Where Have All The Punk Rockers Gone?
by Mark Liam Piggott
Photographs ©Janette Beckman Courtesy of Fahey/Klein
I’m fucked you’re fucked we’re all fucked. Repeat. Chorus…
Hard to believe that in 2019, as the UK falls apart, when the only stores booming in the high street are food banks, when a New York-reject like Boris Johnson can zip up his pants for five minutes and declare himself PM, and Europe is busy wishing us a not-so-fond adieux, that there isn‘t a single punk band ready and willing to rage against the machine. That no one dares to push back against this dumbed-down cultural vacuum in which art, books and music must be inclusive, representative, nice.
Don’t scare the horses: don’t scare your gran. Except: gran was a PUNK, wore ripped fishnets, pogoed to hardcore. She’s unshockable. In fact, the only thing that shocks your glue-sniffing deviant DM-sporting gran is how unshocking her offspring have become, how bland, beige and bourgeois, too scared to Tweet anything daring or outside the box let alone stand apart, throw rocks, riot for freedom, for individualism.
In today’s UK, tribes are separated by race, religion and class, not by music, art and words: because it’s all congealed into some bland amorphous 50-shades-grey goo that gets in your eyes, ears and mouth but never pierces your heart. Kids today: the oldest refrain, all the way to Aristotle. Except now the kids are “All Right”: right on, concerned about cars, coffee and coke, terrified to pick up guitars, brushes and pens, too afraid of a lack of “likes” to live. They write songs you can whistle: you can hear every word but what are they saying?
I love you love we all love everything’s cool love let’s all hold hands…
Believe it or not my American amigos, punk used to MEAN something in the UK. In the long-lost days of the 70s-80s music kept us mad, activated, entertained. Maybe our targets were easier: Margaret Thatcher, unemployment, the Troubles, or maybe we managed because we had the dole instead of internships, were gifted precious time to kick our heels in squats as we waited for the four-minute warning.
It’s different for you guys, I know: yes, you had MC5 and the New York Dolls and the Velvets, but for Americans, the only real rebellion was Rap (till it got used to sell sneakers) whereas US-punk was safe, suburban, white: UK rap was crap but UK-punk reached every project and derelict mill-town, touched the high street and radio-waves, seemed it could change things. It led to better music and better art, but we didn’t know that at the time: all we knew was we were fucking furious and these kids looked like us and talked like us, their rage awe-inspiring and familiar. When I listen to “No Survivors” by GBH, “Someone’s Gonna Die” by Blitz and “Always Restrictions” by Discharge (which makes Nine Inch Nails sound like the Carpenters), I’m still stunned by the intensity, the burning furies, the uncompromising covers of singles and EPs decorated with bullet-strewn bodies and Hiroshima ash…
I went to see Crass at Todmorden Town Hall one bitter November night in 1981; tottering towers of televisions broadcasting images of mushrooms clouds and blanket-bombing, the band performing with a relentless fury that any 14-year-old virgin would find compelling. Mum had a new husband, a violent man with strange tastes. I escaped violence at home and found it on the road, sneaking onto buses and following bands across the blasted northlands, sniffing so much lighter fuel I set my pants on fire (no liar).
Recently I’ve been blaming your lack of youth [rebellion} on the remorseless digitalization of every moment of your tedious life (all to be replayed by descendants, employers, aliens) but maybe we can trace the rot back to the smoking ban. Pubs and clubs and gigs so cloudy you couldn’t see your middle finger let alone who was onstage but the music ripped new wormholes, smoke filled your lungs, your DMs slurped sticky scum from the floor. Go to Camden Lock now and get a selfie in front of that picturesque urban decay but it’s all a movie set, Faketown: the only excitement avoiding Somali dealers. The real ghettoes are hidden away on the peripheries – and no-one makes music there because it’s better and safer to sell drugs: the only rebel music is Drill, which is basically dogs and cats spraying their street-corner piss, happier to stab strangers than fuck the system.
