover of 1981’s Strength Thru Oi! compilation. Even so, Simon Barker made it onto Grundy’s Today programme wearing a Nazi-armband without undue fuss in 1976, and the uproar that greeted the Sex Pistols’ commentary on 1977’s jubilee celebrations, ‘God Save the Queen’, focused less on its perceptive critique of Britain’s ‘mad parade’ and more on its reinforcing the Pistols’ yobbish credentials. ‘Punish the punks’, the straplines admonished, as the lyrics were misquoted and attention shifted to the beatings meted out on Rotten, Cook and Jamie Reid in the aftermath.

For those of an overtly political bent, however, punk’s arrival had definite implications. Its oppositional stance – not to mention its display of political signifiers – contained an obvious appeal to both the left and right. In many ways, punk rekindled the debates of the 1960s and early 1970s as to the meaning of specific (youth) cultural forms and their use as a medium for social and political change. The Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) had, between 1973 and 1975, engaged in a protracted discussion on just such a subject, exploring the extent to which youth cultures were simply the commercialised products of capital or, as the party’s Martin Jacques argued, a formative site of class struggle relevant to prevailing material conditions. Paul Bradshaw, the editor of the party youth section’s newspaper (Challenge), actually predicted in mid-1976 that ‘new forms of culture, especially through music, [will] develop and give expression to the problems facing youth’ in a period of rising unemployment and social tension. For at least some young communists, songs such as ‘Anarchy in the UK’ and The Clash’s ‘Career Opportunities’ delivered just that. The Young Communist League (YCL) even sent the Sex Pistols an ‘open letter’ in 1977, suggesting a consolidation of punk and communist forces.

Others on the left were equally alert to punk’s political potential. In the SWP, Roger Huddle joined with Bushell to argue that punk was an expression of youthful (working-class) discontent that needed to be directed into the socialist movement. Letters to Militant, Challenge and Socialist Worker debated punk’s progressive and reactionary tendencies; articles wrestled with the relationship between punk, politics and culture. Even the Workers’ Revolutionary Party (WRP) overcame its early reading of punk as inherently fascist to include favourable coverage in Young Socialist from mid-1978. Though dissenting voices remained, some leftist publications adopted punk graphics in the late 1970s and provided space to interview the more politically-committed bands, poets and artists. To attend a political festival or benefit at this time was to catch sight of X-Ray Spex, The Ruts, Crisis, Gang of Four, The Pop Group, The Fall and others all too ready to lend support to a cause or, it must be said, take advantage of the opportunity to play live. Without doubt, Red Saunders and those who formed RAR saw punk’s inclusion as integral to its success, ensuring that punk bands performed at the carnivals arranged in conjunction with the Anti-Nazi League (ANL) between 1978 and 1981 and at countless gigs organised by local RAR clubs over the late 1970s. These, as well as high-profile rallies such as that held by CND in Trafalgar Square in October 1980, helped align punk’s protest to distinct political positions.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, punk’s champions on the left were relatively young. Some, including Jacques, Huddle and David Widgery, had cut their political teeth in the 1960s and viewed punk within a broader tradition of youthful protest. Others, such as Bushell or Temporary Hoarding’s Lucy Whitman (also known as Lucy Toothpaste), were politicised over the 1970s and recognised in punk a spirit and an approach that complemented (and soundtracked) their own sense of revolt. More searching analysis was occasionally offered. Dave Laing, who in 1976 addressed the CPGB’s Art and Leisure Committee on ‘trends in rock music’, drew from Walter Benjamin to explain how punk’s ‘shock effect’ opened up contested cultural spaces of ideological struggle. But the left’s relevance to constructing punk’s meaning or purpose really came with its providing connections between youthful discontent and resonant issues – be it anti-racism, feminism, unemployment or nuclear disarmament. If, by the 1980s, the theories of Theodor Adorno were more readily applied to explain punk’s failure to overturn the music industry or instigate socialist revolution, then the early enthusiasms that fed into RAR, CND and unemployed demonstrations continued to lend political gravitas to bands, scenes and the records released in the wake of 1976.

On the right, meanwhile, there were also activists keen to forge links between politics and youth. Though the aged leadership of the NF and BM were repulsed by popular music in all its forms, seeing it as a ‘manifestation of the jungle’, younger members began to combine their interest in fashion and fascism. Not only did an anonymous contributor to the BM’s British Patriot claim to recognise in punk signs of a general rightward shift in rock music, but a cabal of young BM and NF members formed an increasingly visible and assertive contingent of London’s punk audience from 1977. This, initially, led to tensions within the far right. According to Gary Hitchcock, ‘a few of us’ were expelled from the BM for being ‘degenerate for going to gigs’. But the left’s success in student recruitment and initiatives such as RAR helped prompt the establishment of a Young National Front (YNF) in 1977 and encourage the BM’s cultivation of a skinhead vanguard thereafter.

The far-right’s claims for punk varied. At an organisational level, its engagement formed part of a wider drive for youthful members. In London, Joe Pearce headed the YNF and edited its Bulldog magazine. As a teenager in the mid-to-late 1970s, Pearce appreciated the importance of youth culture to his potential recruits and tailored Bulldog accordingly, focusing on football, music and promoting YNF discos. Not dissimilarly, Eddy Morrison used his position as an NF regional organiser to provide the foundations for Rock Against Communism (RAC). In the BM, the drive to recruit working-class youth offered a violent political outlet for a mainly skinhead milieu that included Hitchcock, Glen Bennett, the Morgan brothers and Nicky Crane.

As this suggests, the far-right’s adoption of youth cultural motifs reflected its younger members’ coming of age in a period when pop music and subcultural style were established parts of everyday life. Like their rivals on the left, they also accepted popular music and youth culture as a politically-charged means of expression. Morrison was a David Bowie fan who endeavoured to find Aryan – or at least European – roots for pop music. Pearce, whose brother Stevo ran a ‘futurist disco’ and a punk-informed label (Some Bizarre), focused on street-level youth cultural styles: ‘Punks, Mods, Skins and Teds – All Unite to Fight the Reds!’ To this end, affinities were sought between nationalist politics and everything from the mod and skinhead revivals of the 1970s to new romantics and football hooligans. Even 2-Tone bands were coveted, though this more than anything revealed the contradictions inherent in a racial interpretation of either popular music or youth culture more generally. In relation to punk, the emergence of Oi! was belatedly seized upon as ‘music of the ghetto. Its energy expresses the frustrations of white youths. Its lyrics describe the reality of life on the dole […] It is the music of white rebellion’.

It was, however, through active intervention – stage invasions, sieg heils and co-ordinated violence – that the far right sought to colonise the cultural and physical spaces opened up by punk. Bands were claimed for the far right irrespective of whether they wanted such attention or not. Gig venues became sites of political confrontation to be fought and won. Once a band rejected the far-right’s overtures, then they became a target for reprisal. Most notoriously, Sham 69’s ‘farewell to London’ gig at London’s Rainbow Theatre in July 1979 was violently broken up by the BM, though less renowned instances were commonplace before and after. Three years on from Sham’s ‘last stand’, the YNF attacked a Bad Manners gig at the same venue, warning that ‘our attitude is that bands who are not our friends are our enemies, and will be treated as such […] remember what happened to Sham 69’.

Ultimately, the tenuous relationship between racist politics and existing youth cultures necessitated that the far right form its own variant. This was concentrated around RAC and Skrewdriver, a Lancastrian punk band whose singer, Ian Stuart, moved to London and become involved with the NF. With most punk, Oi! and 2-Tone bands refusing to endorse a fascist following, so Skrewdriver claimed to speak the language of the white working class and set in train what became a transglobal network of ‘white power’ bands that later gathered under the auspices of Blood & Honour. The music, initially at least, was crude punk rock, with lyrics that were overtly racist and ultra-nationalist targeted at an audience drawn primarily from a section of the skinhead subculture that fused class and racial identity into a distinctive style.

We shall explore the ways by which organised politics informed punk’s cultural development in due course. The key point here is that both the left and right sought to assign political meaning to punk and provide opportunity for music, youth culture and politics to coalesce. This was never wholly successful; punk and its associated cultural forms remained too amorphous and diverse to forge a coherent politics. But by projecting onto punk ideological intent or potential, activists from the left and right helped delineate the music and youth cultures that emerged from 1976 as sites of political engagement. This, in turn, was further facilitated by a music press that was receptive to ideas of a politicised youth culture wherein music – in terms of both its form and content – mattered beyond the realm of personal taste. In the heightened political climate of the late 1970s and early 1980s, punk was utilised to revive the notion of popular music as a vehicle for protest and youth culture as a signal of revolt.

 

All the young punks …

When Johnny Rotten was asked in 1976 if he was happy being known as a ‘punk’, his reply was curt: ‘No, the press give us it. It’s their problem, not ours. We never called ourselves punk’. As this implies, there was initially some resistance to a label that had already been used to describe American garage bands from the 1960s and their more recent descendants in New York. ‘New wave’ was preferred by some, even amongst the Pistols’ inner circle, but it lacked the perfunctory offensiveness of a word that contained criminal and sexually-subversive etymological roots. For Tony Parsons, the term punk was ‘too old, too American, too inaccurate’; it failed to do justice to what he regarded as a genuine upsurge of young British bands who reflected their time and place. ‘Kids rock’ [sic], he suggested, was a more accurate descriptor – if one be needed at all. Not dissimilarly, Paul Morley had touted ‘S’ rock, as in ‘surge’, to define the Sex Pistols’ ‘controlled chaotic punk muzak’, while Jonh Ingham made a belated pitch for ‘(?) rock’. Nevertheless, the fact that Caroline Coon’s early pieces defined the Sex Pistols as ‘punk’, and the fact that it allowed older journalists to locate the emergent new wave in a recognisable rock ‘n’ roll lineage, meant the term prevailed. Although antipathy remained, primarily in recognition of the way such media-devised labels served to ‘dehumanise/ isolate/ humiliate/ segregate/ divide up [and] create bullshit and dull acceptance’ (Toxic Grafity), ‘punk’ was adopted by the mainstream press and, crucially, by Mark Perry, Jon Savage, Tony D (Drayton), Steve Burke, Paul Bowers and others who helped catalogue the embryonic culture at a grass-roots level. The impact made by The Ramones, too, should not be underestimated with regard to defining a punk sound and forging affinities with the already-branded US scene.

Beyond the name, of course, the ways and means by which punk was interpreted continued to vary. Punk’s impact was often visceral: it was fun, fast and exciting. Though who and what was (or was not) punk may have formed the basis of perennial schoolyard/college/pub debates, precise definition or prescribed meaning counted little to many of those prompted to form a band, dress up, buy a record or go to a gig in the wake of the Sex Pistols’ emergence. To flick through fanzines or to read the letters published in the music press is to reveal the nebulous way in which punk was understood and acted upon. For the enthused, punk revitalised popular music – lending credence to the idea that its primary effect was to reassert rock ‘n’ roll’s initial impetus and recover youth culture’s snottily subversive gene. Likewise, the oft-cited incentive born of punk’s disregard for musical proficiency (anyone can do it) was not always recognised to contain the implicit political or sociological connotations that it undoubtedly did. Despite certain tropes being easily mouthed – anarchy, boredom, bondage, city, hate, fascism, liar, nowhere, sick, suburbia – The Damned’s insistence that ‘I don’t need politics to make me dance’ rang true for many a self-defined punk rocker.

Certainly, there was always a degree of disjuncture between the music press’ desire to define musical genres and a youthful embrace of the numerous bands and styles that evolved from 1976. Punk-inspired fanzines, for example, regularly covered anything and everything deemed to exist as an alternative to a perceived mainstream. If punk informed the soundtrack of someone’s youth, then its meaning – or resonance – transcended the intellectual conceits of the music press.

For others, punk’s importance ran deeper. At a local level, the fanzines produced from 1976 soon progressed from celebrating fledgling punk bands (and their precedents) to personalised critiques of the music industry and society in general. ‘Zines such as Lucy Toothpaste’s Jolt proffered feminist assessments of punk’s early stirrings, while ruminations on the wearing of Nazi symbols found their way into Ripped & Torn before it transformed into the more overtly anarchist Kill Your Pet Puppy. Vague, which began as a fairly conventional fanzine from Wiltshire, eventually developed through in-depth analyses of punk’s socio-cultural relevance to expanded essays on situationist practice and the Red Army Faction. Rapid Eye Movement, too, morphed from a punk ‘zine into a book-length compendium exploring what its founder, Simon Dwyer, called ‘occulture’. In so doing, punk served to establish links to currents of political and cultural dissent someway beyond the typical preserve of pop music.

This, certainly, was the case with regard to the samizdat publications that fused anarchism and punk in the early 1980s. The contents of Anathema, Enigma, Fack, New Crimes, Pigs for Slaughter, Scum, Toxic Graffitti [sic] and countless others mixed limited music coverage with political tracts directed against the various organisational and intellectual props of ‘the system’. Collages, poems and essays became essential weapons in the punk arsenal, complementing the words and imagery of bands whose politics were unpicked and assessed in critical fashion. As a result, fanzines formed an integral part of the subterranean networks that co-joined punk collectives, record labels and venues across the UK (and beyond) into the 1980s.

Nor did those who played in bands necessarily limit their understanding of punk to music. From Rotten and The Clash’s insistence that pop should be relevant to its time and place, so punk may in part be measured by its ability to reflect and critique. Quite what this entailed was again open to interpretation. At one end of the spectrum, humour lent itself to irreverence and a wilful puerility designed to offend and titillate in equal measure. At the other, a sense of engagement could be defined in terms of social reportage, cultural transgression and political activism. In between, punk inspired an infrastructure built on a do-it-yourself ethos committed to opening up channels of independent production that strove either to reimagine the boundaries of popular music or reset them against all that was deemed to have become clichéd and impotent. Rotten himself, when pushed, retained an open-ended definition of punk: ‘You can’t put it into words. It’s a feeling. It’s basically a lot of hooligans doing it the way they want and getting what they want’.

In many ways, therefore, people could find what they needed in punk. For Sham 69’s Jimmy Pursey, punk was ‘a kid in Glasgow, Liverpool, London, Southampton, who lives in a little grimy industrial estate, wears an old anorak, dirty jeans, pumps, goes out at night, has a game of football on the green, throws a couple of bricks through a window for a bit of cheek, a kick. He likes the things he likes; no fucking about […] they’re the kids that THIS was supposed to get over to’. Others picked up on punk’s challenge to musical convention, both in terms of sound and lyrical content. Groups such as Scritti Politti and The Pop Group appreciated punk’s innovation and ‘bona fide political fervour’, but sought to extend its relatively limited palette via continued experimentation. In other words, they understood punk as a temporal moment that provided the impetus and the processes by which to enable access to new cultural forms and production. Penny Rimbaud (Jeremy Ratter), meanwhile, seized on punk’s anarchic symbolism to conceive a more overtly activist strand of protest linked back to the 1960s counter-culture. Rimbaud, who co-founded Crass with Steve Ignorant (Steve Williams) in 1977, recognised punk as ‘an all-out attack on the whole system’.

As should be clear, punk could infer many things. The debate that rumbled across the letter-pages throughout the short life-span of Punk Lives magazine (1982–3) flitted between those bemoaning the inclusion of certain bands not deemed to be ‘punk’ and discussion as to the culture’s meaning. But despite sometimes serious division, as between the anarchist punks inspired by Crass and the more class-orientated punks and skinheads who related to Oi!, what tended to bind the various interpretations together was a sense of difference or opposition to perceived socio-cultural norms. Most of those involved in or inspired by punk saw it as having either opened up or provided an alternative cultural space through which to operate, escape to or exist in. Punk served as a medium for agency; it stirred people to act. It could, moreover, be used in different ways. Punk could be enjoyed purely for the music, the style and the excuse to play in a band or go to a gig. Simultaneously, British punk’s template – as sketched by the Sex Pistols, The Clash and developed by others thereafter – meant it harboured more serious intent. It provoked, questioned and lent empowerment to those who aligned to it. This could mean voicing an opinion or registering a protest; it could also be read in purely cultural terms, as a reaction to prevailing music or stylistic trends. At its most committed, punk pertained to a politicised youth culture that, in the words of Conflict, ‘meant and still means an alternative to all the shit tradition that gets thrown at us. A way of saying No to all the false morals that oppress us. It was and still is the only serious threat to the status quo of the music business. Punk is about making your own rules and doing your own thing.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mat Worley ch 2

 

Chapter Two

Rock and roll (even): Punk as cultural critique

 

            We wanted to change the reasons for playing rock music. We didn’t want it to be           rock for rock’s sake; we wanted it to be a medium for ideas rather than a release    from boredom […] It’s not as if we’re saying ‘wipe out the whole of rock ‘n’ roll’ […]        We’re just saying ‘go about things in a different way’. Don’t just use it as a way of       releasing peoples’ tension so that they can go back to work the following morning […]    rock could be made into a really good secondary education system.

            Vic Godard (1978)

 

One of the prevailing media tropes applied to punk is that 1976–77 marked a ‘year zero’; a levelling of pop music’s cultural terrain that disavowed the past in order to clear a path for the future. Early interviews with the Sex Pistols made much of Johnny Rotten’s claim to have no musical heroes. His customised ‘I Hate Pink Floyd’ T-shirt combined with his dismissal of rock’s prevailing icons as ‘redundant’ appeared to signal a cultural shift. Hippies, so emblematic of the previous generation, were cast as the enemy: the antithesis of punk’s assertive urbanity. 1977, The Clash forewarned, meant ‘No Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones’ – a prophecy that seemed to gain credence with Presley’s death and Keith Richards’ arrest on drug charges in Canada at the start of the year. Lest we forget, Paul McCartney released ‘Mull of Kintyre’.

Such portents of cultural genocide – as mediated through the music press and oft-reaffirmed in early punk interviews – have since hardened into the narrative that prefaces most books, overviews or documentaries on the period, to wit: rock ‘n’ roll in the 1970s had travelled so far from its primal beginnings as to appear lost in a world of fantasy and self-indulgence, a process seemingly embodied in the musical excesses of ‘prog rock’ and the wealthy lifestyles of an ageing rock elite. Not only had the foremost rock acts of the time become prone to expensive and irregular stadium gigs, but mainstream pop had fallen fallow after glam and succumbed to an endless stream of novelty acts and diluted disco. At a local level, the student union circuit provided scant relief from the multitude of jobbing bands playing cover-versions of assorted ‘classics’ to disinterested audiences in local pubs and working men’s clubs. Punk, so the story goes, arrived to provide the necessary antidote to all this, serving both to challenge and reinvigorate a record industry suffering from falling album sales and on-going recession.

Things were not quite so simple. Reggae, northern soul and disco each provided signs of youth cultural life beyond the parameters of the rock press and music industry. The influence of progressive rock was not as all pervasive (or besmirched) as subsequent accounts suggest. Nevertheless, Rotten’s claim that rock ‘n’ roll ‘had nothing to do with anything relevant […] it’s just background music while they buy their jeans – FLARED jeans’, had resonance. It tallied with the mood at Sounds and the NME, whose end of year reviews for 1975 bemoaned the state of popular music and paved the way for Mick Farren’s ‘The Titanic Sails at Dawn’ article of June 1976 to lament rock ‘n’ roll’s co-option into cultural respectability. It echoed David Bowie’s disavowal of a form he described as a ‘toothless old woman’. It was implicit, too, in the emergence of pub rock bands committed to playing r ‘n’ b tunes that predated the advent of psychedelia and the sixties’ rock boom. It reflected the effect of a vertically-integrated music industry dominated by six major companies that prioritised established artists and records aimed at a cross-generational (and transnational) market. Most importantly, perhaps, it corresponded with contemporary accounts that recognised the impetus engendered by punk at the provincial level for those whose tastes resided away from the dancefloor or campus.

Even before the Sex Pistols had found their way into the tabloids, numerous articles and letters to the music press revealed a growing dissatisfaction with rock’s apparent separation from its audience. Just as Clem Gorman, the deputy administrator of London’s Roundhouse, wrote to Melody Maker forewarning that government subsidies would be needed to prevent inflation making rock concerts prohibitive, so Robert Plant’s complaint about his tax bill in February 1976 provoked a series of letters from readers bemoaning ‘middle-aged millionaires’ and ‘Big Business Bands’ that left them feeling ‘cheated’. Others began to deride the unoriginality of groups such as Queen and 10cc, or railed against a music industry that one correspondent described as ‘the last outpost of classical capitalism’. For Ms J Rose of Shrewsbury, the reasoning was clear: ‘Rock music has become so sophisticated nowadays, especially in its recording, but even in its performance (dressed up with the now obligatory lasers), that many fans, while appreciating the new complexity, are bound to feel alienated […] I think it’s important that at least some forms of rock remain accessible so that would-be musicians don’t get the feeling they’ve got to be geniuses before they start.’

Within such a context, the Sex Pistols emerged to provide what Pete Dale has called a ‘new-sense’. That is, the Pistols felt like the start of something new and distinct. By actively positioning themselves in opposition to the prevailing motifs of 1970s rock, they provoked a re-evaluation of rock ‘n’ roll as a cultural form. In other words, punk served as a mode of cultural critique. It questioned the point and purpose of popular music while simultaneously endeavouring to reassemble, reassert and reinvent its basic concepts.

This, as already noted, could be expressed in a variety of ways. But even at its most basic, punk provided opportunity to question just who and what rock ‘n’ roll was for and about. As significantly, punk’s critique extended not only to the business that produced, packaged and presented popular music, but to the media that framed and sought to define (youth) culture in the late twentieth century. Among the list of ‘hates’ on McLaren, Rhodes and Westwood’s ‘You’re gonna wake up one morning and know what side of the bed you’ve been lying on’ T-shirt, produced in 1974 as a manifesto-like precursor to punk, were ‘television […] magazines that treat their readers as idiots […] Good Fun Entertainment when it’s really not good or not funny […] the narrow monopoly of media causing harmless creativity to appear subversive’. From the outset, therefore, punk engaged with and parodied the media, utilising tabloid-text as graphics, exposing its banalities and cursing its pacifying influence. By railing against the alienating effects of a culture reduced to commodity and spectacle, punk urged people to take the initiative – to ‘do it’ rather than consume it.

 

Chuck Berry is dead?

Punk’s relationship to rock ‘n’ roll was complicated. To be sure, it is easy to find irreverent statements about rock’s elder statesmen – be it Rotten’s dismissal of Mick Jagger as a ‘pathetic old bastard’ or the cheers that greeted the announcement of Elvis Presley’s death at the Vortex on 16 August 1977. To make an impact, punk had to differentiate itself from the rock and youth cultural mores of the mid-1970s, meaning ‘short hair versus long hair; straight legs versus flares; uptight versus mellow; amphetamines versus marijuana; short songs versus extended guitar solos; pointed lyrics about real-life teenage problems and the state of the world versus identikit pop banalities’. But a closer look at the substance of punk’s critique reveals it to have provoked multiple – sometimes contradictory – responses to rock’s condition in the mid-1970s. Though punk appeared to oppose what rock ‘n’ roll had become, it did not thereby reject its past. Quite the opposite in fact: many in the early punk period proved keen to recover some kind of lost rock ‘n’ roll essence. In so doing, alternative musical trajectories were referenced and later juxtaposed to forge the more innovative permutations of the 1970s and early 1980s. Attention to where popular music had supposedly gone wrong ensured that the mechanics of rock ‘n’ roll were held up to scrutiny and often found wanting.

For those attracted to or enthused by the Sex Pistols, punk signalled a new beginning; a dividing line beyond which pop music and its associated culture could be reclaimed for those who made and listened to it. What this entailed varied in both form and practice, but three sometimes overlapping approaches may be discerned. First, punk was read as a return to ‘basics’: rock ‘n’ roll played ‘in its lowest form’, as Mark Perry’s first issue of Sniffin’ Glue (1976) described it, ‘on the level of the streets. Kids jamming together in the dad’s garage, poor equipment, tight clothes [and] empty heads (nothing to do now you’ve left school)’. This, originally, was understood in purely musical terms before broader socio-cultural connotations were drawn from and projected onto the bands that fostered punk’s emergence. Or, to quote Ripped & Torn’s Tony D: ‘It makes you fucking puke when you think of those boring cunts (like the whole of Led             Zeppelin, The Who, Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder etc.) lazing away in some hot tropical paradise, whilst us poor punters have to make do with any shit they care to          pour on us. But it’s all over now (Rolling Stones are another, so’s Elton John), with the emergence of such saviours as the Sex Pistols, Clash, Damned. Already you can hear             the shrieks of the old rich as they finally realise they’re being made redundant by the energy ridden bands who work out of necessity in cheapo clubs with lousy P.A’s. THAT’S ROCK & ROLL.’

As this suggests, a premium was placed on age, energy and accessibility; a new wave of bands that comprised ‘kids’ playing ‘good fast rock ‘n’ roll’. The notion of ‘rock star’ was degraded to insult and any sign of punk producing its own elite was subject to vigilance. If rock had seemingly mellowed – or matured – with age, then punk signalled its rejuvenation. ‘Who wants to see and hear 45 year-old rock stars’, The Damned’s Rat Scabies (Chris Miller) asked, ‘what about the sixteen-year-old kids on the street who ain’t had no life?’

Over time, the primacy of youth and speed conflated with claims to cultural or political relevance. ‘If punk means anything’, Dublin’s Heat fanzine mused as it tried to determine just what separated punk from ‘good energy rock’, then ‘it’s putting yourself against establishment systems. Stickin’ your neck on the block. Makin’ a stand and clearing the way for other bands to follow’. The British punk ‘voice’ was anglicised, its language made coarse and direct. Lyrically and visually, punk’s preoccupation with social reportage or subjects of negation, demystification and taboo established new precedents. Love songs, dismissed by Rotten as ‘a myth brought on by Mickie Most and co. to sell records’, tended to be eschewed in favour of words and imagery that confronted, attacked or critiqued. Cover versions also became less common over time, either in a bid to highlight a band’s contemporaneity or, in the case of those with a political imperative, not to distract from any overriding message. The very speed by which punk bands formed, wrote songs and took to the stage ensured that their rough-hewed sound contrasted with the increasingly slick production of most rock and pop in the mid-70s and defied the more tutored formulas of rock n’ roll.

Punk, therefore, marked a generational shift that reasserted rock ‘n’ roll’s grass-roots credentials whilst simultaneously seeking to affirm its own distinctiveness. It purged the past to repopulate the present. As a consequence, most self-defined punks tended only to cite other punk bands as influences from about 1978, with a flick through the pen-pals section of Punk Lives magazine (1982–83) revealing few if any correspondents referring to music made prior to 1976. Nevertheless, bands from The Clash through to the UK Subs, Discharge, The Exploited and even onto the anarchist groups that accepted no compromise with rock’s pre-existing structures, continued to recognise rock ‘n’ roll as a vehicle for youthful (and political) expression – albeit one stripped back to the raw and recast to reflect a perceived here and now.

Secondly, if more contentiously, punk harboured tendencies to rewind popular music history, as if seeking to re-route its future by returning to a moment circa 1966 or 1956 when r ‘n’ b, rock ‘n’ roll and pop were deemed more club-based, youthful and immediate. The recovery of ‘lost’ ‘60s nuggets from thrift stores or the racks of London stalls such as Rock On revealed an archivist culture underpinning punk’s exasperation at rock’s evolution. This, arguably, formed part of Malcolm McLaren’s early intent, complementing his well-documented affection for original rock ‘n’ roll. Punk embodied ‘the same attitude […] that Eddie Cochran probably had, that any real rock and roller had’, he told the NME. It also explains how Generation X could celebrate Ready Steady Go (Britain’s first televised pop show broadcast between 1963 and 1966) whilst trying to ‘forget’ the 1960s generation that had subsequently out-grown the programme’s original pop thrill.

Initially, therefore, proto-punk figures on rock’s margins were recovered as influences (Velvet Underground, Stooges, MC5, New York Dolls, 1960s garage bands) and the formative work of groups since perceived to have lost their way (The Who, The Kinks, Mott the Hoople, Roxy Music) was acknowledged. Most early punk sets included sped-up – re-energised – 1960s cover versions (‘Louie Louie’, ‘Whatcha’ Gonna’ Do About it’, ‘Substitute’, ‘Circles’, ‘So Sad About Us’, ‘Slow Down’, ‘Help’, ‘Steppin’ Stone’, ‘I Can’t Control Myself’, ‘No Fun’, ‘Waiting for the Man’), while countless punk 45s accelerated and applied suitably acerbic lyrics to standard rock ‘n’ roll or r‘n’b riffs. Punk style also co-opted recognisable elements of (non-hippie) youth cultures – brothel creepers, mohair sweaters, leather, boots, sta-prest. Though early fanzines and bands celebrated punk’s shock-of-the-new, they continued to locate punk in an identifiable tradition. The point, again, was not to dismiss rock ‘n’ roll out of hand, but to revitalise its original spirit – its ‘primal scream’, as The Fall’s Mark E Smith put it.

The Jam provide a suitably neat example of a band looking forwards and backwards at the same time. Led by Paul Weller, aged 18 as 1976 became 1977, The Jam committed to the ‘new wave’ but proved suspicious of punk’s supposedly political import and claims to innovation. Weller openly acknowledged his debt to The Who and the mod culture of the 1960s; the band wore mohair suits and produced records such as All Mod Cons (1978) that made clear their affinities. Nevertheless, Weller was scathing about rock’s apparent self-indulgence – ‘you can’t play rock ‘n’ roll with a beer gut’ – and insisted that the time was right for Pete Townsend and others to ‘give way to some of the younger bands’. Punk’s new wave, he contended, meant ‘today’s pop music for kids, it’s as simple as that’. Given all this, The Jam’s relationship to punk was contentious; they were often dismissed as old-fashioned and resisted the ‘punk’ tag. Yet they played with anger and energy, shared a significant part of the fledgling punk audience, and adopted a social realist approach that became characteristic of the time. In the midst of the mod ‘renewal’ that came in The Jam’s wake (1978–80), Weller was even quoted as saying: ‘We’re a punk band […] We started as a punk band and that’s where we’re staying’.

It was this urge to reconvene the past that enabled various subcultural revivals to flourish over the late 1970s, many of which revolved around club-nights and bands motivated by punk’s agency but repulsed by aspects of its style or aesthetic. Just prior to the ‘new mods’ inspired by The Jam, skinheads re-emerged to provide part of the audience for bands such as Sham 69, Cock Sparrer, Menace and Skrewdriver. Skinheads had their roots in the later 1960s, developing out of mod to forge a starkly proletarian youth culture that claimed early reggae as its music of choice. The culture evolved over the 1970s but never wholly disappeared. Come 1977 and its revival gave rise to a new generation of skins who could relate to punk’s aggression and the class implications of its street-level rhetoric. The culture’s origins, moreover, fed into a 2-Tone movement that blended punk and ska to forge a cross-cultural amalgam that also drew from mod and rude boy/girl.

Few of the youth cultural styles revived in tandem with punk were simple pastiche; they sought to update rather than mimic. Unlike the teddy boys who reappeared to complement the rock ‘n’ roll revival of the early 1970s, the new breed of skinhead formed, joined and followed punk bands. New mods may also have chosen to reject punk’s aesthetic, but the flurry of Jam-like bands that appeared from 1978 tended to write material that reflected the 1970s rather than the 1960s. 2-Tone, meanwhile, brokered a genuinely original musical hybrid that proffered stark social-realist lyrics. Even the rockabilly revival, which boasted an underground presence from at least 1977, was distorted into an overtly punk form by 1980. Known as psychobilly, the UK scene centred on bands such as The Meteors and clubs such as London’s Klub Foot.

Perhaps the most systematic attempt to determine where ‘it all went wrong’ developed amidst the groundswell of independent labels evident from 1977. Punk’s DIY assertions, combined with its more general dismissal of rock’s excesses, allowed for sixties obsessions to inform an almost puritan sense of what pop music should be: amateurish, provincial, 7”-based, uncorrupted by ‘the industry’, guitar-bass-drums, forever adolescent. Beat groups, girl-bands, Phil Spector and Warhol’s Factory formed an imagined pop lineage to rival rock ‘n’ roll’s transformation into ‘prog’ virtuosity or heavy rock machismo. Accordingly, groups such as the Television Personalities, Orange Juice and The Pastels began to filter a mix of 1960s pop and stylistic influences through a select punk canon (The Ramones, Buzzcocks, Subway Sect, The Undertones), the result of which was a swathe of bands whose sound had distilled by the mid-1980s into a jangly ‘indie-pop’ as recognisable as the ‘punk rock’ of 1977.

Both the impulses to reclaim rock ‘n’ roll and reconvene earlier youth cultural styles shared a presumption that popular music and the culture surrounding it had become detached from its core (predominantly teenage) constituency. If the rhetoric of the time complained of rock’s self-indulgence, complacency and inaccessibility, then punk was understood as a response that invoked youth cultural and musical forms devised by or performed by those who lived through and listened to it. An emphasis on agency complemented claims to relevance and innovation; a disregard for technique and the recognised signifiers of ‘success’ redirected attention towards the neoteric or provincial. Simultaneously, punk triggered a period of cultural interrogation that allowed new subject matter and influences to feed into popular music. Thirdly, therefore, punk provided space for both the disavowal and reinvention of rock ‘n’ roll.

 

The George Hatcher Band, targeted by The Clash as an example of 1970s rock ‘n’ roll debasement.

 

Such inclinations were evident early on, and not just in the mocking of Rod Stewart’s tax status or the denim-clad image of the George Hatcher Band. Subway Sect, who formed in the wake of a Sex Pistols performance at the Marquee in early 1976, set out to challenge and undermine the banalities of rock’s sound and performance. Not only did the band’s singer, Vic Godard, delight in giving wilfully-absurd interviews in which he claimed ‘East European programmes for children’ as an influence, but the band’s live appearances – monochrome, stationary, lyrics read from paper, instruments held at odd angles – were designed to embody a stated aim: ‘we oppose all rock and roll’. The objective, Godard suggested, was to push at the limits of rock; to inject new influences into it and embrace imperfection. Ordinary (or familiar) chord structures were shunned in favour of treble and discord; the joys of bird watching, reading and geography were extolled over rock’s more traditional pursuits. Northern Soul, Francois Hardy and Jane Birkin were cited as inspirations, while The Beatles, Godard insisted, made him ‘physically sick sometimes’.

 

Old conceptions justified/ Tradition stays in tune/ You make guitars talk   information/ That tells you what to do!

            We use no belief in the pre-existing school/ And since we’ve got this test/           We’ve just been waiting for it to fall/ We oppose all rock & roll/ It’s held you         for so long/ You can’t refuse/ It’s too much to lose

            The lines that hit me again and again/ Afraid to take the stroll/ Off the    course             of twenty years/ And out of Rock & Roll!

 

Less sardonically, Wire sought to deconstruct rock’s form in order to build songs around a particular sound, image or lyrical focus. Their guitarist, Bruce Gilbert, compared the band’s approach to painting: ‘A number of processes are very similar: the stepping back … And wanting to get it finished before you get bored with an idea … And the economy thing – the economy of effort, to write a statement that is the essence of what you’re trying to do’. As this suggests, each song (and the band’s artwork) was designed to be distinct and devoid of obvious precedent. Initially, at least, such an approach meant short songs – most of which lasted only as long as there were lyrics to be sung – before later developing into lengthier pieces that continued to explore subjects beyond rock’s typical remit (‘Map Ref, 41˚N 93˚W’). Like Subway Sect, Wire’s stage presence deliberately reacted against what was expected of a rock or pop performance: detached with stark lighting and, later, comprising absurdist theatre. Their aim, Graham Lewis insisted, was to innovate and avoid the ‘childishness’ of rock ‘n’ roll posturing.

Wire’s relationship to punk revealed their art school pedigree. Others, however, interpreted ‘back to basics’ in a more literal sense, with some bands taking to the stage even before their members had learnt to play instruments. Siouxsie and the Banshees’ impromptu debut performance at the 100 Club in September 1976 was perhaps the most celebrated example, though groups such as The Worst, The Slits and The Prefects adopted similar approaches. The Worst, from Manchester via Preston, built their set on primitive guitar riffs and lyrics culled from newspaper articles or improvised by the singer, Allan Deaves. The effect, as described by Paul Morley, was ‘by liberal intellectual standards, destructive and anti-social’, but it also served to invert all sense of musical convention (be it rock ‘n’ roll or otherwise). Not dissimilarly, The Slits – whose singer, Ari Up (Ariane Forster), was 15 in 1977 – were born from a musical chaos that centred on pummelling drums and, eventually, dub-inflected basslines. The fact that the band was all female served only to expose further the gendered prejudices of the rock press, audience and industry. The Prefects, meanwhile, played in a simple and repetitive style that effectively parodied rock ‘n’ roll. One song, ‘VD’, lasted seven seconds – a riposte to the tendency of 1970s rock bands to ‘jam’ and extend their stage sets over time. Another, ‘Going Through the Motions’, offered a slow dirge that critiqued the performer-audience divide and was played as its title suggested. ‘Faults’ was a hymn to the imperfections engendered by the band’s being wilfully under-rehearsed.

The important point to note, of course, is that such approaches were deliberate. Bands began to develop strategies and manifestos designed not to revive or reclaim rock ‘n’ roll but to move beyond it. The Mekons initially set out to democratise the rock process, refusing either to be photographed or reveal their surnames. The objective was to disarm the notion of ‘pop star’ and demonstrate ‘that anybody could do it […] that there was no set group as such, anybody could get up and join in and instruments would be swapped around; that there’d be no distance between the audience and the band’. The Gang of Four, too, deconstructed rock’s commodification through their lyrics and approach to playing and recording, while the gender-conventions of rock ‘n’ roll were dissected in the work of Ludus, Poison Girls, The Raincoats and others. Rock’s clichés – lyrical (‘baby’, ‘man’ etc.) and presentational (guitar hero, sex symbol) – were subject to scorn: ‘cock rock’ and ‘rockism’ became terms of abuse. Production values and standard compositions were rejected in order to radicalise the form as well as the content of popular music. Some groups even talked of ‘un-learning’ their instruments.

The result of such approaches varied. Bands began to look first to reggae and then to funk, jazz, electronics, ‘krautrock’ and even improvisatory composition to expand pop’s palette and dilute rock’s traditional formulae. The Pop Group, from Bristol, meshed all of these influences into one cacophonous whole; in Manchester, Martin Hannett’s production resculptured the blunt punk of Warsaw into the bleak panoramas of Joy Division. Public Image Ltd (PiL), the band formed by John Lydon in 1978 after the Sex Pistols’ dissolution, intentionally set out to avoid all traces of a musical form they felt ‘obsolete’. Lydon had already revealed tastes predisposed to reggae and the experimental during a 1977 radio interview with Tommy Vance. PiL, therefore, was presented as an attempt to forge something wholly distinct and original. ‘I’ve said it before’, he told Danny Baker in 1979, ‘rock ‘n’ roll is stone dead. It’s had it. How much more 12-bar din-dun-der-dun can you jumble up?’

Such experimentation has since been termed ‘post-punk’. In truth, it formed part of the same cultural critique that instigated the more straight-forward punk rock of the period. Both ‘punk rock’ and the multifarious strands of ‘post-punk’ were defined in opposition to rock and pop as perceived at the time; they provided musical alternatives and modes of expression initiated ‘from below’. Just as Graham Lewis understood punk to have facilitated the opportunity for Wire’s experimentation, so Scritti Politti’s Green Gartside (Paul Strohmeyer) could insist that his group’s ‘roots’ were ‘very firmly with punk rock […] I don’t think you need to go back any further than that’, even as they began to musically and lyrically unravel rock’s form. Cabaret Voltaire, whose name revealed their Dadaist influence, recognised rock ‘n’ roll to mean more than simply ‘regurgitating Chuck Berry riffs’, preferring instead to use dissonance, tape cut-ups and the infrastructures that grew out of punk to challenge and communicate. Punk, in such a context, was seen to have broken down rock’s edifice and enabled new musical fusions, processes and innovations to collapse the distinction between ‘popular’ and ‘experimental’. This, as noted above, often contained political intent. The experiments engendered through punk were regularly couched in terms of provocation and consciousness-raising. But whether punk was seen to comprise ‘certain individuals’ fighting the ‘rock ‘n’ roll gig syndrome’ (Charles Hayward, This Heat) or simply those ‘having a laugh […] doing what you want to do and refusing to adjust to the system’ (Wattie Buchan, The Exploited), the impetus was to some extent driven by an urge to confront, offset or reject the conservative forces that mediated youth culture.

 

It was easy, it was cheap, go and do it

Punk’s critical relationship to the music industry may best be understood as a challenge on two fronts. First, as an effort to open-up – or break into – a cultural medium dominated by a relatively small number of ‘major’ record companies and seemingly closed to all but a select canon of established or suitably temperate artists. Second, as an attempt to forge an alternative to the industry establishment, either by working in spaces not wholly taken over by the larger labels or by existing outside and in parallel to pop’s commercial structures.

As Dave Laing has shown, the principal record companies of the mid-1970s exerted extensive control over the production, manufacture and distribution of popular music, with EMI even staking claim to retail via HMV. There were, of course, relatively smaller labels such as Island and Virgin that competed with the likes of EMI, CBS and Polygram. But these had corporate aspirations that ensured they operated along similar business lines to the majors in the mid-to-late 1970s. A scattering of independents existed, most of which functioned through negotiated deals with the more established labels and made little impact on the larger companies’ two-thirds market share. In response, punk appeared to contest the industry’s claims to rock ‘n’ roll culture by reasserting ownership (‘we created it, let’s take it over’) and rejecting its prevailing values, tropes and motifs (‘don’t accept the old order, get rid of it’). From such a perspective, the industry feeding-frenzy that took place in and around the Sex Pistols’ wake may be taken as a sign of success. It allowed new voices to be heard, be it Johnny Rotten, Howard Devoto, Siouxsie Sioux or Poly Styrene; new writers to enter the music press, many from the provinces or ‘trained’ on fanzines; new ‘stars’ to be cultivated (Adam Ant, Boy George, U2). At the very least, punk helped repopulate and rejuvenate pop music as a cultural form into the 1980s, even as its oppositional edge was thereby smoothed along the way.

Simultaneously, the speed by which punk was appropriated exposed the limits of its difference. As The Clash complained of their contemporaries ‘turning rebellion into money’, and as fanzines bemoaned the emasculation of their once favoured bands, so questions emerged as to the point and purpose of punk’s initial revolt. Was it simply to replace one set of pop stars with another whilst injecting some youthful energy back into rock ‘n’ roll? Or did it represent a more fundamental challenge to a co-opted culture in thrall to the profit margin? ‘Here we are in the summer of ‘78’, David George wrote in his Dirt fanzine, ‘and after the promise of last summer what’s going on now? Fuck all’. For George, as for others, punk had ‘failed’ because the record companies were still thriving via a ‘cleverly disguised rip off of you and me by capitalistic orientated bands, managers and companies’. New strategies were therefore needed if punk was to signal more than just coloured vinyl and cartoon attitudes – attempts had to be made to exert control over what Mark Perry summed up as ‘everything, including posters, record covers, stage presentation, the lot!’ To this effect, independent labels were soon seen to represent a ‘new underground’ in ‘opposition’ to the record industry. For Lucy Toothpaste, writing in her Jolt fanzine, those ‘contained’ by the music business had to be eclipsed by ‘dozens of other bands and other fanzines’ emerging as a result of the Sex Pistols’ and Sniffin’ Glue’s example.

Each of these responses built on the premise of punk representing some kind of challenge to the music industry. The problem, or so it seemed, was how best to affect any kind of change. From within, as a ‘poison in the machine’ designed to destabilise the industry whilst using its commercial reach to influence ideas, tastes and attitudes? Or as an independent alternative that spurred creativity and enabled culture to flourish beyond the rigged confines of the market place? Such debate underpinned much of the discourse surrounding punk, especially as interpretations of the Sex Pistols’ broken relationship with EMI (and A&M) filtered into broader analysis of the band’s significance. It also echoed on-going political discussion as to the benefits of ‘entryism’ in pursuit of radical ideals and the role played by culture in the struggle for hegemony. Add in Buzzcocks’ self-release of Spiral Scratch in early 1977, and arguments over the democratisation of music that allowed artists to control the process of production gained tangible expression.

For those keen to follow the Sex Pistols’ and The Clash’s lead, the objective was to utilise the established channels of the music industry as a platform for expression or a vehicle to reconstitute popular music. If, as Gang of Four argued, record companies were all part of the same (capitalist) system, then it made sense to sign to one that paid a weekly wage and allowed artists to channel radical messages through extensive promotional and distribution networks. The power structures of the status quo would not be affected, the band’s Andy Gill recognised, but music and lyrics could still disrupt conventional attitudes and change how people thought. Others talked of using major labels to agitate, innovate and communicate, suggesting that by so doing they could avoid ‘preaching to the converted’ or becoming culturally ghettoised. ‘That independent bullshit!’, David Henderson said of his band Fire Engines’ attempt to revitalise British pop, ‘we want to get across to as many people as possible so we will use all the aspects of the business around us to our own advantage’.

Come the 1980s, and perhaps the most resolute argument in favour of working ‘inside’ the music industry came from The Redskins. Although the band comprised members of the SWP (which rejected political entryism and was scathing of the Red Wedge initiative launched in 1985 to mobilise young voters for Labour), they signed to Decca Records and evolved through punk to adopt a soul-infused sound to back their explicitly socialist lyrics. ‘If The Supremes had been three steelworkers from Petrograd’, Chris Dean insisted, then they would have sounded like The Redskins.

