By Michael Skywood Clifford.
In 2012, the BBC are celebrating Punk with a series on BBC4 and further programmes on Radio 4 and Radio 6. I think Punk was the worst youth culture movement in the 20th Century and I will try and explain why.
Britain in the 50s and 60s
Firstly, it’s difficult to believe how positive Britain was in the decades before Punk.
The general millieu, in post war Britain, was to appreciate skill and excellence in all things; to venerate the pain and effort it took for someone to gain expertise and virtuosity. Not everyone of course has natural talent, but in the UK in the 50s and 60s everyone aspired to it. Everyone wanted to better themselves and were prepared to really work at it. Two obvious examples in the 60s were British television and popular music. It was a golden age of TV, with a plethora of talent: refined dramatists, perceptive writers, stage-wise comedians and convincing actors. Most television was influenced by British theatre and the West End, not by the USA’s Hollywood car-chase drivel or their TV-quiz, trash factory. Classics like ‘War and Peace’ and ‘I Claudius’ were beautifully written, shot and produced. And the boom in pop music and the British music scene needs little description it is so well documented. London and Liverpool swung with great pop musicians, needless here to give you a list. But it was all so positive! In the UK in the 60s, young school children wanted to aspire to be good at something, to do something positive with themselves, they were highly motivated. These were the days of magazines for children called: ‘Look, Listen and Learn’ and ‘Knowledge’ and ‘Understanding Science’. The Open University was being set up by Harold Wilson and everyone wanted to read ‘Teach Yourself Books’.
However things had changed culturally quite a lot by the early 70s. At this time there was considerable upheaval in the Tory establishment about the increasing control of the Wilsonian Socialists.
The Blues Uprising of the 60s was passing and the new phenomenon of Stadium rock (‘Rock Capitaliste’ as it used to be called by the Spanish) was becoming common. But by the mid 70s it was attracting criticism. However – despite the PR-led mythology of the rock stars obsessive contractual excesses – Stadium Rock was relatively benign in its ethical lyrical content. Nevertheless its worth noting that its androgynous leanings were beginning to upset the old guard.
Even though stadium bands such as Cream, King Crimson, Atomic Rooster, Nice, Led Zeppelin and the Humble Pie referred to dalliances with drugs and sex in their lyrics these were always surpassed by number of lyrics about ‘love’. A lot of these performers had been heavily influenced by the greats of the 60s, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, Motown, The Beatles, and English rhythm and blues. And these musicians kept any immorality off the stage and within their private lives, they didn’t flaunt it all over the stage and sing about it. The 60s had seen the beginnings of drugs leaking out of GPs practises and becoming street drugs. The 70s saw almost the commercialisation of illegal drugs on the streets of the UK and USA.
Ideals of change
Punk, at it’s inception, was unhappy about the state of affairs in British music. Adult Orientated Rock (AOR) was becoming passé. Punk campaigned against Stadium rock claiming it had become too big and too corporate reflecting E. F. Shumacher’s ‘Small is Beautiful: Study of economics as if people mattered‘ which promised a better road to travel. It campaigned for a diversity of local musicians playing small gigs in small pubs and creating bands of music democracy. Simultaneously people were indeed beginning to do it for themselves: independent labels were suddenly being created taking the power and the profits away from the big corporate conglomerates and giving it back to the artists.
But somehow the lofty ideals of Punk got perverted into something grosser than any of the excesses of stadium rock.
In the early 70s I was at art college and one of our lecturers, Pete Gibson and his wife, ran a rag-and-taggle bunch of amateurish musicians and their attitude was freedom from the corporations and to create a sort of combination of music and street theatre. It was against the wild virtuosity of contemporary stadium rock, it brought things back to the people, with a level of amateurism and the pleasure of performance for ordinary people.
The arrival of Punks.
However the main bulk of Punk travelled to the UK in the middle Seventies across the pond from the USA where many viruses are born. One early strain was Alice Cooper’s ‘Schools Out For Summer’ in 1972, perhaps the harbinger and prophet of incoming Punk, a cynical, anti-education record.
