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, and 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Why the enduring fascination for a social scene that is well over three decades out of date?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 fans, inevitably, grew bored with the limited parameters of its three-chord thrashing. Punk was 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 Boney M 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 were 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 discordancy by Siouxsie and the Banshees or Wire, still sound edgy and somehow fresh.
I read a Sunday Times review of a book that has just been released about the 1970s, Seasons in the Sun - the Battle for Britain 1974-79, by Dominic Sandbrook. The author trivialised punk's impact, 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 offhanded historical revisionism: "the punk rock phenomenon was a marginal enthusiasm for a few showy students."
Far from being some sideshow, punk delivered a jolt of electricity to pop culture, its DIY ethos temporarily shifting attention away from the mainstream, empowering teenagers in a way that hadn't happened since the 'Swinging Sixties.' Kids from all walks of life, from art colleges to council estates, were inspired to create their own music. Punk introduced women, racial minorities and people of all sexual identities to a vibrant scene where self-expression was everything. Political awareness and social commentary became a backdrop for not only punk, but the music it fused with - reggae, pop, funk. The fact we still have independent music labels is directly attributable 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. A sizeable portion of those sending 45s up the 1970s charts were the equivalent of today’s X-Factor audience, 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."