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Friday essay: punk’s legacy, 40 years on

A young punk at Myanmar’s annual water festival in 2012. Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters

Friday essay: punk’s legacy, 40 years on

Like many youngsters of the late 70s, my first exposure to punk rock was memorable and social – perhaps, even, societal. It was some time in 1977, I was having dinner with my parents and siblings at my grandparents’ place, and the Sex Pistols were a featured story on Weekend Magazine, the ABC’s Sunday evening infotainment program.

In my dim recall, the band were simulating a live performance against a black background (it was probably the clip to Anarchy in the UK - of course, entirely new to me then, very familiar now) with sound grabs from members and some footage of everyday punks on busy thoroughfares evincing menacing idleness. This was very starkly and clearly not Supertramp, 10CC, or Fleetwood Mac with their fey, wry, decadent meanderings.

Whereas the late David McComb – soon after, the central songwriter and singer in the Triffids and eventually a late 20th century Australian musical legend – told me had the rest of his life shaped by what he saw that night, I have to say that I don’t recall anyone at our dinner at Mavis and Norm’s semi-detached bungalow expressing disgust, despair, angst, delight or exhibiting any other response to the clip. It was grist to our mill, so worldly were we in suburban Caulfield in the late ‘70s.

Punk is now, apparently, 40 (which must make me 51). Double J is running what it calls “a month long celebration of the seminal artists, albums and moments that make up four decades of disruption”. As a musical form – and even though it was regarded, when it first emerged, as a retro throwback eschewing a decade of progress in pop music – it was obviously the most exciting thing going in western music when it sparked. It spoke about ideas, the having of them and the diffusion of them, and about the fate, role and obligation(s) of the individual in society.

It was cool, but it was also extraordinarily difficult to access: public radio was not only just coming into being, it was obscure and, well, elitist; the records themselves were hard to find and, when found, expensive. But it was at least as much about attitude as it was about sound or style: I, like others interested in counterculture and “scenes”, put reading about it (which I did, avidly) above finding ways to hear it.

The weekly New Musical Express, easily the best music paper of the late ‘70s and still a British institution today (sadly, in very reduced form), was a world in itself. I still probably wouldn’t recognize more than a couple of songs by The Damned, but I read every word about their trials and tribulations in 1977-8. Funny, that.

Early Australian innovators

The Saints.

Since then, I have come to realise that Australia had its own very valid and important punk scene, too, and I feel those early innovators must be acknowledged partly for their contribution but also as a phenomenon. I was semi-aware of greats like The Saints, already gone, but it was hard to find their music anywhere.

There were brilliant magazines like Adelaide’s Roadrunner that covered the right stuff, but popular music, while it obsessed me, was vast and varied and, as I mentioned, expensive for a teenager.

There are Australian stories of legendary acts with a Stooges-brand punk attitude. In 1973, Perth had a band called Pus; Sydney had The Rats; Melbourne had Judas Iscariot and the Traitors. Brisbane had the aforementioned Saints, a band with a unique musical vision rooted, like the others’, in the unpretentious and bratty 1960s. None of these bands knew about each other but they, or various key players, had enough gumption and critical mass to form a “scene” by 1976 or thereabouts.

As was typical of Australians then, when the international equivalent sprang up, the locals (and their “street” fellow travellers – think The Sports or even Paul Kelly) were classed as imitators. In this case, most of the artists were sufficiently self-assured to not give the proverbial toss, but the damage was done to their reputation as originals. The difficulty of fitting these stories into a recognisable narrative, however, means that in the main they are forgotten or unknown: not influential, just undeniable.

By the beginning of the 1980s, I was fully immersed in punk’s less strident and more arty sibling, new wave – even faking being adult to see bands, on occasion, starting with the Serious Young Insects, International Exiles and Kids in the Kitchen supporting Snakefinger.

Soon, out of school and on the dole, still living at home undertaking what would later come to be known as a “gap year” (the gap actually extended about five years) there were many options to help the local musical arts economy, for instance with regular visits to Melbourne’s great record shops of the era: Exposure, Missing Link, Greville, Gaslight.

I recall two elderly ladies walking past Missing Link and observing a display advertising the Birthday Party’s album Prayers on Fire. “Punk rock”, said one.

