Punk Music in Britain
Created | Updated Nov 19, 2011
In July 1975, Britain was in recession. Unemployment figures were the worst since the Second World War, with school leavers least likely to find work. Public spending had risen to 45% of national income and the optimism of the 1960s had faded away. Tabloid newspapers initiated scares about vandalism, education, pornography and sexuality in general, pointing to 1960s 'permissiveness' as the cause. The IRA had begun a mainland bombing campaign in 1974. Margaret Thatcher had become leader of the Conservative Party in February 1975 and had begun formulating her own brand of Tory policy.
Many of the young people who became punks in the next few years were from impoverished working-class inner-city backgrounds. The social and political climate in which they had been growing up resulted in a feeling that was a mixture of frustration, boredom and poorly focused anger. It was inevitable that this would cause a tide of teenage resentment that would find a voice and, coupled with the increasing disillusionment with the complacency of established rock bands, it is not surprising that what emerged became what is now known as 'punk'.
Consequently, many punk songs had angry lyrics that criticised the government, the media and Western society in general; for example, 'I'm so bored with the USA' by the Clash and 'God Save the Queen' by the Sex Pistols. The subjects of many other punk lyrics were boredom, teenage rebellion and independence and cynical parodies of love songs - recurring themes in the songs of such bands as X Ray Spex and the Buzzcocks.
The punk audience were largely a mirror image of the punk musicians themselves, consisting of young, teenage boys and girls and people in their 20s and 30s who shared feelings of disillusionment, anger and the sense of being unwanted outcasts. They felt pessimistic and apathetic about their future, as if society had nothing to offer them. Tracy Mallinson, a punk in Halifax in the late 1970s, said that there was a real fear of imminent nuclear war - people were sniffing glue knowing that it could kill them, but they didn't care because they believed that very soon everybody would be dead anyway.
Some came from deprived working class backgrounds, others from suburbia where they felt stifled by the complacent affluence; some were art students eager to be a part of something new that they felt to be relevant to their lives. Many of them were already embracing alternative lifestyles and images, wearing outlandish outfits and living in squats in the soon to be demolished Victorian houses in London, or sharing squalid flats with like-minded friends. This is Berlin's account of her lifestyle in 1976:
I had to move to Chelsea, Oakley Street, to live with Tracey. There was also a transvestite, who's now a transsexual, called Blanche. We'd go to Chaugeramas, a dingy dive where the worst transvestites went and all these businessmen. There was the Masquerade in Earl's Court, there was Rob's, which was Bryan Ferry's hangout, very chic. I can't tell you the parallels between those days and Goodbye to Berlin. We were living it out, the whole bit.
When the British punk scene began in earnest, many of the punks realised how accessible this music was and formed their own bands, a phenomenon that was encouraged by the established punk bands. A lot of fans began publishing fanzines, such as Sniffin' Glue and Out There which were along the same lines as the American fanzine Punk that had coined the term in late 1975. There was a feeling of belonging in all of this - the outcasts had seemingly found their niche.
Influences from popular culture came from a number of sources. Books such as JG Ballard's bleak and frightening images of social collapse in High Rise and the portrayal of reckless self-harming hedonism in Crash made a deep impression, as did Graham Greene's Brighton Rock - Malcolm McLaren1 saw parallels between the book's main character, Pinkie, and John Lydon (who had studied the book at school) as borne out by this quote from Lydon:
The kids want misery and death, they want threatening noises, because that shakes you out of your apathy.
Films that had a significant effect included Cabaret and A Clockwork Orange, particularly on styles of dress: Berlin took her name and image from Liza Minnelli's character in the former and Siouxsie Sioux wore eye make-up similar to Malcolm McDowell's in the latter - defiant looks that were intended to shock. The punk look and its influences are covered in more detail later.
Musical influences were diverse. Iggy Pop with the Stooges has been described as the godfather of punk by some people, with his wild raucous music and dark theatrical performances, which included Iggy cutting himself on stage. Other American bands popular among English punks were the early American punk bands the New York Dolls, with their screeching amateurish performances, and the Ramones who were among the first bands to deliver fast simple clipped songs.
Less obvious musical impressions made on English punk included the 'lads' rockers', The Faces and Gary Glitter, and the strange Alice Cooper. Even Captain Beefheart's humorous experimentation has been cited as influential. David Bowie's more intellectual music transmitted ideas into young punks' minds, as did Roxy Music with their emphasis on style rather than ability to play (Brian Eno was their untutored synthesiser player). Reggae music was absorbed into the style of the Clash, who started out as pub rockers the 101ers.
