written for Italian Vogue, 2006 ?
by Simon Reynolds
Punk stalks the culture again. You can see this in the success of Asia Argento's The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, in which the director stars as a bad mother whose combination of punk, stripper and junkie bears more than a slight resemblance to Courtney Love. Then there’s the return of the Stooges, the group who defined the punk sound and attitude with songs like “No Fun” and “I Wanna Be Your Dog” a good half-decade before the movement actually began, and who are about to release The Weirdness, their first album in thirty years. There’s Lady Sovereign, the UK’s rising rapper, who has recorded a version of the Sex Pistols “Pretty Vacant” for an episode of America’s most popular teenage TV drama, The OC. And there’s also official commemoration of punk’s thirtieth anniversary in the form of exhibitions like Panic Attack! Art In the Punk Years (showing at London’s Barbican Art Gallery this June) and The Secret Public: the Last Days of the British Underground 1978-88, on tour now following its launch in Munich last year.
Punk’s back, then. But when was it ever away? In truth, there has barely been a single year since 1977 when some aspect of punk rock or punk fashion has not been rediscovered or reworked. Punk’s ghost is a perennial presence, serving as both inspiration and reproach to every new generation of musicians, artists, and cultural radicals. Since its near-simultaneous detonation in mid-Seventies New York and London, punk’s shockwaves have reverberated through every corner of the arts and popular culture. It gave us pop icons like Kurt Cobain, Beastie Boys, Morrissey, Green Day, and Bjork (her first band, formed when she was fourteen, was the Icelandic punk group Spit and Snot). But punk also indelibly shaped artists from outside popular music: film-makers like Jim Jarmusch, novelists like Irvine Welsh and Isabella Santacroce, artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Damien Hirst, fashion designers like Vivien Westwood and Alexander McQueen. Through the Nineties and into this decade, punk’s legacy has cropped up in the oddest places, from the gritty, stripped-down approach of the Dogme movement in Scandinavian movie-making to the way designers like Marc Jacobs and Anna Sui rifle through the wardrobe of New Wave and Goth styles. John Richmond called one of his lines of clothing “Destroy”, after the last word of the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the UK”--the same place Santacroce got the title of her second novel.
What’s so good about destruction? The idea of clearing away the detritus of tradition and rebooting culture at Year Zero is always attractive to the young, appealing both to their sense of iconoclasm and to their ambition (one way to speed up your career is to discredit your established elders who’ve clawed their way up the establishment hierarchy). Punk’s who-gives-a-fuck attitude of snarling defiance and solipstic self-love is galvanizing (“Anger is an energy”, as Sex Pistol singer Johnny Rotten put it). Like a snort of cheap amphetamine, it gives the insecure-but-ambitious the necessary boost of will-to-power to kick down the door.
Beyond the attitude, there’s two main reasons why punk endures as a reference point: the unsurpassable extremism of its style, and the contagious potency of its guiding concept of do-it-yourself. As invented by couturiers like Westwood but also, crucially, by the punk kids themselves, punk fashion consisted of ripped-and-torn clothes held together with safety pins, hair slashed into spiky shapes and dyed inorganic shades of green or pink, and a Marcel Duchamp-style repurposing of lowly readymades like plastic garbage bags into garments. Punks also exploited the shock impact of tweaking taboos, wearing fetish wear associated with sado-masochism (the famous bondage trousers, where a strap connecting the two legs constrained one’s movement), and even using forbidden and offensive symbols like the swastika. The ice queen of this version of style as a kick-in-the-eye to straight society was Siouxsie Sioux, one of the original London punks. Punk’s most abiding fashion legacy is the Gothic culture spawned from the sepulchral sound and visuals she created with her band the Banshees. Goth has been a fixture of popular culture ever since, from movies like Donnie Darko to TV series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer to the black eyeliner-wearing misery boys of emo (short for emotional punk) such as My Chemical Romance, currently riding high in pop charts across the world.
Punk’s do-it-yourself ideal arose out of disgust with the early Seventies emergence of a remote rock star aristocracy, who played stadium shows where they pranced onstage looking like distant ant-like figures to the bulk of the audience and showed off their virtuosity with interminable self-indulgent solos. Aiming to democratize music and open it back up to teenagers, punk was deliberately primitive music, rock stripped down to rudimentary three-chord-or-less riffs crudely bashed out on cheap electric guitars. “ This is a chord, this is another, this is a third - Now form a band" was the famous cover line of the punk fanzine Sniffin’ Glue (and zines themselves were a prime expression of the do-it-yourself principle). The ultimate manifestation of this ethos of anyone-can-do-it and irreverent non-professionalism was the cassette underground, where bands sold tapes of their work for dirt-cheap prices via mail order, or even gave the music away for free if you mailed them a blank cassette. But more influential on the wider culture was the explosion of independent labels in the postpunk period. Some were owned and operated by a single band, others by socialistic musicians collectives, and others still by aesthete-entrepreneurs who wanted to support innovative music but also saw a market for experimental and edgy sounds. Almost all of the original punk independents have long since perished, but a handful grew to become enduring forces in contemporary music, such as Mute (home to Depeche Mode and Nick Cave) and Rough Trade (the Libertines and the Strokes).
The independent label concept has proliferated far beyond rock, giving rise to indie publishers, indie movie-makers, every kind of autonomous cultural production you can imagine. But where the do-it-yourself ethos lives largest is on the internet. Today’s blogs and livejournals are the modern equivalent of the photocopied, hand-scrawled, cut-and-paste fanzines of the punk era--sometimes collaborative ventures, but far more often, lone voices yelling out their angry and excited opinions and finding a niche audience of like-minds. And then there’s Myspace, which fuses the independent micro-label with the fanzine to create the ultimate expression of the do-it-yourself impulse: bands uploading their own music to circulate for free. Do-it-yourself is the empowering lesson that every generation, bored and alienated by what the mainstream offers, has to rediscover for itself. In that sense, punk will never die.