The Elusive Nature of British Punk

  The Elusive Nature of British Punk

By Malcolm Sharps

You say you wan’ a revolution. Well, you know, we all wanna change the world.

                                                                                                          “Revolution” – John Lennon

Malcolm Sharps asks what British Punk was really all about. And finds that the difficulty of arriving at a unified view lies in the nature of punk itself.

An article caught my attention recently, a caustic one written by Julie Burchill about the late clothes designer Vivienne Westwood, a frequent collaborator with the much higher profile Malcolm McLaren: the main writer on British Punk was demolishing the reputation of the main designer of British Punk attire in a belated revenge article, virtually dancing on her still-warm grave. The rest of the punk and fashion scene was also shown scant reverence in the article. If you’ve only just arrived, it might not be too clear what is really going on.

Given its nature, punk was hardly ever likely to entice the Cyril Connollys and Kenneth Tynans of the world to write about it. Media get the level of criticism they deserve and Punk got the coverage it deserved with Julie Burchill as near to a literary doyen as it was ever likely to attract; in her pieces from a very early age, she produced muscularly secure prose and was capable of setting off the odd fire cracker of language. Burchill wrote as well on punk as it ever deserved. But many things come to an end and Julie Burchill didn’t just grow out of punk; as is often the case with crazy love viewed in the sobriety of its aftermath, she made a 180 degree turn, she tossed it onto the acridly smouldering bonfire of memory. Today Julie Burchill is 63 years old, has abandoned punk worship completely and, to coin a phrase, now writes her age.

It is a curiosity of Punk, and a rarer one than at first appears, that it started out primarily as a music movement and in retrospect the music comprises a fairly negligible part of its legacy, surpassed by the visual and fashion side of the phenomenon, the merchandising of clothes, the hairstyles, etc.; and a philosophy which has proved elusive to pin down in the many books and articles articulating its subtleties and far from subtleties. These books, to a sentence, emphasise punk’s cultural and social revolutionary significance and, more often than not in the process, exaggerate its true philosophical weight and coherence. If punk seems like all things to all pundits now; in its own time, punk was the cultural movement that wholesale believed its own publicity.

The cultural phenomenon which originated from punk rock was characterised by anti-establishment views and the promotion of individual freedom. Wiki tells us:

The punk ethos was primarily made up of beliefs such as non-conformity, anti-authoritarianismanti-corporatism, a do-it-yourself ethicanti-consumerist, anti-corporate greeddirect action, and not “selling out“. Early British punks expressed nihilistic and anarchist views with the slogan No Future, which came from the Sex Pistols song “God Save the Queen“.

To be clear, yes, punk was about a certain sound, but when it comes to an inventory, The Punk Book of Memorable Numbers is a slim one; it’s a folded hymnsheet, at most; punk music gets snagged on its own contradictions: its main appeal is through sounding tacky and disposable through the ramblings of its untutored performers. Such music soon palls and we – logically – dispose of it. And there’s a secondary contradiction operating here too: if a tune is hummable and individual, if it’s ‘catchy’, if it gets your foot tapping, rather than your head banging, whatever it might be, it’s no longer punk. If punk can be said to be about music; it’s more accurate to state it’s not about individual musical numbers but a blur of noise which we can all recognize instantly. Punk music is distinguished by what Julie Burchill nowadays calls ‘a racket’.

I’m not sure at what point in time Burchill became disillusioned with punk, but by 1990 she came out with this rant in the Guardian newspaper:

… punk – the whitest, malest, most asexual music ever – should have been left to die an unnatural death. I’d been a punk, and knew that the whole thing was, frankly, shit in safety pins. We came to bury the music industry; we ended up giving it one almighty shot in the arm.

The last comment is very telling: anti-music itself became a form of music. I wouldn’t normally condemn a thing from a colour perspective, but in Britain we see this punk ‘whiteness’ was coincident with a certain age-group from a certain layer of society: lower middle class, single child, smart rebelling male under-achievers, mostly still living at home, aka spoilt brats.

Two patent facts need mentioning at this point: Punk started in the United Kingdom, and all punks then and all punks subsequently are young. Unlike rockers, somehow punks never grow old, they just fade away. Less clearly, these two facts are connected. Why were punks first in the UK? Why not in Brazil, why not in Surinam? Why not in Moldova? Let’s skip several hundred years of British Social History, and allow that though it plays a part, say, 10%, the crucial decider, the remaining 90%, is about the latter part of the twentieth century in the United Kingdom.