Yes, we had tribes: mod, casual, disco-bunny, reggae, soul, funk, reggae, electro. And within punk the sub-divisions. Rockers: leather bristles studs ‘n’ acne and Anti Nowhere League (whose “So What” was seized by the police Obscene Publication Squad and later covered by Metallica) – more biker than punk. The football hooligans: Cockney Rejects and the Angelic Upstarts. The crusties: Crass and their farm-communard cohabitees, more concerned about politics than music: their anti-Falkland War ditty “How does it feel (to be the mother of a thousand dead” debated in Parliament. The jokers – Peter and the Test Tube Babes, the Notsensibles. And punk-Goth (Violators, Addicts), not to be confused with the superior Siouxsie and Bauhaus. And Oi!
(What tribe was I, I ask myself? The kid who sneered at other kids with their £50 leather jacket and perfect lines of studs, I stole my stepdad’s leather biker jacket and painted the arms electric blue, dyed my hair silver, got wasted on meths at 14: a true "punk" in the old-fashioned sense, too drunk to fight [though never, oddly, inconveniently, and disproving the Dead Kennedys toe-tapper, to fuck]. I was a laughing stock: people shouted things in the street.)
I was a misfit: luckily, I wasn't alone. The Trades Club was (and still is) the local Labour club venue where you went when no-one else would have you: it had a pool table and cheap beer and there were bands, New Model Army, 1919, Crash. I’d watch as boy-punks spat snot-phlegm in their hands then used it to revive their partner’s drooping Mohawk. There's a picture of me, myself or I aged 14, as some band raged and the punks fought, kicking each other with nails protruding from their DMs: I'm sat onstage, chin on hand, bored. I felt at home here: I was, after all, just a punk.
Though I never belonged to anywhere or anyone Oi! was my tribe of choice – partly the music, partly the politics (Oi! bands were portrayed as racist but like early skinheads most were anything but) and partly the look: bomber jackets, DMs, t-shirts, sharp, Mod-ish. Because the funny thing is, even though we all had tribes, we borrowed and stole from each other, took what was good: Madness, Specials and The Jam were from the same streets, developed in new ways, took musicianship and lyrical dexterity further, so that as I embraced mind-warping acid and mushrooms I put away my studded belt and ripped biker jacket and embraced androgyny, ambiguity, and New Order.
I was never condescending about American punk: I visited in the early eighties and found not everyone drove to school (and in ripped backsides the dogs were in the fucking street), but also because US hardcore took off. One of my most prized albums is “American Youth Report”. Alongside the bands, several of whom went on to greater things (Bad Religion, Channel 3) and many that didn’t (RF7, Rhino 39) there’s an introduction by Bruce Pavitt, founder of Sub Pop:
“1981? Simple enough… Britain gave us New Romantic white/electro/disco/funk and America gave us… what? Hardcore.”
Wrong, Bruce, so misinformed it’s demented: yeah, we had the Wag and Steve Strange, but we also had Abrasive Wheels and the Exploited; but I guess we were equally ill-informed about punk Stateside. Perhaps it was John Lydon slagging the Ramones, or the NME slagging the Circle Jerks but as we sat in bus shelters and marched against the bomb, we were so tired of America: we had our own problems…
… And here we are, 40 years later, and the problems are back. Theresa May fails even to be as hated as Thatcher. Michael Gove ruins the coke market. Corbyn wants to turn the UK into 1970s East Berlin – without Bowie, without Iggy. A different country, superficially – hard to empathise with iPhone-wielding kids when we lacked pots to piss in – but really, same problems as ever: disenfranchisement, insecurity about the future, rage about the dying planet, rage at our forebears – which means, the kids hate me. I’m good with that, I’m fine with that – because they don’t understand any more than I understood my hippie parents, or they understood theirs, who fought in wars to make better worlds. But I want them (you) to understand, as I wish to understand. They claim we fucked up the world: we didn’t have cars. Claim we were bigots: check out the punk songs, Rock Against Racism, we’ve been here before, fought Nazis in the street.
Generation Breakdown. Grannies rapped, lobbed rocks, snorted, smoked, spiked. The end of war – I mean all-encompassing war, the kind that sweeps away nations – is, for the West, a thing of the past. And this is a good thing. BUT – it has also led to a blurring, an inter-breeding of generations. Where does one start and another end? Tweens dress in pearls and adults read Harry Potter, watch fucking Avengers movies, ride skateboards like they’re five.
