Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES

We Have to Deal With It: Punk England Report

I recently spent nine days pursuing punk rock in England without once trying to contact the Sex Pistols. I just didn’t have the time. The Sex Pistols are superstars, at least momentarily, and contacting superstars is more trouble than it’s worth even when nothing else is happening, which was hardly the problem in London and the other English cities I visited. Anyway, second-hand contact with the Pistols was as inescapable as tales of the Weathermen used to [be] around the Movement in 1970.

Paranoid Backbiters

Many informed sources offered tidbits about drugs and sex, said to interest the Pistols more than they pretended, and about record producers and movie directors — Cambridge rock avant-gardist Fred Firth, a hero of Johnny Rotten’s, was in contention for the first job, while Hollywood decadent Russ Meyer, who had wanted to set Sid Vicious to fucking his (screen) mother, was on his way out of the other. But one theme overshadowed the gossip: failure. Again and again the fear was expressed that the Pistols had blown it. Having replaced bassist Glen Matlock with nonmusician Vicious in February, I was told, Rotten had deprived the band of its most gifted composer, and now a Rotten-Vicious faction was feuding with a Jones-Cook faction and with manager Malcolm McLaren. The Pistols’ long-awaited album would include only three songs written since Matlock’s departure and cost as much to produce as a Richard Perry extravaganza. It was even reported that the Pistols’ deal with American Warners had been finalized only because McLaren and his minions had already gone through the 150,000 quid advanced them by EMI, A&M, and Virgin in England. The original strategy had been to postpone the assault on the U.S.A. Now, suddenly, it was sink-or-swim time, for the Pistols and maybe for everybody.

It’s only natural for so much of the paranoid backbiting that afflicts English punk to be aimed at the Sex Pistols, who began the movement and who symbolize it not only to the outside world but to the punks themselves. Notorious antistars, dole-queue kids awash in record-biz money, nihilists who have made something of themselves, the Pistols are everything punks are supposed to be, and more — they live out the contradictions most punk musicians have barely begun to dream about. No wonder they’re resented: If we are to believe that punk’s future is up to the Pistols — and that is definitely the conventional wisdom — then their fall could well precipitate everyone else’s. But at least the Pistols, unlike almost everyone else, have someplace to fall from. What will be left for the others? Their picture in the papers, a self-produced record or two, perhaps a brief contract with a treacherous major, and the chance to watch a few posers make a career out of a defunct fad that once promised life.

[related_posts post_id_1=”715299″ /]

What makes this scenario more bitter is that it proceeds from the star system punk challenges so belligerently. The English punks, with their proud, vitalizing concentration on the surface of things, rebel against rock royalty on the obvious ground that a pop elite cannot represent the populace. But they miss a subtler paradox: the apparent inability of most rebels to do without heroic images. When an idea turns into a movement as fast as punk did, chances are that some leadership figure is out there symbolizing away, and that if the symbol should fade or crumble the movement will find itself at a loss.

The loss would be a big one. Only 10 of the 20 bands I managed to catch in my nine days played genuine punk — vocals shouted over raw, high-speed guitar chords and an inflexible beat. But within that tiny sample, three or four bands — the Clash, X-Ray Spex, the Killjoys, and perhaps the Cortinas — put on hotter shows than any I’ve seen from the year’s newcomers at CBGB, where the infusions of energy have been provided by born-again old-timers like John Cale and Alex Chilton or improved vintage-1975 stars like Blondie and Richard Hell. What’s more, punk was clearly making itself felt in the other music I saw. Weirdos like Elvis Costello and Ian Dury and Wreckless Eric do not sell out Birmingham Town Hall when the pop environment is stable. All-female French blues-rock bands like the Lous do not open major concerts if some Wardour Street money man controls the bill. Bluegrassers turned pub-rockers turned hit journeymen like the Kursaal Flyers do not dirty up their guitar sound and smash television sets on a suburban stage just because the fancy strikes them.

But if punk were to do a quick fizzle because of the Pistols, it would be more than unfortunate. It would be unfair. Johnny Rotten is an inspiration and a media focus out of a flair for self-dramatization that is coextensive with his extremism. He is typical of nothing. No matter how much he is imitated (and he was imitated by a fast-moving cult well before Glen Matlock said fuck on television and started the avalanche), he will never be a punk prototype — not because he is monumentally talented, which is beside the point, but because he comes a lot closer to genuine nihilism than often happens in the world. If he should fail, his nihilism will be at the root of his failure. It will have turned people off the Sex Pistols, and hence (in our paranoid backbiters’ scenario) off punk in general. Yet no matter what you’ve seen on Weekend, most punks are not nihilists. Bored, cynical, destructive? Well, perhaps, at least in part. But all that’s been blown out of proportion, as well, and nihilism is a lot further on down the road.

In fact, one thing that has made English punk so attractive — both to well-wishers like me and to full-time recruits — has been its idealism. Despite all the anti-hippie feeling, it really is Haight ’67 that it most recalls — not in content, but in form. It’s a new counter-culture; the sense of ferment and burgeoning group identity more than compensates for the confused sectarian squabbling, although maybe I’d be harder to please if I’d been around when hopes were highest. And in a way, it is the tragic end of hippie — not the disintegration of a generation the punks were never part of in the first place, but the way longhaired guitar assholes have continued to preach their hypocritical go-with-the-flow — that has imbued punk idealism with its saving skepticism. These kids may be naive, but they’re not foolish. They know the world is a hostile place.

[related_posts post_id_1=”717812″ /]

First Person Plural

Having watched the Lous (enjoyed with no audible sexist remarks) and Richard Hell and the Voidoids (received with fair enthusiasm in back and moderate-plus pogoing up front) from a limited-access balcony, I decided to take my notebook down into the Clash crowd at the University of Leeds, 200 miles north of London. The capacity of the room, which looked like an old-fashioned church rec hall only bigger, was officially 2200; 1800 tickets were sold to a crowd that appeared to break down two-to-one student-to-punk and at least nine-to-one male-to-female. Everyone was standing, even though it was intermission, and the rear half of the hall was mostly empty. I’d found out that as a competent New Yorker I could push to the front of most English crowds, but that was out of the question in this press so I stood toward the back and listened to two students behind me talk like upper-class twits. Phil Spector and even some Kraftwerk came over the P.A. to augment the customary dub, the bass-based reggae English punks love the way early hippies loved blues. But as the wait stretched past 45 minutes push began to turn to shove up front, and I wrote with some annoyance: “an intermission worthy of Black Sabbath.” That was the last time I thought of my notebook until after the Clash had finished.

The beginning I remember clearly. The band came out looking quite hale in what might almost have been store-bought punk safari gear, shirts and chinos with lots of zippers; the sole bizarre touch was the artfully tattered fishnet top on bassist Paul Simonon. Straightaway, using a conversational version of the friendly, stump-toothed, wet-mouthed, muttery snarl he sings with, Joe Strummer leaned into the mike and said, “We’ve come to play some of the heavy metal music you love so well.” Then there was a rush of fast guitar noise and everything became an exciting blur. I remember a lot of up-and-down motion in the audience — timid bobbing to the balls of the feet in back, wild pogoing up front. I remember the twits behind me singing along. I remember thinking that it was quite good, but not mind-blowing, and going upstairs to be with my wife. I remember the entire crowd shouting along — “I’m so bored with the Yew, Ess, Ay,” “White riot, wanna riot” — with no coaxing from the stage. I remember wondering how I would feel when they finally got to my favorites — “Career Opportunities,” “Garageland,” “Janie Jones.” And I remember my mind gusting away when they did.

Before I left the States, The Clash had replaced the Vibrators’ Pure Mania as my favorite English Punk LP. Apparently tuneless and notoriously underproduced, it was, I knew, a forbidding record, especially since the mix was dominated by Strummer’s vocals, which I loved for an unmusicality others found ugly. Because of Strummer’s cockney pronunciation and bad teeth, lyrics were hard to make out; my enjoyment increased markedly after I obtained a crib sheet, but I was annoyed at times by the band’s more cynical me-firstisms. After seeing them, though, I stopped hedging.

Visually, the three front-liners — guitarist Mick Jones, Strummer, and Simonon, the cute one — generated a perfect, condensed punch. They occupied their far-flung locations on stage like a unit of partisans charged with some crucial beachhead — instead of roaming around to interact, the way most exciting rock groups do, they held to their posts. Yet at the same time they seemed to be having lots of fun, with Jones marching jubilantly behind his mike, Simonon executing flashy Cossack split steps in his big boots, and Strummer eventually falling to the floor in an elation that seemed entirely of the moment. It became clear that many of the bitter lyrics that had always made me laugh — “I wanna walk down any street/Looking like a creep/I don’t care if I get beat up/By any kebab Greek” — were in fact intended to be funny. Also, I began to hear what was missing in the album’s sound — there was a lot more guitar in the live mix, good punk guitar, chordally elementary but rejecting hip musical platitudes, with Jones’s terse leads clanging irrepressibly against Strummer’s below-the-belt rhythm. This music lacked neither craft nor melody; it did what it set out to do with formidable verve. The songs were about as cynical as one of the football cheers they recalled, and they had a lot more content.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692479″ /]

For me, the Clash are almost a return to the time when I had to see A Hard Day’s Night before I could tell Paul from George. They are the Clash, not four guys who play in the Clash — not a star-and-support outfit or reconstituted supergroup. Drummer Nicky Headon, much the last to join, has yet to achieve his place in the gestalt, but the three front-liners form an indivisible body; their separation on stage (which isn’t always absolute, I’m told) strengthens the group’s structural unity. Perhaps this is simply because Simonon, the most visual of the three and one of the many punk bassists to reject Bill Wyman–style immobility, makes it impossible for Strummer and/or Jones to take over. But that it should work out this way reflects the English take on the punk attitude, in which hippie love-in-the-sky is replaced by provisional solidarity, alliances no less potent for their suspiciousness. I feel confident that next time I see the band, Nicky Headon will have gained full partnership. That’s the kind of lads they are.

After the gig, about half of the eight or so groupies I’d spotted — including the one who’d been trying unsuccessfully to crack a whip backstage — were visible at the hotel. Joe was obviously proud of his catch, announcing genially: “She’s a college girl. She speaks French.” Then he whispered a message to me in her ear. The young woman — nervous, attentive, and dressed (like most of her sisters) in Frederick’s of Hollywood support garments and Threepenny Opera cosmetics, translated: “Tu ressembles à Woody Allen, mais tu as les cheveux longues.” Later I had a talk with Mick about his hobby, which is reading; he recommended Brighton Rock, Decline and Fall, and his favorite, Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories. We discussed the Socialist Workers’ confrontation strategy for defeating the National Front. And he told me about his mother, a former movie actress who lives in Michigan and sends him Creem. Recently she mailed off some song lyrics; they were, Mick sighed, “all about the desolation of living in the city with safety pins.” He’d encouraged her to continue writing, though. He just advised that she try to keep things more optimistic.

Except for the Sex Pistols, the Clash are the biggest punk group in England, but that’s not as impressive as American punk fans imagine. Punk is very much a minority music in England; while the Clash were not quite filling a 2200-capacity venue in Leeds, Yes was selling out six nights at London’s Wembley, which seats 6000. Anyway, to call the Clash number two is stretching it, like saying the Stones were number two in 1964, when the Hollies and Gerry and the Pacemakers were both doing better on the charts. United Artists’ Stranglers have outsold CBS’s Clash by far and may even pass the Pistols. But (as with Gerry and the Pacemakers) nobody takes the Stranglers seriously because (like the Hollies) they commercialize what should be a music of discovery. The Clash have status, significance, symbolic clout. They are the class of the field, defining its possibilities; most of the punk peoples I spoke to in England — hardly a cross-section, but an influential minority — preferred them to the Pistols. So do I.

Because its suppositions are critical and apparently pessimistic where those of Beatlemania and hippie were full of hope, punk turns ideas upside down. The Stranglers, who sing about fucking rats and assaulting women, qualify for vilification as commercial because their subject matter recapitulates the received, best-selling, megapolitical macho of heavy metal. And a revised definition of commercial makes for an even stranger reversal: Although the Sex Pistols definitely got there first, always the prime issue in the Beatles-Stones rivalry of the ’60s, the Pistols are to the Clash what the Stones were to the Beatles in both musical strategy and general scariness. The switch is that this time the buying public prefers the Pistols/Stones. After all, in a world where nihilistic offensiveness has become a popular option, they offer a relatively uncomplicated message dramatized by a single, visible antihero. And in that sense they’re easy to sell.

