I recently spent nine days pursuing punk rock in England without once trying to contact the Sex Pistols. I just didn’t have the time. The Sex Pistols are superstars, at least momentarily, and contacting superstars is more trouble than it’s worth even when nothing else is happening, which was hardly the problem in London and the other English cities I visited. Anyway, second-hand contact with the Pistols was as inescapable as tales of the Weathermen used to [be] around the Movement in 1970.
Many informed sources offered tidbits about drugs and sex, said to interest the Pistols more than they pretended, and about record producers and movie directors — Cambridge rock avant-gardist Fred Firth, a hero of Johnny Rotten’s, was in contention for the first job, while Hollywood decadent Russ Meyer, who had wanted to set Sid Vicious to fucking his (screen) mother, was on his way out of the other. But one theme overshadowed the gossip: failure. Again and again the fear was expressed that the Pistols had blown it. Having replaced bassist Glen Matlock with nonmusician Vicious in February, I was told, Rotten had deprived the band of its most gifted composer, and now a Rotten-Vicious faction was feuding with a Jones-Cook faction and with manager Malcolm McLaren. The Pistols’ long-awaited album would include only three songs written since Matlock’s departure and cost as much to produce as a Richard Perry extravaganza. It was even reported that the Pistols’ deal with American Warners had been finalized only because McLaren and his minions had already gone through the 150,000 quid advanced them by EMI, A&M, and Virgin in England. The original strategy had been to postpone the assault on the U.S.A. Now, suddenly, it was sink-or-swim time, for the Pistols and maybe for everybody.
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. What’s more, punk was clearly making itself felt in the other music I saw. Weirdos like Elvis Costello and Ian Dury and Wreckless Eric do not sell out Birmingham Town Hall when the pop environment is stable. All-female French blues-rock bands like the Lous do not open major concerts if some Wardour Street money man controls the bill. Bluegrassers turned pub-rockers turned hit journeymen like the Kursaal Flyers do not dirty up their guitar sound and smash television sets on a suburban stage just because the fancy strikes them.
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 full-time 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. These kids may be naive, but they’re not foolish. They know the world is a hostile place.
First Person Plural
Having watched the Lous (enjoyed with no audible sexist remarks) and Richard Hell and the Voidoids (received with fair enthusiasm in back and moderate-plus pogoing up front) from a limited-access balcony, I decided to take my notebook down into the Clash crowd at the University of Leeds, 200 miles north of London. The capacity of the room, which looked like an old-fashioned church rec hall only bigger, was officially 2200; 1800 tickets were sold to a crowd that appeared to break down two-to-one student-to-punk and at least nine-to-one male-to-female. Everyone was standing, even though it was intermission, and the rear half of the hall was mostly empty. I’d found out that as a competent New Yorker I could push to the front of most English crowds, but that was out of the question in this press so I stood toward the back and listened to two students behind me talk like upper-class twits. Phil Spector and even some Kraftwerk came over the P.A. to augment the customary dub, the bass-based reggae English punks love the way early hippies loved blues. But as the wait stretched past 45 minutes push began to turn to shove up front, and I wrote with some annoyance: “an intermission worthy of Black Sabbath.” That was the last time I thought of my notebook until after the Clash had finished.
The beginning I remember clearly. The band came out looking quite hale in what might almost have been store-bought punk safari gear, shirts and chinos with lots of zippers; the sole bizarre touch was the artfully tattered fishnet top on bassist Paul Simonon. Straightaway, using a conversational version of the friendly, stump-toothed, wet-mouthed, muttery snarl he sings with, Joe Strummer leaned into the mike and said, “We’ve come to play some of the heavy metal music you love so well.” Then there was a rush of fast guitar noise and everything became an exciting blur. I remember a lot of up-and-down motion in the audience — timid bobbing to the balls of the feet in back, wild pogoing up front. I remember the twits behind me singing along. I remember thinking that it was quite good, but not mind-blowing, and going upstairs to be with my wife. I remember the entire crowd shouting along — “I’m so bored with the Yew, Ess, Ay,” “White riot, wanna riot” — with no coaxing from the stage. I remember wondering how I would feel when they finally got to my favorites — “Career Opportunities,” “Garageland,” “Janie Jones.” And I remember my mind gusting away when they did.
