Tuesday, 6 January 2015

A Riot of my Own

A Riot of my Own
One of the more memorable things I did this year was presenting a paper at the A Riot of Our Own conference on The Clash in Belfast. It was nowhere near as frightening to do as it was to contemplate in advance, fortunately. I have been meaning to brush up my notes into a more coherent essay and 'publish' it here. However, I never seem to manage to get the time and in order to clear my backlog of 'things to do', here, in the spirit of punk, is the rough version, including the powerpoint images which were well received, whatever about the words...  

Did Punk really die the day The Clash signed to CBS?

When Mark Perry said it did he was being partly mischievous. He also wrote “I reckon we should stay independent and forget about record companies … except when they save Sniffin’ Glue 7 from the graveyard by paying £60 for their page ad”

I’m being partly mischievous too, but it would hardly honour the spirit of punk to be anything else. I’ve been reading a number of fanzines from the time to try to get a sense of how the development of punk was seen by the ‘early adopters” and try and avoid the trap of nostalgia. I’ve also read Andy Beckett’s When the Light’s Go Out for details on the wider history of the era and Margaret Drabble’s The Ice Age as a cultural thermometer.

I don’t think that punk ended when The Clash signed to CBS. Punk like all movements was diluted by its legions of fans. (Here’s Mark Perry again – “if you’re a fan it means that you’re satisfied. We at sniffin’ glue are never satisfied and never contented”) Punk gradually moved from being a movement to just another entertainment.

This didn’t happen wholesale, of course, and rivulets of quality have run through what has been known as ‘punk’ ever since. However the initial purity was diluted and there were more and more camp followers who jumped on board with a pre-existing idea of what a punk was and the approved uniform of Doc Martens, tartan bum flaps, safety pins, chains and Mohicans. As Mick Jones said, telling people to find a creative outlet: “Vent your frustrations, otherwise its just like clocking in and clocking out … clock in at the 100 Club, every one comes in, everyone clocks out, it ain’t no different.”

I think the death of Punk began earlier than the signatures being put to that CBS contract. No, the real end was looming when CBS wanted to sign The Clash. Indeed it had been on a life support machine ever since the majors had started to sniff around The Pistols along with the mainstream press started to define punk and the ‘fans’ started to act like “punks” rather than themselves.

At its inception punk had been a hermetic system, and its power derived as much from the disdain from outside as from the fire inside. The pressure meant that internal divisions and dissension were briefly held at bay and created a sense of common identity apart from society.

The only rule was self-expression without compromise.

There is a more a more positive way of reading the “DEATH” of Punk. The early days can be visualized as a Big Bang, the energy released still having an effect today. But however you look at it, that early pressure cooker was opened, and the impact and momentum of Punk have been dissipated, if more widespread.

The first question that needs to be answered is …
What was this Punk that died?
The use of the term is generally traced back to Punk magazine. The editors felt that “The word ‘punk’ seemed to sum up the thread that connected everything we liked — drunk, obnoxious, smart but not pretentious, absurd, funny, ironic, and things that appealed to the darker side.

There are other broader definitions of punk - Greil Marcus defined a punk band as  a dissident band with a sense of humor and a sense of doom” which could include anything from ABBA to Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five!

In an early Sniffin’ Glue interview with The Damned they say punk means a ruffian, worthless, that it is a ‘slag down’. Rat Scabies didn’t like being called a punk but he was countered with “it’s the word people use.”

There was a stronger resistance to being told what Punks were. When the media started to define punk, and punks, there was a lot of resistance to people coming along dressing as The Sun etc told them to dress. A lot of space in Sniffin’ Glue and other fanzines is given over to complaining how things have changed, which, given the short life of the magazine, says a lot.
Early in England’s Dreaming Jon Savage describes the history of the building that housed the SEX store. It’s as if Punk was soaked into the plaster, an emanation of the London of the time like fog in Dickens.

