When there's no future
How can there be sin
We're the flowers in the dustbin
We're the poison in your human machine
We're the future, your future . . .
-- The Sex Pistols, "God Save the Queen/No Future"
Punk will fade . . . it is anti-life, anti-humanity. When it dies, it will not be mourned.
* -- Derek Jewell, music critic for the Sunday Times
The Pistols were wrong. So was Derek Jewell. Punk didn't turn out to be the future -- but its passing is, or should be, mourned.
It was 10 years ago that the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Damned, Generation X, the Buzzcocks and a number of other British bands, organized under the banner of punk, made a concerted effort to shock rock 'n' roll out of its doldrums through a campaign of social and sonic warfare.
As a movement, punk flamed out by the end of the decade, leaving a smear of visceral images -- spiky-dyed postapocalyptic hairdos that seemed as permanent as the sneers; clothes torn apart and safety-pinned together, stained with graffiti; crude, unrelenting music that sounded like a string of stun grenades going off in the laundry room; cramped shows laced with tension and aggression that sometimes seemed theatrical, other times not. It was a whirlpool of noise trying to suck down rock's worst inclinations.
Punk should have provided a sense of de'ja vu for those first-generation rockers who had come of age with Elvis, but it didn't. Mostly what the old-timers saw were their worst nightmares come true.
For a brief moment, though, punk grabbed the bloated body of rock 'n' roll by the throat, shook it up and brought it back to disquieting life. The response to it was marginal but intense, and its influence definitely lingers.
Popular music in the '80s has a great many more rough edges than it did a decade ago. It also offers a great many more niches for truly alternative musics and music systems. Despite, or possibly because of, all the attention it received, punk created an alternative universe of clubs and promoters, record stores, recording facilities and music papers, many of which are still in place or have been succeeded by new alternatives. In America these days, the logical heir of punk is hardcore, which is fast and furious, provokes physical participation, relies on minimal equipment and skill, utilizes short, simple songs to sustain caustic social and political commentary and defines a particular community of interests.
Except for a few isolated bands, punk never took hold in the United States the way it did in England. Still, the musical roots of punk were American -- from Detroit's Iggy and the Stooges and MC5 to New York's Ramones, Patti Smith, Television and Heartbreakers. Many of those mid-'70s bands had been inspired by mid-'60s garage bands, with their emphasis on enthusiasm over ability; the garage bands, of course, had been inspired by British bands like the Yardbirds, the Who, the Kinks, Them and the Rolling Stones, who had originally been inspired by American blues and R&B.
But even with this tradition behind them, America's punkers were isolated guerrillas. What the English movement did was codify the punk attitude, exalt the punk process. And it infected the world, albeit briefly, with the social unease at its roots.
In many ways, punk was a double-edged razor, slashing through both a general social and cultural boredom (at least as experienced by working-class youth) and a specific disenchantment with the state of rock 'n' roll.
Cultural ennui, of course, gave rise to rock in the mid-'50s, and musical malaise has manifested itself periodically ever since. But by the '70s, the music had become particularly stagnant, pretentious, boring, a commodity rather than a force. Audiences weren't moved, they were anesthetized, assailed not by ideas but postures.
Thus when Johnny Lydon, soon to be rechristened Rotten, sauntered into the trendy King's Road boutique of Malcolm McLaren (who was to put together and manage the Sex Pistols), he was wearing a Pink Floyd T-shirt with one important addendum: "I HATE" scrawled above that band's name. Growing up poor in London, Rotten and bass player Sid Vicious used to throw bricks at passing cars; as the Sex Pistols, they were soon hurling the musical equivalent at rock 'n' roll.
"Actually, we're not into music, we're into chaos," Rotten insisted. "It's because we're bored with all that old crap, like every decent human being should be."
A decade ago, rock was steadily separating itself from the real world, socially, economically and esthetically. The music tended to either numbing dance-floor escapism or greater technological advances, complex structures and pretentious lyrics. Concerts reinforced the distance between performers and fans, who were perceived simply as consumers.
This was particularly true in England, where working-class youth were trapped in a cycle of inflation, joblessness and urban congestion that offered little escape, a situation and sentiment summed up as "no future." In England, the generation gap was more a generation chasm, and it yawned between the punkers and even the first- and second-generation rockers. "Your generation don't mean a thing to me," Generation X told the Beatles and Stones, who were approaching their forties and must have been taken aback by the harshness of that stance and the terror of the new music. But as the Damned put it, "As society gets tougher, the music gets tougher, too."
Ironically, first-generation rockers were now in the parental role (real and imagined). This meant that for the fans, the rock 'n' roll they'd been weaned on could no longer be the potent symbol of rebellion it had been in the '50s; over two decades it had become precious nostalgia. Despite Mick Jagger's best efforts, rock in the '70s carried no stigma, was no longer a point of generational antagonism.
Unlike other reactive musical movements, which tended to celebrate the new, punk was all opposition against the old. It sought to disrupt the surface of rock 'n' roll, since that was all it perceived rock as retaining from its origins. As rock had once been opposed to pop music, now punk needed to be opposed to rock.
The irony here, of course, was that punk was much more a recasting of its nemesis than rock had ever been of pop. It was the dragster stripped down to basics (guitar, bass, drum), with a rebuilt engine that ran on vitriol. Punk sought to replace music that sounded good with music that once again said something -- and that something was disquieting, halfway between a desperate cry for attention and a warning of the dangers of inattention. As the Jam sang:
In the city there's a thousand faces all shining bright
And those golden faces are under 25.
They wanna say, they wanna tell you
About their young ideas
You better listen now, you said your bit.
