:: Article

Make my day… and night: a review of Punk is Dead

By Kirsty Allison.

Richard Cabut and Andrew Gallix, Punk is Dead: Modernity Killed Every Night, Zer0 Books, 2017

Punk’s corpse lies in a state sarcophagus, wrapped in vintage Westwood muslin, preserved with a safety pin in its nose and a needle in its arm. This moralistic image is bootlegged like a bad Banksy in every flea-market across the globe. We all know Punk lived fast, died young, but who or what killed it, and why does its spirit live on like a sour-dough snot of phlegm?

‘It was like an orgasm, there for a few seconds, and then…pfft…’ is what Jordan, the star of this Sex Pistols’ album coloured book-cover, confesses within the pages. Jordan, was the living embodiment of the Punk-movement-that-made-the-papers, a fashion entity, visual figurehead, everything feminism required, with her flesh shocking denial of submission, an artwork in itself, she was self-muse to the Kings Road scene. Just listen back to the Adam Ant song: ‘Send A Letter To Jordan’. Although no signed up Situationist, like chief influencer on the movement, Scottish writer Alexander Trocchi, she didn’t need her own band, she was leader of the pack, fulfilling that strange muse space of women, who are artists first, muses second.

The more official line taken in this phenomenal artillery of essays from big names and the more beleaguered, is that Punk lasted 18 months, or little longer than the Roxy club in Covent Garden (December 1976-April 1977). But we’ll come back to that.

Although I wasn’t alive for punk, I have known a few.  This cool and brilliant collection lays out exactly what Dave Barbarossa, drummer to Adam Ant, and Bow Wow Wow, writer of biographic novel, Mudsharks, tells me in preparation for the four gigs we’ve so far done – ‘Kirst, this is Punk! It is art!’

It was through Barbarossa, and Viv Albertine from The Slits who I interviewed at the 100 Club with Skinny Girl Diet, that I understand the 70s as dark; candlelit, full of overflowing bins from rubbish-men on strike, power plants restricted after the neon dreams of the fifties fuzzed broken by two world wars. The 70s was a place where nicking Sid Vicious’ chips off his plate was what punk really was – poverty – dying for your art in levels of squatdom which few would sacrifice their hair-straighteners or phones for now.

Growing up in west London, I was confronted by the detritus of the movement clinging to cans of Special Brew like a balding mohican. Punks, the kind you still see now, were scary. And they seemed stupid. Like really really thick. And ill-mannered. The great big A of Anarchy, with its circle painted around it like a veritable Ouroboros feedback loop; a strangled simulacrum ‘take-home’ of dumbed down sanitisation, the image proffered by the state, and media, a sign worn on the back of the jackets of tramp-like ne’er-do-wells – people who couldn’t fit into Thatcher’s Britain, to be worn like a yellow Jewish star. This is where the alternative ended up. Labelled as dangerous, toxic, and dirty.

Andy Blade, singer, reminisces declaring, punk’s not dead, it’s in a coma. His is the most honest appraisal in the book. From the seminal NOW FORM A BAND chord instruction in Sideburns fanzine, he says the louder, messier, Oi! side of punk – which won out with bands like Cockney Rejects, Sham 69, Boomtown Rats, UK Subs – taking its throne because Punk Rock itself is intellectual, and its ‘art angle had been dispensed with for the simple reason that art intellectuals generally don’t sell shitloads of records, and arty intellectualism does not go down too well in places like Wrexham, Luton, Milton Keynes, or North Wales – because the general public live in these shitty little places, and they don’t get it. They need signposts, or they feel dizzy. All they were ever after was the easily identifiable, lest their brains begin to hurt.’