It is because the Pistols are more accessible that the committed English punk tends to identify with the Clash. For him, it’s simple: they’re his. But for participant observers like me, it’s more complicated. Say that the Pistols’ negativism — passionate, closely observed, and good to dance to though it certainly is — seems a bit facile compared to the Clash’s jubilantly militant ensemble aggression. Even better, say that in 1965 we loved the Beatles’ ebullience but found that we wanted (and needed) the cautionary, hard-edged, rather dangerous irony of the Stones, while in 1977 we get off on the Pistols’ promise to tear it all down but find that the Clash help us imagine what it might be like to build it back up again. Of course, what makes my first person plural more satisfying is that one can imagine both participant observers and committed punks sharing in the building. But it’s best to be careful with what is basically a rhetorical device, a revised version of the rock and roll “we.” The solidarity it implies is so theoretical it makes the provisional solidarity among the punks themselves seem as irrevocable as Arthurian fealty.

[related_posts post_id_1=”674292″ /]

Participant Observers and La Vie Boheme

After my crash course in English youth culture, all I’m clear about is that it’s much more complicated than anything we’re used to here. I don’t know how many kids actually perceive all the arcane detail, but some obviously do. Accustomed to rigid tracking in the schools and a class system unashamed of its name, they define subcultures for themselves; these are picked up in the popular press and thus propagated, formalized, and put to death. Yet of the six big ones — teddy boys, rockers, mods, hippies, skinheads, punks — all but the mods and rockers are still around. (Those who presume the skinheads extinct didn’t confront 80 of them marching out of a Sham 69 gig two months ago; for that matter, enclaves of rockers are said to survive at motorway cafs.) Except for the hippies, who began in America, each of these groups crystallized around the style innovations of working-class teenagers, who dress just as obsessively as black and Latin kids do in this country, and a lot more regimentally. But because street fashions have some of the same sort of upward mobility in England that they do here, these uniforms are no more likely to remain purely working-class than are the subcultures they symbolize.

For the punks, this sociological fact of life is traumatic, because the punks are ideologically working class. There was a certain ambiguous nosethumbing in the outmoded posh of the teds’ Edwardian gear, and the rockers probably resented the implicit upward mobility of the mods as much as the skinheads resented the putative classlessness of the hippies. But despite the English tradition of resenting the rich and an adolescent anti-establishment bias that alienated them from anyone with power, these groups took class pretty much as a given. No so the punks. Punks are equally scornful of the scant material rewards of welfare capitalism and the boredom that inevitably deadens what rewards there are; they’re hostile to America and hate the cultural imperialism of television with a passion that elevates cliché into myth. But more than that, they place blame. Their us-against-them isn’t young-against-old or hip-against-square, but a war of the deprived against the privileged.

[related_posts post_id_1=”714781″ /]

It would be nice to say that punk’s class consciousness arose spontaneously from the dole queues and council flats and dead-end educational levels of a depressed Britain. But since most working-class kids, including those without work, don’t really identify with punk, it’s more accurate to credit the musicians themselves with the analysis, and in fact a lot of it has come from participant observers — semi-official theoreticians in management and journalism. Malcolm McLaren, the self-described anarchist who launched the Sex Pistols from his anti-couture boutique (called first Rock On, then Too Fast To Live, Too Young To Die, then Sex, and currently Seditionaries) understood early on how butch working-class fashion iconography might épater le bourgeois. Caroline Coon of Melody Maker and Jonh Ingham of Sounds (a couple at one time) perceived punk as a movement that could only occur in a deteriorating economic environment — although it combined the hoodlum-friends-outside youth politics of rock and roll with more “bolshie” counter-culture ideas. And Bernard Rhodes, a East End Jew who worked for McLaren before he began to manage the Clash, gave the music a more explicitly leftwing cast.

But especially significant, I think, was a “real” punk proficient at both journalism and music business — Mark P., who brought all this raw art and rough theory together in his Xeroxed fanzine, Sniffin’ Glue, and then, with the help of rock-biz pro Miles Copeland, became the finest of the punk a&r men on his own Step-Forward label, responsible for strong singles from Chelsea, the Cortinas, and the Models. A teen genius with vanguard instincts in both music and politics, Mark P. was the East End council-flats guyser that punk legend is made of, and as near as I can tell, it was from Sniffin’ Glue that the whole issue of class authenticity in punk, the anti-poser ethic, really took off. I did it. Mark P. said, and now you should. And so fanzines sprouted by the score, and pioneer fans organized pioneer groups like Siouxsie and the Banshees, Subway Sect, and the Slits. Outsiders became more and more suspect.

Because they are interested in survival as well as boredom, English punk bands have never pretended to be dumb. Sentimentality and intellectualism are out, but the prevailing mood encourages the (admittedly satiric) Snivelling Shits to attack “Terminal Stupid” and the (admittedly demi-commercial) Boomtown Rats to boast: “I’m gonna go somewhere where it doesn’t stink/Away from the alleys, somewhere I can think.” What does slip into the rhetoric, however, is the implication that Johnny Rotten or Mick Jones or Mark P. is an ordinary guyser, a bloke who goes to see bands like anybody else. Needless to say, this is nonsense. Despite the usual lemmings, loonies, and losers, the fringe people that fringe movements like punk always attract, punks tend to be bright and sensitive — they have to be, to detach themselves from the accepted belief that one’s lot is one’s just dessert unless one manages to work one’s way out of it. Nevertheless, Rotten and Jones and Mark P. are a lot more gifted than most punks — and probably than you or me as well.

[related_posts post_id_1=”715339″ /]

At work here is a delusion over-25s will recall from the hippie days: the we-are-youth line. To their credit, punks don’t pretend to be everybody’s brothers and sisters. They savage contemporaries who don’t share their self-interests — the grammar-school boys, the art students, the revitalized teds — and they savage each other with continual exhortations to cut the shit. “Try to evade reality/And now you’re just a novelty,” warn the Killjoys, and when punks at the Vortex cheered the news of Elvis’s death — another old fart gone — Danny Baker of Sniffin’ Glue grabbed the mike in a rage and reminded them just where they’d be without him. But like most minority groups, they take comfort in the thought that their situation is not only of central social significance, but also the source of magic powers. The notion that Everypunk can just walk off the dole queue and make great rock and roll is essential to their sense of themselves.

Behind punk’s belief in its own magic is the old idea that if you live close enough to the edge of reality you gain some special grip on it. But despite the legend their edge doesn’t turn out to depend on brutal poverty. Poly Styrene, the mulatto who leads X-Ray Spex, giggles that compared to where she grew up council flats are pretty soft, and Joe Strummer jeers at the way Americans romanticize Britain’s plight: “ ’Ey fink it’s really orful over here, don’t they? ’Ey fink we can’t afford ’arf a pint o’ beer.” In fact, many punk musicians live at home and spend their meager dole or boring-job or gig money on themselves, and not all boast impeccably impecunious pedigrees. Joe Strummer has been exposed as the son of a career diplomat who was himself born working-class (as well as the former lead singer of a band of hippie squatters called the 101’ers), the parents of the Damned’s Rat Scabies invited disc jockey John Peel to a sherry evening in a well-to-do London suburb, signing the engraved card “Mr. and Mrs. Scabies”; the Cortinas are middle-class boys from Bristol; Chelsea’s Gene October, author of the militant “Right To Work,” is reputedly of moneyed stock. So when reporters discover middle-class thrill-seekers at punk gigs, that’s hardly surprising. Only because the punks themselves have made an issue of posing does such evidence appear damning to those who’d just as soon dismiss them anyway.

Perhaps the way to understand it is this: Rather than a working-class youth movement — potentially revolutionary, proto-fascist, or symptomatic of the decadence of our times — punk is a basically working youth bohemia that rejects both the haute bohemia of the rock elite and the hallowed bohemian myth of classlessness. Not that it’s purely working-class (or purely youth, for that matter). But it gives the lie to the (basically Marxist) cliché that bohemia must always be petit-bourgeois. For punk, class replaces such bohemian verities as expressive sexuality and salvation through therapy/enlightenment/drugs. It is a source of identity and a means of self-realization. So the Cockney accent replaces the blues voice, and disdain for luxury becomes an affirmation of fellowship with one’s allies’ rather than a withdrawal from the economic world.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692481″ /]

Punk doesn’t want to be thought of as bohemian, because bohemians are posers. But however vexed the question of their authenticity, bohemias do serve a historical function — they nurture aesthetic sensibility. Punk definitely has attracted musicians hiding arty little secrets; if Mick Jones acknowledges having gone on scholarship to art school, that unfairly discredited rock institution, can Dave Vanian be far behind? Nor is it surprising that the best punk retailer-distributor, Rough Trade, is run by an idealistic Cambridge lit grad in the boho stronghold around Portobello Road. That many entrenched (and lapsed) bohemians regard punks as mindless yobs doesn’t mean half as much as the observant participation of disaffected university students, restless suburban teens, and assorted dropouts. Most of the hip folks I know could use a shot of punk, which revives the oldest bohemian tradition — artists with no visible means of support banding together against the cruel world.

Of course, most of these kids aren’t artists, and they often enjoy invisible support from their parents or the state. But it’s equally obvious that for talented working-class rebels denied access to Britain’s scarce, narrow, and overcrowded escape routes, bohemianism — in which poverty is no bar to freedom, identity, and the pleasures of the moment — presents a way out. A recent study among the supposedly middle-class hippies of Birmingham, for instance, revealed that most of those who’d stuck with the lifestyle had working-class origins. Of course, Marxists can dismiss hippies and punks alike as lumpen because, unlike real working-class people, they’re not interested in work. But it remains true that for punks class is a charged category. They have raised both their own consciousness and that of the participant observers who are now part of their movement, and it’s at least conceivable that when they all grow up they’ll unite to marshal their energy into a real attack on the system they detest.

I’m as skeptical as the punks are, and I hardly expect this to happen. But I do think punk represents an advance in sensibility. Those punks who aren’t direct victims of the economic rationalizations that have been wreaking drab havoc over Britain have certainly been induced to think about them a lot. The edge they all claim, their magic handle on reality, is that they’re painfully familiar with powerlessness. And they want no part of it.

[related_posts post_id_1=”562145″ /]

The Bad Stuff

I’m aware that I’ve made the punks sound like poverty-stricken lads who only want to build a better life for themselves, and that this probably doesn’t jibe with your preconceptions. What about the safety pins and dog collars, you must be wondering. What abut the violence? What about the misogyny and pathological anomie? What about that groupie with the whip?

Well, my guess is that six months from now safety pins and dog collars — but not the wonderful spikey punk hair — will be as passé as platform shoes, replaced by less disquieting concepts in costume jewelry. But the rest of the bad stuff seemed durable enough. I saw fans betoken their affection by gobbing — spitting, in thick gobs — at their idols, I saw X-Ray Spex abandon the stage to their own rampaging fans, and I saw little Kevin Roland of the Killjoys placekick one kid off the monitors without missing a beat. I witnessed numerous fistfights. I learned that punks sometimes pogo with their hands at each other’s throats and embrace in holds that resemble hammerlocks. And I read both Strummer and Rotten On Love. Strummer: “I can love them providing they don’t come near me.” Rotten: “Love is what you feel for a dog or a pussy cat. It doesn’t apply to humans.”

Yet none of this was anywhere near as appalling as I’d expected. I mean, I almost didn’t bring my down jacket for fear someone would knife me and the feathers would all fly out, but the most antagonistic remark any punk offered in nine days was when some youngster addressed me as “Guv’nor” after I declined to share my beer with him. Admittedly, I didn’t spend much time with the punk on the street, and I worry that I’ve somehow been hoodwinked by the British music biz, which is now taking the line that punk is nothing more than teenagers venting their (oh so sociologically justified) frustrations. But while I continue to find some punk music frightening, I am no longer very scared by the punks themselves. On the contrary, I consider their hostility healthy, especially in view of how much they’ve been maligned.

Gobbing I could do without, as could the gobbed-upon, but even gobbing carries metaphorical weight, a weight that reaches its zenith in the pogo. The pogo is more than oafs jumping up and down; its reputation as an idiot dance preceding a punch-up misses entirely the joy, humor, and madness of the real thing. Pogoers don’t just jump — they leap, as high as they can for as long as they can, exhilarated to the point of exhaustion. The dance is very physical, with much flailing and crashing near the center, and most pogoers are male. At first they flew strictly solo, but soon couple-dancing began, and with it the stranglehold developed. It was startling to see two 16-year-old boys, their faces shining with sweat and glee, pretending to throttle each other in what amounted to an airborne playfight. But I hadn’t encountered such joyful-looking kids at a rock concert in years. This dance did justice to something about rock and roll that all the fast steps and sexy grinds ignored — its exultant competitiveness, its aggressive fun.

