Turning Rebellion Into Money
To what extent was punk rock an expression of dissent?
I wrote this essay for my history degree back in 2000: I think the word limit was restrictive, and I’ve listened to a lot more punk/new wave since I wrote it, but I still got an A for it. I haven’t included sources because I don’t want anyone stealing the whole essay. Enjoy….
The popular image of punk is typified by the character Vyvyan, played by Adrian Edmondson, on the BBC television series The Young Ones. Vyvyan dresses in leather, has metal studs in his forehead and over the course of the series randomly destroys the flat that The Young Ones share. Vyvyan’s actions appear to follow the manifesto communicated by Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols in ‘Anarchy in the UK’; “Get pissed, destroy.” Yet punk music was not about meaningless destruction and chaos; although it did have violent elements associated with it, as well as theatricism derived from the art-school backgrounds of influential punks. Equally, and more significantly, punk was an echo of the failed counterculture of the late 1960s; it was idealistic, and sought to create a better environment, or at least create hope, for British young people who wanted to enter the workforce at a time when unemployment and pessimism were increasing. If Britain had been prosperous and successful in 1976 there would have been no punk, or at least punk would have had no resonance.
Musically, the punk rock style originated in New York as a response to the failure of the counterculture. Groups played simple, raucous music, celebrating elements of popular culture that the counterculture along with sophisticated members of society rejected, such as junk food and B-movies. The originators of the style were the New York Dolls who played hard, nihilistic rock, which documented the change in mood from sixties naivety to seventies cynicism. By 1975 there were a number of musicians all following the do-it-yourself aesthetic derived from the New York Dolls and insecure, realist lyrics derived from Jonathan Richman. This diverse group included poet Patti Smith, Talking Heads and The Ramones. Punk, however, failed to gain more than cult acceptance, because America was too affluent at the time to relate to the anxiety expressed in the lyrics.
In 1972 the New York Dolls toured Europe. While in London, they visited “Let It Rock,” a clothing boutique managed by entrepreneur Malcolm McLaren. Impressed by their attitude, McLaren became besotted by the group and their “inverted aesthetic,” which he perceived as being “so awful” that it became “magnificent.” McLaren had grown up in the fifties, obsessed by the evil image of London’s Teddy Boy gangs and raw rock music. During the Paris protests of May 1968 McLaren was an art-school student and was involved in a parallel sit-in in London. Inspired, he joined a situationist gang, King Mob, based on a combination of French revolutionary theory and slogans, and popular culture. King Mob indulged in petty acts of situationist sensationalism such as an instore anti-Christmas protest where the members distributed toys straight from the shelves to children. The gang was disbanded, however, when it was outmoded by terrorist groups the Weathermen and Baader-Meinhof, who were provoking larger headlines in the late sixties. Instead McLaren began forming an ideology, based on his art-school background, that a musical group could use to impact on society. He first attempted to implement his strategy in 1975, when he briefly became manager of the disintegrating New York Dolls, giving them a provocative Communist image while the United States were still involved in Vietnam. “Not for the first time, Malcolm McLaren went too far.”
While in New York, McLaren left behind a young rock band, tentatively named the Sex Pistols, that he was assisting with colleague Bernie Rhodes. This group originally consisted of Steve Jones, whom McLaren met while apprehending him for the theft of clothing from the shop, and his friend Paul Cook. The pair had been systematically stealing musical equipment with the intention of forming a band for several years, including a BBC studio drum-kit, guitars from Rod Stewart’s mansion and the PA system and microphones from a David Bowie concert. McLaren had teamed Cook and Jones with his Saturday shop boy Glen Matlock, who came from an affluent suburban background and was a competent musician. Upon McLarens return to London the first public punk manifesto was issued, in the form of a T-shirt produced by the shop, which listed elements of society the ideology found acceptable (IRA terrorists, working class heroes) and those it did not (faded rebels, repressive institutions).
