As Britain braces itself for the Diamond Jubilee celebrations, many loyal citizens fondly recall the bunting and street parties of the Silver Jubilee in 1977. This also means 35 years have somehow hurtled by since the height of the punk rock era, when The Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen was unleashed. This incendiary single was denied the Number One chart position during the Royalist festivities by Rod Stewart fans (and, as was widely claimed, chart fixing). In fact, the BBC stated in March 2001 God Save the Queen “reached number one in the UK in 1977 despite being banned by the BBC”.
The BBC have long accepted the legitimacy of punk as a vibrant, culturally significant and hugely influential time in British social history. This summer they are releasing several documentaries celebrating the music and art of that period. Last night I caught a film on Sky Arts, ‘The Story of The Clash’. Although hardly a definitive account, it featured excellent footage, as well as soundbites from a fine cross-section of the key figures from the band scene - Mick Jones, Tony James, Glen Matlock, Steve Diggle - as well as journalists, roadies, friends and fans.
Why the enduring fascination for a social scene that is well over three decades out of date? There are two main reasons. Firstly, the repercussions lasted a lot longer than the few months before the original punk fans,
inevitably, grew bored with the limited parameters of its three-chord thrashing. Punk was like a spark that ignited a forest fire of creativity, influencing music as diverse as Talking Heads, the Pop Group and Orbital. Modern ‘Indie’ bands, from Arctic Monkeys to the Manic Street Preachers owe a massive debt to Anarchy in the UK and Complete Control rather than what the Bee Gees were doing at the same time, or mainstream rock bands like Boston or Rainbow for that matter.
Secondly, punk was ambiguous and paradoxical. It evolved within a specific time frame, reacting to circumstances that youths of all races, classes and cultures found themselve facing in the mid-1970s. However, a lot of the music has not dated one iota. The sheer adrenaline rush of the first Damned album,
those majestically catchy Buzzcocks love songs and Sex Pistols anthems, The Clash’s razor-sharp garage rock, the grungy antipodean rock n’ roll of The Saints, the walls of mesmerising dischordancy by Siouxsie and the Banshees or Wire, all still have an edge of total relevance that time has never blurred.
I read a Sunday Times review of a book that has just been released about the 1970s, Seasons in the Sun, by Dominic Sandbrook. The author dismissed the impact of punk, prompting me to write a letter to the editor:
"I was flabbergasted to read the review of Seasons in the Sun, Dominic Sandbrook’s study of British culture from 1974-79. One particular statement which cannot pass without comment is this casual re-writing of
history: the ‘punk rock phenomenon’ was a ‘marginal enthusiasm for a few showy students’. Whatever other research Sandbrook has devoted to his text, this reveals a contemptible ignorance.
Far from being some trivial sideshow, punk not only altered the entire face of the rock scene from the mid-1970s onwards, its revolutionary DIY ethos temporarily shifted power from private school-educated prog rock or cheesy novelty pop to a much younger, infinitely more enthusiastic generation. Kids from all walks of life, from art colleges to council estates, were instantly empowered to create their own music. Punk introduced women, racial minorities and people of all sexual persuasions to a vibrant scene where self-expression and creativity was everything. Political awareness and social commentary became a backdrop for not only punk, but the music it quickly fused with - reggae, pop, funk. The fact we still have independent music labels is directly attributabe to this ‘marginal enthusiasm’.
Sandbrook dismissed a seismic cultural event because far more people bought Abba or Bee Gees records - the middle of the road. I would suggest the people buying those records in the 1970s were the equivalent of today’s X-Factor audience, who are content to have their tastes dictated by the mass market. Punk was most definitely a phenomenon, a challenging musical scene that constantly evolved, with repercussions that are still being felt today. The middle of the road will always be just that."
Watching The Clash documentary brought back a lot of memories because I was certainly one of their teenage devotees. In fact, I try to capture the essence of a gig on their White Riot tour in this excerpt from my novel, BrainBomb:
Finally the stagehands unfurled The Clash backdrop: a massive print of
the police charge on the reverse of their album.Moments later the
lights dimmed. The atmosphere was so charged I could scarcely snatch
my breaths. Even although the circle and dress circles were empty,
and the stalls only three-quarters full, when they finally appeared the place
fucking erupted. They plugged in and launched into London’s
Burning, 1977 then I’m so bored with the USA in rapid
succession. I was propelled into the pogoing melee at the
front. The songs churned from the walls of speakers, Strummer’s
voice reduced to a primeval snarl, Jones’ guitar pounding, the pummelling music
whipping everyone into a frenzy. At one point Simenon had been
punishing his bass so furiously it cut out completely. The Jam’s
Bruce Foxton hurried onto the stage and offered him his Rickenbacker.
During Garageland I leapt so high I landed awkwardly,
collapsing in a heap. I was stomped on for several agonising
moments. Blood trickled down my face, into my ripped white
T-shirt. As I tried clambering to my feet a punkette elbowed her way
through the bodies, dragging me roughly by the hand.She wore a
fishnet top over her bra. Her bra was deliberately too small and her
breasts had spilled out, the nipples poking through the mesh. She
sported thick black eyeliner, like a devilish raccoon. Her hair was
an explosion of blonde, orange and red, as if she was on fire. She
wrapped me in her arms, tugged me in. I felt her body jerking in
synch with the primal beat.
‘I don’t wanna hear about what the rich are doing’, growled
The music drilled towards a climax.Without pausing for breath Jones barked ‘One Two Three Four’ and The Clash burst into White Riot.The crowd became even
more frenzied.I lost my new girlfriend.