British 1970s Punk Music
The British Punk Scene started up in 1975 as a reaction to the deterioration in Rock music. By the mid 1970s the revolution had gone out of music. The rebellious and exciting bands of the 1960s generation had either been wiped out or had become increasingly sophisticated or commercial. The raw excitement had dissipated. The ‘stars’ had become millionaires, jet setting around, totally divorced from their roots and the lives of ordinary people. These ‘revolutionary rebels’ were now courted by Princesses, Heads of State and assorted dignitaries. Their concerts were held in massive stadia where for a huge price you could stand in discomfort to watch some distant specks on a stage perform some distorted versions of past hits. They might enliven the experience with fireworks, lasers, lighting and props but much of the music had become so orchestrated and pseudo-complex that it was no longer stimulating or easily accessible. It did not relate to life on the street. You might as well buy the album, put on the headphones and listen to it in comfort. It was no longer Rock Music. Rock had lost the intimacy of live performance, the gut excitement and the ‘stars’ had lost their street credibility and James Dean craziness.
1975 and 1976 were the years of hope and optimism. While the future looked bleak; unemployment was rife and the kids no longer had a voice; they were cut off from the emotional release of Rock Music; there was hope.
For young kids they could not relate to the sophisticated intellectual qualities of TechnoFlash and could not conceive they would ever become good enough to perform it. It left them with no impetus to join in. There was nothing but morbid nostalgia for times that had not been theirs. The only avenue open or performance was the Pub Rock scene with its diet of R&B standards.
This was when the Sex Pistols, rapidly followed by a host of similar bands, burst upon the scene. They were manna from heaven.
The bands were made up of young kids, many of them from working class backgrounds, who had completely broken with past music traditions. They were up to their ears with frustration, anger and rebellion. They were bursting with pent-up energy and looking to vent it. They had a lot to kick against. They were the written off generation. They emerged like an army of James Dean Visigoths.
In defiance of the established Rock Bands they coined the derisory term Punk which had been a derogatory term used to describe young kids who did not know what was going on. The term had been deployed previously when describing the Garage Punk bands of the 1960s. A music that was brash, rough and ready, produced by young American kids in response to the British Beat bands. Punk had become synonymous with rebellion and that was just what the British Punk scene was all about.
Punk music was a break with the past, an attempt to produce something new, basic, exciting and angry. They did not go back to their roots or even learn to play too well. They just got up on stage and played how they felt – angry. The songs were about being lied to, cheated, misled, bored, disillusioned and violent. The emphasis was on speed. The quality of the playing did not matter so much as the power. Though, contrary to popular mythology, many of them were quite proficient. The numbers were short and basic with no drawn out solos.
The bands played in the small clubs and pubs and were crude and vulgar. They did not play the usual Music Biz games. They made up heir own rules. The establishment panicked. After the Sex Pistols swore on Thames Television on Bill Grundy’s Today show there was outrage. The Tory Bernard Brook-Partidge they’d be vastly improved by sudden death and the Daily Mirror had the headline ‘The Filth & the Fury!’ Punk Rock was up and running.
However there was a brief hiatus. Using the pretext of violence and anarchy councils banned them, promoters backed off and established stars and the music press ridiculed them. They were portrayed as unmusical thugs, a passing phase of no consequence. They were too crude and vulgar.
But then the music press and record labels had vested interests in promoting their ‘stars’. The entire scene was written off before it even got going. Where was the product? These Punk Bands were churning out an antagonistic ‘noise’ on cheap gear in small halls. They were not producing music that was easily assimilatable by the media and was not going to be commercial. It did not appeal to the average punter. Punk was thrusting two fingers up at the whole music establishment. The establishment was based on profit. How were you going to make money out of something that couldn’t get played on the Beeb or Top of the Pops? How was it going to sell and make money?
They hadn’t reckoned with the anarchic marketing skills of McLaren or the fervour of the kids. They were bursting for something new they could call their own.