Originally formed as No Swastikas in York in 1981, before changing their name in 1982 as they endeavoured to marry punk’s intensity with a pop sensibility targeted at the charts, The Redskins rejected any suggestion that signing to a major label diluted their political message. In a letter to the SWP’s Socialist Review, the band’s bass player, Martin Hewes, defined the band as workers earning money off the ruling class. But, he maintained, they had influence due to the nature of popular music as a medium; they had access to a potentially mass audience. Not dissimilarly, Lynden Barber’s concern that the distribution of Marxist agit-prop by a transnational capitalist company simply confirmed an inherent contradiction was met with disdain. Dean recognised the juxtaposition and the limitations of music serving as a force for political change, but he also insisted that pop’s ability to communicate made it a useful part of a broader revolutionary appeal. Consequently, he combined his singing duties with journalism (as X Moore in the NME) and conducted interviews that typically comprised extended political debates espousing the SWP line on everything from Thatcherism and the miners’ strike to the ‘treacherous’ nature of the TUC and Labour Party. Appropriately, the band’s gigs saw songs introduced with reference to on-going industrial disputes and global struggles, many of which served as benefits for the anti-apartheid, anti-fascist and unemployed causes of the time.

But if The Redskins’ agit-prop as agit-pop was the most explicit attempt to utilise existing record industry structures for political purposes, then others sought to subvert by more nefarious means. Most obviously, McLaren’s version of the Sex Pistols’ story was dependent on their having an impact at the heart of the commodity, from where the tensions between art and commerce could be revealed and exploited. The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle was nothing if not a fictionalised exposé of the music business, something McLaren sought to take further with Bow Wow Wow from 1980. Thus, where the Swindle focused on ways to exploit the cultural vacuity of the record industry, so Bow Wow Wow were designed to expose its duplicity and immorality (particularly the paedophilic tendencies that lurked within it). Alongside the advocacy of home taping onto cassette – then feared by the record industry as a death-knell for music – Bow Wow Wow were fronted by a 14-year-old singer (Annabella Lwin) whose sexuality formed the basis of the band’s lyrics and marketing campaign. A magazine, Chicken, was even formatted as a way of promoting the band, before its content of children in sexually provocative poses made too obvious McLaren’s ruse.

More typically, perhaps, bands informed by punk tended to present themselves in a struggle with their corporate pay-masters. They recognised the exploitative nature of the relationship but sought to counter or reveal it through their lyrics, approach and imagery. The results were sometimes messy. The Clash, for example, made public their battles with CBS and used them to assert a sense of integrity in the face of accusations of ‘selling out’. When, in mid-1977, the label released ‘Remote Control’ as a single without the band’s consent, Strummer responded by writing a follow-up entitled ‘Complete Control’ that bemoaned the ‘c-o-n’ of his band’s contract. Thereafter, The Clash prided themselves on retaining an affinity with and providing value-for-money for their fans (non-album singles, cut price LPs, etc.), even if the label was no doubt aware that such tensions emboldened their ‘product’.

That said, the spaces opened up by punk did allow for innovation. Record sleeves provided one site of communication that major label distribution ensured found its way into the heart of the market place. Seen in this way, Buzzcocks’ ‘Orgasm Addict’ (1977) was more than just an attempt to extend and subvert pop’s language, it was also a conduit for Linder’s photomontage and Martin Garrett’s design-critiques of commodification. Jamie Reid’s artworks, too, proved integral to the Sex Pistols’ attack, be it the cut-up union jack that promoted ‘Anarchy in the UK’, the defaced symbolism of ‘God Save the Queen’, the buses to ‘boredom’ and ‘nowhere’ on the back of ‘Pretty Vacant’, the détourned tourist brochure of ‘Holidays in the Sun’, the profanity of Never Mind the Bollocks, or the self-aware deconstruction of punk’s co-option that marketed the Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle.

 

Linder and Malcolm Garrett’s sleeve design for Buzzcocks’ ‘Orgasm Addict’ (1977)

 

Others used the opportunities afforded by punk to assert their cultural capital in the form of experimental releases or presentation. Bands – including Siouxsie and the Banshees, who signed to Polydor – talked of assuming full control of their releases and artwork, resisting co-option and refusing to compromise with the dictates of the industry. A few bands set up label imprints that functioned through the distribution, promotional and manufacturing networks of larger companies. The Specials, for instance, signed 2-Tone to Chrysalis in a move that helped both them and the larger label promote the 2-Tone movement of 1979–81. PiL even defined themselves as a limited company rather than a group, adopting a corporate identity to run their own affairs without ‘middle men’ (managers, producers, artistic directors, secretaries) interfering in the creative processes.

Not all such ventures were successful. The willingness of a conventional record company to tolerate or lend its marketing clout to projects soon paled once sales fell or attentions turned elsewhere. Nor did the reality of signing to a major label always match the expectations or stated intent of those seeking to subvert pop’s form from the inside. Compromises were made, be it in terms of promotional schedules, marketing schemes or self-censorship. One listen to the Angelic Upstarts’ Still from the Heart (1982) reveals the damage that signing to a major label could do, with ill-fitting synths and polished production blunting the band’s necessarily hard edge. Indeed, the fickle nature of the pop industry and the capacity of labels to exploit their artists became a recurrent theme in songs such as the Sex Pistols’ ‘EMI’, The Boys’ ‘Do the Contract’, Stiff Little Fingers’ ‘Rough Trade’, Cock Sparrer’s ‘Take ‘em All’, and The Jam’s ‘All Mod Cons’ and ‘To Be Someone (Didn’t We Have a Nice Time)’. Nevertheless, the idea of working through the mainstream remained an objective for those who saw pop music as both a reflection and a way out of the pre-set patterns of ‘ordinary’ life. It also provided subsequent justification – albeit decorated in post-modern language – for much of the so-called ‘new pop’ of the early 1980s.

Alternative strategies did exist. Few of the majors ventured far beyond London’s borders before the end of 1977, preferring instead to ‘cherry pick’ from the conveyor belt of bands playing at The Roxy club opened in London’s Covent Garden from December 1976 or at other venues on the capital’s gig circuit. In response, a network of smaller labels, retailers, studios and manufacturers emerged to cater for punk-informed scenes evolving beyond the metropolitan monopoly, culminating in the compilation of an ‘independent chart’ by the British Market Research Bureau from 1980. As ‘the industry’ concerned itself with an unprecedented drop in production (from 250,000,000 to 190,000,000 units) between 1978 and 1981, so the number of independent labels rose from 231 to 322 in the same period, with more than 800 being listed in 1980.

Initially, punk-related independents formed simply to produce and market records by bands passed over or ignored by the larger companies. In other words, they filled a gap in the market and were typically run by industry ‘veterans’ with some understanding of how the business worked. Stiff Records, for example, was formed in 1976 by Jake Riviera [Andrew Jakeman] and Dave Robinson in reaction to the majors’ failure to pick up on London’s pub rock (and emergent punk) scene, while Step Forward was owned by Miles Copeland, an erstwhile manager of progressive rock bands. As punk spread and diversified, so a combination of entrepreneurs, enthusiasts and mavericks founded labels to cover locales or scenes in and beyond London.

Simultaneously, labels began to materialise organically from punk’s dissemination, primarily out of independent record shops that stocked, distributed and eventually produced records inspired by punk’s DIY ethos. An early template was Chiswick, formed in 1975 through Ted Carroll’s Rock On retail stalls. Thereafter, Beggars Banquet, Rough Trade and Small Wonder began as London record shops before widening their remit in the wake of punk. Outside the capital, meanwhile, Remember Those Oldies in Cambridge begat Raw Records and Bruce’s from Scotland helped launch a series of small labels before the likes of Attrix (Brighton), Backs (Norwich), Good Vibrations (Belfast), Probe (Liverpool), Revolver (Bristol) and Red Rhino (York) did likewise to serve as regional fulcrums and, in some cases, components of the Cartel cultivated by Rough Trade’s Richard Scott to co-ordinate a nationwide distribution network.

Finally, and most significantly perhaps, those inspired by a combination of the Sex Pistols’ attitude and Buzzcocks’ initiative resolved to self-release their own records. This was sometimes conceived as a means-to-an-end, a way of generating interest by securing press coverage and airplay via John Peel’s late-night radio show. Several well-known bands – 999, Angelic Upstarts, The Exploited, Joy Division, The Skids, Stiff Little Fingers – first recorded on their own imprints before moving to larger or more firmly-established labels. Equally, the process of starting a label, self-releasing a record or cultivating a cassette network became a raison d’etre in itself, spawning a DIY aesthetic rooted in punk’s back-to-basics attitude but willing to experiment within its own limitations. ‘Nothing’s fucking easy is it’, Charlie Deane of Six Minute War insisted. ‘But it’s no excuse for signing to any fucking label […] you don’t go round making money out of your art. As soon as you say I’m gonna do this as a job you’re gonna start writing songs that will sell and not what you believe in’. To be independent was to stand in opposition to the existent music industry and provide space for cultural (and political) alternatives.

Such a perspective was clearly stated by The Desperate Bicycles, one of the first groups to follow Buzzcocks’ example. Spiral Scratch had emerged at the beginning of 1977, cheaply made in a local studio and self-released on the New Hormones label set up with Richard Boon. Its sleeve, fronted by a polaroid picture of the band, listed the number of ‘takes’ (mainly one) and overdubs used for the recording. The Desperate Bicycles soon followed suit, coining punk’s DIY mantra and, on the cover of their second single (‘The Medium is Tedium’ b/w ‘Don’t Back the Front’), demystifying the means of production with the following statement: ‘The Desperate Bicycles were formed in March 1977 specifically for the purpose of recording and releasing a single on their own label. They booked a studio in Dalston for three hours and with a lot of courage and a little rehearsal they recorded “Smokescreen” and “Handlebars”. It subsequently leapt at the throat. Three months later and The Desperate Bicycles were back in a studio to record their second single and this is the result. “No more time for spectating” they sing and who knows? they may be right. They’d really like to know why you haven’t made your single yet. “It was easy, it was cheap, go and do it” (the complete cost of “Smokescreen” was £153). The medium may very well have been tedium but it’s changing fast. So if you can understand, go and join a band. Now it’s your turn …’

The objective, as the band’s Roger Stephens explained, was to enable access to the manufacturing and production of records. ‘You see, the record industry will keep on churning out so-called anti-establishment lyrics quite happily until you start attacking the pricing structure of records or attacking their profits. And that’s really where to start. We need a continued attack’. Agency took priority over ability; the studio was envisaged as being ‘like a passport photo booth’ and a maximum retail price (70p) was printed on the front of the subsequent New Cross, New Cross EP (1978). Though songs could carry a message (anti-fascism in ‘Don’t Back the Front’), the politics of punk were more readily discerned in its processes than its content.

Others took up the baton, booking into cheap studios (Arrow, Cargo, Spaceward, Street Level); mastering and pressing limited runs of vinyl at small plants; printing labels and sleeves to fold in kitchens and bedrooms; dropping off copies at local record shops or Rough Trade to distribute. Among the most outspoken were Scritti Politti, whose early singles on Rough Trade and their own St Pancras label again featured a breakdown of costs and included songs that dissected the structures of the music industry. ‘Scritlock’s Door’, for example, explored the relationship between groups and market forces, bemoaning the ways by which creativity was dictated by profit margins as the ‘interest is kept and money is made by changing the scenery/ Fashion is fab when the product is made without necessity’. Indeed, Scritti served briefly as the ideologues of punk’s DIY diaspora, providing interviews with the music press and fanzines that explained their adoption of independent production as representing far more than a simple response to punk’s impetus. ‘We are interested in […] keeping out of the sweaty palms of the record companies’, Gartside argued, ‘interested in DIY records, co-operation with other groups, seeing how […] large an alternative can be built, a positional alternative rather than a run-away-and-hide alternative’. As this suggests, Scritti’s rationale was informed by Gramscian theory (Gartside was a young communist in 1978–79), with independents posited as part of a counter-hegemonic ‘war of position’.

Though Gartside later swapped Marx and improvisation for Derrida and the luxuriousness of pop, his band’s connection to Rough Trade was telling. Established as a shop by Geoff Travis in 1976, Rough Trade evolved to become the principal hub of punk’s claim to provide an independent alternative by the end of the 1970s. As well as stocking, distributing and helping to finance record releases (and fanzines), it combined punk’s growing sense of autonomy with libertarian-leftist politics traceable to the 1960s counter culture. The shop, label and distribution were run collectively, with staff paid equal wages regardless of position and contributing to debates on the content of fanzines, record sleeves and lyrics. Profits were shared evenly between the bands and label (sometimes in the band’s favour), with artists retaining the rights to their master tapes and long-term contracts eschewed for short-term deals. In effect, Rough Trade presented itself more as a workspace than a business, an ethos articulated by bands such as Essential Logic and The Raincoats who held fast to the label’s progressive intent. ‘Changing things from the inside is nonsense’, Travis argued in 1980. ‘It doesn’t matter how much “creative control” a band is given […] you’re still indentured’.

Quite clearly, Rough Trade’s approach stood in deliberate contrast to that of a conventional record label. Its practices were based on a political reading of the power relations that existed inside the wider music industry and were assumed, to varying extents, by other independents. Its early ethos, meanwhile, fed into labels such as Ron Johnson and Vinyl Drip, whose bands – such as bIG fLAME – ploughed determinedly independent furrows.

 

BIG FLAME – STATEMENT OF INTENT

            Prologue – We are […] born out of a common dismay/disgust/distrust at the way            creativity and individuality in pop music has once again been stifled by the music       industry in their efforts to regain control over the highly profitable and easily       exploitable business since losing it in 1977 […]

            Objectives – To provide a positive and constructive alternative to the bland and   corrupt world of pop through the application of honesty, integrity and dynamic             enthusiasm. To show to others that it can be done without selling your soul!

            Execution of Objectives – Everything we do is pre-meditated and deliberate. Anything     we produce is based on 100% effort – nothing less will do […]

  1. recordings – we will only release 7” 3-track ep’s […] the best and most innovative bands were single bands – Buzzcocks, Orange Juice, Josef K and numerous early punk bands – […] we’ll never get a major record deal because we’ll have to compromise so much that we’d become everything we hated in the ‘music-biz, man’ […]
  2. live performances – we play a 9 song, 25 minute set […] We feel people get bored after that […]
  3. musical content (!) – we made a deliberate decision to follow a certain musical path, derived from our influences [who] produced an attitude of independence […]
  4. lyrical content – […] Based on the personal (as to write about things you don’t know anything about would be disgraceful), the lyrics employ wit, satire and play on words to convey any ideas/inspiration/observations that we feel need relating, be it on society or otherwise. We HATE clichés […] ‘Hey, girl, I wanna dance with ya all night long’ is definitely OUT
  5. political content – if, by highlighting what we see as wrongs in ‘today’s society’ and allowing others to appreciate that and hopefully motivating them, we are labelled political, then that is fine by us […] Also, because of the way we approach our music, we feel that the sound we produce is political in music circles because it is so radical and anti-complacency when compared to the crap that we are being fed now from all angles, be it large companies or the so-called ‘independents’. So, we feel we are striving for change in music and a betterment of our way of life […]

            Epilogue – things that disturb us in modern pop music: i) the return to rockism; ii) the     apathy of young people ALL YOU YOUNG PUNKS who are locked in their time warp       circa ’77; iii) the return of the POP STAR and all the hype/corruption/dupery rip offs        that accompany him/her; iv) the stifling REAL talent and the promotion of smug       complacency by ££££’s in the interest of generating more £££££££’s; […] If we can         influence people to get up and do something, to provide that spark of inspiration     and      enthusiasm, to promote change, then, despite how many records we’ve sold, we will   have succeeded in our aim […]

 

The only question, in terms of point and purpose, was to whether the ‘indies’ wished to compete with the mainstream or forge a distinct alternative to it – a tension that became acute once bands gained commercial success or expectations began to exceed the limits of a label’s capabilities.

There was no such ambiguity with the avowedly anarchist bands whose own self-formed labels were underpinned by a critical analysis of the music business’ place in ‘the system’. Record companies and their associated media were deemed to function only in the interests of capital and control; the likes of EMI’s links to the arms industry or animal experiments were unveiled and condemned. To engage with them on any level was to be ‘bought up, cleaned up, souped up’ and transformed into ‘just another cheap product for the middle-class consumer’. Effectively, and whether consciously or unconsciously, what Crass, Conflict, Subhumans and others offered was a hardened interpretation of Adorno and Horkheimer’s argument determining the role and meaning of popular culture against its mode of production. From such a perspective, punk’s entry – or absorption – into the music industry not only disarmed it of any radical (or oppositional) potential, but in fact made it part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Or, to quote Poison Girls, ‘state control and rock ‘n’ roll […] it’s all good for business’.

Crass’ response was to pursue a determinedly independent path. Their first record, The Feeding of the Five Thousand (1978), had been issued in early 1979 on Pete and Marian Stennett’s Small Wonder label, running into trouble when a foreman at an Irish pressing plant objected to the blasphemous content of the opening track (‘Asylum’). Thereafter, Crass took full control of their releases, forming a close relationship with John Loder’s Southern Studios to keep retail costs down to a minimum (‘pay no more than …’) and opening up the label to like-minded artists committed to working outside the structures of the music industry. By so doing, the anarchist tenets of the band became realisable and the potential use of the medium more encompassing. Crass releases came in fold-out sleeves that visually and literarily complemented the political sentiments explored in the record’s songs. To take just one example, ‘Persons Unknown’ b/w ‘Bloody Revolutions’, a joint single with Poison Girls from 1980, came wrapped in a Gee Vaucher painting critiquing punk’s appropriation (the Sex Pistols as Queen, Pope, Lady Justice and Margaret Thatcher) and a series of essays outlining anarchist positions on the 1978–9 ‘persons unknown’ trial, the power politics of the left and the anarchist centre for which the record raised funds. Around the edges, contact addresses for collectives, fanzines and book shops provided young punks with a portal to political engagement. As intended, Crass records appeared closer to a political communiqué than a pop product – an example followed by the numerous anarchist bands and labels (Bluurg, Mortarhate, Spider Leg) founded in Crass’ wake.

Of course, not all independents committed to the same modus operandi. Fast Product, set up in Edinburgh by Bob Last in conjunction with his then partner Hilary Morrison, presented itself as an ‘operation’ intervening in the media by using design techniques to package ostensibly non-commercial records in sleeves that communicated the mechanisms of production and consumption. Tony Wilson and Alan Erasmus’ Factory Records forged a regional identity centred on Manchester with a roster that included A Certain Ratio, Durutti Column, Joy Division/New Order and, from 1982, the Hacienda nightclub. Industrial Records, founded by Throbbing Gristle, conspired to parody the music industry, issuing annual reports, newsletters and promotional material for product that defied the conventions of popular music. More typically, labels developed in ad hoc fashion. Some lasted but briefly; a few – such as 4AD, Creation and Mute – transformed from small-scale ventures into global companies over the 1980s. Others, including Beggars Banquet, followed the traditional route of pre-punk independents by establishing manufacturing, promotional or distribution deals with major labels, while a combination of business pressures, technological changes and cultural shifts forced even the likes of Rough Trade to adopt more conventional commercial practices over time.

Nor were independents immune to criticism. The very notion of working ‘outside’ the music industry was oft-challenged as naïve given the pop cultural medium in which records existed and the economic forces that determined their production. As noted above, bands and labels disagreed as to whether they were seeking to compete with or bypass the established industry. This, in turn, prompted accusations of elitism or ghettoisation to be directed at those keen to retain their autonomy and charges of hypocrisy against labels that struck deals with the majors. Not dissimilarly, the DIY aesthetic was derided for its ‘thin’ sound and a ramshackle image cast as ‘dour’ or ‘grey’ against the glitz of early 1980s pop and the advances in production ushered in by new technologies. Politically, Rough Trade and Crass were both scorned for their ‘hippie’ derivations, especially by those the labels deemed to have produced ‘ideologically unsound’ work or felt their collective approach prevented them functioning as effective record companies. More damningly, perhaps, the impetus that founded small independents was compared to the entrepreneurial spirit championed by Thatcherism. The indies were akin to ‘Grocers! […] like Margaret Thatcher’s’, McLaren taunted with a nod to the then prime minister’s family background, ‘[they’re] poverty stricken in terms of imagination, street suss and feeling’. Rough Trade, Gang of Four’s Jon King mocked, was ‘the Virgin of tomorrow’. At the very least, manipulative contracts and nefarious business practice were by no means the preserve of major labels – as the cover and ‘production notes’ for The Epileptics’ Spider Leg re-issue of their 1970s EP (1981) made clear.

 

 

To sum up, punk’s cultural politics harboured an innate distrust of the music business. The exploitative nature of the industry and its processes of cultural commodification were regularly dissected and bemoaned in fanzines, interviews, songs and artworks, while details of a band’s contract and the implications of signing to a major label became perennial topics of discussion. Part of punk’s motivation, therefore, was to engage with the tensions that existed between culture, commerce, identity and consumption. This, on occasion, had an ideological foundation – resulting in strategies to subvert or counter the prevailing structures of the music industry. Simultaneously, it was born of experience and observation, for which punk at least appeared to offer a means of agency and access denied to fledgling bands by larger (London-based) labels. In either case, the objective was to assert some kind of control over the form and content of popular music. Whether punk provided a platform for protest, creative expression or just a channel for youthful exuberance, it was recognised as a means to contest the industry standard.

 

Television’s over

The media of 1970s Britain was extensive in reach but limited in scope, a paradox that shaped many a punk-informed response to it. Though 97 per cent of homes owned a television by the turn of the decade (almost 75 per cent colour), just three channels broadcast intermittently throughout the day before closing down towards midnight. The earthy populism of The Sun had somewhat ruffled the style and political balance of a national press read by 14.3 million people in 1978, but the launch of the Daily Star in the same year marked the first wholly new daily paper to appear since the war. On the news-stands more generally, the counter-cultural undertow of the music press and titles such as Cosmopolitan offered slight respite from the staid functionality of a newsagent’s ‘general interest’ racks (including the increasingly risqué top shelf). The radio, meanwhile, remained the preserve of the BBC, though pirate stations and, from 1972–3, commercial broadcasters had begun to broaden the style of news, music and entertainment available.

Viewed in wider perspective, however, and the ‘media-scape’ was evidently mutating. Alongside the steady commercialisation of broadcasting and the mainstream press, so technological advances and cultural shifts pointed towards the continued expansion of form and content. If the 1960s brought moon landings, world cup finals and war into the nation’s front rooms, then the media’s remit of information and communication transformed as TV and tabloids became bastions of popular culture. Indeed, the 1970s marked perhaps the highpoint of a genuinely mass media in Britain, with its relative lack of diversity allowing for a far more communally-shared culture to be forged than any time previously. Thereafter, new channels, mediums, newspapers and magazines became totems of the 1980–90s, encouraged by the market-orientated politics of Thatcherism and destined to fragment the mass even as the all-pervasive 24-hour media of science fiction became contemporary fact. In the midst of all this, pop music and youth culture existed at an ever more blurred interface between media, leisure and commerce, provoking the question as to whether pop was the teenage news or just another cog in a globalised industry machine.

Of course, the growth and expanse of the media had long provoked debate as to its moral, social and political implications. Fears of Americanisation and ‘levelling down’ rumbled throughout much of the century; the media’s conversion from a source of information to a site of entertainment provoked much consternation. If media studies was still in its infancy by 1976–77, then the influence and effect of the media was very much to the forefront of public and intellectual debate. Most obviously, Mary Whitehouse’s conservative National Viewers and Listeners’ Association (NVLA) ensured that media content – both print and celluloid – was continually subject to scrutiny by self-appointed moral guardians. Simultaneously, theoretical analyses had begun to filter through to the public domain, primarily as a result of work developed by Marshall McLuhan and academics gathered in the Glasgow University Media Group, the CCCS and elsewhere.

Punk engaged with and critiqued such developments, both in terms of substance and aesthetic. Tabloids were derided for their cheap sensationalism and partial truths; the press generally was portrayed as a mouthpiece for vested interests and a means of shaping public opinion on behalf of government, commerce or elites. Both television and radio were depicted as a substitute for agency and a distraction from the realities of everyday life. Advertising, in particular, was recognised as more than just a motor for consumption, but rather a simulacrum; an ideal for living that reinforced social constructs and channelled desires.

In reply, punk détourned symbols of the press and challenged the camera’s distorting lens. Tabloid typography became an essential punk signifier, not only in the use of ransom-note lettering to spell out group names and fanzine text, but also on sleeve designs culled from newsprint to frame records in headlines of ‘6 Minute War Madness’, ‘Fun, Kill, Love, Horror, Money, Dream, Terror’ or ‘Fires Rage in London Riot’. PiL’s first single, ‘Public Image’ (1978), came in a replica newspaper replete with mock-tabloid stories about the group’s members, while Linder and Jon Savage’s Secret Public (1978) comprised photomontages that spliced together pornographic images with household appliances to expose the gendered false promise of the advertising hoarding. Band names, too, were taken from headlines (Buzzcocks, The Clash, Crisis, Six Minute War) or chosen in recognition of the mediated context through which pop music existed (The Adverts, Alternative TV, Magazine, The Media, Television Personalities). Audio extracts from news reports were even incorporated into songs (Chelsea’s ‘Government’; Crass’ ‘Angels’; Scritti Politti’s ‘28/8/78’) and, in one famous incident, fed live through the PA to become part of a gig’s soundtrack (The Clash at London’s 100 Club in 1976). In other words, punk inserted itself into the media by reproducing its language, fears and predilections.

Examples of bands critiquing the media in song are legion. The first Sex Pistols’ b-side, ‘I Wanna Be Me’, set its sights on the ‘typewriter gods’ that constructed and demolished personal identities through the press. The Clash’s ‘London’s Burning’ depicted television as a ‘new religion’ and cause of the ennui settling over the nation’s capital. Not dissimilarly, ‘FM’ by The Slits accused the media of cultivating fears and false solutions, while Subway Sect encapsulated punk’s default position in the lyric to ‘Nobody’s Scared’: ‘media teach me what to speak, take my decisions/ It’s how to find your inner-self time, on the television’. Both Wire and Gang of Four produced debut albums that obsessed with the media, including songs (‘Reuters’ and ‘5.45’) that explored how war reports were refracted through print and screen to become sanitised or merely another form of entertainment (‘the corpse as a new personality’). Crisis and the Radiators from Space portrayed television as a mental prison (the latter promising to stick their telecasters through the television screen); The Jam bemoaned the empty claims of the News of the World; The Cortinas’ ‘Television Families’ mocked the simulated home lives portrayed on TV; The Members’ satirised the phone-in shows peddled by commercial radio as ‘cheap entertainment … five minutes of glib advice when you’ve nowhere left to go’.

Much of this was intuitive. The tabloid reaction to punk in late 1976 through 1977 demonstrated clearly how far media interpretations could diverge from personal experience, a fact bemoaned in many a fanzine from the time. Early on, moreover, punk’s criticism of the media focused on its failure – or unwillingness – to reflect the interests of young people. Just as the pop industry was deemed not to provide music made by or relevant to teenagers in the mid-1970s, so the dearth of popular music coverage in the newspapers or on television was cited as a key instigator of punk’s emergence. For Paul Simonon, at least, punk was partly a product of ‘kids who watch Top of the Pops and they see all these shitty groups and there’s nothing to do […] It is […] kids getting up and doing something on their own’.

In effect, punk positioned itself as an alternative media – an Alternative TV, to use Mark Perry’s band as exemplar. Beyond the social reportage that made up numerous punk lyrics, punk reconceived rock ‘n’ roll as a medium to posit opinions, actions and perspectives excluded from the mainstream. Fanzines, similarly, justified their existence as an antidote to a music press in thrall to the fickle interests of the industry and thereby detached from pop’s grass-roots gestation.

As this suggests, instinctive distrust of the media was complemented by more sophisticated analysis. Much has been made of the situationist influence that informed the ideas of McLaren and Jamie Reid, both of whom were aware of Guy Debord’s conception of ‘the spectacle’ as an ‘inversion of life’. According to Debord, building on Marx’s critique of alienation under capitalism, the media served as an agent of reification: ‘everything that was directly lived has moved into a representation’. The result was a society of passive consumption and vicarious living, wherein culture was commodified, fact and fiction coalesced, and celebrities (including the ‘pop star’) seemingly lived out lives to compensate for the fractured and banal existence of lives actually lived. To negate the spectacle, its processes had to be disrupted, revealed and subverted; thereby providing a neat conceptual framework to locate the Sex Pistols and a palette of ideas to complement the band’s ire.

Similar ideas were manifest elsewhere. Richard Boon, who managed Buzzcocks and ran the New Hormones record label, was using situationist ideas to write a dissertation on the function of art when he first heard the Sex Pistols. Tony Wilson, too, admitted in 1978 to being an ‘armchair situationist’ who recognised in punk certain approaches that he later applied to Factory Records. The first Durutti Column album thus came wrapped in a sandpaper sleeve, an anti-consumerist gesture borrowed from Debord’s collaboration with Asger Jorn, Mémoires (1959), while the Hacienda nightclub was named after an Ivan Chtcheglov essay that conceived new visions of time and space through architecture and urban planning. Over in Leeds, the ideas of Gang of Four, The Mekons and Delta 5 were partly informed by the presence of Tim (TJ) Clarke in the fine arts department, where members of all three bands were studying in the mid-to-late 1970s. Clarke had briefly been a member of the Situationist International. Among London’s anarchist milieu, situationist ideas circulated and found their way onto records such as The Apostles’ Smash the Spectacle EP (1985) and into a number of fanzines.

That said, it is important not to overstate the impact of situationist practice on punk more generally. Though apparent, the influence of Debord, Raoul Vaneigem and others formed but part of a far wider cultural critique that ranged across the varied contours of the New Left and counter culture. This, certainly, was the case with Crass, a band that included members whose politics and worldview had been shaped by the cultural upheavals of the 1950s and 1960s. Given such a context, Crass recognised the media as integral to the maintenance of existing social structures and modes of control. ‘Every day the TV, the radio and the newspapers manipulate and direct the thoughts of the general public, tell them what to think and how to think, but it’s not because they want to improve the “quality” of thought, it’s more that they are required, by the establishment interests that run them, to reinforce “standard” social values; serve that which serves you, or else. When media is controlled almost exclusively by the   wealthy, ruling elite, censorship becomes unnecessary; money speaks louder than words.’ Subsequently, Crass’ approach was designed to provide alternative lines of communication to challenge the dominant media. Beyond the communiqués that formed the record-sleeves described previously, the band issued statements through the punk fanzine network that developed from 1976, collaborated with the film-maker Mick Duffield, and published a series of papers, pamphlets and artworks.

Not surprisingly, Crass’ lyrical focus often concentrated on media-related themes. ‘Nineteen Eighty Bore’, for example, defined television as an Orwellian form of social control, while ‘Mother Earth’ recast the media’s fascination with the Moors murderess Myra Hindley as a fetish that revealed the moral duplicity of generating profit via images of death, disaster and destruction. Television was ‘today’s Nuremberg’, Crass insisted on Yes Sir, I Will (1983), a means of dampening anger, constructing social stereotypes and distracting from ‘real problems’. ‘We look for alternatives, but the enormous power of the media makes it so difficult to establish foundations. Their lies and distortions are so extreme that everything becomes poisoned and corrupted. We can become media personalities but it is always on their terms’.

Similar sentiments were oft-repeated by bands formed in Crass’ wake, with titles such as ‘Bullshit Broadcast’, ‘TV Scream’ and ‘Channel Zero’ giving a sense to their content. But perhaps the most coherent media critique beyond Crass came from the industrial culture that likewise saw music as a medium to disseminate ideas and the media more generally as an invidious form of social control. To this end, groups such as Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle aligned sound with other forms of media to expose the disparity between mediated reality and life itself. Noise, cut-up visuals, found sounds and extreme imagery were presented as an assault on the senses; a means to disrupt perceived notions of order, rationality and normality. For Genesis P-Orridge (Neil Megson), the objective was to ‘decondition people’s responses, demystify creative, musical activity and life too, and most of all […] make people think for themselves, decide for themselves and direct their own lives by their own values and experiences, by experiences learned BY THEM from life and not second hand, unproven experiences handed down by education and religion and dogma politics’.

Throbbing Gristle formed out of COUM Transmissions, an art collective that included P-Orridge and Cosey Fanni Tutti (Christine Newby). From 1969–70, COUM experimented with music, performance and mail art to challenge prevailing social values and negate the conventions of the cultural establishment. As this suggests, the troupe obsessed with sex, violence and the body, their performances pushing at the boundaries of taste through use of nudity, bodily fluids, pornography, vandalism, garbage and offal. With Throbbing Gristle, the focus shifted from the gallery space to popular culture. According to P-Orridge, both Throbbing Gristle and his follow-up group Psychic TV were ‘interested in infiltrating the media because it’s the main channel of control. At the moment the media is promoting pessimism and vacuous fun. And the reasons are quite obvious to us. If people are pessimistic and distracted they don’t pose much of a threat.’ In response, Throbbing Gristle engaged in an ‘information war’, deliberately locating themselves – in terms of their presentation, sound, content, production and record label – at odds with the prevailing mores of the music business.

In practical terms, such an approach entailed parodying and subverting the commercialism that sustained popular music. Titles, imagery and photos were infused with multiple or conflicting meanings designed to interrogate how the media (and the consumer) filtered the information relayed to them. So, for example, the cover-image of four group members smiling on a seaside cliff-top beneath the title 20 Jazz Funk Greats (1979) was read differently once the location was revealed as the renowned suicide spot Beachy Head and the record’s contents proved some way removed from the album title. Their label name (Industrial Records) and slogan (‘music from the death factory’) forged both a brand identity and commented on the commodification of culture. More positively, Throbbing Gristle’s experiments opened up new channels of enquiry to provide gateways to the esoteric and occult. Their Industrial News featured pieces on control techniques and influences such as William Burroughs, while the group’s interviews effectively doubled-up as film and reading lists for those interested to pursue.

A similar approach was undertaken by Cabaret Voltaire from Sheffield. They, too, filtered multimedia and experimental approaches through popular music; like Throbbing Gristle, they also proved quick to employ video as a complementary means of communication. Both bands were fascinated by technology, utilizing synthesizers and tapes while simultaneously exploring the dystopian ramifications of mechanisation. Both presented themselves as closer to ‘journalists’ than musicians, documenting and reporting back from behind the media curtain. Stephen Mallinder, who formed Cabaret Voltaire with Richard Kirk and Chris Watson in 1973, described his band’s methods as a ‘course of exploration’ designed to facilitate self-knowledge and ‘change people’s conceptions’. Neither band took a political or moral position, preferring instead to relay information and media snippets alongside reportage on the extremities of a ‘real life’ desensitised by media overload. ‘The point is’, Mallinder insisted on being questioned with regard the violent images projected at the band’s live show, ‘people see them but aren’t aware of them […] when people see it on the news they’re totally punch-drunk. It’s news, and the news has become a fantasy as much as Hart to Hart [a US television drama]. You see it in a totally different context and it has far more impact on you’.

Punk and industrial cultures, therefore, portrayed the media as both a source of disinformation and a palliative – a medium that conditioned, distracted and deadened the senses. In response, punk and industrial groups sought to cut through the artifice to engage with and reflect life-as-lived. This could mean circumnavigating the media and music industry by prioritising activities and producing alternative lines of communication (gigs, fanzines, self-produced records). Alternately, it could mean intervening to subvert the processes of popular music’s commodification by reconstituting its form and substance. The importance of the Grundy incident, beyond the moral panic it instigated, was its momentary rupture of the media sheen. The Sex Pistols were ‘off script’; their appearance would have been edited if pre-recorded, but Today’s live transmission allowed for a fleeting glimpse of something ‘other’ to seep through the pretence. Be it the swear words, indifference or irreverence shown by the band to their surroundings, the Grundy interview allowed what Rotten called ‘real eyes’ to penetrate (and so realise) the media artifice.

 

Mattt Worley ch 3

Chapter Three

Tell us the truth: Reportage, realism and abjection

 

All our songs are about being honest, right? The situation as we see it […] otherwise      we’d be writing bullshit!!

Mick Jones (1976)

 

The story behind The Clash’s ‘White Riot’ has become part of punk folklore. As told on LWT’s London Weekend Show in November 1976, Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon used it to explain The Clash’s commitment to writing about ‘what’s going on at the moment’. The song itself related to the Notting Hill carnival of just a few weeks earlier, during which on-going tensions between police and the area’s black population gave way to violence. According to newspaper reports, some 300 police and 131 members of the public were injured during the disturbance, bringing to the fore questions of race relations, inner-city policing and political stability. In fact, the trouble was such that the Home Office subsequently authorised the introduction of riot shields (first used the following year during clashes between the NF and anti-racists in Lewisham), with images from the time showing policemen wielding truncheons and cowering behind dustbin lids, smashed-up shop fronts and rubble-strewn streets, black youths fleeing from police or throwing bricks. ‘We was down there, me and him’, Strummer said, ‘and we got searched by policemen, looking for bricks, like. And then, later on, we got searched by Rasta, looking for pound notes in our pockets’. ‘And all we had were bricks and bottles,’ finished Simonon.

Such a tale would feed into The Clash’s own mythology, helping to align their punk protest with the roots reggae that provided a suitably ‘dread’ soundtrack to the unrest in Notting Hill and affirming the band’s conception of themselves as street-level rebels reporting back from the urban frontline. The song’s lyrics celebrated the riot and urged white youth to have the guts to do the same. Photos from the day provided copy for the band’s record sleeves and stage backdrops; the fact that Strummer and Simonon had been there helped authenticate their aural snapshot of mid-‘70s London.

This lived experience was important. The Clash aspired to a significance they felt had been lost in most popular music. Their early songs were peppered with local references to the ‘Westway’, ‘Bakerloo’, ‘Knightsbridge’, ‘Hammersmith’, ‘the 100 Club’ and ‘London Town’; they spoke of ‘escalators’, ‘Ford Cortinas’, ‘skin-flicks’, the dole ‘office’ and ‘fighting in the road’; they described social tensions, ennui, unemployment, petty crime and political impotency. Or, as Tony Parsons put it, The Clash offered a ‘mirror reflection of the kind of […] white, working-class experiences that only seem like a cliché to those people who haven’t lived through them’. In so doing, they helped forge a template that informed much British punk and punk-related styles into the 1980s: that is, an aggressive sound, image and rhetoric that proffered social reportage rooted in practice. As is well known, Strummer’s middle-class background and the art school enrolment of all three core band members soon provided critics with the necessary information to challenge the band’s street-savvy stance. But the idea of the early Clash – not to mention their evident sincerity – meant they remained integral to punk’s cultural evolution. In effect, both Oi! and the more social-conscious punk of the period strove to maintain or better fulfil a version of The Clash’s original intent.

Simultaneously, ‘White Riot’ – alongside many other Clash songs – hinted at a morality beyond mere reportage. Early interviews revealed the band to accept the political connotations of an approach that tended more towards a form of consciousness-raising than any specific doctrine – ‘[We’re] making people aware of a situation they’d otherwise tend to ignore’, Simonon insisted. Nevertheless, lyrics such as ‘all the power in the hands, of the people rich enough to buy it’ lent The Clash a missionary zeal that inspired many a fledgling socialist to embrace punk. In Strummer’s words, ‘the only thing I’m interested in is my personal freedom … [But] it ain’t no use me having the right to choose unless everybody else has too’.

More typically, perhaps, punk represented a medium of social realism that was often political by default. In producing records that sought to reflect, report and comment on their time and place, bands such as Sham 69, The Ruts, Angelic Upstarts and Cockney Rejects infused popular music with voices, subject matter and perspectives that had rarely been so explicitly stated in a pop-cultural context. This, in turn, was further evident in the work of The Jam and much early 2-Tone, which redirected punk’s social realism through different musical and stylistic routes. Though most such bands rejected any overtly political label, punk signified a means to register a protest, highlight a social problem or celebrate a localised – often class-based – culture. Similarly, while squabbles about authenticity became a feature of punk and post-punk discourse, the principal effect of its tendency to social realism was to dramatise British youth culture at a significant historical juncture. Just as the novels of Alan Sillitoe or the films of Tony Richardson depicted the tensions and transformations of post-war Britain into the 1950s and 1960s, so the starkly urban insights of The Jam, The Ruts and The Specials captured the anxieties occasioned by the socio-economic insecurities and socio-cultural changes manifest by the 1970s and 1980s.

In practice, punk-derived social realism oscillated between the thrills and frustrations of urban living. It fretted over adolescent insecurities and celebrated the empowerment of subcultural style. It documented the spectacular, as with ‘White Riot’, but simultaneously sought to tap into and engage with the provincial concerns of those ‘Saturday’s Kids’ from ‘council houses’ who wore ‘V-neck shirts and baggy trousers’/‘cheap perfume ‘cos it’s all they can afford’. It veered, uneasily at times, between reportage and political commentary. In the main, however, bands tended to reject accusations of preaching, preferring to see their music as a means to ‘observe’ or ‘tell the truth’ about the world around them.

Not all were convinced. For their critics, bands such as The Jam confirmed rather than challenged their audience’s expectations and thereby neutered punk’s radical spirit via a combination of fatalism and reaction. Sham 69 and their successors were soon dismissed – as Parsons forewarned – as projecting working-class caricatures that revelled in street-level violence and failed to demonstrate a positive response to the problems they highlighted. By 1981 and the emergence of Oi!, such brusque rock ‘n’ roll and a lyrical focus on (male) working-class culture was even dismissed as inherently ‘racist-sexist-fascist’. But these bands were not writing or performing for aspiring cultural commentators, academics or self-proclaimed socialist revolutionaries. Rather, they formed part of a wider youth culture that encompassed clothes, clubs, friends and locales. The bands’ lyrical concerns were designed to resonate with their audience; to trigger points of recognition via the language used, the places referenced and the experiences shared. As this suggests, gigs – especially those in smaller venues – were as important as the records made. Gigs served as a place of commonality that was reaffirmed by the terrace-style sing-a-long nature of songs that dissolved the band-audience divide and reclaimed pop music for the proverbial ‘kids on the street’. In other words, the ‘way out’ offered by rock ‘n’ roll and pop music from the 1950s was again made tangible by bands that celebrated the moment and warned against the dismal future of adult life.

 

Tears of a nation

When, in 1976, James Callaghan warned the Labour conference that the ‘cosy world is gone’, he made something of an understatement. The immediate problem was serious enough: the pound’s value against the dollar had plunged to a record low of $1.68 in September 1976, thereby prompting Britain to apply for an IMF loan to offset the market’s lack of confidence and allay fears of a currency collapse. More broadly, the Labour government’s appeal to the IMF proved but an especially humiliating episode among a series of political and economic crises that rumbled throughout the 1970s into the 1980s. As the Sex Pistols set out on their ill-fated ‘Anarchy in the UK’ tour of December 1976, so a year that had begun with inflation rates over 20 per cent (not to mention an IRA bomb attack on London’s west end) culminated in public spending cuts that effectively signalled a fundamental realignment of the British polity.

Of course, Callaghan’s once ‘cosy’ Britain was itself something of a chimera. His comments alluded to the sustained period of economic growth and full employment that followed the war; to the technological optimism of the 1960s, the implementation of the welfare state, increased access to education and social mobility. In Labour terms, it denoted a steady improvement in working-class living standards and trade union influence from 1945. Yet such developments had always been undercut by tensions and anxieties. British growth and material progress occurred relative to other developed (and developing) economies expanding at a greater rate than the UK. Inflationary pressures and the recession of 1973–75 exacerbated deeper concerns about the validity of the post-war settlement, especially amongst a middle class vexed by taxation, falling property prices and shrinking share dividends. Cultural changes raised questions of morality. Social mobility and immigration tendered fears of personal status aggravated by a fragile economy and loss of empire. Industrial strife triggered alarm about governance and stability. As a result, talk of ‘decline’ – a recurring feature of the British political lexicon since the late nineteenth century – moved to the centre of public debate in the mid-1970s.

Alwyn Turner and others have done much to reveal the extent to which such political and economic portents found cultural expression. Be it through newspaper editorials, political journals, novels, artworks, film or television series, Britain’s decay was anticipated and dramatised to multiple effect. Vistas of urban dereliction and social conflict became commonplace as testimonies to a dying country informed serious drama, comedies and even end-of-year soliloquies by popular light entertainers. On the left and right, moreover, the political and economic difficulties of the period were recognised as a crisis of capitalism, social democracy or socialism depending on authorial provenance. As the Labour government tried to balance prices, wages and inflation against a global economic downturn, so its Keynesian panacea appeared battle worn and broken. ‘Fear is more potent than hope’, an internal Tory paper insisted in 1978, finding ready outlet in a ‘winter of discontent’ that seemingly confirmed the prevailing mood of a nation falling into chaos.

A correlation between punk’s emergence and Britain’s ‘decline’ was easily made. As well as the lyrical focus of ‘Anarchy in the UK’, ‘White Riot’ and other early songs, punk’s aesthetic drew from and reflected the media and political discourse that defined its time. The Sex Pistols’ ‘no future’ tallied with the cataclysmic language that permeated the 1970s; punk’s aggression, rips, zips and images of decay complemented tabloid fears of social disintegration. Punk’s discord signalled social discord; a tattered union jack held together by safety pins and bull clips. ‘Take a depression’, Jon Savage wrote in late 1976, ‘spice with a castrating bureaucracy (all the power to the men in grey) and a sexually & socially frustrated people living off past (WW 2) glories & violence recycled ad nauseam – add an accepted intolerance-as-a-way-of-life at all levels (ask any West Indian) and you get the vacuum tedium of a country OD’d on its own greed’.