Up until recent times, society had demanded conformity, compliance, passivity, and a predisposition for fitting in; and nowhere more so than in the workplace. That meant conformity in attitudes, conformity in behaviour, conformity in dress. Young men went trepidatiously to job interviews praying that the hair they had just had punitively cropped wouldn’t be considered outlandishly long, or that the shine on their shoes they had polished in a crazy sweat wouldn’t be judged too subdued. They worried that the suit they had pressed with such meticulous care wouldn’t acquire creases. A wage depended on these things, failure meant starvation or a life of crime or exploitation in some form. But not so by the punk era. Punk was the illegitimate child of the British Social Security system; the Department of Health and Social Security underwrote job interview failure. It provided life support money for the unemployed, it covered accommodation costs too, it covered full medical expenses through the National Health Service. Through their choice of dress, punks, with the exception of a very small minority who formed full-time bands, largely made themselves unemployable. They were the way they wanted to be, not the way most employers expected of prospective staff. As a result, they weren’t taken on for work. Nevertheless, punks didn’t starve, they didn’t go homeless, they even had money to acquire more ripped jeans and chains and crudely printed tee-shirts. Through the welfare payments from the DHSS, the punk lifestyle was made viable. Perhaps peculiarly, they were not required to dress more conventionally in order to become employable. In the British 1970s, to do so might have been considered excessively authoritarian and illiberal. If the DHSS had decided the other way, history might have been different, punk might never have come into existence and flourished. Punks have never shown either recognition or gratitude for this. But anyway, the latter word isn’t in their vocabulary.

When punk first came on the scene, I was the contributor on classical music to a youth-orientated monthly entertainments magazine covering a failing British Midlands industrial town; in other words, an outsider in a group of outsiders. From time to time, punks turned up at the magazine’s office where I sometimes worked. I was intrigued and daunted by the appearance of the first wave: tight black strategically torn jeans, safety pins, chains, spiked wrist bangles; not yet with so many facial tattoos as later. It took a time before I finally got up the courage to speak to one. So many punks are a surprise, contradicting their hostile appearances; sweet young men, sometimes a bit fey, who are polite, unabrasive and speak in grammatical English that promises they have something worth saying; they are often slight and under-nourished in appearance suggesting no direct physical threat. The girls smile shyly and look askance if you talk to them, never into your eyes; they are quiet and self-conscious, even awkward, as if they realize this is primarily a male cult they happen to be around. Significantly, they dress similarly to the men and don’t have much of their own identifiable gendered attire, apart from short tartan skirts, an item unique in punk couture worn without subjection to defacement.

Swastikas are one of the biggest problems with punks, if not the biggest, and not just because of their social unacceptability. It gives the Sociologists and social pundits a headache integrating their interpretation of where the swastika belongs in the punk ethos along with their interpretations of other aspects of punk. You can over-interpret the swastikas and sound smart  –  or not sound so smart  – about them. But by so doing, we fall into the trap of treating punk as a real philosophy, when it’s too incoherent for that, or to treat it as a movement, when it has no clear set of aims, only an assortment of stances. The principle, for me, is a simple one: if you want to outrage mom and dad by taking a route that costs you no change in lifestyle, nothing works better than wearing a tee-shirt with a swastika print around the house. And when the intended outrage is generated, parents shout and forbid, tempers and voices are raised in the home, the kids feel they are oppressed, they then feel truly punk. It is confirmation, at last, of who they are. Hey, cool!

But, swastikas apart, there is a natural overlap of Naziism and Punk. Like Nazis, punks eschew the more tender, caring feelings expressed by humanity towards others, as signs of weakness. It’s a classic defensive response of the weak. Like Nazis, punks celebrate gratuitous violence; the much-repeated exhortation to destroy has echoes of the more extreme pronouncements of the fascist-affiliated art movement, Futurism, whose leader, Marinetti, co-wrote the Fascist Manifesto. But, again, this may be to fall into the trap of treating punk as a serious, coherent philosophy. Some may justify the punk excesses as just a bunch of kids playing around and being outrageous. But surely it reached an all-time moral low when one punk band called itself the Moors Murderers. For my readers who do not know, the original Moors murderers was a couple of serial killers who abducted children and tortured them to death. But maybe that was no more than par for those wilfully insensitive times, where Manchester New Wave group Joy Division could name itself after the forced prostitution service in the Nazi concentration camps. These kids play rough, don’t they?

For a time, far-right movements in England did try to recruit Nazi-leaning punks – a very small minority of punks as a whole – with a degree of success. But it was a small enough group to be only a peripheral worry. The traditional working class skinhead recruitment was far more significant and alarming. But one looks in vain for expressions of sympathy with those not in the cult of punkism. One looks in vain for expressions of sympathy with the really weak, the uncool weak, the deprived from multi-generational poor, uneducated families, the sick and the old. Even the Winterhilfswerk, the Nazi aid organisation, showed compassion to these, though it was initially opposed by hardline elements within the party because they said it would make German society turn soft.

Back to music, ‘the brandy of the damned’. Let me describe to you my only actual engagement with punk, an experience which is still oddly resonating with me. Inevitably, the entertainments magazine covered punk rock concerts. Inevitably, I got invited to deafening gigs in dark, sweaty, cramped bars, which I really enjoyed. These were my young man’s years too. Inevitably, there were band interview articles for the magazine.

Breaking down a 30 minute interview and coming up with around 3,000 words for an article is WORK, believe me, much more demanding than writing so many words out of the top of your head. And unless the first 25 minutes of the interview are useless trash which you discard and you work through the final five minutes, it means a good long half-day of selecting, cutting and stitching. When he saw the size of the task ahead, the band interviewer wanted to drop the whole thing. As the nominal co-editor of the magazine, I stood in a notional line of responsible volunteers ready to take on the task and, like the old comedy sketch, all the others in the line took one step back and I was left as sole volunteer.