In this masterfully edited collection, which flows in a style that at times reaches post-Burroughs glory in Neil Brown’s outstanding cut-up diary, or Richard Cabut’s fanzine love for Richard Hell, writing on the spiky-haired singer-cum-writer as: a peddle-to-metal hopped-up dropout crossing the States with the larger-than-life aplomb of a pulp-fiction anti-hero. Vagabond poet rogue of the open highway’ – you get to the end of this, and feel Punk can now die happy. Covered. Analysed. Of course, this alignment to the poets of yore is one referenced repeatedly by Paris-based co-editor, Andrew Gallix, who founded this publication, and home to all of us poets, philosophers, and punks, under the strap-line, ‘whatever it is, we’re against it’. He considers the literary tradition of punk, from his French perspective, exploring Arthur Cravan, and Comte de Lautréamont as forerunners to Situationism, surrealism and DADA. Collectively, the edition explores what killed punk, and why it wanted to kill everything that had been before. It’s a reading list essential, exploring the British element – so well accompanied on a shelf aside Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain (whose oral history Please Kill Me, tracks from Iggy and MC5 in Detroit, through Johnny Thunders, and Max’s Kansas City, where Blondie and Patti Smith battled out the Warhol invocations of 80s pop, and post-glam splendour of the New York Dolls). Nor is it Jon Savage’s elegy to Punk, England’s Dreaming which splits the movement from the art to the artefact. Nor does it have the rip-roaring flavour of any of the shelves of excellent tomes from voices such as Nina Antonia, Kris Needs, Nick Kent, and the countless biogs from key proponents, be it Adam Ant, John Lydon, Viv, Cosey Fanni Tutti – take your pick, or even back to non-fiction classics such as Simon Reynold’s Rip It Up and Start Again (which more specifically explores the post-punk, which interestingly, contributor Dorothy Max Prior claims to have been calling her early music work in 1976). Dorothy Max Prior worked as a stripper, and got Cosey Fanni Tutti, who’d been topless modelling, into her life of stripping, before joining her and Genesis P. Orridge in Psychic TV as drummer, throwing the cymbals to the corner, a la Velvet Underground’s Moe Tucker, when her heels won, being unable to flatten the pedals to the floor: ‘The previously secret worlds of fetish clothing, macintosh societies and bondage are bursting up and out from dingy cellars, braving the light of day. Soon, Hot Gossip will replace Pan’s People, and the Torture Garden will become the nightclub to be seen in (preferably wearing little more than a dog collar and a few piercings) but we’re not there yet – as Silver Jubilee year 1977 drags on…Punk gigs and clubs are awash with leather basques, rubber gimp masks and pierced nipples.’

In Gallix’s preamble, there’s a quote from John Peel, who began his first Punk special show by observing: ‘No two people seem to be able to agree exactly what Punk Rock is’ (BBC Radio One, 10 December 1976). But as we discover from reading from the factions of contributors, they stood united in one way: they were opposed to the ‘old’ tuned-out hippie softness, and wanted something new. A new kind of kick. And they did it with their childish attitude as ammunition, a ghetto of kids let out of the creche, with the hacienda nursery for wayward show-offs collecting upon Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood shop on the King’s Road – SEX, where in 1975, Malcolm sprayed ‘Modernity Killed Every Night’ on the walls of the basement, taking nihilism, No Future, as the statement to behold.
At the launch for this book at Rough Trade in Portobello, writer Jonh Ingham suggested the Sex Pistols were little more than models to sell Westwood’s clothing on. Bringing the rise from a fellow attendee that Punk died with Sid Vicious joining the Sex Pistols in 1977.

This collection makes it clear punk didn’t happen overnight. Many shadowy acolytes first gathered when McLaren opened his Let It Rock in 1971 – more teddy boy than the leathers of Live Fast Die Young that followed. Jon Savage’s Punk Etymology, the final chapter, notes significant uses of the term, starting in 1946, charting how it became the term Caroline Coon is often credited for. But Jonh Ingham, speaking at Rough Trade, cites an actual discussion with McLaren, who was not in favour of the term’s simplicity. Importantly, McLaren had been knocking about in New York with the New York Dolls, a glam exponent, more Warholian and of the Blondie school than Johnny Thunders, Richard Hell, Iggy Pop, or Patti Smith. He was managing them. And of course, ideas and emotional reactions to environment occur in the ether, and rarely form in vacuums – but without McLaren, Punk would never have had this much written about it.

Paul Gorman, creator of the book on graphic designer, Barney Bubbles, tells Richard Cabut: ‘Malcolm McLaren was the enabler.’

‘Gesamtkunstwerk: A total work of art, a synthesis of the arts, comprehensive artwork, all-embracing art form. – Oxford English Dictionary

‘McLaren understood that engaging with any institution on their terms goes against the grain of individual expression.’

