So many words have been spilt about first wave UK punk and politics over the last 45 years, but one of the most lucid contemporary assessments came from within The Sex Pistols camp. Sophie Richmond worked for Malcolm McLaren's Glitterbest management company. Amidst all the chaos somebody had to make sure the bills got paid (or not), but she did a lot more than admin. She was part of a collective effort around the band, also including her then partner Jamie Reid who designed the Pistols' art work.
It's quite remarkable that in the midst of all this she should take time to consider the political significance of it all for an obscure libertarian communist magazine, Social Revolution (no.7, 1977) . The group behind it had been formed in 1975 and was soon to merge with the longer established Solidarity group. Political threads from this current led back to a shared heritage with the Situationists in the group Socialisme ou Barbarisme - the Situationists being an influence on McLaren and Read among others. Plainly Richmond, then 25 years old, had her own political perspectives that predated punk and the Pistols.
Her conclusion from the heart of the storm is succinct and accurate - music on its own can't change the world, romantic myths of heroic outsiders are a dead end and punk was inevitably on the road to being assimilated. And yet it was expressing something real, addressing how many young people felt, and opening a door of possibility where interesting things might happen before the door slammed shut once again.
Anarchy In The UK - Sophie Richmond
Labels are inescapable and punk isn't such a bad label really. Something for kids to identify with that sounds a bit vicious and tough, definitely anti the shit/ ideology they try to shove down your throat at school. Punk says 'I'm a lazy sod' and ‘I wanna be me'. It's the latest in the glorious line of teenage rebels ... from James Dean and Marion Brando in the post-war American movies through the Teds, the mods, the ever-present greasers, the skinheads and now the punks. Someone's going to ask me why I left out hippies. Can't you feel the difference? (The hippies and alternative culture is what I grew up with so my view is jaundiced anyway, but it seems as though it was all very middle class; it gave us the alternative society: it gave us peasant clothing and beads; but I don't think it really gave us a lot of help in solving, or even helping us think about the problems of living in and changing a distinctly urban and industrialised country.)
Anyway. Punk is teenage rebellion again. So, the question to ask isn't so much ‘how much potential for social change is there in punk rock?' as 'how much potential for change is there in the teenage rebellion syndrome?' So we look back. No, nothing really changed much did it? The rebels either died (James Dean, Gene Vincent) or got assimilated, became successful (Rolling Stones) and had nothing left to say to their still alienated audience. There are two things here:—
1. the expression of frustration, alienation and pissed offness felt by kids growing up in USA and UK who found their futures even more unattractive than their present.
2. the eventual failure of those who voiced those feelings to escape assimilation and, equally, the failure of the kids who dug it to escape their fate.
The lesson, I suppose, is that culture can only take you so far. Be you ever so pissed off and alienated, if all you do is sit down with your stereo and play 'My Generation' a million times, you're not going to get very far. The value of the Stones, Who, Vincent, Sex Pistols is that they can create a climate, put ideas into people's heads, at their best give off enough energy and enthusiasm to make people feel like doing more than buying the next super-duper album.
Because ultimately it's up to the audience to decide if they'll buy the action as well. And it's up to the activists and militants to use the energy, the honesty, to grasp it and take things further and say look, we can do this, it's not just fantasy. Because attitudes don't threaten, not in the cradle of free speech and liberalism. Attitudes are easily defused. Rock 'n roll ain't revolution.
But there's a point in time, before the media has jumped on your backs and exposed every hypocrisy and contradiction, before it's become clear that you're just another rock band, easily bought off by money and fame, when attitudes are potentially threatening to the system. And these kids and bands certainly aren't upholding it. The Sex Pistols want anarchy, (their meaning clear enough in the song 'I wanna be anarchy .... I wanna be an anarchist, get pissed, destroy') The Clash want a riot of their own in the song 'White Riot' written in envy and admiration after the Notting Hill riots last summer. The Buzzcocks, from Manchester, sing about boredom and alienation (can't stop using that word):
“I been waiting in the supermarket
standing in with the beans (ketchup)
I been waiting at the Post Office
for silly pictures of the queen (stickup)
Now I'm waiting for you
to get yourself good and ready (make up)
(too fast to interpret yet)
I been standing in the standing room
and I been waiting in the waiting room
no-one told me 'bout the living room
gonna forget what I came for here
Great. At least it's a bit real again. I'm sick of silly love songs which don't have any meaning when you know, however passionately you're in love, that your chances of getting a place you can call your own or a job with enough money to support your kids aren't too hot.
