Saturday, 10 September 2016

# 17: Punk 1976 - 78

It comes to something when the punk story itself needs to be subverted. But someone has tried at the British Library. ‘Punk history as defined by Malcolm McLaren’ is scrawled scornfully in marker pen on the Library’s introductory text panel for the exhibition Punk 1976-78 (someone else has tried to scrub the comment off, unsuccessfully). The same pen has crossed out ‘Sex Pistols, the Clash and the Buzzcocks’ who the Library says ‘stimulated a nationwide wave of grassroots activity’ and has written ‘The Slits, X-Ray Spex, Siouxsie and the Banshees (what about the women?)’.

So what kind of story do we get here? There is some well-trodden ground – the influence of the Ramones and New York Dolls (the latter disintegrated ‘due to commercial indifference and unwise lifestyle choices’ we are told – I love that deadpan curatorial language!), the sweary TV interview with Bill Grundy, and McLaren and Westwood’s clothes shop SEX.

But there are also some gems for connoisseurs – a demo version of Anarchy in the UK played to record companies by Malcolm McLaren (a version rejected by the band); the 1977 contract releasing bassist Glen Matlock; and a 1974 Sex T-shirt made out of a pillowcase with the first known mention of the Sex Pistols (‘Katie Jones and his SEX PISTOLS ‘). ‘You’re gonna wake up one morning and know what side of the bed you’ve been lying on,’ screams the shirt, giving a list of loves and hates. Hates include the National Front and ‘antiques of any sort’ as well as ‘John Osborne Harry Pinter Max Bygraves Melvyn Bragg Philip Jenkins the ICA and its symposiums’. In the loves are Walt Whitman, peace campaigner Pat Arrowsmith and Simone De Beauvoir.

Punk scholarship is a weird concept but you can’t go far in punk without meeting contradictions. It’s unclear what side of the bed Vivienne Westwood is lying on now, for example; she is a committed  environmental activist but in 2015  was voted off a speaking tour (called ‘We Are the Revolution’) by the Executive of the National Young Greens because of tax avoidance by her fashion company. Her son with Malcolm McLaren, Joe CorrĂ©, sold his Agent Provocateur lingerie chain to a private equity company for £60m in 2007, while on his website he slates those who ‘consume punk in pursuance of profit’, reported last month’s Private Eye

But I do miss that irreverence (am I the only one to think how docile commentary on the Royal Family is these days?). But in many ways we are not as shockable now, partly because we are more tolerant – and punk played its part in that, as the exhibition acknowledges, with sections on Rock against Racism and an audio of Linton Kwesi Johnson talking about how punk made young blacks readier to identify with whites. (‘I was going to say [the white] working class,’ says Johnson ‘… but a lot of punks were middle-class actually.’). Since it’s the British Library, there is more of a focus on documents and artwork, especially that of Jamie Reid, who designed many of the Pistols record covers. 

And what about the women? Well, they are represented in the exhibition – by video interviews with women punks 40 years later (tucked away in a corner), a huge picture of Poly Styrene in an in-your-face costume like a cross between a space suit and a lampshade – and lots of music. This is key to the success of the exhibition – lots of listening stations and an alcove dedicated to punk tracks and record sleeves. There is always a muted racket going on as you walk round, reminding you what it was all about, at least at first.

But it is 40 years later and the early days of punk are moving towards legend. These first two years tend to get much more coverage than the less sexy, less cool, more political wave of anarcho-punk which followed, with bands like Crass, and people in various corners of the globe leading alternative lives and trying to live outside mainstream capitalism. It would be much harder to put together an exhibition on that, not least because it’s still happening.

‘Even more than the boys, the girls were making it up as they went along,’ says Viv Goldman of the Flying Lizards. Punk meant, and still means, an awful lot to loads of people, from Morrissey to Kathy Burke to the exhibition visitor in bleached jeans, braces and porkpie hat looking intently at every display case while giving a running commentary to his companion, to everyone who felt liberated from school rules or suburbia or… well, just liberated. Says Gina Birch of The Raincoats, ‘It was really profound to be listened to.’

Open until October 2, free 

Picture credits:

Sniffin‘ Glue cover photo © Mark Perry

Roxy Club flyer from: