Jun 18

the eight-and-a-half pillars of true punk

Hidden Landscapes9 comments • 1,061 views

(disclaimer: some of them are false)
[This post originally went up at my PATREON: subscribers get to read posts and hear podcasts early — and help offset costs and time and help me do more of this kind of thing]

A fun thing about the podcast is the way Hazel’s questions rattle away inside my most ancient, unexamined opinions — things I think that I no longer quite remember starting to think. When I pop-quizzed her on the groups that played in the 100 Club Festival, 20-21 September 1976, I wasn’t surprised she’d heard of almost all of them: it was a tiny two-day event more than a decade before she was born, but (a) she is knowledgable and full of curiosity and obsessed with music past and present, and (b) it was the founding event for “rock at the end of rock”, when you were required, as an index of your commitment to the necessity of the splintering, to take implacable sides within your own splinter. To this Shropshire-based punk noob — I didn’t move to London for another six years, I hadn’t yet started reading the music weeklies — the festival mapped what punk had been in its first (some say only) year, and what it was going to have to become as it expanded and divided and dissolved. Above all, it’s the moment of division, forming lines that can just about still be traced, if you look carefully in the right places.

Monday, 20 September 1976
• Subway Sect (first ever show, some prior rehearsal) [1]
• Suzie and the Banshees (first ever show, no prior rehearsal) [2]
• The Clash [3]
• Sex Pistols [4]

Tuesday, 21 September 1976
• Stinky Toys [5]
• The Vibrators (first ever show, some prior rehearsal) [6]
• Chris Spedding with The Vibrators [7]
• The Damned [8]
• Buzzcocks [9]

1: Oblique songs, flatness of affect and style, militant refusal of clichéd stage habits: “Off the course of 20 years and out of rock and roll” is how they went on to put it in ‘A Different Story’ (Rough Trade B-side to ‘Ambition‘, 1978). Punk as an end to something — itself and what went before — which we were some of us young and naive enough to pretend was an end to everything. Even if the Sect sorta kinda (to be very mean) invented indie, I love love love Vic Godard, the way he looks, the way he thinks, the way he sings…

2: Strong Women versus the Desedimentation of Stupid. That first year was a compressed tale of extreme opposites: it’s emblematic that the Banshees — who became one of the longer-lasting non-retread units — debuted by stepping up across the footlights out of the crowd, the archetypal fan-turned-challenger move. Sid Vicious on drums, a volatile mix of bored headfuck game and moronic violent cartoon; not yet a Pistol. Viv Albertine (to this day a loyal friend to the best of Sid’s memory) says he had a lively mind, at least until the character he chose to cosplay sock-puppeted his entire life. Might-have-beens: until he quit them for this one-off, he’d been a Flower of Romance, alongside Albertine and Palm Olive (soon of The Slits) and Keith Levene (ditto Public Image). As for Sioux, all 1920s flapper frame and expressionist make-up, I likely thought of her then as a tomboy. As a term it’s probably more suffocating than accurate, looking back, but it was absolutely meant approvingly: gender was on the move and we didn’t yet have the words, only the inexpressible excitement…

3: There was beef on the night because Sid and Sioux were still sporting swastikas: The Clash wouldn’t let them use their nice pink-sprayed guitar amps because of this. Left politics would be a core element of one wing of punk, and The Clash — brandishing a radio-set instead of between-song chat, tuning it to discussions of bombs in Northern Ireland — made the earliest running. With its ruthless excludings, with their horrible entourage, Clash politics itself was maddening, and many ended up not liking it or them much: for all their energised leather-clad sexiness and finger-stabbing, for every friendly or human gesture, there was always something pointlessly ugly or self-regarding or obfuscatory, or, well, rock and roll. Rock and roll was bad. In the podcast, Hazel rightly celebrates the strain of doubt and unmacho confusion that’s also there, under-emphasised and under-utilised. But if you wanted to think yr way through and out of the tangles around us, the weird-left contradiction-led pranksterism infesting the Pistols seemed much more valuable to some (to me). Too much Clash self-mythology was a mask against the mess they actually (and more interestingly) always were. The contradiction is the hook: and so here among the rest of it began (to be more unkind still) the Blairish “Only Way is Up” multicultural dad-rock posture…