When the body and soul of Punk arrived, in the later 70s, it proved to be no shrinking violet. No. Punk was suddenly promoted from on high, dished out from every media outlet going – and this promotion was not a democratic process from down below but a highly organised and centralised one from above. A vast media campaign operated on behalf of Punk and ensured its exposure through every outlet – just like a modern day media campaign stage manages the Middle East spring or the Syrian Spring today. Punk had already been hi-jacked by the establishment and the promoters whom could see a new wave of profits. Out with the old and in with the new; change everything to create a boom. ‘Love’ was yesterday. ‘Hate’ was today and tomorrow. Clear the decks! We smell massive profits and we may see a way where can use this to our own political advantage.
At the heart of Punk was the celebration of nihilism.
Nihilism is the belief that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated. It is often associated with extreme pessimism and a radical skepticism that condemns existence. A true nihilist would believe in nothing, have no loyalties, and no purpose other than, perhaps, an impulse to destroy. Nihilism is most often associated with Friedrich Nietzsche who argued that its corrosive effects would eventually destroy all moral, religious, and metaphysical convictions and precipitate the greatest crisis in human history. In the 20th century, nihilistic themes – epistemological failure, value destruction, and cosmic purposelessness – have preoccupied artists, social critics, and philosophers. Mid-century, for example, the existentialists helped popularize tenets of nihilism in their attempts to blunt its destructive potential. By the end of the century, existential despair as a response to nihilism gave way to an attitude of indifference, often associated with anti-foundationalism. (Internet encyclopaedia of philosophy).
Punk represented the death of God, the death of the human spirit, the death of teenage hope, the death of belief that we can have any personal control. It is not only the belief in our own self loathing but in the death of believing in the possibility of improving the human race and society.
The punk philosophy persuaded that everyone was a manipulator with no other objective than to rip everyone off. The life style of Punk is bleak: it is the philosophy of the sad, angry, the vengeful and pissed off, made fashionable.
Young followers of Punk needed – to feel they belonged – to fill themselves with a nihilism and a conviction that nothing was worth changing. Many of these teenagers were disaffected and depressed enough and punk sealed in their internal hopelessness. Punk was the hyper-version of the Dada movement from the First World War. Dada had attacked the establishment during the last years of the war with a mixture of Surrealism and Nihilism but Punk in the 80s was much more negative about human nature in general.
Punk institutionalised a demoralised outlook. And there can be no condemnation worse than that.
How Punk reinforced the worst type of negative attitudes
So with Punk young people never got the chance to get out of the Slough of Despond, Punk was designed to make youngsters feel that nothing was worth any effort. I hate myself in a horrible universe and I JUST DON’T CARE. It implied everything in society had failed. That reality was hell.
However – don’t worry – because the sensation-stimulating industries were still thriving – get the kids to live for kicks – the old rock and roll short term solution. Only this time sell this depressed and demoralised sub culture: uppers, downers, acid, glue, demoralizing records, black leather jackets, ripped jeans at High Street prices, to placate them. These kids were being profoundly manipulated.
Working with young people
For teachers, youth workers, people working with young offenders and anyone else trying to help young people the negative affect of Punk was depressing. Trying to increase teenagers self esteem and get them interested in learning was now conflicted with the outpourings of the radio stations telling them to give up and sniff glue because the world was s***.
It takes effort, motivation and belief for a young person to go out and get a job, to fall in love, to marry, and to have and enjoy a family. Punk gave many of them a reason not to bother. It gave them a false map of the universe; a twisted view of reality.
The suits behind Punk were utterly ruthless and psychotically impartial to the affects this mass media philosophy would have on young and aspiring teenagers, many of whom were subverted to a life of drug abuse, nihilism and cynicism.
After WW1, positive philosophies had sought to improve the education of ordinary people and bring about an educated working class. Now, it was all change. This was the very beginning of the Murdoch/ Thatcher dumbing down and the reversal of mass education and civil liberties – a dumbing down and reversal that has been going on ever since.
If education is surrounding a child in positive things then anti-education is surrounding a child in negative things. And Punk was a negative thing. ‘I am loveable and capable’ became ‘I am unlovable and hopeless’.