The T-shirt summed up a feeling of discontent in England, particularly among youth. England was faced with a falling GDP, largely the effects of repayment of the loan incurred during the Second World War, a fall from the ranks of world super-powers, and high youth unemployment. Callaghan’s socialist government lacked strong leadership, and by nature did not pre-dispose the IMF towards helping with the financial crisis. The language used in the media reflected a sense of apocalypse, as did the public feeling as evidenced in journalist Jon Savage’s diary entry for 2/12/75; “London suburbia: sterility – cynicism, boredom ready to spill into violence; incipient right-wing backlash. Fuck London for its dullness, the English people for their pusillanimity and the weather for its coldness and darkness.” This environment was perfect for punk to develop; Bernie Rhodes states “I was listening to the radio in ’75, and there was some expert blabbing on about how if things go on as they are there’ll be 800 000 people unemployed in 1979, while another guy was saying if that happened there’d be chaos, there’d be actual anarchy in the streets. That was the root of punk. One knew that.” An especial area of discontent was Notting Hill, a multi-racial suburb of London. Notting Hill became known for anarchist activity, racial protest and squatters.
John Lydon, the oldest child of an immigrant Irish family, was squatting in Notting Hill in late 1975. Looking back on the situation in BBC documentary series “Dancing in the Street” Lydon comments “All my life I was told I would never amount to very much because of my social status.” After leaving school, his jobs included rat poisoning in London’s sewers and working part-time at a kindergarten. Rhodes met and recruited Lydon in August 1975 when he came into McLaren’s shop with a Pink Floyd T-shirt “with the words “I hate…” added above the group’s name.” Lydon was auditioned by miming along to a jukebox in a pub, and was accepted into the group where he was renamed Johnny Rotten. The Sex Pistols played their first show on 6 November 1975, and their radical image and approach quickly attracted media attention. In February 1976, the New Musical Express ran an extended article entitled “Don’t look over your shoulder, but the Sex Pistols are coming.” The article included a defining comment from Steve Jones; “Actually, we’re not into music. We’re into chaos.”
From this auspicious beginning both McLaren and Rotten worked on developing the group’s image further. Then music journalist Jonh Ingham, comments about McLaren “I admired him immensely because he’d seen how to package the frustration I’d been feeling for a couple of years.” By this time, the influences that McLaren sought to weave into his group were late-sixties radical politics, sexual fetish material, pop history and youth socialism. Savage writes that McLaren had two intentions; to “act out his fantasies of conflict and revenge on a decaying culture,” and to sell lots of bondage trousers. McLaren had named his group with the most ridiculously offensive name he could think of, which also served to promote his shop, now renamed ‘Sex.’ Later, in the film ‘The Great Rock and Roll Swindle,’ McLaren would claim that the Sex Pistols were a prank to show how easily the public could be manipulated. Salewicz comments that “what happened in London in 1977 can seem like an art-school version of May 1968, with events whipped up by an adept agent provacateur.”
However, as Marcus writes “the Sex Pistols were a commercial proposition and a cultural conspiracy, launched to change the music business and make money off the change – but Johnny Rotten sang to change the world.” This began with writing lyrics for the songs the Sex Pistols were learning. In his autobiography, Rotten claims that he was solely responsible for the groups lyrical radicalism, and that the rest of the group did not agree with his stance. “Quirky little pop songs was what they wanted. You should have seen their faces when I slapped down the lyrics to “Anarchy in the UK.” It was classic. I wish I had had a camera.” The lyrics that he wrote were not intended to be destructive but to awake Britain from a stupor; “You don’t destroy things offhand and flippantly. You’ve got to offer something in it’s place.” A clear Utopian strand was inherent in Rotten: “We want chaos to come. Life’s not going to get any better for the kids or the dole until it gets worse first.” Disaffected youth related to Rotten’s views and he found himself the figurehead of a new musical movement. McLaren may have created publicity, but Rotten’s realism and charisma were the reasons for the Sex Pistol’s resonance and therefore success.