To me the word is specific to the brief flowering of a movement consisting of groups and fans in a mix of music, fashion and performance art in London from 1975 to 1977, initially inspired by The Sex Pistols. As Joe Strummer said of the 101ers when he first saw the Pistols: “five seconds into their first song I knew we were like yesterdays papers, I mean we were over

As a child of the late sixties I was only marginally aware of the phenomenon as it happened. Before I had really time to assimilate it Punk had become one third of the catchphrase “Punk’s not dead!” scrawled on walls and toilet doors everywhere.

Even then I felt that the Punk that had gone on living was a lot less interesting than the punk that died. And like a lot of people, I have found myself fascinated with the first year of punk in London and in the odd outposts it sprung up in around Britain and the world.
So what made punk Punk!

I seem to have read an awful lot about Punk’s musical pedigree, from Garage rock, Belfast’s Them, The Sonics, The Stooges, The Monks and The MC5 through The Velvets and the New Yorks Dolls, taking a bit of glitter from Glam, particularly ex-skinheads Slade mixed with the stripped back r&b of pub rockers Dr Feelgood and Eddie &the Hot Rods. However I’m going to skip that for now (it’s an argument best made on the dancefloor)  and concentrate on some of the cultural precursors of Punk, and the atmosphere of the times.

Early seventies Britain was in a long painful decline and also undergoing a metamorphosis, with the long post war consensus coming apart.

The old culture of having respect for your ‘betters’ was over. Here’s Mark Perry again: “All the old creeps want respect because they Fought for you. Well, the yongsters of today ain’t gonna fall for that old one. Britain is going downhill and it’ll take more than memories of glory to save it.:”

This culture of respect was the same one that meant that teachers and priests couldn’t be accused of anything without the accuser being told to have some respect. If this was the only thing punk stood for it would be enough.
It’s interesting to note that in America in 1974 one of the first public campaigns against an abusive priest was being carried out by a bunch of ex-pupils from a deaf school, and in a very punk manner, with xeroxed Wanted posters featuring the priest being distributed.

Miners strikes, power cuts, the three day week and the resulting cuts in wages indicate that the early seventies were an uneasy time and the gradual dismantling of Britain’s heavy industries and the resulting rise in unemployment past the talismanic One Million figure created a cultural void. In 1975 inflation hit 26.9% Efforts were made to fill the political vacuum from both the right and the left.
Jamie Reid produced decals which were stuck up in shops and elsewhere which said things like Special Offer / This Week Only / This Store Welcomes Shoplifters, or Save Petrol Burn Cars which show the subversive bent he was to bring to the punk party.

But party and class politics weren’t the only divisive issues. The late sixties and early seventies in Britain were full of radical attempts to redraw the rules of identity and many of these attempts were even more divisive.
The demonization and proposed repatriation of immigrants was resisted by the British Black Panthers. Members of the BBP included Darcus Howe and Linton Kwezi Johnston and Don Letts attended meetings. Less militant than the Black Panthers in the US they nevertheless held rallies against police brutality and printed their own newspaper which led to a lot of consciousness raising around issues of racism.
The Women’s Liberation Movement challenged the idea of what it meant to be a woman and identified the fundamental sexism at the heart of of society. Although governments led by Harold Wilson introduced legislation against racism and sexual discrimination which were not universally welcomed. Equal pay was not generally supported by unions or management. Feminist magazine Spare Rib reported that when a union for women was set up “The established union was even more hostile than management and the woman who set it up was called everything from an anarchist breakaway to a reactionary.
The Gay Liberation Front, based in a commune in Notting Hill, worked closely with feminist campaigners. One of the strategies they employed was dressing in drag. When they joined a march against Ted Heath’s Industrial Relations Bill, the unions asked them to march at the back, as no one wanted to walk with them.  They showed up the chauvinism in the culture of the unions. There wasn’t only one revolution needed. Their unapologetic self-identification as gay and proud created the beginnings of todays gay culture, open and unashamed and increasingly equal legally.