As with the 1960s hippie generation there was suddenly an ‘Us and Them’. Members of the old guard were ‘Boring old farts’ and there were the instantly successful slogans ‘Never trust a Hippie’ and ‘Anarchy’. Suddenly the old revolutionaries were part of the establishment and were as much a focus for rebellion as any Tory Minister.
The kids had something they could identify with. The bands were theirs. They came from the same streets. They lived the same lives. They could see them, get near them, touch them and be part of the same scene as them. The music was so basic that anyone could pick up a guitar, learn a few chords, plug in and join in. It was Skiffle all over again – this time with anarchy. A whole generation found that they had a new means of expression and could kick out at all the crap they despised.
No matter how original or how much something wants to cut off from its roots nothing comes from nowhere. Punk was no exception. It had been bubbling under with Pub Rock, building up a head of steam waiting for the right stimulus to propel into full blooded flight. That stimulus came from the New York scene and in particular the New York Dolls. The man that initiated it with the adoption of the sound, attitude, style and fashion was, love him or hate him, Malcolm McLaren.
Fresh from his management of the New York Dolls Malcolm was the owner of a Chelsea Road clothes boutique that went under the provocative name of ‘SEX’. It specialised in bondage gear but Malcolm, working with his girlfriend Vivienne Westwood, began pushing the Punk style of slashed clothing, safety pins and spiked hair he had stolen from Richard Hell. He also set about trying to establish a live club scene similar to New York’s and wanted to put together a band that epitomise this Punk philosophy.
Fortunately for McLaren there were already a bunch of up and coming musicians who were impressed with the New York scene and had begun experimenting with their own aggressive style. When Malcolm started to introduce individuals with a view to putting together the Sex Pistols he was working within a frame that was already beginning to coalesce. He was merely the best at promoting it.
The marketing was essential but it was what Malcolm was good at. He sorted the confrontational name from the name of his shop partly as a means of promoting the shop as much as the band. The clearly identifiable fashion was equally important and had to be identified with a clear philosophy – in this case Anarchy and a clear schism with everything that had gone before.
Spreading out from Malcolm’s SEX boutique, fuelled by the notoriety of the Sex Pistols, a fashion craze strongly associated with the new youth anarchic stance began to sweep the nation. Once again it was easy to recognise your subcultural tribe from the overt signals – Spiky hair, safety pins, leather jackets, chains, razor blades, swastikas, torn clothes, tight jeans, shoes painted silver. The kids loved it. Overnight the long hair, flares and hippie paraphernalia were dumped. It was all associated with grunts of ‘Boring’, a snarling indifference, general vulgarity, and a disdain for anything that moved. It just could not fail.
It was totally uncompromising, rebellious, arrogant and wild and its ethos was summed up in the Pogo dancing and practice of spitting at the bands. They were openly courting outrage.
What started off as a minority appeal festering in the doldrums of Pub Rock, took off in a blaze of publicity surrounding the rise and fall of the Sex Pistols. It took off to undreamed heights as the bands ventured forth from their small number of places like the 100 Club and Roxy.
Even though the Pistols were soon banned from appearing just about anywhere the genie was already out of the bottle.
The movement was fanned by New York bands who came across to London – the New York Dolls, Ramones, Heartbreakers and Patti Smith all made ecstatic appearances. There were also the highly provocative singles released by the Sex Pistols and the title of their first album ‘Never mind the bollocks’. It threw petrol on the fire. The Pistols swore and snarled their way to number one and stormed the country. They ended up with a series of top ten singles and made a film ‘The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle’ exposing all the inner workings of the music business. In the process they created a whole Youth Subculture, got signed by a number of record company’s who got jumpy and dumped them with large compensation, and made a brilliant and highly controversial in ‘Never Mind the Bollocks’ in which they could write extremely good and perceptive lyrics. They also unleashed both Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious on to an unsuspecting public. Despite all this they died the death in America.
