Anarchy in the UK – Punk at Forty

Play Guitar with The ClashDo you remember 1976? 

40 years ago, punk stunned the nation with its explosion from nowhere, and in this its anniversary year we’ll be celebrating this iconic movement with events and exhibitions. Come in and help us celebrate and acknowledge the huge legacy that punk has left in the music history books.

History generously allocated 4 July 1976, with a number of memorable events.  100 hostages were rescued from a Ugandan airport where they were being held by pro-Palestinian hijackers; the United States celebrated 200 years of independence; and, in a dimly-lit back room of the Black Swan pub in Sheffield, The Clash gave their live debut to an audience of 50. Despite the grungy venue and the feeble crowd, it was, as far as debut gigs go, a far greater opportunity for exposure than most bands are given – they were supporting none less than the Sex Pistols, who, having nine months’ performance experience under their belts, were well-known for their onstage antics (and, incidentally, practically half way through their stint as a band already).

The Clash performing in Oslo in 1980. Left to right: Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, and Paul Simonon

As a quirk of history would have it, it was on the same night that, 170 miles further south, another group whose name rings loud in the hall of fame were giving another sort of debut. Riding on the success of an eponymous LP recorded three months previously, The Ramones gave their UK debut show at London’s Roundhouse, and were afforded a rather more spectacular crowd of 2,000 fans for their efforts – their largest so far. Known for their short and sweet three-chord wonders (by July 1976, the longest song in their repertoire was a fleeting two-and-a-half minutes), The Ramones had stirred up in the youth of London a taste for the loud, raucous and unconventional – a hunger soon to be intensified by the explosion of a home-grown punk scene. It was The Ramones, who, with their huge crowds, record contract, and overseas tours, gave inspiration to such bands as the Sex Pistols and The Clash – so, the following night, on day two of The Ramones’ UK tour, the two English bands took a break from performing to pay tribute to their American heroes.

Despite Johnny Rotten, the Sex Pistols’ infamous frontman, going on to liken The Ramones to Status Quo – as offensive a remark as one can make to a punk rocker – reports suggest that even he, too, was enamoured enough to wait for The Ramones to finish their show and meet them at the stage door. One can only imagine what this meeting of these three legendary bands, who have each gone on to write the history books of punk rock, would have looked like. The Ramones may have been loud and unconventional, but compared to the Pistols, known for their spiked green hair and homemade “I hate Pink Floyd” t-shirts, they must have appeared relatively tame. Rob Lloyd, vocalist of The Prefects, and witness to the occasion, sums it up succinctly: “I think The Ramones were a bit frightened of them.”

The Ramones, Toronto 1976

4 July 1976 had set the ball rolling for the unstoppable rise of punk rock in the UK. Literally hundreds of bands followed in the footsteps of the Sex Pistols and The Clash. Some are remembered well today: Buzzcocks (formed in 1976), The Damned (1976), Siouxsie and the Banshees (1976), The Skids (1977) and Stiff Little Fingers (1977) are familiar names to popular music fans. Others, with less familiar but no less amusing names, are sadly forgotten: the likes of Lemon Kittens, Hammersmith Gorillas and Desperate Bicycles and a whole host of other provocatively-named bands, live on only in punk history books. It wasn’t only the names of bands which had fundamentally changed, however. A new standard had been set for musical composition, where catchy melodies were no longer criteria for success (ABBA, the number-one chart-toppers in 1976, were no doubt looked upon with contempt). Bands no longer aspired to imitate The Beatles (whose breakup had only occurred six years previously) – punk rockers valued speed over caution, volume over subtlety and profanity over poetry. Producer Marco Pirroni recalls, “After that [the birth of punk], everybody speeded up…”

Despite the huge appeal of punk to the disaffected youth of the 1970s, who could probably think of nothing worse than listening to 1976’s top-selling album (Greatest Hits by ABBA), the closest punk ever got to chart-topping status was in the form of the more radio-friendly Boomtown Rats, whose Rat Trap was a number 1 single in 1978. (Punk purists would no doubt question the validity of describing Bob Geldof’s family-friendly band as “punk”.)

The Sex Pistols. In Paradiso

It appeared that punk would remain strictly underground, confined to the bars of London and Sheffield where no respectable person would ever tread – that is, until 1 December 1976, when punk was inadvertently rocketed into the mainstream view. Faced with a last-minute cancellation by Queen, producers of ITV’s Today show sought a replacement band for host Bill Grundy to interview on the popular 6.00pm show,  and somehow landed upon the Sex Pistols, presumably with the hope of discussing their £40,000 record deal with EMI, finalised some two months previously. Whatever the motivation for this surprising choice of band to replace Queen (one suspects that the Pistols were not first choice), the show went ahead, with disastrous consequences. Grundy, who was no novice at interviewing, made a valiant attempt to stay on topic (“I am told that the group have received forty thousand pounds from a record company. Doesn’t that seem to be slightly opposed to their anti-materialistic view of life?”), but received no thanks for his efforts: “We’ve f***ing spent it,” was the reply.