As far as negative influences are concerned, a large part of punk motivation came from the disgust felt by many people at the absorption into the establishment of such progressive rock bands as Yes and Pink Floyd - in 1975 John Lydon sported a Pink Floyd T-shirt with 'I HATE' scrawled above the band's name. These bands seemed complacent and self-satisfied, far removed from the young people of the mid-1970s. For the likes of Steve Jones and Paul Cook of the Sex Pistols, the idea of being a musician seemed completely unattainable, as the former says in the film The Filth and the Fury: 'We thought musicians fell from the sky'. An important factor in the gestation and birth of punk was the feeling that all of this had to change. The time was ripe for something new.
The punk image was a significant part of the British punk scene for many bands and their fans. Although Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood's shop at 430 King's Road, Sex, had a dominant role in the punk style when punk started, many fans had already been wearing outrageous clothing and hairstyles as a statement of their individuality. Before John Lydon met McLaren and Westwood, he had green hair and was often to be seen in torn clothing and safety pins. He has since attributed this to poverty, saying that if the bottom fell out of his trousers and he couldn't afford any more, the obvious thing to do was to hold them together with safety pins. The original punk look was first and foremost one of individuality and novelty - the whole point was to make your own look, and if it made a statement that shocked or disturbed, so much the better.
The safety pin as an accessory, torn and burnt garments and T-shirts with scrawled slogans (often offensive) were popular items which were marketed in various forms at Sex. This shop was also responsible for popularising studded leather items and clothing with multiple, strategically placed zips. The Sex Pistols (having been put together mainly as a marketing tool for the shop) made this look famous. The Clash, on the other hand, became known for their paint-spattered outfits.
When punk became more widespread in popularity, the image became just another fashion to be followed resulting in numerous punk clones of the kind now seen on many London postcards.
Another aspect of the punk look that was significant was the graphic style used on posters, record sleeves and in fanzines. 'Ransom note' style lettering cut out of newspapers was popular and marker pen scrawling was favoured over neat careful printing. This all fitted in with punk's 'do it yourself' mentality.
The message British punk was sending out was one of rebellion, individuality and 'do it yourself'. There was a wholesale rejection of society's expectations and judgment of young people and the increasing effect of big business and advertising on people's everyday lives.
Punk was a powerful medium for making political statements - in the words of a Halifax punk, Adi, 'Punk was my early political education - like, I learnt about what was going on with the oil crisis'.
The DIY aspect of punk was also of vital importance. To its audience, this was particularly liberating - it gave them real hope that privilege and luck were not the only means of making an impact on the world and finding some fulfilment in life. As another Halifax punk, Tracy Mallinson said, 'Millions were affected - things changed for people on a personal level'. Adi and Tracy also said that throughout the 1980s punks played an important part in the demonstrations that took place against the poll tax and nuclear weapons.
For many of those who became involved with the punk movement, it was something that was to change their lives forever: as Adi told this Researcher, 'Punk redefined life, people's attitudes and music'.
Punk music was, for its audience, a refreshing, much needed break from the progressive rock of the early and mid-1970s. Song structure, and band structure for that matter, was nothing new. Most punk bands consisted of the classic rock formula of drums, bass, guitar and vocalist, and the songs (almost always in 4/4 time) usually had an intro, several verses, a chorus and a bridge. Guitar solos were fairly rare (probably because, at least to begin with, the musicians were complete amateurs).
What was different was the energy and excitement of punk music. The songs were short, fast, direct and simple. The lyrics were often shouted or spat out in energetic bursts of venom or cynical, sneering humour, so the melodies were very basic, being reminiscent of nursery rhymes or football chants. Punk music is famous for being based around three or four chords, in fact in the fanzine Sideburns in December 1976, the guitar chords A, E and G were displayed, along with the words 'This is a chord... this is another... this is a third... Now form a band'. This demonstrates that a large part of the appeal of punk music was its accessibility, the feeling that anyone could have a go. The sound was rough and raucous, not perfectly polished like the rock bands that dominated the music scene at the time. It reflected the attitudes and lives of its audience; the important thing was to make an impression and deliver the message. As John Lydon famously said, 'We're into chaos, not music!'
The drums kept a pounding, relentless, monotonous rhythm; the bass was very loud and very important in keeping the guitar and vocalist in time. The guitar would often alternate between two chords for the duration of one or two phrases, then reach the third and perhaps a fourth chord in a kind of flourish at the end of the phrase. This is typical of the early music of the Damned and the Clash. Another common feature in punk music is call and response between singer and guitarist. The vocalist sings a line, then the guitar crashes in with a short burst of notes - as in 'God Save the Queen' by the Sex Pistols.
Although nowadays punk has the tendency to sound like overgrown toddlers having a tantrum, the overall effect at the time it began was very powerful and the lyrical content, combined with the aggressive sound of some songs, was extreme enough to cause many radio and television stations to ban them.
