‘How I hate modern music, disco, boogie and pop, it goes on and on and on, how I wish it would stop – Buzzcocks.
As the last helicopters pulled out of Vietnam circa ’75, there was a shift in the collective conscience of the peace-lovin’ activists. They were growing up. They’d been shown the moon, but they couldn’t have it. The next generation was coming of age having watched the hippies fight with flowers, but the war against racism and inequality was far from over. Unemployment was high, and the broken economy, spawned fear, uncertainty and violence. In London, the rubble-filled streets were a picture of post-war dereliction as per Derek Jarman’s film Jubilee, and the debris became the kids’ playground, a far cry from the optimism-tinged grasslands of Woodstock.
Abandoned houses and spaces like the newly vacated fruit market at Covent Garden provided inner-city digs and hangouts to working-class kids. They were low on funds, and the ‘squats’ were their castles; spaces to create and get access to the sounds of the urban landscape. As always, music reflected the mood. 60’s rock had a hangover; it had metamorphosised into a beast with several heads. Slade and Gary Glitter had done glam, served up in a hail of sequins and flares, Ziggy went to Mars with a kimono, blusher and a shock of flame-red hair, and all against a backdrop of bland pop and prog rock.
In London’s squats and across the Atlantic, bands like the 101ers, Devo, Pere Ubu and Duck’s Delux were looking nostalgically to early R&B and its quick tempos and riffs, pushing their flavour of embryonic Punk sounds to crushed crowds in down at heel pubs. Space was limited, but the close proximity rendered the atmosphere electric. Ian Dury and his ‘Kilburns’ donned Dickensian robes with razor blade earlobes, and the flare-clad pub rockers stared on bemused. The soft sounds of the ’70s were taking on a sharper edge, and the pre-punk flame was ignited.
Down in Chelsea Malcolm McLaren had long before picked up the whiff of this new rock revival. While the masses donned check flares, kipper ties and Bako-foil, he had rediscovered the Ted threads of the ’50s, proudly adorning velvet-trimmed suits and creepers outside his ‘Let it Rock’ shop at the seedier end of the King’s Road. McLaren capitalised on the 50’s new wave with pop-up shops at 50’s conventions. Still, this rock ‘n Roll rehash wasn’t enough for the new breed, they were coming of age, inhabiting the cramped venues, seeking change and an original soundtrack.
When the New York Dolls swaggered into Let It Rock with zips, leather and attitude, Malcolm’s waning love of Ted brought him to the conclusion that the new was in New York. He followed the Dolls to the LES where the music and the CBGB aesthetic galvanised him. Artists like Lou Reed, Patti Smith, The Ramones and The NY Dolls explored the essence of rock, it’s purer sound and aesthetic. They squeezed into kids sized Levi’s jackets, wore ripped black jeans and leather, while Television’s Richard Hell adopted torn t-shirts and spiked hair. The frays and the rips were not always a contrivance, more resultant of financial constraints, a style that some deemed disgraceful. But the Ramones were indifferent to the disapproving stares, it was their style, and they owned it. In L.A., the weather dictated a lighter, vintage look, with bands and fans emulating the Ramones and Blondie in thrift store customisations.
Back in London Malcolm arrived with a masterplan and with girlfriend Vivienne Westwood he transformed Let It Rock to SEX (later Seditionaries) a store filled with graffiti and chicken-wire, with pink PVC signage to shock more than the Chelsea pensioners. Jordan, its sentinel, stood outside unapologetically in wipe-clean PVC, stockings, a blonde beehive and geometric makeup, a hint of the sartorial attitude that lay within. You could buy latex and bondage trousers with their drainpipe silhouette, mock handcuffs and zips, PVC, and confrontational t-shirts with screen printed slogans to provoke. And if you didn’t walk in with an attitude, you weren’t walking out with an acquisition.