[related_posts post_id_1=”715709″ /]

Not that pogoers confine themselves to playfighting. People trip and tromp on each other and come to blows — less often than has been reported but more than at a Renaissance concert. Only who needs a Renaissance concert? This is rock and roll, and in England rock and roll (like football, only less so) has always occasioned violence. Yet there were only one or two scuffles a night at the gigs I attended, and I neither saw nor was told about anything to compare, for instance, with the Beatles’ second professional engagement, where a 16-year-old boy was kicked to death. I would describe firecrackers at Bad Company concerts as violent, and I would describe Johnny Rotten’s vocal attack as violent. But I would describe punk as rough.

It is also of course predominantly male. But this, too, must be understood in the context of England, which has produced a rock folkway without exact parallel in the States — the boys bands, with their all-boy audiences. “Quo, Sabbaf, and ’Eep” — a legend you can still see on the backs of jackets — were and are boys bands; so was Mott the Hoople, the group Mick Jones used to follow around. This sort of fandom is clearly much like rooting for a football team, with the ominous difference that rock’s sexual content — admittedly downplayed among the four boys bands I’ve mentioned — might be more sanely absorbed in a coed environment. Jones was amused that the Clash now seemed to be a boys band, and expressed the hope that the photogenic Simonon would break the pattern via the teenybop magazines — not so much to up the band’s market share as to humanize its audience.

But beyond such camaraderie there is a lot of woman-hating in English punk — not as much as is reported, once again, but more, among significant groups, than in America. Lately the Stranglers, who can be passed off as pseudopunks, have given up their Gold Dildo to Eater, who cannot: “Why don’t you get raped/Why don’t you get raped/Why don’t you get raped/Go and get fucked.” You can call this underclass scapegoating, you can talk about the virtues of irony, you can talk about the virtues of candor, you can even praise certain artists for exposing misogyny as the anti-sex sociopathy it is. Say anything you like — those lyrics are still hateful.

They’re not the whole story, though. On specific songs — the Sex Pistols’ “Bodies,” for instance — the power of the statement does, I think, justify and perhaps even necessitate the hatefulness. And there’s something more important, especially if you believe, as I do, that an aggressive popular art like rock and roll is a better way to fuse righteous anger than acoustic folk songs or documentaries about the siblinghood of humankind. For coexisting with the misogyny is an unprecedented opportunity for women to make rock and roll. Mick Jones voiced the prevailing attitude: “There ought to be as many girls in bands as boys by now. But if I’m gonna like ’em, they gotta be as tough as we are.” In addition to the all-female Lous and X-Ray Spex (led by a young woman who braved the onstage pogoing of her admirers long after her male musicians beat their retreat), I ran across a bassist and two keyboard players in three other bands. That’s not exactly a population explosion, but it does represent a significant increase over the number of females who played electric instruments at the Palladium in 1977, one, a punk, Patti Smith, because in punk conceptual energy does the work of chops, which means you needn’t have decided to be a rock star 10 years ago to become one now. Not that punk women seem any more inclined to be feminists than punk men. They choose names like the Castrators and the Slits. They talk about free sex like acolytes of the Playboy Philosophy. And they believe in looking out for themselves. Says 16-year-old Arri Up of the Slits: “The reason there’s hardly any girl rock ’n’ roll stars is because most girls are not strong enough in their own minds.”

I hope Arri figures out sometime just why girls have this problem, insofar as they do, and insofar as it’s a problem. I also hope Joe Strummer and Johnny Rotten change their hearts and minds about love. The fervent alienation that fuels such ideas suggests an egoism and a crippled capacity for outreach that alarm me. The most encouraging note I can add is that egoism and crippled outreach are no less adolescent than idealism and a desire to reach out, and that maturing — exotic term — is basically a process of becoming aware that other people exist. Hippie romanticized youth’s potential for good and continually foundered on its gift for evil. Punk errs in the other direction, but the good is there too, however reluctantly acknowledged, and it may develop more naturally if not too much is expected of it. The thought of punk growing up is not an altogether happy one — its energy is almost as rooted in self-centeredness as its strength is in solidarity. But I hope it does grow up, because it’s going to get older regardless.

[related_posts post_id_1=”717919″ /]

What Is to Be Done?

The word “punk” can refer to a music and/or a youth movement because the two are inseparable. Not even rockabilly or disco, and certainly not “psychedelic” rock, have enjoyed such a clear, before-and-after, cause-and-effect relationship with a support subculture. In fact, punk rock was conceived by Malcolm McLaren and Bernard Rhodes (out of the intuitions of avant-punks like Iggy and David Johansson) to inspire, or to give shape to, such a subculture. Not that it turned out exactly the way its prophets imagined — the unpredictability of talent was essential to what they wanted to instigate. Still, their ideas have had appreciable effect.

While in England I looked up pioneer punk propagandist Jonh Ingham. Ingham was a student of mine at the California Institute of the Arts when he decided to change the spelling of his name in 1970. This precocious bit of image-building was typical of both his sharpness and his shallowness, but punk has clearly deepened him. The apolitical acidhead now wears a Marx patch, and the lines around his eves belong to someone who’s discovered passion. Not that he’s so passionate any more. For Ingham, the turning point came last January, when McLaren, instead of investing the Pistols’ settlement from EMI in a punk counter-economy, chose to expand punk — or at least his punks — on establishment capital. So it was going to limit itself to good groups after all, Ingham said to himself. Within months he was managing Generation X, now signed to Chrysalis.

The punk counter-economy, such as it is, was destined to arise anyway. “It was easy, it was cheap, go out and do it,” sang the Desperate Bicycle, who produced their own single for £153 in March, 1977, basically to show people it could be done, just as the Desperate Bicycles themselves might have learned from Australia’s Saints (who scored a 1976 counterhit by mailing their 45 to U.K. journalists; and Manchester’s Buzzcocks. Many of these instant labels record one group exclusively, but others go on from a profitable sale — 10,000 is pretty good, 20,000 not unheard of — to work with others. It’s likely that one or two of them — London’s Deptford Fun City? Manchester’s Rabid? Cambridge’s Raw? Edinburgh’s Zoom? — will join the worldwide trend toward specialty labels for minority popular musics. In this they will be following two somewhat older indies, Stiff and Chiswick, which although they’re known here as punk labels actually cater to the audience of rock ’n’ roll discophiles who supported pub-rock.

One implication of independent production is that punk too could turn into a collectors’ music, a hobby, as is brought home by such frivolous marketing devices as the 12-inch single (saving vinyl is for hippies). But independent production doesn’t reflect punk’s eccentricity, or its idealism, so much as its refusal to withdraw from the economic world. It’s a trick of survival, a way to prepare your own demo at a profit. Mark P.’s backer and boss at Deptford-Fun City Records, Miles Copeland, is typical; he has placed his managerial clients the Cortinas with CBS and is codistributing a 12-incher with Sham 69’s new label, Polydor. Copeland, the son of a CIA bigshot, calls class consciousness “England’s big sickness” and used to advise Wishbone Ash how best to carry their hods; he struck me as one of the more dismaying professionals now attached to punk, but his business ideas are the norm. He describes how the Cortinas “wanted to go pro” and “wanted the strength of a major worldwide,” while the Buzzcocks’ manager — a 24-year-old art drop-out named Richard Boon who oversaw their debut EP on New Hormones and then signed the band to UA — talks coolly about doing an album only when the time seems right. But neither can imagine a new way to get this music out there.

[related_posts post_id_1=”30054″ /]

Not that I have any bright ideas. My first minutes with Joe Strummer were spent in praise of medium-sized halls, an article of faith with the punks now as it was with the Who and the Grateful Dead a decade ago, although it’s not hard to figure out that if you sell 3000 tickets a night for a brutal 300 nights a year you still don’t play to a million people, a rather small-scale cultural crusade. Strummer went along with me — modest venues were best. But then he was apparently afflicted with a racial memory of the Grateful Dead: “Nah, you do it too much that way and you get just like the hippies. Keep it small, keep it efnic…” Basically, Strummer didn’t see any way to avoid turning into what he’d rebelled against. No matter how staunch his own idealism — not that he made any inflated claims for it — someone would always be checking his rear for him. “People say, if you don’t do that the So-and-Sos are gonna catch up. You don’t wanna get behind the So-and-Sos, do ya?”

Like Jonh Ingham, I really wish it could be different, and I’m somehow disappointed with the punks for not cutting through the old masscult paradoxes. If powerlessness is your secret, shouldn’t you have something more to say about power than vague plans to recycle your capital and specific promises never to own a Bentley? But in the absence of such miracle, I agree — better the Clash than the So-and-Sos, whether the So-and-Sos are good guys like the Jam (Who-style punks-as-mods not averse to Bentleys) or the Vibrators (Velvets-style metaphysical sex on the surface and a perfect blank ambition underneath) or guys as bad as the semi-fictitious Pork Dukes, who offer a record sleeve and T-shirt depicting a woman sucking off a pig, and who are rumored on excellent authority to include two moonlighting folk-rockers from that apogee of rock gentility, Steeleye Span. But the very profusion of so-and-sos is positive, especially since even the so-called posers — both the Jam and the Vibrators are dismissed that way by much of the punk hard core — can make wonderful rock and roll. Punk really is a new wave — a new wave of musicians. Some of those so-and-sos are going to be playing the English rock and roll of the ’80s.

Which raises two questions: One, will this rock and roll remain strictly English, and two, will it remain punk rock? As extraordinary as the Clash are, they’ll have to do for an example. The Clash may be the greatest rock and roll band in the world, but they haven’t conquered Britain yet, and if they gain a following over here — which they seem in no special hurry to do — it will be proportionally smaller. Their fierce national identification strengthens their music but narrows their American potential, because our class system is afraid to speak its name. Even if their second album, unlike their first, is picked up by American Epic or some other U.S. label, I’ll be pleased if they gain enough audience to support an annual tour, perhaps inspiring some young American rocker to translate the English punk way of seeing things into terms as fiercely national as the Clash’s own. But the sustenance that keeps whatever dozen English punk bands eating and recording over the next few years should come from England.

Because finally it’s the sensibility that must survive — the sensibility that thinks in terms of class and means to bring home to us the conflicts that underlie every one of our lives. If it comes to that, I’ll even settle for hobbyists, a few genius musicians making overpriced direct-to-disc collector’s items for 10,000 connoisseurs of raw power. That’ll be enough to keep the word alive. As the Clash sing on — and about — “Hate & War”: “And if I close my eyes/It will not go away/We have to deal with it/It is the currency.” No matter how many people are resisting right now, they’re going to find out eventually that these ill-mannered boys are right.

[related_posts post_id_1=”718324″ /]

Counter-Counter-Culture
Punks are so much a counter-culture that they’ve produced a reaction — the teddy boys, regrouping and recruiting at an amazing clip in direct response to punk’s explicit contempt for the racism and dumb violence of working-class youthcult tradition. In Coventry, an auto-manufacturing city where I saw two punks pogoing to the Boomtown Rats in a disco, the teds were down to a few pathetic father-and-son pairs plus some stragglers only six or eight months ago. Now they dominate many youth clubs. The only music they’ll listen to is rockabilly. Another favored pastime is beating up punks.

Dirty Minds
Jimmy Pursey of Sham 69 says he got the name off the wall of a loo; it sounds good and means nothing, he insists, specifically including fake blow job. Pete Shelly of the Buzzcocks says the name of his group came from a caption in the London entertainment weekly Time Out: “Get a buzz, cock” (“cock” means roughly the same thing as “fellow” in working-class slang). When I told him that many Americans took the name as a sadistic play on “buzz saw” he seemed to feel it spoke poorly for this nation.

Superlatives
To call something extraordinary in hippie argot you would say it was “far out.” Among punks, the term is “over the top.”

Synfesis
Poly Styrene is a plump young woman the color of Kraft caramel who brings a pop-art kind of pop sensibility to punk. She prefers “synfetic” clothes and wears braces on her teeth. Reputedly a former reggae singer, she’s vague about how she made money before X-Ray Spex. But she did tell me that her manager, Falcon Stuart, used to direct films, and I know this is true because I’ve seen one — French Blue, a rather arty and off-putting exercise in king porn. This could make you worry about lyrics, like “Bind me tie me/Chain me to the wall/I wanna be a slave to you all.” But they continue: “Oh bondage up yours/Oh bondage no more.” Poly says she tries to make sure her lyrics aren’t obvious; they’re collections of images. Her artistic aim? “I try to make people fink.”

Fashion Plate
For five minutes after we were introduced, Bernard Rhodes, the Clash’s manager, subjected me to skeptical questions and comments implying that I was a poser. I held my ground, which was apparently what he wanted, because soon he was treating me to the English teen version of Sartor Resartus. “The differences are so subtle,” he told me. “Shoelaces — you can spend half an hour deciding what shoelaces to wear.” Rhodes was wearing aviator glasses, a bezippered gray cloth jacket, a Clash T-shirt, a large digital watch, jeans with rolled cuffs, chartreuse socks, and black oxfords. I did not notice anything special about his shoelaces.