In response, punk appeared to filter youthful obsessions and disaffection through the prevailing sense of catastrophe that provided its socio-economic, political and cultural context. This could be instinctive, expressed via blunt statements of antipathy and disillusionment. But interviews from the time also reveal how the language of crisis and decline informed the perspectives of those drawn into punk’s orbit. In late 1976, for example, The Stranglers’ Jean-Jacques Burnel contextualised punk’s implicit political meaning thus: ‘There’s decay everywhere. We’ve always lived with the assumption that things were getting better and better materially, progress all the time, and suddenly […] you hear every day there’s a crisis […] Things being laid off, people are not working. Everything’s coming to a grinding halt’. Certainly, premonitions of social collapse or authoritarian clampdown repeated through punk’s formative years, having gained substance with every slim election victory and minority administration that struggled to govern over the 1970s.

In terms of reportage, therefore, punk tended towards the general: state-of-the-nation addresses that offered snapshots of society in conflict or decline. Neither ‘Anarchy in the UK’ nor ‘God Save the Queen’ worked as systematic appraisals of British polity, but as verbal collages that evoked the tenor of their time: shopping schemes and council tenancies; fascism and terrorism; H-bombs and the ‘mad parade’ of a Jubilee celebrating a nation on the wane. No Future. Anarchy. Destroy.

The Clash took a more narrative approach, detailing their environment and reporting back on events that defined their understanding of the world in which they lived. The Clash album ‘reflects all the shit’, Mark Perry enthused, ‘it tells us the truth […] It’s as if I’m looking at my life in a film.’ Thereafter, punk provided space for bands and writers to document their time and place, typically relaying moods and experiences in three-minute bursts of variable quality and sophistication. Recurring themes emerged. Portrayals of national decay were played out in songs such as The Adverts’ ‘Great British Mistake’, depicting a country weighed down by complacency and unable to adapt as it sunk into media-saturation and, ultimately, authoritarianism. Not dissimilarly, the Tom Robinson Band’s ‘Up Against the Wall’ and ‘Winter of ‘79’ imagined state-sanctioned clampdowns to stave off social change, while the first Jam LP, In The City (1977), flitted between pathos at Britain’s fading prowess and invective against a discredited establishment: ‘whatever happened to the great empire? You bastards turned it into manure’.

Come 1978–79 and bands such as Stiff Little Fingers and The Ruts built on The Clash’s model. The former reported back from Northern Ireland, imagining an ‘Alternative Ulster’ as they transmitted the very real pressures experienced by those growing up at the heart of the Troubles. ‘We’ve said all along we’re not giving solutions’, the band’s Jake Burns told the NME. ‘We’re just telling people all around us what’s going on.’ The Ruts, meanwhile, proffered mini-dramas of contemporary society infused with unease. Their songs were often mired in violent imagery, depicting a society rife with social tensions exacerbated by limited opportunities and the repressive forces of the state. ‘Jah War’, for instance, documented the violence meted out by police on anti-fascist protesters in Southall in 1979, during which Blair Peach was murdered and Clarence Baker beaten into a coma. As effectively, their single ‘Babylon’s Burning’ captured a sense of Britain at the end of the 1970s, conveying a nation smouldering with anxiety, ignorance and hate, ready to combust. ‘What you see has to come out in your lyrics’, the band’s Malcolm Owen insisted, ‘everyone’s anxious. Everyone’s worried’.

If dystopian visions helped inform punk’s worldview, then the frailties of social cohesion were charted in its sound, image and attitude. Street-level animosities were documented in songs such as The Jam’s ‘“A” Bomb in Wardour Street’, The Ruts’ ‘Staring at the Rude Boys’ and Chron Gen’s ‘Mindless Few’, each of which offered redolent accounts of gig-related clashes between the youth cultural tribes given fresh impetus by punk. As this suggests, perennial hostilities found ever more spectacular expression as culture commodified and the cameras rolled. Turf wars became style wars: mods versus rockers became punks versus teds; the skinheads hated everybody. More to the point, The Sun‘s ‘Violent Britain’ series of 1978 found ready complement in punk’s depictions of street-level brutality. Across the Fatal Microbes’ ‘Violence Grows’, Vivien Goldman’s ‘Private Armies’, the Newtown Neurotics’ ‘Mindless Violence’ and Blitz’s ‘Someone’s Gonna Die Tonight’, the bloody consequences of random beatings were captured in depressing detail.

In effect, punk instigated commentary on Britain’s sense of malaise. The deficiencies of the post-war consensus were detailed across the late 1970s; the effects of Thatcherism and the reignited cold war were recorded over the early 1980s. Fanzines offered their own youthful reflections on the time, interspersing record reviews and band interviews with collages of newspaper headlines and tabloid images of police, the NF, militarism and war. Short articles on the threat of fascism, police harassment and unemployment became common; youth cultural and racial tensions were dissected and bemoaned. In particular, the process of deindustrialisation began to inform countless record sleeves and posters, represented by graffitied walls and urban dereliction that later doubled as post-apocalyptic visions of a bombed-out UK. Singles, then albums, portrayed Britain as a country no longer caught in the midst of decline but plunged into desolation; their titles – ‘Dead Cities’, Burning Britain (1982), ‘Give Us a Future’, No Hope for Anyone (1982) – harbouring the fatalistic fury of doomed youth. ‘Look through this broken window’, the Subhumans ruminated on ‘Black and White’, ‘from normality into the ghetto/broken – through madness, hate and boredom/UK – a disunited kingdom.’

 

Early 1980s punk record covers

 

The first term of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government (1979–83) was certainly bellicose. A large pay increase granted to the police sent one signal; realignments in macro-economic policy – cuts in income tax, increases in VAT and interest rates, loosening control over the exchange of foreign currency, market determination of prices and incomes – sent another. Thereafter, manufacturing contracted by some 25 per cent as unemployment soared to over three million by 1982. Simultaneously, trade union influence was curbed, cautiously at first but more robustly over time, while state power was both centralised and ‘rolled back’ via promises to cut borrowing and public expenditure, sell-off council housing, limit the influence of local government and, more extensively from 1984, privatise state-owned industries and services. The language of opposition became the language of government: ‘freedom’ was measured in economic rather than social terms; enemies within (trade unionists, leftists, squatters and onto Peter Lilley’s ‘little list’ of 1992) were distinguished from ‘hard working families’, the ‘quiet majority’ and ‘our people’.

In reply, bands such as Blitz, The Exploited and Vice Squad (whose album title, No Cause for Concern (1981), reportedly came from a Thatcher quote relating to growing youth unemployment) depicted a country broken and violent. Punk’s aesthetic traits became more raggedy; the once stylised apparel became faded and worn; battered leather jackets and boots served as austerity-wear. Appropriately, too, the ‘Apocalypse Now’ tour showcasing four of the leading ‘new punk’ bands of the early 1980s (Anti Pasti, Chron Gen, Discharge and The Exploited) set off in the summer of 1981 as riots erupted across Britain’s inner-cities, prompting even sceptical journalists to register a connection. ‘Last week’s Commons reports [on the riots] read like paraphrased Pistol songs’, the NME’s Chris Bohn reported, noting how punk’s continued references to anarchy resonated once more as ‘chaos asserted its new reign elsewhere’. Or, to quote Wattie Buchan’s reading of the riots: ‘Kids are fed up. If they’ve got nowt to do they’ll do something stupid. Like vandalise or something […] If kids go straight from school to the dole, it’s not their fault is it?     They cannae go out and get a job. The government creates boredom and there’s no way you can protest about it […] They never bother until something actually happens […] Punk today is the backlash of reality.’

Famously, of course, The Specials’ ‘Ghost Town’ was at number one in July 1981, providing a bleak panorama of Britain’s decaying inner cities that all but prefaced the findings of the Scarman Report commissioned by the government in the wake of the ‘Brixton disorders’ of April 1981. The song’s fusion of reggae-dread, punk-ire and pointed social commentary embodied the cross-cultural fusion forged by 2-Tone amidst the racial tensions of the period. As disorder continued to unfold through Liverpool, Leeds, Bristol, Birmingham, Nottingham, Manchester and elsewhere, so deprivation, poor housing and a lack of employment provided a common link. A racial element existed in many areas; but this was less the ‘black versus white’ scenario envisaged by Enoch Powell then stoked by the far-right, and more the result of long-running animosities between local communities and a police force committed to heavy-handed strategies suffused with racial prejudice. As for punk, the riots inspired a series of songs – such as ‘Nation on Fire’ (Blitz) and ‘Summer of ‘81’ (The Violators) – that duly reported events as an upsurge of youthful anger against the government, unemployment and the police.

Not surprisingly, such analyses lent themselves to political interpretation. As we shall see, socialist, anarchist and fascist adaptations of punk’s (and 2-Tone’s) reportage were not uncommon. Though many continued, like Jake Burns above, to insist that commentary did not thereby pertain to a proposed solution, it did raise questions of cause and effect. Tirades against ‘the system’ and stark depictions of the militarism underpinning the cold war bore the stamp of a critical consciousness. More broadly, reportage confirmed punk’s conception of a youth culture that engaged with the world of which it was part – that ‘confronted’ the situation, as Killing Joke’s Jaz Coleman insisted. By so doing, punk tapped into real and media-refracted stresses within the social fabric: industrial conflict and police brutality; youth cultural rivalries and political extremes; unemployment and substance abuse. For every government report on violence at rock concerts, glue sniffing or inner-city policing, punk offered cultural supplements that aspired to Joe Strummer’s conviction that ‘the truth is only known by guttersnipes’.

 

Living with unemployment

There was a moment in late 1976 when punk flirted with the moniker of ‘dole queue rock’. References to the dole or ‘signing on’ featured in most early interviews with the Sex Pistols, The Clash and The Damned, particularly once Tony Parsons ascribed punk’s ‘reality stance’ to its being ‘a product of the United Kingdom in the 1970s’. If Labour wasn’t working, as the famous Tory campaign poster later insisted against a decade increase of almost a million registered unemployed (from 601,333 in 1968 to 1,475,042 in 1978), then punk was seen to represent what Peter Marsh described as the ‘empty life’ of a jobless teenager.

Such interpretation had its limits. A closer look at punk’s initial demographic and the substance of its early texts reveal it to have been born of more than just the ‘right to work’. Most notably, as Simon Frith was quick to observe, punk’s expression of teenage frustration was complemented by art school and counter-cultural influences that inclined as much towards the bohemian as the innate street-level protest Parsons and Marsh attributed to it. Pop music had long provided succour from the tedium of work, school and home life, be it temporal (dancing, listening, dressing up, hanging around) or actual (becoming a musician/singer). In a sense, therefore, punk followed this tradition, albeit filtered through what Frith recognised as the ‘intractable economic situation’ of the mid-1970s.

Whatever their motivation, punk bands utilised the dole queue as a symbol of Britain’s wider condition. Just as one Peterborough band called themselves The Dole in 1977, so references to unemployment peppered early songs by Alternative TV, Chelsea, The Clash, Menace, Sham 69 and others in the same way as record sleeves and gig flyers featured urban topographies of tower blocks and ‘the street’. Signing-on or working in a series of low-paid jobs served to demarcate punk’s pioneers from the rock ‘n’ roll superstars they sought to contest. The infamous pseudonyms adopted by punks were often done so to keep the social security officials (‘SS snoopers’) from enquiring as to the minor earnings received from gigs, singles or fanzines.

By the 1980s, moreover, as unemployment became entrenched and increased to average over three million between 1982 and 1986, so youth culture’s relationship to the dole became more explicit. Beyond the dole-queue skank of UB40, whose name and debut album referenced the signing-on documentation of the time, the early days of Thatcherism were recorded across overtly punk tracks such as the Abrasive Wheels’ ‘Vicious Circle’: ‘Forgotten youth just waste away/ Sniffing glue to face the day/ Walking streets, signing on/ Government schemes go on and on’. Indeed, a steady stream of dole-queue songs emerged from punk’s hinterlands over the early 1980s, ranging from the defiant (Action Pact’s ‘Yet Another Dole Queue Song’, Emergency’s ‘Points of View’) to the fatalistic (Discharge’s ‘Society’s Victims’, Infa Riot’s ‘Each Dawn I Die’). In between, government initiatives were dismissed, as on The Exploited’s ‘YOP’, and conspiratorial scenarios of unemployed youths being conscripted into the army became rife under the darkening cloud of the cold war.

Much of this was born from experience. Whereas, in the 1970s, the dole could be seen as a means to facilitate creative activity and effectively help support an ‘alternative’ lifestyle, so the 1980s limited any sense by which unemployment retained a practical – even optional – quality. Running parallel to the rising number of young unemployed (averaging 25 per cent of 16–19 year-olds by 1985), a series of government schemes were introduced to push those out of work into training and employment. Incremental benefit restrictions were also enforced, culminating in the removal of 16–18 year-olds from the unemployed register in 1988. As a result, the permanency of mass unemployment – especially in those areas north of London devastated by deindustrialisation and the logic of monetarist economics – fed into the popular culture of the period.

In punk terms, the bands and fans who sustained an avowedly punk identity into the 1980s related far closer to the ‘dole queue kids’ of 1977 folklore than their forebears, adopting self-applied labels such as ‘reject’ and ‘victim’ to signal their sense of disenfranchisement. At times, such perspective fed into a glue, drug or alcohol-fuelled nihilism that became subject to graphic depiction, both as warning and a glimpse of where desperation ends. More typically, punk bands simply registered their protest, documenting and dramatising the frustrations of a generation struggling to adapt to a shifting socio-economic environment over which they felt no control. ‘We’re just part of an experiment’, Anti Pasti’s 19-year-old Will Hoon stated in 1981 with some insight. ‘Monetarism is being tried out on us. And I don’t wanna be a guinea pig’.

There was a parallel narrative. From the outset, punk-informed protest set itself as much against the tedium and futility of work as it did against unemployment per se. One consequence of the post-war consensus was to broaden further education opportunities and provide sufficient welfare provision for the young working class and disaffected middle class to step outside the ‘9-to-5’ grind and gain perspective on it. Forming a band offered a means to defer – maybe even escape from – the regimented toil of an ‘ordinary’ life, with punk’s import stemming in part from its recovering access to pop’s medium. The Jam, Paul Weller explained, originated from the fact that ‘you wake up one morning and you don’t wanna go and work in a poxy factory’. Steve Diggle, too, joined Buzzcocks after experiencing the working alternative. ‘[I] decided I’d never work again in my life’, he told the NME. ‘What I was going to do was read and play guitar, do all the things I wanted to do. Do artistic things …’ In tune with Simon Frith’s notion of punk bohemia, Mick Jones ruminated on signing-on to supplement his art school grant by insisting that being on the dole was only ‘hard if you’ve been conditioned to think you’ve gotta have a job’.

As this suggests, the stultifying effect of employment provided a constant of punk-informed social realism. The Fall’s ‘Industrial Estate’ captured its subject’s bleak surroundings via stark observation (‘and the crap in the air will fuck up your face’), culminating in a valium prescription for depression. Sham 69’s ‘I Don’t Wanna’ was equally curt, refuting both a life of work and the dole on route to a gold-watch pension sign-off and a council flat coffin ‘up in the sky’. More eloquently, perhaps, The Jam, whose songs included several character portraits of the aspiring petty-bourgeoisie (‘Mr Clean’, ‘Man in the Corner Shop’), released ‘Just Who is the Five O’clock Hero’ as a single in 1982, a record that offered a snapshot of an ageing factory worker, always tired and forever poor, locked into a living death. The Subhumans, too, followed the day-cycle of a beleaguered worker on their ‘Get to Work on Time’, as did The Fakes, whose ‘Production’ comprised a plodding, clock-watching dirge to the factory and back. From Manchester, The Mothmen issued ‘Factory/Teapoint/Factory’ in 1980, a song with a recorded canteen break sandwiched between its metronomic portrait of life on a production line. The Wall, meanwhile, debuted with ‘New Way’, a single that portrayed technological change as a conduit for mechanised slave labour, a subject implicit in Steve Ignorant’s Crass-rant about his time working for Ford (‘End Result’). Or, to get really blunt about it, The Maniacs wrote an unreleased song called ‘I Don’t Wanna Go To Work’ that combined class insight (I‘ve had enough of this, working for the capitalist’) with trademark punk insolence (‘I just want to get pissed’).

Workplace politics were occasionally tackled. Poet-ranters such as Oi! The Comrade delivered by turn angry and humourous diatribes against the ‘Guvnor’s Man’ and exploitative employment. Not dissimilarly, The Business’ ‘National Insurance Blacklist’ exposed the persecution of militant workers in the building trade. The Redskins, as would be expected, espoused the importance of trade unionism and played with other punk-inspired bands at numerous gigs in support of striking workers up to and throughout the 1984–5 miners’ dispute. By then, however, any focus on work tended to fuse with the deepening problem of unemployment. Thus, in 1980–81, as unemployed rates passed two million, so the Angelic Upstarts’ north-east roots were explored in paeans to the mining and dockyard communities from where the band came and an album, 2,000,000 Voices (1981), that referenced back to the depression of the 1930s. Mensi even presented a 1984 Play at Home (Channel 4) documentary that looked into the effect of unemployment on Tyneside.

Such accounts of work and unemployment were generally experiential. But while punk’s protest and sense of frustration moved beyond simply ‘living for the weekend’, its political significance remained diffuse and contested. Simultaneously, therefore, competing theoretical perspectives attempted to concentrate punk’s disaffection. From a Marxist point of view, attention focused on the mechanics of labour and capital, as in The Mekons’ ‘32 Weeks’, which chartered the relationship between work and consumption via a breakdown of the hours needed to buy a car, a bed, some food and a drink. The extension of market forces into social relations also formed the basis of many a Gang of Four song, while Six Minute War’s ‘Strike’ detailed the class dynamics of industrial struggle (‘maximize on profit that’s all they want to do/ exploit the working class and that means you’). Again, however, the 1980s saw attention shift to unemployment, a problem typically registered as a by-product of Thatcherite economics. So, for example, the Newtown Neurotics indicated the changing mood of the 1970s and 1980s on their ‘Living with Unemployment’, an update of a Members’ song – ‘Solitary Confinement’ – written in 1978 that told the story of someone moving to London only to get stuck in a bedsit on low-paid work and a long commute. In the Neurotics’ version, released in 1983, the job had been lost, ‘working all day long’ had become ‘sleeping all day long’, and the subsequent alienation was no longer a consequence of exploitative labour but part of a Tory plan to subjugate the working class.

Alternately, anarchist and counter-cultural approaches paved the way to more radical responses. On the one hand, McLaren’s situationist roots revealed themselves through Bow Wow Wow, whose ‘W.O.R.K’ disavowed the work ethic in favour of ‘primitive’ pleasures and ‘piracy’. Unemployment, McLaren argued, should be embraced as liberation; kids should dress up, fuck, steal and have fun. More seriously, Debord’s advice to ‘Ne travaillez jamais’ [never work] – first daubed across a wall on Paris’ Rue de Seine in 1953 – inspired a Vague essay by Peter Scott that posited unemployment and a creative ‘life on society’s outer fringe’ as preferable to the drudgery of labour. Indeed, such ideas proved integral to the ideological foundations of punk’s anarchist milieus and found regular expression in fanzines such as Toxic Grafity:     ‘As far as I can see work in its present form is nothing but slavery. There must be more to life than this. The myth that work brings purpose and meaning to your life is crap […] who wants to spend fifty-or-so years of your life doing this … And to think people actually march for the right to do this … STAY FREE.’

Punk’s relationship to unemployment was therefore contained within a broader range of pressures and concerns affecting young people in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The dole queue was a component of punk’s dystopian vision and punk-informed bands played unemployed benefit gigs from 1977 onwards. But responses to the problem varied. Famously, to the chagrin of those who interpreted Chelsea’s ‘Right to Work’ as a bold statement in support of the SWP’s campaign for jobs, the song was aimed (in part) at restrictive trade union practice. More to the point, working for the ‘rat race’ and committing to a factory or office job brought into sharp relief the sentiment captured by King Mob in the graffiti that greeted London commuters each day between Ladbroke Grove and Westbourne Park: ‘Same thing day after day – tube-work-tube-armchair-tv-sleep-tube – how much more can you take: one in ten go mad – one in five cracks up’. ‘Kids don’t want to just get a job in the system’, Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex said in 1978, being ‘pushed around in a factory for 20 years and get a gold watch – they’ve got more suss now […] Nothing much has changed since the days of serfdom except that you get paid a wage, but just enough to make you go back next week’. Nevertheless, the deepening impact of unemployment into the 1980s helped reassert initial readings of punk’s motivation. Unemployment was taken up in the music press, including pieces by Garry Bushell, Chris Dean and Ray Lowry, and calls for the government to provide jobs or a future became recurrent slogans. If ‘dole queue rock’ proved too narrow a description to encompass punk’s original impetus, then (the spectre of) unemployment formed at least part of the backdrop to its social realist dramas.

 

What a wonderful world this is

Released in late 1978, Sham 69’s That’s Life follows a day in the life of a working-class teenager. The story is irregular: the lead character’s name changes and its fragments do not quite hold together in a coherent whole. Nevertheless, the album provides a compelling piece of punk social realism, what Paul Morley described as a dramatised depiction of youth’s social and domestic claustrophobia. ‘The sense is that of a person who doesn’t control their own life, a feeling we all know’.

The narrative to That’s Life – later made into a short film for the BBC’s Arena series – is deliberately simple. The day starts with a missed alarm clock, a moaning mum and an occupied bathroom. There follows a daily commute to a hated job fuelled only by thoughts of the weekend and stoic indignation (‘who gives a damn […] we’re all dogsbodies’). But lateness leads to the sack and the rest of the day is spent in the café, bookies and pub trying to salvage something from an uncertain future (‘I don’t know where I’m going, but I gotta get there soon’). Money is won, drinks are drunk, a girl is met and a fight is squared, before the Sunday morning nightmare starts all over again. ‘Where am I?’, our hero asks. ‘You’re at home, where do you think you bleedin’ are?’, his dad replies.

Formed in 1976, Sham 69 were fronted by Jimmy Pursey, a sinewy motor-mouth who ‘thinks as he speaks and speaks as he thinks’. They hailed from Hersham, a small Surrey town that lent the band its name, and were briefly touted as a necessary reaction to punk’s descent into stylised pose. Sham 69 ‘feel like you and me’, Danny Baker wrote in Sniffin’ Glue, ‘genuine’ street kids sussed to punk’s commodification and ‘part of what I always thought this lark was about’. Sham were the sound of someone ‘screaming at the bastards’, Tony Parsons concurred, caught in a state of constant conflict with the ‘lifeless, soulless, joyless Establishment Order’. As a result, the band attracted a loyal following cut from their own cloth: ‘working-class kids, out of school who [no-one] gives a fuck about’, as Gary Hitchcock, a member of the ‘Sham Army’, put it. Many of these, like Pursey, were ex- or revived skinheads; a few, too, including Hitchcock, found an outlet for their disaffection in fascism and violence. But Sham’s politics were never explicit and never aligned. Though Pursey lent support to RAR, his focus was on articulating the frustrations of what he understood to be ‘ordinary kids’, replete with their faults, contradictions and imperfections. The band’s early signature tune, ‘Song of the Streets’, centred on a call-and-response refrain, ‘What have we got? Fuck all’, with lyrics that rejected the solutions of detested politicians. Instead, Sham 69 rallied round a naïve but heartfelt call for youth cultural unity (‘If the Kids are United’) that clung to an identity based on spirit and class affinity.

Sham’s approach embodied the idea of punk connecting to the lives of those who made, played and listened to it. This, typically, meant lyrics focused on contemporary everyday concerns expressed in contemporary everyday language. Relationships, antagonisms, frustrations and anxieties shorn of pop’s sheen to be stated bluntly and unashamedly; the ‘kids on the street’ recast as an emblem of pop’s provenance. Analogous to Sham 69, therefore, were bands such as Slaughter and the Dogs and Menace who respectively celebrated ‘bootboys’ from Wythenshawe and asked ‘if we’re the working class why ain’t we got jobs?’ From Custom House in London’s East End came the Cockney Rejects, eschewing songs about love and politics in favour of tales from the backstreets and the terraces. ‘We stand for punk as bootboy music’, a teenage ‘Stinky’ Turner told Sounds in 1980, ‘Harringtons, boots, straights, that’s what we’re all about’. Cock Sparrer, too, whose early gigs appealed to ‘football hooligans, skinheads and clockwork orange lookalikes’, evoked the thrill of a Saturday afternoon, combining celebrations of youthful exuberance with an existential fear of the future. On both ‘Runnin’ Riot’ and ‘Chip on my Shoulder’, they extolled disrupting the ‘peace and quiet’ to offset the dreaded tomorrow of mortgages and a life spent ‘digging holes in the road’. ‘Getting old sure bothers me’, they admitted, ‘it bothers me to death’.

By the 1980s, Sham’s prototype had helped pave the way for Oi!, under whose banner bands such as The 4-Skins, The Business and Infa Riot transmitted both the empowerment and the tensions inherent in the adoption of youth cultural style. If Oi! meant ‘punk without the posers’ and ‘facing up to reality’, as The Business’ Micky Fitz insisted, then its lyrical focus combined protest (‘Work or Riot’, ‘Bread or Blood’) with snapshots of working-class life and culture. Local characters – Jack-the-lads, plastic gangsters, clockwork skinheads – were immortalised in song; pub conversations about bank holiday beanos, street fights, petty crime and personal misfortune were set to a punk backbeat. This was sometimes humourous. From Brighton, Peter and the Test Tube Babies specialised in tall tales of being banned from local pubs or getting into scrapes with teds, moped lads and convincing transvestites. Back in London, The Gymslips provided a female counterpart to Oi!’s primarily male persona, ‘rockin’ with the renees’ via odes to the pub’s top shelf, street fashion and the joys of pie ‘n’ mash. But Oi!’s social realism more generally concentrated on the frustrations of being young, male and working-class. Beneath the bravado lay a sense of anger and frustration, an almost existential disaffection with the state of things.

Among the best at expressing this were the Angelic Upstarts, whose songs – ‘Teenage Warning’, ‘I’m an Upstart’, ‘Leave Me Alone’, ‘Out of Control’ – railed against the teachers, social workers, politicians, police and social structures that seemingly shaped and bound possibilities. Infa Riot, too, sung of cages and catch-22s, portraying lives trapped by circumstance and caught in a game to which the rules were rigged. ‘Feel the rage’, Lee Wilson sung, ‘building up […] breaking out’. Like teenage Arthur Seatons transported from Sillitoe’s 1950s Nottingham to the inner-city 1970s and ‘80s, punk’s social realists came of age embittered by the material, political and economic confines that determined their lives.

Not surprisingly, given their shared milieu, the 2-Tone bands that emerged to prominence in 1979 covered similar lyrical concerns. Both Oi! and 2-Tone tapped into youth cultural styles that pre-dated punk (skinheads, rude boys, mod); both claimed street-level credentials; both suffered from the attentions of the far right recruiting amongst their audience; both celebrated their cultural origins as they registered a protest. Where Oi! aspired to ‘having a laugh and having a say’, 2-Tone’s energy and ska-based sound emphasised its commitment to pleasure in the face of ‘too much pressure’.

Coming from the midlands, The Beat, The Selecter and The Specials used social realist lyrics to affirm their cross-cultural origins and environment. Anti-Thatcherite diatribes rubbed against tales of subcultural conflict, grotty nightclubs and unwanted teenage pregnancies. As importantly, the bands’ anti-racism was transmitted through words and practice. The 1970s, after all, had seen racial tensions exacerbated by a resurgent NF and the socio-economic effects of recession. In response, The Specials’ ‘Concrete Jungle’ and The Beat’s ‘Two Swords’ captured the merger of territorial, political and racial identities over the decade, while ‘It Doesn’t Make It All Right’ and ‘Why?’ questioned the attitudes of racist elements in the 2-Tone audience. The result was to marry both critique and resolution, forging a cultural politics rooted in the everyday experience of Coventry and Birmingham that found expression in the bands’ musical fusion and multi-racial composition.

The provincial, or localised, nature of much punk-informed social realism was important. As Russ Bestley has argued, it confirmed a sense of grass-roots authenticity that connected bands to their environment and audience. Local signifiers were used on sleeves; songs engaged with specifically resident concerns; independent labels were formed to document regional scenes. The Wessex ’82 EP may serve as a good example, comprising four bands from the south-west on a local label (Bluurg) wrapped in a sleeve featuring the famous white horse of Westbury Hill. Notably, too, such provincialism marked a disregard for the London-centric media and music industry. By engaging with a ‘Nottingham Problem’ or documenting a falling out with a local pub landlord (‘Black Horse’), Resistance ‘77 and Cult Maniax displayed their indifference to the potential of pop as a career or business.

Of course, provincialism did not have to be overtly confrontational. The Undertones relayed pop’s youthful obsessions – love, lust, fun and dancing – in parochial terms that suggested provenance rather than idealisation: teenage kicks, perfect cousins, chocolate and girls. Coming from Derry, such concerns had political connotations when set against a backdrop of the Troubles. But they also resituated the clichés of pop’s lexicon in a way that transformed the ordinary into points of connection. In time, songs about the minutiae of everyday life – about boys and girls, bus stops and rainy Sundays – became standard for an indie pop focused on personal relationships caught at the moment of adolescence.

Punk’s tendency to social realism injected new voices and subject matter into popular music. By so doing, feelings and experiences were expressed in ways designed to reassert pop music’s relevance to the youth cultures that formed around it. This was often infused with a class sensibility – a street-level riposte to pop’s commercial whimsy. In CCCS terms, it may be seen as a ‘magical’ solution to broader socio-economic oppressions, a means of dealing with the boredom and frustration that punk described. Certainly, some of those involved in punk and 2-Tone recognised it as such. ‘Our music is a solution’, Joe Strummer said, ‘because I don’t have to get drunk every night and go around kicking people and smashing up phone boxes … [like] Paul used to do’. The Selecter’s Pauline Black sung of teaching ‘myself a new philosophy’ as 2-Tone lived out the racial and cultural unity it espoused in the face of political and socio-economic stresses. For Paul Weller, it meant taking ‘everyday experience’ and turning ‘it into art’, something The Jam did in ways that combined evocative depictions of British life with an underlying sense of critique. From the late-night terrors of the London Underground to class conflict and the ideological pyres of Thatcherism, The Jam’s 7” singles embodied the feelings and effects of Britain’s changing socio-economic landscape:

 

Rows and rows of disused milk floats/ Stand dying in the dairy yard/ And a          hundred lonely housewives/ Clutch empty milk bottles to their hearts/
Hanging out their old love letters on the line to dry/ It’s enough to make you stop            believing/ When tears come fast and furious/ […] A whole street’s belief in Sunday’s       roast beef/Gets dashed against the co-op/ To either cut down on beer or the kids’          new gear/ It’s a big decision in a town called malice …

 

Dirt behind the daydream

There were darker and stranger components to punk-informed realism. From the outset, punk gave rise to tendencies keen to recover the marginal and the supressed; to scrape away the veneer of British propriety to reveal what lay beneath. Among McLaren and Westwood’s early designs were images of sexual transgression, blasphemy, criminality and political extremity. Naked cowboys, bare breasts, fetish wear and pornographic images were displayed to break down the boundaries of fascination and repulsion; to expose the tensions between private and public desire. Not dissimilarly, inverted crucifixes, swastikas and anarchist slogans co-existed to provoke and subvert towards some kind of reaction. According to McLaren, the ideal customer of Sex and Seditionaries was a 16-year-old girl from the suburbs who bought a rubber mini-skirt at the weekend to wear to work on the Monday.

Again, such an approach overlapped with the industrial culture of Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire and others, for whom the ‘reality’ constructed by forces of social and political control (politics, media, religion, family, work etc.) could be challenged through the presentation of behaviours that rubbed against the grain of supposed normality. To this end, punk and industrial culture shared an interest in the abject and the taboo, in violence and the profane, subjects that could shock and disrupt the fragile equilibriums of modern society. Crucially, too, both tended – or claimed – to draw their alternative realities from life itself.

There are numerous examples. Where the Sex Pistols’ ‘Bodies’ described the gurgling bloody mess of an abortion via the life-story of a fan suffering from severe mental illness, Lydon’s early PiL lyrics recounted media reports of exorcism and rape. Siouxsie and the Banshees claimed to find inspiration for their macabre songs of mental breakdown (‘Suburban Relapse’), alienation (’Jigsaw Feeling’) and sexual violence (‘Carcass’) in the tabloids and obscure corners of popular culture. ‘[The] bloke who put his leg on the railway line because he wanted to claim more money as a war hero’, Siouxsie reflected, and ‘the woman who wheeled a chopped-up body around in a pram. It’s all there in The Sun every day.’ Like the Velvet Underground, whose influence on the band was manifest, the Banshees subverted the mores of popular music, producing ‘chilling vignettes of minor atrocities and gruesome indulgences, of frustration or unrequited love. From the dark side of life, grinning, perverted’, they specialised in revealing ‘ugly truths […] set against the pointlessness of life.’

            Throbbing Gristle’s approach was more conceptual, drawing from ideas honed in the performance work of COUM Transmissions. Back in 1975, COUM had committed to revealing the ‘secret fears and neuroses’ of society, exposing repressed emotions and desires as a means to confront prevailing social values. Throbbing Gristle took this on, initially producing a harsh, grinding noise through which a fascination with the body and mechanisms of social control served as a commentary on both the ‘savage realities’ of modernity and the sanitised projections of ‘real life’ disseminated by the media. Over a series of records, videos, newsletters and live performance, detailed depictions of murder, violence, pain, the Holocaust and sexual taboo coalesced in a gruesome tableau that dared the listener/viewer to confront or retreat. A subsequent group, Coil, formed by John Balance (Geoff Burton) with Peter Christopherson in 1983, even issued an album, Scatology (1985), that journeyed deep into the recesses of humanity’s base instincts, culminating in a story of sexual caprophagy.

Wars past and envisaged provided subject matter and imagery for countless record sleeves, fanzines and posters. Just as the Second World War and the horrors of Nazism nurtured a morbid interest in those wishing to explore the extremes of humankind, so the cold war and its nuclear endgame informed the anti-militarist politics of punk over the 1980s. Discharge, in particular, engaged with the ‘realities of war’, producing a series of records that gruesomely depicted the effects of nuclear destruction or military intervention: ‘men, women and children cry and scream in pain, wounded by bomb splinters/Streets littered with maimed and slaughtered in rigid pathetic heaps’. Murderers, maniacs and madness likewise weaved their way through the punk-informed canon. The Cambridge Rapist (Peter Cook), Yorkshire Ripper (Peter Sutcliffe) and Moors Murderers (Ian Brady and Myra Hindley) provided pertinent signifiers of society’s disturbing underbelly. Less gratuitously, perhaps, juxtapositions of real life horror and media-drawn promises of a better tomorrow became a staple of songs and fanzine collage. The dirt behind the daydream, Gang of Four called it, as they undercut advertising lingo with references to Britain’s war in Ireland and the onset of North Sea oil.

            Things got messy if the propensity to shock fell out of context. A fascination with the macabre could also drift into fantasy, relinquishing any claim to realism in favour of schlock horror or, later, the romantic darklands of what became goth. Equally, where band names such as the Moors Murderers or Raped began to push at the boundaries of taste with barely a hint of dissident intent beyond the desire to offend, then records such as Stench’s ‘Raspberry Cripple’ or Chaotic Dischord’s ‘And There Wuz Cows’ plunged deep into the mire. To be sure, the giddy thrill of saying-the-unsayable – or wearing-the-unwearable – struck a chord with teenagers looking to provoke a reaction. But swastikas, in particular, retained a potency for reasons that could not be so easily disarmed when projected away from Seditionaries’ clashing symbols or the archly-camp Weimar references of the Bromley contingent. Several bands were accused of harbouring Nazi sympathies as a result of using imagery drawn from the Third Reich. Most famously, perhaps, Joy Division’s name (taken from a book, House of Dolls, which depicted sex slavery in a concentration camp) and debut EP (its sleeve featuring a Hitler Youth drummer boy) prompted rumours of fascist leanings.

Certainly, the line between fascination and fetishisation could all too easily be crossed. If the ambiguous symbolism presented by Joy Division, The Skids, Theatre of Hate and others was noted on the far right and prone to misinterpretation, then Death in June’s obsession with National Socialist history led to at least one member (Tony Wakeford) engaging with active fascist politics. Groups like Whitehouse – formed by erstwhile Essential Logic guitarist William Bennett – repudiated the critical detachment retained by Throbbing Gristle, dedicating their albums to serial killers and filling their fanzines with texts of rape and murder. Predictably, Whitehouse’s Come Organisation adopted a swastika-like symbol and built records around fascist language and iconography (Buchenweld, New Britain, Für Ilse Koch), tracing a line from the Marquis de Sade to the death camps and the extremes of human cruelty. The results were mixed: disturbing, repulsive, fascinating and juvenile in about equal measure.

As this suggests, an interest in the abject could lead to dubious ends. Simultaneously, however, punk stimulated transformative impulses that sought out the absurdities of everyday life, facilitating a social surrealism rooted in the contemporary but attuned to the incongruities that lurked beneath any semblance of ‘normality’. Best of all were The Fall, emerging from Prestwich as 1976 turned to 1977. Musically, The Fall recognised the potential to break down and reconstitute popular music in the wake of punk’s emergence. The band’s sound combined rock ‘n’ roll primitivism with disciplined repetition, ‘mistreating instruments’ to a get a ‘feeling over’ as Mark E Smith put it. All affectation was removed. Their songs contained no solos or musical frills; records were produced to emphasise the emergent rawness of their content, eschewing the sheen of studio production in favour of a discordant, deliberately distorted sound. Fall songs appeared caught in what Michael Goddard and Benjamin Halligan have described as ‘a state of becoming’, unruly, chaotic, perpetually mutating. Stylistically, too, the band projected an anti-image, adopting none of punk’s sartorial props and distancing themselves from the expectations of pop or rock presentation. Live, the band was uncommunicative and functional; the music press, music industry and most contemporary bands were held in disdain. Record sleeves were cut ‘n’ pasted, covered in Smith’s scrawl as if to trash any reverence afforded to rock’s product status. Indeed, The Fall’s uncompromising approach and commitment to perpetual creativity was interpreted by Smith to mean his band were among the ‘only ones who represented what the whole thing [punk] was supposed to be’.

Smith remains one of rock’s most innovative lyricists. From the outset, his words, accent and delivery located The Fall within their regional and socio-economic context whilst simultaneously reimagining the environments they described. Just as photos and videos of the band were typically taken in situ (Prestwich streets and pubs), so Smith’s lyrics referred to local and contemporary signifiers that connected to a particular time and place: fags, pubs, industrial estates, Hovis adverts, Kwik Save, CB radio, Manchester parks, Prestwich halls etc. In form, however, Smith’s words complemented the band’s sound, fragmenting narratives and cultural critiques into unique patterns of language and imagery. The songs’ characters were often grotesques; humdrum locales were transformed into strange worlds that filtered literary influences such as M.R. James, H.P. Lovecraft, Malcolm Lowry and Arthur Machen through Smith’s own speed-and-alcohol fuelled imagination. The effect was to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary, contesting and disrupting preconceptions by undermining their apparent rationale. In other words, Smith claimed and defended his proudly working-class heritage against the commercial, cosmopolitan and intellectual forces that conspired to dilute it: ‘Northern white crap that talks back’.

Other bands did similar. The Prefects morphed into The Nightingales, allowing Robert Lloyd to perfect his tales of urban ospreys and crafty fags. The Membranes, from Blackpool, sung of tatty seaside towns and Spike Milligan’s tape recorder. A Witness, Bogshed and The Three Johns followed suit, mangling rock ‘n’ roll’s form whilst combining a pub-honed wit with lyrics that found the surreal amidst the mundane. Most comparable to Smith, perhaps, was John Cooper-Clarke, the Salford poet who came to prominence in tandem with The Fall. Cooper-Clarke was 28 in 1977, having honed his craft in northern clubs (frequented by young pre-Fall members) and thereby connecting to aspects of the pre-punk counter-culture. Nevertheless, he recognised in punk an interest in words and ideas, appreciating its attempts to expand rock’s lexicon and deconstruct its formulas. ‘It’s the nearest thing that there’s ever been […] to the working classes going into areas like surrealism and Dada […] It only widens your perspective […] The Pistols put you in a context where it’s possible to understand more. I mean, it’s probably a cliché now, but words like fascist and fascism jumped out. Things like that just weren’t in pop songs.’

Like Smith, Cooper-Clarke surveyed and transformed his environment. His poems could be humourous and fantastical (‘(I Married a) Monster from Outer Space’), but always rooted – linguistically and verbally – in recognisably urban locales full of buses, dirt, concrete and disease. His flights of imagination were underpinned by a social critique informed by the structural changes affecting his native Salford. Thus, among his most well-known poems, ‘Evidently Chickentown’ and ‘Beasley Street’ travel deep into the distresses of everyday life, depicting poverty and decay via evocative descriptions of sights, sounds, people and smells.

The reportage and realism that signalled punk’s engagement with the world it was born into developed in distinct ways. The path from The Clash’s ‘White Riot’ to Bogshed’s ‘Fat Lad Exam Failure’ was hardly a straight line. Many of those informed by punk’s emergence quickly shed any commitment to a predetermined musical form or sense of style even as they retained comparable attitudes and lyrical concerns. In other words, the diverse sounds and cultures that evolved from 1976 shared an aversion to the banal platitudes of much rock ‘n’ roll and a conviction that popular music should reflect and inform the lives of those who made and listened to it. Motivations varied of course. Where Throbbing Gristle sought to confront their audience, Tom Robinson endeavoured to raise political consciousness. Where Sham 69 rallied in celebratory protest, The Fall scrambled preconceptions and stimulated imaginations. Even then, there remained a sense by which the cultural spaces opened up by punk should hold a relevance to recognisable places, events and life-as-lived. More to the point, beneath the anger, abjection and absurdity lay hint of an even darker stimulus: a boredom born of alienation and despair.

 

Matt Worley ch4

Chapter Three

Tell us the truth: Reportage, realism and abjection

 

All our songs are about being honest, right? The situation as we see it […] otherwise      we’d be writing bullshit!!

Mick Jones (1976)

 

The story behind The Clash’s ‘White Riot’ has become part of punk folklore. As told on LWT’s London Weekend Show in November 1976, Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon used it to explain The Clash’s commitment to writing about ‘what’s going on at the moment’. The song itself related to the Notting Hill carnival of just a few weeks earlier, during which on-going tensions between police and the area’s black population gave way to violence. According to newspaper reports, some 300 police and 131 members of the public were injured during the disturbance, bringing to the fore questions of race relations, inner-city policing and political stability. In fact, the trouble was such that the Home Office subsequently authorised the introduction of riot shields (first used the following year during clashes between the NF and anti-racists in Lewisham), with images from the time showing policemen wielding truncheons and cowering behind dustbin lids, smashed-up shop fronts and rubble-strewn streets, black youths fleeing from police or throwing bricks. ‘We was down there, me and him’, Strummer said, ‘and we got searched by policemen, looking for bricks, like. And then, later on, we got searched by Rasta, looking for pound notes in our pockets’. ‘And all we had were bricks and bottles,’ finished Simonon.

Such a tale would feed into The Clash’s own mythology, helping to align their punk protest with the roots reggae that provided a suitably ‘dread’ soundtrack to the unrest in Notting Hill and affirming the band’s conception of themselves as street-level rebels reporting back from the urban frontline. The song’s lyrics celebrated the riot and urged white youth to have the guts to do the same. Photos from the day provided copy for the band’s record sleeves and stage backdrops; the fact that Strummer and Simonon had been there helped authenticate their aural snapshot of mid-‘70s London.

This lived experience was important. The Clash aspired to a significance they felt had been lost in most popular music. Their early songs were peppered with local references to the ‘Westway’, ‘Bakerloo’, ‘Knightsbridge’, ‘Hammersmith’, ‘the 100 Club’ and ‘London Town’; they spoke of ‘escalators’, ‘Ford Cortinas’, ‘skin-flicks’, the dole ‘office’ and ‘fighting in the road’; they described social tensions, ennui, unemployment, petty crime and political impotency. Or, as Tony Parsons put it, The Clash offered a ‘mirror reflection of the kind of […] white, working-class experiences that only seem like a cliché to those people who haven’t lived through them’. In so doing, they helped forge a template that informed much British punk and punk-related styles into the 1980s: that is, an aggressive sound, image and rhetoric that proffered social reportage rooted in practice. As is well known, Strummer’s middle-class background and the art school enrolment of all three core band members soon provided critics with the necessary information to challenge the band’s street-savvy stance. But the idea of the early Clash – not to mention their evident sincerity – meant they remained integral to punk’s cultural evolution. In effect, both Oi! and the more social-conscious punk of the period strove to maintain or better fulfil a version of The Clash’s original intent.

Simultaneously, ‘White Riot’ – alongside many other Clash songs – hinted at a morality beyond mere reportage. Early interviews revealed the band to accept the political connotations of an approach that tended more towards a form of consciousness-raising than any specific doctrine – ‘[We’re] making people aware of a situation they’d otherwise tend to ignore’, Simonon insisted. Nevertheless, lyrics such as ‘all the power in the hands, of the people rich enough to buy it’ lent The Clash a missionary zeal that inspired many a fledgling socialist to embrace punk. In Strummer’s words, ‘the only thing I’m interested in is my personal freedom … [But] it ain’t no use me having the right to choose unless everybody else has too’.

