By Albert Samaha
By Darwin BondGraham
By Keegan Hamilton
By Anna Merlan
By Anna Merlan
By Tessa Stuart
By Tessa Stuart
By Albert Samaha
Participant Observers and La Vie Boheme
After my crash course in English youth culture, all I'm clear about is that it's much more complicated than anything we're used to here. I don't know how many kids actually perceive all the arcane detail, but some obviously do. Accustomed to rigid tracking in the schools and a class system unashamed of its name, they define subcultures for themselves; these are picked up in the popular press and thus propagated, formalized, and put to death. Yet of the six big onesteddy boys, rockers, mods, hippies, skinheads, punksall but the mods and rockers are still around. (Those who presume the skinheads extinct didn't confront 80 of them marching out of a Sham 69 gig two months ago; for that matter, enclaves of rockers' are said to survive at motorway cafs.) Except for the hippies, who began in America, each of these groups crystallized around the style innovations of working-class teenagers, who dress just as obsessively as black and Latin kids do in this country, and a lot more regimentally. But because street fashions have some of the same sort of upward mobility in England that they do here, these uniforms are no more likely to remain purely working-class than are the subcultures they symbolize.
For the punks, this sociological fact of life is traumatic, because the punks are ideologically working class. There was a certain ambiguous nosethumbing in the outmoded posh of the teds' Edwardian gear, and the rockers probably resented the implicit upward mobility of the mods as much as the skinheads resented the putative classlessness of the hippies. But despite the English tradition of resenting the rich and an adolescent anti-establishment bias that alienated them from anyone with power, these groups took class pretty much as a given. No so the punks. Punks are equally scornful of the scant material rewards of welfare capitalism and the boredom that inevitably deadens what rewards there are; they're hostile to America and hate the cultural imperialism of television with a passion that elevates cliché into myth. But more than that, they place blame. Their us-against-them isn't young-against-old or hip-against-square, but a war of the deprived against the privileged.
It would be nice to say that punk's class consciousness arose spontaneously from the dole queues and council flats and dead-end educational levels of a depressed Britain.
But since most working-class kids, including those without work, don't really identify with punk, it's more accurate to credit (the musicians themselves with the analysis, and in fact a lot of it has come from participant observerssemi-official theoreticians in management and journalism. Malcolm McLaren, the self-described anarchist who launched the Sex Pistols from his anti-couture boutique (called first Rock On, then Too Fast To Live, Too Young To Die, then Sex, and currently Seditionaries) understood early on how butch working-class fashion iconography might épater le bourgeois. Caroline Coon of Melody Maker and Jonh Ingham of Sounds (a couple at one time) perceived punk as a movement that could only occur in a deteriorating economic environmentalthough it combined the hoodlum-friends-outside youth politics of rock and roll with more "bolshie" counter-culture ideas. And Bernard Rhodes, a East End Jew who worked for McLaren before he began to manage the Clash, gave the music a more explicitly leftwing cast.
But especially significant, I think, was a "real" punk proficient at both journalism and music businessMark P., who brought all this raw art and rough theory together in his Xeroxed fanzine, Sniffin' Glue, and then, with the help of rock-biz pro Miles Copeland, became the finest of the punk a&r men on his own Step-Forward label, responsible for strong singles from Chelsea, the Cortinas, and the Models. A teen genius with vanguard instincts in both music and politics, Mark P. was the East End council-flats guyser that punk legend is made of, and as near as I can tell, it was from Sniffin' Glue that the whole issue of class authenticity in punk, the anti-poser ethic, really took off. I did it. Mark P. said, and now you should. And so fanzines sprouted by the score, and pioneer fans organized pioneer groups like Siouxsie and the Banshees, Subway Sect. and the Slits. Outsiders became more and more suspect.
Jimmy Pursey of Sham 69 says he got the name off the wall of a loo; it sounds good and means nothing, he insists, specifically including fake blow job. Pete Shelly of the Buzzcocks says the name of his group came from a caption in the London entertainment weekly Time Out: "Get a buzz, cock" ("cock" means roughly the same thing as "fellow" in working-class slang). When I told him that many Americans took the name as a sadistic play on "buzz saw" he seemed to feel it spoke poorly for this nation
To call something extraordinary in hippie argot you would say it was "far out." Among punks, the term is "over the top."
Because they are interested in survival as well as boredom, English punk bands have never pretended to be dumb. Sentimentality and intellectualism are out, but the prevailing mood encourages the (admittedly satiric) Snivelling Shits to attack "Terminal Stupid" and the (admittedly demi-commercial) Boomtown Rats to boast: "I'm gonna go somewhere where it doesn't stink/Away from the alleys, somewhere I can think." What does slip into the rhetoric, however, is the implication that Johnny Rotten or Mick Jones or Mark P. is an ordinary guyser, a bloke who goes to see bands like anybody else. Needless to say, this is nonsense. Despite the usual lemmings, loonies, and losers, the fringe people that fringe movements like punk always attract, punks tend to be bright and sensitivethey have to be, to detach themselves from the accepted belief that one's lot is one's just dessert unless one manages to work one's way out of it. Nevertheless, Rotten and Jones and Mark P. are a lot more gifted than most punks--and probably than you or me as well.