As the Sex Pistols gained notoriety, McLaren took more responsibility for them, leaving Bernie Rhodes in limbo. He decided to form a band to rival McLaren’s, eventually with Mick Jones, Paul Simonon and singer Joe Strummer. Rhodes encouraged his group, the Clash, to write about reality. This was made possible on 30 August 1976, when Strummer and Simonon became involved in the Notting Hill riot. They joined in the brick-throwing at the policemen; Simonon still enthused about the event in an interview a decade later. The incident channelled the disparate energies of the Clash into a political whole; Jones’ indoctrination of anti-authoritarian rock music, Strummer’s experience in society’s underbelly, Simonon’s former football hooliganism, and Rhodes’ situationist theories. The experience led to Strummer and Jones writing the group’s first single ‘White Riot.’ Soon afterwards ‘Career Opportunities’ was written about Jones’ coercion into opening suspicious mail for his employer British Mail during the IRA letter bombing campaign because he looked subversive.
A number of other youths were following the example of the Sex Pistols and forming bands. Notable punk groups of the time included the Damned, the Jam and the Buzzcocks. The movement was abetted by fanzine Sniffin’ Glue which worked to build solidarity between the groups and present a unified front. This was not effective; as Salewicz writes “everyone seemed to play this particularly petty game. The-Jam-slag-off-the-Clash-the-Clash-slag-off-the-Stranglers-John-Lydon-slags-off-anyone-he-can-think-of-everyone-slags-off-the-Police.” The Police were the particular object of antagonism, consisting of three ageing pop musicians who pretended to be punks to secure a record deal. Similarly untrue to the perception of punk as rebellion were the Jam, who were managed by leader Paul Weller’s father. Weller states that much of punk was similarly unrebellious, commenting that while Rotten was genuinely working-class and angry, the punk scene as a whole was actually elite and art-school based. However, he also states that there was a positive correlation between genuineness and success.
A central tenet of punk was that it represented life as closely as possible; songs that were unrealistic were irrelevant. Freedom of the individual was another important tenet: the teenagers whose clothing mimicked Johnny Rotten did not realise that a central concept of punk was individuality. Strummer states that he became a punk after watching the Sex Pistols and admiring their stance; “We don’t give a toss what you think……this is what we like to play and this is the way we’re gonna play it.” David Byrne of punk band Talking Heads, who sounded nothing like the Sex Pistols, comments that punk was not a musical style, but an attitude. Along with freedom of the individual was the belief that one only had to have ideas to communicate to become a musician; no virtuosity was required. Notable punk journalist Caroline Coon wrote in 1976; “When, for months, you’ve been feeling that it would take ten years to play as well as Hendrix, Clapton, Richard…..there’s nothing more gratifying than the thought: Jesus, I could get a band together and blow this lot off the stage.” Along with this came the rejection of apathy; youth had no reason to be bored when they could go out and form bands.
In the freedom of the individual, punk can be seen as a continuation of the counterculture. In comparison punk was more energetic and violent, but this was largely shaped by environment rather than differences in inherent philosophy. The biggest influence on the form punk took was the drug of choice (or default, as it was cheap), speed, which kept users on edge and awake. In comparison, marijuana was a relaxant. Both the counterculture and punk aimed to bring a more utilitarian society as a response to the failure of material culture, although neither was pragmatic. Punk, however, seemed more willing to work within a capitalist structure than the counterculture. Accordingly, a strong leader could have saved England from punk in 1976; one of the themes of punk, especially the Clash, was the decline of England. “This is England?” questioned Strummer, “The land we’re supposed to die for?” Punk felt that the government had failed and that something needed to be done to wake England from stupor. Hence, punk was not rebellion for rebellions sake, although the rebelliousness attracted fans; Wellington media personality John Campbell explains his teenage punk obsession as “middle-class designer angst.”
Although punk was political it was not aligned to a particular party. By nature it was closest to anarchism due to art school origins. McLaren, however, is solitary in destructiveness; while his objective was simply to disrupt the current system, the younger punks were more idealistic and wished for a more utopian society, although they had no concept of how the utopia would be formed. Later, punk would become moulded into various political forms: most notably Rock Against Racism, which opposed the National Front. Hebdige argues that the involvement in Rock Against Racism steered punk from a degree of nihilism and racism to a healthier left-libertarian multiculturalism, although it was more the perception than the reality that was changed. Part of the perception that punk was fascist came from the practice adopted by punks such as Sid Vicious and Siouxsie of wearing swastikas. However, wearing swastikas had little to do with fascism: instead it was the erosion of meaning, a disgust with everything. It should also be remembered that many of the punks were straight out of school; Weller was 19 when he made a controversial statement about how he was bored with punks default left-wing stance, and would be voting Tory in the next election.
