Issue 264 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published June 2002 Copyright © Socialist Review
|Tens of thousands attended the Rock Against Racism carnivals in the 1970s|
Punk was the perfect antidote to the 1977 jubilee, says Martin Smith, because it stuck two fingers up to the establishment.
By now you are probably sick of the hype surrounding the queen's golden jubilee. Even before the royal beano began, newspaper columnists talked of a country united. Many have evoked the celebrations that took place during the queen's silver jubilee in 1977. But the country was never united. One 7-inch single helped piss on the queen's parade.
That record was the Sex Pistols' 'God Save the Queen', a wonderful barbed attack on the royal family. Despite being banned from the airwaves it went to the top of the charts during the jubilee celebrations. In my local record shop there was a blank mark at the number one spot. When I asked for a copy of the offending single it was handed to me in a brown paper bag. As a 15 year old schoolboy from Welwyn Garden City, buying this record felt like the height of subversion! 'God Save the Queen' was the perfect negative image to set against the pomposity of the silver jubilee.
Throughout the month of June the National Film Theatre is showing a series of films and documentaries which capture the essence of the music and the times. If you want to get a taste of what it was like during the jubilee go and see the film Sex Pistols Number 1.
The music, the clothes and the attitude of punk shocked the media and the establishment. To get some idea of how the movement was viewed go and see The Granada TV Documentaries. Seeing the Sex Pistols interview on the Bill Grundy show still brings a smile to my face.
To understand punk you have to look at the political and economic situation of the times. Between 1968 and 1974 there was a rising arc of labour unrest. Full of hope, working class people elected a Labour government in 1974. But things didn't get better. By 1977 the film had started to go into reverse. The government was facing the first major international depression since the 1930s and had already been forced to grovell to the IMF. The Wilson/Callaghan government pioneered public sector cuts and turned on their own traditional supporters. Derek Jarman's sometimes self-indulgent film Jubilee gives a sense of this alienation.
The growing despair meant many looked to the Nazi National Front for salvation. The Nazis polled 119,000 votes in the Greater London Council elections of 1977. It felt like the left was on the defensive and the right was on the streets. The Sex Pistols' refrain 'No Future' summed up the feelings of a generation. The growth of the Nazis is powerfully portrayed in the film Rude Boy, which also includes storming performances by The Clash.
Musically, before the arrival of punk, things were no better. Rock music had turned in on itself. So called 'progressive' rock bands like Emerson Lake and Palmer, Yes and Jethro Tull played overblown, pretentious stadium rock. Soul music had become a series of cliches and pop music was in a rut. Punk just blew everything out of the water. The music was fast, angry and most importantly it stuck two fingers up to the establishment. I only had to spike my hair up and buy a pair of drainpipes to get sent home from school.
Punk wasn't confined to London--it had a massive impact in the rest of the country. The film Shellshock Rock follows the punk movement in Northern Ireland. Like today's dance scene, punk offered a refuge from sectarianism and the brutality of the British Army. Just as importantly, watching Fergal Sharkey from The Undertones sing 'Teenage Kicks'--the appeal of the music is obvious--he just looks like any other kid at the time. Anyone could form a band. It felt like everyone could have their 15 minutes of fame.
Many young artists brought the spirit of punk into their art. In his brilliant documentary The Punk Rock Movie, the film-maker Don Letts used grainy super-8 film to capture the emerging punk scene. Others like Mick Duffield in Killing Time uses photomontage, collage and video to create powerful and disturbing images for the anarchist band Crass.
For a brief moment the music A&R men were confused. They didn't understand this movement. A whole raft of bands were signed who wouldn't have been given the time of day at any other time. Also musical horizons broadened. What a joy it was to go to punky-reggae parties and dance to different kinds of music. But like all art forms that develop from below, big business is quick to exploit these movements and sanitise their 'product'.
The DIY ethic of punk was turned on its head, instead of young people wearing clothes that expressed the way that they felt, designer labels began to charge £40 for ripped tee-shirts and bondage trousers and Clash records were used to sell deodorant. All through punk the battle for the heart and soul of the music was on and even spilled over into ska and new wave.
Again Don Letts explores that pressure brilliantly in his film Westway to the World as he charts The Clash struggling with the contradictions of their growing success and their principles.
Many commentators have telescoped punk and portrayed it as being a left wing movement from the start. This is far from the truth. In the early years Paul Weller from the Jam described himself as a working class Tory. Elvis Costello when seeing R'n'B legend Ray Charles playing live remarked, 'Get that nigger off the stage', something he has repeatedly apologised about since.
Even more worrying was that a number of musicians began to flirt with the Nazis. Both Sid Vicious and Siouxsie Sioux wore swastika armbands. Eric Clapton came out in support of Enoch Powell, the vile racist Tory MP. In 1976 David Bowie told Playboy magazine he was sympathetic to fascism and staged a Nazi-style stunt at Victoria station with Mercedes limousine, outriders and Nazi salutes. Later Bowie would also retract his statement. Several road crew members of Madness and Sham 69 were Nazis. Both bands would later sack them and come out firmly against the Nazis.
What made these artists change their minds? Two of the key movements were the Anti Nazi League (ANL) and Rock Against Racism (RAR). The Nazis were fighting for the hearts and minds of the punks, skinheads and emerging mod movement. The demonstrations, carnivals and community campaigns the ANL and RAR organised helped undermine the Nazis. Their slogan 'NF = No Fun' hit home.
A movement was created that brilliantly fused music and politics. It played a pivotal role in creating an anti-racist culture in Britain. Many of us knew the cultural tide was turning when Johnny Rotten told one interviewer, 'The National Front put me on the cover of their magazine and called me an albino nigger--excellent praise'. Today Johnny Rotten (Lydon) cuts a sad figure.
There were no guarantees that punk would become a movement of the left. That had to be argued and fought for. Sadly these are lessons we are going to have to relearn.
The excitement, energy, hope and desperation of the times are brilliantly shown in this series of films and documentaries. Never mind the jubilee--get down to the NFT!