Wednesday 24 August 2016

40 Years Of Punk - In The Beginning ...

This Year marks the 40th Anniversary of Punk.
There are a number of events taking place in London which are, perhaps belatedly, recognising what happened in 1976 (and after) - from the outside, it does appear to me that these celebrations seem to be suggesting that it was a lot "bigger" than it actually was.
In terms of actual numbers of people, as stated, this was relatively few.
In terms of time (existence) it was relatively short before it all splintered, fell apart and became a cartoon pastiche of itself.
But in terms of influence, whilst not incalculable, Punks tentacles went a long way.

But what is Punk?

Is it a musical style? A fashion? An attitude? A media invention?

It is probably all of these things, and also none of these things.
Confused?  Yes, so am I.

When did it start?
Personally, I don't think there is a single defining moment which says "From this moment on, Punk exists".  Similarly, I don't think there is an end point either.
There are a number of "defining moments" at the start (and the end) - none of them can be said to actually pin-point a starting position.  Without trying to be pseudo intellectual about it, one cannot ignore the political climate of the times, with ongoing strikes and rising inflation, and suggest that Punk (as it came to be defined) was a response by a "dis-affected youth" to create something to call their own, and provide them with some hope for the future, or at the very least a diversion from what was going on.  Careful though, Punk was only a small number of people - there were many who existed between 1975 and 1978/9 largely unaffected by the whole thing.

By late 1974, Glam Rock was effectively over, becoming a media circus of glitter and recycled 50s Rock n Roll riffs.  The singles charts of 1975 were intrinsically safe, and teenagers felt a growing detachment from the music on offer.  It was either the virtuoso, navel gazing of the Prog Rockers (this is not a 100% true statement, but helps move the story along) or the comfortable safety of Brotherhood Of Man, The Wurzels and J J Barrie.

Something had to give ... sooner or later

Surely there must be A moment?
  • November 1973: New York Dolls on The Old Grey Whistle Test (and Whispering Bob Harris's description as "Mock Rock"
  • Early 1974: London band The Strand convince Malcolm McLaren to help out with Rehearsal space and support
  • March 1975: London SS, a loose collective of a band featuring many members with a love of The Stooges, MC5.  Although they never played a gig, recorded or even had a stable line-up, their influence is often mentioned in hushed tones (primarily due to the members it did have and where they ended up)
  • May 1975: Malcolm McLaren returns from America after overseeing the end of the New York Dolls and presents thThe Strand guitarist, Steve Jones, with Sylvain Sylvain's white Gibson Les Paul.
  • August 1975: John Lydon joins The Strand, and they are renamed the Sex Pistols.
  • April 1976: Ramones debut album released
  • June 1976: Sex Pistols play Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall
  • July 1976: Ramones play the Roundhouse & Dingwalls
  • July 1976: First issue of Sniffin' Glue published
  • September 1976: Punk Festival at the 100 Club (featuring: Subway Sect, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Clash, Sex Pistols, Stinky Toys, Chris Spedding & The Vibrators, The Damned and Buzzcocks over 2 nights)
  • October 1976: The Damned release "New Rose" - generally accepted as the first Punk single
  • November 1976: Sex Pistols release "Anarchy In The UK"
  • December 1976: Sex Pistols appear on the Bill Grundy TV Show.
In amongst all that lot, and some other events not listed, is probably the moment Punk started.

So, none the wiser of why it happened, maybe we can understand where it happened.
There is a strong argument that says it came from New York - this is borne out by the presence of The Ramones, McLarens involvement with the New York Dolls, and the well documented goings on at CBGBs and Max's Kansas City.
Whilst there may be some in-direct influence (The Dictators, Patti Smith, Televison, Richard Hell) I do not believe that the New York scene is directly responsible for what happened in the UK.

To identify a specific "where", I would cite West London and specifically the far end of the Kings Road.  Even more specifically, Number 430 Kings Road.
The importance of 430 Kings Road cannot be underestimated, but it should be remembered that it was NOT the birthplace of Punk (despite what Malcolm McLaren would like you to believe)
McLaren opened his first shop at this address in 1971.  The prime trade was Teddy Boy clothingand old Rock n Roll records catering to the growing trend for "all things 1950s".  With the help of his then girlfriend Vivienne Westwood, Let It Rock (as the shop became known) started repairing old clothes and making copies of old designs.
Let It Rock, latterly renamed Too Fast To Live Too Young To Die, became something of a "go to" place for anyone looking for some sought after item of retro clothing, or just to "hang out" and listen to the well stocked Jukebox.
In late 1974, the shop was renamed SEX and the stock changed to a sort of "anti-fashion" with Shock being the prime component.  The crowds stayed (again due to the Jukebox and the (generally) relaxed nature of the shop).
McLaren, fresh from his failure/success (delete as applicable) with the New York Dolls, and still managing/guiding a local band called The Strand saw a potential link between his anti-fashion statements and music.  He found The Strand a new Bass Player in the shape of SEX's Saturday Assistant, and auditioned in the shop for a singer.
With the Jukebox playing Alice Cooper's "I'm Eighteen", John Lydon joined up with Glen Matlock (the bass player) and Steve Jones & Paul Cook to become the Sex Pistols.
They weren't the first Punk band (nor were they the last), but much of what came next (certainly in the eyes of popular belief) does hinge around the Pistols.

