Sunday 8 May 2011

Punk's not dead - discuss

I don't watch a lot of television but when I do I like to watch it in company. Which generally means Twitter.

A few weeks ago, BBC4 decided to resurrect Top of the Pops and kicked it off with a themed evening that included a documentary about 1976. It was this in particular that polarised commentators. Generation gap? I expect so.

As we watched the awfulness that was Sailor and Brotherhood of Man, half the viewers said: 'This is why we fought the punk wars'. And the other half said: 'I suppose someone will come on in a minute and say that punk changed everything'.

Let's nail this once and for all.

Actually, it did.

It didn't change everything for ever. The machine fights back, but that's another story. But it did change things.

Don't believe it? Well, maybe you had to be there. You had to be there to know exactly how rubbish everything was before. And we're not just talking about pop music here.

The early 1970s was an incredibly conformist time, in a way that's hard to credit now. Never mind bad talking-heads TV: watch Julien Temple's film 'The Filth and the Fury' if you really want to know what it was like. I grew up in a small town where no-one ever left and everyone knew your mum. And everyone knew their place. My schoolfriends got engaged at the age of 18. Having your fiance promoted to deputy manager of a local shop was the height of aspiration.

And what if punk didn't change everything? It changed everything for me. It changed the possibilities.

And it's not just me. I've been listening again to Frank Cottrell Boyce's radio series One Chord Wonders (it's just been repeated) about the punk generation three decades on. He shows how it was a defining moment for each of his characters. He lets them say things like 'punk made me what I am.' That may sound over the top, but lots of people believe it. I'm one of them.

Yes, I know, and Cottrell Boyce knows, that you can't take this too seriously. Which is why he made the series a comedy drama. And he knows it wasn't all good, either: punk had seeds of racism, even Thatcherism, so that's there in the plays too.

It's hard to explain now, when punk is just a genre. Then, it was a movement. But even then, not one you could easily define. It depended who you asked: the art school types, the suburbanites, the working class kids. Partly, it was defined by what it wasn't. A big part of punk was about reacting to what was wrong - with society, with the music business - summed up in one word: 'attitude'.

It wasn't a movement that lasted long. The tabloids declared punk dead when it had barely reached the mainstream. And maybe, in terms of pop culture, reaching the mainstream is actually the definition of dead: Cottrell Boyce's character mourning the arrival of souvenir T shirts is the equivalent of Danny in 'Withnail & I' and his observation that 'they're selling hippy wigs in Woolworths'.

Maybe punk died the day the Sex Pistols split up. Maybe it died the day they re-formed. Some would say it never died. I'm not so sure. But I know it lives on in me and many others.

It's hard to explain what that actually means. Because punk was never one thing in the first place. It was never just one sound, or just one look, or just one way of being, although later it became all those things.

It's hard now to disentangle what I remember from the received wisdom. There have, after all, been books written about this stuff. (Tip: never believe an academic book about pop culture. They always get it wrong.)

Here's some of the things that people will tell you it was about:

1. Situationism. Well, kids will always want to shock the bourgeoisie. Other than that, I think that's mostly hindsight and theorising on the part of a small clique. Remember, though, that the bourgeoisie were genuinely shocked by punk. So much so that the establishment clamped down hard (at least until they realised they could make money from it).

2. 'Do it yourself': the 'DIY ethic inspired by the classic slogan: 'Here’s a chord. Here’s another. Now form a band.' I think there's some truth in this. As Paul Morley and Dave Haslam remembered it in the BBC show - and Manchester was right at the front with this stuff - it was about reclaiming music making from the music business. All you indie kids can thank us for that.

3. Self expression. See number 1. Kids will always... But, yes, there was an element of liberation: the freedom to be an outsider. Some people will say it was about individualism, but that came later. (Sadly, there's no getting round the fact that punk did pave the way for the New Romantics.) Before being different became an end in itself, punk was a place for people who felt that they were different to feel that they belonged.

4. Empowerment. See number 2. There was a sense that you could choose different paths, ones that never seemed open to you before. That's particularly true for women. It was great to see so many tributes to Poly Styrene after she died. You'd think she was just a footnote in pop culture but to many women she was inspiring. She proved that women could make a statement, and make a racket. That you didn't have to conform to society's idea of what women should sound and look like - or even the boys' idea of what rock'n'roll should sound and look like. That's why and how she was remembered.

5. Boredom. Rock and pop music in the mid-70s was boring. Life in the mid-70s was boring. Punk was intense. The energy in the music. The risk of being beaten up. And among the excitement, don't forget there was humour too. Punk rock was funny, a lot of the time.

And out of that mixture of things, what's endured? I learnt that women can be as creative as men. That it's OK to be different. That you don't have to do what other people expect. I learnt to trust my anger. To mistrust business. To question who controls our culture. To sometimes laugh at myself.

It was a moment, that's all. But it mattered.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for your comment on my own blog post about Poly Styrene and punk. I've answered this over there, but I agree with your comment that for many people 'punk made them what they are'. I guess in some respects this is true for any influence in your formative years, but I'm glad for me it was punk. Your final line in this post sums that up.