Before I left the States, The Clash had replaced the Vibrators’ Pure Mania as my favorite English Punk LP. Apparently tuneless and notoriously underproduced, it was, I knew, a forbidding record, especially since the mix was dominated by Strummer’s vocals, which I loved for an unmusicality others found ugly. Because of Strummer’s cockney pronunciation and bad teeth, lyrics were hard to make out; my enjoyment increased markedly after I obtained a crib sheet, but I was annoyed at times by the band’s more cynical me-firstisms. After seeing them, though, I stopped hedging.
Visually, the three front-liners — guitarist Mick Jones, Strummer, and Simonon, the cute one — generated a perfect, condensed punch. They occupied their far-flung locations on stage like a unit of partisans charged with some crucial beachhead — instead of roaming around to interact, the way most exciting rock groups do, they held to their posts. Yet at the same time they seemed to be having lots of fun, with Jones marching jubilantly behind his mike, Simonon executing flashy Cossack split steps in his big boots, and Strummer eventually falling to the floor in an elation that seemed entirely of the moment. It became clear that many of the bitter lyrics that had always made me laugh — “I wanna walk down any street/Looking like a creep/I don’t care if I get beat up/By any kebab Greek” — were in fact intended to be funny. Also, I began to hear what was missing in the album’s sound — there was a lot more guitar in the live mix, good punk guitar, chordally elementary but rejecting hip musical platitudes, with Jones’s terse leads clanging irrepressibly against Strummer’s below-the-belt rhythm. This music lacked neither craft nor melody; it did what it set out to do with formidable verve. The songs were about as cynical as one of the football cheers they recalled, and they had a lot more content.
For me, the Clash are almost a return to the time when I had to see A Hard Day’s Night before I could tell Paul from George. They are the Clash, not four guys who play in the Clash — not a star-and-support outfit or reconstituted supergroup. Drummer Nicky Headon, much the last to join, has yet to achieve his place in the gestalt, but the three front-liners form an indivisible body; their separation on stage (which isn’t always absolute, I’m told) strengthens the group’s structural unity. Perhaps this is simply because Simonon, the most visual of the three and one of the many punk bassists to reject Bill Wyman–style immobility, makes it impossible for Strummer and/or Jones to take over. But that it should work out this way reflects the English take on the punk attitude, in which hippie love-in-the-sky is replaced by provisional solidarity, alliances no less potent for their suspiciousness. I feel confident that next time I see the band, Nicky Headon will have gained full partnership. That’s the kind of lads they are.
After the gig, about half of the eight or so groupies I’d spotted — including the one who’d been trying unsuccessfully to crack a whip backstage — were visible at the hotel. Joe was obviously proud of his catch, announcing genially: “She’s a college girl. She speaks French.” Then he whispered a message to me in her ear. The young woman — nervous, attentive, and dressed (like most of her sisters) in Frederick’s of Hollywood support garments and Threepenny Opera cosmetics, translated: “Tu ressembles à Woody Allen, mais tu as les cheveux longues.” Later I had a talk with Mick about his hobby, which is reading; he recommended Brighton Rock, Decline and Fall, and his favorite, Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories. We discussed the Socialist Workers’ confrontation strategy for defeating the National Front. And he told me about his mother, a former movie actress who lives in Michigan and sends him Creem. Recently she mailed off some song lyrics; they were, Mick sighed, “all about the desolation of living in the city with safety pins.” He’d encouraged her to continue writing, though. He just advised that she try to keep things more optimistic.
Except for the Sex Pistols, the Clash are the biggest punk group in England, but that’s not as impressive as American punk fans imagine. Punk is very much a minority music in England; while the Clash were not quite filling a 2200-capacity venue in Leeds, Yes was selling out six nights at London’s Wembley, which seats 6000. Anyway, to call the Clash number two is stretching it, like saying the Stones were number two in 1964, when the Hollies and Gerry and the Pacemakers were both doing better on the charts. United Artists’ Stranglers have outsold CBS’s Clash by far and may even pass the Pistols. But (as with Gerry and the Pacemakers) nobody takes the Stranglers seriously because (like the Hollies) they commercialize what should be a music of discovery. The Clash have status, significance, symbolic clout. They are the class of the field, defining its possibilities; most of the punk peoples I spoke to in England — hardly a cross-section, but an influential minority — preferred them to the Pistols. So do I.