The American tour brought things to a head and they split up amid chaos and anarchy. The remnants, minus Johnny, going on to record a last swan song with the bank robber Ronnie Biggs. Sid went solo and then got arrested for stabbing his girlfriend Nancy Spungen to death and was then found dead from an overdose of heroin. You can’t get much more Punk than that.
The Sex Pistols might have been the fulcrum for all the other Bands involved in the Punk explosion but they were amply supported by a series of other bands who had evolved along similar lines, at the same time, in a kind of parallel evolution. These were rapidly joined by a host of newcomers who were rapidly formed to crawl out of the woodwork.
One of the first Punk bands was London SS. They were almost mythical having Mick Jones, Tony James and Bryan James who later turned up in the Clash, Generation X and the Damned respectively. They formed in 1975 and based their sound on East Coast bands the MC5, Stooges and New York Dolls. They folded in January 1976 without even playing a proper gig but their influence was extensive and legendary.
There were five major other bands in the beginning – the Stranglers, Damned, Clash, Sham 69 and Stiff Little Fingers.
The Clash were the most poetic and political favouring an aggressive delivery and anarchic working class anger expressed articulately on early numbers such as ‘White riot’ and ‘London’s burning’. Their message was easy to assimilate: they were tired of being on society’s slagheap; they wanted the kids to stop complaining about it, get up off their arses and do something about it. They mixed in a measure of reggae which they recognised as having a similar message. They went out of their way to express complete disdain for like lifestyles of Rock Stars like Mick Jagger saying that they should use their wealth to do something for the kids who had given it to them.
The Stranglers were a different sort of band. They were older to the others and had a history of playing pub R&B. Their music was consequently less thrash and bash and more sophisticated. They used a range of styles and tempos. The main reason they were so closely associated with Punk was because of their menacing image, the aggression and violence. It often spilt out on to the dance floor.
The Damned released the first Punk single on the Stiff label with ‘New Rose’. The Damned used a theatrical approach with Dave Vanian dressed up as Dracula, Rat Scabies cultivated uncouthness and Captain Sensible’s fairy suits.
Sham 69 were created by Jim Pursey in Hersham, Surrey. They were one of the originals at the 100 Club and gained a cult following with their aggressive act and uncompromising stance. They finally broke through in 1978 with ‘Borstal Breakout’ and split in 1980 after having been adopted by racist skinheads and having violent outbursts at their gigs.
Stiff Little Fingers were championed by John Peel who was quick to latch on to Punk music and push it through his shows. They came over from Ireland with a series of furious songs reflecting the Irish ‘Troubles’. The experience of living in such a torn society resonated perfectly with the Punk scene and they launched into it with passion and fury. Their songs reflected the frustration of what it was like to be caught up in the midst of such conflict.
They were joined by a host of other excellent bands – Siouxsie & the Banshees, the Skids, Ruts, Angelic Upstarts, Adverts, X-Ray Specs, Boomtown Rats, 999, Buzzcocks, Only ones, Lurkers, Varukers, Vibrators, Skids, Adam & the Ants, Jam, Boys, Patrick Fitzgerald, John Doctors of Madness, Generation X, Rezillos, Undertones and Slits. Some of these like the Boomtown Rats, who took their name from a gang in Woody Guthrie’s ‘Bound for Glory’, and were formed by Bob Geldhof in Ireland, the Buzzcocks from Bolton with Pete Shelley’s great lyrics, and the Jam, Paul Weller’s Mod band, went on to achieve considerable chart success. The others settled for cult status but they were all contributors to a phenomenon that shook the world. The Doctors of Madness were a proto-punk band put together by Richard Strange AKA Kid Strange with Urban Blitz on electric violin, Stoner on bass and Peter DiLemma on drums. They created a sound that was redolent of the Velvet Underground and used a lot of theatre, make-up and costumes. They were supported by the likes of the Sex Pistols and should have been a lot bigger. They were ahead of the time.
