Punk Britannia on BBC4….
Last week’s excellent series Punk Britannia on BBC4 was a glorious reminder of music, fashion and British youth in the 1970s. Having been around to see the original punks and the subsequent movement of skinheads, mods, rude boys, soul boys, new romantics, rockers and ska boys et al it was interesting to re-evaluate a music and movement as short lived as the songs they wrote.
For die-hard fans of punk I apologise, each to their own and the more musical genres the better but was there ever a musical identity more over- rated than punk? One more misunderstood and misinterpreted? That the British music scene was ready for a new direction in 1976 can never be argued, we all know that prog-rock was drowning in its own ridicule, pop music, with the exception of ABBA was dreadful and the restless youth of an impoverished Labour run country were desperate for a sense of escape from the realities of unemployment, strikes, blackouts, racial tensions and a feeling that post WW2 Britain was on the verge of self destruction.
The Sex Pistols shocked everyone, it wasn’t difficult in an era of game shows and stuffed muppets recording number one singles. Gone were the pot smoking hippy radical students and in came the glue sniffing, spitting, Mohican wearing unemployed. The music was secondary to the fashion and the shock tactics of the bands and their fans and the music, for the most part, was second rate at best.
Gone were the virtuosos of Yes and ELP and in came the three minute wonders, no more the studious audiences with rapturous applause for the twenty minute drum solo. Punk gigs were a riot of colour, noise, aggression and yes, spit. I never understand the spitting but the fighting was symptomatic of an aggressive decade. How bands put up with the fans jumping on the stage, pushing, punching and aiming mouthfuls of spit at their faces I will never know. What I do know is that it had to be done in the hope of success, the chance to break out of their environment and, be in no doubt, have a slice of the large financial pie which their nemesis pro-rockers had enjoyed for so long.
The idea that punk and punk bands were some kind of united movement against the world is ridiculous. The Clash knew they had to change to break America and that is exactly what they did. With The Sex Pistols gone, every punk band looked to The Clash for inspiration and a ride on the coat tails. Who wanted to be skint? Who wanted to spend every night legging it to their transit van to escape the fighting whilst Joe Strummer enjoyed the fruits of American mainstream music fandom? There was no loyalty between bands, no united front, and managers were keen to exploit their product to an audience desperate for the next on-air expletive.
As bad as most of the music was it did inspire a new generation of artists who took the core values of punk and added musicality to a mostly political voice. Paul Weller and The Jam showed us what could be done with a meaningful lyric set to a short, punchy soundtrack and it would be Weller, The Clash and Johnny Rotten’s next Band, Public Image Limited which would help seal the fate of the music which burst onto the scene with such vigour only to whimper out, defeated and desolate.
So how should we remember punk? As a movement or singularly for it’s music, fashion or vulgarity? For me it was the proverbial Doctor Marten boot stamping its mark on a country ripe for change. Whether punk itself was responsible for the changes that followed is debatable but for all of its musical flaws it made people stop and stare, a subculture which would inspire future music crazes and fan allegiance. It shook both kids and parents out of their seventies slumber and what followed punk was the most exciting, varied and influential period in British musical history in my lifetime and for that I am very grateful.
Categories: The Music Lounge