More typically, perhaps, punk represented a medium of social realism that was often political by default. In producing records that sought to reflect, report and comment on their time and place, bands such as Sham 69, The Ruts, Angelic Upstarts and Cockney Rejects infused popular music with voices, subject matter and perspectives that had rarely been so explicitly stated in a pop-cultural context. This, in turn, was further evident in the work of The Jam and much early 2-Tone, which redirected punk’s social realism through different musical and stylistic routes. Though most such bands rejected any overtly political label, punk signified a means to register a protest, highlight a social problem or celebrate a localised – often class-based – culture. Similarly, while squabbles about authenticity became a feature of punk and post-punk discourse, the principal effect of its tendency to social realism was to dramatise British youth culture at a significant historical juncture. Just as the novels of Alan Sillitoe or the films of Tony Richardson depicted the tensions and transformations of post-war Britain into the 1950s and 1960s, so the starkly urban insights of The Jam, The Ruts and The Specials captured the anxieties occasioned by the socio-economic insecurities and socio-cultural changes manifest by the 1970s and 1980s.

In practice, punk-derived social realism oscillated between the thrills and frustrations of urban living. It fretted over adolescent insecurities and celebrated the empowerment of subcultural style. It documented the spectacular, as with ‘White Riot’, but simultaneously sought to tap into and engage with the provincial concerns of those ‘Saturday’s Kids’ from ‘council houses’ who wore ‘V-neck shirts and baggy trousers’/‘cheap perfume ‘cos it’s all they can afford’. It veered, uneasily at times, between reportage and political commentary. In the main, however, bands tended to reject accusations of preaching, preferring to see their music as a means to ‘observe’ or ‘tell the truth’ about the world around them.

Not all were convinced. For their critics, bands such as The Jam confirmed rather than challenged their audience’s expectations and thereby neutered punk’s radical spirit via a combination of fatalism and reaction. Sham 69 and their successors were soon dismissed – as Parsons forewarned – as projecting working-class caricatures that revelled in street-level violence and failed to demonstrate a positive response to the problems they highlighted. By 1981 and the emergence of Oi!, such brusque rock ‘n’ roll and a lyrical focus on (male) working-class culture was even dismissed as inherently ‘racist-sexist-fascist’. But these bands were not writing or performing for aspiring cultural commentators, academics or self-proclaimed socialist revolutionaries. Rather, they formed part of a wider youth culture that encompassed clothes, clubs, friends and locales. The bands’ lyrical concerns were designed to resonate with their audience; to trigger points of recognition via the language used, the places referenced and the experiences shared. As this suggests, gigs – especially those in smaller venues – were as important as the records made. Gigs served as a place of commonality that was reaffirmed by the terrace-style sing-a-long nature of songs that dissolved the band-audience divide and reclaimed pop music for the proverbial ‘kids on the street’. In other words, the ‘way out’ offered by rock ‘n’ roll and pop music from the 1950s was again made tangible by bands that celebrated the moment and warned against the dismal future of adult life.

 

Tears of a nation

When, in 1976, James Callaghan warned the Labour conference that the ‘cosy world is gone’, he made something of an understatement. The immediate problem was serious enough: the pound’s value against the dollar had plunged to a record low of $1.68 in September 1976, thereby prompting Britain to apply for an IMF loan to offset the market’s lack of confidence and allay fears of a currency collapse. More broadly, the Labour government’s appeal to the IMF proved but an especially humiliating episode among a series of political and economic crises that rumbled throughout the 1970s into the 1980s. As the Sex Pistols set out on their ill-fated ‘Anarchy in the UK’ tour of December 1976, so a year that had begun with inflation rates over 20 per cent (not to mention an IRA bomb attack on London’s west end) culminated in public spending cuts that effectively signalled a fundamental realignment of the British polity.

Of course, Callaghan’s once ‘cosy’ Britain was itself something of a chimera. His comments alluded to the sustained period of economic growth and full employment that followed the war; to the technological optimism of the 1960s, the implementation of the welfare state, increased access to education and social mobility. In Labour terms, it denoted a steady improvement in working-class living standards and trade union influence from 1945. Yet such developments had always been undercut by tensions and anxieties. British growth and material progress occurred relative to other developed (and developing) economies expanding at a greater rate than the UK. Inflationary pressures and the recession of 1973–75 exacerbated deeper concerns about the validity of the post-war settlement, especially amongst a middle class vexed by taxation, falling property prices and shrinking share dividends. Cultural changes raised questions of morality. Social mobility and immigration tendered fears of personal status aggravated by a fragile economy and loss of empire. Industrial strife triggered alarm about governance and stability. As a result, talk of ‘decline’ – a recurring feature of the British political lexicon since the late nineteenth century – moved to the centre of public debate in the mid-1970s.

Alwyn Turner and others have done much to reveal the extent to which such political and economic portents found cultural expression. Be it through newspaper editorials, political journals, novels, artworks, film or television series, Britain’s decay was anticipated and dramatised to multiple effect. Vistas of urban dereliction and social conflict became commonplace as testimonies to a dying country informed serious drama, comedies and even end-of-year soliloquies by popular light entertainers. On the left and right, moreover, the political and economic difficulties of the period were recognised as a crisis of capitalism, social democracy or socialism depending on authorial provenance. As the Labour government tried to balance prices, wages and inflation against a global economic downturn, so its Keynesian panacea appeared battle worn and broken. ‘Fear is more potent than hope’, an internal Tory paper insisted in 1978, finding ready outlet in a ‘winter of discontent’ that seemingly confirmed the prevailing mood of a nation falling into chaos.

A correlation between punk’s emergence and Britain’s ‘decline’ was easily made. As well as the lyrical focus of ‘Anarchy in the UK’, ‘White Riot’ and other early songs, punk’s aesthetic drew from and reflected the media and political discourse that defined its time. The Sex Pistols’ ‘no future’ tallied with the cataclysmic language that permeated the 1970s; punk’s aggression, rips, zips and images of decay complemented tabloid fears of social disintegration. Punk’s discord signalled social discord; a tattered union jack held together by safety pins and bull clips. ‘Take a depression’, Jon Savage wrote in late 1976, ‘spice with a castrating bureaucracy (all the power to the men in grey) and a sexually & socially frustrated people living off past (WW 2) glories & violence recycled ad nauseam – add an accepted intolerance-as-a-way-of-life at all levels (ask any West Indian) and you get the vacuum tedium of a country OD’d on its own greed’.

In response, punk appeared to filter youthful obsessions and disaffection through the prevailing sense of catastrophe that provided its socio-economic, political and cultural context. This could be instinctive, expressed via blunt statements of antipathy and disillusionment. But interviews from the time also reveal how the language of crisis and decline informed the perspectives of those drawn into punk’s orbit. In late 1976, for example, The Stranglers’ Jean-Jacques Burnel contextualised punk’s implicit political meaning thus: ‘There’s decay everywhere. We’ve always lived with the assumption that things were getting better and better materially, progress all the time, and suddenly […] you hear every day there’s a crisis […] Things being laid off, people are not working. Everything’s coming to a grinding halt’. Certainly, premonitions of social collapse or authoritarian clampdown repeated through punk’s formative years, having gained substance with every slim election victory and minority administration that struggled to govern over the 1970s.

In terms of reportage, therefore, punk tended towards the general: state-of-the-nation addresses that offered snapshots of society in conflict or decline. Neither ‘Anarchy in the UK’ nor ‘God Save the Queen’ worked as systematic appraisals of British polity, but as verbal collages that evoked the tenor of their time: shopping schemes and council tenancies; fascism and terrorism; H-bombs and the ‘mad parade’ of a Jubilee celebrating a nation on the wane. No Future. Anarchy. Destroy.

The Clash took a more narrative approach, detailing their environment and reporting back on events that defined their understanding of the world in which they lived. The Clash album ‘reflects all the shit’, Mark Perry enthused, ‘it tells us the truth […] It’s as if I’m looking at my life in a film.’ Thereafter, punk provided space for bands and writers to document their time and place, typically relaying moods and experiences in three-minute bursts of variable quality and sophistication. Recurring themes emerged. Portrayals of national decay were played out in songs such as The Adverts’ ‘Great British Mistake’, depicting a country weighed down by complacency and unable to adapt as it sunk into media-saturation and, ultimately, authoritarianism. Not dissimilarly, the Tom Robinson Band’s ‘Up Against the Wall’ and ‘Winter of ‘79’ imagined state-sanctioned clampdowns to stave off social change, while the first Jam LP, In The City (1977), flitted between pathos at Britain’s fading prowess and invective against a discredited establishment: ‘whatever happened to the great empire? You bastards turned it into manure’.

Come 1978–79 and bands such as Stiff Little Fingers and The Ruts built on The Clash’s model. The former reported back from Northern Ireland, imagining an ‘Alternative Ulster’ as they transmitted the very real pressures experienced by those growing up at the heart of the Troubles. ‘We’ve said all along we’re not giving solutions’, the band’s Jake Burns told the NME. ‘We’re just telling people all around us what’s going on.’ The Ruts, meanwhile, proffered mini-dramas of contemporary society infused with unease. Their songs were often mired in violent imagery, depicting a society rife with social tensions exacerbated by limited opportunities and the repressive forces of the state. ‘Jah War’, for instance, documented the violence meted out by police on anti-fascist protesters in Southall in 1979, during which Blair Peach was murdered and Clarence Baker beaten into a coma. As effectively, their single ‘Babylon’s Burning’ captured a sense of Britain at the end of the 1970s, conveying a nation smouldering with anxiety, ignorance and hate, ready to combust. ‘What you see has to come out in your lyrics’, the band’s Malcolm Owen insisted, ‘everyone’s anxious. Everyone’s worried’.

If dystopian visions helped inform punk’s worldview, then the frailties of social cohesion were charted in its sound, image and attitude. Street-level animosities were documented in songs such as The Jam’s ‘“A” Bomb in Wardour Street’, The Ruts’ ‘Staring at the Rude Boys’ and Chron Gen’s ‘Mindless Few’, each of which offered redolent accounts of gig-related clashes between the youth cultural tribes given fresh impetus by punk. As this suggests, perennial hostilities found ever more spectacular expression as culture commodified and the cameras rolled. Turf wars became style wars: mods versus rockers became punks versus teds; the skinheads hated everybody. More to the point, The Sun‘s ‘Violent Britain’ series of 1978 found ready complement in punk’s depictions of street-level brutality. Across the Fatal Microbes’ ‘Violence Grows’, Vivien Goldman’s ‘Private Armies’, the Newtown Neurotics’ ‘Mindless Violence’ and Blitz’s ‘Someone’s Gonna Die Tonight’, the bloody consequences of random beatings were captured in depressing detail.

In effect, punk instigated commentary on Britain’s sense of malaise. The deficiencies of the post-war consensus were detailed across the late 1970s; the effects of Thatcherism and the reignited cold war were recorded over the early 1980s. Fanzines offered their own youthful reflections on the time, interspersing record reviews and band interviews with collages of newspaper headlines and tabloid images of police, the NF, militarism and war. Short articles on the threat of fascism, police harassment and unemployment became common; youth cultural and racial tensions were dissected and bemoaned. In particular, the process of deindustrialisation began to inform countless record sleeves and posters, represented by graffitied walls and urban dereliction that later doubled as post-apocalyptic visions of a bombed-out UK. Singles, then albums, portrayed Britain as a country no longer caught in the midst of decline but plunged into desolation; their titles – ‘Dead Cities’, Burning Britain (1982), ‘Give Us a Future’, No Hope for Anyone (1982) – harbouring the fatalistic fury of doomed youth. ‘Look through this broken window’, the Subhumans ruminated on ‘Black and White’, ‘from normality into the ghetto/broken – through madness, hate and boredom/UK – a disunited kingdom.’

 

Early 1980s punk record covers

 

The first term of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government (1979–83) was certainly bellicose. A large pay increase granted to the police sent one signal; realignments in macro-economic policy – cuts in income tax, increases in VAT and interest rates, loosening control over the exchange of foreign currency, market determination of prices and incomes – sent another. Thereafter, manufacturing contracted by some 25 per cent as unemployment soared to over three million by 1982. Simultaneously, trade union influence was curbed, cautiously at first but more robustly over time, while state power was both centralised and ‘rolled back’ via promises to cut borrowing and public expenditure, sell-off council housing, limit the influence of local government and, more extensively from 1984, privatise state-owned industries and services. The language of opposition became the language of government: ‘freedom’ was measured in economic rather than social terms; enemies within (trade unionists, leftists, squatters and onto Peter Lilley’s ‘little list’ of 1992) were distinguished from ‘hard working families’, the ‘quiet majority’ and ‘our people’.

In reply, bands such as Blitz, The Exploited and Vice Squad (whose album title, No Cause for Concern (1981), reportedly came from a Thatcher quote relating to growing youth unemployment) depicted a country broken and violent. Punk’s aesthetic traits became more raggedy; the once stylised apparel became faded and worn; battered leather jackets and boots served as austerity-wear. Appropriately, too, the ‘Apocalypse Now’ tour showcasing four of the leading ‘new punk’ bands of the early 1980s (Anti Pasti, Chron Gen, Discharge and The Exploited) set off in the summer of 1981 as riots erupted across Britain’s inner-cities, prompting even sceptical journalists to register a connection. ‘Last week’s Commons reports [on the riots] read like paraphrased Pistol songs’, the NME’s Chris Bohn reported, noting how punk’s continued references to anarchy resonated once more as ‘chaos asserted its new reign elsewhere’. Or, to quote Wattie Buchan’s reading of the riots: ‘Kids are fed up. If they’ve got nowt to do they’ll do something stupid. Like vandalise or something […] If kids go straight from school to the dole, it’s not their fault is it?     They cannae go out and get a job. The government creates boredom and there’s no way you can protest about it […] They never bother until something actually happens […] Punk today is the backlash of reality.’

Famously, of course, The Specials’ ‘Ghost Town’ was at number one in July 1981, providing a bleak panorama of Britain’s decaying inner cities that all but prefaced the findings of the Scarman Report commissioned by the government in the wake of the ‘Brixton disorders’ of April 1981. The song’s fusion of reggae-dread, punk-ire and pointed social commentary embodied the cross-cultural fusion forged by 2-Tone amidst the racial tensions of the period. As disorder continued to unfold through Liverpool, Leeds, Bristol, Birmingham, Nottingham, Manchester and elsewhere, so deprivation, poor housing and a lack of employment provided a common link. A racial element existed in many areas; but this was less the ‘black versus white’ scenario envisaged by Enoch Powell then stoked by the far-right, and more the result of long-running animosities between local communities and a police force committed to heavy-handed strategies suffused with racial prejudice. As for punk, the riots inspired a series of songs – such as ‘Nation on Fire’ (Blitz) and ‘Summer of ‘81’ (The Violators) – that duly reported events as an upsurge of youthful anger against the government, unemployment and the police.

Not surprisingly, such analyses lent themselves to political interpretation. As we shall see, socialist, anarchist and fascist adaptations of punk’s (and 2-Tone’s) reportage were not uncommon. Though many continued, like Jake Burns above, to insist that commentary did not thereby pertain to a proposed solution, it did raise questions of cause and effect. Tirades against ‘the system’ and stark depictions of the militarism underpinning the cold war bore the stamp of a critical consciousness. More broadly, reportage confirmed punk’s conception of a youth culture that engaged with the world of which it was part – that ‘confronted’ the situation, as Killing Joke’s Jaz Coleman insisted. By so doing, punk tapped into real and media-refracted stresses within the social fabric: industrial conflict and police brutality; youth cultural rivalries and political extremes; unemployment and substance abuse. For every government report on violence at rock concerts, glue sniffing or inner-city policing, punk offered cultural supplements that aspired to Joe Strummer’s conviction that ‘the truth is only known by guttersnipes’.

 

Living with unemployment

There was a moment in late 1976 when punk flirted with the moniker of ‘dole queue rock’. References to the dole or ‘signing on’ featured in most early interviews with the Sex Pistols, The Clash and The Damned, particularly once Tony Parsons ascribed punk’s ‘reality stance’ to its being ‘a product of the United Kingdom in the 1970s’. If Labour wasn’t working, as the famous Tory campaign poster later insisted against a decade increase of almost a million registered unemployed (from 601,333 in 1968 to 1,475,042 in 1978), then punk was seen to represent what Peter Marsh described as the ‘empty life’ of a jobless teenager.

Such interpretation had its limits. A closer look at punk’s initial demographic and the substance of its early texts reveal it to have been born of more than just the ‘right to work’. Most notably, as Simon Frith was quick to observe, punk’s expression of teenage frustration was complemented by art school and counter-cultural influences that inclined as much towards the bohemian as the innate street-level protest Parsons and Marsh attributed to it. Pop music had long provided succour from the tedium of work, school and home life, be it temporal (dancing, listening, dressing up, hanging around) or actual (becoming a musician/singer). In a sense, therefore, punk followed this tradition, albeit filtered through what Frith recognised as the ‘intractable economic situation’ of the mid-1970s.

Whatever their motivation, punk bands utilised the dole queue as a symbol of Britain’s wider condition. Just as one Peterborough band called themselves The Dole in 1977, so references to unemployment peppered early songs by Alternative TV, Chelsea, The Clash, Menace, Sham 69 and others in the same way as record sleeves and gig flyers featured urban topographies of tower blocks and ‘the street’. Signing-on or working in a series of low-paid jobs served to demarcate punk’s pioneers from the rock ‘n’ roll superstars they sought to contest. The infamous pseudonyms adopted by punks were often done so to keep the social security officials (‘SS snoopers’) from enquiring as to the minor earnings received from gigs, singles or fanzines.

By the 1980s, moreover, as unemployment became entrenched and increased to average over three million between 1982 and 1986, so youth culture’s relationship to the dole became more explicit. Beyond the dole-queue skank of UB40, whose name and debut album referenced the signing-on documentation of the time, the early days of Thatcherism were recorded across overtly punk tracks such as the Abrasive Wheels’ ‘Vicious Circle’: ‘Forgotten youth just waste away/ Sniffing glue to face the day/ Walking streets, signing on/ Government schemes go on and on’. Indeed, a steady stream of dole-queue songs emerged from punk’s hinterlands over the early 1980s, ranging from the defiant (Action Pact’s ‘Yet Another Dole Queue Song’, Emergency’s ‘Points of View’) to the fatalistic (Discharge’s ‘Society’s Victims’, Infa Riot’s ‘Each Dawn I Die’). In between, government initiatives were dismissed, as on The Exploited’s ‘YOP’, and conspiratorial scenarios of unemployed youths being conscripted into the army became rife under the darkening cloud of the cold war.

Much of this was born from experience. Whereas, in the 1970s, the dole could be seen as a means to facilitate creative activity and effectively help support an ‘alternative’ lifestyle, so the 1980s limited any sense by which unemployment retained a practical – even optional – quality. Running parallel to the rising number of young unemployed (averaging 25 per cent of 16–19 year-olds by 1985), a series of government schemes were introduced to push those out of work into training and employment. Incremental benefit restrictions were also enforced, culminating in the removal of 16–18 year-olds from the unemployed register in 1988. As a result, the permanency of mass unemployment – especially in those areas north of London devastated by deindustrialisation and the logic of monetarist economics – fed into the popular culture of the period.

In punk terms, the bands and fans who sustained an avowedly punk identity into the 1980s related far closer to the ‘dole queue kids’ of 1977 folklore than their forebears, adopting self-applied labels such as ‘reject’ and ‘victim’ to signal their sense of disenfranchisement. At times, such perspective fed into a glue, drug or alcohol-fuelled nihilism that became subject to graphic depiction, both as warning and a glimpse of where desperation ends. More typically, punk bands simply registered their protest, documenting and dramatising the frustrations of a generation struggling to adapt to a shifting socio-economic environment over which they felt no control. ‘We’re just part of an experiment’, Anti Pasti’s 19-year-old Will Hoon stated in 1981 with some insight. ‘Monetarism is being tried out on us. And I don’t wanna be a guinea pig’.

There was a parallel narrative. From the outset, punk-informed protest set itself as much against the tedium and futility of work as it did against unemployment per se. One consequence of the post-war consensus was to broaden further education opportunities and provide sufficient welfare provision for the young working class and disaffected middle class to step outside the ‘9-to-5’ grind and gain perspective on it. Forming a band offered a means to defer – maybe even escape from – the regimented toil of an ‘ordinary’ life, with punk’s import stemming in part from its recovering access to pop’s medium. The Jam, Paul Weller explained, originated from the fact that ‘you wake up one morning and you don’t wanna go and work in a poxy factory’. Steve Diggle, too, joined Buzzcocks after experiencing the working alternative. ‘[I] decided I’d never work again in my life’, he told the NME. ‘What I was going to do was read and play guitar, do all the things I wanted to do. Do artistic things …’ In tune with Simon Frith’s notion of punk bohemia, Mick Jones ruminated on signing-on to supplement his art school grant by insisting that being on the dole was only ‘hard if you’ve been conditioned to think you’ve gotta have a job’.

As this suggests, the stultifying effect of employment provided a constant of punk-informed social realism. The Fall’s ‘Industrial Estate’ captured its subject’s bleak surroundings via stark observation (‘and the crap in the air will fuck up your face’), culminating in a valium prescription for depression. Sham 69’s ‘I Don’t Wanna’ was equally curt, refuting both a life of work and the dole on route to a gold-watch pension sign-off and a council flat coffin ‘up in the sky’. More eloquently, perhaps, The Jam, whose songs included several character portraits of the aspiring petty-bourgeoisie (‘Mr Clean’, ‘Man in the Corner Shop’), released ‘Just Who is the Five O’clock Hero’ as a single in 1982, a record that offered a snapshot of an ageing factory worker, always tired and forever poor, locked into a living death. The Subhumans, too, followed the day-cycle of a beleaguered worker on their ‘Get to Work on Time’, as did The Fakes, whose ‘Production’ comprised a plodding, clock-watching dirge to the factory and back. From Manchester, The Mothmen issued ‘Factory/Teapoint/Factory’ in 1980, a song with a recorded canteen break sandwiched between its metronomic portrait of life on a production line. The Wall, meanwhile, debuted with ‘New Way’, a single that portrayed technological change as a conduit for mechanised slave labour, a subject implicit in Steve Ignorant’s Crass-rant about his time working for Ford (‘End Result’). Or, to get really blunt about it, The Maniacs wrote an unreleased song called ‘I Don’t Wanna Go To Work’ that combined class insight (I‘ve had enough of this, working for the capitalist’) with trademark punk insolence (‘I just want to get pissed’).

Workplace politics were occasionally tackled. Poet-ranters such as Oi! The Comrade delivered by turn angry and humourous diatribes against the ‘Guvnor’s Man’ and exploitative employment. Not dissimilarly, The Business’ ‘National Insurance Blacklist’ exposed the persecution of militant workers in the building trade. The Redskins, as would be expected, espoused the importance of trade unionism and played with other punk-inspired bands at numerous gigs in support of striking workers up to and throughout the 1984–5 miners’ dispute. By then, however, any focus on work tended to fuse with the deepening problem of unemployment. Thus, in 1980–81, as unemployed rates passed two million, so the Angelic Upstarts’ north-east roots were explored in paeans to the mining and dockyard communities from where the band came and an album, 2,000,000 Voices (1981), that referenced back to the depression of the 1930s. Mensi even presented a 1984 Play at Home (Channel 4) documentary that looked into the effect of unemployment on Tyneside.

Such accounts of work and unemployment were generally experiential. But while punk’s protest and sense of frustration moved beyond simply ‘living for the weekend’, its political significance remained diffuse and contested. Simultaneously, therefore, competing theoretical perspectives attempted to concentrate punk’s disaffection. From a Marxist point of view, attention focused on the mechanics of labour and capital, as in The Mekons’ ‘32 Weeks’, which chartered the relationship between work and consumption via a breakdown of the hours needed to buy a car, a bed, some food and a drink. The extension of market forces into social relations also formed the basis of many a Gang of Four song, while Six Minute War’s ‘Strike’ detailed the class dynamics of industrial struggle (‘maximize on profit that’s all they want to do/ exploit the working class and that means you’). Again, however, the 1980s saw attention shift to unemployment, a problem typically registered as a by-product of Thatcherite economics. So, for example, the Newtown Neurotics indicated the changing mood of the 1970s and 1980s on their ‘Living with Unemployment’, an update of a Members’ song – ‘Solitary Confinement’ – written in 1978 that told the story of someone moving to London only to get stuck in a bedsit on low-paid work and a long commute. In the Neurotics’ version, released in 1983, the job had been lost, ‘working all day long’ had become ‘sleeping all day long’, and the subsequent alienation was no longer a consequence of exploitative labour but part of a Tory plan to subjugate the working class.

Alternately, anarchist and counter-cultural approaches paved the way to more radical responses. On the one hand, McLaren’s situationist roots revealed themselves through Bow Wow Wow, whose ‘W.O.R.K’ disavowed the work ethic in favour of ‘primitive’ pleasures and ‘piracy’. Unemployment, McLaren argued, should be embraced as liberation; kids should dress up, fuck, steal and have fun. More seriously, Debord’s advice to ‘Ne travaillez jamais’ [never work] – first daubed across a wall on Paris’ Rue de Seine in 1953 – inspired a Vague essay by Peter Scott that posited unemployment and a creative ‘life on society’s outer fringe’ as preferable to the drudgery of labour. Indeed, such ideas proved integral to the ideological foundations of punk’s anarchist milieus and found regular expression in fanzines such as Toxic Grafity:     ‘As far as I can see work in its present form is nothing but slavery. There must be more to life than this. The myth that work brings purpose and meaning to your life is crap […] who wants to spend fifty-or-so years of your life doing this … And to think people actually march for the right to do this … STAY FREE.’

Punk’s relationship to unemployment was therefore contained within a broader range of pressures and concerns affecting young people in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The dole queue was a component of punk’s dystopian vision and punk-informed bands played unemployed benefit gigs from 1977 onwards. But responses to the problem varied. Famously, to the chagrin of those who interpreted Chelsea’s ‘Right to Work’ as a bold statement in support of the SWP’s campaign for jobs, the song was aimed (in part) at restrictive trade union practice. More to the point, working for the ‘rat race’ and committing to a factory or office job brought into sharp relief the sentiment captured by King Mob in the graffiti that greeted London commuters each day between Ladbroke Grove and Westbourne Park: ‘Same thing day after day – tube-work-tube-armchair-tv-sleep-tube – how much more can you take: one in ten go mad – one in five cracks up’. ‘Kids don’t want to just get a job in the system’, Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex said in 1978, being ‘pushed around in a factory for 20 years and get a gold watch – they’ve got more suss now […] Nothing much has changed since the days of serfdom except that you get paid a wage, but just enough to make you go back next week’. Nevertheless, the deepening impact of unemployment into the 1980s helped reassert initial readings of punk’s motivation. Unemployment was taken up in the music press, including pieces by Garry Bushell, Chris Dean and Ray Lowry, and calls for the government to provide jobs or a future became recurrent slogans. If ‘dole queue rock’ proved too narrow a description to encompass punk’s original impetus, then (the spectre of) unemployment formed at least part of the backdrop to its social realist dramas.

 

What a wonderful world this is

Released in late 1978, Sham 69’s That’s Life follows a day in the life of a working-class teenager. The story is irregular: the lead character’s name changes and its fragments do not quite hold together in a coherent whole. Nevertheless, the album provides a compelling piece of punk social realism, what Paul Morley described as a dramatised depiction of youth’s social and domestic claustrophobia. ‘The sense is that of a person who doesn’t control their own life, a feeling we all know’.

The narrative to That’s Life – later made into a short film for the BBC’s Arena series – is deliberately simple. The day starts with a missed alarm clock, a moaning mum and an occupied bathroom. There follows a daily commute to a hated job fuelled only by thoughts of the weekend and stoic indignation (‘who gives a damn […] we’re all dogsbodies’). But lateness leads to the sack and the rest of the day is spent in the café, bookies and pub trying to salvage something from an uncertain future (‘I don’t know where I’m going, but I gotta get there soon’). Money is won, drinks are drunk, a girl is met and a fight is squared, before the Sunday morning nightmare starts all over again. ‘Where am I?’, our hero asks. ‘You’re at home, where do you think you bleedin’ are?’, his dad replies.

Formed in 1976, Sham 69 were fronted by Jimmy Pursey, a sinewy motor-mouth who ‘thinks as he speaks and speaks as he thinks’. They hailed from Hersham, a small Surrey town that lent the band its name, and were briefly touted as a necessary reaction to punk’s descent into stylised pose. Sham 69 ‘feel like you and me’, Danny Baker wrote in Sniffin’ Glue, ‘genuine’ street kids sussed to punk’s commodification and ‘part of what I always thought this lark was about’. Sham were the sound of someone ‘screaming at the bastards’, Tony Parsons concurred, caught in a state of constant conflict with the ‘lifeless, soulless, joyless Establishment Order’. As a result, the band attracted a loyal following cut from their own cloth: ‘working-class kids, out of school who [no-one] gives a fuck about’, as Gary Hitchcock, a member of the ‘Sham Army’, put it. Many of these, like Pursey, were ex- or revived skinheads; a few, too, including Hitchcock, found an outlet for their disaffection in fascism and violence. But Sham’s politics were never explicit and never aligned. Though Pursey lent support to RAR, his focus was on articulating the frustrations of what he understood to be ‘ordinary kids’, replete with their faults, contradictions and imperfections. The band’s early signature tune, ‘Song of the Streets’, centred on a call-and-response refrain, ‘What have we got? Fuck all’, with lyrics that rejected the solutions of detested politicians. Instead, Sham 69 rallied round a naïve but heartfelt call for youth cultural unity (‘If the Kids are United’) that clung to an identity based on spirit and class affinity.

Sham’s approach embodied the idea of punk connecting to the lives of those who made, played and listened to it. This, typically, meant lyrics focused on contemporary everyday concerns expressed in contemporary everyday language. Relationships, antagonisms, frustrations and anxieties shorn of pop’s sheen to be stated bluntly and unashamedly; the ‘kids on the street’ recast as an emblem of pop’s provenance. Analogous to Sham 69, therefore, were bands such as Slaughter and the Dogs and Menace who respectively celebrated ‘bootboys’ from Wythenshawe and asked ‘if we’re the working class why ain’t we got jobs?’ From Custom House in London’s East End came the Cockney Rejects, eschewing songs about love and politics in favour of tales from the backstreets and the terraces. ‘We stand for punk as bootboy music’, a teenage ‘Stinky’ Turner told Sounds in 1980, ‘Harringtons, boots, straights, that’s what we’re all about’. Cock Sparrer, too, whose early gigs appealed to ‘football hooligans, skinheads and clockwork orange lookalikes’, evoked the thrill of a Saturday afternoon, combining celebrations of youthful exuberance with an existential fear of the future. On both ‘Runnin’ Riot’ and ‘Chip on my Shoulder’, they extolled disrupting the ‘peace and quiet’ to offset the dreaded tomorrow of mortgages and a life spent ‘digging holes in the road’. ‘Getting old sure bothers me’, they admitted, ‘it bothers me to death’.

By the 1980s, Sham’s prototype had helped pave the way for Oi!, under whose banner bands such as The 4-Skins, The Business and Infa Riot transmitted both the empowerment and the tensions inherent in the adoption of youth cultural style. If Oi! meant ‘punk without the posers’ and ‘facing up to reality’, as The Business’ Micky Fitz insisted, then its lyrical focus combined protest (‘Work or Riot’, ‘Bread or Blood’) with snapshots of working-class life and culture. Local characters – Jack-the-lads, plastic gangsters, clockwork skinheads – were immortalised in song; pub conversations about bank holiday beanos, street fights, petty crime and personal misfortune were set to a punk backbeat. This was sometimes humourous. From Brighton, Peter and the Test Tube Babies specialised in tall tales of being banned from local pubs or getting into scrapes with teds, moped lads and convincing transvestites. Back in London, The Gymslips provided a female counterpart to Oi!’s primarily male persona, ‘rockin’ with the renees’ via odes to the pub’s top shelf, street fashion and the joys of pie ‘n’ mash. But Oi!’s social realism more generally concentrated on the frustrations of being young, male and working-class. Beneath the bravado lay a sense of anger and frustration, an almost existential disaffection with the state of things.

Among the best at expressing this were the Angelic Upstarts, whose songs – ‘Teenage Warning’, ‘I’m an Upstart’, ‘Leave Me Alone’, ‘Out of Control’ – railed against the teachers, social workers, politicians, police and social structures that seemingly shaped and bound possibilities. Infa Riot, too, sung of cages and catch-22s, portraying lives trapped by circumstance and caught in a game to which the rules were rigged. ‘Feel the rage’, Lee Wilson sung, ‘building up […] breaking out’. Like teenage Arthur Seatons transported from Sillitoe’s 1950s Nottingham to the inner-city 1970s and ‘80s, punk’s social realists came of age embittered by the material, political and economic confines that determined their lives.

Not surprisingly, given their shared milieu, the 2-Tone bands that emerged to prominence in 1979 covered similar lyrical concerns. Both Oi! and 2-Tone tapped into youth cultural styles that pre-dated punk (skinheads, rude boys, mod); both claimed street-level credentials; both suffered from the attentions of the far right recruiting amongst their audience; both celebrated their cultural origins as they registered a protest. Where Oi! aspired to ‘having a laugh and having a say’, 2-Tone’s energy and ska-based sound emphasised its commitment to pleasure in the face of ‘too much pressure’.

Coming from the midlands, The Beat, The Selecter and The Specials used social realist lyrics to affirm their cross-cultural origins and environment. Anti-Thatcherite diatribes rubbed against tales of subcultural conflict, grotty nightclubs and unwanted teenage pregnancies. As importantly, the bands’ anti-racism was transmitted through words and practice. The 1970s, after all, had seen racial tensions exacerbated by a resurgent NF and the socio-economic effects of recession. In response, The Specials’ ‘Concrete Jungle’ and The Beat’s ‘Two Swords’ captured the merger of territorial, political and racial identities over the decade, while ‘It Doesn’t Make It All Right’ and ‘Why?’ questioned the attitudes of racist elements in the 2-Tone audience. The result was to marry both critique and resolution, forging a cultural politics rooted in the everyday experience of Coventry and Birmingham that found expression in the bands’ musical fusion and multi-racial composition.

The provincial, or localised, nature of much punk-informed social realism was important. As Russ Bestley has argued, it confirmed a sense of grass-roots authenticity that connected bands to their environment and audience. Local signifiers were used on sleeves; songs engaged with specifically resident concerns; independent labels were formed to document regional scenes. The Wessex ’82 EP may serve as a good example, comprising four bands from the south-west on a local label (Bluurg) wrapped in a sleeve featuring the famous white horse of Westbury Hill. Notably, too, such provincialism marked a disregard for the London-centric media and music industry. By engaging with a ‘Nottingham Problem’ or documenting a falling out with a local pub landlord (‘Black Horse’), Resistance ‘77 and Cult Maniax displayed their indifference to the potential of pop as a career or business.

Of course, provincialism did not have to be overtly confrontational. The Undertones relayed pop’s youthful obsessions – love, lust, fun and dancing – in parochial terms that suggested provenance rather than idealisation: teenage kicks, perfect cousins, chocolate and girls. Coming from Derry, such concerns had political connotations when set against a backdrop of the Troubles. But they also resituated the clichés of pop’s lexicon in a way that transformed the ordinary into points of connection. In time, songs about the minutiae of everyday life – about boys and girls, bus stops and rainy Sundays – became standard for an indie pop focused on personal relationships caught at the moment of adolescence.

Punk’s tendency to social realism injected new voices and subject matter into popular music. By so doing, feelings and experiences were expressed in ways designed to reassert pop music’s relevance to the youth cultures that formed around it. This was often infused with a class sensibility – a street-level riposte to pop’s commercial whimsy. In CCCS terms, it may be seen as a ‘magical’ solution to broader socio-economic oppressions, a means of dealing with the boredom and frustration that punk described. Certainly, some of those involved in punk and 2-Tone recognised it as such. ‘Our music is a solution’, Joe Strummer said, ‘because I don’t have to get drunk every night and go around kicking people and smashing up phone boxes … [like] Paul used to do’. The Selecter’s Pauline Black sung of teaching ‘myself a new philosophy’ as 2-Tone lived out the racial and cultural unity it espoused in the face of political and socio-economic stresses. For Paul Weller, it meant taking ‘everyday experience’ and turning ‘it into art’, something The Jam did in ways that combined evocative depictions of British life with an underlying sense of critique. From the late-night terrors of the London Underground to class conflict and the ideological pyres of Thatcherism, The Jam’s 7” singles embodied the feelings and effects of Britain’s changing socio-economic landscape:

 

Rows and rows of disused milk floats/ Stand dying in the dairy yard/ And a          hundred lonely housewives/ Clutch empty milk bottles to their hearts/
Hanging out their old love letters on the line to dry/ It’s enough to make you stop            believing/ When tears come fast and furious/ […] A whole street’s belief in Sunday’s       roast beef/Gets dashed against the co-op/ To either cut down on beer or the kids’          new gear/ It’s a big decision in a town called malice …

 

Dirt behind the daydream

There were darker and stranger components to punk-informed realism. From the outset, punk gave rise to tendencies keen to recover the marginal and the supressed; to scrape away the veneer of British propriety to reveal what lay beneath. Among McLaren and Westwood’s early designs were images of sexual transgression, blasphemy, criminality and political extremity. Naked cowboys, bare breasts, fetish wear and pornographic images were displayed to break down the boundaries of fascination and repulsion; to expose the tensions between private and public desire. Not dissimilarly, inverted crucifixes, swastikas and anarchist slogans co-existed to provoke and subvert towards some kind of reaction. According to McLaren, the ideal customer of Sex and Seditionaries was a 16-year-old girl from the suburbs who bought a rubber mini-skirt at the weekend to wear to work on the Monday.

Again, such an approach overlapped with the industrial culture of Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire and others, for whom the ‘reality’ constructed by forces of social and political control (politics, media, religion, family, work etc.) could be challenged through the presentation of behaviours that rubbed against the grain of supposed normality. To this end, punk and industrial culture shared an interest in the abject and the taboo, in violence and the profane, subjects that could shock and disrupt the fragile equilibriums of modern society. Crucially, too, both tended – or claimed – to draw their alternative realities from life itself.

There are numerous examples. Where the Sex Pistols’ ‘Bodies’ described the gurgling bloody mess of an abortion via the life-story of a fan suffering from severe mental illness, Lydon’s early PiL lyrics recounted media reports of exorcism and rape. Siouxsie and the Banshees claimed to find inspiration for their macabre songs of mental breakdown (‘Suburban Relapse’), alienation (’Jigsaw Feeling’) and sexual violence (‘Carcass’) in the tabloids and obscure corners of popular culture. ‘[The] bloke who put his leg on the railway line because he wanted to claim more money as a war hero’, Siouxsie reflected, and ‘the woman who wheeled a chopped-up body around in a pram. It’s all there in The Sun every day.’ Like the Velvet Underground, whose influence on the band was manifest, the Banshees subverted the mores of popular music, producing ‘chilling vignettes of minor atrocities and gruesome indulgences, of frustration or unrequited love. From the dark side of life, grinning, perverted’, they specialised in revealing ‘ugly truths […] set against the pointlessness of life.’

            Throbbing Gristle’s approach was more conceptual, drawing from ideas honed in the performance work of COUM Transmissions. Back in 1975, COUM had committed to revealing the ‘secret fears and neuroses’ of society, exposing repressed emotions and desires as a means to confront prevailing social values. Throbbing Gristle took this on, initially producing a harsh, grinding noise through which a fascination with the body and mechanisms of social control served as a commentary on both the ‘savage realities’ of modernity and the sanitised projections of ‘real life’ disseminated by the media. Over a series of records, videos, newsletters and live performance, detailed depictions of murder, violence, pain, the Holocaust and sexual taboo coalesced in a gruesome tableau that dared the listener/viewer to confront or retreat. A subsequent group, Coil, formed by John Balance (Geoff Burton) with Peter Christopherson in 1983, even issued an album, Scatology (1985), that journeyed deep into the recesses of humanity’s base instincts, culminating in a story of sexual caprophagy.

Wars past and envisaged provided subject matter and imagery for countless record sleeves, fanzines and posters. Just as the Second World War and the horrors of Nazism nurtured a morbid interest in those wishing to explore the extremes of humankind, so the cold war and its nuclear endgame informed the anti-militarist politics of punk over the 1980s. Discharge, in particular, engaged with the ‘realities of war’, producing a series of records that gruesomely depicted the effects of nuclear destruction or military intervention: ‘men, women and children cry and scream in pain, wounded by bomb splinters/Streets littered with maimed and slaughtered in rigid pathetic heaps’. Murderers, maniacs and madness likewise weaved their way through the punk-informed canon. The Cambridge Rapist (Peter Cook), Yorkshire Ripper (Peter Sutcliffe) and Moors Murderers (Ian Brady and Myra Hindley) provided pertinent signifiers of society’s disturbing underbelly. Less gratuitously, perhaps, juxtapositions of real life horror and media-drawn promises of a better tomorrow became a staple of songs and fanzine collage. The dirt behind the daydream, Gang of Four called it, as they undercut advertising lingo with references to Britain’s war in Ireland and the onset of North Sea oil.

            Things got messy if the propensity to shock fell out of context. A fascination with the macabre could also drift into fantasy, relinquishing any claim to realism in favour of schlock horror or, later, the romantic darklands of what became goth. Equally, where band names such as the Moors Murderers or Raped began to push at the boundaries of taste with barely a hint of dissident intent beyond the desire to offend, then records such as Stench’s ‘Raspberry Cripple’ or Chaotic Dischord’s ‘And There Wuz Cows’ plunged deep into the mire. To be sure, the giddy thrill of saying-the-unsayable – or wearing-the-unwearable – struck a chord with teenagers looking to provoke a reaction. But swastikas, in particular, retained a potency for reasons that could not be so easily disarmed when projected away from Seditionaries’ clashing symbols or the archly-camp Weimar references of the Bromley contingent. Several bands were accused of harbouring Nazi sympathies as a result of using imagery drawn from the Third Reich. Most famously, perhaps, Joy Division’s name (taken from a book, House of Dolls, which depicted sex slavery in a concentration camp) and debut EP (its sleeve featuring a Hitler Youth drummer boy) prompted rumours of fascist leanings.

Certainly, the line between fascination and fetishisation could all too easily be crossed. If the ambiguous symbolism presented by Joy Division, The Skids, Theatre of Hate and others was noted on the far right and prone to misinterpretation, then Death in June’s obsession with National Socialist history led to at least one member (Tony Wakeford) engaging with active fascist politics. Groups like Whitehouse – formed by erstwhile Essential Logic guitarist William Bennett – repudiated the critical detachment retained by Throbbing Gristle, dedicating their albums to serial killers and filling their fanzines with texts of rape and murder. Predictably, Whitehouse’s Come Organisation adopted a swastika-like symbol and built records around fascist language and iconography (Buchenweld, New Britain, Für Ilse Koch), tracing a line from the Marquis de Sade to the death camps and the extremes of human cruelty. The results were mixed: disturbing, repulsive, fascinating and juvenile in about equal measure.

As this suggests, an interest in the abject could lead to dubious ends. Simultaneously, however, punk stimulated transformative impulses that sought out the absurdities of everyday life, facilitating a social surrealism rooted in the contemporary but attuned to the incongruities that lurked beneath any semblance of ‘normality’. Best of all were The Fall, emerging from Prestwich as 1976 turned to 1977. Musically, The Fall recognised the potential to break down and reconstitute popular music in the wake of punk’s emergence. The band’s sound combined rock ‘n’ roll primitivism with disciplined repetition, ‘mistreating instruments’ to a get a ‘feeling over’ as Mark E Smith put it. All affectation was removed. Their songs contained no solos or musical frills; records were produced to emphasise the emergent rawness of their content, eschewing the sheen of studio production in favour of a discordant, deliberately distorted sound. Fall songs appeared caught in what Michael Goddard and Benjamin Halligan have described as ‘a state of becoming’, unruly, chaotic, perpetually mutating. Stylistically, too, the band projected an anti-image, adopting none of punk’s sartorial props and distancing themselves from the expectations of pop or rock presentation. Live, the band was uncommunicative and functional; the music press, music industry and most contemporary bands were held in disdain. Record sleeves were cut ‘n’ pasted, covered in Smith’s scrawl as if to trash any reverence afforded to rock’s product status. Indeed, The Fall’s uncompromising approach and commitment to perpetual creativity was interpreted by Smith to mean his band were among the ‘only ones who represented what the whole thing [punk] was supposed to be’.

Smith remains one of rock’s most innovative lyricists. From the outset, his words, accent and delivery located The Fall within their regional and socio-economic context whilst simultaneously reimagining the environments they described. Just as photos and videos of the band were typically taken in situ (Prestwich streets and pubs), so Smith’s lyrics referred to local and contemporary signifiers that connected to a particular time and place: fags, pubs, industrial estates, Hovis adverts, Kwik Save, CB radio, Manchester parks, Prestwich halls etc. In form, however, Smith’s words complemented the band’s sound, fragmenting narratives and cultural critiques into unique patterns of language and imagery. The songs’ characters were often grotesques; humdrum locales were transformed into strange worlds that filtered literary influences such as M.R. James, H.P. Lovecraft, Malcolm Lowry and Arthur Machen through Smith’s own speed-and-alcohol fuelled imagination. The effect was to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary, contesting and disrupting preconceptions by undermining their apparent rationale. In other words, Smith claimed and defended his proudly working-class heritage against the commercial, cosmopolitan and intellectual forces that conspired to dilute it: ‘Northern white crap that talks back’.