Because its suppositions are critical and apparently pessimistic where those of Beatlemania and hippie were full of hope, punk turns ideas upside down. The Stranglers, who sing about fucking rats and assaulting women, qualify for vilification as commercial because their subject matter recapitulates the received, best-selling, megapolitical macho of heavy metal. And a revised definition of commercial makes for an even stranger reversal: Although the Sex Pistols definitely got there first, always the prime issue in the Beatles-Stones rivalry of the ’60s, the Pistols are to the Clash what the Stones were to the Beatles in both musical strategy and general scariness. The switch is that this time the buying public prefers the Pistols/Stones. After all, in a world where nihilistic offensiveness has become a popular option, they offer a relatively uncomplicated message dramatized by a single, visible antihero. And in that sense they’re easy to sell.
It is because the Pistols are more accessible that the committed English punk tends to identify with the Clash. For him, it’s simple: they’re his. But for participant observers like me, it’s more complicated. Say that the Pistols’ negativism — passionate, closely observed, and good to dance to though it certainly is — seems a bit facile compared to the Clash’s jubilantly militant ensemble aggression. Even better, say that in 1965 we loved the Beatles’ ebullience but found that we wanted (and needed) the cautionary, hard-edged, rather dangerous irony of the Stones, while in 1977 we get off on the Pistols’ promise to tear it all down but find that the Clash help us imagine what it might be like to build it back up again. Of course, what makes my first person plural more satisfying is that one can imagine both participant observers and committed punks sharing in the building. But it’s best to be careful with what is basically a rhetorical device, a revised version of the rock and roll “we.” The solidarity it implies is so theoretical it makes the provisional solidarity among the punks themselves seem as irrevocable as Arthurian fealty.
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 ones — teddy boys, rockers, mods, hippies, skinheads, punks — all 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 observers — semi-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 environment — although 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 business — Mark 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.
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 sensitive — they 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.
At work here is a delusion over-25s will recall from the hippie days: the we-are-youth line. To their credit, punks don’t pretend to be everybody’s brothers and sisters. They savage contemporaries who don’t share their self-interests — the grammar-school boys, the art students, the revitalized teds — and they savage each other with continual exhortations to cut the shit. “Try to evade reality/And now you’re just a novelty,” warn the Killjoys, and when punks at the Vortex cheered the news of Elvis’s death — another old fart gone — Danny Baker of Sniffin’ Glue grabbed the mike in a rage and reminded them just where they’d be without him. But like most minority groups, they take comfort in the thought that their situation is not only of central social significance, but also the source of magic powers. The notion that Everypunk can just walk off the dole queue and make great rock and roll is essential to their sense of themselves.
Behind punk’s belief in its own magic is the old idea that if you live close enough to the edge of reality you gain some special grip on it. But despite the legend their edge doesn’t turn out to depend on brutal poverty. Poly Styrene, the mulatto who leads X-Ray Spex, giggles that compared to where she grew up council flats are pretty soft, and Joe Strummer jeers at the way Americans romanticize Britain’s plight: “ ’Ey fink it’s really orful over here, don’t they? ’Ey fink we can’t afford ’arf a pint o’ beer.” In fact, many punk musicians live at home and spend their meager dole or boring-job or gig money on themselves, and not all boast impeccably impecunious pedigrees. Joe Strummer has been exposed as the son of a career diplomat who was himself born working-class (as well as the former lead singer of a band of hippie squatters called the 101’ers), the parents of the Damned’s Rat Scabies invited disc jockey John Peel to a sherry evening in a well-to-do London suburb, signing the engraved card “Mr. and Mrs. Scabies”; the Cortinas are middle-class boys from Bristol; Chelsea’s Gene October, author of the militant “Right To Work,” is reputedly of moneyed stock. So when reporters discover middle-class thrill-seekers at punk gigs, that’s hardly surprising. Only because the punks themselves have made an issue of posing does such evidence appear damning to those who’d just as soon dismiss them anyway.
Perhaps the way to understand it is this: Rather than a working-class youth movement — potentially revolutionary, proto-fascist, or symptomatic of the decadence of our times — punk is a basically working youth bohemia that rejects both the haute bohemia of the rock elite and the hallowed bohemian myth of classlessness. Not that it’s purely working-class (or purely youth, for that matter). But it gives the lie to the (basically Marxist) cliché that bohemia must always be petit-bourgeois. For punk, class replaces such bohemian verities as expressive sexuality and salvation through therapy/enlightenment/drugs. It is a source of identity and a means of self-realization. So the Cockney accent replaces the blues voice, and disdain for luxury becomes an affirmation of fellowship with one’s allies’ rather than a withdrawal from the economic world.