[related_posts post_id_1=”13114″ /]

Consumer Guide
Although the exceptions are significant, most English punk is unreleased in the Yew Ess Ay, and some of it will remain so. That puts the seeker at the mercy of importers and makes genuine discount buying next to impossible. Many Village record stores now stock some “new wave,” but the best selection by far is at Bleecker Bob’s Golden Oldies, 179 MacDougal, 475-9677. Discophile, around the corner at 26 West 8th, employs a well-respected enthusiast named Michael: you should ask for him if you phone (473-1902) or drop in. Both shops charge around $7 for an album, $3 for an EP, and $2 for a single. Cheaper but more out of the way is Fantasia, at 4752 Broadway near Dyckman Street in Washington Heights, 942-9188. The two major import distributors — the rock-oriented Jem (Box 362, South Plainfield, New Jersey 07080) and Peters International (619 West 54th Street, NYC 10019) both do retail mail-order. Rough Trade, 202 Kensington Park Road, London W11, England, will also mail, and is worth visiting should you find yourself nearby, as is Rock On, 3 Kentish Town Road.

There are two essential albums in English punk: Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, available on American Warners, and The Clash, a CBS import that may well never be released here. Hard rock fans should pick up one and seek out the other. I know no one who was bowled over by The Clash first listen, and I know a lot of people who love it now; it’s one of my favorite records of the decade. Give it some time.

Also recommended are Pure Mania by the Vibrators (Epic import due for domestic release on Columbia January 9), revved-up and slightly arty, showing roots in pop r&b to great advantage; In the City and This Is the Modern World by the Jam (domestic Polydor), in which a very bright, very ambitious working-class rock and roller writes relevant songs because that seems the thing to do and proves so honest and thoughtful he renders all questions of posing, well, irrelevant; and side one of The Boomtown Rats (domestic Mercury), raw, nasty, relatively unhistrionic, and not without melodic appeal. The Heartbreakers never got to me in New York, but side one of L.A.M.F., a Track import recorded after their move to London, is a perfect, catchy version of (to borrow Caroline Coon’s phrase) MOR punk, in which (to borrow Greil Marcus’s image) the guitarist lays down a line of fire to cover the vocalist; side two ain’t so catchy. I am less impressed by The Boys (Nems import), Eater’s The Album (The Label import), and the two Damned LPs (Stiff import), but all have virtues and supporters — as do the Stranglers, I suppose. I don’t know anyone who likes either Eddie and the Hot Rods album.

A punk anthology I’ve been playing a lot is Streets (Beggars Banquet import); its 17 independent label cuts include no instant classics, but the overall quality, especially on side two, indicates how vital punk is as a movement right now. I find The Roxy London W.C. 2 (Jan-Apr ’77) (EMI import), a live anthology, valuable primarily as documentary. Most of the great punk on New Wave (Vertigo import) is American. And three pub-to-punk compendiums deserve mention: A Bunch of Stiff Records, Hit’s Greatest Stiffs, and Submarine Tracks & Fool’s Gold Chiswick Chartbusters, Volume One. All have been constructed with discophiliac attention to detail and all are proof that rock and roll, of all sorts, is here to collect.

With albums, idiosyncrasies of taste tend to even out over 10 or 12 cuts; singles are more hit-or-miss. The ones I happen to love are: “Complete Control”/“City of the Dead” by the Clash (CBS); “2-4-6-8 Motorway” by the Tom Robinson Band (EMI): “Oh Bondage Up Yours”/“I Am a Cliché” by X-Ray Spex (Virgin – try to find the seven-inch version); “New Rose” by the Damned (Stiff); “Johnny Won’t Get to Heaven”/“Naive” by the Killjoys (Raw); “Can’t Stand By My Baby” by the Rezillos (Sensible); “Don’t Dictate”/“Money Talks” by Penetration (Virgin); “Right To Work” by Chelsea (Step-Forward); “Do Anything You Wanna Do” by Rods (domestic Island); and “Television Screen”/“Love Detective” by the Radiators From Space. The latter was dismissed in Sniffin’ Glue as “a moronic mess”; Michael at Discophile thinks it’s worse; and on their second single and album their producer, Roger Armstrong, has slowed down the Radiators’ r&b clichés to accentuate their songwriting. I find the songs mediocre and everything but their mad debut disappointing. “I guess you haven’t had as many fast guitars in the States as we have,” Armstrong explained. Never, never — give me more.

Finally, a book: Caroline Coon’s 1988: The New Wave Punk Rock Explosion. It’s no musicological classic, but for an exploitation quickie it’s well-informed, intelligent, passionate, and good to look at. The interviews — especially with the Slits — are uniformly fascinating, if partial. Ask for it at Bleecker Bob’s. It’s an import, too.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Punk ’77: A Cult Explodes, and a Movement Is Born

1. Avant-Punk Lives

One day a few months ago it dawned on me that this time it was different. Ever since hearing the MC5 in Detroit after Chicago ’68 I had been waiting, hoping, or at least rooting for a new, clamorously urban style of rock and roll to, as they say, take over the world. All those who worked in this style consciously allied themselves with avant-garde movements in music, poetry, and/or the visual arts, and I believed that even at their most apolitical they were politically avant-garde, too, because they were uncomplacent and anti-liberal without being reactionary. These artists were always controversial. They always gathered enthusiastic journalistic support. And they always went nowhere commercially.

Detroit was not the birthplace of this avant-punk style, of course: the MC5 and the Stooges represented the second phase of a music that began in New York with the Velvet Underground. But just as the Velvets might well have originated avant-punk without thinking too much about its obvious precedents — the dirty rave-ups of the Yardbirds and the early Kinks and the garage-band one-shots of the original punks collected on Lenny Kaye’s Nuggets anthology — so the Stooges and the 5 might well have been all but unaware of the Velvets. Put young, relatively unskilled white musicians from an industrial city together with some electric guitars, grant them aesthetic acuteness by nature or nurture, and eventually it’s bound to happen: rock and roll that differentiates itself from its (fundamentally black and rural) sources by taking on the crude, ugly, perhaps brutal facts of the (white and urban) prevailing culture, rather than hiding behind its bland façade. The underlying idea of this rock and roll will be to harness late industrial capitalism in a love-hate relationship whose difficulties are acknowledged, and sometimes disarmed, by means of ironic aesthetic strategies: formal rigidity, role-playing, humor. In fact, ironies will pervade and, in a way, define this project: the lock-step drumming will make liberation compulsive, pain-threshold feedback will stimulate the body while it deadens the ears, lyrics will mean more than (missing).

[related_posts post_id_1=”715299″ /]

The rarity of avant-punk made it seem more precious. Between the time the Velvets formed in 1966 and the time Patti Smith began to assemble her group at CBGB in 1975, only four other bands of any consequence entered the tradition: the MC5, whose unironic crusade for hip was aestheticized by the sloppy, almost aleatory power of their feedback; Iggy and the Stooges, whose command of every star quality except fame made them the most influential of the avant-punks between the Velvets and the Ramones; the Modern Lovers, whose sole hard-rock album wasn’t released until well after Jonathan Richman’s brain had softened; and the irrepressibly irresponsible New York Dolls.

Of course, a similar buzz was provided by more profitable musicians, most prominently Lou Reed, who professionalized the Velvets’ style; Blue Oyster Cult, who aped a host of more naive groups with such immaculate impassivity that in the end they convinced not only the audience but themselves; and municipal parking garage bands like Alice Cooper and Kiss, heirs of the original punks who weren’t above stealing from their bohemian cousins. Reed’s Rock n Roll Animal is keen heavy metal; the Cult’s Agents of Fortune is history as farce; Alice’s “I’m Eighteen” is a direct forerunner of “Anarchy in the U.K.” Yet in retrospect they lack any flash of radical individualism. Not so with the avant-punks. Detractors labeled their basic approach monotonous, but the distance within what was a relatively unexplored musical territory proved vast; Emmylou Harris will satisfy your yen for Linda Ronstadt a lot better than — to choose the closest pair I can think of — the Velvets’ “White Light/White Heat” will satisfy your need for the Modern Lovers’ “Roadrunner.” And because details of approach differed so, all these bands were possessed of rock and roll’s secret: they played a supposedly uninnovative style as if they’d invented it.

Needless to say, the art-commerce dichotomy was one reason the style remained so rare; a young musician might admire Lou Reed or Iggy, but following in their footsteps required conviction. As the Dolls and Patti Smith played their rock-star roles with ironic abandon, landed big-money deals, and made second albums that sold worse than their first, it seemed painfully probable that the avant-punks’ infatuation with teen America would go forever unreciprocated. As an addict of the music, I was pleased when CBGB turned into a venue for inheritors like Television, Talking Heads, the Ramones, and Tuff Darts, and gratified when Blondie and Mink DeVille came up with better-realized albums, artistically and commercially, than I would have predicted. Maybe the heartland would finally be moved. I rooted, and I dared to hope. But I wasn’t placing bets.

That was August or so. Now, a couple of months later, avant-punk seems likely to make some sort of breakthrough. I don’t know how big it will be or whether I’ll like its shape when it’s over. All I know is that I haven’t been this excited about rock and roll in at least 10 years. I’m buying records, calling people up to announce finds, playing the Vibrators and the Radiators From Space for everyone who walks in the door. First it was isolated artists, then a vanguard, but now it looks like a movement. When dozens of groups are out there making certifiably exciting music, it’s hard to believe there isn’t also a real audience — bigger than a cult, smaller than a mass —ready to make exciting noises of its own.

2. Creative Misapprehensions

Unless you memorize Additional Consumer News and the Pazz & Jop Product Report, or peruse rock magazines other than Rolling Stone, you probably can’t quite place the Vibrators or the Radiators From Space. That’s because they’re based in England, land of the Sex Pistols and home of “new wave” “funk rock” as a social rather than a strictly artistic phenomenon. For despite all the publicity Johnny Rotten has received, the movement he symbolizes is still local to Great Britain. In the U.S., it’s “underground” — it has to be sought out. And it is.

As with Haight-Ashbury, which inspired instant on-the-spot obituaries and scant recorded music during its earliest notoriety, the British new wave is already being mourned by those who discovered it first and has occasioned only a few American-release albums so far. British punk records are available, of course — mostly as singles, mostly as imports. But their notoriety precedes them. Anyone who’s read 500 words about Johnny Rotten knows that this music embodies an uprising against youth unemployment in Britain and that the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen” hit big despite a blackball by the BBC and major retailers. And anyone who ever glances at the British music press, which caters to both fans and the trade, knows punk is the hottest news in British rock since Liverpool. It’s my guess that these success stories have done more to fuel the latest burst of enthusiasm for punk in America than all the imports put together — and more, too, than any of the excellent non-hit LPs to come out of CBGB. Rock and roll has always thrived on star fever.

[related_posts post_id_1=”718291″ /]

Yet avant-punk began in America, and star fever was not how it spread to the U.K. When conceptually sophisticated local art movements disperse, distortion or vulgarization can result, but so can a kind of creative misapprehension that rolls right through apparent formal cul-de-sacs. That’s what happened when the Ramones toured England. The Ramones exploit the standard ironic strategies — role-playing, humor, and extreme rigidity — to make a powerful but ambiguous statement that both celebrates and mocks the frustrated energy of the ordinary American teenage male. But so unmistakably did they imply that any leather-jacketed geek can master three-chord rock and roll that in England, where teenage males were desperate for mastery in any form, all their other messages were ignored. In the wake of the Ramones summer ’76 tour, bands playing Ramonseish avant-punk sprang up all over Great Britain. But where the Ramones distanced themselves from their own vaunted dumbness (it’s not Joey Ramone the fictional character, much less the 25-year-old cat-owner behind the pseudonym, who beats on the brat or doesn’t wanna be a pinhead no more), the English punks preferred simply to flaunt theirs. In comparison, the Ramones seem attenuated — wonderful, but arty. When the Clash snarls, “I get violent/When I’m fucked up/I get silent/When I’m drugged up,” they’re saying what they have to say more directly than anyone in avant-punk since the Detroit days, and it works.

I’m not convinced, however, that the misapprehension of English punk by Americans will prove equally creative. The general jolt of activity and excitement is welcome. The kids at Max’s who recall a B side by Chris Spedding — “Do the pose/All you have to do is wear the clothes” — have vulgarized what began as brutally witty street fashions, and star fever could distort an avant-garde scene that became healthy only when it faced up to its own modest commercial potential. Although I approve of the British-inspired vogue for independent singles, I worry about how the music on the albums I hope follow is going to sound.