In late 1976 Mick Jones commented to a journalist that the punk scene was exciting, but “when it gets popular it’s going to get really stupid.” This process occurred on 1 December 1976, when the Sex Pistols made an unscheduled appearance on Bill Grundy’s Today show, which screened at 6pm. Grundy knew nothing about the group, and attempted to make the show interesting by encouraging the group to act outrageously, and flirting with a member of their entourage. When Steve Jones, assuming that he would be edited, responded with a stream of expletives, the Sex Pistols entered the nation’s conscience as public enemy number one; “a mixture of Genghis Khan and Satan.” The Daily Mirror headline the next morning read “The Filth and the Fury,” and contained the story of how a 47 year old lorry driver kicked his television screen to maintain the innocence of his eight year old son. From that point, the Sex Pistols in particular and Punk Rock in general lost the focus and creative energy that it had, and become a show piece for the media to feed on. Steve Jones reminisces “The music went out the window. It was more like what outrageous thing are they going to do next?” On the following Anarchy tour, Jones and Cook were approached by tabloids and encouraged to do some damage to the hotel they were staying at. The tabloids had compensated the hotel in advance. The pair uprooted one plant in the lobby. The next day the Daily Mirror reported “The four-man Punk Rock group wrecked the lobby of a luxury hotel, uprooting ornamental plants, hurling plant pots around the room and scattering soil over the carpets.” The continuing scandals would be largely the responsibility of McLaren as he sought publicity for his group and his shop.
Along with publicity came the dilemma of whether signing to major record companies contravened the punk ethic. Most of the major bands including the Sex Pistols and the Clash did, justifying themselves by statements such as “there’s no point screaming to the converted….We wanna be heard, fuck being a cult.” On the other hand independent punk band Crass, who operated similarly to a political party, issuing texts and with a clear “radical anarcho-pacifist, anarcha-feminist” agenda, refused to sign to a major record company because their principles would be violated. The Clash would regret their decision as, among many disputes, CBS released a weak song as a single without their permission. In an attempt to be thrown off the label, the Clash retaliated with ‘Complete Control’: “They said we’d be artistically free when we signed that piece of paper/They meant let’s make a lot of money and worry about it later.” The Clash also felt that CBS were attempting to muffle their rawness; “They’re training us to take a helicopter to the supermarket.” The Sex Pistols were more successful in alienating labels. Their second, A&M, paid them 75 000 pounds to leave after a drunken meeting where Sid Vicious smashed a toilet bowl and Steve Jones propositioned secretaries in the women’s toilets.
Punk also faced communication barriers from censorship. The Sex Pistol’s single “God Save The Queen” was released just before Jubilee week, when Queen and country celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of her ascension to the throne. Rotten’s lyrics attacked the monarchy (“the fascist regime”) as unnecessary, his view being that supporting the Monarchy made Britain inefficient. The song had already caused contention among the group, when Matlock protested against it on the grounds that his mother disapproved of it. Matlock was replaced by the late, and extraordinarily musically inept, Sid Vicious. The song was banned on almost every radio station but, due to the widespread publicity the Sex Pistols had received, was selling well. Worried that the song would reach number one during Jubilee weekend, the authorities changed the chart rules for the week so that the shops that were likely to be selling the most copies of the single were excluded. The Sex Pistols were present at number two as a blank space. The song was the rallying point for those who disagreed with the Monarchy, as there was otherwise unanimous support for the celebrations despite economic problems and growing nationalist movements in Wales and Scotland. Johnny Rotten was successful in expressing a collective thought; as he states “the record of course took off. It was bound to because so many people felt the same way.” To add to the publicity, McLaren hired a riverboat to sail the Sex Pistols down the Thames two days before the Queen was due to. The river concert was forced to stop when police boats arrived.