Punk doesn’t want to be thought of as bohemian, because bohemians are posers. But however vexed the question of their authenticity, bohemias do serve a historical function — they nurture aesthetic sensibility. Punk definitely has attracted musicians hiding arty little secrets; if Mick Jones acknowledges having gone on scholarship to art school, that unfairly discredited rock institution, can Dave Vanian be far behind? Nor is it surprising that the best punk retailer-distributor, Rough Trade, is run by an idealistic Cambridge lit grad in the boho stronghold around Portobello Road. That many entrenched (and lapsed) bohemians regard punks as mindless yobs doesn’t mean half as much as the observant participation of disaffected university students, restless suburban teens, and assorted dropouts. Most of the hip folks I know could use a shot of punk, which revives the oldest bohemian tradition — artists with no visible means of support banding together against the cruel world.
Of course, most of these kids aren’t artists, and they often enjoy invisible support from their parents or the state. But it’s equally obvious that for talented working-class rebels denied access to Britain’s scarce, narrow, and overcrowded escape routes, bohemianism — in which poverty is no bar to freedom, identity, and the pleasures of the moment — presents a way out. A recent study among the supposedly middle-class hippies of Birmingham, for instance, revealed that most of those who’d stuck with the lifestyle had working-class origins. Of course, Marxists can dismiss hippies and punks alike as lumpen because, unlike real working-class people, they’re not interested in work. But it remains true that for punks class is a charged category. They have raised both their own consciousness and that of the participant observers who are now part of their movement, and it’s at least conceivable that when they all grow up they’ll unite to marshal their energy into a real attack on the system they detest.
I’m as skeptical as the punks are, and I hardly expect this to happen. But I do think punk represents an advance in sensibility. Those punks who aren’t direct victims of the economic rationalizations that have been wreaking drab havoc over Britain have certainly been induced to think about them a lot. The edge they all claim, their magic handle on reality, is that they’re painfully familiar with powerlessness. And they want no part of it.
The Bad Stuff
I’m aware that I’ve made the punks sound like poverty-stricken lads who only want to build a better life for themselves, and that this probably doesn’t jibe with your preconceptions. What about the safety pins and dog collars, you must be wondering. What abut the violence? What about the misogyny and pathological anomie? What about that groupie with the whip?
Well, my guess is that six months from now safety pins and dog collars — but not the wonderful spikey punk hair — will be as passé as platform shoes, replaced by less disquieting concepts in costume jewelry. But the rest of the bad stuff seemed durable enough. I saw fans betoken their affection by gobbing — spitting, in thick gobs — at their idols, I saw X-Ray Spex abandon the stage to their own rampaging fans, and I saw little Kevin Roland of the Killjoys placekick one kid off the monitors without missing a beat. I witnessed numerous fistfights. I learned that punks sometimes pogo with their hands at each other’s throats and embrace in holds that resemble hammerlocks. And I read both Strummer and Rotten On Love. Strummer: “I can love them providing they don’t come near me.” Rotten: “Love is what you feel for a dog or a pussy cat. It doesn’t apply to humans.”
Yet none of this was anywhere near as appalling as I’d expected. I mean, I almost didn’t bring my down jacket for fear someone would knife me and the feathers would all fly out, but the most antagonistic remark any punk offered in nine days was when some youngster addressed me as “Guv’nor” after I declined to share my beer with him. Admittedly, I didn’t spend much time with the punk on the street, and I worry that I’ve somehow been hoodwinked by the British music biz, which is now taking the line that punk is nothing more than teenagers venting their (oh so sociologically justified) frustrations. But while I continue to find some punk music frightening, I am no longer very scared by the punks themselves. On the contrary, I consider their hostility healthy, especially in view of how much they’ve been maligned.
Gobbing I could do without, as could the gobbed-upon, but even gobbing carries metaphorical weight, a weight that reaches its zenith in the pogo. The pogo is more than oafs jumping up and down; its reputation as an idiot dance preceding a punch-up misses entirely the joy, humor, and madness of the real thing. Pogoers don’t just jump — they leap, as high as they can for as long as they can, exhilarated to the point of exhaustion. The dance is very physical, with much flailing and crashing near the center, and most pogoers are male. At first they flew strictly solo, but soon couple-dancing began, and with it the stranglehold developed. It was startling to see two 16-year-old boys, their faces shining with sweat and glee, pretending to throttle each other in what amounted to an airborne playfight. But I hadn’t encountered such joyful-looking kids at a rock concert in years. This dance did justice to something about rock and roll that all the fast steps and sexy grinds ignored — its exultant competitiveness, its aggressive fun.
