You are here:   Columns >  Open Season > Probing Punk's Politics
 
The filth and the fury: The Sex Pistols in 1977 (NationaalArchief CC BY-SA 3.0)


It was 40 years ago today that Malcolm McLaren never taught the band to play. They’ve never been out of style, but they’re guaranteed to raise a smile, because they broke up after one album, and had a saucy postcard wit. The Sex Pistols, whose sole digression into good taste was to quit while they were ahead, still define our image of punk. The legend, though, is only half true. Which half you choose depends on whether you view punk as an art movement or a social one, and how long you believe it lasted.

As art, punk was American music with a British accent. Its performers were largely working-class, its managers mostly Jewish, and its youthful rebellion entirely compatible with show business. Only one of 1976’s “Big Three”, The Damned, signed to an independent label; the ostensibly anti-capitalist Sex Pistols and Clash followed the money to major labels. In all of this, punk was no different to earlier British pop music. In the Fifties, Larry Parnes had groomed a stable of likely lads with daft pseudonyms: when Sid Vicious was in nappies, Parnes had Dickie Pride and Vince Eager. In the Sixties, Brian Epstein had spun major label gold from four “foul-mouthed yobs”, just as McLaren did with the Sex Pistols and Bernie Rhodes with The Clash.

Sonically, punk instrumentation, harmonies, and song structures were nostalgic; the real innovation came in the Eighties, when the synthesisers and computers took over. Apart from its amateurish and accelerated delivery, early punk differed little from its Fifties and Sixties forebears: guitar-driven songs about teenage life. After the rococo improvising of Seventies rock, punk’s return to three-chord, three-minute songs had a neoclassical clarity. The middle eight in a minor key, an artefact from Tin Pan Alley, survives wordlessly beneath the guitar interlude in Anarchy in the UK.

As that title suggests, punk’s controversy lay in “the filth and the fury”: alienated lyrics and antisocial behaviour. McLaren and Rhodes, two situationists replaying the Sixties, packaged this anarchic exuberance as political anarchism. Their art school pranking turned punk into a fashion phenomenon and a career opportunity, but, just as the French situationists of 1968 had failed to control the striking workers at the Renault factory, it failed to commodify punk’s politics. These, having begun in creativity and generalised disgust, ended in stupidity and fascism.

The first wave of punk was over by the time the Thatchers moved into Downing Street. The Sex Pistols had broken up, The Clash had become a conventional rock band, and The Damned had done both. Punk staggered on, splitting amid the class war of the early Eighties. The art students went for synthesisers and New Romantic pop. The working-class punks doubled down, creating Oi!, some of the worst music ever made.

View Full Article
 
Share/Save
 
 
 
 
Le con le plus triste du monde
October 3rd, 2017
11:10 PM
London SS: you merely repeat the name, as if this were sufficient to establish that the “SS” part could only stand for “Schutzstaffel”. In logic, no it isn’t. The story we’re given is that the “SS” stood for “Social Security”. Let’s have a citation for your implied claim to know better. Some of us will remember that the relevant government department at the time was the Department of Health and Social Security, DHSS—and yes, people had fun with that initialism.

Le con le plus triste du monde
September 30th, 2017
2:09 AM
No, Siouxsie did not sing “Too many Jews in here”. Nor was the lyric changed to “Too many businessmen in here”. You don’t do much singing, do you? No idea of scansion. One syllable to three? Try it. As for The Damned, they might equally have taken their name from the 1963 Hammer film of this name. I know of no definitive statement on the point and I doubt you do. Poor research, hatchet job.

Martin Gilsenan
April 29th, 2016
3:04 PM
Dominic Green is substantially wide of the mark when he says that "Punk's politics began in creativity and generalised disgust, but ended in stupidity and fascism". The article simply doesn't stand up to any kind of scrutiny and to correct all of the assertions it makes would take an article of similar length, some basic corrections however, need to be made. In 1976 the rehearsal group, London SS did indeed contain Clash founder, Mick Jones along with future members of The Damned and Generation X. Jones however, was Jewish himself and on the cover of The Clash's debut album a few months later, was wearing an armband with 'Red Guard' on it, so clearly many of the emerging bands at the time flirted with political imagery of both the totalitarian right and left - irresponsible as that seems today. Siouxsie & The Banshees early lyrics are a case in point. By 1979 however, they had released "Mittageisen" dedicated to the memory of anti-Nazi artist John Heartfield. When far-right skinheads tried to disrupt concerts (a regular occurrence for many punk bands) Siouxsie would walk off-stage and return wearing a Star of David emblazoned 'Israel' T-shirt, as a deliberate riposte, "Israel" being a classic, 1980 Banshees single. It was Punk bands who responded to the rise of the National Front in the late seventies more than any within the Rock Against Racism movement and many ensured that when playing live, their support groups were black artists. The Stranglers and Birmingham reggae band, Steel Pulse toured together and were particularly close, so for Dominic to highlight the Stranglers song, "I Feel Like A Wog" as racist is both incorrect and lazy. The group were big fans of reggae and the song was written from the first person perspective of someone from what was, in 1977, a widely put upon racial minority. In 1978, The Clash, Steel Pulse, Tom Robinson Band and X-Ray Spex played to 80,000 at a RAR concert in Victoria Park, Hackney, so to say "Punk's politics were always closer to John Tyndall thank Guy Debord", is frankly, ridiculous. In 1978, I remember first hand the NF and SWP both selling their papers outside school. Bands like The Clash, Buzzcocks, The Ruts to name but a few, were virulently anti-racist and in my view, saved many younger teenagers at that time from the clutches of the neo-Nazi far right. It is also important to note however, that the Anti-Nazi League while understandably embraced by many initially (after all, who isn't anti-Nazi?) did become a front for the SWP who in turn tried to inflict their own repulsive brand of ideological dogma on the young and impressionable. Despite its failings and contradictions, punk really was a broad church - musically, visually, politically and intellectually, which why it's influence has been so far reaching - to narrow it down in the way Dominic Green has done suggests he came up with his theory before he did his research, selective as even that appears.

amcdonald
April 2nd, 2016
5:04 PM
The art and music group Pussy Riot bring it all up to date. Their new music video Chaika is free on Youtube.

Stiggy nutjob
March 30th, 2016
5:03 PM
Hmm, no mention of the most political of all, Crass. Or was it apolitical. In any case the most idiotic.

Solomon Hughes
March 30th, 2016
10:03 AM
It's a bit of an eccentric history of punk that spends so much time on Oi, but nothing on Rock Against Racism - as RAR put on punk-ish gigs on a much bigger scale than Oi ever managed. In reality the early flirtation with fascism (the "punk rock out to shock" swastikas etc.) was wrenched in quite a different direction, thanks in part to the stand taken by some of the musicians, and RAR. RAR gave a platform both to some of the more creative punk bands (The Clash , X Ray Spex), and also took the less musically adventurous Sham 69 away from their Oi-ish direction, leaving Oi to be something of a later backwater.

amcdonald
March 29th, 2016
3:03 PM
In Manchester Tony Wilson and friends pioneered Factory Records and the Hacienda club. Most of the music is free on Youtube. All of this partly inspired the creation of the present and fully functioning Mayday Rooms,88 Fleet St,London. Cafe and roof garden too. How situationist is that?

Post your comment

CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.