But in some ways, the punk bands are carrying on establishment myths of anti-heroes, losers, dead-enders. Romantic, but slush. To be avoided. Liberal containment myths. But there's a few encouraging things... the sudden emergence of a dozen or more young bands in the steps of the Pistols, not too hot, musically or politically but at least a nice reaction against the progressive rock of the last ten years, so overloaded with technology that it can't go on the road with less than 40 articulated lorries and a cast of one million technicians. I like the whole do it yourself philosophy which shows in the clothes as well as the music. Sexism? What do you expect? Rock is sexist, not least when sung by women.
Being a woman musician is like... words fail me, I was looking for some absurd comparison but just come up with impossible. If you're an all-woman band it's a gimmick, if one of the musicians is a woman, it's a gimmick. So it's encouraging that there are a few bands around of both sorts, trying to be taken a bit seriously. But that ain't really punk. None of the all-women punk bands I know of have ever played a gig. The Derelicts who are/were two fifths women have packed up temporarily/permanently. But I get a different feel from the audiences these days. I don't know if it's something to do with my age (25). Lots of men dancing together rough and tumble, men and women using/not using make up. I feel there's very different attitudes to sex (or relationships as I used to call it). No longer so central, such a bugbear, such a neurosis (or is this my middle class background showing through?) sex less important than what you actually do. Therefore people less sexist? Certainly not Mark P and others. Don't know. I know that behind the shop SEX was the idea of just being totally open about SEX and FETISHISM.
And what do the Sex Pistols mean when they say they want anarchy. My parents were worried by this one too. What do you think? How did you feel when you were 20? Or if you're 20 with A-levels/at college/university/or just with some purpose in life and you've successfully escaped from home, try and imagine life without those little privileges. Try to imagine a life with no future, with such limited possibilities that you feel like dying of boredom before you even start. You got it. You either become a footballer or a rock star to get out.
The difference with this lot of potential stars is that some of them are talking about their own lives and when they say they want to be anarchy, I believe them. It's negative, It's nihilist. But I can't see a song about a 5 year plan catching many kids' imaginations. Destruction, anger, frustration are always good for a few choruses. It's a first step in thinking about change anyway. And kids these days have grown up in a very different environment from even 5 years ago. Since they've been aware of politicians and the economy things have been sliding downhill at quite a rate. Is there that much worth preserving? It's been a socialist government too, so the papers say. If this is socialism who wants to know?
Which runs into swastikas quite neatly. I've seen a few around. They make me puke. They make a load of other people freak out and all. Their shock value is terrific. And it's a pretty powerful symbol. Red stars don't make it. I don't see so many around now (swastikas that is) I know some of the bands (Damned, Vibrators) are busy cashing in along with Bowie. The bands that are strong in themselves or that have any political idea anyway don't use them (Sex Pistols, Clash, Buzzcocks). A shirt emerged out of the SEX shop, a small edition since they were hand dyed and a bit of a hassle to make, which had on it Nazi insignia, a large pic of Marx (embroidered, available from Maoist outlets) assorted Situationist slogans (sous les payees la page, prenez vos idees pour la realite) and other comments like ‘only anarchists are pretty'. It is interesting to note that all the press from Time Out and New Society through the muck rakers to respectables commented only on the swastikas. Pretty morbid Huh? They, along with the swastikas, make me puke.
Violence. There's a lot of it about. I feel safer at a Sex Pistols gig than I do driving up the M1. That's no answer. I spend more energy restraining myself from hitting bus conductors when I've waited an hour at a bus stop than I do restraining myself from getting violent at punk gigs. That's no answer either. Yes, punk has a violent edge. It's horrible when you end up hurting the wrong people, your allies probably, but they're usually nearest. It’s hard to overcome artificial media divisions (Teds/punks … there are still teds down this end of the country) when you're feeling excited, full of energy and identifying with something very strongly (a band, a football team, a style of looking) even if your mind is clear enough to know your real enemies, they're so distant, it requires organisation, discipline, research to get at them ... the guys who make sure there's never a bus when you want one, who price alcohol so high you can hardly afford even that cheap means of oblivion, escape, the guys who don't give a shit that you're feeling useless, meaningless, hopeless at the age of 19, the guys who feed you myths to distract you if you're feeling pissed off enough to do anything.
Bands like the Sex Pistols … the punk bands in this country talk a little about reality, however little gets said before it's ail neatly tied up and put in little packages by the record companies, before the dying dinosaur of the music biz jumps in in search of a fast buck, before the posers start cashing in on the image (I see them on the horizon). That's their value.