Yet he did engage in media, manipulating it with medal-winning, missile accuracy. Media was mainstream in the seventies, it was a simpler, dominant – atomisation was in gangs like The Bromley Contingent, or printed on a Xerox, carried around in a plastic bag at gigs.

Cabut interviews Tony Drayton, whose Kill Your Pet Puppy fanzine was very successful, printing the ideology he felt around him: ‘Radical anarchy at that point meant feeding and housing people. The practical side of punk rock. Not gigs and badges.’ It’s a solid guide on perverting the mainstream. Now we don’t need to go out – the rites of production are ours, we have seized BandCamp, Pledge and taken the battle into our own hands, what we fight is the Cambridge Analytica digital super-race to gain brand fans, and those that benefit from old systems of publicity. We can go out via a video stream. But it’s only as big as pre-Blockchain faux-horizonalism. Back then, a viral appearance was something everyone saw: the Pistols’ appearance, with Siouxsie Sioux and Jordan, on Bill Grundy’s ITV show on the 1st December 1976, directly challenged sexism, and constraints of language. It invoked a media tornado, expectations of totemised behaviour were fulfilled, splitting them up by January 1978. But this had been set in motion with parliamentary enquiries about why public funding should support the rebellious radical challenge of Fashion Forum shows (1975) at the ICA, curated by Ted Polhemus, author of seminal street tribes work. He was older, but centrifugal in offering a space for it to explode against the law, which he defines here as pertaining the ‘crass childishness’ depicted in Derek Jarman’s Jubilee. Nicholas Rombes makes great contributions pulling together a ‘Cinema of Transgression’ – citing Richard Kern, Lydia Lunch – and Jarman’s making stars of Adam Ant, Siouxsie, and the cast of Jordan et al. He also cites Amos Poe’s The Foreigner, Beth and Scott B’s Vortex, and TV Party in New York with Blondie, Jean Michel Basquiat. So although front-facing Punk may never have got dropped by EMI (Sex Pistols’ leaving on 6th January 1977), it was the silver screen and Grundy-style TV which accelerated its ectoplasm imagery of thrown glasses, slashed chests, and gobbing, the adopted personalities of Subway Sect, Sham 69 et al. Unless you set up an alternative fanzine personally, the mediums were limited. Getting banned by R1 was the only way you could noise up the system, or maybe take a gentler approach via the pages of the NME to read Jonh Ingham going on tour with Patti Smith. In his essay, he reports on a Belgian radio appearance:
‘Do you think you are a star?’
‘No.’ She’s very definite about that. ‘I’m just talking metaphorically. “Star” is a Sixties word…It’s void. All these words have multi-definitions. We’re trying to break the language barrier. I’m not interested in semantics.’

In 1977 Charles Shaar Murray expanded: ‘We have a new kind of rock star now, and like all other new kinds of stars it arose out of an attempt to break down the star system…[yet] to talk of destroying the star system is completely and utterly utopian.’

Yet utopian movements need extremists. ‘None of us could make any reasonable claim to be musicians’ says Penny Rimbaud of Crass. ’We were attempting to create a new future by trashing the past and until that job was done, maybe there was no other way forward.’

‘Punk, at least as it was seen from the streets, was a statement: make your own, do it yourself. Own band. Own words. Own sound. Own attitude. Own future. Own life.’

In the amazing P.P.E. of punk chapter by Dave and Stuart Wise, who formed King Mob as the Situationists chapter of West London (one time, allegedly, leaving Guy Debord to stomp back to Paris in disillusion to the scale of their army) they discuss how the role of the state and requirement for entrepreneurial peripheries were essential, with Stiff Records, Rough Trade and Virgin being born from that.

But Penny Rimbaud declares Cash from Chaos, and Punk is Profit are what truly murdered Punk. As the spectacle went into flux with its media awareness, the Warholian elements of costume and radical artwork packaged into consumable products, Penny Rimbaud maintains it wasn’t narcotics that killed punk, it was greed for cash.
There’s always an essence of Groucho Marx to punk: I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member. So I’m leaving. Out of that door. In a bodybag.