This harangue isn’t about me and mine, Generation X – it’s about you, Generations Why and Zzz, and your apparent lack of passions. Instead of drinking, smoking, fucking you sit in your bedrooms jerking to PornHub. Go sit in the sun, drink beer, talk about injustice, pick up guitars – not just air guitars. Life’s hard, and unfair, and no-one gets out of here alive, so DO something. Do you want to be on your deathbed thanking your God you put away pensions? Do you want to sit on your sofa watching karaoke creeps audition for Cowell, a man who would buzz Nina Simone offstage for singing Ain’t Got No? Do you want to laugh at the same jokes, read the same books, dress the same as your friends, worse, your parents?
Punk changed everything. Everyone knows about the Pistols gig in Manchester, spawning the Smiths, Joy Division, Buzzcocks; but punk also led to hardcore rave, which in the mid-eighties became the new punk, better than punk: from anarchy to ecstasy. Less violent, certainly, thanks to e, with better bass lines, but the same do-it-yourself attitude that also launched writers, poets, Banksy and Young British Artists (“ecstasy lobotomized a generation!” yelled an old punk, wrongly).
We did it ourselves; wrote fanzines and lyrics, dared to be different. It’s should be easier in 2019: instead of launching cassette tapes into the black hole of the music industry’s conscience you can make your own videos and publish on YouTube, P.O.D. your teenage dreams. But you’ve got to HAVE dreams: watch YouTube and today’s self-made commentators market cosmetics, talk about their favourite brands, dress like bank managers. Where are your DREAMS, Zoella? Or yours, Alfie Deyes? (Are they couple, brother/sister, clones? All three?) Alfie Deyes wrote a book: The Pointless Book. A book of lists, colour-by-numbers, blank pages. Alfie’s wet dream: an eight-year-old with Amex. Zoella’s £25 advent calendars and Superdrug franchise. All aimed at children, by children, in adolescent bodies with accountant hearts. So passive: oh world, if I’m nice, will you be nice to me too?
On a Tube down escalator I saw a poster, an ad for a newbuild uni, a late-teen, arms folded, staring sulkily: “What can you do for me?” Which is exactly the wrong question, the wrong approach. Why should some elbow-patched lecturer do anything for you, let alone inspire? It’s up to YOU…
No time even to stand still. Remember that Radiohead video, years back, where a guy just lies down on the street – and everyone asks him what’s wrong, won’t let him alone. No time for circumspection in music, art or books: I just read Bellow’s Herzog and try to imagine this slow meandering tale of a cracking up lecturer being accepted anywhere now, let alone READ. Let alone the campus etiquette… A tip, campus kids: If your college has a no-platform policy, fight it or leave and take your custom elsewhere – because after all, aren’t we all “customers” now? If you shut down feminists, Islamists, Islam critics and TERFs – you lose. You are a loser. You have forfeited the right to speak aloud. We screamed from rooftops and sewers (I’m lying to the gutter, looking at the scars): you close down speech. No-platforming sad, Alt-Right Incels in the hope they’ll go away. Let ‘em talk, let ‘em scream: fuck ‘em, fight ‘em, shout back. You’re better than this. Racism exists, it’s going nowhere fast, but here’s the thing – white boys with dreads and students in Mexican hats ain’t the issue. Cultural appropriation? Culture IS appropriation. We steal, bend, break, make new and destroy. Recycle, regurgitate, reject. That’s the cycle. Even Steve Jobs said one good thing – about Death:
“Death is very likely the single best invention of life. It's life's change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.”
Identifarians don’t WANT to forge their own identity – they want to belong to a tribe, but not one of music, fashion or creativity – one of victimhood. Like punks: won’t wash. Want to wear a dress? Wear a dress. Don’t whinge. Do you think Viv Albertine, Poly Styrene and Genesis P Orridge spent their spare time whining? Think you’re the first and only generation who cares about the planet? Get over it. You’re wrong. So am I. We’re all wrong. Life’s not fair: turn off Twitter, close down Facebook, stop Instagramming your lunch and your ass, get out in the street and stop counting calories, carbs and alcohol units, stop counting beans go plant some. Find magic. Make magic. Try harder and fail and try again (thanks Beckett). Stop being offended: get angry.
I’m fucked you’re fucked we’re all fucked. Repeat. Chorus. Fade…