The irresistible straightforwardness and conviction of so much English new wave goes with an energy that is political rather than aesthetic, and no less advanced artistically for that. But the source of this energy is a state of class warfare with no real parallel in this country, where repressive desublimation still has enough money behind it to make obliqueness aesthetically appropriate. Translated into American, the sincere rage of Eater and the Clash is likely to issue in molten-metal torrents of boredom and misogyny that lack even the justification of metaphorical license. I find it ominous that when England’s Damned came over to CBGB, the opening act, Cleveland’s Dead Boys — a runty cross between macho Ted Nugent, decadent Iggy, and the despicable Stranglers — established themselves as the hottest new punks in the land.

None of which has diminished my excitement yet. English punk turns everyone who likes it into a helpless fan; because it’s still so local, there are only second-hand experts here. So I buy singles on the basis of gossip or title or picture sleeve or Pazz & Jop rating, and read whatever comes my way — Simon Frith’s column in Creem, one issue of the Xeroxed London fanmag Sniffin’ Glue, a July piece from Time that Sire Records sent me in late September. And even though Ira Robbins of Trouser Press claims it’s all over but the selling, even though a few recent parody records muster enough musical authority to excite the skepticism they intend, I’m hot to get to London and see for myself.

Meanwhile, I cling to my scraps of plastic and print and attempt my own creative misapprehension. I keep thinking of Kingston, where I spent eight days in search of reggae roots in 1973. I found then that there was no guided tour, no way to hit the record companies, radio stations, and retailers for a guaranteed overview. The roots were too deep and various to be rationalized so easily. Almost any persevering rudeboy could connect with one of the dozens and dozens of small-time record producers, plug a topic or image of the day into a rhythmic formula supplied by a community of poorly paid session men, and come up with an arresting or even important piece of music. The English punks (most of whom are reggae fans) provide their own formula — Sniffin’ Glue published a diagram of the basic chords — and sometimes scare up enough capital to become entrepreneurs themselves. I bet not all of them are poor. But they share with the rudeboys their inexperience, their threatened maleness, their potential for demagogy, their need to reconcile class identification with professional/artistic ambition, their inchoate politics of rebellion, and their ultimate vulnerability. And so they are worthy of pity and awe as well as skepticism.

To a lover of avant-punk who holds proudly to his square politics — his belief that only collective action will enable the mass of dispossessed people to attain personal power — this is a reasonable facsimile of a dream come true. I don’t expect it to last. It’s only culture, flawed culture, ridden with evident contradictions and resting on a material substructure of monumental inertia and fearsome ill will. But for the moment I’ll settle. Rock and roll!

[related_posts post_id_1=”692479″ /]

3. Fascism, Sexism, and Old Farts

I am not a punk. I am 35 years old, fervently attached to my marriage and my work, and better off materially than I could have wished or imagined in 1970. But someone once flattered me (inordinately) by writing that I seemed classless and almost ageless, and my excitement over this music no doubt connects with the fact that I can create such an impression. Conversely, much of the resistance avant-punk inspires, although expressed in careful musical or sociological formulations, has an ad hominem dimension of age or class. About music I could go on forever, and about age there isn’t much to say — perhaps having to keep up with a couple of kids will eventually dispel my feeling that rushes of musical adrenalin are good for the system, but I doubt it. The sociological misgivings of the anti-punks, on the other hand, seem to me quite substantial.

In a world where lib-rad goody-goodies compare rock concerts to Nuremberg rallies and dismiss all electric guitarists as phallic narcissists, it’s not hard to understand why so many bright young avant-punk musicians and fans consider abstractions like “fascism” and “sexism” squarer than love beads. Not that such terms can’t refer to anything real. But they’ve turned into scarewords, deployed by comfortable hypocrites who pretend that to name a manifestation of horror is a meaningful way to control it. Nevertheless, I don’t buy the (always unstated) defense of fascism and sexism as they manifest themselves in avant-punk. This isn’t merely another ironic confrontation with brutal facts that are prettied up and exploited by mainstream hard rock. For one thing, whether such horrors are disarmed by aesthetic means is even more iffy than it is in the case of mechanical cacophony or adolescent aggression. Worse still, for American-style punks even to admit that disarmament is their purpose — if indeed it is — is to violate their own ironic strategies, while for the English to abandon their straightforwardness in such contexts, as they sometimes do — or claim to — is at best a questionable tactic.

Avant-punks’s vaguely Nazisymp reputation seemed mostly a matter of aura until recently. Given the disciplined brutality of the basic style and the S&M flirtations of first Lou Reed and then Iggy (both sometimes sojourners in Berlin), those who get nervous whenever 500 people chant in time were sure to see the worst in David Johansen’s goosesteps or Brother J.C. Crawford’s exhortations to kick out the jams. The rest of us, however — especially those who believe that sometimes collective violence worked for good — were not obliged to agree. But then the Dictators, counted by some as another seminal avant-punk band, made this aura their central “joke,” to the point where songwriter Adny Shernoff placed a racist remark (about Puerto Ricans) in an early issue of Punk. And then came the Ramones, with three songs referring to Germany on their first album; an especially charming couplet, “I’m Nazi schatze/Y’know I fight for the fatherland,” highlighted their climactic “Today Your Love, Tomorrow the World,” which regularly moved a few aspiring punks to heil-Hitler salutes. In England, where the Ramones have been so influential, swastikas are even more popular among punks than they are here; to middle-class people who have confidence in such formulations, the English punks, with their defiant lumpen nihilism, might well recall “the growing masses outside all class strata” described by Hannah Arendt as “natural prey to Fascist movements.” So it’s no surprise that an English band, the Cortinas, has released a single called “Fascist Dictator,” the boastful momentum of which recalls the Stones’ “I’m a King Bee” done double-time: “I’m a fascist dictator/That’s what I am/I’m a fascist dictator/Ain’t like no other man.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”714781″ /]

None of this looks very good, but none of it is as bad as it looks. If anything, the new punk is consciously anti-fascist, which is a step up from the apathy and complacency of most rock and roll. Unless you think the Ramones identify with Charlie Manson, the Texas chain-saw killer, CIA men, SLAers, geeks, glue-sniffers, and electroshock patients — an absurd misreading as far as I’m concerned — then you must conclude that their intention is satiric, and the same applies when they turn to fascist characters. Meanwhile, England, unlike the U.S., faces a clear, self-identified fascist threat, the National Front, which most punks take the trouble to oppose explicitly; when Johnny Rotten calls Queen Elizabeth’s government “a fascist regime” it’s fair to assume he wants no part of it. Even the Cortinas’ song works as a Ramones-style irony.

The problem is that irony is wasted on pinheads. The Cortinas’ protagonist is like no other man for two reasons — he’s a fascist dictator and he gets no pleasure from love. Even if the Cortinas do intend an invidious equation, each side of which devalues the other, those of their fans who get no pleasure from love — victimized by one of the brutal modern facts that made punk necessary — may not see it that way. They may conclude that if the loss of pleasure is their fate, they might as well, in the classic fascist pattern, seek power instead. Considering how many hippies ended up in authoritarian religious movements when they discovered that enlightenment did not solve their problems, it seems likely that a few of those saluting Ramones fans will undergo a comparable political life-change when they discover the limits of energy. Beyond the liberal-baiting, beyond the image of horror, avant-punk is forebodingly ambivalent here, with a complexity barely suggested by this one stanza of Iggy Pop’s “China Girl”: “My Little China Girl/You shouldn’t mess with me/I’ll ruin everything you are/I’ll give you television/I’ll give you eyes of blue/I’ll give you men who want to rule the world.”

The parallel issue of sexism, implicit in the roots of rock and roll, is even knottier; but here, too, the evidence is mixed. In New York, the two most prestigious bands, Television and Talking Heads, avoid both macho and wimp and are notably unantagonistic toward women. Ironic strategies abound, especially from the Ramones and Blondie, who puts on her bombshell image so convincingly that she’s turned into a rockmag pinup (how do you jerk off ironically?), and whose theme song rips “Miss Groupie Supreme” to shreds. In England, the Sex Pistols and the Clash direct their underclass rage, so often deflected toward women in rock and roll, right where it belongs, at the rich and powerful, and social-problem clichés are invoked much more often than women-problem clichés. But irony is double-edged, and the mechanical, pleasureless, hostile sexuality projected by names like Vibrators, Sex Pistols, and (get this one) Buzzcocks is, once again, more than liberal-baiting. The avant-punk scene is certainly no better place for women than any other rock scene and in crucial instances it’s worse.

[related_posts post_id_1=”717812″ /]

“Some day I’m gonna smash your face,” barks 27-year-old ex-schoolteacher Hugh Cornwell of the (talkin’ ’bout the Boston) Stranglers in his first words to an American audience, and he’s echoed by young short and whiny Stiv Bators of the Dead Boys: “Don’t look at me that way bitch/Your face is gonna get a punch.” I am assured that such metatheatre, the candor of which is new to rock and roll, merely desublimates an adolescent fantasy that has always fed into the music’s aggressive sexuality, and is directed solely at the kind of fucked-up female — vain and slavish, sucking after any connection to power, and (to quote Bators) “born with dishpan hands” — who afflicts the scene. Only I don’t believe the fantasy to be adolescent — gender, not age, is what’s relevant — and I wonder (rhetorically) why more putdown songs aren’t devoted to fucked-up male hangers-on. I do make a distinction between the Stranglers, posers with the gall to claim their misogyny constitutes a positive political protest, and the altogether more desperate and vulnerable — hence revelatory — Dead Boys. But I don’t want to listen to either. I got loads of hostilities, but my need to beat up women is repressed, and I hope it stays that way. It’d be some world if we all went around killing our fathers.

If it appears that I’m confusing art with morality, or with life, well, I didn’t start it. This is the Stranglers and the Dead Boys I’m talking about, not Oedipus Rex or Céline or, for that matter, the Rolling Stones, and if the confusion of art with life is common on a scene which becomes ever more unsophisticated as it expands, that’s at least partly the fault of the second-rate artists who are being misunderstood. Desublimation my ass. Tales of affectless protopunks in jail for beating on their girlfriends (how do you punch someone ironically?), or of the varieties of consensual stoopidity, remind me that the only reason no woman was ever seduced — or raped — by a book is that books don’t have penises. Art is only art, but it can really damage people anyway. Avant-punk sexism not only repels those smart, unmasochistic women who don’t choose to cultivate the cool that plugging safely into the scene requires, it also has the effect of encouraging less savvy and independent women to fulfill its prophecy. And while it may be true that the only way to defuse certain fantasies and forbidden ideas is to bring them into the open, it’s dishonest to pretend that such idealistic motives — or such ideal results — are usually present here.

So it isn’t just goody-goodies and old farts who stay away from CBGB. All good rock and roll risks fascism simply by generating mass energy, and much of it flirts with sexism simply by exploring the music’s traditional subject matter. Sometimes the risks are worth it, sometimes they aren’t. It’s not enough to argue that the Dead Boys pervert the Ramones — not when the Ramones’ deadpan invited the perversion. I love the Ramones myself. I think the settled over-25s (and sensitive under-25s) who equate the Ramones with the Dead Boys are wrong. But their mistake is at least as understandable as the mistake of bright young avant-punks who think abstractions like “fascism” and “sexism” are squarer than love beads.

[related_posts post_id_1=”715339″ /]

4. The Next Medium Thing

It really is different this time, because the music will be there. Over the next six months, Americans will have a chance to purchase albums by dozens of artists who spit at the conventional wisdom of the record industry, or seem to. Many of them will reflect signings made possible by the most recent punk explosion, and almost all will share with punk its paucity of sophisticated production techniques, such as chords. But not all of them will qualify as avant-punk. England’s Elvis Costello is more pub; Boston’s Loco Alexander is basically an eccentric white r&b stylist; the lead singer of New York’s Shirts has a big part in Hair; Los Angeles’s Runaways are punky female Monkees created by a record producer. And even bands that clearly are in the style hedge their bets. The first two British albums in the U.S. sweepstakes, by the Jam and the Stranglers, were accompanied by press material making it clear that these boys were really “new wave,” not that nasty old punk.

In other words, the record industry is playing it both ways. Not many music execs like the stuff, which is designed to blast away every “artistic” standard they hold dear. But unlike the actual standard-bearers — established rock musicians like those who reportedly put together a protest petition when English A&M briefly signed the Sex Pistols — the executives don’t feel threatened where they live. If it makes noise, they’re set up to make money off it. Many of them sense that Johnny Rotten is something special, perhaps unprecedented, and all of them have heard that the two giants, Warners and CBS, are vying for him. They’re also aware that Warners has picked up the American punk company, Sire, from ABC, and that CBS has been dealing with Britain’s pub-to-punk Stiff label and is preparing a major push with the Vibrators. Still, they have their own tastes and truisms. They know that the Sire catalogue also includes Renaissance and old Fleetwood Mac, that Stiff means an in with Graham Parker, that English phenoms like T. Rex and Slade have fizzled here. They know the radio stations and their own distribution networks are filled with the kind of tasteful rock fans who are outraged by punk. And they know — or think they know — that the rock audience is as put off by the rough, the extreme, and the unfamiliar as they are.