[ADDING: OK i’ll unpack that last sentence some other time lol. The other thing I shd add abt The Clash is that they REFUSED TO GO ON TOP OF THE POPS, and this is yet another reason why they weren’t and aren’t punk…]

4: In a month or so’s time, when ‘Anarchy’ is released, McLaren will somewhere announce that “The REAL fans aren’t buying the records” — a declaration of authenticity that’s a riddle and a paradox and a fuck-you. Till now a writhing muscle-knot of distinct social layers and friction-difference within 2nd-Gen Mod Pop, held together by irritability and inertia, The Pistols will shortly deliquesce from fascinating conflicted local focal point-source into one-note National Tabloid Outrage. Their purpose and value in (music-press) print had been to be a clot of gurning louts, who somehow — in the right minute, and without McLaren’s approval — always also mixed intellect and discernment into the aggression. As Self-Destructo the Cartoon Bassist, Sid will be the capstone of McLaren’s not understanding rock culture (and not even slightly caring). [Adding: Glen Matlock is of course on bass tonight.] As the media canvas abruptly changes after Grundy, as the scale of the game switches and McLaren switches with it, residual traces of countercultural resistance flatten into unusability for him. For Lydon, the only way out is back and down into a fully refashioned version of the prog underground. For Sid, it’s upward into the pantheon of uselessly dead young idiots.

5: Meanwhile, one-time 68-er McLaren invites over some young Parisians to demonstrate that punk is international (lead shrieker Elli Medeiros is from Uruguay). Due to play after the Pistols when everyone’s gone home, Stinky Toys refuse, are bumped to first slot second day, and more or less vanish from history. Tho actually two LPs follow, the second a pleasingly sophisto-scratchy world-pop type thing. On the night, however, Stinky Toys (so legend says) mainly played Stones/Dolls/Bowie knock-offs and covers. But The Banshees had utterly upped the ante…

… pausing to note that according to the Sniffin’ Glue special 100 Club issue write-up, The Damned played before The Vibrators. I’m working with the running order in Wikipedia, more fool me…

6: I kind of like that I have nothing at all to say about The Vibrators, my dislike still impressively crisp despite being based on almost nothing at all. For whatever reason, they were fake punk. Singer Knox was 31, had been knocking around the pub rock circuit for years. They had formed just for this event. They are OLD: if nothing else, the time for the past is past. The demand in the air was that we pick Yays and Nays and fiercely stick with them (no one imagined it would still shape things 40-plus years on). So yes, The Vibrators are bad not good (because someone had to be and it was them). Sorry Knox, sorry all — it’s not you, it’s er structural is what it is.

7: Instant counterpoint: Spedding is a year older than Knox, a grizzled session man whose resumé includes Mike Batt’s Wombles, the Alan Parsons Project, Harry Nilsson, Bryan Ferry, Elton John, Art Garfunkel and (possibly relevant) the early Pistols demos, had had a single in the charts in 1975: ‘Motorbikin’. It’s OK at best and he too has more or less vanished from history, but — even with The Vibrators as his backing band — in some ineffable way far more honourably.

8: Has anyone ever tracked down or talked to the girl who got bits of smashed beer glass in her eye during The Damned’s set? The Damned were the third of the original punk trinity, in the wake of The Pistols wake-up call, an offshoot, just like The Clash, of The London SS. Goofy, harmless, a bit clownish, a bit arsey, they were somehow the first to get records out. Drummer Rat Scabies had a v poor rep with women, possibly a reason there was already beef with The Banshees. Like The Clash, they too had beef with The Pistols, except it seemed (at the time) somehow second-tier, neither calculated nor world-historical nor consequential. Now I kind of like their silliness and hapless lack of cultural import (also tbf some of their songs). Of course the beer glass was thrown by Sid Vicious.