National scandal ensued. Grundy was sacked from Today and relegated to a Sunday morning book-review show, while the ever-restrained Daily Mirror added fuel to the fire by running the front-page headline, ‘The Filth And The Fury!’ Phone lines to the show’s producers were jammed with angry complaints from viewers who perceived their Wednesday evening supper to have been violated, and the Guardian reported that one man ‘had been so outraged that he had kicked in the screen of his new £380 television set‘ (ironically, a favourite activity of punk bands in hotel rooms). Punk had finally penetrated popular culture, albeit widely condemned. An unrepentant Sex Pistols attempted to use the buzz generated by their appearance to launch a nationwide tour, adopting the philosophy ‘no publicity is bad publicity’ – but this unfortunately appeared to be untrue. In Johnny Rotten’s words, “We tried to play around the country… We were banned from just about everywhere.”

Daily Mirror, 2 December 1976

Whether for good or ill, punk could no longer be hidden from plain sight. The punks had revolutionised music and fashion, and now culture, the final frontier, seemed within their grasp. But while some may have had some support from cultural icons of the day (Vivienne Westwood, who was at the time living with the Sex Pistols’ manager, Malcolm McLaren, was quoted as saying “It is quite normal [to swear in front of children] at the time of the scandal), it would appear that Britain of 1976 was not quite ready for punk. The Sex Pistols’ one and only album was released the next year, but only after EMI had dropped the band, major record shops had refused to sell it, and record charts had refused to list it, preferring to show a blank space in place of its provocative title. Anarchy in the UK simply wasn’t going as planned.

The bands which had the most commercial success were those who were prepared to tone it down somewhat. The Jam, The Stranglers, and the aforementioned Boomtown Rats seemed more successful at bridging the divide between mainstream culture and the punk underground. Their music – more melodic and reflective – was considered a safer option by record sellers and parents alike, and these bands found great success riding on the wave of interest in punk, bearing its name but in reality resembling very little of the ‘real’ punk bands like The Clash and the Ramones. Meanwhile, band after band either broke up (The Damned in 1978, Buzzcocks in 1981, The Skids in 1982) or re-invented themselves – Johnny Rotten famously forming the much tamer group, Public Image Limited, in 1978.

The punk revolution appeared to be over as suddenly as it began, but its influence was only just beginning. Seemingly hundreds of sub-genres appeared, as musicians fused punk with even the most unlikely genres. Some produced well-known acts: New York Dolls exemplified glam punk, and ‘horror punk’ had some success in the Misfits. A massive punk revival took place in 1990s California with bands such as Green Day and The Offspring. Although these bands sang about skateboarding and girlfriends instead of anarchy and revolution, their roots are discernible, and their debt to the 1970s punk scene shown in the typical three-chord riff which inevitably starts every song. Punk in its purest form may have been short-lived, but its explosive impact was sure to create waves in all styles of music. Surely, another punk revival is not out of the question.

Punk Rock Blitzkrieg, by Marky Ramone Punk Rock: an oral history, by John Robb The Official Punk Rock Book of Lists, bby Amy Wallace and Handsome Dick Manitoba

40 years ago, punk stunned the nation with its explosion from nowhere, and in this anniversary year Punk.London seeks to remember the influence of this iconic movement. Events are planned throughout the year across the capital, where punk music and culture can be either relived or experienced for the first time.

Westminster Music Library is pleased to support this series of events, and visitors to the Library can enjoy our impressive display of punk books and scores. Experience punk first-hand with John Robb’s Punk Rock: An Oral History or Marky Ramone’s Punk Rock Blitzkrieg, play along with The Clash with our guitar albums, or be amazed by the trivia contained in The Official Punk Rock Book of Lists. We also have a large number of Punk.London brochures available to keep, where you can find a full list of the punk events planned across London for this year. Do pop in to help us celebrate and acknowledge the huge legacy that punk has left in the music history books.

Punk at Forty exhibition, Westminster Music Library 2016

[Jon]

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One response to “Anarchy in the UK – Punk at Forty

  1. Stuck in rural 1970’s Worcestershire aged 17, initally dismissive of punk. However softened up by seeing Dr. Feelgood and a few other bands with attitude and importantly not 30 minute sub classical concept prog rock albums e.g. Camel’s “The Snow Goose” LP, soon learnt to veer towards punk and new wave bands. It also helped that as an avid John Peel listener my musical horizons were broadened.Two years later, being an improvished London student, entry to venues such as The Hope and Anchor and 100 Club were so much cheaper than the Hammersmith Odeons and Wembley Arenas frequented by rock dinosaurs.

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