Forty years on, punk's shockwaves are still felt in Britain

Monday 23 May 2016

‘WHO ARE THESE PUNKS?” screamed the Daily Mirror in its front page splash headlined ‘The Filth and the Fury’ on December 2, 1976. It was the morning after the night before, when the Sex Pistols had appeared on a prime time news show, regaling presenter Bill Grundy with a volley of expletives during an interview that lasted no more than a few raucous minutes.

The loutish, foul-mouthed Pistols had announced themselves to the world, and Johnny Rotten, their Day-Glo haired singer, was Public Enemy Number One. From that moment punk was etched on to the cultural and social landscape of Britain. The reverberations from its impact remain 40 years on, and its anniversary of the birth of punk is being celebrated in style across the country in 2016.

Punk paved the way for the New Wave and the founding of a ‘Hitsville UK’ with the formation of many independent record labels, such Factory and Rough Trade. (It also brought about a surge in sales of tartan and safety pins.)

As well as changing the musical and fashion landscapes, it could be argued that punk also laid the foundations for many of the edgy comedians, internet startups and boutique businesses that flourish in Britain today – anybody or anything with a bit of chutzpah and attitude prepared to challenge the established order. There is even a craft beer called Punk IPA.

Punk’s origins lie in New York City, and bands like The Ramones had already started to influence the British scene. By the autumn of 1976, change was in the air, and its epicentre was a small clothes shop in west London at 430 Kings Road called SEX, owned by fashion mavericks Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren. The store, soon to be renamed Seditionaries, became a salon for malcontents, including various members of the Pistols − a cultural Petri dish cultivating the zeitgeisty bacteria of the social outbreak to come.

The analogy is not so offbeat: For horrified parents and, perhaps, a large slice of the British population, punk was a disease that needed to be eradicated.

In fact, fast and unschooled, it was just what the doctor ordered. Britain was the ‘sick man of Europe’, an economic basket case, with high unemployment, politically moribund and in thrall to uncompromising trade unions. Punk proved to be a DIY call to arms. In many respects it was a new model of private enterprise, an unlikely precursor to the Thatcherite free-market revolution that was still a few years down the line. Want something doing? Well, get up and do it yourself.

Many did, up and down the land. Punk shattered the rock establishment of tax-exiled pop stars and a complacent cultural consensus. Anarchy in the UK, the Pistols’ debut single, released by EMI on November 26 1976, was the signal that battle had been joined. Bands, clubs and venues sprung up all over the country. Fanzines came and went in a frenzy. One, Sideburns, famously printed diagrams of guitar chords A, E and G and implored its readers to “now form a band”.

London led the way and the Pistols were soon accompanied by The Clash, The Jam, The Damned and many more practitioners of three-minute musical time-bombs. The 100 Club, the Roxy, the Marquee all witnessed gigs that have since acquired legendary status.

For many of those lucky enough to see these bands in their prime, it was a life-changing experience. Tales of people who said they saw Pistols are legion, but in truth very few did before the snarling, contemptuous Rotten walked out in January 1978, but for those who did, their world was never the same again. A fair number of the small audience who saw the Pistols play at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester in June ’76, went on to form bands, including the Buzzcocks, the Fall and Joy Division.

For others, The Clash were the most viscerally-exciting group ever to have plugged guitars into amps. To see the rebel rousing Joe Strummer, every sinew straining on his sweat soaked body, was to see rock ‘n’ roll incarnate. What Vivienne Westwood said of the Sex Pistols holds true for all these bands: “They really did mean it, you know.”

Other cities were hot on London’s heels; Manchester was one of the prime movers. A fair number of the small audience who saw the Sex Pistols play at the Free Trade Hall in June ’76 went on to form bands, including the Buzzcocks, the Fall and Joy Division - even Mick Hucknall, who later formed Simply Red. From Barbarella’s in Birmingham, Eric’s in Liverpool, the F-Club in Leeds, the Top Rank in Brighton, and numerous other places, the three-chord wind of change blew away the cobwebs of the old order.

Punk’s heyday was, however, short-lived, brought low by its contradictions: notably the nihilism of punk versus the commercialism that consumed it.

But in a short timespan things had indisputably changed; there had been a shift in attitudes and punk was the whetstone that sharpened the cultural and social tools of Britain for good.

It was so much more than the shallow notoriety of infamy, the chance to ‘shock’, as the many events being staged in London in 2016 testify. Much of the period has been well documented, and the national mood music of 1976 and its reverberations can be experienced at numerous and diverse venues throughout the year, from the British Film Institute on the South Bank to the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm.

Notable events in London in 2016 include a ‘Punk Weekender’ at the Photographers’ Gallery, comprising of gigs exhibitions and talks. The BFI is hosting a season of films curated by Don Letts, the director, DJ, musician and confidante of the Clash. The British Library in King’s Cross is concentrating on the written word and will be highlighting its collection of punk fanzines. The British Fashion Council and the Design Museum are also getting in on the act. The Damned are even playing at the Royal Albert Hall in May. All these events and many more are highlighted on the website www.punk.london.

And it’s not only London calling. A plethora of other punk-related events are taking place throughout the UK.

Perhaps the last word should go to the Pistols’ Svengali Malcolm McLaren, who said years later, when reminiscing about 1976 and 1977: “You see, it wasn’t just about the music and fashion; it was an attitude… It’s still here; it’s still under the surface.”

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