9: From Manchester, three gentle boys and one egghead (Howard Devoto). More even than the Banshees and Subway Sect, Buzzcocks were a glimpse of the immediate future — the thing that came (anachronistically, unhelpfully) to be called “post-punk”. They were from Manchester and for reasons this mattered tremendously. In a movement that deplored love songs they wrote little else. Of course they were modern and non-gender-specific bcz hurrah (Pete Shelley was bisexual and so — as far as I was concerned then — was everyone else). Their sound had this gleaming bevelled edge, like bauhaus furniture made of controlled pop noise. Their high-colour sleeves would be designed by the peerless Malcolm Garrett, and somehow for a season they embodied everything fluidly anti-hierarchical about this time. New Music Night and Day, as the Bowie LP hadn’t ended up being called…

So yes, these were the maps…
… laid cross-ply across one another at subatomic size — diachronic AND synchronic, as the clever kids learned shortly to say (I was one, and proud to be). Here, squirming against one another were history and psychology, geography and gender: here in the distributed space after this teenytiny Big Bang were all the forces in play (for an obsessive reader to pick up and glom onto and decode in the months and years to come; for outsiders to remain entirely baffled by). I was a quiet-souled Buzzcocks boy, to be sure — but I always had eyes for the harsh glamour of the hard-body Banshee type, imperious and witty and non-nonsense. Here was youthful year-zero impatience and rigorous democratic praxis, kindness and curiosity and nihilism, damage and surprises and (now and then) fun. As a great monkey once wrote, It was the best of times, it was the blurst of times.

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  1. 1
    koganbot on 23 Jun 2018 #

    Here’s a quote that I was already intending to post on this thread at some point; doing it now ’cause you – Mark – refer to it in your Mick Farren piece [“from iceberg to titanic, and from titanic to iceberg, and from iceberg to titanic again…” Coming soon to a Freaky Trigger near you.]

    “During that time, however, the Pistols accomplished an interesting feat: they broke the story of rock and roll in half.”
    –Greil Marcus, “Anarchy in the U.K.,” in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History Of Rock & Roll, Revised and Updated edition, 1980, p. 451.

    “During that time” refers to the Sex Pistols’ brief existence, barely two years.

    I think Marcus is substantially right. The Sex Pistols broke the story in half in two ways: they created a before and after and they also created a demarcation between punk and everything else. I’d say – I’d insist – that for a while both breaks were psychosocial facts. You couldn’t get people to agree on where the demarcation between punk and nonpunk was, but the idea of such a demarcation was a living fact for lots of people. As was the fact that for some people they were now living in a new world, even if for a number of them the new world made them feel shut out of this new world.

    (“For a while” is a crucial caveat. Changes get smoothed out, absorbed, partially reversed. Continuities assert themselves or prove to have been there all along.)

    What’s still a WIDE open question for me, though, is why the Sex Pistols had this effect. I don’t think Marcus’s Lipstick Traces remotely explains it. (The book is worth reading for a lot of reasons, but it doesn’t answer my question.) Johnny’s singing was something new in music but it didn’t represent a new sensibility. The rest of the music was fairly derivative, though very good.

    I’ll say rather lamely that you don’t have to be all that innovative to set things going: in fact, if you’re not that big of a reach for a lot of people, this can help you carry social weight. Also, luck and Grundy play a role. (Sorry if luck is part of the explanation – it’s a part that doesn’t feel meaningful – but it’s always a factor.) Also – I don’t know how big an element or how big a part of the audience this is, but musical and social events are a conglomeration of elements that include a conglomeration of audiences and participants – if you come on like bullies and haters and gaybashers, which the Sex Pistols did, you’ll get a lot of other bullies and haters – you know, punks – to like you.

    Another part of my question is why does this fissure – the rise of the Sex Pistols – cause a break in our story, whereas scads of previous big fissures don’t? –One fissure that I like to bring up because almost no one else does is the rise of a new radio format called “adult contemporary” to replace easy listening – I’m not sure when the format name arises, but the format is taking shape around 1967 and 1968, and it means once where you had instrumental “beautiful music” and 101 Strings, you’ve now got pop and folk and soft rock and even some not-so-soft rock as long as it seems adult rather than childish. Maybe the fact that this isn’t a break or a demarcation but ends up part of a continuum from adult contemporary to folk to soul to prog to fusion to reggae to metal and can take in at least some songs from all of those (metal excepted) is what helps the fissure in 1976 to happen where it does.

  2. 2
    koganbot on 23 Jun 2018 #

    “The rest of the music was fairly derivative, though very good.” = The rest of the Sex Pistols’ music – that is, the parts other than Johnny’s singing – was fairly derivative, though very good.

