Ex-Pistol Matlock was narrating a punk doc on BBC6 last week. No doubt broadcast before and toeing the usual rise-and-fall-of-the-exploding-plastic-inevitable line, it at least made me take a fresh look at the rebel rock movement of three decades ago.
The socio-cultural elements, where touched on, were the most fascinating, especially the archive broadcasts of teddy boys saying they'd do in the punks. Shocking then, but now seen as a denouement to a finale. It was possibly the last pop cultural clash of the predominantly working-class tribes, the teddy boy neanderthalic neds saying they were going to beat up the punks like they had the mods (they could have waited for the shortcoming mod revival for familiar targets). This was odd, given that stylistically punk owed something to teddy boys and sonically to rock and roll. But how much it contrasts with today’s youthful underclass knifing mirror images of themselves, music or fashion the least of the beef. London then, media tells us, was a bit like New York, an unkempt city where gentrification was only a premonition, a decaying village with a close-knit network of clubs, dealers and so on, and places near the centre as well as locales like Chelsea still used for exhibitionist peacock behaviour by the subcultures of the time. Like with Brooklyn’s relationship to the Bronx, these approved areas for decadent activity like Soho had no relevance to the social-economic alienation of Brixton.
Shortly after punk, with the tribes now too diverse and inward-looking to catalogue but also strangely homogenous in their escapism, rock and pop lost its capacity to be resonant across society in any genuine, far-reaching effecting way - Frankie did sex, JAMC did rebel terror, the KLF did situationist pranks (and the media still used the same terminology for these non-catalytic ‘outrages’ from the music business). Archive suggested the Pistols really did take over the country with the furore caused by their punk antics, the swearathon on telly with old Grundies the microcosm of the literal sensation they caused. Being about four and not even in the country, this is something that I am barely able to appreciate. In the long hot summer of 76, with Labour degenerating and no-one in the country getting what they want (apart from the fucking Queen and IMF economists), the taut potential of the Pistols' chaos would only add to the mix: confusingly so, which would please McClaren; but not engendering change, as bayed for by the warmachine Rotten. Rhythm pistols Cook & Jones and bassists barely spoke.
Rotten at least saw the tide and went on to make music of a different timbre with less outré, more developed statements. After Sexpists, “punk” really was sloganeering, or worse, plain shouting. Any post-punk worth its salt had to be big on the concept even before the music had been laid down, and knowingly different from punk, and this is something they not only ably did but also were always quick to point theirs was a further rupture (the term post-punk was perfectly in currency at the time, and only hid from view a little when squeezed between 90s rock and dance). Soul Jazz's latest DIY compilation
shows that, although having one too many tracks that start off with a post-glam thud beat (atrociously recorded on analogue or nice and thin according to your taste), there is an admirable diversity, lyrics that interest and ideas aplenty. I refuse to talk about the Police's comeback as they were off the radar then as now.
From then on, new wave and pop did not require out-and-out political or culture clashes, the bourgeoisie had monopolised the creation and production of popular music and we were increasingly seeing popular music just as a tool for poptimism or hedonism. It was serving its own ends. The new era would arouse just as much as the previous one but with different function. The League’s Phil Oakey said on the Sheffield doc
that in the end he saw punk, in its relations to society and its treatment by a hysterical state, as the end of World War II, a revolt but the last revolution, and the termination of the sickly mid-century British blues. What they were fighting against/for was expressed in a neutered, barely literate screech, seemingly aware that this kind of political representation, aka the West’s much vaunted freedom of expression, would still be allowed but would cease to have any meaningful function in the 'shut up and buy this' consumer democracy.
6’s punk spunk reminded how much I still owe to Rotten. Terse, righteous anger. A certain, overbearing sense of sincerity (mean it man
) coupled with sneering brevity. Vacant if need be. Knowledge tainted by cynicism, quietly hedonistic but realising that's a diversion. A commitment to change and to culling the whores. Sonically, though Never Mind is still a brilliant album Chris Thomas' production sounds harrowingly traditional - too clear, too trebly, too basic, too down the pub. A seven-inch howl.
With punk and post-punk Mojo fodder, it’s possible to take a revisionist line on the former as an end rather than a beginning, but the period at the end of the 70s still beguiles. And twenty-five+ years on we are now much more willing to accept the nouvelle vague of p-punk as the real change-bearer, partly because no-one has ever really found anything sufficiently revolutionary in the sonic maelstrom of the post-rave bang, just another high watermark of sonic development.