The success of the Punk scene drew a lot of energy back into the scene and set up a rich field of Independent labels. This took the power away from the major labels whose policy of going for the lowest common denominator had the effect of always playing safe and watering down the music to cater for a mass market. The independents were passionate and raw. They were content with a niche market. They were idealistic and extreme.
As soon as it was apparent hat this was more than a passing phase the Major labels were all over it looking to sign up the new talent. It revitalised the music business and provided fertile soil for the emergence of British New Wave bands.
The result of Punk was fourfold:
- A number of US New Wave bands received a new lease of life and gained an audience in Britain – Ramones, Patti Smith, Iggy & the Stooges, MC5, Heartbreakers, New York Dolls, Blondie, Talking Heads and Runaways.
- There were a number of British New Wave bands who were inspired by the energy of Punk – Ian Dury & the Blockheads, Elvis Costello & Attractions, Nick Lowe, Wreckless Eric, Pretenders, Pogues, Billy Bragg, Kirsty McColl, Jonah Lewie, etc.
- The music industry received a much needed kick up the backside.
- The US Punk and New Wave bands got off the ground – Devo, Dead Kennedy’s, Black Flag, Geza X, Bad Brains, Flipper and D.O.A.
Punk went forward into a second generation of Punk bands in the 1980s, none of whom achieved the success of the first wave. It got more extreme – people cutting themselves with glass or razors, biting heads off lizards, urinating and defecating, Nazi slogans, OI and skinhead racism, and anything that tried to outdo the Sex Pistols, shock or was in extreme bad taste.
||Stand out tracks
God save the queen
Holidays in the sun
Anarchy in the UK
I wane be me
I’m so bored with the USA
Police and thieves
Hate and war
Julie’s in the drug squad
(White man) in Hammersmith Palais
Rudie can’t fail
Guns of Brixton
Brand new Cadillac
Lost in the supermarket
The magnificent seven
Police on my back
Know your rights
Straight to hell
Rock the Casbah
Should I stay or should I go
This is radio clash
||Neat neat neat
|Stiff Little Fingers
Barbed wire love
State of emergency
No more of that
Doesn’t make it alright
I don’t like you
Fly the flag
Gotta get away
Wait and see
Bits of kids
Is that what you fought the war for?
You can’t say crap on the radio
Ever fallen in love with someone
What do I get?
I don’t mind
If the kids are united
Hurry up Harry
Tell us the truth
Angels with dirty faces
||In a rut
Staring at the rude boys
||I don’t like Mondays
Looking after No. 1
Mary of the 4th form
She’s so modern
Someone’s looking at you
||In the city
Down in the tube station at midnight
The Eton rifles
All round the world
A Bomb in Wardour Street
News of the world
When you’re young
All Mod Cons
Little boy soldiers
Town called Malice
My perfect cousin
It’s going to happen
||One chord wonders
Gary Gilmour’s eyes
Into the valley
||I am a cliché
Bondage up yours
The day the world turned day-glo
||Down in the sewer
No more heroes
Go Buddy Go
(Get a) Grip (On yourself)
Peasant in the big shitty
I feel like a wog
Something better change
Bring on the nubiles
Nice ‘n’ Sleazy
Nuclear device (Wizard of Aus)
(Don’t bring) Harry
Just like nothing on Earth
|Siouxsie & Banshees
||Hong Kong Garden
||Flying saucer attack
Somebody’s gonna get their head kicked in tonight
Top of the pops
Stiff little fingers
||Sick on you
I don’t care
|Adam & the Ants
Dog eats dog
King of the wild frontier
|Doctors of Madness
||Doctors of madness
Sons of survival
Billy watch out
|Tom Robinson Band
(Sing if you’re) Glad to be gay
Don’t take no for an answer
Right on sister
Ain’t gonna take it
I’m alright Jack
Up against the wall
Too good to be true
Better decide which side you’re on
Power in the darkness
Bully for you
Winter of ‘79
Everything you ever wanted to know about Rock Music!
If you would like to purchase this book in either digital or paperback it is available on Amazon.
In the UK:
In the USA :