It’s hard to imagine now how transgressive these were. Bernie Rhodes got Tony James to go to his local newsagent to buy Gay News and Spare Rib. He thought this would help toughen him up and prepare him for life in the limelight. When reading this I couldn’t help hearing Bernie Rhodes in the phrase from White Riot – “too chicken to even try it” Punk meant putting yourself into the public eye in a way which would draw disapproval, and even violence. “What we wear is dangerous gear…”

Even more extreme than punk were The Angry Brigade, a militant anarchist group who set off bombs at the Miss World contest and bombed a cabinet ministers house in 1971. They were Britain’s answer to the more famous Red Brigade in Germany.
Here is a quote from one of The Angry Brigade’s communiqués which sounds very like a precursor of Punk, especially as it cites boredom as a reason to DESTROY.:
Life is so boring there is nothing to do except spend all our wages on the latest skirt or shirt. 
Brothers and Sisters, what are your real desires?
Sit in the drugstore, look distant, empty, bored, drinking some tasteless coffee? Or perhaps BLOW IT UP OR BURN IT DOWN.
There was the tartan army agitating for Scottish Independence and ownership of North Sea oil and there was also clearly, the fallout from Northern Ireland. In 1975 the British government was found guilty of having used torture, which further damaged whatever moral authority they claimed to have.

Punk is often presented as an agent of change, the herald of a new age. It certainly was a lightning conductor for the hopes and fears of mid seventies England. People knew that the world was changing and that they would have to change too. Many people seem to have felt that they were living in the past.

Published in 1977 and set in the preceding years Margaret Drabble’s The Ice Age,  (a book that may have had an influence on a certain Clash lyric) sets the tone for the era with lines like “there was no rational explanation for the sense of alarm, panic and despondency which seemed to flow loose in the atmosphere of England.” and talk of “new dark ages”

The main character leaves a safe job in television to become a property developer. His motivation is boredom. There is much mention of the brutality of modern architecture but there is a sense of excitement amoung the protagonists, a sense of belonging to the modern world, of being agent of change.
I was reminded of some of Heath’s more ambitious plans such as a new airport for London,Maplin airport, to be built on land reclaimed from the sea and which would lead to the building of a new ‘jet city’. It sounds like a New York Dolls song.

In some way his rejection of the safety of the status quo to embrace “the new sharp solvent spirit of free enterprise” is a punk move. He wants to stop being NICE. Sniffin’ Glue indeed.

It was that sense that a new future had to be embraced that gave the initial explosion of punk so much impetus. If the society they were growing up in could offer nothing then people would have to create their own. The old identities were worn out. Being subservient, and thankful with it was no longer enough.

Anarchy in the UK starts with two self-declarations of identity which open up the possibilities for being anything at all – anarchist / anti-christ. Call yourself by these names – open up the door to being whoever you want to be.

The Clash in Career Opportunities give a list of what they will not be, and this seems to be the driving force of early punk a refusal to be judged by societies’ metrics, a rejection of the identity that had been prepared for you.

They have many songs of unbelonging like White Riot and White Man in the Hammersmith Palais where there is a wish to belong, or to believe. This seemed to be reflected right back at them by their audience. Matbe in the end the need to belong overwhelmed the challenge of creating your own identity.

The shared values of Punk, if they can be called values were boredom, disgust and energy. Deference was a bad word, whether to employers, teachers, ideas or punk bands. The key thing was to do something yourself: form a band; write a fanzine; customize your clothes; form a record label; start a riot.
But within a short time much of Punk was about wearing the right clothes and liking the right bands. It became Just Another youth trend. It was parceled up and packaged. becoming a product - as noted in Sniffin’ Glue –way back in 1977 “As the new wave came through it attacked establishment in music and image, and to me, both have disappeared into the business sponge. I still believe that bands like Jam, Damned and Clash have been had and so have we. That fucking sponge will get us all if something isn’t done.”

