Coming of Age

1976–1985: Punk to Pomo, Basquiat to Breakdancing

We Have to Deal With It: Punk England Report

By Robert Christgau
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January 9, 1978

It's only natural for so much of the paranoid backbiting that afflicts English punk to be aimed at the Sex Pistols, who began the movement and who symbolize it not only to the outside world but to the punks themselves. Notorious antistars, dole-queue kids awash in record-biz money, nihilists who have made something of themselves, the Pistols are everything punks are supposed to be, and more—they live out the contradictions most punk musicians have barely begun to dream about. No wonder they're resented: If we are to believe that punk's future is up to the Pistols—and that is definitely the conventional wisdom—then their fall could well precipitate everyone else's. But at least the Pistols, unlike almost everyone else, have someplace to fall from. What will be left for the others? Their picture in the papers, a self-produced record or two, perhaps a brief contract with a treacherous major, and the chance to watch a few posers make a career out of a defunct fad that once promised life.

What makes this scenario more bitter is that it proceeds from the star system punk challenges so belligerently. The English punks, with their proud, vitalizing concentration on the surface of things, rebel against rock royalty on the obvious ground that a pop elite cannot represent the populace. But they miss a subtler paradox: the apparent inability of most rebels to do without heroic images. When an idea turns into a movement as fast as punk did, chances are that some leadership figure is out there symbolizing away, and that if the symbol should fade or crumble the movement will find itself at a loss.

The loss would be a big one. Only 10 of the 20 bands I managed to catch in my nine days played genuine punk—vocals shouted over raw, high-speed guitar chords and an inflexible beat. But within that tiny sample, three or four bands—the Clash, X-Ray Spex, the Killjoys, and perhaps the Cortinas—put on hotter shows than any I've seen from the year's newcomers at CBGB, where the infusions of energy have been provided by born-again old-timers like John Cale and Alex Chilton or improved vintage-1975 stars like Blondie and Richard Hell. . . .

But if punk were to do a quick fizzle because of the Pistols, it would be more than unfortunate. It would be unfair. Johnny Rotten is an inspiration and a media focus out of a flair for self-dramatization that is coextensive with his extremism. He is typical of nothing. No matter how much he is imitated (and he was imitated by a fast-moving cult well before Glen Matlock said fuck on television and started the avalanche), he will never be a punk prototype—not because he is monumentally talented, which is beside the point, but because he comes a lot closer to genuine nihilism than often happens in the world. If he should fail, his nihilism will be at the root of his failure. It will have turned people off the Sex Pistols, and hence (in our paranoid backbiters' scenario) off punk in general. Yet no matter what you've seen on Weekend, most punks are not nihilists. Bored, cynical, destructive? Well, perhaps, at least in part. But all that's been blown out of proportion, as well, and nihilism is a lot further on down the road.

In fact, one thing that has made English punk so attractive—both to well-wishers like me and to fulltime recruits—has been its idealism.

Despite all the anti-hippie feeling, it really is Haight '67 that it most recalls—not in content, but in form. It's a new counter-culture; the sense of ferment and burgeoning group identity more than compensates for the confused sectarian squabbling, although maybe I'd be harder to please if I'd been around when hopes were highest. And in a way, it is the tragic end of hippie—not the disintegration of a generation the punks were never part of in the first place, but the way longhaired guitar assholes have continued to preach their hypocritical go-with-the-flow—that has imbued punk idealism with its saving skepticism.
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photo: Fred W. McDarrah

Guess Who's Paying for Dinner: Rupert Murdoch Buys the Voice

January 10, 1977

And just when everything seemed to be going so nicely, too. You may have noticed the headline on the front of last week's Village Voice: "Burt Reynolds Slain by Killer Bees." That was the old Voice, quiet, sensitive to the needs of a local audience. Should much-heralded changes of management occur, you may expect sensationalism: "Burt Eaten Alive by Killer Bees," or something of that sort.

Should you have but recently returned from a trip to Siberia, let me explain the reference to "much-heralded changes of management." By this is meant the possibility that the newspaper that you are holding in your hands may be owned by Rupert Murdoch, the well-known Australian newspaper proprietor. You will also be excited to hear that The Voice, relict of the great days of alternative press and the nonconforming conscience, has recently been sought along with New York and New West magazines, by the Washington Post Company. All week long people have been saying, in a challenging sort of way, "Well, so who would you like to see own The Voice?"

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