Also on the Kings Road was another shop of comparable importance.
ACME Attractions was seen as a (possibly) cheaper alternative to the high pricing of Vivienne Westwood originals.
Acme Attractions was managed by Don Letts, who provided 2 key elements of the London Punk Story.  Using his Super 8 Camera, he began filming anything of potential importance in the Pubs, Clubs, Parties and Shops.  This footage would eventually be immotalised  into the Punk Rock Movie.  The second element Letts brought was his love of Roots and Dub Reggae.
Acme Attractions also spawned the first Punk Club in the shape of Accountant Andrew Czezowski, who opened The Roxy in Convent Garden on New Years Day 1977 (there had already been 3 Club Nights previously in December, but this was the "official" opening, headlined by The Clash and The Heartbreakers).
And this is where Don Letts comes back into it ... there were no real Punk records at the time, Letts, as resident DJ, filled with the club with his own selection of Dub Reggae.

So London had the shops, the people and the venues (famous venues (of varying size) include: 100 Club, The Roxy, Nashville Ballroom, The Marquee, The Rainbow, Dingwalls, The Hope & Anchor, The Red Cow, The Marquee, The Votex and The Music Machine), but was it really all London-centric?

Manchester can lay claim to being equally as important in the birthing of Punk.
It was here that one of the most famous gigs took place, and if the claimants are to be believed was attended by about 150,000 people.
The 4 June 1976 show at the Lesser Free Trade Hall was organised by Howard Devoto and Pete Shelley.  Devoto and Shelley had travelled to London to see the Sex Pistols, and invited them to come up the M6 to play at Bolton College.  The venue was changed to the Lesser Free Trade Hall, and the Sex Pistols played their first shows in the North of England.
The actual attendance was nearer 150, but it is believed that just about everyone who was there formed a band that night.
In the audience that night were: Howard Devoto, Pete Shelley (Buzzcocks), Steve Diggle (soon to join Buzzcocks), Peter Hook, Bernard Sumner (Joy Division), Mark E Smith (The Fall).  Also in attendance were Morrissey, Mick Hucknall, Paul Morley (soon to be NME journo) and Tony Wilson (of Factory Records).

Punk was happening, even if it was on a relatively small scale, featuring a small number of people, and operating primarily by word of mouth, with no real media intervention.

Until ...

The Sex Pistols were signed to EMI in October 1976, and released their debut single "Anarchy In The UK" in November.
A promotional slot became available on a Thames Television evening magazine show hosted by Bill Grundy.  EMI were originally intending to send Queen, but they were unavailable so the record company sent their latest charges.
A very refreshed Sex Pistols, complete with entourage, were interviewed (through gritted teeth, with Bill Grundy barely able to hide his contempt).
A mixture of alcohol and boredom set in, and without thinking John Lydon replied to a question saying "that's just their tough shit".  When asked what he had said, John replied "Nothing, A rude word!".  He was pushed to repeat himself, which he did so (albeit with a look of shame and realisation what he had said about him).  The remainder of the interview is basically Bill Grundy goading the band, particularly Steve Jones to say "something outrageous".
OK, this was a local London TV show and the audience would've been quite small, but the following morning, the story filled the front pages.

The Sex Pistols, accompanied by  The Clash, The Heartbreakers and (briefly) The Damned were about to start their fist nationwide Tour (The Anarchu In The UK Tour), but after the Grundy incident found towns full of protest and demands that the bands "audition" before the local Councils would grant a licence.
Unable to play , The Damned soon left the Tour, but the others continued in the face of intense Media coverage was intense and cancellations ensured that of the origianlly planend 20 dates, no more than 7 were actually fulfilled (some reports suggest only 3 shows were actually completed unhindered by local and national press attention.

This is surely one of the pivotal moments when Punk became known to the wider masses.
But was it the beginning of the end, or the end of the beginning.

My opinion?  Both.
A small underground movement became known to the wider populace, thereby legitimising it's existence.
But also, that same underground movement was perhaps best suited to being a small underground movement (or at least a niche affair?).
The press coverage and the Record Company attention turned it into something that it wasn't ...

But only a fool would turn down the attention and riches in the name of artistic integrity, especially when you're aged less than 21.

It has been suggested that the first Punk record was "New Rose" by The Damned, and certainly in the UK it was the first of any notable distribution and availability.
There is an argument that says that "I'm Stranded" by Australian band The Saints was in actual fact the first Punk record, being released in Australia in June 1976.  Some copies did make it to Britain, but it was not initially available in big numbers.
I think, in the spirit of compromise, I will declare that both of these records are the first Punk singles

The Saints - I'm Stranded

The Damned - New Rose

Next up: 1977 And All That