Other bands did similar. The Prefects morphed into The Nightingales, allowing Robert Lloyd to perfect his tales of urban ospreys and crafty fags. The Membranes, from Blackpool, sung of tatty seaside towns and Spike Milligan’s tape recorder. A Witness, Bogshed and The Three Johns followed suit, mangling rock ‘n’ roll’s form whilst combining a pub-honed wit with lyrics that found the surreal amidst the mundane. Most comparable to Smith, perhaps, was John Cooper-Clarke, the Salford poet who came to prominence in tandem with The Fall. Cooper-Clarke was 28 in 1977, having honed his craft in northern clubs (frequented by young pre-Fall members) and thereby connecting to aspects of the pre-punk counter-culture. Nevertheless, he recognised in punk an interest in words and ideas, appreciating its attempts to expand rock’s lexicon and deconstruct its formulas. ‘It’s the nearest thing that there’s ever been […] to the working classes going into areas like surrealism and Dada […] It only widens your perspective […] The Pistols put you in a context where it’s possible to understand more. I mean, it’s probably a cliché now, but words like fascist and fascism jumped out. Things like that just weren’t in pop songs.’

Like Smith, Cooper-Clarke surveyed and transformed his environment. His poems could be humourous and fantastical (‘(I Married a) Monster from Outer Space’), but always rooted – linguistically and verbally – in recognisably urban locales full of buses, dirt, concrete and disease. His flights of imagination were underpinned by a social critique informed by the structural changes affecting his native Salford. Thus, among his most well-known poems, ‘Evidently Chickentown’ and ‘Beasley Street’ travel deep into the distresses of everyday life, depicting poverty and decay via evocative descriptions of sights, sounds, people and smells.

The reportage and realism that signalled punk’s engagement with the world it was born into developed in distinct ways. The path from The Clash’s ‘White Riot’ to Bogshed’s ‘Fat Lad Exam Failure’ was hardly a straight line. Many of those informed by punk’s emergence quickly shed any commitment to a predetermined musical form or sense of style even as they retained comparable attitudes and lyrical concerns. In other words, the diverse sounds and cultures that evolved from 1976 shared an aversion to the banal platitudes of much rock ‘n’ roll and a conviction that popular music should reflect and inform the lives of those who made and listened to it. Motivations varied of course. Where Throbbing Gristle sought to confront their audience, Tom Robinson endeavoured to raise political consciousness. Where Sham 69 rallied in celebratory protest, The Fall scrambled preconceptions and stimulated imaginations. Even then, there remained a sense by which the cultural spaces opened up by punk should hold a relevance to recognisable places, events and life-as-lived. More to the point, beneath the anger, abjection and absurdity lay hint of an even darker stimulus: a boredom born of alienation and despair.

 

Matt Worley ch 5

Chapter Three

Tell us the truth: Reportage, realism and abjection

 

All our songs are about being honest, right? The situation as we see it […] otherwise      we’d be writing bullshit!!

Mick Jones (1976)

 

The story behind The Clash’s ‘White Riot’ has become part of punk folklore. As told on LWT’s London Weekend Show in November 1976, Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon used it to explain The Clash’s commitment to writing about ‘what’s going on at the moment’. The song itself related to the Notting Hill carnival of just a few weeks earlier, during which on-going tensions between police and the area’s black population gave way to violence. According to newspaper reports, some 300 police and 131 members of the public were injured during the disturbance, bringing to the fore questions of race relations, inner-city policing and political stability. In fact, the trouble was such that the Home Office subsequently authorised the introduction of riot shields (first used the following year during clashes between the NF and anti-racists in Lewisham), with images from the time showing policemen wielding truncheons and cowering behind dustbin lids, smashed-up shop fronts and rubble-strewn streets, black youths fleeing from police or throwing bricks. ‘We was down there, me and him’, Strummer said, ‘and we got searched by policemen, looking for bricks, like. And then, later on, we got searched by Rasta, looking for pound notes in our pockets’. ‘And all we had were bricks and bottles,’ finished Simonon.

Such a tale would feed into The Clash’s own mythology, helping to align their punk protest with the roots reggae that provided a suitably ‘dread’ soundtrack to the unrest in Notting Hill and affirming the band’s conception of themselves as street-level rebels reporting back from the urban frontline. The song’s lyrics celebrated the riot and urged white youth to have the guts to do the same. Photos from the day provided copy for the band’s record sleeves and stage backdrops; the fact that Strummer and Simonon had been there helped authenticate their aural snapshot of mid-‘70s London.

This lived experience was important. The Clash aspired to a significance they felt had been lost in most popular music. Their early songs were peppered with local references to the ‘Westway’, ‘Bakerloo’, ‘Knightsbridge’, ‘Hammersmith’, ‘the 100 Club’ and ‘London Town’; they spoke of ‘escalators’, ‘Ford Cortinas’, ‘skin-flicks’, the dole ‘office’ and ‘fighting in the road’; they described social tensions, ennui, unemployment, petty crime and political impotency. Or, as Tony Parsons put it, The Clash offered a ‘mirror reflection of the kind of […] white, working-class experiences that only seem like a cliché to those people who haven’t lived through them’. In so doing, they helped forge a template that informed much British punk and punk-related styles into the 1980s: that is, an aggressive sound, image and rhetoric that proffered social reportage rooted in practice. As is well known, Strummer’s middle-class background and the art school enrolment of all three core band members soon provided critics with the necessary information to challenge the band’s street-savvy stance. But the idea of the early Clash – not to mention their evident sincerity – meant they remained integral to punk’s cultural evolution. In effect, both Oi! and the more social-conscious punk of the period strove to maintain or better fulfil a version of The Clash’s original intent.

Simultaneously, ‘White Riot’ – alongside many other Clash songs – hinted at a morality beyond mere reportage. Early interviews revealed the band to accept the political connotations of an approach that tended more towards a form of consciousness-raising than any specific doctrine – ‘[We’re] making people aware of a situation they’d otherwise tend to ignore’, Simonon insisted. Nevertheless, lyrics such as ‘all the power in the hands, of the people rich enough to buy it’ lent The Clash a missionary zeal that inspired many a fledgling socialist to embrace punk. In Strummer’s words, ‘the only thing I’m interested in is my personal freedom … [But] it ain’t no use me having the right to choose unless everybody else has too’.

More typically, perhaps, punk represented a medium of social realism that was often political by default. In producing records that sought to reflect, report and comment on their time and place, bands such as Sham 69, The Ruts, Angelic Upstarts and Cockney Rejects infused popular music with voices, subject matter and perspectives that had rarely been so explicitly stated in a pop-cultural context. This, in turn, was further evident in the work of The Jam and much early 2-Tone, which redirected punk’s social realism through different musical and stylistic routes. Though most such bands rejected any overtly political label, punk signified a means to register a protest, highlight a social problem or celebrate a localised – often class-based – culture. Similarly, while squabbles about authenticity became a feature of punk and post-punk discourse, the principal effect of its tendency to social realism was to dramatise British youth culture at a significant historical juncture. Just as the novels of Alan Sillitoe or the films of Tony Richardson depicted the tensions and transformations of post-war Britain into the 1950s and 1960s, so the starkly urban insights of The Jam, The Ruts and The Specials captured the anxieties occasioned by the socio-economic insecurities and socio-cultural changes manifest by the 1970s and 1980s.

In practice, punk-derived social realism oscillated between the thrills and frustrations of urban living. It fretted over adolescent insecurities and celebrated the empowerment of subcultural style. It documented the spectacular, as with ‘White Riot’, but simultaneously sought to tap into and engage with the provincial concerns of those ‘Saturday’s Kids’ from ‘council houses’ who wore ‘V-neck shirts and baggy trousers’/‘cheap perfume ‘cos it’s all they can afford’. It veered, uneasily at times, between reportage and political commentary. In the main, however, bands tended to reject accusations of preaching, preferring to see their music as a means to ‘observe’ or ‘tell the truth’ about the world around them.

Not all were convinced. For their critics, bands such as The Jam confirmed rather than challenged their audience’s expectations and thereby neutered punk’s radical spirit via a combination of fatalism and reaction. Sham 69 and their successors were soon dismissed – as Parsons forewarned – as projecting working-class caricatures that revelled in street-level violence and failed to demonstrate a positive response to the problems they highlighted. By 1981 and the emergence of Oi!, such brusque rock ‘n’ roll and a lyrical focus on (male) working-class culture was even dismissed as inherently ‘racist-sexist-fascist’. But these bands were not writing or performing for aspiring cultural commentators, academics or self-proclaimed socialist revolutionaries. Rather, they formed part of a wider youth culture that encompassed clothes, clubs, friends and locales. The bands’ lyrical concerns were designed to resonate with their audience; to trigger points of recognition via the language used, the places referenced and the experiences shared. As this suggests, gigs – especially those in smaller venues – were as important as the records made. Gigs served as a place of commonality that was reaffirmed by the terrace-style sing-a-long nature of songs that dissolved the band-audience divide and reclaimed pop music for the proverbial ‘kids on the street’. In other words, the ‘way out’ offered by rock ‘n’ roll and pop music from the 1950s was again made tangible by bands that celebrated the moment and warned against the dismal future of adult life.

 

Tears of a nation

When, in 1976, James Callaghan warned the Labour conference that the ‘cosy world is gone’, he made something of an understatement. The immediate problem was serious enough: the pound’s value against the dollar had plunged to a record low of $1.68 in September 1976, thereby prompting Britain to apply for an IMF loan to offset the market’s lack of confidence and allay fears of a currency collapse. More broadly, the Labour government’s appeal to the IMF proved but an especially humiliating episode among a series of political and economic crises that rumbled throughout the 1970s into the 1980s. As the Sex Pistols set out on their ill-fated ‘Anarchy in the UK’ tour of December 1976, so a year that had begun with inflation rates over 20 per cent (not to mention an IRA bomb attack on London’s west end) culminated in public spending cuts that effectively signalled a fundamental realignment of the British polity.

Of course, Callaghan’s once ‘cosy’ Britain was itself something of a chimera. His comments alluded to the sustained period of economic growth and full employment that followed the war; to the technological optimism of the 1960s, the implementation of the welfare state, increased access to education and social mobility. In Labour terms, it denoted a steady improvement in working-class living standards and trade union influence from 1945. Yet such developments had always been undercut by tensions and anxieties. British growth and material progress occurred relative to other developed (and developing) economies expanding at a greater rate than the UK. Inflationary pressures and the recession of 1973–75 exacerbated deeper concerns about the validity of the post-war settlement, especially amongst a middle class vexed by taxation, falling property prices and shrinking share dividends. Cultural changes raised questions of morality. Social mobility and immigration tendered fears of personal status aggravated by a fragile economy and loss of empire. Industrial strife triggered alarm about governance and stability. As a result, talk of ‘decline’ – a recurring feature of the British political lexicon since the late nineteenth century – moved to the centre of public debate in the mid-1970s.

Alwyn Turner and others have done much to reveal the extent to which such political and economic portents found cultural expression. Be it through newspaper editorials, political journals, novels, artworks, film or television series, Britain’s decay was anticipated and dramatised to multiple effect. Vistas of urban dereliction and social conflict became commonplace as testimonies to a dying country informed serious drama, comedies and even end-of-year soliloquies by popular light entertainers. On the left and right, moreover, the political and economic difficulties of the period were recognised as a crisis of capitalism, social democracy or socialism depending on authorial provenance. As the Labour government tried to balance prices, wages and inflation against a global economic downturn, so its Keynesian panacea appeared battle worn and broken. ‘Fear is more potent than hope’, an internal Tory paper insisted in 1978, finding ready outlet in a ‘winter of discontent’ that seemingly confirmed the prevailing mood of a nation falling into chaos.

A correlation between punk’s emergence and Britain’s ‘decline’ was easily made. As well as the lyrical focus of ‘Anarchy in the UK’, ‘White Riot’ and other early songs, punk’s aesthetic drew from and reflected the media and political discourse that defined its time. The Sex Pistols’ ‘no future’ tallied with the cataclysmic language that permeated the 1970s; punk’s aggression, rips, zips and images of decay complemented tabloid fears of social disintegration. Punk’s discord signalled social discord; a tattered union jack held together by safety pins and bull clips. ‘Take a depression’, Jon Savage wrote in late 1976, ‘spice with a castrating bureaucracy (all the power to the men in grey) and a sexually & socially frustrated people living off past (WW 2) glories & violence recycled ad nauseam – add an accepted intolerance-as-a-way-of-life at all levels (ask any West Indian) and you get the vacuum tedium of a country OD’d on its own greed’.

In response, punk appeared to filter youthful obsessions and disaffection through the prevailing sense of catastrophe that provided its socio-economic, political and cultural context. This could be instinctive, expressed via blunt statements of antipathy and disillusionment. But interviews from the time also reveal how the language of crisis and decline informed the perspectives of those drawn into punk’s orbit. In late 1976, for example, The Stranglers’ Jean-Jacques Burnel contextualised punk’s implicit political meaning thus: ‘There’s decay everywhere. We’ve always lived with the assumption that things were getting better and better materially, progress all the time, and suddenly […] you hear every day there’s a crisis […] Things being laid off, people are not working. Everything’s coming to a grinding halt’. Certainly, premonitions of social collapse or authoritarian clampdown repeated through punk’s formative years, having gained substance with every slim election victory and minority administration that struggled to govern over the 1970s.

In terms of reportage, therefore, punk tended towards the general: state-of-the-nation addresses that offered snapshots of society in conflict or decline. Neither ‘Anarchy in the UK’ nor ‘God Save the Queen’ worked as systematic appraisals of British polity, but as verbal collages that evoked the tenor of their time: shopping schemes and council tenancies; fascism and terrorism; H-bombs and the ‘mad parade’ of a Jubilee celebrating a nation on the wane. No Future. Anarchy. Destroy.

The Clash took a more narrative approach, detailing their environment and reporting back on events that defined their understanding of the world in which they lived. The Clash album ‘reflects all the shit’, Mark Perry enthused, ‘it tells us the truth […] It’s as if I’m looking at my life in a film.’ Thereafter, punk provided space for bands and writers to document their time and place, typically relaying moods and experiences in three-minute bursts of variable quality and sophistication. Recurring themes emerged. Portrayals of national decay were played out in songs such as The Adverts’ ‘Great British Mistake’, depicting a country weighed down by complacency and unable to adapt as it sunk into media-saturation and, ultimately, authoritarianism. Not dissimilarly, the Tom Robinson Band’s ‘Up Against the Wall’ and ‘Winter of ‘79’ imagined state-sanctioned clampdowns to stave off social change, while the first Jam LP, In The City (1977), flitted between pathos at Britain’s fading prowess and invective against a discredited establishment: ‘whatever happened to the great empire? You bastards turned it into manure’.

Come 1978–79 and bands such as Stiff Little Fingers and The Ruts built on The Clash’s model. The former reported back from Northern Ireland, imagining an ‘Alternative Ulster’ as they transmitted the very real pressures experienced by those growing up at the heart of the Troubles. ‘We’ve said all along we’re not giving solutions’, the band’s Jake Burns told the NME. ‘We’re just telling people all around us what’s going on.’ The Ruts, meanwhile, proffered mini-dramas of contemporary society infused with unease. Their songs were often mired in violent imagery, depicting a society rife with social tensions exacerbated by limited opportunities and the repressive forces of the state. ‘Jah War’, for instance, documented the violence meted out by police on anti-fascist protesters in Southall in 1979, during which Blair Peach was murdered and Clarence Baker beaten into a coma. As effectively, their single ‘Babylon’s Burning’ captured a sense of Britain at the end of the 1970s, conveying a nation smouldering with anxiety, ignorance and hate, ready to combust. ‘What you see has to come out in your lyrics’, the band’s Malcolm Owen insisted, ‘everyone’s anxious. Everyone’s worried’.

If dystopian visions helped inform punk’s worldview, then the frailties of social cohesion were charted in its sound, image and attitude. Street-level animosities were documented in songs such as The Jam’s ‘“A” Bomb in Wardour Street’, The Ruts’ ‘Staring at the Rude Boys’ and Chron Gen’s ‘Mindless Few’, each of which offered redolent accounts of gig-related clashes between the youth cultural tribes given fresh impetus by punk. As this suggests, perennial hostilities found ever more spectacular expression as culture commodified and the cameras rolled. Turf wars became style wars: mods versus rockers became punks versus teds; the skinheads hated everybody. More to the point, The Sun‘s ‘Violent Britain’ series of 1978 found ready complement in punk’s depictions of street-level brutality. Across the Fatal Microbes’ ‘Violence Grows’, Vivien Goldman’s ‘Private Armies’, the Newtown Neurotics’ ‘Mindless Violence’ and Blitz’s ‘Someone’s Gonna Die Tonight’, the bloody consequences of random beatings were captured in depressing detail.

In effect, punk instigated commentary on Britain’s sense of malaise. The deficiencies of the post-war consensus were detailed across the late 1970s; the effects of Thatcherism and the reignited cold war were recorded over the early 1980s. Fanzines offered their own youthful reflections on the time, interspersing record reviews and band interviews with collages of newspaper headlines and tabloid images of police, the NF, militarism and war. Short articles on the threat of fascism, police harassment and unemployment became common; youth cultural and racial tensions were dissected and bemoaned. In particular, the process of deindustrialisation began to inform countless record sleeves and posters, represented by graffitied walls and urban dereliction that later doubled as post-apocalyptic visions of a bombed-out UK. Singles, then albums, portrayed Britain as a country no longer caught in the midst of decline but plunged into desolation; their titles – ‘Dead Cities’, Burning Britain (1982), ‘Give Us a Future’, No Hope for Anyone (1982) – harbouring the fatalistic fury of doomed youth. ‘Look through this broken window’, the Subhumans ruminated on ‘Black and White’, ‘from normality into the ghetto/broken – through madness, hate and boredom/UK – a disunited kingdom.’

 

Early 1980s punk record covers

 

The first term of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government (1979–83) was certainly bellicose. A large pay increase granted to the police sent one signal; realignments in macro-economic policy – cuts in income tax, increases in VAT and interest rates, loosening control over the exchange of foreign currency, market determination of prices and incomes – sent another. Thereafter, manufacturing contracted by some 25 per cent as unemployment soared to over three million by 1982. Simultaneously, trade union influence was curbed, cautiously at first but more robustly over time, while state power was both centralised and ‘rolled back’ via promises to cut borrowing and public expenditure, sell-off council housing, limit the influence of local government and, more extensively from 1984, privatise state-owned industries and services. The language of opposition became the language of government: ‘freedom’ was measured in economic rather than social terms; enemies within (trade unionists, leftists, squatters and onto Peter Lilley’s ‘little list’ of 1992) were distinguished from ‘hard working families’, the ‘quiet majority’ and ‘our people’.

In reply, bands such as Blitz, The Exploited and Vice Squad (whose album title, No Cause for Concern (1981), reportedly came from a Thatcher quote relating to growing youth unemployment) depicted a country broken and violent. Punk’s aesthetic traits became more raggedy; the once stylised apparel became faded and worn; battered leather jackets and boots served as austerity-wear. Appropriately, too, the ‘Apocalypse Now’ tour showcasing four of the leading ‘new punk’ bands of the early 1980s (Anti Pasti, Chron Gen, Discharge and The Exploited) set off in the summer of 1981 as riots erupted across Britain’s inner-cities, prompting even sceptical journalists to register a connection. ‘Last week’s Commons reports [on the riots] read like paraphrased Pistol songs’, the NME’s Chris Bohn reported, noting how punk’s continued references to anarchy resonated once more as ‘chaos asserted its new reign elsewhere’. Or, to quote Wattie Buchan’s reading of the riots: ‘Kids are fed up. If they’ve got nowt to do they’ll do something stupid. Like vandalise or something […] If kids go straight from school to the dole, it’s not their fault is it?     They cannae go out and get a job. The government creates boredom and there’s no way you can protest about it […] They never bother until something actually happens […] Punk today is the backlash of reality.’

Famously, of course, The Specials’ ‘Ghost Town’ was at number one in July 1981, providing a bleak panorama of Britain’s decaying inner cities that all but prefaced the findings of the Scarman Report commissioned by the government in the wake of the ‘Brixton disorders’ of April 1981. The song’s fusion of reggae-dread, punk-ire and pointed social commentary embodied the cross-cultural fusion forged by 2-Tone amidst the racial tensions of the period. As disorder continued to unfold through Liverpool, Leeds, Bristol, Birmingham, Nottingham, Manchester and elsewhere, so deprivation, poor housing and a lack of employment provided a common link. A racial element existed in many areas; but this was less the ‘black versus white’ scenario envisaged by Enoch Powell then stoked by the far-right, and more the result of long-running animosities between local communities and a police force committed to heavy-handed strategies suffused with racial prejudice. As for punk, the riots inspired a series of songs – such as ‘Nation on Fire’ (Blitz) and ‘Summer of ‘81’ (The Violators) – that duly reported events as an upsurge of youthful anger against the government, unemployment and the police.

Not surprisingly, such analyses lent themselves to political interpretation. As we shall see, socialist, anarchist and fascist adaptations of punk’s (and 2-Tone’s) reportage were not uncommon. Though many continued, like Jake Burns above, to insist that commentary did not thereby pertain to a proposed solution, it did raise questions of cause and effect. Tirades against ‘the system’ and stark depictions of the militarism underpinning the cold war bore the stamp of a critical consciousness. More broadly, reportage confirmed punk’s conception of a youth culture that engaged with the world of which it was part – that ‘confronted’ the situation, as Killing Joke’s Jaz Coleman insisted. By so doing, punk tapped into real and media-refracted stresses within the social fabric: industrial conflict and police brutality; youth cultural rivalries and political extremes; unemployment and substance abuse. For every government report on violence at rock concerts, glue sniffing or inner-city policing, punk offered cultural supplements that aspired to Joe Strummer’s conviction that ‘the truth is only known by guttersnipes’.

 

Living with unemployment

There was a moment in late 1976 when punk flirted with the moniker of ‘dole queue rock’. References to the dole or ‘signing on’ featured in most early interviews with the Sex Pistols, The Clash and The Damned, particularly once Tony Parsons ascribed punk’s ‘reality stance’ to its being ‘a product of the United Kingdom in the 1970s’. If Labour wasn’t working, as the famous Tory campaign poster later insisted against a decade increase of almost a million registered unemployed (from 601,333 in 1968 to 1,475,042 in 1978), then punk was seen to represent what Peter Marsh described as the ‘empty life’ of a jobless teenager.

Such interpretation had its limits. A closer look at punk’s initial demographic and the substance of its early texts reveal it to have been born of more than just the ‘right to work’. Most notably, as Simon Frith was quick to observe, punk’s expression of teenage frustration was complemented by art school and counter-cultural influences that inclined as much towards the bohemian as the innate street-level protest Parsons and Marsh attributed to it. Pop music had long provided succour from the tedium of work, school and home life, be it temporal (dancing, listening, dressing up, hanging around) or actual (becoming a musician/singer). In a sense, therefore, punk followed this tradition, albeit filtered through what Frith recognised as the ‘intractable economic situation’ of the mid-1970s.

Whatever their motivation, punk bands utilised the dole queue as a symbol of Britain’s wider condition. Just as one Peterborough band called themselves The Dole in 1977, so references to unemployment peppered early songs by Alternative TV, Chelsea, The Clash, Menace, Sham 69 and others in the same way as record sleeves and gig flyers featured urban topographies of tower blocks and ‘the street’. Signing-on or working in a series of low-paid jobs served to demarcate punk’s pioneers from the rock ‘n’ roll superstars they sought to contest. The infamous pseudonyms adopted by punks were often done so to keep the social security officials (‘SS snoopers’) from enquiring as to the minor earnings received from gigs, singles or fanzines.

By the 1980s, moreover, as unemployment became entrenched and increased to average over three million between 1982 and 1986, so youth culture’s relationship to the dole became more explicit. Beyond the dole-queue skank of UB40, whose name and debut album referenced the signing-on documentation of the time, the early days of Thatcherism were recorded across overtly punk tracks such as the Abrasive Wheels’ ‘Vicious Circle’: ‘Forgotten youth just waste away/ Sniffing glue to face the day/ Walking streets, signing on/ Government schemes go on and on’. Indeed, a steady stream of dole-queue songs emerged from punk’s hinterlands over the early 1980s, ranging from the defiant (Action Pact’s ‘Yet Another Dole Queue Song’, Emergency’s ‘Points of View’) to the fatalistic (Discharge’s ‘Society’s Victims’, Infa Riot’s ‘Each Dawn I Die’). In between, government initiatives were dismissed, as on The Exploited’s ‘YOP’, and conspiratorial scenarios of unemployed youths being conscripted into the army became rife under the darkening cloud of the cold war.

Much of this was born from experience. Whereas, in the 1970s, the dole could be seen as a means to facilitate creative activity and effectively help support an ‘alternative’ lifestyle, so the 1980s limited any sense by which unemployment retained a practical – even optional – quality. Running parallel to the rising number of young unemployed (averaging 25 per cent of 16–19 year-olds by 1985), a series of government schemes were introduced to push those out of work into training and employment. Incremental benefit restrictions were also enforced, culminating in the removal of 16–18 year-olds from the unemployed register in 1988. As a result, the permanency of mass unemployment – especially in those areas north of London devastated by deindustrialisation and the logic of monetarist economics – fed into the popular culture of the period.

In punk terms, the bands and fans who sustained an avowedly punk identity into the 1980s related far closer to the ‘dole queue kids’ of 1977 folklore than their forebears, adopting self-applied labels such as ‘reject’ and ‘victim’ to signal their sense of disenfranchisement. At times, such perspective fed into a glue, drug or alcohol-fuelled nihilism that became subject to graphic depiction, both as warning and a glimpse of where desperation ends. More typically, punk bands simply registered their protest, documenting and dramatising the frustrations of a generation struggling to adapt to a shifting socio-economic environment over which they felt no control. ‘We’re just part of an experiment’, Anti Pasti’s 19-year-old Will Hoon stated in 1981 with some insight. ‘Monetarism is being tried out on us. And I don’t wanna be a guinea pig’.

There was a parallel narrative. From the outset, punk-informed protest set itself as much against the tedium and futility of work as it did against unemployment per se. One consequence of the post-war consensus was to broaden further education opportunities and provide sufficient welfare provision for the young working class and disaffected middle class to step outside the ‘9-to-5’ grind and gain perspective on it. Forming a band offered a means to defer – maybe even escape from – the regimented toil of an ‘ordinary’ life, with punk’s import stemming in part from its recovering access to pop’s medium. The Jam, Paul Weller explained, originated from the fact that ‘you wake up one morning and you don’t wanna go and work in a poxy factory’. Steve Diggle, too, joined Buzzcocks after experiencing the working alternative. ‘[I] decided I’d never work again in my life’, he told the NME. ‘What I was going to do was read and play guitar, do all the things I wanted to do. Do artistic things …’ In tune with Simon Frith’s notion of punk bohemia, Mick Jones ruminated on signing-on to supplement his art school grant by insisting that being on the dole was only ‘hard if you’ve been conditioned to think you’ve gotta have a job’.

As this suggests, the stultifying effect of employment provided a constant of punk-informed social realism. The Fall’s ‘Industrial Estate’ captured its subject’s bleak surroundings via stark observation (‘and the crap in the air will fuck up your face’), culminating in a valium prescription for depression. Sham 69’s ‘I Don’t Wanna’ was equally curt, refuting both a life of work and the dole on route to a gold-watch pension sign-off and a council flat coffin ‘up in the sky’. More eloquently, perhaps, The Jam, whose songs included several character portraits of the aspiring petty-bourgeoisie (‘Mr Clean’, ‘Man in the Corner Shop’), released ‘Just Who is the Five O’clock Hero’ as a single in 1982, a record that offered a snapshot of an ageing factory worker, always tired and forever poor, locked into a living death. The Subhumans, too, followed the day-cycle of a beleaguered worker on their ‘Get to Work on Time’, as did The Fakes, whose ‘Production’ comprised a plodding, clock-watching dirge to the factory and back. From Manchester, The Mothmen issued ‘Factory/Teapoint/Factory’ in 1980, a song with a recorded canteen break sandwiched between its metronomic portrait of life on a production line. The Wall, meanwhile, debuted with ‘New Way’, a single that portrayed technological change as a conduit for mechanised slave labour, a subject implicit in Steve Ignorant’s Crass-rant about his time working for Ford (‘End Result’). Or, to get really blunt about it, The Maniacs wrote an unreleased song called ‘I Don’t Wanna Go To Work’ that combined class insight (I‘ve had enough of this, working for the capitalist’) with trademark punk insolence (‘I just want to get pissed’).

Workplace politics were occasionally tackled. Poet-ranters such as Oi! The Comrade delivered by turn angry and humourous diatribes against the ‘Guvnor’s Man’ and exploitative employment. Not dissimilarly, The Business’ ‘National Insurance Blacklist’ exposed the persecution of militant workers in the building trade. The Redskins, as would be expected, espoused the importance of trade unionism and played with other punk-inspired bands at numerous gigs in support of striking workers up to and throughout the 1984–5 miners’ dispute. By then, however, any focus on work tended to fuse with the deepening problem of unemployment. Thus, in 1980–81, as unemployed rates passed two million, so the Angelic Upstarts’ north-east roots were explored in paeans to the mining and dockyard communities from where the band came and an album, 2,000,000 Voices (1981), that referenced back to the depression of the 1930s. Mensi even presented a 1984 Play at Home (Channel 4) documentary that looked into the effect of unemployment on Tyneside.

Such accounts of work and unemployment were generally experiential. But while punk’s protest and sense of frustration moved beyond simply ‘living for the weekend’, its political significance remained diffuse and contested. Simultaneously, therefore, competing theoretical perspectives attempted to concentrate punk’s disaffection. From a Marxist point of view, attention focused on the mechanics of labour and capital, as in The Mekons’ ‘32 Weeks’, which chartered the relationship between work and consumption via a breakdown of the hours needed to buy a car, a bed, some food and a drink. The extension of market forces into social relations also formed the basis of many a Gang of Four song, while Six Minute War’s ‘Strike’ detailed the class dynamics of industrial struggle (‘maximize on profit that’s all they want to do/ exploit the working class and that means you’). Again, however, the 1980s saw attention shift to unemployment, a problem typically registered as a by-product of Thatcherite economics. So, for example, the Newtown Neurotics indicated the changing mood of the 1970s and 1980s on their ‘Living with Unemployment’, an update of a Members’ song – ‘Solitary Confinement’ – written in 1978 that told the story of someone moving to London only to get stuck in a bedsit on low-paid work and a long commute. In the Neurotics’ version, released in 1983, the job had been lost, ‘working all day long’ had become ‘sleeping all day long’, and the subsequent alienation was no longer a consequence of exploitative labour but part of a Tory plan to subjugate the working class.

Alternately, anarchist and counter-cultural approaches paved the way to more radical responses. On the one hand, McLaren’s situationist roots revealed themselves through Bow Wow Wow, whose ‘W.O.R.K’ disavowed the work ethic in favour of ‘primitive’ pleasures and ‘piracy’. Unemployment, McLaren argued, should be embraced as liberation; kids should dress up, fuck, steal and have fun. More seriously, Debord’s advice to ‘Ne travaillez jamais’ [never work] – first daubed across a wall on Paris’ Rue de Seine in 1953 – inspired a Vague essay by Peter Scott that posited unemployment and a creative ‘life on society’s outer fringe’ as preferable to the drudgery of labour. Indeed, such ideas proved integral to the ideological foundations of punk’s anarchist milieus and found regular expression in fanzines such as Toxic Grafity:     ‘As far as I can see work in its present form is nothing but slavery. There must be more to life than this. The myth that work brings purpose and meaning to your life is crap […] who wants to spend fifty-or-so years of your life doing this … And to think people actually march for the right to do this … STAY FREE.’

Punk’s relationship to unemployment was therefore contained within a broader range of pressures and concerns affecting young people in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The dole queue was a component of punk’s dystopian vision and punk-informed bands played unemployed benefit gigs from 1977 onwards. But responses to the problem varied. Famously, to the chagrin of those who interpreted Chelsea’s ‘Right to Work’ as a bold statement in support of the SWP’s campaign for jobs, the song was aimed (in part) at restrictive trade union practice. More to the point, working for the ‘rat race’ and committing to a factory or office job brought into sharp relief the sentiment captured by King Mob in the graffiti that greeted London commuters each day between Ladbroke Grove and Westbourne Park: ‘Same thing day after day – tube-work-tube-armchair-tv-sleep-tube – how much more can you take: one in ten go mad – one in five cracks up’. ‘Kids don’t want to just get a job in the system’, Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex said in 1978, being ‘pushed around in a factory for 20 years and get a gold watch – they’ve got more suss now […] Nothing much has changed since the days of serfdom except that you get paid a wage, but just enough to make you go back next week’. Nevertheless, the deepening impact of unemployment into the 1980s helped reassert initial readings of punk’s motivation. Unemployment was taken up in the music press, including pieces by Garry Bushell, Chris Dean and Ray Lowry, and calls for the government to provide jobs or a future became recurrent slogans. If ‘dole queue rock’ proved too narrow a description to encompass punk’s original impetus, then (the spectre of) unemployment formed at least part of the backdrop to its social realist dramas.

 

What a wonderful world this is

Released in late 1978, Sham 69’s That’s Life follows a day in the life of a working-class teenager. The story is irregular: the lead character’s name changes and its fragments do not quite hold together in a coherent whole. Nevertheless, the album provides a compelling piece of punk social realism, what Paul Morley described as a dramatised depiction of youth’s social and domestic claustrophobia. ‘The sense is that of a person who doesn’t control their own life, a feeling we all know’.

The narrative to That’s Life – later made into a short film for the BBC’s Arena series – is deliberately simple. The day starts with a missed alarm clock, a moaning mum and an occupied bathroom. There follows a daily commute to a hated job fuelled only by thoughts of the weekend and stoic indignation (‘who gives a damn […] we’re all dogsbodies’). But lateness leads to the sack and the rest of the day is spent in the café, bookies and pub trying to salvage something from an uncertain future (‘I don’t know where I’m going, but I gotta get there soon’). Money is won, drinks are drunk, a girl is met and a fight is squared, before the Sunday morning nightmare starts all over again. ‘Where am I?’, our hero asks. ‘You’re at home, where do you think you bleedin’ are?’, his dad replies.

Formed in 1976, Sham 69 were fronted by Jimmy Pursey, a sinewy motor-mouth who ‘thinks as he speaks and speaks as he thinks’. They hailed from Hersham, a small Surrey town that lent the band its name, and were briefly touted as a necessary reaction to punk’s descent into stylised pose. Sham 69 ‘feel like you and me’, Danny Baker wrote in Sniffin’ Glue, ‘genuine’ street kids sussed to punk’s commodification and ‘part of what I always thought this lark was about’. Sham were the sound of someone ‘screaming at the bastards’, Tony Parsons concurred, caught in a state of constant conflict with the ‘lifeless, soulless, joyless Establishment Order’. As a result, the band attracted a loyal following cut from their own cloth: ‘working-class kids, out of school who [no-one] gives a fuck about’, as Gary Hitchcock, a member of the ‘Sham Army’, put it. Many of these, like Pursey, were ex- or revived skinheads; a few, too, including Hitchcock, found an outlet for their disaffection in fascism and violence. But Sham’s politics were never explicit and never aligned. Though Pursey lent support to RAR, his focus was on articulating the frustrations of what he understood to be ‘ordinary kids’, replete with their faults, contradictions and imperfections. The band’s early signature tune, ‘Song of the Streets’, centred on a call-and-response refrain, ‘What have we got? Fuck all’, with lyrics that rejected the solutions of detested politicians. Instead, Sham 69 rallied round a naïve but heartfelt call for youth cultural unity (‘If the Kids are United’) that clung to an identity based on spirit and class affinity.

Sham’s approach embodied the idea of punk connecting to the lives of those who made, played and listened to it. This, typically, meant lyrics focused on contemporary everyday concerns expressed in contemporary everyday language. Relationships, antagonisms, frustrations and anxieties shorn of pop’s sheen to be stated bluntly and unashamedly; the ‘kids on the street’ recast as an emblem of pop’s provenance. Analogous to Sham 69, therefore, were bands such as Slaughter and the Dogs and Menace who respectively celebrated ‘bootboys’ from Wythenshawe and asked ‘if we’re the working class why ain’t we got jobs?’ From Custom House in London’s East End came the Cockney Rejects, eschewing songs about love and politics in favour of tales from the backstreets and the terraces. ‘We stand for punk as bootboy music’, a teenage ‘Stinky’ Turner told Sounds in 1980, ‘Harringtons, boots, straights, that’s what we’re all about’. Cock Sparrer, too, whose early gigs appealed to ‘football hooligans, skinheads and clockwork orange lookalikes’, evoked the thrill of a Saturday afternoon, combining celebrations of youthful exuberance with an existential fear of the future. On both ‘Runnin’ Riot’ and ‘Chip on my Shoulder’, they extolled disrupting the ‘peace and quiet’ to offset the dreaded tomorrow of mortgages and a life spent ‘digging holes in the road’. ‘Getting old sure bothers me’, they admitted, ‘it bothers me to death’.

By the 1980s, Sham’s prototype had helped pave the way for Oi!, under whose banner bands such as The 4-Skins, The Business and Infa Riot transmitted both the empowerment and the tensions inherent in the adoption of youth cultural style. If Oi! meant ‘punk without the posers’ and ‘facing up to reality’, as The Business’ Micky Fitz insisted, then its lyrical focus combined protest (‘Work or Riot’, ‘Bread or Blood’) with snapshots of working-class life and culture. Local characters – Jack-the-lads, plastic gangsters, clockwork skinheads – were immortalised in song; pub conversations about bank holiday beanos, street fights, petty crime and personal misfortune were set to a punk backbeat. This was sometimes humourous. From Brighton, Peter and the Test Tube Babies specialised in tall tales of being banned from local pubs or getting into scrapes with teds, moped lads and convincing transvestites. Back in London, The Gymslips provided a female counterpart to Oi!’s primarily male persona, ‘rockin’ with the renees’ via odes to the pub’s top shelf, street fashion and the joys of pie ‘n’ mash. But Oi!’s social realism more generally concentrated on the frustrations of being young, male and working-class. Beneath the bravado lay a sense of anger and frustration, an almost existential disaffection with the state of things.

Among the best at expressing this were the Angelic Upstarts, whose songs – ‘Teenage Warning’, ‘I’m an Upstart’, ‘Leave Me Alone’, ‘Out of Control’ – railed against the teachers, social workers, politicians, police and social structures that seemingly shaped and bound possibilities. Infa Riot, too, sung of cages and catch-22s, portraying lives trapped by circumstance and caught in a game to which the rules were rigged. ‘Feel the rage’, Lee Wilson sung, ‘building up […] breaking out’. Like teenage Arthur Seatons transported from Sillitoe’s 1950s Nottingham to the inner-city 1970s and ‘80s, punk’s social realists came of age embittered by the material, political and economic confines that determined their lives.

Not surprisingly, given their shared milieu, the 2-Tone bands that emerged to prominence in 1979 covered similar lyrical concerns. Both Oi! and 2-Tone tapped into youth cultural styles that pre-dated punk (skinheads, rude boys, mod); both claimed street-level credentials; both suffered from the attentions of the far right recruiting amongst their audience; both celebrated their cultural origins as they registered a protest. Where Oi! aspired to ‘having a laugh and having a say’, 2-Tone’s energy and ska-based sound emphasised its commitment to pleasure in the face of ‘too much pressure’.

Coming from the midlands, The Beat, The Selecter and The Specials used social realist lyrics to affirm their cross-cultural origins and environment. Anti-Thatcherite diatribes rubbed against tales of subcultural conflict, grotty nightclubs and unwanted teenage pregnancies. As importantly, the bands’ anti-racism was transmitted through words and practice. The 1970s, after all, had seen racial tensions exacerbated by a resurgent NF and the socio-economic effects of recession. In response, The Specials’ ‘Concrete Jungle’ and The Beat’s ‘Two Swords’ captured the merger of territorial, political and racial identities over the decade, while ‘It Doesn’t Make It All Right’ and ‘Why?’ questioned the attitudes of racist elements in the 2-Tone audience. The result was to marry both critique and resolution, forging a cultural politics rooted in the everyday experience of Coventry and Birmingham that found expression in the bands’ musical fusion and multi-racial composition.

The provincial, or localised, nature of much punk-informed social realism was important. As Russ Bestley has argued, it confirmed a sense of grass-roots authenticity that connected bands to their environment and audience. Local signifiers were used on sleeves; songs engaged with specifically resident concerns; independent labels were formed to document regional scenes. The Wessex ’82 EP may serve as a good example, comprising four bands from the south-west on a local label (Bluurg) wrapped in a sleeve featuring the famous white horse of Westbury Hill. Notably, too, such provincialism marked a disregard for the London-centric media and music industry. By engaging with a ‘Nottingham Problem’ or documenting a falling out with a local pub landlord (‘Black Horse’), Resistance ‘77 and Cult Maniax displayed their indifference to the potential of pop as a career or business.

Of course, provincialism did not have to be overtly confrontational. The Undertones relayed pop’s youthful obsessions – love, lust, fun and dancing – in parochial terms that suggested provenance rather than idealisation: teenage kicks, perfect cousins, chocolate and girls. Coming from Derry, such concerns had political connotations when set against a backdrop of the Troubles. But they also resituated the clichés of pop’s lexicon in a way that transformed the ordinary into points of connection. In time, songs about the minutiae of everyday life – about boys and girls, bus stops and rainy Sundays – became standard for an indie pop focused on personal relationships caught at the moment of adolescence.

Punk’s tendency to social realism injected new voices and subject matter into popular music. By so doing, feelings and experiences were expressed in ways designed to reassert pop music’s relevance to the youth cultures that formed around it. This was often infused with a class sensibility – a street-level riposte to pop’s commercial whimsy. In CCCS terms, it may be seen as a ‘magical’ solution to broader socio-economic oppressions, a means of dealing with the boredom and frustration that punk described. Certainly, some of those involved in punk and 2-Tone recognised it as such. ‘Our music is a solution’, Joe Strummer said, ‘because I don’t have to get drunk every night and go around kicking people and smashing up phone boxes … [like] Paul used to do’. The Selecter’s Pauline Black sung of teaching ‘myself a new philosophy’ as 2-Tone lived out the racial and cultural unity it espoused in the face of political and socio-economic stresses. For Paul Weller, it meant taking ‘everyday experience’ and turning ‘it into art’, something The Jam did in ways that combined evocative depictions of British life with an underlying sense of critique. From the late-night terrors of the London Underground to class conflict and the ideological pyres of Thatcherism, The Jam’s 7” singles embodied the feelings and effects of Britain’s changing socio-economic landscape:

 

Rows and rows of disused milk floats/ Stand dying in the dairy yard/ And a          hundred lonely housewives/ Clutch empty milk bottles to their hearts/
Hanging out their old love letters on the line to dry/ It’s enough to make you stop            believing/ When tears come fast and furious/ […] A whole street’s belief in Sunday’s       roast beef/Gets dashed against the co-op/ To either cut down on beer or the kids’          new gear/ It’s a big decision in a town called malice …

 

Dirt behind the daydream

There were darker and stranger components to punk-informed realism. From the outset, punk gave rise to tendencies keen to recover the marginal and the supressed; to scrape away the veneer of British propriety to reveal what lay beneath. Among McLaren and Westwood’s early designs were images of sexual transgression, blasphemy, criminality and political extremity. Naked cowboys, bare breasts, fetish wear and pornographic images were displayed to break down the boundaries of fascination and repulsion; to expose the tensions between private and public desire. Not dissimilarly, inverted crucifixes, swastikas and anarchist slogans co-existed to provoke and subvert towards some kind of reaction. According to McLaren, the ideal customer of Sex and Seditionaries was a 16-year-old girl from the suburbs who bought a rubber mini-skirt at the weekend to wear to work on the Monday.

Again, such an approach overlapped with the industrial culture of Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire and others, for whom the ‘reality’ constructed by forces of social and political control (politics, media, religion, family, work etc.) could be challenged through the presentation of behaviours that rubbed against the grain of supposed normality. To this end, punk and industrial culture shared an interest in the abject and the taboo, in violence and the profane, subjects that could shock and disrupt the fragile equilibriums of modern society. Crucially, too, both tended – or claimed – to draw their alternative realities from life itself.

There are numerous examples. Where the Sex Pistols’ ‘Bodies’ described the gurgling bloody mess of an abortion via the life-story of a fan suffering from severe mental illness, Lydon’s early PiL lyrics recounted media reports of exorcism and rape. Siouxsie and the Banshees claimed to find inspiration for their macabre songs of mental breakdown (‘Suburban Relapse’), alienation (’Jigsaw Feeling’) and sexual violence (‘Carcass’) in the tabloids and obscure corners of popular culture. ‘[The] bloke who put his leg on the railway line because he wanted to claim more money as a war hero’, Siouxsie reflected, and ‘the woman who wheeled a chopped-up body around in a pram. It’s all there in The Sun every day.’ Like the Velvet Underground, whose influence on the band was manifest, the Banshees subverted the mores of popular music, producing ‘chilling vignettes of minor atrocities and gruesome indulgences, of frustration or unrequited love. From the dark side of life, grinning, perverted’, they specialised in revealing ‘ugly truths […] set against the pointlessness of life.’

