SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP : AMERICA AND THE BIRTH OF BRITISH PUNK
1st February 2020
Photographer unknown. Published by Verve Records. Public Domain
Punk rock is a word used by dilettantes and manipulators about music that takes up the energies, the bodies, the hearts, the souls, the time and the minds of young men who give everything they have to it.
A young, inexperienced person. A beginner or novice.
A young man used as a homosexual partner, especially in a prison.
Baby, jet boy’s gone.
Baby, New York City.
New York Dolls
New York City, 1975. A rebellious underground writer named Edward ‘Legs’ McNeil suggests to two friends that they start a low-budget magazine to spotlight the loud, snotty music that enthralled them, bands such as The Stooges, The Velvet Underground, The New York Dolls, The Dictators and The MC5. One of the three suggests calling it Teenage News Gazette. Absolutely not, counters McNeil. We’re calling it Punk.
There has long been a rooted belief in Britain that punk rock began with The Sex Pistols, The Clash and The Damned. These London bands, and those that followed in the north of England, may have taken core attitudes to a musical and sartorial conclusion, but those attitudes were spawned on America’s east coast.
It is moot to try to pin-point the actual birth of punk. A mutated form of rockabilly and garage bands had led, musically speaking, to the first acts that might be termed punk but, in terms of an artistic movement, Andy Warhol’s Factory in New York transgressed boundaries in a way that punk would emulate. Punk was as much attitude as it was music.
Warhol was possibly the first multi-media, do-it-yourself entrepreneur. In addition to his own iconic silk-screen prints, revolutionary film projects, carnivalesque entourage and personal mystique, Warhol managed the innovative Velvet Underground. A cartoon rendition of Lou Reed was on the cover of the first edition of McNeil’s Punk magazine. There was a sound and, equally of importance, there was a look.
In the years that followed Warhol’s exploration of cultural boundaries, New York City as a musical Mecca would explode. The New York Dolls dressed like 8th Avenue hookers – female hookers – while Blondie played bubble-gum pop and The Ramones thrashed out buzz-saw music which changed the meaning of the traditional musician’s count-in at the start of a song. 1 2 3 4! Beat on the brat with a baseball bat, oh yeah! This was not Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.
Long before these anarchic arrivistes, New York City had been a nursery for musical talent, nurturing Irving Berlin and the Gershwins, Duke Ellington, Billie Holliday, Burt Bacharach, Ella Fitzgerald and Carole King. Add Be-bop and the Dylan and Guthrie-inspired folk revival, and New York was a musical hothouse. But, until the Velvets in the 60s, California overtook the city that never sleeps. Then the Big Apple bit back, and a new strain of guitar music in the 70s would usher in something brasher.
The difference between The Velvet Underground and the punk scene they were godparents to was that Warhol’s protegés were musically trained. Reed was an experienced session journeyman and Welshman John Cale was a classical musician who had worked with experimental arranger Lamont Young. While their minimalist music, alternating between light and dark, seemed loose and spontaneous, there was structure and purpose. As the 1970s progressed, spontaneity pushed to the forefront of the music. So too, of course, did rebellion.
The establishment had been scared of the effect of loud and trashy guitar since Link Wray’s proto-punk classic Rumble was banned in 1956. It had nothing to do with the song’s lyrical content; Rumble was an instrumental. When The Kingsmen released Louie Louie in 1963, with its mangled and unclear lyrics, the song was the subject of an FBI investigation.
Also, it bears pointing out that punk did not follow one path that can simply be traced in reverse. Musical influence is rarely a simple linear process. Johnny Ramone did not get the downstroke guitar style that epitomised The Ramones from surf bands, garage music or rockabilly, but from Led Zeppelin’s Communication Breakdown. Iggy Pop was not inspired to form The Stooges because he had seen Elvis, but because he had seen The Doors. The music itself was absolutely derivative. The rolling eighths that exemplified punk bass playing, as well as the semi-tone drop found everwhere from The Ramones to The Sex Pistols can be found on C’Mon Everybody by Eddie Cochran.
By 1975, the focal point for the new wave of music was a club on New York’s Bowery called CBGBs and, later, Max’s Kansas City. As well as the more obvious bands that now exemplify punk, it hosted Talking Heads, Patti Smith, Television and a host of other groups who had been freed from the shackles of reliance on record labels and the economic logistics of touring. Then, in 1974, a young man from England arrived in New York, looking to continue the cultural adventure he had embarked on in his native land. His name was Malcolm McLaren.
Born in north London just after WW2, McLaren had an emotionally deprived childhood. A natural rebel, his only wish was to stand out from what he saw as a bland culture. Hooking up romantically with dress designer Vivienne Westwood, the pair opened a clothes shop, Let It Rock, in London’s fashion epicentre King’s Road. McLaren was captivated by New York, and became the manager of The New York Dolls, although Dolls singer David Johansen downplays McLaren’s role. The pairing was not a success but, when McLaren returned to London, his tail was far from between his legs, it was very much in the ascendant.