Not that pogoers confine themselves to playfighting. People trip and tromp on each other and come to blows — less often than has been reported but more than at a Renaissance concert. Only who needs a Renaissance concert? This is rock and roll, and in England rock and roll (like football, only less so) has always occasioned violence. Yet there were only one or two scuffles a night at the gigs I attended, and I neither saw nor was told about anything to compare, for instance, with the Beatles’ second professional engagement, where a 16-year-old boy was kicked to death. I would describe firecrackers at Bad Company concerts as violent, and I would describe Johnny Rotten’s vocal attack as violent. But I would describe punk as rough.
It is also of course predominantly male. But this, too, must be understood in the context of England, which has produced a rock folkway without exact parallel in the States — the boys bands, with their all-boy audiences. “Quo, Sabbaf, and ’Eep” — a legend you can still see on the backs of jackets — were and are boys bands; so was Mott the Hoople, the group Mick Jones used to follow around. This sort of fandom is clearly much like rooting for a football team, with the ominous difference that rock’s sexual content — admittedly downplayed among the four boys bands I’ve mentioned — might be more sanely absorbed in a coed environment. Jones was amused that the Clash now seemed to be a boys band, and expressed the hope that the photogenic Simonon would break the pattern via the teenybop magazines — not so much to up the band’s market share as to humanize its audience.
But beyond such camaraderie there is a lot of woman-hating in English punk — not as much as is reported, once again, but more, among significant groups, than in America. Lately the Stranglers, who can be passed off as pseudopunks, have given up their Gold Dildo to Eater, who cannot: “Why don’t you get raped/Why don’t you get raped/Why don’t you get raped/Go and get fucked.” You can call this underclass scapegoating, you can talk about the virtues of irony, you can talk about the virtues of candor, you can even praise certain artists for exposing misogyny as the anti-sex sociopathy it is. Say anything you like — those lyrics are still hateful.
They’re not the whole story, though. On specific songs — the Sex Pistols’ “Bodies,” for instance — the power of the statement does, I think, justify and perhaps even necessitate the hatefulness. And there’s something more important, especially if you believe, as I do, that an aggressive popular art like rock and roll is a better way to fuse righteous anger than acoustic folk songs or documentaries about the siblinghood of humankind. For coexisting with the misogyny is an unprecedented opportunity for women to make rock and roll. Mick Jones voiced the prevailing attitude: “There ought to be as many girls in bands as boys by now. But if I’m gonna like ’em, they gotta be as tough as we are.” In addition to the all-female Lous and X-Ray Spex (led by a young woman who braved the onstage pogoing of her admirers long after her male musicians beat their retreat), I ran across a bassist and two keyboard players in three other bands. That’s not exactly a population explosion, but it does represent a significant increase over the number of females who played electric instruments at the Palladium in 1977, one, a punk, Patti Smith, because in punk conceptual energy does the work of chops, which means you needn’t have decided to be a rock star 10 years ago to become one now. Not that punk women seem any more inclined to be feminists than punk men. They choose names like the Castrators and the Slits. They talk about free sex like acolytes of the Playboy Philosophy. And they believe in looking out for themselves. Says 16-year-old Arri Up of the Slits: “The reason there’s hardly any girl rock ’n’ roll stars is because most girls are not strong enough in their own minds.”
I hope Arri figures out sometime just why girls have this problem, insofar as they do, and insofar as it’s a problem. I also hope Joe Strummer and Johnny Rotten change their hearts and minds about love. The fervent alienation that fuels such ideas suggests an egoism and a crippled capacity for outreach that alarm me. The most encouraging note I can add is that egoism and crippled outreach are no less adolescent than idealism and a desire to reach out, and that maturing — exotic term — is basically a process of becoming aware that other people exist. Hippie romanticized youth’s potential for good and continually foundered on its gift for evil. Punk errs in the other direction, but the good is there too, however reluctantly acknowledged, and it may develop more naturally if not too much is expected of it. The thought of punk growing up is not an altogether happy one — its energy is almost as rooted in self-centeredness as its strength is in solidarity. But I hope it does grow up, because it’s going to get older regardless.