Shock and horror
So Punk arrived with its black leather jackets, its hostile nihilistic attitudes, its dedication to insolent behaviour and atrocious insulting musical standards. The lyrics were so full of anger and cynicism they were virtual hymns to any Antichrist.
The catalogue of punk exponents that dished all this tawdry stuff out included Souxie and the Banshees, the Ramones, the Stranglers, Patti Smith, the Clash, the Slits, Hazel O’Connor, Annie Lennox and of course the Sex Pistols.
The Sex Pistols single: ‘I am the Antichrist’ was named after a concept borrowed from Fascist leaning philosopher mentioned above: Nietzsche. Don’t imagine that those four feckless boys of the Sex Pistols had ever read Nietzsche. This ‘inspiration’ came from their manager – a man who had been kicked out of many art colleges. (Now how do you get to do that?)
This ‘inspiration’ reminds me somewhat of William Golding’s management insisting he rewrite ‘Lord of the Flies’ and take the God character out of it’, which he went on to do (despite Golding being a Christian). Money making managements always know that taking God out (or bringing the Devil in) sells more units.
The Sex Pistol’s management proceeded to manipulate the publicity machine with shock and sensation. It was Malcolm McLaren and his girl friend, Vivienne Westwood, who pulled the strings on the media world that created such a violent cultural shift. McLaren’s father left when he was two and he was raised by his maternal grandmother, Rose Corre Isaacs, the formerly wealthy daughter of Portuguese Sephardic Jewish diamond dealers, in Stoke Newington.
McLaren told Andrew Denton on Enough Rope, that his grandmother always said to him, “To be bad is good… to be good is simply boring”.
McLaren had been attracted to the Situationist movement, particularly King Mob, which promoted absurdist and provocative actions as a way of enacting social change. In 1968 McLaren had tried unsuccessfully to travel to Paris to take part in the demonstrations there. Instead, with Jamie Reid, he took part in a student occupation of Croydon Art School. McLaren would later adopt the movement’s ideas into his promotion for the various pop and rock groups with whom he was soon to involve himself.
The Sex Pistols released their album Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols in October 1977 and played their last UK gig before embarking upon a US tour in January 1978.
During his time managing the band McLaren was accused by band members (most notably by John Lydon) of mismanaging them and refusing to pay them when they asked him for money. McLaren stated that he had planned out the entire path of the Sex Pistols, and in the film The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle he set this plan out. McLaren kept the Sex Pistols’ contract rights until Lydon took him to court in the 1980s to win the rights and unpaid revenues from McLaren. Lydon won and gained complete control from McLaren in 1987. McLaren and Lydon refused to speak to each other after the band split. In the 2000 film The Filth and the Fury the surviving members of the Sex Pistols put their version of events on film.
Teenager-hood has often been defined by psychologists as a time of crisis. So here Punk’s shock tactics, its cynical lyrics and its new wardrobe were delivered straight into the psychological neediness of screwed up teenagers.
Who needs good pop music when more attention can be had by kicking over a dustbin? This was not music to be listened to on a stereo system but a mad performance of bad taste to be watched with mouths agape on television. It was an insolent acting-out not a piece of music. Adolescent boys tapped into the Sex Pistols anger.
Victims and role models of the Pistols
Sid Vicious and his girl friend – in a world of stupidity, vanity and excessive drug abuse – became the ultimate victims and role models of Punk.
Punk was not just about lack of talent. Andrew Loog Oldham, the road manager (and sometimes keyboard player) of the Rolling Stones had said years before: ‘Any talentless person can now become a pop star with modern recording techniques’. Sadly, even modern recording wizardry didn’t make the Sex Pistols sound any good. Punk was meant to sound unmusical; to sound like you were building a shed.
Punk stole children’s minds and sensibilities. As ever it was about selling records and merchandise. But it was about more than just dumbing the kids down and making profit; it was about smashing the Callahan administration of the time.
How punk was picked up by the right wing
Punk played straight into the hands of the Tory right.
