Celebrate the 40th anniversary of punk rock? The idea is of course ludicrous - I mean, punk as heritage? How ironic is that? But hey, I’m going to do it anyway by throwing a punky reggae party with my friends and fellow scene-makers from The Underground Revolution on 9th September in Hereford to which you are all invited and here’s why.
1976 was a year zero of some kind - the nascent punk rock scene sparked off a cultural upheaval in this country at the fag end of the 1970s which smashed the rose-coloured Lennon lenses of the prevailing hippy worldview and inspired a whole generation of creatives with its incandescent energy. It wasn’t just musicians of course who got fired up by the scene, but future designers, writers and activists too. Our culture is still feeding off that energy even now. Take Dame Vivienne Westwood for example - hailed as a great British eccentric, icon and export, she is now held close to the bosom of the establishment and was touted as a symbol of Cool Britannia’s world-beating creativity. She wasn’t always thought of so fondly by the powers that be. It’s peculiar really, how the iconoclasts became icons, rebels eventually get absorbed into the establishment.
The long hot summer of 1976, I was thirteen. I remember the heat and a girl, a friend of the family, a bit older than me, who came to stay. I also remember picking up on the controversy around the Sex Pistols Anarchy in the UK when it was released at the end of year. There was something exciting about the reaction the song provoked. I wasn’t sure of the music at that point, I’d already been brainwashed regarding the high-mindedness and complexity of ‘progressive rock’ – (there’s a possible oxymoron for you) - by elder siblings and others but I was coming to that age when hormones kick in and one’s rebellious spirit pours out. I wasn’t going to hold out for long.
It was a year later, ’77, when ‘Bogey’ Joe Morell bought the first four punk albums that I ever listened to. Lord knows where he got the money from for such a haul, nicked from his mother’s purse perhaps. The records were The Sex Pistols Never Mind the Bollocks, The Clash’s first lp, The Stranglers Rattus Norvegicus and The Ramones first lp. I got The Stranglers immediately – they weren’t a million miles away from The Doors and who could resist the thuggish growl of Jean Jacques Burnel’s distinctive bass sound, achieved partly by putting it through a 4X12 Marshall cabinet where the cones had been intentionally ripped. In fact, the stripped down nature of most punk, made me aware of the importance of the bass and how it is such an essential anchor in much of my favourite music. The roar of The Clash’s first record was like a tsunami in its intensity, but the track that stood out for me at first was their cover of reggae classic Police and Thieves perhaps, in part, because I knew the words and wasn’t struggling to make them out as I was with the other tracks. So, my continuing love affair with The Clash didn’t start straight away then, it was to take off when I first heard White Man in Hammersmith Palais released not so long after. That song still gets me because an integral part of The Clash’s enduring appeal is in the lyrics and really I couldn’t hear them on that first album. The Pistols record, well I liked some of it, Anarchy, Submission and Pretty Vacant but overall it seemed too nihilist, I couldn’t get my head round (vile) Bodies. As for The Ramones, the ones from the other side of the pond who arguably started it all off, on the first few listens I just thought they were plain dumb. ‘Doh’, as Homer might remark. Later of course, I got their cartoonish brilliance which unsurprisingly was immortalised in an episode of The Simpsons, Rosebud, which also references another great piece of American culture, Citizen Kane.
So I wasn’t totally hooked by the music at first but I sensed something was up and started listening to John Peel’s radio show and reading all the reviews in the music press, Sounds and the N.M.E. Back then, pre-internet, the inky music weeklies were the lifeline by which I and many others kept up with what was happening. It’s hard to imagine now but the writers were themselves minor heroes. Famously the N.M.E was the first step on the ladder for the still over-opinionated Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons, but there were others too, like Jon Savage who’s book on punk, England’s Dreaming, gives the truest and best account of what punk rock was and how it was born out of the prevailing social conditions that beset the UK back then. Oh yes, the past is a different country alright - want to see how grey it was check out Julien Temple’s film The Filth and the Fury.
At this time, I also started picking up prize singles and e.p.s. (always loved it when Peel put a 7” on at the wrong speed) by the torrent of bands that were coming through, The Buzzcocks, The Jam, Siouxsie’s calling card Hong Kong Garden.
Siouxsie was one of the first strong women musicians to come out of the punk rock explosion. Polystyrene, The Slits and Chrissie Hynde were there at the beginning too. While the Pretenders weren’t a punk group, Chrissie’s punk rock attitude punched through their music, it had the intensity and the immediacy which characterised the best punk music. So these women were emboldened by the anybody can do it approach of The Pistols and The Clash and inspired by Patti Smith, since dubbed the Godmother of Punk, who’s fevered album Horses remains this man’s favourite ever rock record. It’s thanks to this generation of female punks that we now have such great female rock acts such as the sinuous, snakey Warpaint and the bruising P.J. Harvey. Or, thinking closer to home, about here in Hereford, these women paved the way for performers such as Claire Perkins and Shannon Walker.
