MUSIC ARCHIVES

Punk is Just Another Word for Nothin’ Left to Lose

The worst insult in the English punks' vocabulary is "poser." These are working-class kids who resent it when the middle classes ape their style.

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There is a game called telephone where a word is whispered around a circle from ear to ear; by the time the circuit is completed, a whole new word has emerged. Something similar happened to the reports circling ’round London from the New York rock underground. These reports got the reality of CBGBs all wrong. But distortion works wonders. The New York scene was never as dynamic or as committed a movement as the English fans made it out to be. It was a dream they imitated, not the reality, and in the process they brought that dream to furious life.

A myth took root before the English audiences had seen any of the new bands. From black-and-white photographs, newspaper clippings, and a few import LPs they built up a picture — stylized and — of this thing called punk rock. What they didn’t know then was that punk rock in America never existed. Punk was an attitude, not a movement. As John Holmstrom, the creator of Punk magazine, wrote in an editorial:

“The key word — to me anyway — in the punk definition was ‘A beginner, an inexperienced hand.’ Punk rock — any kid can pick up a guitar and become a rock ‘n’ roll star, despite or because of his lack of ability, talent, intelli­gence, limitations and/or potential, and usually does so out of frustration, hostility, a lot of nerve, and a need for ego fulfillment … It takes a lot of sophistication — or better, none at all — to appreciate punk rock at its best — or worst. (Not much difference.) Punk has become a catchword for a lot of critics to describe N. Y. underground rock, most of which is not punk rock.”

CBGBs was a warm, sleazy home. Musicians gathered there because they had no record contracts and nowhere else to play. Like families, they would even adopt their band’s names: Debbie Blondie, Tommy Miami, Joey Ramone. And they had a certain heredity in common: The ghosts of the Velvet Underground and the New York Dolls hovered in the background. But only the Dictators and the Ramones could truly be described as punk rock.

Although Patti Smith had toured England long before the Ramones arrived in London in July of last year, it was Ramones’ reverberations which were felt on the British scene. Because the myth of punk rock was that it was a cohesive movement, the English fans assumed that other New York bands like Television and Talking Heads were cast in the Ramones mold. Everyone wore black leather jackets and played lightning-fast four-chord rock ‘n’ roll.

I can’t say what went on in the minds of that first London audience, but I suspect that they took the Ramones more seriously than the Ramones took themselves: took them to be bored, sneering, dead-end kids. After all, the image of New York that flickers through television and the movies is of the asphalt jungle. You have only to read the English papers to see that it’s not just rock fans who take their visions of America from Kojak and Taxi Driver. Manhat­tan has a mythology all its own.

But what the Ramones have done is to take the image of the street punk and streamline it. Their stage act is a brilliant gesture, a single image left printed on the retina. And it’s funny — “Beat On the Brat” is comic book violence, not meant to draw blood. It doesn’t matter whether the Ramones are dead-end kids in real life, because their performance is not realistic. Even if we found out that they’d all been to medical school it wouldn’t invalidate what they do on stage.

This is not true of the English punk bands. Their music is not ironic or conceptualized, and it draws its impact from the fact that the musicians really are deprived, hostile, and unschooled. The worst insult in the English punks’ vocabu­lary is ‘poser.’ These are working-dass kids who know that they’ve been fucked over all their lives, and they resent it when the middle classes ape their style.

The New Wave bands are more passionate, more violent, and more dogmatic than their older American cousins. Joe Strummer and Mick Jones of the Clash said in a recent interview in the fanzine Sniffin’ Glue:

Joe: Look, the situation is far too serious for en­joyment, man. Maybe when we’re 55 we can play tubas in the sun … But now!
Mick: I think if you wanna fuckin’ enjoy yourselves you sit in an armchair and watch TV, but if you wanna get actively involved … ’cause rock ‘n’ roll’s about rebellion. Look, I had this out with Bryan James of the Damned and we’re screamin’ at each other for about three hours ’cause he stands for enjoying himself and I stand for change and creativity.

American bands take themselves less seriously, but then they can afford to. The U.S.A. is still a rich country where to be young, white, and on your own is to be privileged. The British New Wave bands emerged from a country which is riddled with class hatred and economically stagnant. Unemployment in Britain has hit teenagers harder than any other group. According to the New Statesman: “The proportion of unemployed under-25s is likely to exceed 35 per cent in the New Year.” This summer thousands of 16-year-olds will leave school and go straight on the dole. The longer they go without work, the longer they go without training, and the less employable they become. Being on the dole means living with your parents and watching the wallpaper fade; $15 to $25 a week doesn’t leave much for entertainment. This isn’t suburban bore­dom — it’s desperation. You can see why Richard Hell’s song “(I Belong to) The Blank Generation” was seized as a new teenage anthem.

The less you have the more you crave a style that belongs to you and you alone. But the nicest things are all taken. That means you have to make do with the things that nobody else wants. Like ugliness. That’s how the skinhead cult developed in England in the late ’60s. The hippie movement had turned the reigning fashion toward long hair and soft, pretty clothes. The skinheads shaved their heads and wore work shirts, rolled-up trousers, and huge boots — for kicking.