Meanwhile, Saturday boy Glen Matlock and McLaren, combed the streets looking for a frontman for their homegrown version of the Dolls. John Lydon headed McLaren’s vision as the lead singer of the Sex-Pistols. Though he had not sung a note before, he felt forgotten youth’s simmering hatred of the establishment and spat its sentiments through the mic as he stared irreverently at the crowd.
Punk was a sonic call to arms, rescuing rock from its sequinned-clad profusion and disenchanted youth from lives as factory-fodder, and they embraced the N.Y. look with their own sartorial slant. Poly Styrene, Siouxsie, The Clash and Buzzcocks, ripped, painted and bleached leather and denim, added safety pins to jackets, found what they already owned and made it unique. They shaved, coloured and spiked their hair, pierced cheeks, eyebrows and noses and wore makeup despite gender as Poly Styrene screamed out, “Oh Bondage Up Yours!” decreeing war on the objectification of women. It wasn’t about sex or being submissive, it was a badge of empowerment and androgyny. And though this sentiment called Punk had been reluctantly given one, it was not about labels. The likes of Patti, Chrissie Hynde, Buzzcocks and the Pistols motivated women to form bands and take control of their destiny. The Slit’s Viv Albertine spent her £200 inheritance on a guitar she couldn’t play, and together with Sid Vicious, she started a band. With the likes of Siouxsie and the Banshees and Xray-Specs, The Slits challenged the perception of women, sticking two fingers up to the patriarchy.
Though its impact may have longevity, Punk’s new wave was set to be short-lived. The Pistols’ expletive-laden appearance on the Ted Grundy show became front-page news, and the term ‘Punk’ was coined. By the time Lydon sang ‘God Save The Queen’ for the Jubilee of ’77, he was jaded. The revolution had been televised, but Punk’s death-knell had sounded. Its originators didn’t ask for a ‘movement’ they set out on personal paths of change, but it was contextualised against their wishes. Punk set out as an empowering ‘up yours’ to the establishment against the lack of investment in their future. Its DIY sentiment was demonstrated through creativity, through angry but intelligent lyrics and through clothes that were the inexpensive, customised threads of self-expression. You didn’t have to be a designer, an artist, a trained singer or guitarist, you just needed to believe that you could have a future, and you could realise it. But by ’77 Punk had taken on a different face. The look was adorned by the masses and the right-wing used gigs as a platform for recruitment. The second wave in their mohawks and studs-a-plenty, spat and fought in violent brawls and misinterpreted the ethos of its infancy. The clothes themselves began to feature in couture collections, in a version palatable for the affluent. But by now Viv had moved on, taking to the catwalk in Pirate-inspired looks deemed uncommercial yet emulated everywhere. Looks that would seed the style of the New Romantics.
Punk ultimately became a parody, reaching saturation point. It had no choice but to burn fast and bright; commercialism negated it. But in 18 short months, it left behind an attitude that threads through every counterculture that has followed. New Wave’s synth sounds were filled with malcontents and misfits who internalised their rage in t-shirts and suits. New Romantics adopted androgynous attire and makeup palettes, and The Specials mixed it up with Reggae. It didn’t look or sound like it, but it was all underpinned by Punk. And Punk opened the floodgates to a can-do future. The attitude that you can invent yourself without formal training, whether as a designer, a musician or through social channels.
And as for the clothes, today everyone is selling Punk, on the high street D.M.’s pound pavements, leather jackets have lost their edge, fetish wear has morphed into daywear, and Gen Z is probably nonplussed. What might resonate, though, is their abandonment by the government, from the introduction of student fees to the A’ Level debacle and Vote Leave; they must feel let down. They might not drink as much, club as much or party as much in these times of COVID. But they do believe in authenticity, tenacity, empowerment and the environment. We see it through their mega-feeds with mega-followers, innovative graduate clothes collections, new labels, music and speeches like Greta’s. That questioning, entrepreneurial spirit and the desire to succeed despite the odds, in its own way, has all the hallmarks of that feeling called Punk.