And the metamorphosis that was happening in Britain, although responsive to many of the personal freedoms demanded by the radical left, was one that came from the right in the form of Thatcherism and fractured British society even further. Perhaps too fractured for there to be a movement like punk ever again???
Everything has now become a consumer item, even many of our personal communications. This ability of capitalism to assimilate all opposition was much discussed by the radicals of the early seventies, and infiltrated punk thinking. Is there any effective way to oppose it? 


  1. Fun read, Séamus! For me, a kid who was into many of the early U.S. and UK punk bands but was never a punk except maybe just in spirit when cranking up those records as a quiet, studious, geeky high schooler, one of the funny flipsides to the eventual marketing of punk is my memory of Tom Petty being called a punk way back when by somebody in the media (can't remember who after all these years) not because of his Byrds/Rolling Stones-influenced music but because he sported a leather jacket on the cover of his 1976 debut album! He had to have been punk to be wearing a leather jacket, right?!? I actually still like early Tom Petty OK even though his later music mostly tends to annoy me, but of course his bar band Heartbreakers were never as cool as those junkie NYC Heartbreakers I only discovered later.

    1. Punk was a lot geekier than remembered. Howard Devoto, Vic Godard, David Byrne... Always amusing to see FM rockers thrown into the punk rock history.
      I can forgive TP & the Heartbreakers a lot because I saw them provide inspired backing to Bob Dylan in the late eighties. I saw Johnny Thunders play in the late eighties too. By the Petty's Heartbreakers were the cooler proposition although the ragged remnants of his cool still lingered around Johnny, somewhere under the fog of heroin and tequila.

  2. I love this post Séamus!

    I too am fascinated by Punk, and yes, more so by it's first year. I really like the definition of the first year that you offer. I also think that you are on the money with your analysis.

    It is so ironic how what once was outrageous and anti establishment has become. I hear songs by the Buzzcocks, Sid Vicious and others now used in commercials advertising products sold by multinational corporations.

    1. Thanks Brian. It was interesting to try and put together a coherent overview, rather than a more reflexive reaction to something. It's something I hope to do again, although I find it hard to do.

  3. Well, A Riot of Our Own sounds a hell of a lot more interesting any of the conferences I've attended. I really enjoyed reading this post, and it reminded me of those early days (when I still a little too young to get along to concerts and the like). I like The Clash very much, but Talking Heads are my favourite band from the late '70s/early '80s (would you classify them as post-punk?).

    I'd like to think that another movement like punk could emerge again in the future, especially if the far-right parties continue to establish a foothold...

    1. I'm a big Talking Heads fan too, Jacqui. Punk and post-punk are very amorphous terms as some bands that were there at the start of punk or before (Pere Ubu, Wire, Talking Heads, Subway Sect) seem to define post-punk rather than punk. I always feel that punk was a very broad church as it happened and the labels were added later usually drawing on a narrower set of definitions than applied at the time.
      It's hard to imagine something as innocuous as the Sex Pistols interview having the same social impact in Britain or the US now, both through liberalisation of social mores and the fracturing of the audience for any particular media outlet. However, there are many repressive countries out there and they are probably the most likely places for it to happen again (or have happened again, would we know?)
      Punk had a very dubious political impact, given that a lot of the second wave of punk bands had right leaning politics and that it happened just before the rise of Thatcher and Reagan. I would hope that there will always be resistance to the extreme right, both from the left and from the centre and across all art forms.
      It's so easy for politics to be taken over by the extremists at the expense of the centrists. Some people seem to feel that extremist enemies can only be countered by extremists of their own.
      One of the most positive outcomes of punk in the UK was from its association with reggae, which gave birth to the Two Tone label and it's raft of multiracial bands (The Specials, The Beat, The Selecter..) Maybe we need a similar movement with white and middle eastern kids forming bands inciting people to tolerate each other...