It Was Bound To Go Wrong

Richard Cabut and Andrew Gallix (eds.), Punk is Dead: Modernity Killed Every Night

Zero Books, 318pp, 17.99, ISBN 9781785353468

reviewed by Stuart Walton

That the 40th anniversary of the Summer of Hate, as the high-water mark of 1977 came to be known, passed without much overt commemoration of the British punk movement says something more than that there was no burning desire to remember it. It speaks eloquently of the relation that punk rock already had with its own afterlife, even during its rapid maturation. Acutely conscious of the reified institutionalism to which popular music had already long since succumbed in the suffocating forms of the star system, the enormities of progressive rock, and the congealed traces of what was once personified revolt in the hippie, who had now frozen into a recognised social type, it wished no such legacy on itself. It promised itself solemnly that, while it would never look back on its own exertions with embarrassment, nor would it allow them to be preserved in amber in the rock-and-roll Hall of Fame.

One of the factors that might have hastened its demise in the British context was its precipitation into just another youth cult, unease with which drove Buzzcocks' co-founder Howard Devoto into a very early departure from it in February 1977. Despite the fact that it had an implicit, semi-articulated manifesto from the outset, it had not troubled to name itself, and was therefore accorded a reference off the journalistic peg. 'Punk rock' as a term dated back to 1971, when it was coined by the American rock critic Dave Marsh to describe the output of a coterie of obscure amateur groups, collectively known as 'garage bands', that produced raw, technically unproficient but otherwise standard rock in the interstices of the official 1960s scene. The terminology advertised the music's consciousness of its own despised status, a punk being a no-good youth, an unidealistic waster, probably from a word for wood refuse used as tinder. Shakespeare knew it as a female prostitute ('My lord, she may be a punk', Lucio advises Duke Vincentio of the virtuous Mariana in Measure for Measure, V:i), a usage that had mutated by the turn of the last century into a name in US prison slang for a man offering himself, willingly or otherwise, for the sexual use of other inmates, the lowest of the low.

The Ramones' first album, released in April 1976, already had a track called 'Judy Is A Punk', and prior to that, a disproportionate amount of attention had been paid in the music press to a California outfit called the Tubes, who were a parodic West Coast offshoot of the New York sleaze scene, complete with pantomime stage shows and a 1975 single entitled 'White Punks on Dope'. In the British context, the attribution of the term 'punk' to a current that had been gradually fermenting in north London since the same year, and which is often wrongly credited to Melody Maker's Caroline Coon, was first deployed in a brief live review in NME of the Sex Pistols' appearance at the Marquee in Wardour Street in February 1976, when the paper's future editor Neil Spencer described the group as 'a quartet of spiky teenage misfits from the wrong end of various London roads, playing 60s-styled white punk rock as unself-consciously as it's possible to play it these days, ie. self-consciously'.

During its furious, cataclysmic intervention in British pop culture, punk reversed the previous two decades of teen rebellion into a wholly nihilistic gesture suited to a grimly decaying capitalism. It removed the idealism of youthful opposition and replaced it with unalloyed spite, requisitioning the exhausted musical templates of rock – the twelve-bar blues and amped-up balladry that had sustained it from the skiffle bands and crooners to the era of concept albums and rock royalty – and transforming them into a pullulating nightmare glimpsed in a distorting mirror. The de-skilling that was integral to it attained a far more radical effect than such strategies would in the visual arts and art cinema, just because the subversion was aimed at an aspect of culture that thought it was already subversive.

If you blinked, though, you had already missed it. In his contribution to this anthology of essays, interviews, journals and confessions from the UK punk movement, Andy Blade, singer-guitarist with the Finchley band Eater, observes that '[t]he build-up to punk's arrival turned out to have lasted longer than its eventual lifespan', noting with pinpoint accuracy that the movement was 'in a coma' by the autumn of 1977. It was effectively over before the Sex Pistols' album, cynically loaded with all four of the group's previously released singles, finally saw the light of day. Those who had barely changed into the appropriate rags and tatters in readiness for leaping on the bandwagon went into fuming denial at any such suggestion, and the title of the present volume is a belligerent riposte to the pathetic yearning for a punk afterlife, wished into being by the 1981 debut album of Edinburgh band the Exploited, Punks Not Dead.

This matters because, as the more viscerally sensitive were aware during its momentary phosphorescence, no popular-cultural phenomenon was ever more infused with a sense of its own mortality. Fanzine editor Tony Drayton is correct when he observes in one of the interviews here, 'Cynical enthusiasm was the punk attitude … [it] meant revelling in the scene while harbouring the belief that it was bound to go wrong.’ The acknowledgement of that is what counterbalances any account of the meticulous preparation of London punk for which Malcolm McLaren was undoubtedly responsible. It may well have had its origins in Parisian Situationism and its brief British outgrowth, partly filtered through a parodic ransacking of the trashier style aspects of early-seventies Glam, but he and Vivienne Westwood, co-proprietors of the Kings Road anti-fashion boutique SEX, intended it to last. Its end-users knew differently.