The lesson the Tories had learnt by the mid 70s were astonishing. They had began to find their feet after all the cock ups of the 20th century: Suez, Harold Macmillian, Alec Douglas Home, Edward Heath, and after the wilderness years of 60s and 70s. Then suddenly their social science strategists looked at Nazi Germany. If you made society descend to the gutters, the fearful middle classes would soon be ringing for change in the government. The establishment had started to get to grips with the political force of television in the mid-60s. ‘That Was The Week That Was’ and ‘Cathy Come Home’ started to alert the establishment of the political power of mass media. They descended on television and began to control it. Within that control they decided what what lyrical content would filter onto Top Of The Pops.
By 1977, Punk showed that the UK had gone finally mad. It extolled decadence to such a opprobrious extent that the British middle classes were compelled to stop it at all costs.
‘I am the Antichrist’, ‘God Save the Queen’, ‘I’m So Vacant’ and ‘My Way’ were all bombs aimed at the middle classes and Daily Mail readers: How could they not say: “THIS IS THE PITS AND IT MUST STOP.” Retired senior military officers such as General Sir Walter Walker, NATO Commander of Northern Europe in 1969-72, and Major Alexander Greenwood began to organize private armies to take over the British Government.
The more outrageously depraved this culture got, the more the Tories grew confident. They knew that all of this insolent lewdness was all on Callahan’s watch. All they needed now was organise a few conflicts with trade unions to get strikes to build up the so called ‘Winter of Discontent’. (Simultaneous strikes by dustmen and grave diggers) and they would win the next election.
The late Punk drug and nihilistic excesses of the late 70s were broadcast and then heavily castigated in the same way that the immoral excesses of the Weimar Republic in the 20s of Germany were condemned. The Weimar Republic allowed Hitler to create Nazi Germany and Punk was the lever which allowed Thatcher to get in to Downing Street.
Malcolm McLaren managed the Sex Pistols, but what was his involvement with the Tory right? Had he been a public school boy? Had he approached the Tories or did they approach him to create a sink estate rock band that would corrupt the youth, get them to hate themselves, sniff glue and dumb down the school and university systems? I don’t know these details, but the basic Tory plan worked. Callahan was out and Thatcher in. And as soon as she took over, the spitting, licentious, raw, aggressive Punk suddenly stopped. It had lasted just long enough to trash the Callahan government.
Punk was now diluted into New Wave; less offensive but not a great deal more musical. But the Daily Mail readers could rest easily in their chairs now that Britain was no longer wrestling with unions and her culture was safe and not offensive.
How often is raw Punk played on the radio now? Hardly ever, because DJs know it was all hype; they know the public never really liked it, and I suspect the record sales figures could have come from the dodgy ledgers of Enron. Punk was hype and could never have become so enormous without an orchestrated publicity machine behind it.
This is not to say that there weren’t creative and original bands that were caught up this massive political gaming and cultural shift at the time.
Of course nothing is entirely black and white and It’s true that some punks fought back (and were actively political) against the Tories when Thatcher got in but, by then, it was too late, they had let the monster in the house. Callahan may have been hopeless but better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know. They soon got to know the measure of Thatcher. Within a few years many Punk-followers were soon down at Greenham Common getting rid of US Cruise missiles
How I felt during the late 70s
During this time (I was 27/28) I had many of arguments with fashionable trendys and supporters of Punk. Those opponents seemed to me to be more interested in being in fashion than seeing the sociological effects of such movements. I now feel even more strongly that Punk was the most damaging hype of the 20th century with appalling later ramifications.
What followed Punk?
What did punk spawn? It spawned the generations of drug-addled ‘Train Spotters’ and Goths. It created the ground-bed for the manic shootings at Colombine High and similar events. It spawned the horror grunge that American soldiers listened to in their tanks as they approached battle in Desert Storm. It made anger, self hating and self harming fashionable. ‘Gobbing’, sniffing glue, pogoing and wearing ripped clothes were its trade marks. It made abusing the system fashionable. It created the appalling musical standards we presently see in some of bands on the Jools Holland show. It created a later competition in the pop music industry to see who can be the most nihilistic and socially ugly, such as Marilyn Manson and others. It has created many rock and roll suicides.
Grass roots Punk may have started out with benign intentions but it was quickly perverted by strange avaricious and ruthless psychos who JUST DIDN’T CARE.
It was a hideous virus from the US.