This rock audience is the one the execs created — more passive and cautious than that of a decade ago not just because kids have changed, although they have, but because it is now dominated statistically by different, and more passive, kids. My first assumption about punk is that it will attract new blood to rock and roll, and my first question is whether a transfusion is possible. Will the marginal fans of boogie and heavy metal decide they’re tired of all that calculated spontaneity and putative self-expression? Will they turn from those big, thick cushions of loudness and decorative licks of musicianship? Will something real be forged from the surviving dogmas of teen rebellion? Or will punk artists who only appear to spit at the conventional wisdom of the industry sneak between instant oblivion and world takeover?

[related_posts post_id_1=”562145″ /]

The prime contenders for such compromised punk superstardom are the Stranglers and the Dead Boys, either of whom could convert to modishly bombed-out heavy metal inside of two months, and the Rods a/k/a Eddie and the Hot Rods, basically a double-time boogie band. In America, any grander artistic hopes must rest with those hard-working heroes of concept punk, the Ramones, who have charted a single and attracted the biggest booking agent in rock, both inconceivable feats a year ago. Among the English bands the fate of the Sex Pistols is crucial; Johnny Rotten looks like a rock star who could matter, and he might ease things for the Jam and the Vibrators, both pop-based, hook-prone hard rock bands of a sort that has proved too tough for comfort before, and even for the Clash, so crude and unpretty that they qualify as protest music in every sense of the word. Rotten is so special, though, that his commercial impact might have negative musical effects — so far, he’s found truth in the kind of overstated self-dramatization that has killed so much rock and roll, but I don’t look forward to his imitators. That’s why I’m rooting for the Ramones — they suggest a way out of his expressionistic cul-de-sac, just as Rotten suggests a way out of their formalistic one, and the syntheses could be stunning, as Television, Patti Smith, and Talking Heads have already demonstrated.

By experimenting with certain implicit imperatives of rock and roll, punk cleans out the ears. It’s one thing to theorize that most of what is called hard rock these days is really a species of MOR, another to recoil at the goo of Foreigner after scouring yourself with the Clash for a week. It’s one thing to know that great stylists are born of the sort of naive audacity that’s unhampered by technical preconceptions, another to hear Tom Verlaine turn into a great rock guitarist who owes almost nothing to blues beyond bent notes. It’s one thing to believe that music need not swing to activate, another to pogo up and down to the Clash while some Italian Communist who likes Pink Floyd — a combination that would ordinarily seem wondrous — complains about “the rhythm of death.” I mean, this music definitely decreases your tolerance for sentimentality.

Sentimentality has its uses, of course. Basically, it is sentimentality that enables us to believe in things, to get through life, and because these are artists who don’t yet believe in very much, I worry about how they and their audience are going to manage. Think of it — they don’t even claim to believe in rock and roll. Yet that too I find cleansing, because the music business has transformed believing in rock and roll into the most odious sentimentality of all. Rock and roll isn’t something you believe in, in that onanistic, self-reflexive way that has vitiated so much modernist art. It is something you do to get somewhere else, until the doing becomes a kind of belief in itself. That, after all, is the avant-punk attitude, and at this pregnant moment it seems at least possible that these rock and rollers won’t end up where they began.

***

This and other classic Voice stories can also be be found on Robert Christgau’s site. His most recent book, Is It Still Good to Ya? Fifty Years of Rock Criticism, 1967–2017, was published last year.

 

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES

Punk ’77: The Politics of Punk

Beyond the Dole Queue

A couple of months ago I went to a festival in London organized by Music for Socialism. Music for Socialism is a group of musicians and writers who came together “to explore the connections between socialist politics and their personal involvement with music,” and the point of the festival was to make such exploration public. An elaborate program of concerts and workshops was arranged; there were performances in every style of folk and rock and avant-garde and speakers from every style of Marxist and libertarian and sexual politics. We were all set for a weekend of sophisticated debate: What is the relationship of revolutionary form and revolutionary content? What is the correct political position of the artist? How should we handle the forces of the music business, the contradictions of popular consciousness?

I still can’t answer any of these questions and the meeting didn’t turn out like that at all. Discussion was crude, repetitive, and dominated by one subject: the politics of punk. The recurrent question was a simple one — is punk “the most reactionary fascist trend in popular culture today?” — and the recurrent answer was simple, too: Yes. The punks were denounced by Cornelius Cardew, haut-bourgeois avant-garde composer turned Maoist member of Peoples Liberation Music, and PLM had no doubts at all. Hesitant objections were curtly dismissed. The Clash? No need even to listen to their songs — just look at the LP: issued by CBS, an international monopoly capitalist concern, and featuring on the front sleeve a Union Jack, symbol of imperialism, and on the back a photo of policemen charging, propaganda for the state forces.

Confronted by such sublime certainties, I retreated to my record player, but this has not been the only political response to punk nor even the crudest one. Other political groups have been indulging in an opposite opportunism. The Young Communist League issues scrawled punk newsletters in which the obligatory Sex Pistols quotes are interspersed with their own aphorisms — “Reading the Morning Star forms an essential part of my daily life” — ­and the Socialist Workers Party uses Rock Against Racism (originally formed in response to Eric Clapton’s burgling) to issue its own punk paper, Temporary Hoard­ing, in which Johnny Rotten emerges, after some neat flicks of interviewing technique, as a vanguard of work­ing-class struggle.

[related_posts post_id_1=”718856″ /]

So far the punks themselves have remained uninterested in these struggles for their political souls. Gene October, writer of the Chelsea single, “Right To Work,” an SWP recruiting slogan, comments on the song this way: “The right to work fucks the unions, I say: ‘Your father works on this dock/You work on this dock/If you don’t sign with fucking union/You don’t get the job.’ ” But, on the other hand, the punks have been equally unimpressed by the National Front. In the words of Sniffin’ Glue, the original and authentic punk paper: “The Evenin’ News says the Front are manipulatin’ the new wave. I don’t need to say what bollocks that is. Some cruds say, the NF in power would shake people out of their apathy. Well, cruds, how would you express this newfound anger? It ain’t only the blacks who’ll be shut up. So a big Fuckoff to NF, Lablibcon, Commies, Socialists fuckin’ Workers, the head in the sand brigade, the lot.”

Such cheery and old-fashioned rock ’n’ roll know-no­thingism may be bad news for membership secretaries but, luckily for us, the politics of punk is not a matter of individual intention and allegiance. What is at issue is an ideology, and what this sectarian activity really reveals is that punk has reopened all those ’60s questions about rock ’n’ revolution — questions that haven’t been resolved by the slick styles of ’70s professionalism but merely shelved. Maybe this time we’ll be able to come to some conclusions about the radical possibilities of popular culture.

We must start with the contradiction: Punk is neither a direct, spontaneous expression of youth experience (as the SWP would like to think) nor the simple result of media manipulation (as PLM argues). It is the result of the interplay of both processes and it is that interplay that we have to understand. Punk musicians, like any others, make their music with reference not just to their own individual or class experiences, but also to existing ideas about the meaning and purpose and potential of rock. Punk is, in its turn, seized on by the music business and given commer­cial meanings and interpretations which filter back to the musicians.

Now, after two years or so of hectic activity, three strands are apparent in British punk ideology. At its core is a musical argument: Punk is, formally, rock ’n’ roll — it is technically simple, constructed around a plain hard beat, the source of uncomplicated and immediate pleasure. This is the argument that links British and American punk and gives the Ramones, for example, their transatlantic significance.

[related_posts post_id_1=”715299″ /]

In Britain itself, the origins of punk rock ’n’ roll can be found in pub-rock, which provided the aesthetic, the setting, the self-confidence, and the musicians from whom punk eventually emerged. Transitional groups like the 101ers or the London SS are now enshrined in punk myth, but the pub/punk continuity is most clearly symbolized by Stiff Records, owned and staffed by old pub-rockers, and a source of ideas and opportunities for new punk-rockers. Stiff’s pioneering new wave band was the Damned, and an old-fashioned group they are too, dedicated, like their label, to making money and having a good time.

The politics of punk rock ’n’ roll, from the Ramones to the Damned, derive from a vague teenage consciousness and are confined to the lethal needling of the adult establishment — such stylistic outrage is expressed by names like the Damned’s Rat Scabies, and records like the Adverts’ “Gary Gilmore’s Eyes.” But all that’s going on here is teenage rock ’n’ roll — new musicians, new audi­ences, but the same old motives and excitement and musical conventions. The resulting records are fresh, energetic, invigorating, and at the moment I’d rather listen to a good punk rock ’n’ roll band like the Jam or the Boomtown Rats than to either the old or new work of their original models, the Who and the Stones. But I’m still listening for the old reason — to feel good.

The second strand in the ideology of punk is a critique of the music business which develops directly from the rock ’n’ roll conventions: the reason why teenage music must be remade is because all the original rock ’n’ rollers have become boring old farts, imprisoned by the routines of showbiz, by the distant calculations of profit-making, by delusions of rock as art and bourgeois commodity. From this perspective the return to rock ’n’ roll roots is, in itself, a radical rejection of record company habits and punk’s musical simplicity is a political statement. The ide­ology of the garage band is an attack on the star system. Punk attitudes toward the music business are derived, ironically enough, from 1960s counterculture. The most articulate exponents of the punk critique are, in fact, old hippies like Caroline Coon, Melody Maker’s punk spokeswoman, and the fortunes of, say, the Sex Pistols are guided behind the scenes by an older generation of rock radicals. The resulting suspicions of big capitalist con­cerns, of musical bureaucrats, of radio programmers, are familiar to anyone who can remember how down hippie bands like the Dead or the Airplane once were on the business. So are the ever-hopeful declarations of indepen­dence, the constant denunciations of sellout, the unfulfilled promises of “a new way of doing things.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”718291″ /]

What’s really new is the integration of these countercul­tural arguments into the teenage consciousness of rock ’n’ roll — record companies are denounced for precisely the practices they developed the last time this battle was fought. Rock and showbiz are now the same thing — for these young punks rock institutions like Rolling Stone or Clive Davis or FM radio or Bill Graham are obviously and profoundly irrelevant. Screw the revolution! The point is made by a succession of earnestly angry (and engrossing) punk groups — my current favorites are the Boys. It is captured in the title of Generation X’s reply to Pete Townshend, “Your Generation.”

My own response to these punks is a mixture of grudging admiration and affectionate skepticism: So, okay, how are you gonna protect your rock ’n’ roll integrity? How are you going to stop your records, your successes, your messages from becoming just more commodities in a well-oiled market? And what is surprising and exhilarating and heartening is that the punks, some of them, have an answer. It comes most powerfully and most ambiguously from the Sex Pistols, but it comes most clearly from the Clash, always the pushiest new wavers. Their new single, “Complete Control,” is an attack on their own record company, CBS, and when at the end Joe Strummer screams “We’re gonna take control — and that means you!”, the you refers to the audience. How this alliance is effected remains unclear, but at least Strummer seems to understand that the old peace-and-love bullshit won’t work, and this is a step in the direction of realism.

The third strand of British punk ideology is a class-based consciousness that music-biz corruption is not just an abstract effect of the market but is of a piece with other forms of class domination and exploitation: the tax exiles are not just aesthetically irrelevant — with their Hollywood hideouts, their accumulations of wealth, they’ve also become the enemy.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692479″ /]

It is from this perspective that punk can be heard as the music of the “dole queue kids.” The coincidence of the rise of punk with the highest and most persistent rate of youth unemployment Britain has ever known has been drama­tized by music journalists (even the “Punk! Shock! Horror!” of the popular press includes unemployment as one of the horrors) and for a dedicated social group like the Clash the connection is axiomatic. Their angriest songs­ — “Career Opportunities,” “White Riot,” “London’s Burn­ing” — are explicit about the connection of teenage/rock ’n’ roll/dole queue consciousness.