What Is to Be Done?
The word “punk” can refer to a music and/or a youth movement because the two are inseparable. Not even rockabilly or disco, and certainly not “psychedelic” rock, have enjoyed such a clear, before-and-after, cause-and-effect relationship with a support subculture. In fact, punk rock was conceived by Malcolm McLaren and Bernard Rhodes (out of the intuitions of avant-punks like Iggy and David Johansson) to inspire, or to give shape to, such a subculture. Not that it turned out exactly the way its prophets imagined — the unpredictability of talent was essential to what they wanted to instigate. Still, their ideas have had appreciable effect.
While in England I looked up pioneer punk propagandist Jonh Ingham. Ingham was a student of mine at the California Institute of the Arts when he decided to change the spelling of his name in 1970. This precocious bit of image-building was typical of both his sharpness and his shallowness, but punk has clearly deepened him. The apolitical acidhead now wears a Marx patch, and the lines around his eves belong to someone who’s discovered passion. Not that he’s so passionate any more. For Ingham, the turning point came last January, when McLaren, instead of investing the Pistols’ settlement from EMI in a punk counter-economy, chose to expand punk — or at least his punks — on establishment capital. So it was going to limit itself to good groups after all, Ingham said to himself. Within months he was managing Generation X, now signed to Chrysalis.
The punk counter-economy, such as it is, was destined to arise anyway. “It was easy, it was cheap, go out and do it,” sang the Desperate Bicycle, who produced their own single for £153 in March, 1977, basically to show people it could be done, just as the Desperate Bicycles themselves might have learned from Australia’s Saints (who scored a 1976 counterhit by mailing their 45 to U.K. journalists; and Manchester’s Buzzcocks. Many of these instant labels record one group exclusively, but others go on from a profitable sale — 10,000 is pretty good, 20,000 not unheard of — to work with others. It’s likely that one or two of them — London’s Deptford Fun City? Manchester’s Rabid? Cambridge’s Raw? Edinburgh’s Zoom? — will join the worldwide trend toward specialty labels for minority popular musics. In this they will be following two somewhat older indies, Stiff and Chiswick, which although they’re known here as punk labels actually cater to the audience of rock ’n’ roll discophiles who supported pub-rock.
One implication of independent production is that punk too could turn into a collectors’ music, a hobby, as is brought home by such frivolous marketing devices as the 12-inch single (saving vinyl is for hippies). But independent production doesn’t reflect punk’s eccentricity, or its idealism, so much as its refusal to withdraw from the economic world. It’s a trick of survival, a way to prepare your own demo at a profit. Mark P.’s backer and boss at Deptford-Fun City Records, Miles Copeland, is typical; he has placed his managerial clients the Cortinas with CBS and is codistributing a 12-incher with Sham 69’s new label, Polydor. Copeland, the son of a CIA bigshot, calls class consciousness “England’s big sickness” and used to advise Wishbone Ash how best to carry their hods; he struck me as one of the more dismaying professionals now attached to punk, but his business ideas are the norm. He describes how the Cortinas “wanted to go pro” and “wanted the strength of a major worldwide,” while the Buzzcocks’ manager — a 24-year-old art drop-out named Richard Boon who oversaw their debut EP on New Hormones and then signed the band to UA — talks coolly about doing an album only when the time seems right. But neither can imagine a new way to get this music out there.
Not that I have any bright ideas. My first minutes with Joe Strummer were spent in praise of medium-sized halls, an article of faith with the punks now as it was with the Who and the Grateful Dead a decade ago, although it’s not hard to figure out that if you sell 3000 tickets a night for a brutal 300 nights a year you still don’t play to a million people, a rather small-scale cultural crusade. Strummer went along with me — modest venues were best. But then he was apparently afflicted with a racial memory of the Grateful Dead: “Nah, you do it too much that way and you get just like the hippies. Keep it small, keep it efnic…” Basically, Strummer didn’t see any way to avoid turning into what he’d rebelled against. No matter how staunch his own idealism — not that he made any inflated claims for it — someone would always be checking his rear for him. “People say, if you don’t do that the So-and-Sos are gonna catch up. You don’t wanna get behind the So-and-Sos, do ya?”
