Joe Strummer’s dead, Johnny Rotten got fat on all that butter and Bob Geldof got himself made a saint. What happened to the punk rebellion?
1977/78 – England was a crap place to be if you were young; long dole queues, the economy was a in a mess, long term youth unemployment was rife and nothing but contrived, manufactured music dominated the charts. Let’s not forget that we are talking about a time when Jimmy Saville was at the pinnacle of his career and one of the top TV shows was it’s a Knockout with Stuart Hall.
A Peculiarly British Affair
Some say that punk rock had its origins in one of our overseas colonies; something about Richard Hell, The New York Dolls, The Ramones and a music venue known as CBGB’s. Whilst I will grudgingly give a passing nod to the minor part our colonial cousins may have played in the history of punk rock, real punk rock originated in the motherland; the good old UK.
There are a lot of myths about how punk rock started; it was a working class revolution, it was a judgement on society of the time, it was a scream of anger of the disenfranchised youth. What a load of tosh! First and foremost, Punk Rock was about having a laugh, annoying the pompous norm, being you and it was born out of boredom.
Whilst some bands did have a social agenda, such as the clash, others were pure vaudeville; the Damned for example. The overriding philosophy of punk was do-it-yourself. It sounds corny now, but it really was music by the kids for the kids. No room for Simon Cowell and his manufactured boy bands here then!
To start with, the big record labels didn’t get a look in though eventually the major punk bands submitted to the temptation with the Clash going to CBS and the Pistols brief partnership with the giant of the day EMI.
The Early Days of Punk
Initially, punk Rock was a very close knit affair.
The Sex Pistols, with the help of Malcolm McLaren, formed in 1975 though Cook and Jones had been in a band together, The Strand, since 1972.
The original lineup of Cook, Jones, Matlock and Lydon (Rotten) was finalised after an impromptu audition for Lydon, who sang along to Alice Cooper’s “I’m Eighteen” played on the juke box in Malcolm McClarens shop in the Kings Road.
The band’s first gig was in November 1975 at Saint Martin’s College, which was followed by a series of gigs at colleges and art schools in and around London.
The Sex Pistols attracted a core group of followers, including the Bromley Contingent, and many of the people that saw the early gigs cite the Pistols as their inspiration, including Joe Strummer, Billy Idol and Siousxie Sioux, all of whom went on to form their own bands. In fact, many of the original punk bands have common founding members.
The original punk rock look was all about individuality and not the uniform look that came much later. If it was different and, if the rest of the world didn’t like it, then do it! In the late seventies, most youngsters had long hair, so punks wore their hair short, flat baseball boots and shoes were worn instead of platform shoes, drainpipes instead of flares and where other rock musicians were making longer and longer self-indulgent, over-produced ‘concept’ works, punk songs were short, fast, loud and to the point.
Some say that real Punk Rock actually only lasted for a few months before it was adopted by the masses and eventually became what it set out to destroy; the normal.
And Now for Something Completely Different
To look at punk rock today in the context of what has come since, you might be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss was about. So they looked a bit different and they swore a bit. So What?
I remember the very first time that I heard the Sex Pistols and it literally blew my mind. I had never heard anything like it before. I wish I could say that I was one of those early pioneers of the genre, but I was in fact a bit of a ‘Johnny comes lately’ punk rocker. If as many people who say they saw the early Pistols gigs actually did then they would have to have been doing stadium gigs in the seventies.
To get an idea of how much of a revolution, it really was, just compare these two songs of the time:
The pop charts of the seventies were filled with nice little ditties that even your mum loved like Brotherhood of Man who won the Eurovision Song contest in 1976:
First there was this;
And then along came Johnny and the gang with this:
Alas, the revolution was short lived and soon, the anti-fashion became fashionable.
What was to become one of punk’s most infamous episodes was also the beginning of the end. The Sex Pistols were interviewed on a Thames Television, Prime time current affairs programme called the Today programme. ‘Today’ was a cosy safe little early evening programme which, in order to be a bit more ‘with it’ often interviewed current pop bands at the end of the programme.
On December the 1st of December 1976 The Sex Pistols, standing in as a last minute replacement for fellow EMI band, Queen, along with some of the Bromley Contingent were interviewed by one Bill Grundy who like the band, had had one too many to drink.
An initial quiet slip of a sear word by Lydon was picked up by Grundy, who proceeded to goad the band into more and more swearing. The interview, which only lasted a couple of minutes, caused uproar and one headline quoted that an outraged member of the public was so incensed that he put his foot through his TV.
The moral majority was incensed. The Pistols were banned from just about everywhere and every young teenager wanted to be Johnny Rotten.
Fashion and big business caught on to the trend and suddenly everyone had short hair and straight trousers. Punk song lyrics became more subtle and the music morphed into the more acceptable ‘New Wave’.
Part time Punks became the norm with their imitation Vivienne Westwood tartan bondage trousers bought from ads in the NME, black leather jackets, Doctor Martins and their hair gelled into spikes for the weekend.
Punk had to evolve. You can’t stay angry forever. For a start off you get older yourself; you can see this in the Clash, who stayed around a bit longer. From the raw power of their first album, their music broadened and softened, though their message stayed the same.
The Pistols split in January 1978 whilst touring the USA. With Sid Viscous now on Bass in place of Glen Matlock the Pistols were becoming a parody of themselves and Lydon announced the end of the band, on stage at Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco with the immortal words ‘Ah-ha-ha. Ever get the feeling you've been cheated? Good night".
Punk limped along afterwards for some time. Some new bands emerged and some of the old bands carried on. Malcolm McLaren milked every last drop out the sex pistols with the atrocious Great Rock and Roll Swindle and releases of other ‘rare’ recordings.
Sid Vicious, for a while the face of punk rock, died of a heroin overdose in February 1979 having been charged with the murder of his girlfriend Nancy Spungen in October 1978. Sid only played the bass on one Pistols track on the Never Mind the Bollocks album, Bodies, and that was overdubbed by Steve Jones, the lead guitarist.
The Legacy of Punk
That the Pistols ended when they did is no bad thing. It sealed their place in history. Had they continued on, where could they go from there? Perhaps they would have mellowed and become a famous stadium rock band; their Never Mind the Bollocks material assigned to the “Interesting Early numbers” dustbin.
As it is, Never Mind the Bollocks is widely viewed as one of the most influential albums of all time and you can see the influence of punk in many bands today. My kids often say to me “Listen to this one dad, you’ll like it. It’s quite “punky” and they’re right but that’s sad as it means that what started as a revolution has just been absorbed into the mainstream.
Well, with John Lydon advertising butter and the Buzzcocks advertising Sainsbury’s I’m afraid that there is no denying it. Some are even calling John a national treasure now and not the epitome of what’s wrong with society, as he was once called. Punk Rock has become what it set out to destroy, namely big business and fashion, with its influences visible even at a Hollywood Premier in Liz Hurley’s famous Safety Pin Dress:
And even a Simon Cowell boy band, One Direction, got in on the act too; using an Undertones number in their Red Nose Day release. I must admit to being more than a little surprised to hear my fourteen year old daughter singing Teenage Kicks.
Things have turned full circle again, but real Punk’s not dead. We just got a bit older and a bit quieter, that’s all.