But though Clash records are politically admirable, their simple identification of punk and the dole queue is, in the end, misleading. Punk class consciousness is one aspect of a complex and contradictory ideology; the Clash and the Pistols are professional musicians, not dole queue kids, and they lost whatever folk authenticity they had the moment they decided, for whatever reasons, to sign recording contracts and to make music for a mass audience. To tell the truth, I don’t really believe that most punk musicians ever were dole queue kids — they come from the ambitious, art-school, individualist stratum that has always provided Britain with its rock stars. (In the post today I got the debut single of Arista’s first punk signing, the Secret, whose publicity even boasts of the presence of the slumming son of a Tory M.P.) The Clash and the Pistols have established social realism as an essential part of punk ideology but this does not make their music the “direct expression of the contemporary working class.” The punk attitude to the dole is really that of Johnny Rotten: “Music’s a relief from all that. It’s not about going and being miserable because you’re on the dole. I know it’s tough on the dole but it’s not that bad. When I was on it, I was getting paid for doing nothing. I thought it was fucking great. Fuck up the system the best way.…”

Paradoxical as it may seem, it is precisely because punk rock is not the folk expression of some countercultural group that I am hopeful. The politics of punk don’t rest on the social backgrounds of individual performers but on the power of their music as popular culture; hippie history is not about to repeat itself, this time as farce. Punk is a moment not of radical rock but of teenage pop and it is in this context that the significance of the dole queue becomes clear. If rock ’n’ roll has always been the music of teenage frustration, desires in the past have been thwarted by conventions rather than by resources. Rock, as youth culture and as bohemianism, has been affluent music and even Britain’s most obviously proletarian pop — Slade, late Mott the Hoople — was an expression of collective pride, fun, self-confidence, good humor.

[related_posts post_id_1=”562145” /]

Punk is tapping a different mood altogether — self-dis­gust, boredom, doubt, anger. Today’s teenage frustration is caused not by fuddy-duddy parents, not by easily shocked adults, but by an intractable economic situation, by a society in which everyone talks a lot about the plight of youth but no one does anything. This isn’t an ideology, it is a mood, but it’s the mood that the punk rockers draw on for their power and shape with their art. It’s a mood, too, that’s full of contradiction — hence all the political sects buzzing about it — and punk musicians, willy-nilly, have to interpret it for themselves. So far honors are about even: an old-fashioned misogynist group like the Damned is answered by the gay and aggressive Tom Robinson Band; orthodox careerists like the Jam are answered with the wild and woolly Sham 69. If for nothing else, all the punks can be proud of their contemptuous assault on the racism the National Front is trying to pass, with increasing hysteria, down the dole queues.

The point of all this is, I think, that cultural politics are about situation and not intention; rock takes its meaning from its conditions of production and consumption, not from the artistic souls of its creators. This point was obscured in the 1960s by the embourgeoisement of rock ’n’ roll. For the last decade, politics has been equated with poetry although, in fact, the only politically significant rock group, the Czech band, Plastic People, is important precisely because its music does not arise from the artistic conditions of Western capitalism. The truth is that rock ’n’ roll’s political potential comes from its collective form, not from its individual expression, and this is my final point. One of the themes that was due for discussion at that Music for Socialism Festival was an old one: To make revolu­tionary music, must we revolutionize musical language? Is avant-garde the only radical art?

The punk answer is yes, but not in the formalistic, self-indulgent sense that revolutionary artists usually mean. Punk is an avant-garde language from both sides, audience as well as artists — if you don’t believe me, listen to the free-form noise of the Live at the Roxy LP. Of course, British punk fans were prepared for this by disco and reggae experimentation — but that is another story.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Pazz & Jop

1977 Pazz & Jop: Pazz & Joppers Dig Pistols — What Else Is New?

A fellow member of the rock criticism establishment tells me that the poll which inspires my annual wrap-up might have a real shot at exposure in the newsweeklies — a chance to get some AM airplay and go pop — if it wasn’t saddled with such a ridiculous name. And I respond that the name is supposed to be ridiculous. Not that it’s actually meaningless, of course, but why go into that? I like the term Pazz & Jop because it once set Clay Felker to concocting alternate back-cover flags and is regarded by my current boss as virtually unpronounceable. It sounds dumb, and it gives me an out. Is this the most comprehensive year-end poll of rock critics conducted anywhere? You bet. Is it official? Of course not. How could it be?

Despite my feckless promises, selection procedures were shoddier than ever in 1977. Because I spent most of December puzzling over current trends in British youth culture, letters of invitation were mailed out in a last-minute flurry. Together with fellow Pazz & Jop Poobah Ken Tucker, I resorted to last year’s list, eliminating obvious dropouts (like R. Meltzer, who claims to have given up criticism for the joys of performance) and adding a few new guys. This process was complicated by my loss of the 1976 addresses; several late entries claim to have received their ballots on due date minus one. So I admit to haphazard panel selection as well as the usual bias of rock critics toward rock and roll. I swear I’ve never met 25 of the 68 critics who were tallied this year, but since I favor Riffs contributors and rely on the advice of editors and publicists, a certain in-groupishness is also inevitable. About two-thirds of the voters are from New York, including several who weren’t in 1976 — they keep immigrating. And as usual, I regret the paucity of critics of black music (in the world as well as in this poll), although it was country music that really got the shaft this year, with only four artists mentioned more than once.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692474″ /]

If it ever came down to making this all fair and official, though, I’d be in a quandry, because there’s lots of people who write about records who don’t belong in this poll. At many dailies, the rock beat is less prestigious (and steady) than the obit page for good reason, while a lot of what passes for record and concert criticism at the weekly leisure-time handouts now running amok all over America is obviously nothing more than a means to freebies. I’m sure I’ve overlooked dozens of serious people who work not only at listening to music but at thinking about it, which is even rarer. But I’m sure too that I’ve excluded hundreds of dunderheads by means of my arbitrary haphazardness. I apologize to the workers, request the dunderheads to leave me alone, remind everyone that this is still the weird old Village Voice, and insist that the Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll actually represents what the best rock critics think.

As you’ve probably gathered already, what they think is Sex Pistols. As you probably haven’t guessed, this both surprised and disappointed me. I was rooting for Fleetwood Mac. For one thing, as you can ascertain by perusing my personal top 30 below, I think Rumours is a (slightly) better record than Never Mind the Bollocks. But I also think it’s remarkable historically. As 1978 began, it had been number one in Record World for 32 weeks and seemed quite certain to become the best-selling album of all time, passing not only Frampton Comes Alive!, the Rumours of 1976, but all-time biggies like Bridge Over Troubled Water and Tapestry. More remarkable, Rumours is honest, courageous, even formula-defying music — so much so that when Greil Marcus reviewed it here he predicted that its toughness and passion would cost it millions of customers craving the sweetness of the group’s breakthrough LP, Fleetwood Mac. Most remarkable of all, it’s still possible to listen to it. Oh, a few sorehead radio addicts like Tom Smucker may add some comment like “docked a point for being sick of it,” but the fact remains that this seems to be the most durable pop music ever put on plastic. It’s not going to change anybody’s life, but rock and roll is supposed to be about pleasure as well as all the heavy stuff, and I’m glad that in this year of the punk Fleetwood Mac was here to remind us of that.

I must admit, though, that there was another reason to root for Rumours: credibility. If a popular favorite had won, it might have convinced a few skeptics that all this punk stuff is not, to use the popular expression, hype. What rock critics are supposed to gain from their hype has never been clear to me: Since death by boredom is not something the industry really believes can happen to itself, and since record sales are better than ever, publicists would much prefer we bury the troublemakers and throw our support to manageable hard-rock professionals like the Dingoes and the eponymous Eddie Money. In fact, punk might conceivably destroy the all-too-comfortable symbiosis between rock journalism and the rock industry. Not that it’s anywhere near as cozy as conspiracy theorists imagine — even in the best of times relations are marred by habitual disrespect on both sides. But critics are a source of some small status, a perquisite of the easy life that is treasured in this traditionally disreputable biz, and have helped to support and eventually break more than a few unusual but tasty acts, Fleetwood Mac among them. If punk should prove modestly profitable, as seems quite possible, then the symbiosis will continue undisturbed. But if it should prove unprofitable and yet refuse to roll over and play dead, and if critics should continue to support it — a scenario that also seems plausible — then I wouldn’t be surprised if some big companies began to take the same neglectful attitude toward low-rent journalistic recalcitrants as a label like Motown, which has been notoriously stingy with review copies and information for as long as I’ve been writing about rock and roll.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692472″ /]

But all that is the future. What we have now is a critics’ poll in which the top three albums feature not only newcomers but rank amateurs. Last year, when the Pazz & Jop top 30 included nine debut albums as opposed to six this year, the big winners were Graham Parker and Kate & Anna McGarrigle — new names, to be sure, but in each case backed by a reliable contingent of veterans. In contrast, no member of the Sex Pistols or Television has ever played on an LP before. The anonymous backup musicians on Elvis Costello’s My Aim Is True may have, but only their producer knows for sure, and Costello’s tour band, the Attractions, has no professional credentials whatsoever. Neither do any of 1977’s other new bands: Talking Heads, the Jam, Mink DeVille. If you want to know why old rock and rollers hate punk so much, there it is — these know-nothings are pogoing right over them.

At least as far as the working press is concerned, and there is the next difference. The 1976 Pazz & Jop top 30 included 15 commercial blockbusters: Stevie Wonder, Jackson Browne, Steely Dan, Joni Mitchell, Rod Stewart, Blue Oyster Cult, David Bowie, Bob Seger (which hit in 1977), Dr. Buzzard (ditto), Boz Scaggs, Boston, Thin Lizzy, Bob Dylan, Jeff Beck, and Linda Ronstadt. This year, the critics rejected albums by Mitchell, Stewart, the Cult, Scaggs, Thin Lizzy, and Dylan while Bowie ceased to bust blocks, leaving only seven best-sellers: Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan, Randy Newman (heavy sales among leprechauns), Jackson Browne, James Taylor, the Beatles, and Linda Ronstadt (who with the failure of Eno’s Discreet Music is now the only artist to have made the last four Pazz & Jop polls, usually in the bottom five). And barring a punk breakthrough of proportions much larger than I think likely — although every night I gaze at the image of Maureen Tucker over my bedroom door and pray that I’m wrong — the only potential 1978 biggie I spy lurking amid this year’s works of art is this year’s sleeper, Cheap Trick. More and more, rock critics see themselves as guardians of an aesthetic of insurrection, and fuck what people are going to buy.

This phenomenon bespeaks neither cliquishness nor desperation. It is positive. The Sex Pistols actually did better out of town than in New York, proportionally, and Television scored remarkably high among critics who could never have seen the band live; the New York cult artists turned out to be Talking Heads, supposedly CBGB’s easiest crossover, and Garland Jeffreys, who almost outdistanced a coasting Randy Newman as singer-songwriter of the year. And although only two more critics voted this year than last, the top albums had much stronger support. The four highest-ranking 1977 albums all earned more points and more mentions than last year’s winner, Songs in the Key of Life, which got 292 votes from 25 critics. On the other hand, the consensus on lesser albums this year was more quirkish and arbitrary than ever; where only 11 points separate 1977’s bottom 10 there was a 23-point difference in 1976.

Some oddities. Of last year’s nine debut acts, only one, the Ramones, came in higher this year; both Parker and the McGarrigles dipped, Dwight Twilley and Jonathan Richman finished out of the running, and four artists — the Wild Tchoupitoulas, Boston, Dr. Buzzard, and Warren Zevon — produced no follow-up. Ornette Coleman’s Dancing in Your Head — “cosmic as they come” (Richard Riegel), “funnier than Funkadelic” (Tom Smucker) — was the first album by a jazz artist ever to make the poll. The Eagles would have placed had not their Hotel California been released December 6, 1976. The surprise finisher was the Chicago hard rock band Cheap Trick, which released two albums in 1977; the debut got a few votes, and the follow-up, In Color, a brilliantly executed if rather content-free compendium of pre-punk Anglophile moves, finished third among out-of-town critics and enjoyed support from New Yorkers as well. Genesis’s Peter Gabriel, the Persuasions, James Taylor, the Beach Boys, and Kraftwerk (disco crossover of the year) are veteran artists who placed for the first time. So is Al Green (hooray! finally!). And so are the Beatles (welcome aboard, lads). Finally, the number 31, 32, and 33 records deserve recognition: Blank Generation, by Richard Hell and the Voidoids; Ahh…the Name Is Bootsy, Baby!, by Bootsy’s Rubber Band; and Hard Again, by Muddy Waters.

With a few exceptions — like Charley Walters, who acknowledges that maybe he doesn’t “truly like real rock ’n’ roll,” and Ira Mayer, whose deepest sympathies are with folk music — the mood among this year’s Pazz & Joppers was exultant. For once, we had trouble keeping records off our lists rather than coming up with ones it wasn’t embarrassing to include. I find myself strangely unmoved by Elvis Costello, often suspecting that he is “New Wave” for people with good taste (I prefer the term punk just because it is so hackneyed, inexact, and declasse). But last year Costello might have made my top 30 on sheer, calculable quality. Instead, I have to apologize to Elvin Bishop, Eno, Cachao, Townshend-Lane, and all the others who have given me intense pleasure in 1977 but couldn’t hold up against the competition. My biggest regret was the rule banning imports; I would have given about 24 points to The Clash, my favorite album of the year, and other Pazz & Joppers indicated similar enthusiasm. As it was I agonized forever over my top 10; I could have gone as far as number 18, Muddy Waters, without blushing, and settled on Al Green at 10 because The Belle Album is the finest record in years from the man who may turn out to be my favorite artist of this decade. Dancing in Your Head is great work, I know, but this is a year to celebrate rock and roll. Let’s hope the same is true 12 months from now.

