Socialist Worker

Punk Britannia's two-pronged insurgency against the system

The BBC’s Punk Britannia sheds light on some of the unlikely influences behind the explosion of punk in the 1970s, writes Anindya Bhattacharyya

Issue No. 2305

The Clash perform  (Pic: Helge Øverås)

The Clash perform (Pic: Helge Øverås)


The current onslaught of jubilee propaganda has gone hand in hand with nostalgia for Britain during the Silver Jubilee celebrations of 1977.

Culturally 1977 was a year to remember for other reasons. It saw the high point of the punk rock explosion.

The Clash released “White Riot” in March while the Sex Pistols put out their anti-royal anthem “God Save the Queen” a few months later.

Punk Britannia, a new three-part documentary from the BBC, looks at punk and its cultural impact. Its first episode, broadcast on Friday of this week, focuses on the early 1970s.

Any artistic revolution tends to present itself as a year zero that blots out its influences and precursors—punk is no different.

The BBC has done a valuable job in looking at what fed into the extra­ordinary outbreak of musical and political radicalism of the late 1970s.

Some of these influences were unlikely. Much of the episode focuses on the pub rock scene of the early 1970s.

This saw bands such as Dr Feelgood, Brinsley Schwarz, Ducks Deluxe and The 101ers play speeded up rhythm-and-blues classics in small, intimate venues.

The network of managers, promoters, venues and record labels around the pub rock scene would later provide much of the infrastructure for punk.

Crossovers

There were direct crossovers too. New Rose by The Damned, arguably the first punk single, was released on pub rock label Stiff Records. Woody Mellor, lead singer of The 101ers, was shortly to reinvent himself as Joe Strummer of The Clash.

But Punk Britannia makes clear that there was also an abyss separating punk from pub rock’s fixation on “beery blokes playing Chuck Berry”.

The other side of early 1970s subculture was found in glam rock and the shockingly camp theatrics of bands like the New York Dolls.

Punk somehow managed to combine the transgressive sexuality of glam with the energy and no-frills aesthetic of pub rock.

Nobody embodied this contradiction more than Johnny Rotten, lead singer of the Sex Pistols.

Tymon Dogg of The 101ers describes the electrifying effect of seeing the Pistols for the first time. He turned to Joe Strummer, also in the audience, and said, “Can you feel that? There’s something different in the air.”

The documentary is narrated by Peter Capaldi, better known as Malcolm Tucker from The Thick Of It. He describes the “two-pronged insurgency” against the musical establishment led by The Clash and the Sex Pistols.

But none of this took place in a vacuum. Capaldi notes that punk “tapped the mood of violence simmering under the surface of boring 1970s Britain. Without this conflict at its heart, punk would be little more than noisy pop music.”

Alas, Punk Britannia is weak about the political and economic crisis of the early 1970s.

We hear the odd mention of unemployment, or of clashes between black youth and the police. But these are nods to a wider context rather than a systematic analysis.

Hopefully this will change with later episodes, which look at the 1976-78 heyday of punk and its “postpunk” aftermath.

Nevertheless Punk Britannia is a solid documentary that casts a thought-provoking light on the cultural turmoil of the 1970s.

Punk Britannia starts on Friday 1 June at 9pm on BBC Four. For more details go to www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00s81jw


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Reviews
Tue 29 May 2012, 18:45 BST
Issue No. 2305
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