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.
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…
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.
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’
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.