[related_posts post_id_1=”572924″ /]

And so, me own top 30, with Pazz & Jop points appended where appropriate:

1. Television: Marquee Moon (Elektra) 13. 2. Ramones: Rocket to Russia (Sire) 13. 3. Kate & Anna McGarrigle: Dancer with Bruised Knees (Warner Bros.) 13. 4. Fleetwood Mac: Rumours (Warner Bros.) 13. 5. Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols (Warner Bros.) 12. 6. Andy Fairweather Low: Be Bop ’n Holla (A&M) 10. 7. Lynyrd Skynyrd: Street Survivors (MCA) 8. 8. The Beach Boys: Love You (Brother/Reprise) 7. 9. Ramones Leave Home (Sire) 6. 10. Al Green: The Belle Album (Hi) 5.

11. Ornette Coleman: Dancing in Your Head (Horizon). 12. The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl (Capitol). 13. Philip Glass: North Star (Virgin). 14. Iggy Pop: Lust for Life (RCA). 15. Bizarros/Rubber City Rebels: From Akron (Clone). 16. Ray Charles: True to Life (Atlantic). 17. Talking Heads: 77 (Sire). 18. Muddy Waters: Hard Again (Blue Sky). 19. Asleep at the Wheel: The Wheel (Capitol). 20. George Jones: All-Time Greatest Hits Volume 1 (Epic).

21. The Jam: In the City (Polydor). 22. Bonnie Raitt: Sweet Forgiveness (Warner Bros.). 23. Garland Jeffreys: Ghost Writer (A&M). 24. Graham Parker & the Rumour: Stick to Me (Mercury). 25. Iggy Pop: The Idiot (RCA). 26. David Bowie: Low (RCA). 27. Bette Midler: Live at Last (Atlantic). 28. The Joy (Fantasy). 29. “Wanna’ Meet the Scruffs?” (Power Play). 30. James Talley: Ain’t It Somethin’ (Capitol).

And my thanks to all those who got their ballots in on time, with a few sample ballots below:

Bobby Abrams, Dale Adamson, Billy Altman, Colman Andrews, Vince Aletti, Lester Bangs, Ken Barnes, Michael Bloom, Jon Bream, Georgia Christgau, Richard Cromelin, Steve DeMorest, Robert Duncan, Ken Emerson, Joe Fernbacher, David Fricke, Aaron Fuchs, Russell Gersten, Jim Girard, Jim Green, Pablo “Yoruba” Guzman, Peter Herbst, Robert Hilburn, Stephen Holden, Tom Hull, Rick Johnson, Peter Knobler, Jerry Leichtling, Bruce Malamut, Greil Marcus, Jon Marlowe, Dave Marsh, Janet Maslin, Ira Mayer, Joe McEwen, Perry Meisel, Bruce Meyer, Jim Miller, Teri Morris, John Morthland, Paul Nelson, Jon Pareles, Kit Rachlis, Richard Riegel, Ira A. Robbins, Wayne Robins, John Rockwell, Frank Rose, Michael Rozek, Mitchell Schneider, Bud Scoppa, Susin Shapiro, Russell Shaw, Don Shewey, Gary Smith, Robert Smith, Tom Smucker, Geoffrey Stokes, Wesley Strick, Ariel Swartley, John Swenson, Ken Tucker, Mark Von Lehmden, Charley Walters, Ed Ward, Tim White, James Wolcott.

VINCE ALETTI: Cerrone: Love in C Minor 10; Love & Kisses 10; Donna Summer: “Once Upon a Time…” 10; The Emotions: Rejoice 10; Loleatta Hollaway: Loleatta 10; Teddy Pendergrass 10; C.J. & Co.: Devil’s Gun 10; Kraftwerk: Trans-Europe Express 10; Jean Carn 10; Peter Brown: Fantasy Love Affair 10.

LESTER BANGS: Richard Hell and the Voidoids: Blank Generation 30; Peter Tosh: Equal Rights 15; Ramones: Rocket to Russia 10; Iggy and the Stooges: Metallic K.O. 10; Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols 5; Ramones Leave Home 5; The Persuasions: Chirpin’ 5; Ornette Coleman: Dancing in Your Head 5; The Saints: I’m Stranded 5; Suicide 5.

PABLO “YORUBA” GUZMAN: Ray Charles: True to Life 15; Johnny Pacheco: The Artist 15; George Duke: Reach for It 15; Caldera: Sky Islands 10; Earth, Wind & Fire: All ’n All 10; Parliament: Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome 10; Willie Colon: Angelitos Negros 10; Steely Dan: Aja 5; Willie Colon and Ruben Blades: Metiendo Mano 5; Nona Hendryx 5.

TOM HULL: Iggy Pop: Lust for Life 15; Bootsy’s Rubber Band: Ahh…The Name Is Bootsy, Baby! 14; Blondie Chaplin 12; Kevin Ayers: Yes, We Have No Mananas 12; Hirth Martinez: Big Bright Street 12; Bob Marley & the Wailers: Exodus 10; Ramones Leave Home 9; Tony Wilson: I Like Your Style 6; Kate & Anna McGarrigle: Dancer with Bruised Knees 5; Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols 5.

GREIL MARCUS: Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols 15; Lynyrd Skynyrd: Street Survivors 15; Al Green: The Belle Album 15; Elvis Costello: My Aim Is True 10; Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers: Rock ’n’ Roll with the Modern Lovers 10; The Persuasions: Chirpin’ 10; Fleetwood Mac: Rumours 10; The Jam: This Is the Modern World 5; Bryan Ferry: In Your Mind 5; Kate & Anna McGarrigle: Dancer with Bruised Knees 5.

JOE MCEWEN: Bootsy’s Rubber Band: Ahh…The Name Is Bootsy, Baby! 20; Mink DeVille 10; Earth, Wind & Fire: All ’n All 10; The Manhattans: It Feels So Good 10; Elvis Costello: My Aim Is True 10; Al Green: The Belle Album 10; The Persuasions: Chirpin’ 10; The Heptones: Party Time 10; Ray Charles: True to Life 5; Parliament: Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome 5.

TOM SMUCKER: Kraftwerk: Trans-Europe Express 17; Garland Jeffreys: Ghost Writer 12; The Beach Boys: Love You 12; Fleetwood Mac: Rumours 12; Merle Haggard: A Working Man Can’t Get Nowhere Today 9; Al Green: The Belle Album 9; Ornette Coleman: Dancing in Your Head 8; Bonnie Raitt: Sweet Forgiveness 7; Mary McCaslin: Old Friends 7; Ramones: Rocket to Russia 7.

CHARLEY WALTERS: Yes: Going for the One 14; Genesis: Wind and Wuthering 12; Steely Dan: Aja 10; Dave Edmunds: Get It 10; David Bowie: Low 10; Gentle Giant: The Missing Piece 10; Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols 10; Tom Newman: Fine Old Tom 8; Steve Hillage: Motivation Radio 8; Talking Heads: 77 8.

Top 10 Albums of 1977

1. Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols (Warner Bros.)

2. Elvis Costello: My Aim Is True (Columbia)

3. Television: Marquee Moon (Elektra)

4. Fleetwood Mac: Rumours (Warner Bros.)

5. Steely Dan: Aja (ABC)

6. Ramones: Rocket to Russia (Sire)

7. Talking Heads: 77 (Sire)

8. Randy Newman: Little Criminals (Warner Bros.)

9. Garland Jeffreys: Ghost Writer (A&M)

10. Cheap Trick: In Color (Epic)

— From the January 23, 1978, issue

 

Pazz & Jop essays and results can also be found on Robert Christgau’s site. His most recent book, Is It Still Good to Ya? Fifty Years of Rock Criticism, 1967–2017, was published last year.

   

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES Datebook Events MUSIC ARCHIVES NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Where To

Jonathan Richman

Over 40 years into his career, Jonathan Richman remains one of underground rock’s most intriguing figures. His ’70s band Modern Lovers inspired punks like Sex Pistols and art rockers like John Cale, and then he achieved quasi-fame in the ’90s, thanks to an appearance with drummer buddy Tommy Larkins in There’s Something About Mary. He largely refuses interviews so what we know of him, we’ve gleaned from his performances and songs: He loves the Velvet Underground, he resents air conditioning, he’s not afraid of romance, he likes to dance at lesbian bars. What more do we need to know?

Thu., Nov. 21, 9:30 p.m.; Fri., Nov. 22, 9:30 p.m., 2013

Categories
ART ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES Datebook Museums & Galleries VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Where To

STYLE RIOT

When Richard Hell started spiking his hair and holding his shredded T-shirts together with safety pins, later influencing the Sex Pistols, he certainly could never have guessed that one day his rebellious fashion statement would be on display in the stuffy Metropolitan Museum of Art. But it’s at PUNK: Chaos to Couture, the latest Costume Institute exhibition, where you’ll find him along with other famous punk rockers, as the show aims to pair up their DIY styles with the luxury clothing they inspired from designers including Hedi Slimane, Ann Demeulemeester, and Karl Lagerfeld. There will be seven galleries in all. Hell can be found in the CBGB gallery, naturally; Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood will have their own gallery, devoted to their famous Seditionaries boutique; and another, called “DIY hardware,” will explore the creative uses of spikes, studs, zippers, and chains.

Tuesdays-Sundays, 9:30 a.m. Starts: May 9. Continues through Aug. 14, 2013

Categories
Media NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Where To

WHAT A DAME

“I didn’t want to be a fashion designer at all,” Dame Vivienne Westwood told the New York Times. “I did it to help my boyfriend.” Her boyfriend was, of course, Malcolm McLaren, manager of the Sex Pistols. Together, they invented the radical punk style of the ’70s: safety pins, ripped T-shirts, spiked dog collars around the neck. How Westwood went from the streets to the high-fashion runways is the focus of the new exhibit at FIT titled Vivienne Westwood 1980–89. The collection tracks her transition from her 1981 unisex pirate-themed collection to creating styles that were more feminine and structured, gaining her a wider audience and more attention from the mainstream press. The exhibition features highlights from her collections (including her iconic “Rocking Horse” boots), footage from the runway shows, photographs from magazines, and video interviews with Westwood.

March 8-April 2, 2011

Categories
VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Where To

The Vibrators

Trash-boogie vets the Vibrators were already a little older than yer average snot-rocketing yob back when they were playing with the Sex Pistols in Brit-punk’s first wave, so who knows how they’re standing thirty-four years later. Somehow, frontman Ian “Knox” Carnochan is still touring, still making records, and still singing those perfectly sweet bubble-goon hooks with just the right amount dirty distorto-glam and glammy joie de vivre. With Walter Lure & the Waldos and 45 Adapters.

Sat., Oct. 2, 10 p.m., 2010

Categories
VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Where To

FLOWERS OF ROTTENNESS

“I’ve got more holes in my mouth than Swiss cheese,” John Lydon/Johnny Rotten told the Voice‘s Sharyn Jackson last month, shortly before he led Public Image Ltd. on their first North American tour in 18 years. He wasn’t speaking metaphorically—the “Rotten” surname lives on from his ’70s Sex Pistols frontman days for very good reason—but Lydon’s only more of a punk for ignoring the aesthetics. After all, he rose Public Image Ltd. from the muddy grave of the Sex Pistols into one of the first, best post-punk band of the early ’80s. Cheers to him—and to his dentist, who certainly isn’t “Happy?” right now.

Tue., May 18, 8 p.m., 2010

Categories
Bars CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Where To

NO FUTURE

This Thanksgiving, it’s not pumpkin pie we’re craving, but rather Punk ‘n’ Pie, BAM’s new series featuring 10 films that cover everything from Sex Pistols to Joy Division. It starts tonight with a rare screening of Breaking Glass, Brian Gibson’s 1980 film that explores the transition from punk to New Wave through the eyes of an angry young woman turned pop sensation. Other highlights include Reggae in Babylon (November 23), which looks at reggae’s influence on punk, and the documentary Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten (November 27 and 28). And mark this on your calendars: On November 24, Christie’s (20 Rockefeller Plaza) will host the “Pop Culture: Punk/Rock” auction, with more than 120 punk items for sale including a flyer for a 1976 show with the Sex Pistols, the Clash, and the Buzzcocks, and scribbled lyrics to a song called “Let’s Go Playmates” by Joey Ramone.

Nov. 21-30, 2008