So you’re on the dole. You look around you and what have you got? Ignorance! Violence! Boredem! They’re not much, but they’re all yours. When the Sex Pistols began singing “No Future,” “I’m a Lazy Sod,” “Pretty Vacant,” and “Anarchy in the UK,” it wasn’t social protest so much as a pariah’s celebration. They were obnoxious, sneering little bastards, and they were proud of it. Remember Holmstrom: “A beginner, an inexperienced hand.” The cult of the virtuoso guitarist and the mystique of the recording studios that developed in rock music over the last 10 years left the amateurs behind. The English punk bands may not have hit all the right notes, but they showed the kids how to get their hands back on rock ‘n’ roll.

The Punk Festival at London’s 100 Club last September had the most wildly inexperienced bands getting up to play. Siouxsie and the Banshees were a group of hard-core Sex Pistols fans who joined together for one performance: one chance to grab the stage. The bass player had first picked up an instrument an hour before the gig; the drummer, Sid Vicious, couldn’t use the pedals. They played for half an hour and did one song: It was literally a mixture of “The Lord’s Prayer,” “Deutschland Uber Alles,” and “Twist and Shout.”

One night at the Marquee Club I listened in on a most violent and outrageous of the New Wave bands. A promotion campaign was duly launched, and on December 4 the Pistols arrived at Thames Television to appear on the Today show. The host, Bill Grundy, had evidently been drinking. The last moments of the interview went like this:

Grundy: Go on, you’ve got another five seconds. Say something outrageous.
Pistol:
You dirty bastard.
Grundy: Go on, again.
Pistol: You dirty fucker! 
Grundy: Whaat a clever boy.
Pistol: What a fucking rotter.

The switchboard was jammed with protests, and the next day the newspapers alerted the nation. Daily Mirror: “THE FILTH AND THE FURY,” The Sun: “WERE THE PISTOLS LOADED? PUNK ROCK GROUP ‘PLIED WITH BOOZE!” The Sunday Times was quietly dismissive: “The irony of Bill Grundy’s interview with the Sex Pistols on Wednesday night has been that it has guaranteed the tour and injected some much-needed national publicity into a rock craze which, because of its marked lack of musical talent, was probably set for a natural death.”

The tour was a financial disaster; 15 of 20 dates were canceled. EMI stopped its promotion drive and ordered its press officers not to mention the name Sex Pistols. Even long-distance, EMI London offices radiated a scarcely suppressed hysteria when the two words were mentioned: I could hear a hand being held over the receiver and whispered conferences in the background before I was given my ration of no comments. In January the Sex Pistols were finally dropped by EMI.

Well, the Pistols came through. They caused chaos. And it was a vindication for those who thought they’d sold out by signing with a major label. They could not, after all they’d stood for, have smiled sweetly on that television show.

But the effect on the music scene has been devastating. Not only the Sex Pistols, but all the other New Wave bands — the Clash, the Damned, the Vibrators, the Buzzcocks, Eater, Subway Sect — have been banned. No one is touring. There is only one place left in London for them to play, a new club called the Roxy. And this at a time when new bands are mushrooming and they all need venues. If they don’t perform they can’t develop, and English punk will remain a “minor rock craze” that died in embryo.

Ironically, by closing down the concerts the promoters have encouraged the violence that they condemn. Performing was an outlet for aggression — even Sid Vicious toned down once he joined a band. Now the punk rock world has gone into a sickening spin. Like kids on a housing project who mutilate their own buildings, their energy has turned self-destructive. On Christmas Day Caroline Coon and John Ingham, two journalists who have actively promoted the New Wave, held a Christmas party for the bands. Fights broke out, furniture was smashed, doors were torn from hinges.

I had a letter from my mother in London at the time of the Sex Pistols scandal. I’d call her an impartial observer, as she likes kids but can’t stand rock ‘n’ roll:

“Not only are the punks products of the age-old class war in England — which is a kind of Cold War, chronic rather than acute, and never breaking out into revolution — but their appearance on television has intensified that war, if only temporarily. (Christmas is coming up, so it’s the season of goodwill to all men and even punks). You can’t imagine how venomous the news comment was after the Sex Pistols insulted the nation on television, how much hatred that one appearance stirred up against not only the punk rockers but the young and the poor in general.”

It would be stupid to gloss over the fact that there has been violence at concerts. But stopping the music won’t stop the aggression. Before they became punk rockers, most of the fans were people whose idea of recreation was kicking the shit out of each other at football games. Now they have produced what is, apart from the nexus of avant-gardists centering around Brian Eno, the only exciting development in British rock music in the last three years. If this burns out — over-exposed in the press and stilled in the clubs — what are they supposed to do? Apply to the Royal College of Music? Or should they just practice banging their heads against the wall? ■

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 3, 2020

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