            Throbbing Gristle’s approach was more conceptual, drawing from ideas honed in the performance work of COUM Transmissions. Back in 1975, COUM had committed to revealing the ‘secret fears and neuroses’ of society, exposing repressed emotions and desires as a means to confront prevailing social values. Throbbing Gristle took this on, initially producing a harsh, grinding noise through which a fascination with the body and mechanisms of social control served as a commentary on both the ‘savage realities’ of modernity and the sanitised projections of ‘real life’ disseminated by the media. Over a series of records, videos, newsletters and live performance, detailed depictions of murder, violence, pain, the Holocaust and sexual taboo coalesced in a gruesome tableau that dared the listener/viewer to confront or retreat. A subsequent group, Coil, formed by John Balance (Geoff Burton) with Peter Christopherson in 1983, even issued an album, Scatology (1985), that journeyed deep into the recesses of humanity’s base instincts, culminating in a story of sexual caprophagy.

Wars past and envisaged provided subject matter and imagery for countless record sleeves, fanzines and posters. Just as the Second World War and the horrors of Nazism nurtured a morbid interest in those wishing to explore the extremes of humankind, so the cold war and its nuclear endgame informed the anti-militarist politics of punk over the 1980s. Discharge, in particular, engaged with the ‘realities of war’, producing a series of records that gruesomely depicted the effects of nuclear destruction or military intervention: ‘men, women and children cry and scream in pain, wounded by bomb splinters/Streets littered with maimed and slaughtered in rigid pathetic heaps’. Murderers, maniacs and madness likewise weaved their way through the punk-informed canon. The Cambridge Rapist (Peter Cook), Yorkshire Ripper (Peter Sutcliffe) and Moors Murderers (Ian Brady and Myra Hindley) provided pertinent signifiers of society’s disturbing underbelly. Less gratuitously, perhaps, juxtapositions of real life horror and media-drawn promises of a better tomorrow became a staple of songs and fanzine collage. The dirt behind the daydream, Gang of Four called it, as they undercut advertising lingo with references to Britain’s war in Ireland and the onset of North Sea oil.

            Things got messy if the propensity to shock fell out of context. A fascination with the macabre could also drift into fantasy, relinquishing any claim to realism in favour of schlock horror or, later, the romantic darklands of what became goth. Equally, where band names such as the Moors Murderers or Raped began to push at the boundaries of taste with barely a hint of dissident intent beyond the desire to offend, then records such as Stench’s ‘Raspberry Cripple’ or Chaotic Dischord’s ‘And There Wuz Cows’ plunged deep into the mire. To be sure, the giddy thrill of saying-the-unsayable – or wearing-the-unwearable – struck a chord with teenagers looking to provoke a reaction. But swastikas, in particular, retained a potency for reasons that could not be so easily disarmed when projected away from Seditionaries’ clashing symbols or the archly-camp Weimar references of the Bromley contingent. Several bands were accused of harbouring Nazi sympathies as a result of using imagery drawn from the Third Reich. Most famously, perhaps, Joy Division’s name (taken from a book, House of Dolls, which depicted sex slavery in a concentration camp) and debut EP (its sleeve featuring a Hitler Youth drummer boy) prompted rumours of fascist leanings.

Certainly, the line between fascination and fetishisation could all too easily be crossed. If the ambiguous symbolism presented by Joy Division, The Skids, Theatre of Hate and others was noted on the far right and prone to misinterpretation, then Death in June’s obsession with National Socialist history led to at least one member (Tony Wakeford) engaging with active fascist politics. Groups like Whitehouse – formed by erstwhile Essential Logic guitarist William Bennett – repudiated the critical detachment retained by Throbbing Gristle, dedicating their albums to serial killers and filling their fanzines with texts of rape and murder. Predictably, Whitehouse’s Come Organisation adopted a swastika-like symbol and built records around fascist language and iconography (Buchenweld, New Britain, Für Ilse Koch), tracing a line from the Marquis de Sade to the death camps and the extremes of human cruelty. The results were mixed: disturbing, repulsive, fascinating and juvenile in about equal measure.

As this suggests, an interest in the abject could lead to dubious ends. Simultaneously, however, punk stimulated transformative impulses that sought out the absurdities of everyday life, facilitating a social surrealism rooted in the contemporary but attuned to the incongruities that lurked beneath any semblance of ‘normality’. Best of all were The Fall, emerging from Prestwich as 1976 turned to 1977. Musically, The Fall recognised the potential to break down and reconstitute popular music in the wake of punk’s emergence. The band’s sound combined rock ‘n’ roll primitivism with disciplined repetition, ‘mistreating instruments’ to a get a ‘feeling over’ as Mark E Smith put it. All affectation was removed. Their songs contained no solos or musical frills; records were produced to emphasise the emergent rawness of their content, eschewing the sheen of studio production in favour of a discordant, deliberately distorted sound. Fall songs appeared caught in what Michael Goddard and Benjamin Halligan have described as ‘a state of becoming’, unruly, chaotic, perpetually mutating. Stylistically, too, the band projected an anti-image, adopting none of punk’s sartorial props and distancing themselves from the expectations of pop or rock presentation. Live, the band was uncommunicative and functional; the music press, music industry and most contemporary bands were held in disdain. Record sleeves were cut ‘n’ pasted, covered in Smith’s scrawl as if to trash any reverence afforded to rock’s product status. Indeed, The Fall’s uncompromising approach and commitment to perpetual creativity was interpreted by Smith to mean his band were among the ‘only ones who represented what the whole thing [punk] was supposed to be’.

Smith remains one of rock’s most innovative lyricists. From the outset, his words, accent and delivery located The Fall within their regional and socio-economic context whilst simultaneously reimagining the environments they described. Just as photos and videos of the band were typically taken in situ (Prestwich streets and pubs), so Smith’s lyrics referred to local and contemporary signifiers that connected to a particular time and place: fags, pubs, industrial estates, Hovis adverts, Kwik Save, CB radio, Manchester parks, Prestwich halls etc. In form, however, Smith’s words complemented the band’s sound, fragmenting narratives and cultural critiques into unique patterns of language and imagery. The songs’ characters were often grotesques; humdrum locales were transformed into strange worlds that filtered literary influences such as M.R. James, H.P. Lovecraft, Malcolm Lowry and Arthur Machen through Smith’s own speed-and-alcohol fuelled imagination. The effect was to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary, contesting and disrupting preconceptions by undermining their apparent rationale. In other words, Smith claimed and defended his proudly working-class heritage against the commercial, cosmopolitan and intellectual forces that conspired to dilute it: ‘Northern white crap that talks back’.

Other bands did similar. The Prefects morphed into The Nightingales, allowing Robert Lloyd to perfect his tales of urban ospreys and crafty fags. The Membranes, from Blackpool, sung of tatty seaside towns and Spike Milligan’s tape recorder. A Witness, Bogshed and The Three Johns followed suit, mangling rock ‘n’ roll’s form whilst combining a pub-honed wit with lyrics that found the surreal amidst the mundane. Most comparable to Smith, perhaps, was John Cooper-Clarke, the Salford poet who came to prominence in tandem with The Fall. Cooper-Clarke was 28 in 1977, having honed his craft in northern clubs (frequented by young pre-Fall members) and thereby connecting to aspects of the pre-punk counter-culture. Nevertheless, he recognised in punk an interest in words and ideas, appreciating its attempts to expand rock’s lexicon and deconstruct its formulas. ‘It’s the nearest thing that there’s ever been […] to the working classes going into areas like surrealism and Dada […] It only widens your perspective […] The Pistols put you in a context where it’s possible to understand more. I mean, it’s probably a cliché now, but words like fascist and fascism jumped out. Things like that just weren’t in pop songs.’

Like Smith, Cooper-Clarke surveyed and transformed his environment. His poems could be humourous and fantastical (‘(I Married a) Monster from Outer Space’), but always rooted – linguistically and verbally – in recognisably urban locales full of buses, dirt, concrete and disease. His flights of imagination were underpinned by a social critique informed by the structural changes affecting his native Salford. Thus, among his most well-known poems, ‘Evidently Chickentown’ and ‘Beasley Street’ travel deep into the distresses of everyday life, depicting poverty and decay via evocative descriptions of sights, sounds, people and smells.

The reportage and realism that signalled punk’s engagement with the world it was born into developed in distinct ways. The path from The Clash’s ‘White Riot’ to Bogshed’s ‘Fat Lad Exam Failure’ was hardly a straight line. Many of those informed by punk’s emergence quickly shed any commitment to a predetermined musical form or sense of style even as they retained comparable attitudes and lyrical concerns. In other words, the diverse sounds and cultures that evolved from 1976 shared an aversion to the banal platitudes of much rock ‘n’ roll and a conviction that popular music should reflect and inform the lives of those who made and listened to it. Motivations varied of course. Where Throbbing Gristle sought to confront their audience, Tom Robinson endeavoured to raise political consciousness. Where Sham 69 rallied in celebratory protest, The Fall scrambled preconceptions and stimulated imaginations. Even then, there remained a sense by which the cultural spaces opened up by punk should hold a relevance to recognisable places, events and life-as-lived. More to the point, beneath the anger, abjection and absurdity lay hint of an even darker stimulus: a boredom born of alienation and despair.

 

Matt Worley missing chapter 6

Matt Worley ch7

Chapter Three

Tell us the truth: Reportage, realism and abjection

 

All our songs are about being honest, right? The situation as we see it […] otherwise      we’d be writing bullshit!!

Mick Jones (1976)

 

The story behind The Clash’s ‘White Riot’ has become part of punk folklore. As told on LWT’s London Weekend Show in November 1976, Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon used it to explain The Clash’s commitment to writing about ‘what’s going on at the moment’. The song itself related to the Notting Hill carnival of just a few weeks earlier, during which on-going tensions between police and the area’s black population gave way to violence. According to newspaper reports, some 300 police and 131 members of the public were injured during the disturbance, bringing to the fore questions of race relations, inner-city policing and political stability. In fact, the trouble was such that the Home Office subsequently authorised the introduction of riot shields (first used the following year during clashes between the NF and anti-racists in Lewisham), with images from the time showing policemen wielding truncheons and cowering behind dustbin lids, smashed-up shop fronts and rubble-strewn streets, black youths fleeing from police or throwing bricks. ‘We was down there, me and him’, Strummer said, ‘and we got searched by policemen, looking for bricks, like. And then, later on, we got searched by Rasta, looking for pound notes in our pockets’. ‘And all we had were bricks and bottles,’ finished Simonon.

Such a tale would feed into The Clash’s own mythology, helping to align their punk protest with the roots reggae that provided a suitably ‘dread’ soundtrack to the unrest in Notting Hill and affirming the band’s conception of themselves as street-level rebels reporting back from the urban frontline. The song’s lyrics celebrated the riot and urged white youth to have the guts to do the same. Photos from the day provided copy for the band’s record sleeves and stage backdrops; the fact that Strummer and Simonon had been there helped authenticate their aural snapshot of mid-‘70s London.

This lived experience was important. The Clash aspired to a significance they felt had been lost in most popular music. Their early songs were peppered with local references to the ‘Westway’, ‘Bakerloo’, ‘Knightsbridge’, ‘Hammersmith’, ‘the 100 Club’ and ‘London Town’; they spoke of ‘escalators’, ‘Ford Cortinas’, ‘skin-flicks’, the dole ‘office’ and ‘fighting in the road’; they described social tensions, ennui, unemployment, petty crime and political impotency. Or, as Tony Parsons put it, The Clash offered a ‘mirror reflection of the kind of […] white, working-class experiences that only seem like a cliché to those people who haven’t lived through them’. In so doing, they helped forge a template that informed much British punk and punk-related styles into the 1980s: that is, an aggressive sound, image and rhetoric that proffered social reportage rooted in practice. As is well known, Strummer’s middle-class background and the art school enrolment of all three core band members soon provided critics with the necessary information to challenge the band’s street-savvy stance. But the idea of the early Clash – not to mention their evident sincerity – meant they remained integral to punk’s cultural evolution. In effect, both Oi! and the more social-conscious punk of the period strove to maintain or better fulfil a version of The Clash’s original intent.

Simultaneously, ‘White Riot’ – alongside many other Clash songs – hinted at a morality beyond mere reportage. Early interviews revealed the band to accept the political connotations of an approach that tended more towards a form of consciousness-raising than any specific doctrine – ‘[We’re] making people aware of a situation they’d otherwise tend to ignore’, Simonon insisted. Nevertheless, lyrics such as ‘all the power in the hands, of the people rich enough to buy it’ lent The Clash a missionary zeal that inspired many a fledgling socialist to embrace punk. In Strummer’s words, ‘the only thing I’m interested in is my personal freedom … [But] it ain’t no use me having the right to choose unless everybody else has too’.

More typically, perhaps, punk represented a medium of social realism that was often political by default. In producing records that sought to reflect, report and comment on their time and place, bands such as Sham 69, The Ruts, Angelic Upstarts and Cockney Rejects infused popular music with voices, subject matter and perspectives that had rarely been so explicitly stated in a pop-cultural context. This, in turn, was further evident in the work of The Jam and much early 2-Tone, which redirected punk’s social realism through different musical and stylistic routes. Though most such bands rejected any overtly political label, punk signified a means to register a protest, highlight a social problem or celebrate a localised – often class-based – culture. Similarly, while squabbles about authenticity became a feature of punk and post-punk discourse, the principal effect of its tendency to social realism was to dramatise British youth culture at a significant historical juncture. Just as the novels of Alan Sillitoe or the films of Tony Richardson depicted the tensions and transformations of post-war Britain into the 1950s and 1960s, so the starkly urban insights of The Jam, The Ruts and The Specials captured the anxieties occasioned by the socio-economic insecurities and socio-cultural changes manifest by the 1970s and 1980s.

In practice, punk-derived social realism oscillated between the thrills and frustrations of urban living. It fretted over adolescent insecurities and celebrated the empowerment of subcultural style. It documented the spectacular, as with ‘White Riot’, but simultaneously sought to tap into and engage with the provincial concerns of those ‘Saturday’s Kids’ from ‘council houses’ who wore ‘V-neck shirts and baggy trousers’/‘cheap perfume ‘cos it’s all they can afford’. It veered, uneasily at times, between reportage and political commentary. In the main, however, bands tended to reject accusations of preaching, preferring to see their music as a means to ‘observe’ or ‘tell the truth’ about the world around them.

Not all were convinced. For their critics, bands such as The Jam confirmed rather than challenged their audience’s expectations and thereby neutered punk’s radical spirit via a combination of fatalism and reaction. Sham 69 and their successors were soon dismissed – as Parsons forewarned – as projecting working-class caricatures that revelled in street-level violence and failed to demonstrate a positive response to the problems they highlighted. By 1981 and the emergence of Oi!, such brusque rock ‘n’ roll and a lyrical focus on (male) working-class culture was even dismissed as inherently ‘racist-sexist-fascist’. But these bands were not writing or performing for aspiring cultural commentators, academics or self-proclaimed socialist revolutionaries. Rather, they formed part of a wider youth culture that encompassed clothes, clubs, friends and locales. The bands’ lyrical concerns were designed to resonate with their audience; to trigger points of recognition via the language used, the places referenced and the experiences shared. As this suggests, gigs – especially those in smaller venues – were as important as the records made. Gigs served as a place of commonality that was reaffirmed by the terrace-style sing-a-long nature of songs that dissolved the band-audience divide and reclaimed pop music for the proverbial ‘kids on the street’. In other words, the ‘way out’ offered by rock ‘n’ roll and pop music from the 1950s was again made tangible by bands that celebrated the moment and warned against the dismal future of adult life.

 

Tears of a nation

When, in 1976, James Callaghan warned the Labour conference that the ‘cosy world is gone’, he made something of an understatement. The immediate problem was serious enough: the pound’s value against the dollar had plunged to a record low of $1.68 in September 1976, thereby prompting Britain to apply for an IMF loan to offset the market’s lack of confidence and allay fears of a currency collapse. More broadly, the Labour government’s appeal to the IMF proved but an especially humiliating episode among a series of political and economic crises that rumbled throughout the 1970s into the 1980s. As the Sex Pistols set out on their ill-fated ‘Anarchy in the UK’ tour of December 1976, so a year that had begun with inflation rates over 20 per cent (not to mention an IRA bomb attack on London’s west end) culminated in public spending cuts that effectively signalled a fundamental realignment of the British polity.

Of course, Callaghan’s once ‘cosy’ Britain was itself something of a chimera. His comments alluded to the sustained period of economic growth and full employment that followed the war; to the technological optimism of the 1960s, the implementation of the welfare state, increased access to education and social mobility. In Labour terms, it denoted a steady improvement in working-class living standards and trade union influence from 1945. Yet such developments had always been undercut by tensions and anxieties. British growth and material progress occurred relative to other developed (and developing) economies expanding at a greater rate than the UK. Inflationary pressures and the recession of 1973–75 exacerbated deeper concerns about the validity of the post-war settlement, especially amongst a middle class vexed by taxation, falling property prices and shrinking share dividends. Cultural changes raised questions of morality. Social mobility and immigration tendered fears of personal status aggravated by a fragile economy and loss of empire. Industrial strife triggered alarm about governance and stability. As a result, talk of ‘decline’ – a recurring feature of the British political lexicon since the late nineteenth century – moved to the centre of public debate in the mid-1970s.

Alwyn Turner and others have done much to reveal the extent to which such political and economic portents found cultural expression. Be it through newspaper editorials, political journals, novels, artworks, film or television series, Britain’s decay was anticipated and dramatised to multiple effect. Vistas of urban dereliction and social conflict became commonplace as testimonies to a dying country informed serious drama, comedies and even end-of-year soliloquies by popular light entertainers. On the left and right, moreover, the political and economic difficulties of the period were recognised as a crisis of capitalism, social democracy or socialism depending on authorial provenance. As the Labour government tried to balance prices, wages and inflation against a global economic downturn, so its Keynesian panacea appeared battle worn and broken. ‘Fear is more potent than hope’, an internal Tory paper insisted in 1978, finding ready outlet in a ‘winter of discontent’ that seemingly confirmed the prevailing mood of a nation falling into chaos.

A correlation between punk’s emergence and Britain’s ‘decline’ was easily made. As well as the lyrical focus of ‘Anarchy in the UK’, ‘White Riot’ and other early songs, punk’s aesthetic drew from and reflected the media and political discourse that defined its time. The Sex Pistols’ ‘no future’ tallied with the cataclysmic language that permeated the 1970s; punk’s aggression, rips, zips and images of decay complemented tabloid fears of social disintegration. Punk’s discord signalled social discord; a tattered union jack held together by safety pins and bull clips. ‘Take a depression’, Jon Savage wrote in late 1976, ‘spice with a castrating bureaucracy (all the power to the men in grey) and a sexually & socially frustrated people living off past (WW 2) glories & violence recycled ad nauseam – add an accepted intolerance-as-a-way-of-life at all levels (ask any West Indian) and you get the vacuum tedium of a country OD’d on its own greed’.

In response, punk appeared to filter youthful obsessions and disaffection through the prevailing sense of catastrophe that provided its socio-economic, political and cultural context. This could be instinctive, expressed via blunt statements of antipathy and disillusionment. But interviews from the time also reveal how the language of crisis and decline informed the perspectives of those drawn into punk’s orbit. In late 1976, for example, The Stranglers’ Jean-Jacques Burnel contextualised punk’s implicit political meaning thus: ‘There’s decay everywhere. We’ve always lived with the assumption that things were getting better and better materially, progress all the time, and suddenly […] you hear every day there’s a crisis […] Things being laid off, people are not working. Everything’s coming to a grinding halt’. Certainly, premonitions of social collapse or authoritarian clampdown repeated through punk’s formative years, having gained substance with every slim election victory and minority administration that struggled to govern over the 1970s.

In terms of reportage, therefore, punk tended towards the general: state-of-the-nation addresses that offered snapshots of society in conflict or decline. Neither ‘Anarchy in the UK’ nor ‘God Save the Queen’ worked as systematic appraisals of British polity, but as verbal collages that evoked the tenor of their time: shopping schemes and council tenancies; fascism and terrorism; H-bombs and the ‘mad parade’ of a Jubilee celebrating a nation on the wane. No Future. Anarchy. Destroy.

The Clash took a more narrative approach, detailing their environment and reporting back on events that defined their understanding of the world in which they lived. The Clash album ‘reflects all the shit’, Mark Perry enthused, ‘it tells us the truth […] It’s as if I’m looking at my life in a film.’ Thereafter, punk provided space for bands and writers to document their time and place, typically relaying moods and experiences in three-minute bursts of variable quality and sophistication. Recurring themes emerged. Portrayals of national decay were played out in songs such as The Adverts’ ‘Great British Mistake’, depicting a country weighed down by complacency and unable to adapt as it sunk into media-saturation and, ultimately, authoritarianism. Not dissimilarly, the Tom Robinson Band’s ‘Up Against the Wall’ and ‘Winter of ‘79’ imagined state-sanctioned clampdowns to stave off social change, while the first Jam LP, In The City (1977), flitted between pathos at Britain’s fading prowess and invective against a discredited establishment: ‘whatever happened to the great empire? You bastards turned it into manure’.

Come 1978–79 and bands such as Stiff Little Fingers and The Ruts built on The Clash’s model. The former reported back from Northern Ireland, imagining an ‘Alternative Ulster’ as they transmitted the very real pressures experienced by those growing up at the heart of the Troubles. ‘We’ve said all along we’re not giving solutions’, the band’s Jake Burns told the NME. ‘We’re just telling people all around us what’s going on.’ The Ruts, meanwhile, proffered mini-dramas of contemporary society infused with unease. Their songs were often mired in violent imagery, depicting a society rife with social tensions exacerbated by limited opportunities and the repressive forces of the state. ‘Jah War’, for instance, documented the violence meted out by police on anti-fascist protesters in Southall in 1979, during which Blair Peach was murdered and Clarence Baker beaten into a coma. As effectively, their single ‘Babylon’s Burning’ captured a sense of Britain at the end of the 1970s, conveying a nation smouldering with anxiety, ignorance and hate, ready to combust. ‘What you see has to come out in your lyrics’, the band’s Malcolm Owen insisted, ‘everyone’s anxious. Everyone’s worried’.

If dystopian visions helped inform punk’s worldview, then the frailties of social cohesion were charted in its sound, image and attitude. Street-level animosities were documented in songs such as The Jam’s ‘“A” Bomb in Wardour Street’, The Ruts’ ‘Staring at the Rude Boys’ and Chron Gen’s ‘Mindless Few’, each of which offered redolent accounts of gig-related clashes between the youth cultural tribes given fresh impetus by punk. As this suggests, perennial hostilities found ever more spectacular expression as culture commodified and the cameras rolled. Turf wars became style wars: mods versus rockers became punks versus teds; the skinheads hated everybody. More to the point, The Sun‘s ‘Violent Britain’ series of 1978 found ready complement in punk’s depictions of street-level brutality. Across the Fatal Microbes’ ‘Violence Grows’, Vivien Goldman’s ‘Private Armies’, the Newtown Neurotics’ ‘Mindless Violence’ and Blitz’s ‘Someone’s Gonna Die Tonight’, the bloody consequences of random beatings were captured in depressing detail.

In effect, punk instigated commentary on Britain’s sense of malaise. The deficiencies of the post-war consensus were detailed across the late 1970s; the effects of Thatcherism and the reignited cold war were recorded over the early 1980s. Fanzines offered their own youthful reflections on the time, interspersing record reviews and band interviews with collages of newspaper headlines and tabloid images of police, the NF, militarism and war. Short articles on the threat of fascism, police harassment and unemployment became common; youth cultural and racial tensions were dissected and bemoaned. In particular, the process of deindustrialisation began to inform countless record sleeves and posters, represented by graffitied walls and urban dereliction that later doubled as post-apocalyptic visions of a bombed-out UK. Singles, then albums, portrayed Britain as a country no longer caught in the midst of decline but plunged into desolation; their titles – ‘Dead Cities’, Burning Britain (1982), ‘Give Us a Future’, No Hope for Anyone (1982) – harbouring the fatalistic fury of doomed youth. ‘Look through this broken window’, the Subhumans ruminated on ‘Black and White’, ‘from normality into the ghetto/broken – through madness, hate and boredom/UK – a disunited kingdom.’

 

Early 1980s punk record covers

 

The first term of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government (1979–83) was certainly bellicose. A large pay increase granted to the police sent one signal; realignments in macro-economic policy – cuts in income tax, increases in VAT and interest rates, loosening control over the exchange of foreign currency, market determination of prices and incomes – sent another. Thereafter, manufacturing contracted by some 25 per cent as unemployment soared to over three million by 1982. Simultaneously, trade union influence was curbed, cautiously at first but more robustly over time, while state power was both centralised and ‘rolled back’ via promises to cut borrowing and public expenditure, sell-off council housing, limit the influence of local government and, more extensively from 1984, privatise state-owned industries and services. The language of opposition became the language of government: ‘freedom’ was measured in economic rather than social terms; enemies within (trade unionists, leftists, squatters and onto Peter Lilley’s ‘little list’ of 1992) were distinguished from ‘hard working families’, the ‘quiet majority’ and ‘our people’.

In reply, bands such as Blitz, The Exploited and Vice Squad (whose album title, No Cause for Concern (1981), reportedly came from a Thatcher quote relating to growing youth unemployment) depicted a country broken and violent. Punk’s aesthetic traits became more raggedy; the once stylised apparel became faded and worn; battered leather jackets and boots served as austerity-wear. Appropriately, too, the ‘Apocalypse Now’ tour showcasing four of the leading ‘new punk’ bands of the early 1980s (Anti Pasti, Chron Gen, Discharge and The Exploited) set off in the summer of 1981 as riots erupted across Britain’s inner-cities, prompting even sceptical journalists to register a connection. ‘Last week’s Commons reports [on the riots] read like paraphrased Pistol songs’, the NME’s Chris Bohn reported, noting how punk’s continued references to anarchy resonated once more as ‘chaos asserted its new reign elsewhere’. Or, to quote Wattie Buchan’s reading of the riots: ‘Kids are fed up. If they’ve got nowt to do they’ll do something stupid. Like vandalise or something […] If kids go straight from school to the dole, it’s not their fault is it?     They cannae go out and get a job. The government creates boredom and there’s no way you can protest about it […] They never bother until something actually happens […] Punk today is the backlash of reality.’

Famously, of course, The Specials’ ‘Ghost Town’ was at number one in July 1981, providing a bleak panorama of Britain’s decaying inner cities that all but prefaced the findings of the Scarman Report commissioned by the government in the wake of the ‘Brixton disorders’ of April 1981. The song’s fusion of reggae-dread, punk-ire and pointed social commentary embodied the cross-cultural fusion forged by 2-Tone amidst the racial tensions of the period. As disorder continued to unfold through Liverpool, Leeds, Bristol, Birmingham, Nottingham, Manchester and elsewhere, so deprivation, poor housing and a lack of employment provided a common link. A racial element existed in many areas; but this was less the ‘black versus white’ scenario envisaged by Enoch Powell then stoked by the far-right, and more the result of long-running animosities between local communities and a police force committed to heavy-handed strategies suffused with racial prejudice. As for punk, the riots inspired a series of songs – such as ‘Nation on Fire’ (Blitz) and ‘Summer of ‘81’ (The Violators) – that duly reported events as an upsurge of youthful anger against the government, unemployment and the police.

Not surprisingly, such analyses lent themselves to political interpretation. As we shall see, socialist, anarchist and fascist adaptations of punk’s (and 2-Tone’s) reportage were not uncommon. Though many continued, like Jake Burns above, to insist that commentary did not thereby pertain to a proposed solution, it did raise questions of cause and effect. Tirades against ‘the system’ and stark depictions of the militarism underpinning the cold war bore the stamp of a critical consciousness. More broadly, reportage confirmed punk’s conception of a youth culture that engaged with the world of which it was part – that ‘confronted’ the situation, as Killing Joke’s Jaz Coleman insisted. By so doing, punk tapped into real and media-refracted stresses within the social fabric: industrial conflict and police brutality; youth cultural rivalries and political extremes; unemployment and substance abuse. For every government report on violence at rock concerts, glue sniffing or inner-city policing, punk offered cultural supplements that aspired to Joe Strummer’s conviction that ‘the truth is only known by guttersnipes’.

 

Living with unemployment

There was a moment in late 1976 when punk flirted with the moniker of ‘dole queue rock’. References to the dole or ‘signing on’ featured in most early interviews with the Sex Pistols, The Clash and The Damned, particularly once Tony Parsons ascribed punk’s ‘reality stance’ to its being ‘a product of the United Kingdom in the 1970s’. If Labour wasn’t working, as the famous Tory campaign poster later insisted against a decade increase of almost a million registered unemployed (from 601,333 in 1968 to 1,475,042 in 1978), then punk was seen to represent what Peter Marsh described as the ‘empty life’ of a jobless teenager.

Such interpretation had its limits. A closer look at punk’s initial demographic and the substance of its early texts reveal it to have been born of more than just the ‘right to work’. Most notably, as Simon Frith was quick to observe, punk’s expression of teenage frustration was complemented by art school and counter-cultural influences that inclined as much towards the bohemian as the innate street-level protest Parsons and Marsh attributed to it. Pop music had long provided succour from the tedium of work, school and home life, be it temporal (dancing, listening, dressing up, hanging around) or actual (becoming a musician/singer). In a sense, therefore, punk followed this tradition, albeit filtered through what Frith recognised as the ‘intractable economic situation’ of the mid-1970s.

Whatever their motivation, punk bands utilised the dole queue as a symbol of Britain’s wider condition. Just as one Peterborough band called themselves The Dole in 1977, so references to unemployment peppered early songs by Alternative TV, Chelsea, The Clash, Menace, Sham 69 and others in the same way as record sleeves and gig flyers featured urban topographies of tower blocks and ‘the street’. Signing-on or working in a series of low-paid jobs served to demarcate punk’s pioneers from the rock ‘n’ roll superstars they sought to contest. The infamous pseudonyms adopted by punks were often done so to keep the social security officials (‘SS snoopers’) from enquiring as to the minor earnings received from gigs, singles or fanzines.

By the 1980s, moreover, as unemployment became entrenched and increased to average over three million between 1982 and 1986, so youth culture’s relationship to the dole became more explicit. Beyond the dole-queue skank of UB40, whose name and debut album referenced the signing-on documentation of the time, the early days of Thatcherism were recorded across overtly punk tracks such as the Abrasive Wheels’ ‘Vicious Circle’: ‘Forgotten youth just waste away/ Sniffing glue to face the day/ Walking streets, signing on/ Government schemes go on and on’. Indeed, a steady stream of dole-queue songs emerged from punk’s hinterlands over the early 1980s, ranging from the defiant (Action Pact’s ‘Yet Another Dole Queue Song’, Emergency’s ‘Points of View’) to the fatalistic (Discharge’s ‘Society’s Victims’, Infa Riot’s ‘Each Dawn I Die’). In between, government initiatives were dismissed, as on The Exploited’s ‘YOP’, and conspiratorial scenarios of unemployed youths being conscripted into the army became rife under the darkening cloud of the cold war.

Much of this was born from experience. Whereas, in the 1970s, the dole could be seen as a means to facilitate creative activity and effectively help support an ‘alternative’ lifestyle, so the 1980s limited any sense by which unemployment retained a practical – even optional – quality. Running parallel to the rising number of young unemployed (averaging 25 per cent of 16–19 year-olds by 1985), a series of government schemes were introduced to push those out of work into training and employment. Incremental benefit restrictions were also enforced, culminating in the removal of 16–18 year-olds from the unemployed register in 1988. As a result, the permanency of mass unemployment – especially in those areas north of London devastated by deindustrialisation and the logic of monetarist economics – fed into the popular culture of the period.

In punk terms, the bands and fans who sustained an avowedly punk identity into the 1980s related far closer to the ‘dole queue kids’ of 1977 folklore than their forebears, adopting self-applied labels such as ‘reject’ and ‘victim’ to signal their sense of disenfranchisement. At times, such perspective fed into a glue, drug or alcohol-fuelled nihilism that became subject to graphic depiction, both as warning and a glimpse of where desperation ends. More typically, punk bands simply registered their protest, documenting and dramatising the frustrations of a generation struggling to adapt to a shifting socio-economic environment over which they felt no control. ‘We’re just part of an experiment’, Anti Pasti’s 19-year-old Will Hoon stated in 1981 with some insight. ‘Monetarism is being tried out on us. And I don’t wanna be a guinea pig’.

There was a parallel narrative. From the outset, punk-informed protest set itself as much against the tedium and futility of work as it did against unemployment per se. One consequence of the post-war consensus was to broaden further education opportunities and provide sufficient welfare provision for the young working class and disaffected middle class to step outside the ‘9-to-5’ grind and gain perspective on it. Forming a band offered a means to defer – maybe even escape from – the regimented toil of an ‘ordinary’ life, with punk’s import stemming in part from its recovering access to pop’s medium. The Jam, Paul Weller explained, originated from the fact that ‘you wake up one morning and you don’t wanna go and work in a poxy factory’. Steve Diggle, too, joined Buzzcocks after experiencing the working alternative. ‘[I] decided I’d never work again in my life’, he told the NME. ‘What I was going to do was read and play guitar, do all the things I wanted to do. Do artistic things …’ In tune with Simon Frith’s notion of punk bohemia, Mick Jones ruminated on signing-on to supplement his art school grant by insisting that being on the dole was only ‘hard if you’ve been conditioned to think you’ve gotta have a job’.

As this suggests, the stultifying effect of employment provided a constant of punk-informed social realism. The Fall’s ‘Industrial Estate’ captured its subject’s bleak surroundings via stark observation (‘and the crap in the air will fuck up your face’), culminating in a valium prescription for depression. Sham 69’s ‘I Don’t Wanna’ was equally curt, refuting both a life of work and the dole on route to a gold-watch pension sign-off and a council flat coffin ‘up in the sky’. More eloquently, perhaps, The Jam, whose songs included several character portraits of the aspiring petty-bourgeoisie (‘Mr Clean’, ‘Man in the Corner Shop’), released ‘Just Who is the Five O’clock Hero’ as a single in 1982, a record that offered a snapshot of an ageing factory worker, always tired and forever poor, locked into a living death. The Subhumans, too, followed the day-cycle of a beleaguered worker on their ‘Get to Work on Time’, as did The Fakes, whose ‘Production’ comprised a plodding, clock-watching dirge to the factory and back. From Manchester, The Mothmen issued ‘Factory/Teapoint/Factory’ in 1980, a song with a recorded canteen break sandwiched between its metronomic portrait of life on a production line. The Wall, meanwhile, debuted with ‘New Way’, a single that portrayed technological change as a conduit for mechanised slave labour, a subject implicit in Steve Ignorant’s Crass-rant about his time working for Ford (‘End Result’). Or, to get really blunt about it, The Maniacs wrote an unreleased song called ‘I Don’t Wanna Go To Work’ that combined class insight (I‘ve had enough of this, working for the capitalist’) with trademark punk insolence (‘I just want to get pissed’).

Workplace politics were occasionally tackled. Poet-ranters such as Oi! The Comrade delivered by turn angry and humourous diatribes against the ‘Guvnor’s Man’ and exploitative employment. Not dissimilarly, The Business’ ‘National Insurance Blacklist’ exposed the persecution of militant workers in the building trade. The Redskins, as would be expected, espoused the importance of trade unionism and played with other punk-inspired bands at numerous gigs in support of striking workers up to and throughout the 1984–5 miners’ dispute. By then, however, any focus on work tended to fuse with the deepening problem of unemployment. Thus, in 1980–81, as unemployed rates passed two million, so the Angelic Upstarts’ north-east roots were explored in paeans to the mining and dockyard communities from where the band came and an album, 2,000,000 Voices (1981), that referenced back to the depression of the 1930s. Mensi even presented a 1984 Play at Home (Channel 4) documentary that looked into the effect of unemployment on Tyneside.

Such accounts of work and unemployment were generally experiential. But while punk’s protest and sense of frustration moved beyond simply ‘living for the weekend’, its political significance remained diffuse and contested. Simultaneously, therefore, competing theoretical perspectives attempted to concentrate punk’s disaffection. From a Marxist point of view, attention focused on the mechanics of labour and capital, as in The Mekons’ ‘32 Weeks’, which chartered the relationship between work and consumption via a breakdown of the hours needed to buy a car, a bed, some food and a drink. The extension of market forces into social relations also formed the basis of many a Gang of Four song, while Six Minute War’s ‘Strike’ detailed the class dynamics of industrial struggle (‘maximize on profit that’s all they want to do/ exploit the working class and that means you’). Again, however, the 1980s saw attention shift to unemployment, a problem typically registered as a by-product of Thatcherite economics. So, for example, the Newtown Neurotics indicated the changing mood of the 1970s and 1980s on their ‘Living with Unemployment’, an update of a Members’ song – ‘Solitary Confinement’ – written in 1978 that told the story of someone moving to London only to get stuck in a bedsit on low-paid work and a long commute. In the Neurotics’ version, released in 1983, the job had been lost, ‘working all day long’ had become ‘sleeping all day long’, and the subsequent alienation was no longer a consequence of exploitative labour but part of a Tory plan to subjugate the working class.

Alternately, anarchist and counter-cultural approaches paved the way to more radical responses. On the one hand, McLaren’s situationist roots revealed themselves through Bow Wow Wow, whose ‘W.O.R.K’ disavowed the work ethic in favour of ‘primitive’ pleasures and ‘piracy’. Unemployment, McLaren argued, should be embraced as liberation; kids should dress up, fuck, steal and have fun. More seriously, Debord’s advice to ‘Ne travaillez jamais’ [never work] – first daubed across a wall on Paris’ Rue de Seine in 1953 – inspired a Vague essay by Peter Scott that posited unemployment and a creative ‘life on society’s outer fringe’ as preferable to the drudgery of labour. Indeed, such ideas proved integral to the ideological foundations of punk’s anarchist milieus and found regular expression in fanzines such as Toxic Grafity:     ‘As far as I can see work in its present form is nothing but slavery. There must be more to life than this. The myth that work brings purpose and meaning to your life is crap […] who wants to spend fifty-or-so years of your life doing this … And to think people actually march for the right to do this … STAY FREE.’

Punk’s relationship to unemployment was therefore contained within a broader range of pressures and concerns affecting young people in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The dole queue was a component of punk’s dystopian vision and punk-informed bands played unemployed benefit gigs from 1977 onwards. But responses to the problem varied. Famously, to the chagrin of those who interpreted Chelsea’s ‘Right to Work’ as a bold statement in support of the SWP’s campaign for jobs, the song was aimed (in part) at restrictive trade union practice. More to the point, working for the ‘rat race’ and committing to a factory or office job brought into sharp relief the sentiment captured by King Mob in the graffiti that greeted London commuters each day between Ladbroke Grove and Westbourne Park: ‘Same thing day after day – tube-work-tube-armchair-tv-sleep-tube – how much more can you take: one in ten go mad – one in five cracks up’. ‘Kids don’t want to just get a job in the system’, Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex said in 1978, being ‘pushed around in a factory for 20 years and get a gold watch – they’ve got more suss now […] Nothing much has changed since the days of serfdom except that you get paid a wage, but just enough to make you go back next week’. Nevertheless, the deepening impact of unemployment into the 1980s helped reassert initial readings of punk’s motivation. Unemployment was taken up in the music press, including pieces by Garry Bushell, Chris Dean and Ray Lowry, and calls for the government to provide jobs or a future became recurrent slogans. If ‘dole queue rock’ proved too narrow a description to encompass punk’s original impetus, then (the spectre of) unemployment formed at least part of the backdrop to its social realist dramas.

 

What a wonderful world this is

Released in late 1978, Sham 69’s That’s Life follows a day in the life of a working-class teenager. The story is irregular: the lead character’s name changes and its fragments do not quite hold together in a coherent whole. Nevertheless, the album provides a compelling piece of punk social realism, what Paul Morley described as a dramatised depiction of youth’s social and domestic claustrophobia. ‘The sense is that of a person who doesn’t control their own life, a feeling we all know’.

The narrative to That’s Life – later made into a short film for the BBC’s Arena series – is deliberately simple. The day starts with a missed alarm clock, a moaning mum and an occupied bathroom. There follows a daily commute to a hated job fuelled only by thoughts of the weekend and stoic indignation (‘who gives a damn […] we’re all dogsbodies’). But lateness leads to the sack and the rest of the day is spent in the café, bookies and pub trying to salvage something from an uncertain future (‘I don’t know where I’m going, but I gotta get there soon’). Money is won, drinks are drunk, a girl is met and a fight is squared, before the Sunday morning nightmare starts all over again. ‘Where am I?’, our hero asks. ‘You’re at home, where do you think you bleedin’ are?’, his dad replies.

Formed in 1976, Sham 69 were fronted by Jimmy Pursey, a sinewy motor-mouth who ‘thinks as he speaks and speaks as he thinks’. They hailed from Hersham, a small Surrey town that lent the band its name, and were briefly touted as a necessary reaction to punk’s descent into stylised pose. Sham 69 ‘feel like you and me’, Danny Baker wrote in Sniffin’ Glue, ‘genuine’ street kids sussed to punk’s commodification and ‘part of what I always thought this lark was about’. Sham were the sound of someone ‘screaming at the bastards’, Tony Parsons concurred, caught in a state of constant conflict with the ‘lifeless, soulless, joyless Establishment Order’. As a result, the band attracted a loyal following cut from their own cloth: ‘working-class kids, out of school who [no-one] gives a fuck about’, as Gary Hitchcock, a member of the ‘Sham Army’, put it. Many of these, like Pursey, were ex- or revived skinheads; a few, too, including Hitchcock, found an outlet for their disaffection in fascism and violence. But Sham’s politics were never explicit and never aligned. Though Pursey lent support to RAR, his focus was on articulating the frustrations of what he understood to be ‘ordinary kids’, replete with their faults, contradictions and imperfections. The band’s early signature tune, ‘Song of the Streets’, centred on a call-and-response refrain, ‘What have we got? Fuck all’, with lyrics that rejected the solutions of detested politicians. Instead, Sham 69 rallied round a naïve but heartfelt call for youth cultural unity (‘If the Kids are United’) that clung to an identity based on spirit and class affinity.

Sham’s approach embodied the idea of punk connecting to the lives of those who made, played and listened to it. This, typically, meant lyrics focused on contemporary everyday concerns expressed in contemporary everyday language. Relationships, antagonisms, frustrations and anxieties shorn of pop’s sheen to be stated bluntly and unashamedly; the ‘kids on the street’ recast as an emblem of pop’s provenance. Analogous to Sham 69, therefore, were bands such as Slaughter and the Dogs and Menace who respectively celebrated ‘bootboys’ from Wythenshawe and asked ‘if we’re the working class why ain’t we got jobs?’ From Custom House in London’s East End came the Cockney Rejects, eschewing songs about love and politics in favour of tales from the backstreets and the terraces. ‘We stand for punk as bootboy music’, a teenage ‘Stinky’ Turner told Sounds in 1980, ‘Harringtons, boots, straights, that’s what we’re all about’. Cock Sparrer, too, whose early gigs appealed to ‘football hooligans, skinheads and clockwork orange lookalikes’, evoked the thrill of a Saturday afternoon, combining celebrations of youthful exuberance with an existential fear of the future. On both ‘Runnin’ Riot’ and ‘Chip on my Shoulder’, they extolled disrupting the ‘peace and quiet’ to offset the dreaded tomorrow of mortgages and a life spent ‘digging holes in the road’. ‘Getting old sure bothers me’, they admitted, ‘it bothers me to death’.

By the 1980s, Sham’s prototype had helped pave the way for Oi!, under whose banner bands such as The 4-Skins, The Business and Infa Riot transmitted both the empowerment and the tensions inherent in the adoption of youth cultural style. If Oi! meant ‘punk without the posers’ and ‘facing up to reality’, as The Business’ Micky Fitz insisted, then its lyrical focus combined protest (‘Work or Riot’, ‘Bread or Blood’) with snapshots of working-class life and culture. Local characters – Jack-the-lads, plastic gangsters, clockwork skinheads – were immortalised in song; pub conversations about bank holiday beanos, street fights, petty crime and personal misfortune were set to a punk backbeat. This was sometimes humourous. From Brighton, Peter and the Test Tube Babies specialised in tall tales of being banned from local pubs or getting into scrapes with teds, moped lads and convincing transvestites. Back in London, The Gymslips provided a female counterpart to Oi!’s primarily male persona, ‘rockin’ with the renees’ via odes to the pub’s top shelf, street fashion and the joys of pie ‘n’ mash. But Oi!’s social realism more generally concentrated on the frustrations of being young, male and working-class. Beneath the bravado lay a sense of anger and frustration, an almost existential disaffection with the state of things.

Among the best at expressing this were the Angelic Upstarts, whose songs – ‘Teenage Warning’, ‘I’m an Upstart’, ‘Leave Me Alone’, ‘Out of Control’ – railed against the teachers, social workers, politicians, police and social structures that seemingly shaped and bound possibilities. Infa Riot, too, sung of cages and catch-22s, portraying lives trapped by circumstance and caught in a game to which the rules were rigged. ‘Feel the rage’, Lee Wilson sung, ‘building up […] breaking out’. Like teenage Arthur Seatons transported from Sillitoe’s 1950s Nottingham to the inner-city 1970s and ‘80s, punk’s social realists came of age embittered by the material, political and economic confines that determined their lives.

