Sunday, July 06, 2008

“Punk’s Not Dead”

Punk is many things to many people, the end of something, the start of something or merely the next stage. Here’s some of the many theories up for a debunking:

The end of the second world war – as argued by Phil Oakey in the Made in Sheffield doc. This is the long view, suggesting that the UK socially and culturally was so grey, so controlled, so straightjacketed in the post-war era that it took us 30+ years to shake the nanny state off.

Tear it up – shorter in outlook but no less sociologically driven. Late 70s punk as a rational reaction to three-day-a-week broke but nuclear-armed Britain heading for Tory-led atomisation. The feeling of powerlessness was tangible, and punk was the era’s howl of impotence, no-one knowing how to deal with the onset of market Stalinism.

No Future. For many punk was nihilism unbound and to try and attach wider meaning to anything outside of this pretty vacant statement of no intent would be deeply misplaced.

For others though, it was Out with the Old and in with the New. Musically, culturally and socially, this was an essential holocaust designed to raze trends and styles before it, so the UK could finally be Modern beyond rarefied circles. The few years of white rioting cleared the way for a general disenfranchisement from politics but also a true multicultural era, with a lot of shopping and fucking, necking and dropping, slapping and stabbing.

Musically too, punk is only valid for the post-punk that followed. Here, punk is a constant renovative credo, the rulebook always being ripped up. It is year zero every time a band gets together. The idea is not to make punk music like you think punk music should be, that way leads to ever decreasing circles and Richard Briers with a safety pin through his neck. The idea is to make music without reference. Post-punk officially began (we now know) when 40 people went to see the Pistols in Manchester in 1976.

Oh come on. Punk? It was a niche scene with no substance or longevity. A few kids from the ghetto, a few situationists, a few fashionistas, a few from Bromley and a few Mancs – you call that a movement? Not even the Clash or the Pistols deserve to be in ‘the canon’, etc.

Bowie, Reed, Roxy. Punk was merely a locus for all the seminal 70s artists to be heard and appreciated and for their fans to be accused of transgressive sexuality but not to have to have defend yourself.

The immediation of another strata – this time it was the suburban and urban youth of a late-70s UK, teased by T-Rex and the Sweet but wanting to get off on a bit more, that were ushered into the middle class mediascape; an inevitable process whenever a scene becomes so big that it’s tabloid and mainstream fodder. After the first shock and awe and a bit of time to weigh up the next move, like the hippies and the ravers either side of them, the punks were happy to become part of the cultural consensus, punk as just one route. Restoration always follows revolution.

Revolt into Style is taken literally, the rebel rock and rollers soon becoming part of the establishment scene, the snarl the only token of past battles won and lost (I mean it was only music wasn’t it?). Punk as mere look and pop art statement, but also as Billy Idol, Richard Jobson presenting magazines, Simenon going off painting like a nonce. Fucking sell-outs!

Neurotic punk. The Buzzcocks chapter. Quintessentially English tales done with quintessential abashedness, reserve, awkwardness, none of the prostrations of prog and other rocks before it. "Why am I in a band?" "I don’t know - why do I have to answer such a banal question". It’s the tag the ICA is safetypinning on its current punkish season. See also indie punk, and therefore punk as DIY. Such as the inventive all-female -and democratic - group Gertrude, who do shouty and noisy but also dubby, atmospheric phases, their interchanging musicality always giving them room to take it up a notch or down one as required.

Absolute punk – aka Punk’s Not Dead. Where the grimaces of the band, the three chords and the neutered anti-socialism is everything. This was exactly where the Fumadores and Neurotic & the PVCs – the other two bands on at the ICA, one finishing with a Stooges cover that sounded like the Pistols and the other a Pistols cover that sounded like the Stooges. What’s slavishly known in other genres as keeping it real. Neurotic singer Fiddian Warman is so punk he’s built robots to do the pogoing in lieu of a decent-sized audience. That’s right, they were intensely irritating.

Punk is just another rock. A stylistic iteration. It has no historical resonance outside of music. After pub-rock and forward to post-rock and back and through again with pop divergence always close by. That’s why MOJO can do regular CDs in and around bands of that era.

It was all a big fuckin laugh. Sadly one of the most popular of all revisionist theories today. The sort of view of the punk all-dayers, the old boys going and the type of self-reassurance Steve Jones and co tell themselves. People who’d like to have been involved in a revolution called it a revolution, but it’s all just funnies, mere semen in Matlock’s roll.
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