But when I read the interview text, I wasn’t disappointed at all: the interview was a new phenomenon for me; in cutting it, I was developing a new skill. Anyway, the interview was jumping hot, it was full of young male aggression, it was full of disdain, it was full of words we needed to partly blank out, but didn’t. The band, I’ll call them The J. so as not to confuse them with a later successful American band of the same name, hated everything that was ordinary, conventional and settled. I remember one particular phrase that was used; they blasted working people as ‘lobotomised navvies’ whom they had no wish to reach with their music. They had seen through the deceptions by which society controls and deceives us and they felt contempt, rather than pity, for those who had fallen into the trap of the system and remained there. Contempt, not sympathy, for the losers and suckers in the system: The J. were pure punk.

Naturally, in the spirit of true professional journalism, I kept as many eyebrow-raising statements as possible in the article. Still, at the end I regretted having to drop so many words to arrive at a word count of around 3 K. The galleys were pasted up and the artwork went off to our regular printers in Manchester, a Marxist collective, a group with clear political objectives, offering their services dirt-cheap to people of like minds and like aims. After an ominously brief time, as if it had been read once only on arrival and returned in the next post, the piece came back to us not merely with a refusal but with a series of conditions which left us bound hand and foot. Our piece was considered hostile to the working class and expressed attitudes contrary to the aims of the printing collective. The collective was not prepared to negotiate on this, nor discuss it in any way. Any attempted dispute or correspondence questioning their decision not to print would be met with silence. Repeated attempts to dispute their decision would lead to the withdrawal of their services from future articles of any kind presented by our magazine. Here is a selection from a dozen or more conditions.

A reworked article with comments would not be acceptable.

A reworked article drawing attention to the fact that the original had been turned down by the collective would not be acceptable.

The article with gaps for censored material, if resubmitted, would not be accepted. In fact, no part of the article, if resubmitted, would be accepted.

If the article either in the original or a changed form appeared with another printer, even if attention was not drawn to the fact that the collective had refused to print this article, their services would be withdrawn from future articles presented by our magazine.

I got from this communication something of the flavour of living in a totalitarian state, the absolutism of its decision, the impression that a guard stood blocking all routes of opposition. I was shaken and felt an irrational proprietorship for both the entity and the views expressed in an article I had only edited.

But why should our magazine worry? Because the collective was cheap. In fact, at least half the price of the nearest competition; their workers really did give their all for a pittance fighting to reach the goal of the Communist Paradise. To be honest, at first I wasn’t sure if the collective’s protest was against punk itself or the way the article undermined and distorted their cause. But later I saw how it couldn’t be the latter. Up until then I had naively accepted punk as a movement of protest, it was against the current social order, it was against the exploitative nature of capitalism, and I simply assumed it must stand shoulder to shoulder with the greater struggle of the masses, with the rural tractor drivers, the spanner wielders, the plumbers and brickies. But it turned out punks were deemed to be unlikely ’fellow travellers’ by Marxists. I should have known; punk is antithetical to organisation, as all anarchy is. But Marxism is organisationally obsessed, centrally commanded to an oppressive degree. Read your Darkness at Noon.

The truth is, this movement of nihilists was viewed as comrades to no one, it was infantile, incoherent and vituperative; furthermore, it didn’t offer alternatives to the state it rejected, while at the same time it parasitized that hated state as a permanent recipient of its handouts; it was the ultimate self-deluded dependency culture. To join with the Marxists, or even the much less extreme Labour Party, would mean having an understanding of, and taking an interest in, politics, joining in discussions, taking stands, engaging with similar and opposing views. My God, it would mean punks would have to take on the role of grown-ups! I don’t think Tinker Bell could survive that!

What was punk really all about? Those involved are still wondering. That period was fun, it was crazy, Julie Burchill very often recalls, though for decades she has looked back in anger at Punk’s insubstantial and dubious heritage and made a good living from negating it. And maybe looking back and saying ‘How could I have been taken in?’ is also for many an essential part of what the phenomenon was about. The faux pop intelligentsia bought into the naïve view of punk, that it was a spontaneous development out of a combined roots culture, making it pure, putting it beyond question. So when it said nothing, it was acceptable; when it voiced obscenities, it was acceptable; when it spoke nonsense, it was acceptable; when it contradicted itself, both sides of the contradiction were also acceptable. With punk, we are always falling into the trap of thinking it was serious, considered, coherent, consistent, substantial. When it was none of those things and all along it was flagrantly, raucously and deafeningly trying not to be.

One Response to The Elusive Nature of British Punk

  1. Steve O'Connor says:

    I was never a consumer of Punk music or culture, though I was aware of it on the periphery of things in America and saw it as a more prominent feature in Ireland, late 70’s early 80’s. So, I found this very interesting. It seems to me you’ve hit the nail on the head seeing Punk as “a series of poses” rather than any sort of coherent philosophical or cultural movement.