Punk's much-rehearsed continuities with the outrages of Dada during the Great War are sound enough as theory, but what sublates them in practice is that the Sex Pistols, at the vanguard of the movement as a whole, invaded and annexed the territory of mainstream pop culture, forcing it on to the defensive, and creating nothing short of flat-out panic among the recording conglomerates and retail chains of the era. Despite making itself as antagonistic and as repulsively ugly as possible, it succeeded in crystallising a widespread opposition not just to the music and fashion industries, but to a sociopolitical orthodoxy gone rancid after the demise of the sixties counterculture. As such, it was the last and most momentous dissident convulsion of the 20th century. Its principal battle-cry, 'No future!', started out as a brutal assessment of the economic prospects of working-class youth in a time of mass unemployment, but broadened into a more extensive chastisement of capitalist modernity, which in the 1917 words of the professional nihilist Jacques Vaché that form this book's subtitle, is 'both constant and killed every night'. We cannot help living with modernity, but we can also be its gravediggers.

Where the stance of vicious confrontationalism had effectively repelled the bourgeoisie of the nineteen-teens, it had the opposite effect among its recipients in 1976-77, producing an imitative contagion that spread to virtually everybody who witnessed its live performances. Moral alerts in the tabloid press helped no end. Some of this was inevitably ill-judged, not least its recourse to the wearing of swastikas as an alienation tactic. It once seemed worth mounting the argument that this was a means of reducing a symbol of evil precisely to a bit of worthless filth, and it certainly acted as a countervailing influence to the hideous chic that Nazism had taken on in middlebrow aesthetics, a lineage that can be traced to Visconti's epic family melodrama The Damned (1969), Bob Fosse's 1972 film of the stage musical Cabaret, and Liliana Cavani's exorbitantly tasteless sadomasochistic indulgence The Night Porter (1974). In the present historical resurgence of popular fascism, such niceties render this case irrelevant. The swastika T-shirts were wrong.

David Wilkinson's carefully argued contribution on the sexual antinormativity of punk makes an important point about the cultural materialism of oppositionist movements that could have come from the canons of the Frankfurt School. 'In an industrialised and instrumentalist capitalist society, culture has long been invested in as a form of opposition. Its ever-increasing commodification, though, continually undermines such faith, leading successive generations to assume that the wave has long since crested and troughed; aesthetic radicalism seems always buried at some point in the past.' This is assuredly what motivated the retro shock-tactics of the SEX shop's bondage gear, which was only forcing the already well-known paraphernalia of the sexual underworld into the faces of London passers-by. If the revolutionary impulse has already come and gone, however, all there is left to do is articulate a hopeless revenge against its remnants in the present fallen world. That too is why punk knew that it had no more future of its own than did its participants, and why the attempt ever since to restart it through electroversion and frantic chest compressions, from the Exploited to the Sex Pistols' horrible reunion, have been so contemptible.

There are misjudgments in this anthology, as one would expect. Ted Polhemus on the 'childishness' of punk is a mile wide of the target, while the extended maunderings of Penny Rimbaud, the former Crass drummer whose Wikipedia page has him sitting proudly on his composting toilet in nothing but a pair of sandals, might well have been left to decompose to mulch as punk sloped off into the night of history. The two NME journalists who understood punk better than anybody else in the established music press, Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons, are respectively barely here and not here at all, perhaps forgivably in that neither of them any longer wishes to be reminded of it. On the other hand, co-editor Andrew Gallix's essay on the rootless Anglo-Swiss provocateur Arthur Cravan, a gifted self-mythologist who was 'just too bad to be true', is a pertinent contribution.

The same author's 'Unheard Melodies', on bands who never got to record anything and, in some pristine cases, never even performed live, existing only as hypothetical propositions, but were nonetheless profoundly influential as such, is a fascinating study of cultural subversion all on its own. Punk was nothing if not a radical critique of professionalism. The essay might have included mention of a Manchester trio called The Worst, who claimed to have turned down even occasional contract offers from the multiplicity of tiny independent labels, for fear of selling out. They lasted barely a year, but did manage to make a number of live appearances, supporting Buzzcocks in 1977. They had next to no ability whatever, their efforts onstage a more or less shambolic tirade of incitement, driven by the guitarist's relentless whanging away at a single chord while the drummer furiously thrashed on a Chad Valley junior kit. If you could contemplate this, and not see that it was more important than Queen, you hadn't got it.
Stuart Walton is Associate Editor of the Journal of Comparative Literature and Aesthetics, and author of Introducing Theodor Adorno, In The Realm of the Senses: A Materialist Theory of Seeing and Feeling and A Natural History of Human Emotions.