Like Jonh Ingham, I really wish it could be different, and I’m somehow disappointed with the punks for not cutting through the old masscult paradoxes. If powerlessness is your secret, shouldn’t you have something more to say about power than vague plans to recycle your capital and specific promises never to own a Bentley? But in the absence of such miracle, I agree — better the Clash than the So-and-Sos, whether the So-and-Sos are good guys like the Jam (Who-style punks-as-mods not averse to Bentleys) or the Vibrators (Velvets-style metaphysical sex on the surface and a perfect blank ambition underneath) or guys as bad as the semi-fictitious Pork Dukes, who offer a record sleeve and T-shirt depicting a woman sucking off a pig, and who are rumored on excellent authority to include two moonlighting folk-rockers from that apogee of rock gentility, Steeleye Span. But the very profusion of so-and-sos is positive, especially since even the so-called posers — both the Jam and the Vibrators are dismissed that way by much of the punk hard core — can make wonderful rock and roll. Punk really is a new wave — a new wave of musicians. Some of those so-and-sos are going to be playing the English rock and roll of the ’80s.
Which raises two questions: One, will this rock and roll remain strictly English, and two, will it remain punk rock? As extraordinary as the Clash are, they’ll have to do for an example. The Clash may be the greatest rock and roll band in the world, but they haven’t conquered Britain yet, and if they gain a following over here — which they seem in no special hurry to do — it will be proportionally smaller. Their fierce national identification strengthens their music but narrows their American potential, because our class system is afraid to speak its name. Even if their second album, unlike their first, is picked up by American Epic or some other U.S. label, I’ll be pleased if they gain enough audience to support an annual tour, perhaps inspiring some young American rocker to translate the English punk way of seeing things into terms as fiercely national as the Clash’s own. But the sustenance that keeps whatever dozen English punk bands eating and recording over the next few years should come from England.
Because finally it’s the sensibility that must survive — the sensibility that thinks in terms of class and means to bring home to us the conflicts that underlie every one of our lives. If it comes to that, I’ll even settle for hobbyists, a few genius musicians making overpriced direct-to-disc collector’s items for 10,000 connoisseurs of raw power. That’ll be enough to keep the word alive. As the Clash sing on — and about — “Hate & War”: “And if I close my eyes/It will not go away/We have to deal with it/It is the currency.” No matter how many people are resisting right now, they’re going to find out eventually that these ill-mannered boys are right.
Punks are so much a counter-culture that they’ve produced a reaction — the teddy boys, regrouping and recruiting at an amazing clip in direct response to punk’s explicit contempt for the racism and dumb violence of working-class youthcult tradition. In Coventry, an auto-manufacturing city where I saw two punks pogoing to the Boomtown Rats in a disco, the teds were down to a few pathetic father-and-son pairs plus some stragglers only six or eight months ago. Now they dominate many youth clubs. The only music they’ll listen to is rockabilly. Another favored pastime is beating up punks.
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.”
Poly Styrene is a plump young woman the color of Kraft caramel who brings a pop-art kind of pop sensibility to punk. She prefers “synfetic” clothes and wears braces on her teeth. Reputedly a former reggae singer, she’s vague about how she made money before X-Ray Spex. But she did tell me that her manager, Falcon Stuart, used to direct films, and I know this is true because I’ve seen one — French Blue, a rather arty and off-putting exercise in king porn. This could make you worry about lyrics, like “Bind me tie me/Chain me to the wall/I wanna be a slave to you all.” But they continue: “Oh bondage up yours/Oh bondage no more.” Poly says she tries to make sure her lyrics aren’t obvious; they’re collections of images. Her artistic aim? “I try to make people fink.”
For five minutes after we were introduced, Bernard Rhodes, the Clash’s manager, subjected me to skeptical questions and comments implying that I was a poser. I held my ground, which was apparently what he wanted, because soon he was treating me to the English teen version of Sartor Resartus. “The differences are so subtle,” he told me. “Shoelaces — you can spend half an hour deciding what shoelaces to wear.” Rhodes was wearing aviator glasses, a bezippered gray cloth jacket, a Clash T-shirt, a large digital watch, jeans with rolled cuffs, chartreuse socks, and black oxfords. I did not notice anything special about his shoelaces.