And it wasn’t just the music that I loved, but whole package, the look of the bands and the designs of the record sleeves. It’s hard to imagine now how shocking Jamie Reid’s images for the Pistols are now, the text made up from individual letters cut from a newspaper in the style of a blackmail note, (this technique having been adopted by Helen Wellington-Lloyd for the band’s early posters), the pink and yellow palette of the Never Mind the Bollocks album cover and the sheer effrontery of sticking a safety pin through the Queen’s nose. Pick a single out of the box in front of me and it’s Orgasm Addict by The Buzzcocks. Especially appropriate when I’m remembering Bogey Joe. Designed by Malcolm Garrett, the sleeve featured a montage by Linder Sterling, (famous these days for having managed to maintain an enduring friendship with the truculent Morrissey), of a naked woman’s torso ripped from a porn mag with an iron for a head. It was striking and a million miles away from the lazy soft focus photos so prevalent on so many record sleeves released prior to the punk shake-up.
If the music was in your face, it was nothing compared to the look adopted by the early punks. I remember the impact of a photo-essay of the emerging scene in a colour supplement of this strange subterranean world and being mystified and somewhat fascinated. It was so alien and it would be a while before the look filtered out to the provinces, lagging behind the music which teenagers were picking up on almost instantly through their transistors. One memory of the visual impact of punk does stand out: I remember catching a tube on my way to stay with my sister in London and finding myself sitting almost opposite a woman with achondroplasia dressed like the girls in the colour supplement. Her glare was defiant, it seemed to say yes, stare at me, so what? I later realised she was ‘Helen of Troy’, the aforementioned Helen Wellington-Lloyd who was a key member of The Pistol’s early entourage. Punk gave people the license to create their own self-image, define their own identity; the ugly people were beautiful too.
It wasn’t just the stripped down nature of the early punk bands that brought the bass guitar more to the fore, it was also because of the punk/reggae crossover. In the early days of punk, there were few punk records to play between live sets at punk gigs and so the story goes that Don Letts began playing reggae records at The Roxy to fill in. While I was already acquainted with Bob Marley, it was through punk that I discovered the deeper roots music of performers such as Burning Spear, Lee Perry and those great, somewhat under-appreciated home-grown acts such as Steel Pulse and Misty in Roots. It was Johnny Rotten, as he was then, professing his love for Dr Alimantado which persuaded me to pick up Best Dressed Chicken in Town, for which I will be perennially grateful.
This association of two outlying musical forms and their equally disaffected tribes of followers was to one of the greatest achievements of the initial punk rock explosion, and this union greatly bolstered the nascent Rock Against Racism. Then, as sadly now, racism was on the rise with the odious National Front and the coming together of punk and reggae acts and their audiences to show unity at RAR benefits and festivals was the kind of inclusive community politics that the world never has enough of.
Punk is responsible for my politicisation. Through punk and in particular The Clash and Tom Robinson (not strictly a punk but caught up in the wave of new music that came through in the late 70s) this middle-class country boy learned about urban deprivation, racism, homophobia and feminism. While it is easy to dismiss the sloganeering of The Clash as somewhat naïve and pull them up on how they didn’t always walk the talk, there was something heartfelt about Joe Strummer’s rants. And, as my friend, circus Lynn, will tell you he and the band had a genuine bond with their audience, getting her and other fans into their shows if they didn’t have tickets and spending hours talking with them afterwards. These politicised lyrics that touched on real world issues were such that I felt compelled to sell some of my old records of what my best friend once pointedly dubbed ‘elf music’ and start paying attention to the news and question received wisdom.
Punk was empowering, through it many people found their voice or means of self-expression. The attitude that anybody could learn three chords and form a band was inspiring. Sadly, it wasn’t quite true as I found out but took a long time to admit. Instead of becoming a musician I ended up a campaigner working for Greenpeace for more than 20 years. Greenpeace I always thought was a bit punk rock, even though it had originally been formed by a bunch of grizzled hippies. It was confrontational in a way that say Friends of the Earth wasn’t. It’s a matter of attitude.
So this is why we’re throwing a punky-reggae party, The Ramonas, The Irascibles, the Reggae Pie DJs, The Underground Revolution and I - together we’re celebrating 40 years of punk attitude. We’re going to stick a safety pin through the Wild Hare’s ear in solidarity and pogo to The Ramonas adrenalized rush through The Ramones two-minute rock/pop nuggets. A girl group paying tribute to a boy band which was partly in thrall to the girl groups of the 60s. The Irascibles are not a punk band, but they were influenced by punk and you can hear echoes of it in their stripped-back, low slung bluesabilly which takes the music forward. Reggae Pie will have us skanking before, between and after echoing those early nights at The Roxy. This one is for all of us of a certain age who were partly shaped by punk rock and all those who were too young or missed it for one reason or another.
And what was the best thing about punk? Banishing flared jeans from my wardrobe forever. Not only did they look ridiculous but they always got caught in your bicycle chain.