    In any event, there was punk before the Sex Pistols – I’d argue the Pistols were closer to being the last punk band than the first – but there wasn’t a social divide between punk and nonpunk, or the sense of living in a new world. (That sentence needs a lot of elaboration, but it’s not going to get it right now, not from me.)

  3. 3
    mark sinker on 23 Jun 2018 #

    I’d argue the Pistols were closer to being the last punk band than the first

    obviously this is a key to some of our disagreement, since it’s not even remotely sustainable as a historical description of uk punk — but that’s because uk punk comes after the pistols and there’s a lot of it, and its arrival is actually what allows anyone to notice that the pistols had broken the story in half — they kicked the door down (or whatever you want to say) but it’s the fact that ppl responded, as audience and as other bands, that made it matter

    and it’s also bcz the definition is actually changed by this, and you cleave to the earlier definition and i still find it hard to remember that the later one isn’t the only one

    (not that i had all this clearly in mind when i misquoted greil, far from it — tho i think the misquote is telling, in terms of how i understand what “broken in half” even means)

    one of the things that the pistols-aftermath increasingly made something of is the idea of the “death of rock and roll” — but i’m not sure i know when this explicitly becomes a shared belief. it was definitely in the air by 1978: cf subway sect lyric and also parsons and burchill’s book “the boy looked at johnny: the obituary of rock and roll” — but i don’t think either of these are foundational, they’re both plucking down an idea that was in the air, and general, and shared and known to be shared (there’s also lydon’s expression of hatred for chuck berry-style guitar, as immortalised in the outtakes on “the great rock’n’roll swindle” — but that wasn’t public knowledge till 1980-ish, tho lydon’s hostility was expressed and known much earlier, in other ways)

    (anyway i think that the “death of rock and roll” as a good thing and therefore a thing to be willed and brought about becoming a widely shared belief within uk punk is part of how “breaking the story in half” evolves from being a greil-ish reading of a passage in a particular song into a social fact) (viz the clash weren’t punk bcz they DIDN’T “break rock in half”: the second bit of this was a widely held feeling, albeit less widely held)

    bullies and haters and gaybashers: i know where you’re coming from here bcz i’ve been reading you for years but i also know that *my* immediate response to the pistols didn’t include the first (in jubilee year they were routinely attacked in the streets) or the last (i’m not sure when i grew to be strongly aware of this but the crowd they hung with and the places they felt safe were *unusually* inclusive given the date — gay and lesbian clubs, the early audience including several sex-workers with a variety of types of clientele, and so on… one of the early strong punk writers was jane suck at sounds, who was aggressively out and unapologetic about that. i should dig out and write up some of her stuff — it’ll get me away from all-nme-all-the-time, as i was busily reading sounds too in the early stages (i stopped in 1979), and jane suck’s writing meant a LOT to me)

    anyway, not to deny yr point, bcz the hating was certainly there and bcz, yes, it gathered ppl who recognised themselves, including bullies, and bcz my stance on sid in 1979 especially was i think very contradictory (i mean, he is a figure full of contradictions, but i was definitely reading abt him attacking ppl — like rockwriter nick kent — and arguing this fact away as not in any ordinary sense “bullying”, which of course it was!)

  4. 4
    koganbot on 24 Jun 2018 #

    I’d say that for the purposes of this discussion we should ignore my aside (“I’d argue the Pistols were closer to being the last punk band than the first”; I’m all over the place with my use of the word “punk” anyway) but not Greil’s statement or my questions about it. –Of course I’m also interested in whatever anyone has to say about your eight-and-a-half bands, regardless of what one thinks about them as agents of change or division or as potential directions, though all that’s also interesting.

  5. 5
    koganbot on 25 Jun 2018 #

    I don’t think someone has to have read a word of mine to hear the bullying, hating, and gaybashing in the Sex Pistols; all you have to do is listen to Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols. Hearing it as mainly that or only that is another thing. But again I don’t want to focus too much on how one should hear it.* Two questions I have, neither of which are really answerable – it’s not like we can go back and create control groups or run experiments where we eliminate the Pistols or trade out different aspects of their music and their environment – are:

    (1) Would the story of rock and roll have “broken in half” even if the Sex Pistols hadn’t exploded in popularity and become a national outrage and event?