Although the exceptions are significant, most English punk is unreleased in the Yew Ess Ay, and some of it will remain so. That puts the seeker at the mercy of importers and makes genuine discount buying next to impossible. Many Village record stores now stock some “new wave,” but the best selection by far is at Bleecker Bob’s Golden Oldies, 179 MacDougal, 475-9677. Discophile, around the corner at 26 West 8th, employs a well-respected enthusiast named Michael: you should ask for him if you phone (473-1902) or drop in. Both shops charge around $7 for an album, $3 for an EP, and $2 for a single. Cheaper but more out of the way is Fantasia, at 4752 Broadway near Dyckman Street in Washington Heights, 942-9188. The two major import distributors — the rock-oriented Jem (Box 362, South Plainfield, New Jersey 07080) and Peters International (619 West 54th Street, NYC 10019) both do retail mail-order. Rough Trade, 202 Kensington Park Road, London W11, England, will also mail, and is worth visiting should you find yourself nearby, as is Rock On, 3 Kentish Town Road.
There are two essential albums in English punk: Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, available on American Warners, and The Clash, a CBS import that may well never be released here. Hard rock fans should pick up one and seek out the other. I know no one who was bowled over by The Clash first listen, and I know a lot of people who love it now; it’s one of my favorite records of the decade. Give it some time.
Also recommended are Pure Mania by the Vibrators (Epic import due for domestic release on Columbia January 9), revved-up and slightly arty, showing roots in pop r&b to great advantage; In the City and This Is the Modern World by the Jam (domestic Polydor), in which a very bright, very ambitious working-class rock and roller writes relevant songs because that seems the thing to do and proves so honest and thoughtful he renders all questions of posing, well, irrelevant; and side one of The Boomtown Rats (domestic Mercury), raw, nasty, relatively unhistrionic, and not without melodic appeal. The Heartbreakers never got to me in New York, but side one of L.A.M.F., a Track import recorded after their move to London, is a perfect, catchy version of (to borrow Caroline Coon’s phrase) MOR punk, in which (to borrow Greil Marcus’s image) the guitarist lays down a line of fire to cover the vocalist; side two ain’t so catchy. I am less impressed by The Boys (Nems import), Eater’s The Album (The Label import), and the two Damned LPs (Stiff import), but all have virtues and supporters — as do the Stranglers, I suppose. I don’t know anyone who likes either Eddie and the Hot Rods album.
A punk anthology I’ve been playing a lot is Streets (Beggars Banquet import); its 17 independent label cuts include no instant classics, but the overall quality, especially on side two, indicates how vital punk is as a movement right now. I find The Roxy London W.C. 2 (Jan-Apr ’77) (EMI import), a live anthology, valuable primarily as documentary. Most of the great punk on New Wave (Vertigo import) is American. And three pub-to-punk compendiums deserve mention: A Bunch of Stiff Records, Hit’s Greatest Stiffs, and Submarine Tracks & Fool’s Gold Chiswick Chartbusters, Volume One. All have been constructed with discophiliac attention to detail and all are proof that rock and roll, of all sorts, is here to collect.
With albums, idiosyncrasies of taste tend to even out over 10 or 12 cuts; singles are more hit-or-miss. The ones I happen to love are: “Complete Control”/“City of the Dead” by the Clash (CBS); “2-4-6-8 Motorway” by the Tom Robinson Band (EMI): “Oh Bondage Up Yours”/“I Am a Cliché” by X-Ray Spex (Virgin – try to find the seven-inch version); “New Rose” by the Damned (Stiff); “Johnny Won’t Get to Heaven”/“Naive” by the Killjoys (Raw); “Can’t Stand By My Baby” by the Rezillos (Sensible); “Don’t Dictate”/“Money Talks” by Penetration (Virgin); “Right To Work” by Chelsea (Step-Forward); “Do Anything You Wanna Do” by Rods (domestic Island); and “Television Screen”/“Love Detective” by the Radiators From Space. The latter was dismissed in Sniffin’ Glue as “a moronic mess”; Michael at Discophile thinks it’s worse; and on their second single and album their producer, Roger Armstrong, has slowed down the Radiators’ r&b clichés to accentuate their songwriting. I find the songs mediocre and everything but their mad debut disappointing. “I guess you haven’t had as many fast guitars in the States as we have,” Armstrong explained. Never, never — give me more.
Finally, a book: Caroline Coon’s 1988: The New Wave Punk Rock Explosion. It’s no musicological classic, but for an exploitation quickie it’s well-informed, intelligent, passionate, and good to look at. The interviews — especially with the Slits — are uniformly fascinating, if partial. Ask for it at Bleecker Bob’s. It’s an import, too.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 9, 2020