“We are anti-racist and anti-fascist” claimed the Clash in their first interview with the then important music paper the NME. They explained that they had been at the riot at the Notting Hill Carnival that year (1976) and thought that “young white kids” needed to develop a culture of their own in order to fight back as black people were doing.
The Clash were arguably the most musically important band to come out of the punk years — they were certainly the most political. The band headlined the huge Rock Against Racism Carnival in 1978. The band also features in this free exhibition at the British Library celebrating 40 years of punk, and which is definitely worth a visit.
It shows how punk had emerged out of the art scene, with Malcolm McLaren, svengali of The Sex Pistols, being influenced by the French cultural movement the Situationists. Their idea was to take an image and modify it in order to subvert it. Jamie Reid, the Pistols’ in-house graphic designer, took a picture of the queen and put a safety pin through her nose.
The band scandalised the mainstream media by swearing on a TV show. Their song, “God Save the Queen”, telling us that “there is no future in England’s dreaming”, went to the top of the charts during the queen’s Silver Jubilee.
McLaren’s genius for publicity was fused with the energy of the music scene in New York that had exploded with the release of the first Ramones record. The term “punk” had first been applied to 1960s US revolutionary band the MC5 by poet John Sinclair. The Americans had art influences too: singer Patti Smith published a fanzine of her poems and featured early photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe.
Punk in the UK was a more stripped down Do It Yourself movement. Thousands of fanzines were produced, the most prominent being Sniffin’ Glue and Ripped and Torn. Punk argued that every kid on the street could produce art or make music. The fanzine Sideburns printed the guitar tab for the three chords A, E and G with the invitation “Now form a band!”
Hundreds of bands were in fact set up, including the first all female punk band, The Slits. Other female bands such as the Raincoats and singers like Poly Styrene of X-ray Spex were very important in the scene. Siouxsie and the Banshees were to become hugely influential in the years to come as a section of punk morphed into the early goth scene.
Also important was punk’s connection to reggae bands such as Aswad and Steel Pulse. Their music was listened to by the Clash and promoted at Rock Against Racism gigs which combined reggae and punk music in order to get black and white kids together in the same room. The Clash’s Joe Strummer explained how they as “skinny white boys” went to “heavy” black record shops and were accepted when they showed appreciation of the music. Racism was open and virulent at this time with the fascist National Front challenging to become Britain’s third party. Rock Against Racism was set up to counter this and became important in winning young people away from the racists. It organised hundreds of gigs across the country and several huge carnivals.
Punk’s rise in the mid-1970s was the coming together of several factors. The economic boom of the 1960s had begun to peter out and unemployment had started to soar. The opening up of polytechnics and colleges had, at the same time, given more young people access to education. Many of them now found themselves on the dole. As the optimism of the 1960s began to fade, the politics of despair tried to fill the vacuum. Rising racism was mirrored by an anti-authority nihilism. This anger found an outlet in punk music. The feeling was that things could go either way. After the miners’ strikes of 1972 and 1974 there was an attempt at the imposition of the old post war values with the queen’s Jubilee. Punk was a challenge to the old values.
The exhibition displays many of the fanzines. You can listen to original recordings of interviews with the bands, watch the notorious footage of The Sex Pistols on the Grundy TV show and have a look at some fascinating documents and artefacts. There is also a large collection of record sleeves that indicate the range and variety of the music produced at the time.
A series of talks is programmed for the next few months including a discussion with Jon Savage, author of England’s Dreaming, the must-read book about punk, a documentary and discussion on women in punk with Tessa Pollitt of the Slits and a discussion with Irate Kate from Rock Against Racism in September.
But only the music is really able to convey the excitement of the times. Play it loud.
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