Jubilee weekend marked the high point for punk in terms of exposure. From this point on, punk faced added repression. Their continued media presence meant that the Sex Pistols were well known faces, while their notoriety meant they would rarely play concerts in England again. In the fortnight following Jubilee Weekend both Rotten and Cook were attacked by Monarchy supporters. Despite that the attacks were violent and unprovoked, police refused to press any charges against the attackers. Both the Sex Pistols and the Clash were arrested frequently between 1976 and 1978 and found themselves under constant police surveillance. During Clash rehearsals in early 1978, Simonon and new drummer Topper Headon tested an air rifle on some nearby pigeons. The police had already been warned that the Clash were present in the rehearsal rooms, and arrived in force with helicopters and the CID. The police had assumed that the “anti-establishment” band were indulging in terrorist activities and shooting at trains.
At the end of 1977 the Sex Pistols were nominated as “Young Businessmen of the Year” by financial press in honour of McLaren’s media manipulation and the sales that it had generated. The group, however, was losing unity and Sid Vicious was a heroin addict. Despite this, the group left for America to play a series of concerts in the deep south. The tour was a disaster, and Lydon left the Sex Pistols at the conclusion when McLaren announced his intention to take the group to Brazil to work with Ronnie Biggs who was part of the Great Train Robbery. By this point McLaren had lost touch with reality, still under the belief that he was the main impetus behind the group. Surprisingly, he was partially vindicated as he continued to milk money from inferior Sex Pistols recordings featuring Sid Vicious.
Perhaps every punk group lost their impetus after one successful album, because that success took them away from the reality that punk attempted to describe. In addition to this, punk as an artform had a limited palette of sounds and subject material that the artists could work with: in his review of the Clash’s inferior second album, Savage wrote “It’s hard when you define a period so accurately.” Strummer agreed, likening the Clash’s live sound to “a mad seal barking over a mass of pneumatic drills.” The symbolic death of punk was on February 2 1979, when Sid Vicious died of a drug overdose. The saga of Vicious had raised much moralising amongst conservative society about punk, although Vicious’ problems were primarily due to an obsession with rock stardom, which most punks shunned. Vicious, a school friend of Rotten, had started as an ardent punk fan , but he developed a heroin habit, and was imprisoned after the death of his girlfriend. The death of Vicious was significant as a signal that failure was inherent in punk.
Disillusioned with police harassment and aware that punk was in its last throes, the Clash launched their social protest in another direction. Simonon explained this in 1980: “we realised that if were a little more subtle…we might reach more people.” The next single the Clash released was ‘London Calling,’ an apocalyptic vision inspired by the threatened nuclear disaster at Three Mile Island. In it the group disavowed any responsibility to lead the punk movement: “London calling, now don’t look to us/Phoney Beatlemania has bitten the dust.” In the accompanying album of the same name and its follow up “Sandinista!” they explored many left-wing issues such as anarchic archaism in ‘Spanish Bombs’, pacifism in ‘The Call Up’, and loss of revolutionary fervour in ‘Clampdown’ and ‘Death and Glory’ (“Every cheap hood strikes a bargain with the world/And ends up making payments on a sofa or a girl”); and pledged their support to the recent Nicaraguan revolution and hostility to US international intervention in ‘Washington Bullets.’ Other former punks such as Elvis Costello and The Jam were also successful for several years in expressing left wing dissent once outside the periphery of the narrow style of punk. In other words, many of the ideals of punk were left intact despite the demise of the musical style.
At this point, however, Margaret Thatcher was elected as Prime Minister of Britain. Given rising unemployment, a controversial war in the Falklands and a government that actually was oppressive, in comparison to the socialist government, there should have been plenty of ammunition for punk to continue with strongly. Instead, it was as if Thatcher had too much authority for anyone to oppose. This was illustrated in 1985, when the Clash reformed without Mick Jones in an attempt to return to fundamental punk. Unemployment was still rising, and a 1984 miners strike ensured there was plenty of scope; indeed as Gray states “the Clash of ’76 had managed to generate a righteous anger and capture the imagination of the nation’s youth on less fuel than this.” The resulting “Cut the Crap” found Strummer unable to recapture the edge that the Clash once had. The only song of quality, or of dissent, on the album is “This is England,” where Strummer writes of himself as an outsider, unable to re-incite the riot and only able to contemplate the ruins. “This is England…..Land of one thousand stances.” The artistic failure of “Cut the Crap” saw the Clash disintegrate. The only punk band to survive this period with dignity were the Crass who were unaffected by changing musical styles, and continued to produce aural dissent such as 1982’s “Sheep Farming in the Falklands.”