Not surprisingly, given their shared milieu, the 2-Tone bands that emerged to prominence in 1979 covered similar lyrical concerns. Both Oi! and 2-Tone tapped into youth cultural styles that pre-dated punk (skinheads, rude boys, mod); both claimed street-level credentials; both suffered from the attentions of the far right recruiting amongst their audience; both celebrated their cultural origins as they registered a protest. Where Oi! aspired to ‘having a laugh and having a say’, 2-Tone’s energy and ska-based sound emphasised its commitment to pleasure in the face of ‘too much pressure’.

Coming from the midlands, The Beat, The Selecter and The Specials used social realist lyrics to affirm their cross-cultural origins and environment. Anti-Thatcherite diatribes rubbed against tales of subcultural conflict, grotty nightclubs and unwanted teenage pregnancies. As importantly, the bands’ anti-racism was transmitted through words and practice. The 1970s, after all, had seen racial tensions exacerbated by a resurgent NF and the socio-economic effects of recession. In response, The Specials’ ‘Concrete Jungle’ and The Beat’s ‘Two Swords’ captured the merger of territorial, political and racial identities over the decade, while ‘It Doesn’t Make It All Right’ and ‘Why?’ questioned the attitudes of racist elements in the 2-Tone audience. The result was to marry both critique and resolution, forging a cultural politics rooted in the everyday experience of Coventry and Birmingham that found expression in the bands’ musical fusion and multi-racial composition.

The provincial, or localised, nature of much punk-informed social realism was important. As Russ Bestley has argued, it confirmed a sense of grass-roots authenticity that connected bands to their environment and audience. Local signifiers were used on sleeves; songs engaged with specifically resident concerns; independent labels were formed to document regional scenes. The Wessex ’82 EP may serve as a good example, comprising four bands from the south-west on a local label (Bluurg) wrapped in a sleeve featuring the famous white horse of Westbury Hill. Notably, too, such provincialism marked a disregard for the London-centric media and music industry. By engaging with a ‘Nottingham Problem’ or documenting a falling out with a local pub landlord (‘Black Horse’), Resistance ‘77 and Cult Maniax displayed their indifference to the potential of pop as a career or business.

Of course, provincialism did not have to be overtly confrontational. The Undertones relayed pop’s youthful obsessions – love, lust, fun and dancing – in parochial terms that suggested provenance rather than idealisation: teenage kicks, perfect cousins, chocolate and girls. Coming from Derry, such concerns had political connotations when set against a backdrop of the Troubles. But they also resituated the clichés of pop’s lexicon in a way that transformed the ordinary into points of connection. In time, songs about the minutiae of everyday life – about boys and girls, bus stops and rainy Sundays – became standard for an indie pop focused on personal relationships caught at the moment of adolescence.

Punk’s tendency to social realism injected new voices and subject matter into popular music. By so doing, feelings and experiences were expressed in ways designed to reassert pop music’s relevance to the youth cultures that formed around it. This was often infused with a class sensibility – a street-level riposte to pop’s commercial whimsy. In CCCS terms, it may be seen as a ‘magical’ solution to broader socio-economic oppressions, a means of dealing with the boredom and frustration that punk described. Certainly, some of those involved in punk and 2-Tone recognised it as such. ‘Our music is a solution’, Joe Strummer said, ‘because I don’t have to get drunk every night and go around kicking people and smashing up phone boxes … [like] Paul used to do’. The Selecter’s Pauline Black sung of teaching ‘myself a new philosophy’ as 2-Tone lived out the racial and cultural unity it espoused in the face of political and socio-economic stresses. For Paul Weller, it meant taking ‘everyday experience’ and turning ‘it into art’, something The Jam did in ways that combined evocative depictions of British life with an underlying sense of critique. From the late-night terrors of the London Underground to class conflict and the ideological pyres of Thatcherism, The Jam’s 7” singles embodied the feelings and effects of Britain’s changing socio-economic landscape:

 

Rows and rows of disused milk floats/ Stand dying in the dairy yard/ And a          hundred lonely housewives/ Clutch empty milk bottles to their hearts/
Hanging out their old love letters on the line to dry/ It’s enough to make you stop            believing/ When tears come fast and furious/ […] A whole street’s belief in Sunday’s       roast beef/Gets dashed against the co-op/ To either cut down on beer or the kids’          new gear/ It’s a big decision in a town called malice …

 

Dirt behind the daydream

There were darker and stranger components to punk-informed realism. From the outset, punk gave rise to tendencies keen to recover the marginal and the supressed; to scrape away the veneer of British propriety to reveal what lay beneath. Among McLaren and Westwood’s early designs were images of sexual transgression, blasphemy, criminality and political extremity. Naked cowboys, bare breasts, fetish wear and pornographic images were displayed to break down the boundaries of fascination and repulsion; to expose the tensions between private and public desire. Not dissimilarly, inverted crucifixes, swastikas and anarchist slogans co-existed to provoke and subvert towards some kind of reaction. According to McLaren, the ideal customer of Sex and Seditionaries was a 16-year-old girl from the suburbs who bought a rubber mini-skirt at the weekend to wear to work on the Monday.

Again, such an approach overlapped with the industrial culture of Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire and others, for whom the ‘reality’ constructed by forces of social and political control (politics, media, religion, family, work etc.) could be challenged through the presentation of behaviours that rubbed against the grain of supposed normality. To this end, punk and industrial culture shared an interest in the abject and the taboo, in violence and the profane, subjects that could shock and disrupt the fragile equilibriums of modern society. Crucially, too, both tended – or claimed – to draw their alternative realities from life itself.

There are numerous examples. Where the Sex Pistols’ ‘Bodies’ described the gurgling bloody mess of an abortion via the life-story of a fan suffering from severe mental illness, Lydon’s early PiL lyrics recounted media reports of exorcism and rape. Siouxsie and the Banshees claimed to find inspiration for their macabre songs of mental breakdown (‘Suburban Relapse’), alienation (’Jigsaw Feeling’) and sexual violence (‘Carcass’) in the tabloids and obscure corners of popular culture. ‘[The] bloke who put his leg on the railway line because he wanted to claim more money as a war hero’, Siouxsie reflected, and ‘the woman who wheeled a chopped-up body around in a pram. It’s all there in The Sun every day.’ Like the Velvet Underground, whose influence on the band was manifest, the Banshees subverted the mores of popular music, producing ‘chilling vignettes of minor atrocities and gruesome indulgences, of frustration or unrequited love. From the dark side of life, grinning, perverted’, they specialised in revealing ‘ugly truths […] set against the pointlessness of life.’

            Throbbing Gristle’s approach was more conceptual, drawing from ideas honed in the performance work of COUM Transmissions. Back in 1975, COUM had committed to revealing the ‘secret fears and neuroses’ of society, exposing repressed emotions and desires as a means to confront prevailing social values. Throbbing Gristle took this on, initially producing a harsh, grinding noise through which a fascination with the body and mechanisms of social control served as a commentary on both the ‘savage realities’ of modernity and the sanitised projections of ‘real life’ disseminated by the media. Over a series of records, videos, newsletters and live performance, detailed depictions of murder, violence, pain, the Holocaust and sexual taboo coalesced in a gruesome tableau that dared the listener/viewer to confront or retreat. A subsequent group, Coil, formed by John Balance (Geoff Burton) with Peter Christopherson in 1983, even issued an album, Scatology (1985), that journeyed deep into the recesses of humanity’s base instincts, culminating in a story of sexual caprophagy.

Wars past and envisaged provided subject matter and imagery for countless record sleeves, fanzines and posters. Just as the Second World War and the horrors of Nazism nurtured a morbid interest in those wishing to explore the extremes of humankind, so the cold war and its nuclear endgame informed the anti-militarist politics of punk over the 1980s. Discharge, in particular, engaged with the ‘realities of war’, producing a series of records that gruesomely depicted the effects of nuclear destruction or military intervention: ‘men, women and children cry and scream in pain, wounded by bomb splinters/Streets littered with maimed and slaughtered in rigid pathetic heaps’. Murderers, maniacs and madness likewise weaved their way through the punk-informed canon. The Cambridge Rapist (Peter Cook), Yorkshire Ripper (Peter Sutcliffe) and Moors Murderers (Ian Brady and Myra Hindley) provided pertinent signifiers of society’s disturbing underbelly. Less gratuitously, perhaps, juxtapositions of real life horror and media-drawn promises of a better tomorrow became a staple of songs and fanzine collage. The dirt behind the daydream, Gang of Four called it, as they undercut advertising lingo with references to Britain’s war in Ireland and the onset of North Sea oil.

            Things got messy if the propensity to shock fell out of context. A fascination with the macabre could also drift into fantasy, relinquishing any claim to realism in favour of schlock horror or, later, the romantic darklands of what became goth. Equally, where band names such as the Moors Murderers or Raped began to push at the boundaries of taste with barely a hint of dissident intent beyond the desire to offend, then records such as Stench’s ‘Raspberry Cripple’ or Chaotic Dischord’s ‘And There Wuz Cows’ plunged deep into the mire. To be sure, the giddy thrill of saying-the-unsayable – or wearing-the-unwearable – struck a chord with teenagers looking to provoke a reaction. But swastikas, in particular, retained a potency for reasons that could not be so easily disarmed when projected away from Seditionaries’ clashing symbols or the archly-camp Weimar references of the Bromley contingent. Several bands were accused of harbouring Nazi sympathies as a result of using imagery drawn from the Third Reich. Most famously, perhaps, Joy Division’s name (taken from a book, House of Dolls, which depicted sex slavery in a concentration camp) and debut EP (its sleeve featuring a Hitler Youth drummer boy) prompted rumours of fascist leanings.

Certainly, the line between fascination and fetishisation could all too easily be crossed. If the ambiguous symbolism presented by Joy Division, The Skids, Theatre of Hate and others was noted on the far right and prone to misinterpretation, then Death in June’s obsession with National Socialist history led to at least one member (Tony Wakeford) engaging with active fascist politics. Groups like Whitehouse – formed by erstwhile Essential Logic guitarist William Bennett – repudiated the critical detachment retained by Throbbing Gristle, dedicating their albums to serial killers and filling their fanzines with texts of rape and murder. Predictably, Whitehouse’s Come Organisation adopted a swastika-like symbol and built records around fascist language and iconography (Buchenweld, New Britain, Für Ilse Koch), tracing a line from the Marquis de Sade to the death camps and the extremes of human cruelty. The results were mixed: disturbing, repulsive, fascinating and juvenile in about equal measure.

As this suggests, an interest in the abject could lead to dubious ends. Simultaneously, however, punk stimulated transformative impulses that sought out the absurdities of everyday life, facilitating a social surrealism rooted in the contemporary but attuned to the incongruities that lurked beneath any semblance of ‘normality’. Best of all were The Fall, emerging from Prestwich as 1976 turned to 1977. Musically, The Fall recognised the potential to break down and reconstitute popular music in the wake of punk’s emergence. The band’s sound combined rock ‘n’ roll primitivism with disciplined repetition, ‘mistreating instruments’ to a get a ‘feeling over’ as Mark E Smith put it. All affectation was removed. Their songs contained no solos or musical frills; records were produced to emphasise the emergent rawness of their content, eschewing the sheen of studio production in favour of a discordant, deliberately distorted sound. Fall songs appeared caught in what Michael Goddard and Benjamin Halligan have described as ‘a state of becoming’, unruly, chaotic, perpetually mutating. Stylistically, too, the band projected an anti-image, adopting none of punk’s sartorial props and distancing themselves from the expectations of pop or rock presentation. Live, the band was uncommunicative and functional; the music press, music industry and most contemporary bands were held in disdain. Record sleeves were cut ‘n’ pasted, covered in Smith’s scrawl as if to trash any reverence afforded to rock’s product status. Indeed, The Fall’s uncompromising approach and commitment to perpetual creativity was interpreted by Smith to mean his band were among the ‘only ones who represented what the whole thing [punk] was supposed to be’.

Smith remains one of rock’s most innovative lyricists. From the outset, his words, accent and delivery located The Fall within their regional and socio-economic context whilst simultaneously reimagining the environments they described. Just as photos and videos of the band were typically taken in situ (Prestwich streets and pubs), so Smith’s lyrics referred to local and contemporary signifiers that connected to a particular time and place: fags, pubs, industrial estates, Hovis adverts, Kwik Save, CB radio, Manchester parks, Prestwich halls etc. In form, however, Smith’s words complemented the band’s sound, fragmenting narratives and cultural critiques into unique patterns of language and imagery. The songs’ characters were often grotesques; humdrum locales were transformed into strange worlds that filtered literary influences such as M.R. James, H.P. Lovecraft, Malcolm Lowry and Arthur Machen through Smith’s own speed-and-alcohol fuelled imagination. The effect was to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary, contesting and disrupting preconceptions by undermining their apparent rationale. In other words, Smith claimed and defended his proudly working-class heritage against the commercial, cosmopolitan and intellectual forces that conspired to dilute it: ‘Northern white crap that talks back’.

Other bands did similar. The Prefects morphed into The Nightingales, allowing Robert Lloyd to perfect his tales of urban ospreys and crafty fags. The Membranes, from Blackpool, sung of tatty seaside towns and Spike Milligan’s tape recorder. A Witness, Bogshed and The Three Johns followed suit, mangling rock ‘n’ roll’s form whilst combining a pub-honed wit with lyrics that found the surreal amidst the mundane. Most comparable to Smith, perhaps, was John Cooper-Clarke, the Salford poet who came to prominence in tandem with The Fall. Cooper-Clarke was 28 in 1977, having honed his craft in northern clubs (frequented by young pre-Fall members) and thereby connecting to aspects of the pre-punk counter-culture. Nevertheless, he recognised in punk an interest in words and ideas, appreciating its attempts to expand rock’s lexicon and deconstruct its formulas. ‘It’s the nearest thing that there’s ever been […] to the working classes going into areas like surrealism and Dada […] It only widens your perspective […] The Pistols put you in a context where it’s possible to understand more. I mean, it’s probably a cliché now, but words like fascist and fascism jumped out. Things like that just weren’t in pop songs.’

Like Smith, Cooper-Clarke surveyed and transformed his environment. His poems could be humourous and fantastical (‘(I Married a) Monster from Outer Space’), but always rooted – linguistically and verbally – in recognisably urban locales full of buses, dirt, concrete and disease. His flights of imagination were underpinned by a social critique informed by the structural changes affecting his native Salford. Thus, among his most well-known poems, ‘Evidently Chickentown’ and ‘Beasley Street’ travel deep into the distresses of everyday life, depicting poverty and decay via evocative descriptions of sights, sounds, people and smells.

The reportage and realism that signalled punk’s engagement with the world it was born into developed in distinct ways. The path from The Clash’s ‘White Riot’ to Bogshed’s ‘Fat Lad Exam Failure’ was hardly a straight line. Many of those informed by punk’s emergence quickly shed any commitment to a predetermined musical form or sense of style even as they retained comparable attitudes and lyrical concerns. In other words, the diverse sounds and cultures that evolved from 1976 shared an aversion to the banal platitudes of much rock ‘n’ roll and a conviction that popular music should reflect and inform the lives of those who made and listened to it. Motivations varied of course. Where Throbbing Gristle sought to confront their audience, Tom Robinson endeavoured to raise political consciousness. Where Sham 69 rallied in celebratory protest, The Fall scrambled preconceptions and stimulated imaginations. Even then, there remained a sense by which the cultural spaces opened up by punk should hold a relevance to recognisable places, events and life-as-lived. More to the point, beneath the anger, abjection and absurdity lay hint of an even darker stimulus: a boredom born of alienation and despair.

 

Matt Worley ch8

Chapter Eight

No future: Punk as dystopia

 

As long as the music’s loud enough we won’t hear the world falling apart

Borgia Ginz

 

Between 23 August and 6 September 1980, the NME published a three-part essay entitled ‘1984: Our Frightening Future’. Could it be, the paper posited, that George Orwell’s ‘vision of a nightmare Britain – overpopulated, overspent and overseen – […] is now an imminent reality’? Written by Ian MacDonald, the series began with a history of totalitarianism that located Orwell’s novel in a political and cultural tradition encompassing Futurists, Bolsheviks, Fascists, National Socialists and the dystopian science fiction of H.G. Wells and Aldous Huxley. His thesis was that while 1984 offered a prescient critique of Stalin’s Soviet Union transferred to Britain, Orwell’s concept of a totalitarian system that utilised the structures of power and media to maintain its authority and subjugate the individual could in fact be applied either side of the iron curtain as well as to various corporate interests beyond those of government. Looking forward, MacDonald pointed to the arms industry, consumerism, population growth, global economic crises and technological advances as conduits for a totalitarian future. The ‘coming of machine science’, he argued with an eye on automation, alienation and the perennial threat of nuclear annihilation, made the idea of total control ‘perfectly and permanently realisable’. In other words, competing economic systems were transforming into competing control systems, just as Orwell predicted.

MacDonald’s essay captured a sense – a feeling, a fear – that permeated the time. Throughout the 1970s, concerns relating to industrial conflicts and economic crises began to conflate with the ramifications of new technologies to presage either imagined clampdowns or socio-economic collapse. From 1979, heightened cold war tensions renewed the nuclear possibilities of a bleak near future. And where political and media rhetoric conjured up visions of socio-economic disarray, so doomsday scenarios were offered as cultural complements to the promised dark tomorrow. Among the most popular were James Herbert’s The Rats (1974), depicting a London plagued by urban decay; Terry Nation’s television series Survivors (1975), imagining a civilization all but wiped out by a deadly virus; Richard Allen’s youth cult novels for New English Library (Skinhead, Suedehead, Boot Boys, Sorts etc.), revelling in teenage violence; Threads (1984) and Edge of Darkness (1985), two distinct but equally chilling responses to the nuclear threat. Even Peter Watkins’ The War Game finally found airtime twenty years after being withdrawn by the BBC in 1965 for its predicting imminent nuclear war, while John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids (1951) was adapted for television in 1981 to portray the results of bioengineering and social breakdown. In most cases, military solutions featured as barbarity and violence reigned.

Orwell, with his notions of ‘newspeak’, ‘doublethink’, total surveillance and perpetual war, remained among the most convincing. For MacDonald, the signs of a ‘Big Brother’ society were all but in place. Monetarism was leading towards entrenched unemployment and welfare cuts. Living standards for the majority were predicted to plateau (then fall) as the money supply tightened and the population increased. To maintain control, the state was becoming ever more centralised, with surveillance techniques extending through CCTV, phone-tapping and the collation of databases. Simultaneously, the threat of nuclear war had paved the way for contingency plans that – following the severe industrial struggles of the early 1970s – could be applied in peacetime, particularly against trade unions or activist groups. The militarisation of police, meanwhile, was discernible in the actions of task forces such as the Special Patrol Group (SPG) and the provision of riot shields, helmets and weaponry to quell instances of social unrest. A ‘secret hierarchy of power’ was forming, MacDonald argued, purposely equipped to oversee a fearful, violent and mechanised society that harboured growing contempt for human frailty. ‘Welcome’, he wrote with a flourish, ‘to [Orwell’s] nightmare’.

Orwell’s spectre certainly haunted British punk. Reference to his novel recurred, from The Clash’s countdown on ‘1977’ to Crass’ cataloguing their releases in similarly foreboding fashion, starting at ‘621984’ in 1978 and numbering down (521984, 421984) each year until 1984 when the band resolved to split. The Jam, on ‘Standards’ from their 1977 album This is the Modern World, evoked 1984’s principal character Winston Smith (a nom de plume, also, of Sounds’ Richard Newson, who covered punk); The Unwanted’s debut single from the same year came backed with a summation of 1984 that insisted ‘newspeak don’t keep the world free’. ‘84’ featured in the names of bands keen to intimidate (Combat 84, Condemned 84); it signified authoritarianism, as in Crisis’ ‘PC One Nine Eighty Four’; it enveloped premonitions of national dissolution (Subhumans’ The Day the County Died (1983)) and reflections on the miners’ strike (New Model Army’s ‘1984’). Often read in school over the 1970s and 1980s – not to mention being an influence on Bowie’s Diamond Dogs (1974) – 1984 resonated in young minds coming of age as Orwell’s portent beckoned. ‘Orwell said it all’, The 4-Skins declared on their own ‘1984’, ‘he stared the future in the face’.

In line with MacDonald’s analysis of Britain’s drift towards a militarised police state, the election of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government was soon read by many as a validation of punk’s grim foresight. Where Jon Savage’s 1976 essay in London’s Outrage had pre-cast Thatcher as the ‘mother sadist’ to British fascism, so the prime minister from 1979 was regularly portrayed as a ‘Big Sister’ figure: the wielder of law and order, the harbinger of war (The Falklands), the ally of American imperialism (allowing US cruise missiles to turn Britain into ‘Airstrip One’) and the public persona of a system willing to crush those seeking to exist outside or challenge the precepts of free market capitalism and the moral boundaries of a bygone Victorian age. ‘1984 has become a memory’, Penny Rimbaud wrote in 1982, ‘a clumsy hypothesis that fell hopelessly short in its failure to allow for the horrific escalation in technological “hardware”’. The book itself, Rimbaud noted a year later, had forewarned the danger of totalitarianism. But ‘under Thatcher’s unfeeling guidance the scenario is one year early. With the cold mechanism of the pin-ball arcade, we’re flicked around as numbers by the hidden computers: software in the hardware; documented and filed.’ For Conflict, ‘the village bobbies of yesteryear’ had ‘transformed into the riot squads of Maggie’s ‘84’, a scenario they substantiated with reference to the violence meted out by police on the miners striking to prevent pit closures and the associated break-up of their communities. The ‘Battle of Orgreave’, during which miners picketing a Yorkshire coking works were flanked and brutally battered by police, took place in June 1984.

Like Orwell, punk dramatised the shifting dynamics of state power and social order. Just as the battle armour of Britain’s police became a staple of Conflict’s iconography, so visions of life caged and conditioned infused punk-informed records and imagery. As an example, Antisect’s In Darkness, There is No Choice (1984) portrayed a society of ‘anonymous’ lives imprisoned by institutions and indoctrination. In the self-flagellating essay that accompanied the record, the band expounded on peoples’ willingness to repress their own free will to the needs of an ‘authoritarian society’.

Two other sources of fictional-dystopia proved especially influential among punk-related cultures. Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange (1962), made into a film by Stanley Kubrick in 1971 but withdrawn following its being linked to real incidents of violence in the weeks after release, felt especially prescient in an age of football hooliganism and turf warfare dressed up in youth-cultural finery. Revolving around Alex and his gang of ‘droogs’, the film’s urban-concrete setting and stylised ‘ultraviolence’ proved to be as enticing as it was disturbing. Consequently, reference to the film’s imagery and the book’s argot fed into the youth cultures they commented on. In punk terms, the droog uniform was adopted by Cock Sparrer on their 1977 video for ‘We Love You’ and later by bands such as The Adicts, Major Accident and The Violators. From Sheffield, both Clock DVA and Heaven 17 chose names derived from the book/film, their penchant for electronic sounds drawn in part from Walter Carlos’ innovative soundtrack. The motif of a clockwork orange was also used by the Angelic Upstarts (‘Teenage Warning’) and Sham 69 (‘That’s Life’), representing both an ominous commentary on a broken society where violence served as an outlet for youthful frustration and, to quote Major Accident’s Con Larkin, ‘the ultimate culmination of youth cults today, with its own language and way of life’.

 

 

Not dissimilarly, J.G. Ballard’s novels provided suitably bleak premonitions of the near future. Books such as Crash (1973), Concrete Island (1974) and High Rise (1975) were set in urban landscapes laid waste by town planners and reconstructed in the guise of concrete blocks, bland suburbs, intersecting roadways and shadowy underpasses. Therein, technology forged new realities and new pathologies, with human relations distorting against the topography of media simulacra. As a result, violence and sexuality were pushed to extremes, searching for a means to transcend the bland uniformity of what Ballard called the ‘conforming suburb of the soul’.

Ballard’s post-industrial visions found expression as punk’s angry stare turned to alienation. Joy Division’s Ian Curtis was a keen reader of Ballard, writing ‘Atrocity Exhibition’ in homage to the book of the same title; Comsat Angels, from Sheffield, named themselves after a Ballard short story, writing desolate songs of urban isolation. Daniel Miller’s The Normal, too, launched Mute Records in 1978 with a single that included ‘Warm Leatherette’, a piston-churning mechanical interpretation of Crash that followed the book’s fetishisation of car accidents towards a melange of twisted metal and punctured limbs. The b-side was entitled ‘TV OD’. Indeed, those enamoured by the futuristic hum of early synthesisers often reproduced the detached anomie of Ballard’s work. Ultravox’s first records and John Foxx’s Metamatic (1980) explored ‘high rise overspills’ and artificial lives, their faceless characters standing alone in the underpass or caught on celluloid as they moved in the flicker of artificial light. By 1980–83, concurrent with the charts’ embrace of synth-pop, punk’s DIY ethos had fused with industrial’s tech-fascination to forge a network of cassette labels specialising in homemade electronica made on the ever more affordable synths becoming available from the late 1970s. Traced through Dave Henderson’s seminal ‘Wild Planet’ supplement for Sounds, Ballard’s (and William Burroughs’) influence was obvious. Moreover, his books featured prominently in the reading lists compiled by RE/Search for their Industrial Culture Handbook of 1983.

Clearly, the punk-informed cultures evolving from 1976 bore dystopian sensibilities that found expression in the 1970s and 1980s. Be it the void staring back from the Sex Pistols’ ‘No Future’ or the perceived ‘control’ enacted on lives framed by media representation and the threat of nuclear devastation, punk conjured visions that were post-industrial, post-democratic and post-apocalyptic. Cult reading and viewing provided one source of inspiration; so too did events and perceptions from the time: deindustrialisation, unemployment, inner-city riots, the Falklands War, the cold war, the neutering of trade unions, the closing down of the Greater London Council, the repositioning of Britain as an entrepreneurial economy driven by the needs of individual consumers. Such processes were hard fought. And as they unfolded, so punk mapped its own variations of a future that had yet to be written.

 

This is the city of the dead

Dystopian visions of post-industrialism were fuelled by long-running concerns as to the trajectory of Britain’s economy. It was in the late 1970s that the term ‘deindustrialisation’ first began to find common usage, a less arresting – but perhaps more apposite – complement to the discourse of ‘decline’ that infused the period. As Jim Tomlinson has argued, processes of deindustrialisation underpinned Britain’s economic, social and political development over the late twentieth century. For all the attention given to GDP figures as a measure of national virility and economic prowess, their ebbs and flows reveal little about broader structural and cultural change. By contrast, deindustrialisation pertains to the drawn-out transformation of Britain from an industrial to a primarily service economy.

The consequences of such a transition are complex and contested, be it with regard to class formation, social cohesion, income distribution, unemployment, consumption or the gendered distribution of labour. Across the 1970s and early 1980s, however, during which Britain’s deindustrialisation reached ‘a crescendo in 1979–82’, the insecurities rendered by change prompted the imagining of post-industrial tomorrows. In punk terms, reference to boredom and the dole queue provided one immediate association, as the promise of full-employment was consigned to the past. The banality of a predetermined future in a monotonous job now competed with the banality of unemployment or piecemeal work, a conundrum caught perfectly by Mark Perry: ‘Life’s about as wonderful as the record mart/ I don’t like selling albums, but I don’t want to go to work […]/ Life’s about a wonderful as the dole queue/ but I’ve got no choice, that’s why I’m standing in the queue.’

But more dramatic possibilities were also offered. The film Jubilee (1978), directed by Derek Jarman, was set in a desolate London of rubble and ruins. Young punks are seen killing time in the debris, among them Jordan, The Slits, Toyah, Adam Ant and Gene October, while a demented media mogul runs operations from a studio in Buckingham Palace, signing bands to exploit as cheap entertainment. England has all but collapsed into a morass of ennui and violence, wherein the police serve only as the most brutal and well-armed mob. ‘When, on my fifteenth birthday’, Jordan’s character (Amyl Nitrate) narrates, ‘law and order were finally abolished, all those statistics that were a substitute for reality disappeared, the crime-rate dropped to zero’. Early reviews suggested the film anticipated the England of 1984. Certainly, it presented a prophecy of a country en route to oblivion, framed as it was by the device of John Dee conjuring up the spirit Ariel to show Queen Elizabeth I the future.

In fact, Jarman was quite able to use contemporary settings to capture his vision. The crumbling docks of Butler’s Wharf, where Jarman lived in a derelict warehouse that once worked as a grain store, provided a suitably post-industrial backdrop. All around, streets remained broken by the bomb-damage leftover from the war, with dented sheets of corrugated iron lined-up to protect dilapidated buildings that nevertheless became playgrounds for local kids. As recession began to bite, so areas raised for reconstruction were left to decay, overseen by cheaply-built high rises and, along the Thames, signposts of Britain’s declining manufacturing base. In his second issue of London’s Outrage, published in 1977, Jon Savage collated similar scenes to offer an effective snapshot of the topography that reflected punk’s sensibility.

 

Jon Savage, London’s Outrage, 2, 1977 and original photos by Savage.

 

Such imagery gave sense to the spatial dynamics that informed punk’s cultural practice, by which the husk of British industry provided room for creativity and performance. In Manchester, T.J. Davidson’s on Little Peter Street offered Joy Division and others opportunity to rehearse, a remnant of the city’s industrial past described by Mick Middles as a complex of ‘dusty rooms, all framed by fearsome junctions of industrial piping and all too soon filled with crisp packets, crushed beer cans and cigarette dimps’. Not dissimilarly, Manchester’s industrial remains soon fed into the city’s punk and post-punk cultures. The Electric Circus stood in the wastelands of Collyhurst, a once heavily-industrialised area that had fallen into disrepair by the 1970s. The very term Factory, first as the name for a club night at the Russell Club in Hulme and then as a record label, recalled Manchester’s history, a fact emphasized by Peter Saville’s in-house designs that initially drew from industrial iconography. Even more famously, the Hacienda nightclub was defined by Ben Kelly’s use of industrial aesthetics to transform an old marina into an urbanised leisure space. In effect, Manchester’s youth culture chartered the city’s post-industrial transition, reclaiming and redefining the landscape in ways Tony Wilson could no doubt articulate in quasi-situationist terms.

Similar observations have been made for Sheffield, a city with a contracting steel industry falling into disrepair by the onset of the 1980s. Although bands from the area were inspired by a range of cultural and aesthetic interests, their environment helped shape perceptions via reference to the city’s ‘grey air, thick with moisture, revealing vistas of factories, tower blocks, endless tightly-patterned semis’. Sometime later, Simon Reynolds hypothesised that ‘Sheffield’s preference for electronic sounds’ was connected to its ‘role as one of the engines of the industrial revolution’, with both Richard H. Kirk (Cabaret Voltaire) and Martyn Ware (The Future/Human League/Heaven 17) confirming their cultural practice was informed by an environment of blackened buildings and the crunching clangour of heavy industry. Speaking in 1980, Cabaret Voltaire’s Stephen Mallinder ruminated that his band’s music was ‘a reflection of a hell of a lot of your environment, social conditions, economic structures … a reflection of the times you live in’. In 2012 he went further: ‘[Sheffield’s] sounds during the 1980s were both a considered response and a practical resolution to the industrial atrophy that was well under way by this time. Against a backdrop of Thatcherite fiscal policy and regional confrontation, Sheffield’s regeneration was in every sense post-industrial. Built upon the bones of its once-thriving steel and cutlery production, the abandoned offices and factories proved useful to would-be musicians, producers and artists who would come to occupy these lost properties. Cultural redemption came to those who were happy to exploit Youth Employment schemes and the cheap council housing of the time to provide their own solutions to southern capital abandonment’. Technology and creativity offered ‘an escape route to an idealized future’, albeit ‘anchored in the more subversive dirt of reality’. The band’s first gig – in 1975 – was underpinned by a tape loop of drop-hammers; their classic single, ‘Nag, Nag, Nag’ (1978), was built on a percussion track of clanking metal keyboard legs.

Cabaret Voltaire’s affinity to Throbbing Gristle and industrial culture was telling.  Introducing their ICA performance of October 1976, P-Orridge described Throbbing Gristle’s music as a soundtrack to the breakdown of civilization. ‘You know, you walk down the street and there’s lots of ruined factories and bits of old newspapers with stories about pornography […] blowing down the street, and you turn the corner past the dead dog and you see old dustbins. And then over the ruined factory there’s a funny noise’. Speaking a few weeks later, he suggested Throbbing Gristle were ‘writing about the future by looking at today. We look at this scabby, filthy, dirty, horrible society and transform it into this inhuman, emotionless parallel. That’s the way it’s going to be in 1984 for sure’. The name Industrial Records was chosen to demystify cultural production, but it also signalled a music that offered ‘vivid and accurate reportage, a precise description of the ailing industrial society in which [people] found themselves alienated and socially ill […] Industrial music was closest to journalism and to a documentary in black and white of the savage realities of fading capitalism’.

Throbbing Gristle rehearsed and recorded in the basement of an old Hackney factory. This was the ‘death factory’, a name designed to reflect both its standing on the site of an old plague pit and the soul-destroying effects of automated labour. Now, in the 1970s, Throbbing Gristle manufactured culture, creating product to sell in multiples (albeit with subversive intent). South of the river, This Heat did similar, taking over an old meat-freezing warehouse in Brixton that they rechristened ‘cold storage’. Therein, the band adopted an experimental ‘all channels open’ approach that fuelled confrontational live performances comprising harsh textures, improvisation, tape loops and proto-sampling. Their second album, Deceit (1981), was a collage of dystopian possibilities that ranged from passive consumerism through social dislocation, overstretched welfarism, fascism and nuclear war. Test Dept, meanwhile, picked up, played and performed in the remnants of British industry. Emerging from London’s New Cross in 1981, they rehearsed in broken basements and gigged in railway arches, utilising the discarded tools of industry to hammer percussive rhythms that clanked and ground in homage to the collective strength of the organised working class. ‘There are two machines in operation’, a group statement declared in November 1983. ‘The machine which controls, dictates the rhythm of the modern state. This rhythm is impersonal. It has created a gradual furnace decline […] This force must be engaged with […] The human machine [must] cut back to basics […] The past must be explored. Mistakes and propaganda exposed. Self-discipline, moving forward out of the chaotic present […] We will be fire and give strength to the new’.

As this implies, the group’s aesthetics drew from Soviet constructivism and John Heartfield’s political montage, venerating industrial muscle in ways that soon accorded with the miners’ strike of 1984–5. Accordingly, Test Dept were among those to the fore during the miners’ struggle, performing a series of benefit gigs on their ‘Fuel to Fight’ tour and releasing an album, Shoulder to Shoulder (1985), in collaboration with the South Wales Miners’ Choir. ‘If the miners get fucked over this time then that’s it!’, one of the group insisted, having previously refused to explain their political leanings. ‘Everyone is fucked – its downhill all the way […] this whole country is being deliberately run down. It’s much more insidious than just a class struggle’.

Much of this activity gestated in cheaply-rented ramshackle houses, bedsits, squats and housing co-operatives; Victorian or Edwardian terraces transformed into transitory abodes for the poor and the marginal. As with the pre-punk counter-culture, some spaces proved more sustainable than others or continued in a tradition of radical squatting locales. So, for example, London’s early punk nexus was partly galvanised in squats that once housed hippie communes but later sheltered members of The Clash, The Slits, The Raincoats, Prag VEC and others. The area around ‘Frestonia’ (named after Freston Street, where squatters declared independence from the UK in 1977) also served as base for many connected to Rough Trade and for Tony Drayton on his relocation to London. As his Ripped & Torn fanzine transformed into the collectively-produced Kill Your Pet Puppy, so Drayton moved from squat to squat across the city until a ‘Puppy Mansions’ was founded in West Hampstead and, later, Islington via the Black Sheep Housing Co-operative. Nettleton Road in New Cross, where Test Dept were based, offered another site of punk-related activity, with squats and housing co-ops providing space for creativity and recreational substance abuse. By this time, too, squats in and around Brougham Road (Hackney) served as headquarters for the capital’s anarchist punk milieu, fusing politics and lifestyles in ways that found expression across an array of bands, fanzines and campaigns. Nearby, Beck Road housed Throbbing Gristle/Psychic TV and various acolytes.

Squat scenes were less prevalent beyond London, though similar circumstances abounded in run-down, student or bohemian enclaves. Bristol’s early 1980s punk milieu formed around squats (including the ‘Demolition Diner’) located in the city’s St Pauls, Montpelier, Cotham and Redland areas, from where the likes of Disorder, Chaos UK and others emerged in all their crusty, glue-inflected glory. In Brighton, an entrenched squatting culture had taken an anarcho-punk ‘turn’ by the 1980s. More typical, if not usually on so large a scale, were places such as Hulme in Manchester. Described by John Robb as a ‘brave new world’ of ‘late sixties clearance and demolitions’, the area saw students, squatters, bohemians and lost souls move into spaces deserted by families relocated by the council.

Pocket-sized equivalents were evident elsewhere. The coalescing of students, fledgling creatives, the unemployed and the disaffected was important, sparking tensions but also fostering cross-class synergies that informed the youth cultures that flowered in the spaces between postwar redevelopment and urban regeneration. Accordingly, perhaps, accounts of punk as a lived experience – rather than a cultural process – combine resourcefulness with creativity; squalor with anxiety. The hardship of living in urban detritus was often compounded by fear of eviction, a visit from the police or, worse, bonehead gangs looking for easy targets. Drugs, and the sensual derangement engendered by a hand-to-mouth existence that deliberately rejected the time-line of an ‘ordinary’ life, tended to reap grim consequences. Equally, camaraderie and the impetus to imagine new ways of living brought personal and creative reward. Looking back on his time in Brougham Road, Zounds’ Steve Lake remembered the dust and the corrugated iron, but also a community ‘carrying on a radical, utopian tradition […] we were building an alternative society’.

Crucially, punk’s tendency to engagement ensured that the cultures formed in the Sex Pistols’ wake often reflected, documented and dramatised the environs in which they developed. Songs of urban decay and social dislocation were legion, foreseeing a future of dereliction and violence. These, in turn, were complemented by statements of self-sufficiency and self-interest; as if punk’s anti-social impulse was as much a survival instinct as an adopted creed. Given such a context, ‘do-it-yourself’ and ‘I don’t care’ signified two related reactions to the breakdown of the post-war settlement and the perceived limitations of Labour social democracy. Come the 1980s, and the cultural effects of socio-economic change were played out on records that sought to capture the changing mood. The Pack talked of being a generation ‘forced to survive’, their songs of ‘death and damnation’ signalling an impending cataclysm. ‘This civilization is dying’, Kirk Brandon told Sounds after transforming The Pack into Theatre of Hate. A new age was dawning, Brandon insisted, though he seemed hard pushed to explain exactly what this entailed. More articulately, Killing Joke spoke of playing ‘eighties music’ […] music that reflects pressure, because that’s what [we] feel’. To this end, one of their defining statements was named in honour of the decade, a blunt inventory of the 1980s’ prevailing values chanted over a pounding beat suffocated by a churn of noise as it hurtled towards chaos: ‘I have to push, I have to struggle […] Get out my way […] I’ll take all I can get’.

By 1984, and despite signs of economic recovery, the onset of a year-long mining dispute and the continued problem of mass unemployment served only to reaffirm Britain’s troubled transformation. Many of those drawn into punk’s diaspora played or attended benefits for the miners, from Crass and Poison Girls to The Redskins, Billy Bragg  and The Three Johns lining up with ranters, dub-poets and various left-leaning bands to lend support to those who embodied Britain’s industrial base. In punk terms, therefore, it was perhaps fitting that The Clash returned to update their vision of the UK. Where 1976–77 had seen the band present a Britain of simmering animosities, combustible, caught between disorder and clampdown, 1985’s ‘This is England’ was more like a requiem. Slow paced with lyrics of ‘cold voices’ and ‘hands freezing’, the violence remained but was now wholly repressive rather than insurrectionary. Nationalism fuelled by the Falklands War provided false comfort for a ‘dying creed’, inadequate cover for the closing industries. Sheffield steel no longer served as a site of class identity or collective pride, but only as a blunted knife to stab and attack. ‘This is England’, Joe Strummer mourned, looking out across Britain’s post-industrial landscape, ‘this is how we feel …’

 

State of emergency

All but from the outset, dystopian punk visions intersected with prophesies of impending authoritarianism. ‘Fascist’ and ‘fascism’ were early punk trigger words, verbal accompaniments to the swastika’s symbolic reminder of a previous descent into socio-economic and political crisis. The Nazi symbol captured the ugly ‘vibe’ of 1976, Hugh Cornwell suggested, as his Stranglers band mate Jean Jacques Burnel diagnosed a Britain ‘due for tyranny’ and the NF marched in ever-more confident fashion. Certainly, the Sex Pistols’ ‘No Future’ came with a nod to ‘a fascist regime’, as if slavish nationalism built on a hereditary monarchy presaged a peculiarly British despotism. Both The Clash and the Tom Robinson Band specialised in plotting scenarios of social unrest and government clampdowns, with ‘heavy manners’ leading to backs up against the wall. And while Penetration stood defiant (‘don’t dictate to me’), The Models’ one and only 1977 single, ‘Freeze’, foretold an authoritarian solution to punk’s youth ‘revolution’. Even songs unrelated to the politics of fascism used the term for provocative effect: The Cortinas’ ‘Fascist Dictator’ was in fact a snotty paean to sexual self-interest that nevertheless attuned itself to Cornwell’s vibe.

Not that far-right dictatorship was deemed the only possible outcome. The Jam’s early hostility to a faltering Labour government led them regularly to accuse Jim Callaghan of ‘trying for a police state’, while Sham 69’s ‘Red London’ appeared to suggest that the stifling uniformity of socialism paved the way for ‘no democracy’. ‘People want to deviate, not join clubs’, Mark Perry insisted when quizzed as to his criticism of the SWP’s role in RAR. ‘[The red star] has caused as much trouble and animosity as the swastika’, a thesis to which many in and around punk’s anarchist and Oi! milieus would also later subscribe. Though less common than portents of fascism, visions of communist tyranny occasionally found a punk outlet. The Stranglers’ ‘Curfew’, for example, portrayed a Soviet invasion of Britain, cutting through a Europe softened by American cultural imperialism. Likewise, following the Russian intervention in Afghanistan in 1979, the Angelic Upstarts urged ‘Guns for the Afghan Rebels’ to prevent a Soviet advance. The Underdogs’ 1983 single, ‘East of Dachau’, compared Soviet communism to the fascism it theoretically opposed.

Quite how imminent was the post-democratic future remained a moot point. Many of the scenarios sketched in songs such as The Damned’s ‘I Just Can’t Be Happy Today’ – where evil reigned and books were burned under army command – were fantastical. Across the early 1980s, moreover, Anti Pasti, Chelsea, Conflict, Killing Koke, Mau Maus, The Skeptix and the UK Subs were among those to dramatise the onset of police states, curfews and clampdowns. The state was presented as omnipresent, signalling a brand new age of surveillance and repression. Violence and decay begat authoritarianism; the police acted with impunity; the military was poised to occupy the cities. Though imagined, they pertained to an immediate future, tapping into cold war paranoia and the perceived consequences of social dislocation.

Others, particularly among punk’s social realists, focused on low-level state-sanctioned harassment to suggest encroaching authoritarianism. ‘Freedom, there ain’t no fucking freedom’, Stinky Turner shouted to introduce the Cockney Rejects’ ‘Police Car’, one of their many songs detailing scrapes, scraps and run-ins with the police. Sham 69, Angelic Upstarts, Infa Riot and The Business also told tales of criminality that venerated villains as outsider-heroes or cast young delinquents as anti-social rebels. By so doing, they referred to a much longer historical struggle for the self-regulation of social space. Tensions between the forces of social control and working-class youth may be dated back to at least the nineteenth century, where police intervention into local street cultures brought resentment. Be it hanging around on corners, coalescing in gangs, gambling or the football, urban space was contested; identities forged through locale, school, street, style and community were tendered and protected. If ‘youth’ – especially working-class youth and, in the post-1945 period, black youth – challenged a prescribed public order, then the police represented both a rival gang and a symbol of statist intervention; an irreconcilable ‘other’ to be opposed and never trusted. ACAB: All Coppers Are Bastards.

Come the 1980s and many a young (and not so young) punk would claim to discern authoritarianism at the heart of Margaret Thatcher’s mission. Disaffection with formal politics, including parliamentary politics, recurred across punk’s cultures from 1976, be it for reasons of disinterest, distrust or preference for alternative political practice. Simultaneously, a more overarching – and overtly anarchist – critique developed, positing democracy as a sham designed to mask broader systems of repression. ‘Democracy is a lie’, Penny Rimbaud wrote in the first issue of Crass’ International Anthem (1977). ‘Two party totalitarianism. The realities stay the same […] Democracy is a system and systems kill’. Following Thatcher’s election in 1979, such a perspective became entrenched. Predictions of legal crackdowns, detention centres and conscription began to fill fanzine columns; the ‘clever con’ of party politics was unpicked and revealed.

Crass always pertained to offer hope. Their politics and practice demonstrated an alternative future. In the short-term, however, they and others anticipated authoritarianism enforced by might, conformity and fear. ‘The boundaries are becoming narrower as the state becomes more paranoid’, Rimbaud contended as the cold war’s geo-politics cast an ever more ominous shadow. Looking from the Falklands to the miners’ strike to the war in Ireland to the deleterious economic situation, Crass predicted that ‘the only way in which they [the government] are going to maintain their slavery of us is with the threat of a gun barrel’. To this end, the spectre of militarism became a common feature of the punk dystopia, the means by which control would be maintained once war was proclaimed or democracy untenable.

