22 September 2012
What does punk mean by definition? Does it mean “not giving a fuck?” because if so then it’s spirit is alive and well judging by tonight’s antiquated notions of a beaten white underclass and a rather po-faced understanding of the forward moving linear concept of time. Arguably time is an abstract, so let’s concern ourselves with the abstract nature of punk shall we? Punk means different things to different people, and so it should. This personal memory of punk was discussed by a panel of mostly self confessed “old farts” for the 35th anniversary re-release of the Sex Pistols’ seminal ‘Never Mind the Bollocks’ album at the 100 Club in London, which included legendary Mancunian wit John Cooper Clarke and renowned director Julien Temple.
It would seem that now is as timely a coda as ever for punk’s closing chapter given the Queen’s jubilee this summer and the ever contracting economy. Surely, in these dour times, punk should resonate more than ever? But from the panel there’s a distinct variety of understanding of what ‘punk’ actually is. For John Cooper Clarke punk was a reaction to the mid 70s deluge of prog-rock. Ever the diplomat he reserves his comments for Genesis by saying “Phil Collins’ daughter might be in the audience and I don’t want to piss on her chips”. The surprising but welcome inclusion of Brit award winning Kate Nash brings a contemporary angle as she comments how she first discovered the Sex Pistols, and by proxy punk, when she was working in River Island as a “frustrated teenager looking for sense of identity”. As a display of an enduring legacy this is surely more than any artist could ask for? That your work be a milestone, a go to reference point, a voice for the voiceless in these mass-marketed consumer focussed times… But it is exactly these trite, if well intentioned, over-generalised terms that only serve to reinforce and undermine punk’s enduring enigma.
The case in point comes when Bernard Rhodes, once manager of The Clash, comments that “punk had to happen, if it didn’t happen everyone would be dead and bored”. There seems to be an underlying notion here that punk is an ideal, an anachronism; a higher concept from a simpler time. Such thought infers that everything that has happened subsequently is redundant as a result. There is frequent talk of whether punk has actually changed anything. The discussion becomes somewhat heated when it’s pointed out that the deluxe box set, which this event commemorates, will cost £100. Bernard (who now lives in New York, despite, or rather in spite of his brow beating comments on the state of Britain) defends this point by glibly observing a food shop costs the same price and how white people (the presumed consumers?) are no longer working class. His comments are at this point clearly contentious, muddled and unclear. Is punk solely focussed on the dirt under the fingernails of white working class British pride? Surely not…
There is a marvellously erudite moment when a middle-aged, white, skin head taxi driver in the audience asserts that grime artists in East London “don’t give a fuck about punk, and why should they? It means nothing to them” Quite right. Punk is a youth movement that belonged to a specific time, it channelled an energy relevant for the time and place in which it was relevant. We can learn from it, but we can’t interact with it – like any truly meaningful youth movement it shone bright but dispersed.
These days people tend to reminisce about punk in intentionally vague and obtuse terms because, realistically, it is conceptually no longer viable. Punk is an ethos and belongs in a museum. This does not deride its cultural impact or importance, but it does mean we should stop looking at the present through the imperfect gaze of the past.
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