The second episode of Punk Britannia covered 1976-8, when it was still a tiny movement, until the Sex Pistols appeared as a replacement on a talk show, when they were provoked to utter a few expletives, and all of a sudden the scene exploded.
Journalist Tony Parsons said, “This was our music, our time, there was a reasl sens thea tpun rock was toing to destroy civilization. ”
This seems a bit exaggerated, especially in the wake of all the student riots, the anti Vietnam protests etc that had come close but ultimately colllapsed before the force of capitalism, but then, the hippies were all about peace and love, only rarely turning to violence, but as Bruce Springsteen said in his keynote speech at South by South West, only the punks were truly scary. Not just in their apparent violence, but in that they just didn’t care. They had nothing, so there was very little you could threaten them with.
“Punk was a time when all the freaks and misfits had their moment in the sun” Not only that, but the very basis of Punk’s existence was to be diffent, to challenge the norm, so not only were freaks welcome, non freaks were welcome to become freaks.
Souxie Soux of he Banshees said, ” with very few resources, we were very resourceful” A catroon of the time shows ‘a cord, another cord, start a band’
In our age of anyone with cloth ears being able to put together something approximating music, it is hard to imagine how genuinely radical some of these ideas were, especially coming in the wake of bands numbering university graduates an, mostly with extensive knowledge of all kinds of music and able to play instruments well.
In the past, people learned music, then some decided to compose and play some of their own. Punks stood this idea on its head. They thought of a sound, or if you like a series of noises, then figured out how to play it. Since many of their songs were about being young and angry, it was more important to get that anger across than to play like a virtuoso. Most of them had to play live, when the audience probably wouldn;t hear much of the detail anyway.
As punk expanded, the groups formed tribes and started to compete with each other, unfortunately some of them drew the support of the Neo Nazis and National Front, which added to the chaos and potential violence of the concerts.
Watching the programme, I am less surprised that punk happened, more that out of the chaos some truly briliant bands emerged, which in turn inspired another generation of innovators.
The Jam really stood out in the early days as they chose to dress in suits. Paul Weller said they used to be qunique in tuning up, “we used to get a lot of flack for that.” The Clash emerged from the early chaos and instead of signing with independents as did most of the other bands, they went for CBS. Joe Strummer said, “We didn’t want to stay in the hippie corner.” They chose to get their music to a large audience, and like the Sex Pistols went for the money.
At the same time, white musicians were looking for inspiration for their music, and they found it in reggae, so many used that as the rhythm for their lyrics, and sang about this as The Clash , ‘White Man in the Hammersmith Palais’:
This paved the way for bands like Two Tone, Fun Boy 3. They may have been absorbing black music, but they were doing it with respect and many of the bands that followed were mixed race, the first time this had happened. There were also bands like Siouxie Soux who had women in them who were just as hard as the boys. This is her Hong Kong Garden:
The Sex Pistols soon ran their course. Even they had figured out to play, so it was clearly time to go…. ending with ‘God Save the Queen’ which, according to Johnny Rotten/Lydon, the original version’s “lyrics were unacceptable.:
Here is Derek Nimmo with Vivienne Westwood and the Pistols, showing how establishment Punk had become by 1977:
The rise of acceptance of Afro-Caribbean music was paralleled with the rise in racism. As Billy Bragg recalled, “We weren’t defending a multicultural society – there were people who actually believed they could round up the blacks … you know they were building the boats.” So mixed race bands really were radical.
So, the first wave of art school punk bands gave way to real working class bands, such as Sham 69 with ‘If the Kids are United’
Writer Caroline Coons talks of how “Punk’s nihilism and its anarchy was the eseeds of its own destruction. THe Clash’s London Calling is said to have signalled the real end of Punk. This is anamazing version of it with Dave Grohl, Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello:
Asa a historian I find all thiis fascainating, as it echoes another major period in English history: The Reformation followed by the Civil War, with the destruction of so much art and history, then the English had to drag themselves back into the light and reinvent their world, and then beyond.
Most of these events happened when I had my nose firmly buried in university books, and in Australia, there has never been as much to be angry about as there is here. Looking at this music now, I can see how radical it was, how fresh it seems in comparison with the dinosaurs of rock that I was listening to at the time.
The music is now part of history, and it is interesting to see how the music and the musicians have aged. Paul Weller of the Jam is now regarded as one of this country’s finest musicians, and John Lydon is one of the great thinkers on modern life.
Ade Edmundson was a punk comedian, now of the band The Bad Shepherds, who spoke of how when he was young, people like him were not welcome in the cosy folk scene, so this was another level of exclusion for an already embittered generation. It also helps explain why this generation are so prominent now as folk/acoustic musicians.
This is The Jam singing ‘Down in the Tube Station at Midnight, a brilliantly high energy song:
This is the Bad Shepherds version, allowing you to realise how great the lyrics are, a brilliant piece of ordinary London life on a par with the god that is Ray Davies:
And this is them doing ‘Anarchy in the Uk’ as you can never imagine it:
This is at the Larmer Tree Festival, former home to Pitt Rivers which is probably another post for the future…