    (2) If the answer to (1) is “No,” which I think it is (but I don’t know this**), would they have broken big without the bullying and hating in their sound?***

    (2a) “Anarchy In The U.K.” and “God Save The Queen” rock like motherfuckers. If they hadn’t, would the Sex Pistols have broken big?

    Of course, my question number 2a leads to the thought that if these musicians were plumping for the death of rock or the death of rock ‘n’ roll, they sure had a funny way of going about it. That doesn’t necessarily contradict your sense that this need to get out of or get beyond rock ‘n’ roll is crucial to the story. People doing ambient or disco would have less of this need.****

    *I’m going to think that anyone who comes on strong and scathing is eventually going to come after me: I felt that about Dylan, felt that about Lou, felt that about the Stooges. Felt that about myself. Going back, I felt that about the Stones, even though I later figured out that “scathing” was among the things that Jagger was trying to wrestle to the ground. That of course doesn’t mean it wasn’t there in the music.

    **Joe Strummer said that first hearing the Sex Pistols had a transformative effect on him; likely the Buzzcocks and Siouxsie would say the same about themselves; and of course this was prior to the explosion in popularity. But “impact on the London scene” is only one aspect of the story. By analogy, think of how the New York scene in the late ’70s and on was full of women and gays (and lesbians), but as it spread around the U.S. in the early ’80s via hardcore it got less and less so. (Or at least that’s my impression.)

    ***As for the gaybashing, the song “New York,” where Johnny Rotten calls Johnny Thunders a “faggot,” was just an album cut and it likely passed a lot of people by. (Johnny Thunders, by the way, is whom the Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones got his big Chuck Berry riffs from.) In any event, if you have a strong sound you’re going to attract bullies no matter what; but that doesn’t have to mean that those are mainly whom you attract.

    ****In fact some disco people were happy to put rock elements into their music.

  6. 6
    Tommy Mack on 26 Jun 2018 #

    I always hear the “bullying” element in the Pistols’ music as attack-as-defense: if the world is out to get you then you have to be nastier than the world.

  7. 7
    Tommy Mack on 27 Jun 2018 #

    “In any event, if you have a strong sound you’re going to attract bullies no matter what; but that doesn’t have to mean that those are mainly whom you attract.” – I’m dubious about that. I reckon there are likely as many bullies into smooth or even “sensitive”* music as boisterous stuff.

    *Especially since Coldplay took the sensitive indie sound into the stadiums

    As for “faggot” in New York, I know the song well and never knew how to take it. It feels awkward: Rotten is usually too skilled an offender to fall back on bigotry. Sometimes I read it as using an Americanism against the Americans, sometimes just a spiteful kid using another new rude word he’s learned but in all honesty it could be genuine homophobia, it was the 70s after all.

  8. 8
    lonepilgrim on 1 Jul 2018 #

    From my experience in the UK what punk might be was hugely open to interpretation in its early days. I didn’t hear the music on the radio so had to imagine it. There was a thrilling/scary sense of confrontation that matched the mood in 1976 with its intensely hot summer. What made it so compelling was the speed at which events took place. New bands popped up on new record labels and suddenly singles were the focus instead of albums. I lived in Crawley, 30 miles south of London and watched local talent ‘The Easy Cure’ play uncompellingly on the town bandstand – within a year they were getting reviews as The Cure. I went to see The Stranglers play at the local college in early 1977 and the buzz beforehand was that there was going to be a fight. So of course we went – and there wasn’t. By the time they returned to a bigger venue in September – with records in the chart supported by Wire IIRC – there was a fight with skinheads throwing glasses. Previous gigs seemed sedate in comparison

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    soulstewmartin on 9 Aug 2018 #

    About the “Death of R’n’R” proclaimed by a band that used Chuck Berrys Chords: i think it was more the attitude the pistols brought in with the Lyrics, Johnnys singing AND the Design of Jamie Reid AND the Fashion by Vivienne. The whole package worked fine. Musically, the death of R’n’R started with Vic Godard and the bands that followed after the first punk band generation was through: PIL, Gang Of Four, The Fall …later Dexys, Specials . etc who (re-) opened up my ears for older music that was on the right side as well….. (seen from a german perspective…)

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