Punk’s anarchist critiques were conceptual and theoretical. Nevertheless, they – and the impulses that informed punk’s more general fascination with all things authoritarian – drew from real events and wider anxieties. Looking back, Nazism and the still-visible scars of World War Two gave tangible sense to an averted post-democratic future that nevertheless continued to haunt the British psyche. The residues of the war – its horrors, symbols, rubble and losses – permeated the culture and politics of the post-war period, be it through film, literature, drama or the children’s toys and comics that punk’s participants grew up with. In turn, images of Nazi brutality provided source material for many a punk song and record cover. From the Sex Pistols’ ‘Belsen Was A Gas’ through Throbbing Gristle’s death camp imagery onto lesser-known tracks such as The Prefects’ ‘Bristol Road Leads To Dachau’, Crisis’ ‘Holocaust’, Whitehouse’s ‘Buchenwald’, Blitzkrieg’s ‘Lest We Forget’ and Cult Maniax’s ‘Blitz’, World War Two provided a historical reminder of what could have been and what could still become. The cover of 1983’s Punk and Disorderly III compilation even featured Hitler standing alongside Thatcher outside Downing Street. All around, punks lay dead on the roadside while others lined up for the firing squad or hung from a lamp post.

As this suggests, the heightened political climate of the 1970s and early 1980s fuelled punk’s post-democratic imaginings. The states of emergency called by Ted Heath throughout his bedevilled 1970–74 government had already served to implant the idea of democratic fragility. Economic and political upheavals thereafter reaffirmed matters: power cuts and strikes; inflation and recession; IRA bombs and the Angry Brigade. As each new chronicler of the 1970s makes clear, fears of ‘ungovernability’ led to hushed talk of military coups finding outlet in private clubs, diaries and the more subterranean corridors of power. Alongside doomsday dramas and novels depicting trade union takeovers or militarised responses to crisis, newspaper editorials predicted chaos and political commentators announced ‘the death of British democracy’. ‘Having been the most stable and prosperous industrial nation’, Stephen Haseler wrote in a book that foresaw the ‘social democratic age’ give way to the ‘ordered totalitarian control’ of the far left, ‘Britain has now become a potential arena for revolutionary political change. The centre of British politics may, at last, not hold’.

Thatcherism, meanwhile, was positioned as a response to the fractures appearing in the British polity – either a necessary correction to the nation’s perceived ills or the realisation of ‘popular authoritarianism’. Consequently, political and economic solutions to problems both real and imagined fed into and informed British youth culture. In punk (and British reggae) terms, reference to the police tended to revolve around instances of harassment and the use of ‘SUS’, a section of the 1824 Vagrancy Act that allowed the arrest of someone on suspicion of loitering to commit a crime. This, in turn, reflected the expansion of police numbers over the 1970–80s and the more assertive policing of inner-city areas sanctioned in response to rising crime rates and, by the 1970s, the terrorist threat posed by the IRA. Engagement with the police became more common, bringing with it the tensions and confrontations that erupted in the riots of 1981. Not dissimilarly, emergent revelations of police corruption, brutality and racism served only to reinforce punk’s critical position, with the deaths of Liddle Towers, Richard Campbell, James Kelly, Blair Peach – and the beating of Clarence Baker – inspiring a series of records. More generally, ‘SUS’, ‘SPG’, ‘police cars’ and ‘borstal’ became embedded into punk’s lexicon: symbols of repression enacted to signal subjugation and control.

And then there was Ireland. The Troubles of the 1960s–90s had a long history, pertaining to colonial and religious issues carved deep into the Anglo–Irish past. By the late 1960s, with an Irish republic established in the catholic south and a predominantly protestant north bound within the UK, the question of civil rights for the catholic population of Northern Ireland signalled a challenge to the uneasy status quo that successive British governments had sought to maintain since the partition of 1921. Very quickly, demonstrations were met by counter demonstrations. Religious sectarianism, often concentrated in specific neighbourhoods, found renewed expression. The heavy-handed approach of the protestant-dominated Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) served only to stoke – rather than quell – the mounting tension, leading to an upsurge in violence and the deployment of British troops in 1969.

At the dawn of the 1970s, the situation was acute. Paramilitary groups and patrolling British soldiers had transformed Ulster into a warzone, with bombs, beatings and barricades defining a new everyday reality. Most famously, the Provisional IRA was founded in 1969 to rekindle the armed struggle for a united Ireland, sniping at British soldiers and mounting a series of bomb attacks. Simultaneously, the British government’s sanctioning of internment without trial and interrogation techniques later condemned by the European Commission of Human Rights as inhuman and degrading appeared to bolster the IRA’s cause. In March 1972, just weeks after British soldiers killed thirteen unarmed civil rights protestors on the ‘Bloody Sunday’ of 30 January, direct rule was declared by the British government.

The ramifications of all this were as brutal and they were complex. An erratic but determined mainland bombing campaign was launched by the IRA with bloody consequences. In Ulster itself, the influence of paramilitary groups in communities on either side of the religious divide brokered turf-wars and no-go areas. Thousands were killed and injured, many of whom were civilians. More generally, the presence of armed British troops suggested an occupation and contributed to a pervasive sense of threat and intimidation. Following the summer of 1972, Belfast city centre was surrounded by a ‘ring of steel’, the metal-gated fence preventing unchecked entry a response to the IRA’s detonation of over twenty incendiary devices in a single day on 21 July. Looking back, Terri Hooley – the founder of Good Vibrations, Belfast’s premier record shop and punk label – recalled the late 1960s as ‘the start of the dark ages’: violence increased, clubs closed, cross-community contact diminished, anxious interaction with paramilitaries and British soldiers recurred.

Given punk’s dystopian tendencies, Ulster might have provided a suitably prescient example of the post-democratic future. Certainly, the IRA and UDA (Ulster Defence Association) formed part of the acronym-shrapnel that splintered from the Sex Pistols’ ‘Anarchy in the UK’. Famously, too, The Clash visited Belfast in October 1977, lining up for photos at the barricades before insurance problems meant their gig was cancelled. True to form, the RUC moved in to disperse the disappointed young punks who had gathered early for the gig, provoking a minor riot and fuelling punk mythology. Elsewhere, Sham 69 (‘Ulster’) and Theatre of Hate (‘The Wake’) evoked Ireland as a site of futile division, while Killing Joke released a debut album enveloped by Don McCullin’s 1971 photograph of young Londonderry kids clambering over walls to escape clouds of CS gas fired by British soldiers. Even at a superficial level, Ulster provided a signal of the UK’s socio-political dislocation.

For groups of a more explicit political bent, Northern Ireland represented the most blatant example of British state oppression – a ‘training ground for what the authorities believe is going to happen on the mainland’, according to Rimbaud. In fact, Gee Vaucher had intended the fourth issue of International Anthem to concentrate on Ireland, before deciding the subject was simply ‘too much’ to cover. Nevertheless, anarchist bands offered intermittent statements on a conflict they defined as a contrivance of imperialism and proof of religious intolerance. ‘Crass would like to declare’, the band commented on the back of Hit Parade’s Bad News EP (1982), ‘that we no more support the republican (generally catholic) IRA […] than we do the unionist (generally protestant) UDR (Ulster Defence Regiment) or RUC […] Nor do we support the presence in Northern Ireland of the British army’. The EP itself, put out on Crass Records but conceived by Dave Hyndman, included the song ‘H Block’ and a long essay on the use of rubber bullets. ‘All of these organisations’, Crass insisted, ‘are concerned with the seizure, or maintenance, of power and the control and manipulation of the unionist, republication and non-sectarian population […] As long as populations are unable to take a united stand against all forms of repression, they will remain subservient to it’.

Bands coming from a leftist perspective covered similar territory. Gang of Four wrote of the damage done by ‘Armalite Rifles’ and dropped reference to the H-blocks of Long Kesh prison that housed Ireland’s political prisoners and later staged the republican hunger strikes of 1980–81. The Pop Group went further, setting Amnesty International’s ‘report on British army torture of Irish prisoners’ to a dislocated funk rhythm, while Fallout’s ‘Tell Me About It’ conflated British intervention in Ireland with state terrorism: ‘the Great British nation, your creation, religious segregation […] it’s your finger on the trigger’. Others pointed to activism. The Passage, for example, released ‘Troops Out’ in support of the UK-based movement of the same name. In one Au Pairs interview, who’s ‘Armagh’ again focused on the torture of Irish prisoners, the band debated the extent to which they should give support to the IRA. Alternatively, the plight of British squaddies posted to Northern Ireland – among them The Exploited’s Wattie Buchan – provided an effective example of young working-class lives being sacrificed to the interests of power. ‘Last Night, Another Soldier’ by the Angelic Upstarts and Anti Pasti’s ‘Another Dead Soldier’ provide just two examples.

Such ‘outside’ interventions came in for criticism. ‘The kids are sick of the violence here’, Hooley insisted. ‘[They] are fed up too of groups like The Clash coming over here and posing in front of soldiers’. In the NME, one Derry reader (and close friend of The Undertones) complained: ‘We’ve had bands like Killing Joke, Theatre of Hate and other no-hopers writing songs about us, using us for covers, good copy; when not one of them have the slightest clue what goes on here’. Protex – from Belfast – agreed, suggesting it was impossible to explain what it was like to live in Ulster to someone from outside. Or, as the unfinished issue of International Anthem suggests, the complexities of the Irish situation proved too difficult to distil into punk’s essentially pop format. When Poison Girls visited Belfast in 1981, their ‘Take the Toys from the Boys’ badges were objected to by Irish anarchists who felt they misunderstood how the gun-men were seen by communities in Northern Ireland. That is, the paramilitaries were recognised by some as protectors as well as oppressors.

In Ulster itself, indigenous punk cultures mainly endeavoured to transcend sectarian division, coming together in the Harp Bar where a democratic committee ran a ‘punk workshop’ to sustain a local system of self-help. ‘Politics, surprisingly, play no part in the songs [of Irish punk bands]’, Harry Doherty reported for Melody Maker in 1977, quoting The Undertones’ pre-empting of Hooley’s comment by saying they were ‘sick of living with politics day after day’. As a result, attempts to launch a Rock Against Sectarianism and Repression campaign akin to RAR soon stalled. Instead, bands tended towards self-organisation with the assistance of people such as Hooley and Hyndman. The anarchist centre of late 1981 (revived briefly in 1982) took over where the Harp Bar left off, providing space for punks to meet and thereby pave the way for the on-going Warzone Collective to establish itself in 1984. ‘We always try to write positive songs – we don’t believe in writing songs of gloom’, Rudi’s Ronnie Matthews explained. ‘[We’re] trying to put over the fact that there is a way out and […] the only way out of Belfast is to claw your way out’.

There were exceptions. As well as Hit Parade and the gaggle of anarchist bands that formed in and around the Warzone Collective, Stiff Little Fingers’ early records were specifically designed to bring attention to the situation in Northern Ireland. ‘Suspect Device’, the band’s ferocious debut single released in 1978, both embodied the Troubles and rejected their logic: ‘Inflammable material planted in my head, it’s a suspect device that’s left two thousand dead’. The b-side, ‘Wasted Life’, eschewed the call of the paramilitaries, paving the way for an ‘Alternative Ulster’ and the album, Inflammable Material (1979), to fully apply The Clash’s methodology to Belfast’s streets. Indeed, the band’s lyrics were often co-written with Gordon Oglivie, a journalist in his late twenties enthused by punk’s reportage. It was he who encouraged Stiff Little Fingers to hone in on the day-to-day lives of Ulster’s youth, to ‘write about what you believe in’. ‘Punks in England moan about hassles on the street’, Jake Burns noted, ‘but they’ve never seen hooded men at a barricade. Their cops don’t carry sub-machine guns’. To prove the point, Burns claimed to have received letters from Belfast kids saying they had resisted joining a local paramilitary group after listening to the band’s records.

The Defects’ debut EP from 1981 also touched on Irish politics, ‘Brutality’ culminating in the ‘SS RUC’ chant oft-heard at Belfast’s punk gigs (and previously used by Rudi on ‘Cops’). Nevertheless, both they and Stiff Little Fingers maintained either a critical attitude towards those who dabbled in a situation they did not fully understand or urged caution. ‘You can’t sit in London and sing about Northern Ireland if you haven’t been here for three or four months’, Burns insisted, picking out Sham 69’s ‘Ulster’ as a case in point. ‘Singing political songs gets you in trouble,’ The Defects’ Buck [Ian Murdock] admitted. ‘Protestants and Catholics got together and mixed when punk came along […] We want to keep playing to mixed audiences as long as we’re in Belfast.’

Buck’s comments tally with the prevailing narrative of Northern Irish punk. For Brian Young of Rudi, places like the Harp Bar and Good Vibrations provided neutral spaces. ‘[You] were a punk rocker first’, he remembered: religious, class and political divisions were secondary. The Shellshock Rock film, directed by John T. Davis and released in 1979, also emphasised punk’s non-sectarianism, its rough and ready survey of Ulster’s punk scene capturing what Martin MacLoone calls a ‘new space – mental as well as physical, musical as well as social, economic as well as political – that has been opened up in an otherwise claustrophobic world’. Hand-held cameras track Belfast’s darkened streets, cutting to live footage of bands and interviews that articulate punk’s non-sectarian identity. Of course, pressures were still felt. Stiff Little Fingers and The Undertones had a running media debate as to whether they were respectively exploiting or ignoring the Troubles. Contemporary and subsequent accounts recall the young Ulster punks’ penchant for escaping the attention of paramilitaries and routine stop-and-searches via substance abuse, with one review of The Defects describing an audience with bags clamped to faces reeling from a double hit of glue and music. As this suggests, travelling to and from punk’s neutral spaces remained dangerous, while the release of the Sex Pistols’ ‘God Save the Queen’ reputedly stoked a spate of punk beatings. Nevertheless, punk’s emergence was generally perceived as positive. ‘Punk brought us together and we want to stay together’, a friend of The Defects said in 1982. In the face of Ulster’s very real state of emergency, punk provided a cultural rather than political solution to a country in lockdown. Asked to define his idea for an ‘Alternative Ulster’, Jake Burns’ reply was simple: ‘playing a guitar’.

 

The actions of the British state in Ulster and elsewhere did much to enflame punk’s post-democratic imaginings. As politics flailed in Westminster and played out in the street through pickets, protests, demonstrations, delinquency, marches and bombs, so state-sanctioned responses served to both manage and provoke confrontation. Ulster, the riots of 1981 and the violence of the 1984–5 miners’ strike would provide the most spectacular expressions of such antagonism. But images from Notting Hill, Lewisham, Grunwick, Southall, Brighton, Wapping and Wiltshire’s Beanfield also informed the cultural memory, not to mention day-to-day experiences on-going beneath the media radar. Of course, freedom could be lost through disinterest and malaise. A somnolent population too distracted or conditioned to recognise the connivance of power was another dystopian possibility played out through punk. Commodification, regeneration and the tightening strictures of state benefits and housing provision further contained the space for alternative cultures to form and function. Generally, however, punk – especially those who held fast to the term into the 1980s – appeared to exist under siege. Writing as 1984 turned to 1985, Conflict’s Colin Jerwood surveyed a year of peace protests (Greenham Common), miners’ struggles, Stop the City demonstrations, animal rights’ actions and an IRA bomb that almost killed the prime minister as she prepared to speak at her party’s annual conference on 12 October. The government was becoming increasingly concerned with the ‘scale of public awareness and the threat of mass civil unrest’, Jerwood insisted. The police state was being ‘brought to its peak’; the media and politicians had fallen into line. And as Conflict prepared to soundtrack and participate in the fight back, Jerwood reaffirmed his anarchist beliefs: ‘Fuck authority […] your oppression creates the hate’.

 

Gimme world war three, we can live again

Part-way through the first side of Crass’ The Feeding of the Five Thousand (1978), a silence interrupts the noise. It lingers, disconcertingly longer than is normal for a typical segue, before a discordant guitar signals for Steve Ignorant to take up the lyric from where he left off: ‘Twenty-odd years now, waiting for the flash … all of the odd balls, thinking we’ll be ash’. The song’s title, ‘They’ve Got a Bomb’, provided an obvious explanation. Live, however, the unexpected interlude made more sense, with lights simultaneously shutting down as film of an atomic bomb-blast projected into the sensorial vacuum. With the ultimate symbol of the cold war lighting-up the darkness, so the countdown began: four-three-two-one, fire.

Being Crass, this was no schlock-horror media affectation. It related to Rimbaud’s long-standing support for the anti-war movement and sought deliberately to inform punk’s counter-cultural position. After all, the spectre of nuclear war – and the legacy of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the US military in August 1945 – had forever hung heavy over post-war youth and pop culture, fuelling what Jon Savage described as a kind of ‘forced existentialism, of having to live for and in the moment’. Jeff Nuttall even attributed ‘the bomb’ to the widening generation gap he perceived in the 1950s and 1960s, suggesting that ‘the people who had not yet reached puberty at the time of the bomb were incapable of conceiving life with a future’. Consciously or unconsciously, living in a world poised between the destructive might of two super-powers, each capable of unleashing wholesale devastation, had cultural ramifications that played out in myriad ways.

Arguably, the 1970s saw some respite. Sino-American rapprochement and talk of ‘peaceful coexistence’ between the Soviet Union and United States allowed for a period of détente to at least challenge the logic of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). Enmities – and the perennial threat of nuclear conflict – remained, but discussion of arms limitation briefly replaced the brinksmanship that had peaked during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. As a result, Crass’ raising the prospect of nuclear war and lending support to CND was relatively unusual in punk’s early period. Although Rotten dropped reference to a ‘potential H-bomb’ in ‘God Save the Queen’, it was not until 1980, with the cold war reigniting following the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan (1979) and the election of Ronald Reagan to the US presidency (1980), that post-apocalyptic futures began to recur as punk dystopia. In particular, the confirmation in late 1979 that Britain would provide base for 160 American nuclear-armed cruise missiles rekindled both CND and latent fears. In Margaret Thatcher, moreover, Britain had an ‘iron lady’ whose reputation was built on her irreconcilable opposition to Soviet communism.

Political and cultural responses to what has been coined the ‘second cold war’ were soon apparent. Publically, the women’s peace camp at Greenham Common and the mass rallies organised by CND in the early 1980s offered the most overt displays of resistance. Labour also adopted unilateral disarmament and opposed accommodation of American missiles from 1980. Culturally, nuclear themes began to permeate everything from TV dramas, novels and documentaries to comics, comedies and the singles chart. So, for example, Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s ‘Two Tribes’ spent nine weeks at number one in June–August  1984, a pounding summation of the cold war accompanied by a video that depicted Reagan and the Soviet leader Konstantin Chernenko wrestling in a bear-pit. Gruesome television also made an impact, with Threads’ dramatisation of a nuclear strike on Sheffield being especially notorious among those of certain age. More generally, the Glastonbury music festival aligned with CND from 1981, raising money and the profile of the anti-war movement in the process. In the NME, ‘Plutonium Blondes’ began as a regular column in the same year, featuring updates of nuclear-related developments and protests.

Not surprisingly, punk-informed cultures proved quick to engage with the shifting geo-political climate. Crass’ definitive statement on the subject was ‘Nagasaki Nightmare’ (1980), a disturbing single that brought the horror of any future nuclear war into sharp focus. The song itself begins with Eve Libertine intoning the details of August 1945: the dates of the atomic explosions, the deaths, the radioactive consequences. Gong tones, bamboo flutes and a dislocated Japanese voice provide accompaniment, before the music builds up, disassembles and reforms over Rimbaud’s shifting-but-incessant beat. Screeched vocals then bleed in and out, repeating the title around reference to man-made pain and deadly rain. Across the foldout sleeve, the minutiae of Nagasaki’s nightmare – ‘charred flesh, skin hanging in strips, maggots boiling out of wounds’ – is related in words and pictures alongside essays on the power-politics of nuclear proliferation. Opened-up, a Gee Vaucher painting depicts cheerful world leaders set against an apocalyptic backdrop, while contact addresses for CND complement a map of the UK’s nuclear sites and home defence structures. ‘H-bombs are mind control. They kill people a little bit every day’.

Crass were not alone in using the imagery of nuclear war to forewarn a post-apocalyptic future. Discharge’s relentless exploration of war’s atrocities often drew on nuclear tropes filtered through brutal slabs of noise. ‘It’s the most important thing in our lives (threat of nuclear war) isn’t it?’, Bones (Tony Roberts) said when asked about his band’s fixation. Together with stark lyrics (‘the final bloodbath’s coming, it’s just around the corner’) and self-explanatory song-titles (‘Two Monstrous Nuclear Stockpiles’), photographs of dead and radiated bodies covered their record sleeves. The songs ‘Cries of Help’ and ‘A Hell on Earth’ were even conjoined by an excerpt from Peter Watkins’ The War Game (1965), the voice imparting data and survival advice over sounds of a bomb-blast and children in pain. ‘The message is peace’, Cal (Kelvin Morris) insisted. ‘Our slogan says “I want to grow up, not blow up”’.

Others made similar comment. From Killing Joke’s ‘Turn to Red’ and the UK Subs’ ‘Warhead’ through to Conflict’s ‘The Day Before’ and Chaos UK’s ‘Four Minute Warning’, the threat of nuclear war infused 1980s punk. Bands such as The Varukers, clearly inspired by Discharge, began to specialise in songs of nuclear holocaust, whilst the Subhumans tried to imagine the moment ‘When the Bomb Drops’. Among the ever-growing number of anarchist bands emerging into the early 1980s, reflective accounts of the post-apocalyptic landscape sometimes offset the carnage. The Mob’s ‘No Doves Fly Here’ presented a desolate portrait of the bomb’s aftermath, evoking empty cities and rural wastelands to chilling effect.  Typically, however, the likes of Amebix, Anti-System, Flux of Pink Indians and The System preferred to depict broken bodies and war-torn cities, relating the devastation to the pursuit of power, persecution and profit. Indeed, as the ramifications of ‘Another Hiroshima’, to cite Dean Man’s Shadow, were envisaged, so lyrics and artworks oft-located punk in the aftermath. Be it Vice Squad’s ‘Last Rockers’ stumbling through the rubble of a blasted city or The Exploited’s Troops of Tomorrow (1982) cover featuring the band caught in a bleak underpass surrounded by mutated skeletal creatures, punk appeared to embody the battered remnants of a society blown to bits. ‘[To] me’, Wattie Buchan told Sounds, ‘the punks now could be the troops of tomorrow, an’ the cover jist shows like the skeletons an’ that efter a nuclear attack, y’ken yer body wid jist be like waste’ (sic). By 1984, peace symbols and images of mushroom clouds had become almost de rigueur across punk-informed artworks, serving both as political commentary and, in many cases, relating to a committed activism.

 

 

Less explicitly, perhaps, the overriding threat of the bomb may be read into the temper and tenor of punk and post-punk politics. It affirmed punk’s oppositionism, appearing to represent the state’s disdain for its citizens, replete with class connotations and a sense of ‘us and them’. It was not just The Varukers who insisted ‘They’re the ones declare the war, you’re the ones die for the cause’. Similar sentiments were expressed in songs by The 4-Skins, The Adicts, Chron Gen, GBH, The Samples and UK Decay – none of whom defined themselves as political in the commonly-understood sense. The bomb also reinforced punk’s nihilist traits: the ultimate No Future. ‘Why bother anyway?’, The Insane asked, ‘there’s gonna be a nuclear war’. Even the dark ambience of much post-punk can be understood in relation to the bomb, tapping into a mood of disconcertion and unease. According to Pete Wylie, whose various incarnations of Wah! emerged from Liverpool’s punk milieu, ‘apocalypse is in all the songs’, lurking behind the paranoia of titles such as ‘Seven Minutes to Midnight’. We could go on: noting Young Marble Giants’ ‘The Final Day’, The Sound’s ‘Missiles’, the apocalyptic overtones of This Heat’s Deceit (1981) and the obsessions of a (proto-) gothic culture that aestheticised death, ruin and decay. The point, of course, is that the threat of a post-nuclear future pervaded punk-related cultures (as it did culture and society more generally), finding creative expression in songs, artworks, writings and aesthetics.

It also reflected and crossed over into active political engagement. Alongside the collages of war and essays on militarism that filled many a fanzine over the 1980s, reports of anti-war groups and critical dissections of CND’s effectiveness nestled between gig reviews and interviews. Punk-informed bands held countless benefit gigs for anti-war causes and contributed to fund-raising records such as Life in the European Theatre (1982) and Wargasm (1983). Young punks attended anti-war demonstrations. Where Crass distributed CND literature to those who wrote to them at Dial House, The Pop Group’s Mark Stewart began working from CND’s head office in 1980. Paul Weller, whose ‘Going Underground’ sensed the darkening geo-political mood, even issued communiqués through the music about the need to oppose nuclear weapons.

Given such a context, the outbreak of the Falklands War fed into punk’s bleak vision. The conflict began in earnest in April 1982, a British taskforce crossing the Atlantic to do combat with an Argentinian junta that had illegally occupied islands to which it staked a historic claim. It was also quickly won, with the British retaking control in June 1982 amidst much patriotic fervour. Indeed, the war is generally recognised to have marked something of a turning point, both in terms of British self-perception and the status of Margaret Thatcher as a strong and decisive leader. Popular and political support was forthcoming, despite the government being caught unawares and concern that expenditure cuts had undermined Britain’s naval capabilities. The fact that Argentina, a dictatorship, had instigated the war also lent legitimacy to the government’s actions. Nevertheless, the speed and the relish to which Britain went to war was alarming for some. Thatcher’s bellicose rhetoric – conflating military combat abroad with industrial combat at home – and the jingoism exemplified by The Sun’s ‘Gotcha’ headline following the sinking of the Argentinian General Belgrano, was both crude and disturbing. To those of a critical disposition, the war appeared less a righteous cause than a politically-motivated distraction, an old-fashioned imperial power-play to rally the nation.

As may be expected, Crass immediately took up an anti-war position. The Falklands crisis had engendered an ‘atmosphere of war’, the band insisted, thereby bringing the ‘reality of nuclear’ devastation ever closer. First, therefore, a short statement condemning the war was hurriedly added to the booklet included with Christ – The Album (1982), before a rushed – and rather clumsy – dismissal of the conflict as an exercise in macho-posturing and imperial misadventure (‘Sheep Farming in the Falklands’) was issued anonymously as a flexi-disc. Much sharper was ‘How Does It Feel (To Be The Mother Of A Thousand Dead)?’, a splenetic anti-war statement that held Margaret Thatcher accountable for the misery, death and pain that ‘you inflicted, you determined, you created, you ordered: it was your decision, to have those young boys slaughtered’. It was this that irked the moral scruples of Tim Eggar MP, who objected both to the record’s anti-war sentiment and the b-side’s rant against ‘shit-head slimy got it all’ politicians, grinding their ‘bloodied teeth’ in self-interest as they betrayed the dead from behind a Downing Street fortress. Nevertheless, Crass continued to agitate. Anti-war statements were printed and distributed at gigs, forewarning that ‘the same squad of Falklands heroes will be smashing your head when you finally realise you’ve had enough of her [Thatcher’s] madness’. An ‘open letter to rock ‘n’ rollers everywhere’ was sent to the music press urging greater opposition to the Thatcher government. The ‘Thatchergate’ tape was also distributed, its spliced conversation between Reagan and Thatcher causing a brief media furore and hinting that the HMS Sheffield was deliberately sacrificed to Argentinian bombs in order to protect Prince Andrew on the Ark Royal. Finally, on Yes Sir, I Will, recorded and released in 1983, Rimbaud endeavoured to distil the band’s position over 44-minutes of relentless noise broken only occasionally by moments of musical respite. An extended essay provided the lyric, locating the Falklands War as part of a more insidious political agenda: ‘a callous and savage piece of electioneering to cover up horrific domestic problems’. Inside the album’s sleeve, an image from The Sun was blown up to form a poster: Simon Weston, burnt horribly during the war, is photographed meeting Prince Charles. ‘“Get well soon”, the Prince said. And the heroic soldier replied: “Yes, sir, I will.”’

Such a vehemently anti-war position was not universally accepted. In interviews and letters to the music press, varied responses to the conflict may be found amongst punk-informed milieus. So, for instance, Vice Squad’s Beki Bondage initially supported Britain’s going to war before reading-up on the conflict and changing her mind. Nevertheless, at least one of her band-mates felt the government had to respond. Not dissimilarly, Mensi from the Angelic Upstarts worried that the crisis meant people ‘forgetting there’s three million, probably four million, on the dole’. But he recognised the war was fought against a ‘fascist force’ and insisted that ‘if the call-up papers came [then] I’d fight’. Cock Sparrer made similar comments, as did The 4-Skins, who saw the conflict as Britain ‘fighting fascist aggression’. Mark E Smith also combined support for the war with ‘Marquis Cha Cha’, The Fall’s tale of a ‘loathsome traitor, victim of educated aimlessness’, broadcasting pro-Argentinian propaganda from Buenos Aires. Less assuredly, Mayhem claimed their song ‘Patriots’ was anti-fascist rather than nationalist (despite its ‘what shall we do with the Argie bastards’ intro), while to punk’s right the likes of Combat 84 and The Ovalteenies revelled in Britain’s military show of strength. Generally, however, a sense that the war was exploited by Thatcher – either to detract from problems at home or as part of a broader geo-political power struggle – persevered, feeding into fanzine articles, interviews and songs such as ‘Spirit of the Falklands’ by New Model Army. In effect, the specificities of the war became less important than the wider context. Not only had the conflict served to bolster the Conservative’s grip on government, but it turned an abstract fear of war into reality.

By 1984, military themes and visions of post-nuclear holocaust had become something of a punk cliché. Certainly, they informed one clearly-visible strand of punk’s aesthetic, taken to an extreme in the fledgling crust image of battered fatigues and almost wilful degradation. Notions of cider-punks and dogs-on-a-string were gestating, the oft-heard request from bedraggled punks loitering in city centres or outside gigs – ‘have you got 10p’ – was gently satirised by The Ejected. And yet, for all the fatalism that imbued imaginations filled with apocalyptic doomsdays, punk still provided space to engage with and articulate the anxieties of what Extreme Noise Terror later called A Holocaust in Your Head (1989). More generally, any creative or political response to the threat of impending nuclear disaster cut to the nub of punk’s dialectic: that its negation served as a stimulus. For this reason, punk and post-punk cultures may still be seen to offer what Raymond Williams described as a ‘resource of hope’. In the politically-informed DIY practice of Rough Trade or the sexual politics of The Raincoats lay alternate ways of thinking, living and doing. To be in band was to work collectively; it was ‘a strategy, a practice, a response to an incredibly barren and uncompromising landscape’, Kevin Lycett of The Mekons remembered. But we may also extend such reasoning to the anarchist praxis of Crass or the socialist sensibilities of the Newtown Neurotics and Redskins; to the boisterous defiance of Oi!; the esoteric explorations of industrial culture and the sensual transgressions of goth. Cast in the shadow of potential nuclear war, punk-informed responses were sometimes as ugly as the dystopias they envisaged. By engaging, however, they signalled both warnings and alternative possibilities. ‘We’re the future, your future’ ….

 

Matt Worley conclusion

Conclusion

Alternatives: Chaos and finish

 

Obviously, the music is the thing that brings all the people together in the first place      and a lot of the music, I think, has fairly important political comments to make. And      those comments may be naïve, but I think we’ve tended to believe over the years            that because political expression was naïve there was somehow something         wrong with it […] I think the naivety in the music really has very little to do with the             sincerity or the accuracy of the statements its making politically.

John Peel (1977)

 

Having started Sniffin’ Glue in 1976, Mark Perry soon formed one of punk’s seminal bands, Alternative TV. Their first album was released in May 1978, opening with ‘Alternatives’ (originally titled ‘Alternatives to NATO’), a slow-chugging freeform live staple of ATV’s set that revolved around Perry reflecting on whatever came to mind (or hand). That it musically-referenced the experimental German band Faust confirmed Perry was keen to push beyond the limits of any predetermined punk format. As previously revealed on the single ‘How Much Longer’ (1977), Perry envisioned a punk of possibilities rather than clichés. Like Rotten, he urged invention rather than replication; confrontation rather than conformity. Live, ‘Alternatives’ served as a provocation. Caught on record, it provided a freeze-frame of punk’s fractious evolution.

The album version was recorded at London’s 100 Club in February 1978. This time Perry offered the stage to the audience, reasserting punk’s impetus to both do-it-yourself and provide a platform for expression. The young crowd seem uncertain at first, as Perry invites people onto the ‘soapbox’. Eventually, someone jumps up to berate the audience for being brainwashed by the media and politicians. He urges co-ordinated protest, for which he is shouted down, while Perry tells those dancing on the stage to get off (‘we are spoilsports’). Another audience member takes the initiative, asking people to audition for his band (The Dead). Subcultural tensions then ensue as a skinhead calls out the punks and is met by a volley of derision. Perry steps in: ‘Right, you stupid bastards, off the stage […] One of you people gets the chance to say something and what happens? There’s a fight. That’s all you can do […] I just wanted to make a point, right. I love all you people but I hate you when you act like stupid idiots, ‘cos that’s when they grind you down!’ A disembodied documentary clip briefly cuts in, suggesting cultural spaces are where ‘battles are fought, imaginations expressed, differences confronted and […] in which all kinds of movements can develop’. The live recording then returns, with Perry insisting rock ‘n’ roll allows just such a space, but that it is not enough for punk bands simply to get on television. ‘What you’re getting is diluted, diluted shit […] No way have you won brother (oh no, I talk like a communist), no way have you won sister. Someone said they know the problems, [but] what’s the answer? This is really depressing ‘cos there ain’t no fucking answer’. A final audience member comes up to say that songs and words will never ‘change the country’, only actions can make a difference. Perry calls an end, telling the band: ‘Let’s have some chaos, chaos and finish’.

Reviewing The Image Has Cracked (1978) for the NME, Paul Morley recognised how the album traced Perry’s enthusiasms and frustrations across the punk culture he had helped disseminate. Perry was ‘confused’ and so ‘confusing’, Morley suggested, but the album’s juxtaposition of experimentation and simplicity pointed towards the very answers Alternative TV were looking for. That is, to the ‘problems of rock and its restrictions, fame and its dilutions’. More than that, ‘Alternatives’ embodied punk’s combination of idealism, futility and violence. It set punk agency alongside idiocy; oppositionism against a derision of all things political; collective endeavor against cultural animosity; purpose against fun; ‘we’ against ‘them’; an awareness of media distortion against suspicion of cultural impotency. Over its nine-or-so minutes, ‘Alternatives’ exposed the conflicting nature of punk’s politics and tendered divisions that would fracture into the 1980s.

 

Vicarious living rids your boredom

As we know, Britain did not wholly succumb to the Orwellian future that The Clash and others envisaged for 1984 (though portents flicker brightly still). Nor did global nuclear war descend. But the socio-political moment from which punk emerged – as a faltering post-war ‘consensus’ gave way to the free-market doctrines of neoliberalism and the cold war approached its endgame – did move beyond the contingent to the realised. Aside from defeating the miners in 1984–5 and thereby breaking the back of a British labour movement already wracked by splits and division in the Labour Party, Margaret Thatcher’s 1983 general election victory allowed for privatisation to push to the forefront of the government’s agenda. Tax cuts and welfare restrictions followed, among them changes to unemployment benefit and, by the end of the 1980s, student grants. Local government powers were further curbed, including the abolition of the left-leaning GLC; the sale of council houses was extended. In the City of London, financial services were deregulated in 1986 to precipitate a ‘big bang’ that fundamentally realigned the UK economy. Crucially, of course, such a transition was compounded by analogous policies in the United States and Mikhail Gorbachev’s ascension to the Soviet leadership in 1985, setting in train a series of events that led to the collapse of European communism in 1989–91. Even the onset of recession in 1990 and violent protests against the Poll Tax failed to reset the economic agenda. Margaret Thatcher resigned in November 1990, but the socio-economic changes she effected continued to form the basis of Conservative and (New) Labour policy thereafter.

Amidst all this, youth cultures evolved to find new forms that both complemented and countered the broader socio-economic and political context of which they were part. Pop music did likewise, adopting and adapting to the technological innovations that charged the ‘circuit of culture’. Guitars began to give way to synths, sequencers and samplers; hip hop emerged from New York’s South Bronx to reimagine the possibilities of popular music; cheaper equipment paved the way for the same DIY impulse that fuelled punk to initiate new dance musics and instigate the cultural sea-change of rave. On the streets (and soon-to-be outlawed terraces), sportswear and brand-affinity signalled status; more generally, the already-nebulous boundaries of subcultural style became increasingly fluid, sometimes circumventing media-definition to distinguish class, cultural and emotional dispositions across different places and spaces; sometimes playing amongst the array of commercialised ‘lifestyle choices’.

Within the music and media industries, lessons were learnt and new challenges faced. Punk-related independent labels and bands were absorbed by the majors, with faux-independents set up to encroach on the ‘alternative’ market: ‘indie’ became a genre rather than a process or position. The inkies’ near monopoly of popular music coverage was also broken by greater tabloid interest in pop and the advent of style magazines that aestheticised the commodification of youth and music-based cultures. MTV and video transmitted through new mediums and revenue supplies. As for Band Aid, the ‘super-group’ brought together by Bob Geldof in 1984 to raise money for the Ethiopian famine, this soon benefited the pop establishment as much as those it strove to feed. In Dorian Lynskeys’ words, the subsequent Live Aid concert of 1985 marked ‘the end of strange, subversive statements such as [Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s] “Two Tribes” and the beginning of phoney protest songs by artists with little grasp of politics who nonetheless felt obliged to make a Big Statement’. And if Chumbawamba titling their first album Pictures of Starving Children Sell Records (1986) read a little harsh, then careers were certainly revitalised as one-time punks shared stages with a rock aristocracy they formerly decried and the grass-roots protests of the previous period segued into acts of paternalism: charity eclipsed commitment/intervention. In the shops, meanwhile, compact discs helped shatter pop’s sense of continual change, initiating the reissue of back catalogues to allow the past to exist in a perennial present. No longer were lost or marginal cultural resources recovered and reimagined; they existed concurrently to be collated, imitated, decontextualized and disarmed.

 

As a result of such developments, the spaces opened up through punk began to contract. Equally, the differences that had always contested punk’s point and purpose hardened as cultural forms evolved away from their initial stimulus. Bands ran out of ideas and energy; cultural changes and technology enabled competing sites of adolescent attention. Arguably, in terms of form and function, hip hop’s emergence provided a more apposite cultural means of engaging with an age of postmodernism and neoliberalism; rave exposed the tensions existent between social control and the commodification of leisure/pleasure. Already, by the early 1980s, media interest in all things punk had begun to dim as its innovations became embedded in the cultural fabric and the music industry searched for new stars and styles. Sales of punk and punk-related records fell. According to Reynolds, ‘average sales of an independent single in 1985 were half what they had been in 1980’. For The Fits, at least, the reason was clear. It had ‘nothing to do with George Orwell’ and ‘nothing to do with the bomb’. Rather, as Mick Crudge sung on ‘Action’, it was ‘1984 [and] we don’t shock anymore’.

As this suggests, new times begot new expressions. Across the independent chart of the mid-to-late 1980s, punk’s diasporic sub-scenes evolved and dissolved, sometimes pushing to extremes (as with Napalm Death et al’s brutal noise), but more typically distilling aspects of pop’s past in a variety of ways. Cultural obsessions from the 1950s–60s and entrenched DIY strictures signalled conscious alternatives to chart-pop’s technologically-refined sheen, though these often appeared more retreat than critique. Soul-cialism infused leftist attempts to offer a positive riposte to Thatcherism, aspiring to passion amidst an uneasy mix of stylised appropriation and faux-sophistication. Goth recovered rock, all bluster and 4/4 beats, while industrial culture ventured further into the arcane or began journeys to the inner-self that found synergy with the dance cultures flowering in the mid-to-late 1980s. Not dissimilarly, peace convoys provided a bucolic way out of the city for sections of punk’s anarcho-milieu, looking back to connect with hippie counter-culture and, in some cases, forward to rave. With the media-focus elsewhere and the billboard charts out of reach, avowedly punk-informed scenes dug-in to forge subterranean networks – both local and global – that maintain into the twenty-first century. Existing beyond the spectacle and no longer pertaining to be a poison inside the machine, punk continued – and continues – to provide a cultural means of agency and platform. Punk’s practices still draw from and offer resources of hope, even as their traces are archived, appropriated and, as here, historicised.

Looking back, the years 1976–84 saw punk emerge and develop as a fashion, a musical form, an attitude, aesthetic and, significantly, a process of critical engagement. The Sex Pistols marked a moment of departure, facilitating a cultural critique that initiated a broader exposition of the faultlines that ran through a period of socio-economic and political change. By so doing, punk reasserted youth culture as both a site of refusal (‘fuck off’, two-fingers, ‘up yours’) and a means of expression; a space to forge individual identities and a point of protest. Consequently, punk’s politics – its meanings and practice – were disputed even as they revolved around a sense of disaffection, be it with the state of pop music or, to quote The Prefects, ‘things in general’.

As importantly, the Sex Pistols – and punk thereafter – served as stimulus. The impetus to form a band, write a fanzine, organise a gig or make a record was an immediate answer to Rotten’s challenge (‘get off your arse’/‘no future’), not to mention punk’s wider disdain for the cultural choices provided through the culture industry. Accordingly, punk rejuvenated and re-energised popular music, inserting marginal voices, vocabularies and ideas into pop whilst endeavouring to (re)connect with the youth cultures that sustained and formed around it. This, in turn, affirmed punk claims to relevance. But it also enabled Linder’s conviction that punk took away the question ‘can I do this?’ If punk was a process, a way of doing, then it helped enable the experiments of post-punk and industrial just as much as the upsurge of activity that defined 1976–77. Or, to quote a member of Swell Maps, a band from Solihull who helped pioneer punk’s DIY ethos, ‘you can say anything you want, it’s your attitude to what you are doing that counts’.

Ultimately, punk’s ‘attitude’ bore a critical impulse that both informed and corroded the related cultures that developed from 1976. Very quickly, ‘punk’ accrued a range of signifiers that defined a recognisable sound, image and approach – fast and furious rock ‘n’ roll, spitting, spikes, anti-social, rebellious. But there was also an awareness, oft-repeated in fanzines and interviews, that to label something was to disarm it. For this reason, punk was disavowed and reacted against just as much as it was adopted, instigating what Reynolds recognised as the creative ‘spirit of adventure and idealism’ that informed the ‘long aftermath of punk’. Among the handwritten notes for the second Anarchy in the UK fanzine compiled – but never issued – from within the Sex Pistols’ circle was the statement ‘punk is dead’. This was early 1977, just as punk had been codified within the media. A year later, the same logic infused Crass’ ‘Punk is Dead’, a song that critiqued punk’s co-option by the music industry. To be that what is not lay at the heart of the impulse to which punk gave (multiple) expression, a sensibility that could engender conscious socio-political engagement but more-often-than-not cut across or challenged the socio-economic, cultural and ideological strictures of late twentieth-century polity in pursuit of individuality or new collectivities. Subsequently, the debate as to what punk was or should be rumbled on, even as those happy to leave the term behind continued to employ the processes that sparked the cultural ructions of 1976–77.

Punk’s politics were messy. They could be contradictory and formative; implicit and explicit; liberatory and reactionary. Meanings were projected onto punk, but also cultivated from within. Amidst the clashing political symbols that helped frame punk’s emergence and the anti-political rhetoric that bore testament to youthful disdain, RAR and the practices associated with Rough Trade gave shape to punk’s (future) purpose. The far-right touted for young recruits, keen to channel punk’s ire in an ultra-nationalist, often violent, direction. Anarchy, of a sort, found practical application in the cultures that coalesced around Crass; the influence of dada and other cultural critiques were evident. As importantly, questions of class, gender and sexuality fed into and informed punk’s aesthetic, shaping the dialogues that ensued as cultural spaces opened up from 1976–77.

At root, punk was a negation that enabled agency and empowerment, demystifying processes of cultural production in order to do-it-yourself. This could be fun and exciting, revelling in the temporal thrill of real-or-imagined transgressions. Not only did punk engender creativity, it also forged cultures that challenged prevailing social (and socio-economic) norms in irreverent and provocative ways. Equally, punk’s critical sensibility – and tendency to social commentary – allowed for deeper interpretation, filtering counter-cultural, artistic and ideological influences through a youth cultural lens at a time of broader socio-economic and political change. Like pop more generally, punk both reflected lives being lived and opened-up portals to other worlds and ideas: to politics, history, cultural antecedents, provincial frustrations, adolescent insecurities and social antagonisms. This was always contentious. Attempts to apply formal politics or prescribed ideas to youth culture and pop music were often seen to bind rather than enable. Nevertheless, themes ran through punk and its associated cultures that related to contemporaneous socio-political questions as well as the travails of youth. There was, moreover, an awareness as to the routines of media manipulation, commercial co-option and cultural appropriation that informed punk’s practice and aesthetic. As a result, punk inspired both political engagement and cynicism. It also encouraged, alongside the industrial culture that emerged simultaneously, the exploration of sexual, psychological and delinquent extremes. To understand punk’s politics, therefore, is not to seek philosophical clarity or the basis of a movement. Rather, the politics of punk resided in its refusal and its practice: a recognition that ‘blind acceptance is a sign, of stupid fools who stand in line’.

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