Punk – never mind the cynicism

There was more to the punk scene than sneering, swearing and affected nihilism. There were some decent tunes, too.

Patrick West
Columnist

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The punk rock movement of the late 1970s is sometimes viewed as a second-rate phenomenon, even by erstwhile fans of its music and its ethos. It is often regarded as a fleeting, chaotic and incoherent event, which we should thank only for sweeping away that which it sought to displace, and for ushering in a new era of musical sophistication. In a curious way, punk is to rock aficionados what Dada is to the story of art history: an important event, carried out by energetic young men who wanted to shake up an institution, but who are today less remembered for what they produced and more venerated for the fact that they did it.

While many see it as challenging the sickly sentimentalism of mid-1970s disco, and the dreary indulgence that had become the norm in heavy- and prog-rock, punk is principally saluted for setting the conditions for the more erudite post-punk scene that gave us Joy Division, The Jam and the Cure, and, in America, the Dead Kennedys and Black Flag – two bands seen as possessing more political nous (certainly in the case of Black Flag) than their British counterparts. On a musical level, punk’s assault on the sclerotic heavy-rock scene reinvented heavy metal as a more vibrant and energetic genre, first in the ‘New Wave of British Heavy Metal’ of the early 1980s, and then in the mid-1980s ‘Thrash Metal’ scene of the US’s West Coast, a movement that gave us Metallica.

Yet, the post-punk legacy apart, it’s become quite common to dismiss the actual punk scene itself as composed of nihilistic, pre-manufactured poseurs who couldn’t even play their instruments (the Sex Pistols); nice guys who released a few pleasant two-and-a-half minute power-pop songs (The Damned); or a bunch of middle-class phoneys with appropriated Cockney accents (The Clash). Punk is less esteemed as a movement in itself, than as a mere point of transition.

Critics of the Sex Pistols’ frontman, John Lydon, would therefore probably have been relishing the extended BBC Four version of The Culture Show: John Lydon Special this week (1). Lydon was the man who, as Johnny Rotten, announced to a San Francisco crowd at the Pistols’ last gig on 14 January 1978, ‘Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?’. This to many critics was an admission that the Sex Pistols were erected not merely to take the music industry to task, but to commandeer the music industry as a means to mock those fans who had placed any faith in it.

This suspicion was first aroused when, during an appearance on the ITV Today programme on 1 December 1976, the foursome proceeded to unleash a volley of expletives (2). With one of their entourage bearing a swastika arm band, the Sex Pistols were derided (not just by the right-wing press) as amoral nihilists with no political agenda, other than shocking and saying naughty words on the telly – rather like impetuous teenagers.

The cynical view of the Sex Pistols was compounded by the decision in 1996 to call their set of reunion gigs ‘The Filthy Lucre Tour’, which is a classic case of postmodern, late-capitalist irony: satirising capitalism while simultaneously luxuriating in it. The final straw for some was Lydon’s decision in October 2008 to become the public face of Country Life butter. ‘It seems a far cry from 1977’, said the Guardian at the time, ‘when the punk movement was riding a crest of popularity and Lydon and the Sex Pistols caused outrage by releasing “God Save the Queen” during the week of the Queen’s silver jubilee’ (3).

So does Lydon have a sincere bone in his body? He certainly came across as a mixed-up person with, as we say in today’s argot, ‘issues’ – although the cynic in me would attribute this as much to being raised a second-generation Irish Catholic in England as reflecting being a youth in the decaying and decadent 1970s. Boy George (George O’Dowd), Shane MacGowan, Morrissey, and Liam and Noel Gallagher had comparable backrounds, which has produced similar melancholic and maniacal music and allied behaviour. Pessimism is a very English trait, and cynicism a typically Irish one, so I think some perverse chemistry takes place when these two cultures collide.

And Lydon does remain as cynical as ever. He has said that he believes his ‘Johnny Rotten’ persona was merely a Shakespeare-like posture, and that his appearance in Country Life adverts have proved very profitable in selling more tour tickets for his reformed, post-Pistols-band, Public Image Ltd. Shifty-eyed, snarling, grinning, fidgety, boozy and sarcastic as ever, Lydon’s demeanour betrays a mind that constantly asks questions because it can’t find any answers.

Which may lead one to conclude that punk might have all been a pose – a snide, soulless corporate joke made at our expense. But such a conclusion ignores two facts: musically, they produced much that was memorable. I’m not just talking about amusing one-off ditties such as ‘Jilted John’ by Jilted John or the demonically uproarious ‘Gary Gilmore’s Eyes’ by The Adverts; I’m talking about Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols (1977), which I recommend to anyone with a penchant for guitar music. Elsewhere, take the hype out of the equation for just 40 minutes of listening, and The Clash’s eponymous album of 1977, is, in essence, quite a sweet paean to an English urban adolescence.

Also, the artists have always had their patrons, and have produced art in accordance to their patron’s or their government’s taste. William Shakespeare famously produced pro-Tudor propaganda (Richard III being the most notorious example) for the simple reason that he needed to earn his own ‘filthy lucre’. And while the Catholic Church would never have comissioned such dark, misanthropic plays as Hamlet or Macbeth, it is thanks to the Vatican’s patronage that we have many of the works of Michelangelo.

‘Government ‘ and ‘corporations’ have always controlled art, and it is naive to think this is just a new phenomenon. One of the best things punk did was to draw our attention to this historical norm so starkly. Yes, Lydon’s bald cynicism may be frustrating. But it is worth keeping in mind that this Christmas just past, the UK number one slot was fought over between fans of a manufactured TV popstar, and those who favoured that teenage ‘No I WON’T clean up my room!’ anthem by Rage Against the Machine. With little regard for irony, fans of RATM even downloaded en masse a song about anti-conformity.

Lydon’s a miserable old cynic, but I do thank him for reminding us that life is often messy and ambivalent, and that if you concede that you don’t have the answers to life, you can still keep asking the questions. As Public Image Ltd admitted in 1986: ‘I could be wrong / I could be right.’

Patrick West is spiked’s TV and radio reviewer. Read his blog here.

Read on:

spiked-issue TV and radio

(1) See The Culture Show: John Lydon Special, on BBC iPlayer.

(2) See Bill Grundy’s infamous Sex Pistols interview here.

(3) Sex Pistols singer John Lydon flies the flag for butter in TV ad, Guardian, 1 October 2008

(4) Listen to Public Image Ltd’s ‘Rise’ here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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