As someone whose life was deeply affected by punk, Tracy Mallinson can testify:
Music is so powerful - more powerful than the news!
Profit and Gain
The punk ideal of do-it-yourself was important to many punks at the start of the movement. Part of what punk was protesting against was the dominant role of big business in society. Perhaps it was a little naive to believe that the punk message could be spread in a controlled way without being manipulated by those who saw the chance to make a lot of money out of it.
One of the earliest businesses to profit from punk was the clothing shop Sex. Run by Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, this shop on King's Road was a popular hangout for young people in the mid-1970s. Westwood was largely responsible for the clothing designs, with McLaren providing many of the political and ideological ideas behind slogans and propaganda used both in the decor of the shop and the clothing. Their financial involvement with punk began when McLaren spent a brief and unsuccessful period managing the New York Dolls. It was not long after this that Steve Jones (one of the youngsters who regularly came to Sex) approached him and eventually persuaded him to manage his fledgling band. This was the start of the Sex Pistols. Of course, McLaren soon realised that this band could be the perfect marketing tool for the shop. Both he and Westwood were eager to be involved with the new music movement, having been so impressed by the freshness of the New York Dolls.
McLaren and Westwood's handling of the band was usually based on attention-grabbing strategies. If a gig was not going down well, Westwood often started a fight in the hope that journalists would consider the event newsworthy. Sensation and novelty sells newspapers and attracts the viewing and listening public, which in turn attracts profit.
When it came to getting a record deal, several of the top punk bands, particularly the Clash and the Sex Pistols, were in competition for the best deal with the biggest company. The record companies had a balancing act to perform - to take the chance to sign a band of naive youngsters who would enable them to make a large profit, or steer clear of these unpredictables who could end up losing them important business associates. Those who persevered with punk while in its heyday reaped the commercial rewards.
The more idealistic punks stuck to releasing their music through small independent labels, often starting their own out of necessity, such was the controversy surrounding punk. Many people today attribute the success of 'indie' pop in the 1980s and 1990s to the flourishing of so many small labels starting at the time of punk. Some of these record companies succeeded in their aim of allowing a fair deal for artist, company and customer without having to involve big business at all.
The fact remains: though punk was never supposed to be about commercial profit and gain, even punks could be tempted by the promise of fame and fortune. Their innocence was so easy to exploit that it isn't surprising that while attaining the fame, very little of the fortune ever came their way.
Punk's first publicity was word of mouth, as is often the case with underground music scenes. Next came the fanzines, home-made publications sold at gigs. Posters put up locally gave news of upcoming performances, and the music press were not far behind, the NME, Melody Maker and Record Mirror had special punk reporters who were generally sympathetic to punk.
The first mainstream media coverage of punk was the Sex Pistols' appearance on Nationwide, an early evening current affairs show on BBC1. This had been arranged by EMI as part of the promotion effort for the Pistols' first single 'Anarchy in the UK'. They were introduced as the leaders of a new youth cult 'as big as the Mods and Rockers of the '60s'. There was a studio discussion in which McLaren said 'You have to destroy in order to create, you know that'. No one seemed to have a major problem with punk so far. It wasn't until the Sex Pistols appeared on the now legendary 1 December, 1976, Today show that the media began its sensationalist portrayal of punks as revolutionaries hell bent on corrupting their peers and wrecking the comfort, security and morals of the whole nation.
The use of 'foul language' on prime time TV caused gleeful headlines such as 'The Foul Mouthed Yobs', 'The Filth and the Fury' and 'Rock Group Start a 4-Letter TV Storm'. This began a tide of panic that resulted in the group being banned from playing in most of the venues of the tour they had just started.
The publicity was, in a way, welcome, but the last thing punks wanted was to be unable to play in public, so in this respect it was unwanted, at least by the Sex Pistols. Other punk bands continued to play, but the solidarity that had been so important at the start fractured at this point. From now on, punk became competitive and the camaraderie between bands like the Sex Pistols, the Damned and the Clash was destroyed by petty rivalries.
When the Sex Pistols released 'God Save the Queen' for the Silver Jubilee in 1977, newspapers and TV made no mention of their publicity stunt on the boat on 7 June, despite the arrests and commotion that inevitably ensued. The only mention was a small piece in the Mirror.
The media had joined forces with the establishment to silence punk, proving the very point punk had been making about Britain's 'regime'.
Punk is a very complex subject to summarise, but it is clear that many people were affected personally and permanently by the music. Punk music continued to have an effect on people long after the demise of the Sex Pistols. Today, the mass media and major record companies are once again relaunching punk to the latest generation of teenagers. Unfortunately, it appears that the role of commercial profit and gain has become the main driving force behind punk in the 21st Century.