The 1990s have only seen an even worse effort at maintaining the punk ethic by the Clash and the Sex Pistols. Both groups have unabashedly sought to make money from their groundbreaking efforts earlier. In 1991, Mick Jones agreed that the song ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’ be used in a Levis jeans commercial, resulting in the first number one single for the Clash, and violating punk principles of creativity and idealism over commercial exploitation. Even more ironic given the Clash’s anti-American intervention stance was when, during the Gulf War, the first song played on the Allied Forces radio network was the Clash’s ‘Rock the Casbah.’ Meanwhile in 1996, John Lydon was again Johnny Rotten, and he, Matlock, Cook and Jones were on the ‘Filthy Lucre’ tour, with the sole aim of earning from nostalgia. The Sex Pistols now indulged in the activities Rotten had criticised twenty years earlier.
Despite current failings, punk has had a significant impact on Western society, although not necessarily where it was intended. On a purely musical basis, punk injected new life into rock music, and many popular bands of the last twenty years such as REM, U2, Nirvana and Pearl Jam have been noticeably influenced by punk. Punk served to advance the acceptance of social equity; for possibly the first time in a cultural movement women were treated equally, although the most high profile punk musicians were male. Coon states that this was demonstrated by the fact that “Rotten had his safety pins holding his clothes together! No more women’s work!” Notable female punk musicians included Patti Smith, The Slits, Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders and Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads. Punk also had an impact of racial tolerance, most notably in Rock Against Racism. Punk was in fact intertwined with black protest music: initially it derived radical influences from reggae as during the punk era, Jamaica was in the grasp of revolution. Many punk bands worked with Jamaican producers, most notably the Clash with Lee “Scratch” Perry, and the influence was reversed with Bob Marley’s “Punky Reggae Party.” The next wave of musical dissent was rap, which punk helped to promote: the Clash recorded rap songs and invited rap artists to open their concerts.
Punk was a bizarre synthesis: an equal mix of art-school theatricism and genuine anger and dissent. This impurity of origin did not necessarily diminish the impact of punk; as Marcus states “for every third-hand pose, there was a fourth hand pose that turned into a real motive.” For a brief moment punk threatened to have a revolutionary impact, just as the counterculture had in the previous decade. In 1977, a Clash supporter rang the group to invite them to join the opposition to the National Front march at Lewisham. The group refused because they were having their hair done, to the caller’s dismay: “I can see now that it’s ridiculous to expect a band to behave like a political party, but I think a lot of people did then.” That the moment failed to succeed was not surprising; the death of Vicious indicated that punk did include self-destructive tendencies. Punk never expected to have a revolutionary impact, it was simply a forum for dissent, providing hope for young people where the system did not. Furthermore the movement was not unified, and Lydon, punk’s most prominent spokesman accepts that the movement was misdirected. While the socialist government of the time was not functioning effectively (Lydon: “We were blaming the wrong people”), the presence of the Sex Pistols and their contemporaries advocating an even more radical more form of left-wing politics, mixed with unsavoury elements such as violence and aesthetic unattractiveness served to scare the British public into restoring tighter control; “In our own way, I suppose, the punks absolutely guaranteed that Margaret Thatcher would take over.” Despite its unconventional origins and unusual form, punk shares a trajectory in common with many other contemporary movements of dissent. Punk was responsive to outside influences: the oppressiveness of government and economic welfare. In the 1990s punk suddenly became popular in America, where it had failed to take root fifteen years earlier. As Lydon states “It’s not a music for the over-privileged………as their economy’s going down the toilet they’re turning a definite eye towards punk. Now they get it.”