The other made a noise to convey the concept of, “I just threw up in my mouth”.

Gruelling Thatcherism

A mural in Shoreditch, London by French street artist Tilt includes the lyrics to the Sex Pistols ‘Anarchy in the UK’. Andrew Winning/Reuters

In 1986, I was able to avoid my grandparents’ Sunday dinners for an extended period of time, swapping them for six months of gruelling Thatcherism within earshot of the tyrant’s heartbeat – London.

Of course, punk was a postcard caricature by then and its memory only discernible to the knowledgeable in new wave, postpunk (both of those terms were, by the way, beneath contempt in the mid-80s), new romantic, and whatever else had come along since.

But what Michelle – my girlfriend at that time – and I did do one Saturday afternoon (the 19th July, I now discover: there’s a Wikipedia page!) was hop on a train to Manchester to be a part of a celebration of punk’s tenth anniversary.

Her diary – which she dusted off when I asked her about the event – reveals a lot of detail I’d forgotten; that we were “shocked and distressed” on arriving at the venue to find it cost £14 to get in (I think that was a week’s dole).

Michelle, apparently, was able to sneak down the front for The Smiths’ set and was “scared to death in a crush to the front”. Other acts that day were The Fall, New Order, Orchestral Manouevres in the Dark, A Certain Ratio and Cabaret Voltaire (I have absolutely no recollection of seeing these last two, though I was and remain a fan of both).

It’s weird now to look back on this event and appreciate that what might now be seen as bands who in many instances typified slick English New Wave – albeit with a very Manchester flavour – were seen as appropriate to celebrate a decade since “punk”.

A very drunk Bill Grundy – the TV presenter still to this day primarily famous for his ad hoc “filth and the fury” Sex Pistols interview – berated the audience. But Grundy’s presence notwithstanding, the festival might seem to show very conclusively how much “punk” – the spirit, the attitude, the values, and even to some extent the sound – was being co-opted into not only popular music, but also popular attitudes.

This was only going to accelerate: no-one could possibly have conceived of the Sex Pistols being so much a part of “history” to have been commmemorated at the London Olympics - but that’s what the establishment does, it keeps its enemies closest of all.

As mentioned, I’m 51, and I deal with enough young people to know it’s foolish to try and typify what “they” think. There is some truth, it would appear, to the often evoked (by my generation) notion that young people have so much access to music past and present that, in many instances when they really engage with the popular music of former generations they have trouble stringing the beads of influence into the necklace of historical chronology.

That said, if we are going to celebrate the impact of punk as a form and a style, we need to make some points about its lasting value. I think there are quite a few – and I offer them as one who firmly believes that their impact is hard now to fully appreciate: as if we were living in a crater so large we don’t notice the meteorite that made it.

A voice for women

tangi bertin, CC BY

Firstly, I would say that punk gave women a voice in a way that (for instance) the pompous megabands of the early 70s tended not to. Even the most popular female musicians of that era – Joni Mitchell and Kate Bush are two geniuses who spring to mind – were frequently willfully misunderstood by the patriarchal rock business and fans. Of course, a lot has changed yet of course, a lot has stayed the same.

British punk of '76-77 alone served up X Ray Spex’s Poly Styrene, Siouxsie Sioux, the Slits and, soon after, the Raincoats, PragVec’s Barbara Gogan and my own favourite from that era, Essential Logic, led with verve by the redoubtable Lora Logic. All of them forceful, individual, passionate women who didn’t give a loose root what men thought (or at least, they didn’t seem to; the Slits’ Viv Albertine’s recent memoir suggests that toughness was hard to sustain).

On top of that, women were – seemingly for the first time, with a few very notable exceptions – musicians in bands (that is, with all due respect to singers, not “just” singers).

In Australia in the late 70s, there were women playing as apparently equal members in groups; Karen Ansell in the Romantics and the Reels; Denise Rosenberg in the Primitive Calculators; Cathy McQuade in the Ears; Helen Carter in Friction and, later, Do Re Mi; Clare Moore in the Sputniks and then the Moodists; this small list, of Australians only, goes on and on. The opportunities these inspirational women took from punk rock continue to resonate.

