Friday, May 10, 2013

The 10th Anniversary of Punk
Melody Maker, Xmas Issue Year's End Overview, December 20/27 1986

by Simon Reynolds

Throughout late ’85, you got the feeling that people were shaping up in their minds as to what was gonna be the coolest response to the tenth birthday of You Know What. Some people decided to go iconoclastic--so you got people like Neil Taylor (NME) and the Legendary Stud Brothers (Melody Maker) dropping the occasional snipe to the effect that the whole affair has been insubstantial and overrated and just not worth considering in ’86. Some went one better and said nothing at all, although they circulated a soulboy rewrite of history--all the while it was slavering over punk the music press should have been covering something far more important: the invention of the 12 inch single, the development of black dance production techniques, the birth of rap. See, their argument that that white rock was finished and black music was the future would have been weakened if they admitted that rock could ever have mattered.

A few went to the other extreme, and claimed that the only vibrant music being created in ’86 was by punk veterans--John Lydon with PiL’s “Rise” and the brilliant Album, Tony James and Sigue Sigue Sputnik, Mick Jones and Big Audio Dynamite, Billy Idol…

But punk was far, far too precious to the music press to escape laborious reappraisal and reminiscence. As Jon Savage has pointed out, punk part depended on and part created the power of the music press. In 1977, with most live performance suppressed, the indie DIY scene yet to really blossom, scant radio and TV coverage--the music press was the only means of access to punk. (Apart from John Peel, who also benefited enormously). The music press was what sustained the whole mirage that something was happening, and fed that out to the provinces, directly inspiring local initiatives.

So we got a whole spate of wistful glances back, a platoon of veteran hacks shaking off mothballs to discourse on Their Finest Hour. “By God, we mattered then!”. The only significant absentees were Julie Burchill and Malcolm McLaren, funnily enough--both moved to bigger things (being a political columnist for the Mail on Sunday and working in Hollywood respectively). We got G-Mex, Jamie Reid’s exhibition, Don Letts’ movie re-released, Sid and Nancy, repeats of So It Goes. The general tone of commentary was personalistic, nostalgic and under-illuminating. Just about the only intelligent commentary came from Jon Savage, in The Face, who reminded us that punk lacked traditional political alignment and argued that early punk had more in common with the art-bohemianism of Warhol’s Factory than with raw street protest. Punk was utopian, not pragmatic, demanding total possibility.

What was missing from the retrospectives was a sense of the extent to which pop ’86 is structured by punk. Pop-writing and pop-making scurries around the absence left by punk, searching to regenerate that lost unity of alienation. (Hence the abortive attempts to float the shambling scene as the Next Big Thing, or the misguided claim that hip hop is a black punk). But this unity was actually a glorious fluke, based as it was around a word, “punk”, that meant different things to different people. The post-punk fragmentation has seen the continuation of these debates as to the meaning and scope of punk (in effect, what music is for, what power it can have).

One view of punk sees that power as potentially constructive, believing that punk was essentially a confrontational dose of reality, hurled at the brainwashing media by angry, uppity proles. A lineage that extends from The Jam and the Clash through Tom Robinson and Rock Against Racism through the Specials to Red Wedge’s Paul Weller and Billy Bragg Show. 1977’s righteous denunciation has developed into the idea of subversion through affirmation--“shout it to the top” till “the walls come tumblin’ down”

The other major interpretation of punk sees it as destructive and iconoclastic--a form of cultural terrorism, or even, at its broadest, a revolt against the limits of life itself. This view of punk stresses its debt to glam rock’s theatricality, to utopian anarchists like the Situationists, to art school ideas about outrage. Here punk’s aim wasn’t just to scandalize the outside world, but to disturb the audience too, destabilize their common sense ideas of self-control. A lineage that stretches from the Sex Pistols and Siouxsie through PiL and Joy Division to… well, in some distant way, maybe both ZTT and Morrissey have that punk impatience with the world and demand for the impossible.

One place there wasn’t much commemoration was in the wider media. Ten years on and there’s still enough of a sting to make them want to pretend it never happened.

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