Sid Vicious died in 1979 – having been accused of killing his girlfriend, although I’ve heard this was more to do with a drug debt. He’d glassed Patti Smith’s brother, done time, and his mother gave him the drugs that he ODed on.

The arc of this series of wildly differing essays follows the known story which adheres to the classic narrative of the shop, the stage, the media. Punk was impossibly pop, Britain’s love of the vaudeville, and the music hall, is something Julien Temple (who I’ve worked with, on the 30th anniversary film of the Sex Pistols) more than understands, there’s a cartoon value where Punk ate itself, it had to resonate in the primary colours of an emblazoned flag on fire to be hard enough to hit mainstream consciousness. McLaren lived from 1946 – 2010, I used to talk to him on the phone, from being a movement of potential radical social change, punk became the biggest media bonanza since hippy. And sure, he may have been a bit strong in thinking youth culture was all about the youth, he wasn’t as young as those he got to influence Britain. But his influence transmitted like a door stamp to the Blitz Kid popsters, the hip-hop Buffalo girls of rave, to the pastiche circus of Britpop – and now the banal state of atomisation and occasional rare starbursts which break the dominant beneficiaries of old-school media popularity (Radiohead, Primal Scream, Stones) – with Lady Gaga, Lana Del Ray – and the turgid machinations of X Factor factory. Perhaps McLaren would be doing his own line in Primark, hailing the democratisation of fashion if he were alive now, but sure, he’d want shares on that – and maybe, he’d be supportive of Climate Revolution, as Vivienne continues to preach, buy less, buy better quality, our seas swelling in a plastic tidal wave of punk, that ironic stench in all of us, alongside a greater awareness, would be risen. It’s unavoidable.

Of course Punk wasn’t only about fashion, it was an ideology that got corrupted, but we’re all looking for something, and often do it in the drag that goes on around us. One of my fave stories from Kris Needs was he being leant a pair of drainpipes when he went to meet The Clash – because he was in flares, and that meant hippies, who punks had no tolerance for.

What David and Stuart Wise say about Punk is equally meaningful as a reflection for our monotheistic capitalist global architecture, ‘Because the state is the benefactor, it supports culturally archaic representations of art…Media suppressed the avant-garde’.

Simon Critchley says it simply: ’We wanted to see reality for what is was in all its ugliness (the high-rise car parks, the council estates, the tedium of television) and tear away the decadence and fallenness of the culture industry that surrounded us…Yes, hearing the Ramones’ first album late one night at a friend’s house was a Year Zero moment…[…But]I don’t think punk was about authenticity. It was about exposing the layers and layers of inauthenticity that make art possible.’

Although the female contributions are minimal within these pages, women still rip through. In my eyes, it gets little better than Judy Nylon. Her work with Patti Palladin as SNATCH, and later, as Pal Judy with Adrian Sherwood are part of my DNA. Her introduction is to the point. Jon Savage, in his phenom England’s Dreaming, claims that ‘the women and men that Vivienne collected acted out their wildest fantasies … they became part of the Sex Pistols and gave punk it’s Warholian edge’(David Wilkinson). In essence, They (thanks, Peter York who wrote about Them in Harpers & Queen in 1976) were attached to a closer, clearer belief system than seems to be possible now, with digital distraction, and Like-economies, or the terrifying data systems emerging such as China’s Social Credit System. Critchley reminds us it was a world where: ‘The real dadas are against DADA’.

Mark Fisher notes there was a sense of action: ‘This denial of interiority – unlike Lydia Lunch, Siouxsie is not interested in ‘spilling her guts,’ in a confessional wallowing in the goo and viscera of a damaged interiority – corresponded to a staged refusal to be ‘a warm compassionate, understanding fellow-creature’ Žižek. Like Grace Jones, another singer who made an art of own objectification, Siouxsie didn’t demand R.E.S.P.E.C.T from her bachelor suitors (with the implied promise of a healthy relationship based on mutual regard) but subordination, supplication.’ He compares Siouxsie to JG Ballard’s Crash.

Punk’s not dead, it’s walking dead in a burnt-out Amazon warehouse.

Kirsty Allison is a writer, editor of Cold Lips, and has a band with Dave Barbarossa. Follow her on social. She’s not hard to find.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, October 25th, 2017.