Secondly, there’s something punk rock has done to the dynamic between audience and artist, and it’s healthy. Back in the early 70s there was a compact between performers and consumers that wasn’t that different from Weber’s cult of celebrity: indulge me, the big names said, and I will show you the way to something deeper. Most music fans of the early 70s accepted that rock stars were better than them; they almost needed them to be.

Punk put paid to that, in the main. The new breed was virtually compelled to be down-to-earth in their opinions and self-estimation – at least in their public pronouncements. There were to be no more self-indulgent LP-side-long workouts; two and a half minutes (preferably two) per song, verse chorus verse chorus and then onto the next thing.

Thomas Eger, CC BY-NC-SA

Yes, almost immediately there were challenges to the form (Buzzcocks’ overlong Moving Away From the Pulsebeat springs to mind – with a drum solo, no less!) but they just proved the rule. Of course, there is self-indulgence in popular music today and there always will be: in an individualistic form like music, you can’t expect otherwise. The critic and the consumer, however, are less likely to wave it through because a special class of person is expressing him or herself.

A DIY smorgasbord

Thirdly, punk – particularly when it came to the wicked Malcolm McLaren, the Sex Pistols’ manager and later, creator of the aburdist early 1980s group Bow Wow Wow – highlighted the economic relationship between consumer and creator as mediated by industry.

McLaren almost seemed not to understand the Sex Pistols’ appeal (or rather, cared less about it than he did about the band’s capacity to shift units). With Bow Wow Wow, a band which McLaren stuffed with ideas – few of which actually meant much to the musicians involved – he promoted the notion of home-taping and individualistic op-shop style as piratic appropriation. The kids, McLaren said, were killing the music industry by just taking its wares (Bow Wow Wow tried to sell records on the basis that no-one should pay for them).

But the notion that music should be for all intents and purposes free, and that far from feeling guilt about theft, music lovers should be proud to take, has a resonance that has only strengthened in an era when delivery modes have gone far beyond recording from radio to cassette.

The nascent Sex Pistols, notoriously, stole their equipment from established bands (and their sound from the Stooges via glam rock, but that’s another story).

Most younger people’s musical experience (once again, I’m probably oversimplifying for argument – yet to some degree it’s everyone’s musical, and cultural, experience now) is of a pastiche, and not just because Ramones t-shirts outsell their records to an infinite degree.

Amal FM

That the 21st century aural experience is a mélange, bordering on cacophony, might ultimately be the most lasting legacy of ’76 punk: you take what you want from the smorgasbord and give it your own individualized meaning.

In fact, feel free to manufacture something new from what’s on the table; it may only be the sum of its parts but it’s yours and those who don’t like it can fuck off and/or do their own.

Looking back at the “tenth summer” in Manchester in ’86, I can only speculate on what Michelle and I, and everyone else present, thought we were doing. Ten years seemed like an extraordinarily long period of time back then, and it stretched back to preadolescence for us.

We were trying to be cavalier, perhaps, about the idea that a groundbreaking musical/fashion movement was still resonating around the world too loudly to yet be properly understood.

The reconstruction that was going on around us – New Order with their embrace of fabulous synthesizer pop with truly dreadful throwaway lyrics, the indescribably unique and uncompromising layered rock of the Fall, the similarly unique, but far more universally embraced disaffected literary Byrdsian pop of the Smiths – were ways through après le deluge and, in hindsight, attempts to deal with the horrors of neoliberalism.

Johnny Rotten performing with the Sex Pistols in 2007. Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

Any real punk, however, would readily see through the stupidity of fixating on an anniversary: why should that be the time to reassess and evaluate?

That time, she or he would no doubt say, comes every hour of every day - and not to adhere to an ethos, but to be a rounded and perceptive human being. This was most definitely a central tenet of John Lydon’s philosophy - only heightened when he quit the Pistols and their subsequent output devolved to the most extraordinary dross (Friggin’ in the Riggin’ anyone?).

Michelle’s diary only records that she wanted to stay in Manchester another day and see the Smiths again; they were playing in Salford the next night. (I wish we had done that – I love the Smiths – but I don’t think it was in the least bit affordable).

She doesn’t record any philosophical musings between us about the meaning the “spirit of ‘76”. However, we were living by a standard of maintaining an independent perspective, respecting the rights of others to expression, and generally not being a dick.

In that respect, I am pretty sure, we had learnt our punk rock lessons well.