If punk rock were a virus which travelled from New York to London, McLaren was the infected carrier. His and Westwood’s shop became Sex, a rougher, more anarchic outlet whose fashion statements birthed what would become punk’s chaotic dress codes. He had seen Richard Hell – ex-bassist from Television who went on to form The Voidoids – walk in to a gig one evening in New York with ripped clothes held together with safety pins. The safety pin industry in Britain was to benefit from McLaren’s return.
McLaren’s and Westwood’s shop was part retail outlet, part social club for the type of neo-Dickensian, shoplifting urchins which so fascinated McLaren. Four of them were to become The Sex Pistols. Devotees of The Dolls, The Ramones, and The Stooges – The Pistols would go on to cover the Detroit band’s nihilistic anthem No Fun – the band rehearsed and played a handful of gigs without setting the world alight. Then McLaren got them on television.
It seems scarcely credible that the Bill Grundy interview was a mere 43 years ago and yet had the media effect it did. In 2020, in terms of vulgarity, there is a race to the bottom, but in the Britain of 1977 this was cultural heresy of a type previously unseen. The police were called after the Pistols and their entourage – including Siouxsie Sioux and Steve Severin, who would go on to form Siouxsie and the Banshees – swore on air. It is so anodyne now. Johnny Rotten said ‘shit’. Pistols guitarist Steve Jones – after presenter Bill Grundy made a lewd suggestion to Siouxsie – called him a ‘fucking rotter’. The press exploded. McLaren had hit the target with his first bomb.
What is also difficult to grasp, in a society as decadent as British society has become, is the moral outrage punk caused. The media fomented much of the violence directed against punks – Johnny Rotten was famously attacked with a razor – and were just as toxic then as they are now. Councils banned gigs. Television programmes were produced to channel the establishment outrage. Teddy Boys fought punks from King’s Road to Margate.
An intellectual tortured by his past, McLaren eventually moved on to new anarchic pastures, but punk was his torpedo in the water. England, always a country with an entrenched class system rather than a genuine meritocracy, put some grit into punk rock, as it had now become. And although punk was born in London, it soon spread north. Just as it was said that, although the Velvet Underground album didn’t sell many copies, everyone who bought it formed a band, so too legend has it that everyone who saw The Sex Pistols at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall in 1976 did the same thing. Founder members of Joy Division and Buzzcocks met there.
There was certainly an economic divide between London and the poorer north of England, a separation which punk illuminated. Within three years of punk’s zenith in London, many of its fans would be wearing tea towels and listening to Spandau Ballet. Northerners were more obdurate, there was more of a sense of belonging and loyalty to a lifestyle.
Musicaly, the arrival of punk was synchronicitous for another reason; glam. Artists like T Rex, David Bowie and Mott the Hoople were certainly proto-punk, and even when glam reached its commercial and exploitative stage with Gary Glitter, The Sweet and Alvin Stardust, there was a tackiness, energiness and otherness that would translate well into punk rock.
There is a glaringly obvious parallel between the appalled reaction of the Conservative establishment to punk rock and that of the new Leftist establishment which has supplanted it to free speech. Then, punk bands had their gigs cancelled. Now, speakers have their engagements cancelled. The punks were de-platformed, to use the modeish phrase, every bit as much as the modern defenders of free speech in a land unprotected by an equivalent of America’s First Amendment. But, if punk in Britain was short-lived, the range of its effects was not.
Four years after they had changed pop and rock music forever, The Sex Pistols – without John Lydon, who had gone to form Public Image Ltd. - were essentially making novelty records. The Clash, The Damned, Buzzcocks, Siouxsie and the Banshees and a few other bands went on to some chart and touring success, but punk’s impact was wider than sales figures and venue sizes. A wave of post-punk bands, including Joy Division, Wire, XTC, Magazine, The Pop Group, Gang of Four and The Fall (actually present from the first stirrings of punk) would in turn produce a type of art that would continue the mutation of popular music.
Now, the seismic effect of punk can still be felt as a residual tremor. Although punk cannot be credited with the rise to prominence of the internet, the do-it-yourself ethos of this medium was an obvious offshoot of punk. Just as it took a lot of money to form a band prior to punk, starting a magazine, pre-internet, when print was the only option would have been out of the question.
In the next edition of British Intelligence, we will look at at how punk influenced Britain at a personal, suburban level. In 1976, a teenager from Deptford in south London called Mark Perry started the most famous of British fanzines (do-it-yourself magazines), and printed three crude diagrams of guitar chords in the first issue of the hand-printed Sniffin’ Glue. Beneath the scribbles these words appeared;
Now form a band.
Mark Gullick is a philosophy PhD from London, England, who went on holiday to Costa Rica four years ago and forgot to go home. He now works there as a musician. He blogs at https://postcardsfromtraumaville.blogspot.com/