The youth culture of the '50s had found expression in rock 'n' roll, but rock was no longer adequate in the '70s. After all, whereas the fatuous '50s were an era of conspicuous consumption and promise, the '70s provided a much more demoralizing environment. Particularly in England, much of the new generation felt cheated, manipulated, denied.
Little wonder that punk reflected bitter anger and frustration. "There is no future in England's dreaming," the Pistols spat out, while the Slits added, "I'm going to be your number one enemy, all for the hell of it." Most punks reveled in the reactions they provoked, and any reaction was better than none. It was a way to affirm one's existence, identity and value -- among the hardest things for young people to do under the best of circumstances.
Despite having its share of outside agitators at the start (McLaren and the Clash's Bernie Rhodes were semi-intellectual pop provocateurs), punk quickly evolved into an essentially working-class youth movement uncontrolled by the elders, even if those "elders" were only in their late twenties. One writer called it a "children's crusade."
Right from the start, there were two camps. The Sex Pistols, Johnny Rotten said, "are presenting one alternative to apathy, and if you don't like it that's just too bad. It's not political anarchy . . . it's musical anarchy." The Clash, in contrast, were very much politically motivated and directed, envisioning themselves as "a shout from the gutter," a stance that would eventually evolve into self-caricature.
If the Pistols were calculating and opportunistic (Rotten's last sneered words at the group's final concert in 1979 would be, "Ever had the feelin' you've been cheated?"), the Clash were idealistic. The Pistols, committed to destruction, reflected a fatalistic streak in the working class, while the Clash, committed to change, aligned themselves with the more optimistic revolutionary left.
Neither attitude sat well with the British establishment.
To them, punk was at best a new irritant, at worst a serious social threat. Punk was buffeted between the silence of radio, which wouldn't play the music, and the roar of the tabloids, railing against it. Punk groups were banned from venues. Punk musicians and their audiences were attacked, verbally and physically. The worst attacks were reserved for the Pistols, who, between beatings and razorings, saw themselves dropped by several established labels (which then had to pay off on the broken contracts), saw their albums melted down after printers refused to label them, saw their single "Anarchy in the U.K." race up the charts as a blank space, since it was banned from airplay.
Of course, the success of the Pistols' conscious amateurism, warped as it may have been, signaled both the beginning and the end.
On the one hand, rock suddenly became democratic again. The Desperate Bicycles set down the manifesto in the chorus to "The Medium Was Tedium":
POETRY It was easy
It was cheap
Go and do it.
*And hundreds of punk bands went and did it, setting up their own labels, their own cooperatives, their own networks. As British critic Simon Frith noted, "They moved attention back from markets to musicians, to the ways music works to symbolize and refocus communities. They articulated an explicitly anti-professional attitude to record-making, a concern for music as a mode of survival rather than as a means to profit."
The new democratic process also meant that women moved from fronting bands as singers to partnership status as instrumentalists. That is no longer remarkable in 1986, but 10 years ago it was. And in the wake of punk, there would be a few more racially mixed bands, reflecting an emotional alliance with reggae that was social more than musical.
On the other hand, the stage was set for the inevitable co-opting, what the Clash attacked as "turning rebellion into money."
At first, because it was youth reclaiming rock on its own terms rather than buying into pre-existing myths and markets, punk was reviled by the music business. But soon the cultural and economic forces that inevitably transform revolt into style began defusing the new music.
Almost immediately, a schism emerged between punk and the challenging, but commercially palatable, new wave. Using the latter term, you could get away with more -- after all, it was borrowed from cinema, not sociology. Small wonder that the term "punk" was attacked for being too old, too American, too inaccurate.
It was punk fashion that was co-opted first, because it was all surface, and surface is what the business machine understood. By the end of 1976, the punk look was already available at Bloomingdale's. You could buy gold and platinum safety pins at select boutiques. (Irony again: The Sex Pistols had their origins in McLaren's antifashion boutique. But while McLaren, who favored a politics of confrontation and controversy, may have envisioned punk as a convergence of the next big thing and the last big thing, he quickly lost control of it.)
The obvious precedent for this convergence of music and business, fandom and fashion, came in the psychedelic '60s. Then too the music had been loud 'n' different, the clothes outrageous, the social and political messages strong and explicit, the communal spirit evident. To be sure, one movement was defined as counterculture, the other as anticulture, and the surface contrasts were startling: long, flowing hair versus short dangerous hair; languid, open-ended musical explorations versus short, frenetic statements; bright clothes and liquid graphics versus the urban graffito look. Both, however, tried to change the way pop is produced and consumed -- and both left a parasitic industry stronger than before.
But where psychedelia maintained (despite its best intentions and protestations) the distancing apparatus of pop, punk absolutely eliminated the distance. It demystified the process of making music and making records, suggesting not only that anyone could do it, but that everyone should do it. There seemed to be no distance between rehearsing and performing, between stage and audience, between music and life.
Those values are worth thinking about 10 years down the line.
Did punk make the difference it meant to?
Well, it's not hard to see that the business of rock survived its brief encounter with anarchy. It's profits-as-usual in this age of contemporary hot radio, Emptyvee and facile technopop. The only significant movements lately have been rock philanthropy and the emergence of a broad-based working-class consciousness in the work of artists such as Bruce Springsteen and John Cougar Mellencamp.
Actually, that's not a bad progress report. In mid-'80s rock 'n' roll, there continue to be heroic moments and inspirational figures, and much engaging entertainment.
Still, rock could stand to be a little ruder. Not in the sexual manner that so irritates the Parents Music Resource Center, but in spirit.
Punk was created not by media but by teen-age musicians desperate to make rock 'n' roll exciting and worthwhile again, to keep a promise made 30 years ago. It may have been exaggeration of rock -- but without its angry integrity, the music only deserves to be called pop.