Hey ho, let’s go
Hey ho, let’s go
They’re piling in the back seat
They’re generating steam heat
Pulsating to the back beat
The Blitzkrieg Bop.
(Ramones, “Blitzkrieg Bop”)
Even if the lyrics of punk did not always address political issues or had explicitly subversive and anti-establishment lyrics they were usually provocative, controversial and against moral and social propriety as comes clear in Ramones’ extremely short and energetic songs: “Now I wanna sniff some glue / Now I wanna have somethin’ to do”. The drummer Tommy Ramone defines punk: “Soon you had endless solos that went nowhere. By 1973, I knew that what was needed was some pure, stripped down, no bullshit rock ‘n’ roll.” Their music was so fast that when Sally Flesh saw them playing their blitzkrieg sounds in Berlin he had forgotten every song when he exited the venue.
Okay, okay, not all songs were rebellious. One finds also traditional rock ‘n’ roll lyrics à la boy-meets-girl-girl-dumps-boy. Actually in the first punk single by a British group, The Damned’s “New Rose”, released on October 22, 1976, Dave Vanian sings: “I got a new rose / I got her good / … / I never thought this could happen to me”. However, singing about love was considered to belong to pop, which belonged to the private sphere, whereas, punk “was public, determinedly in the world”, writes Savage. Even if lyrics sometimes were about this private thing called love emotions were vocalized with raging style. It was not merely lyrics that mattered, since the “brand new beat” in itself was subversive and undermining the Law. This “revolution rock” expressed the freedom and speedy intensity of the times.
“This is a chord, this is another, this is a third. Now form a band”, the English fanzine Sideburns instructed in December 1976. And in May 1977, Melody Maker described punk as the sound of less musically competent but more rebellious bands than the emerging New Wave bands. There was radical equality in the punk’s DIY attitude: whoever – “even me”, Sally Flesh says, who admits, proudly, that he never learned to play the guitar however hard The Pin Ups guitarist Floyd Superstar tried to teach him – could play punk as long as he remembered the basic “rules” of punk: short, fast, hard-edged songs with stripped-down instrumentation, shouted and harsh vocals, over-amplified and nerve-shattering distorted guitars, the repetitive rhythm of stiff bass, relentless and dry drums. As long as you remembered a crude, aggressive and raw intensity, you could not go wrong.
The aggressive sound and aesthetics of punk was a musical revolution that fought against both the music industry and the revolting and pathetic super groups that had nothing to offer anymore. It was a finger to the old farts as it turned away from the pompous and grandiloquent progressive rock, the technical virtuosity of complicated guitar solos, the mediocrity of pop songs and the triviality of disco: “No Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones in 1977” (The Clash, “1977”). Johnny Rotten revealed in an interview why they are in a band: “It’s because we’re bored with all that old crap. Like every decent human being should be.”
However, many punk bands retained the law of rock ’n’ roll: 4/4 time and verse-chorus form. Moreover, one should not forget that punk was not created from scratch. Sally Flesh highlights as its predecessors The Velvet Underground, The Sonics, The Kingsmen, MC5, The Stooges, Suicide, The Dictators, The Saints, The Who, and, last but not least, David Bowie. Then again, Pete Shelley claims that punk evolved from sub-heavy metal bands played badly. “That’s what it was, fast riffs and singing over the top”, says he.
And do not forget that you can and must do everything – records, fanzines, gigs, clubs, flyers, etc. – yourself – punk was internet before anybody had heard about it. And it was a visual revolt. There are thousands and thousands of images that present the energy, rage, fury and burning coolness of punk. Jamie Reid’s situationist cut-and-past designs had a huge influence on the ripped up punk style and its visual aesthetic. His graphic designs – which were done with what was at hand, as he recalls, “Xerox and cheap printing, rips and blackmail lettering” – for the Sex Pistols have become iconic images: a poster of a ripped and safety-pinned Union Flag, his sleeves for “God Save the Queen” single or Never Mind the Bollocks.
Filth & Fury
I am an antichrist
I am an anarchist
Don’t know what I want
But I know how to get it
I wanna destroy passerby.
(Sex Pistols, “Anarchy in the UK”)
The Sex Pistols, the first gig of which took place in November 6, 1975 at St. Martin’s School of Art, was there to outrage and to produce shock effects. It denied any political context for their songs, or as the singer, Johnny Rotten spewed the vocals “as if his teeth had been ground down two points”, as Greil Marcus describes, through Steve Jones’ searing wall of guitar sound: “I get pissed, destroy!” (Sex Pistols, “Anarchy in the UK”). Once Johnny Rotten challenged the audience: “Bet you don’t hate us as much as we hate you!” They were, Steve Jones said, not so much into music as they were chaos. Then again, “Our songs are ideas. Just spend one night in London and you’ll become fucked off with the old ways. You’re bound to get ideas from that”, Johnny Rotten admitted in an interview in December 11, 1976. Jon Savage sailed with the Sex Pistols on their Jubilee boat gig up and down the Thames on the Queen Elisabeth where the Sex Pistols played “for their lives” and Johnny Rotten poured all his resentments and frustrations into “a cauldron of rage”. “Rotten gives up on losing the feedback, and the band slams into ‘Anarchy’, right on the cue with the Houses of Parliament. A great moment. It’s like they have been uncaged – the frustration in not being able to play bursts into total energy and attack.” The police interrupted the gig: “ ‘No Fun’ SCREAMED out as the police boats move in for the kill is one of the rock ’n’ roll moments EVER.”
The infamous Anarchy in the UK tour of 1976, featuring the Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Damned, the Heartbreakers and the Buzzcocks, was made up of noise, chaos, conflict, confrontation – and cancellations. “That was when the balloon went up”, Joe Strummer tells. In 1979, Dick Hebdige, who saw punk as a visual response to the socio-economic crises of the 1970s, wrote: “Clothed in chaos, they produced Noise in the calmly orchestrated Crisis of everyday life”.
The three fundamental principles of the punk attitude decreed by the Sex Pistols were “no future”, “no fun” and “no feelings”. Punk resisted the mainstream bourgeois values and the punk “stars” – all punks were “superstars” – achieved their position in the punk scene, as Barry Sugarman wrote in 1967, “without long years of study, work or sacrifice”. Barry, that’s right: “I don’t work / … / I’m a lazy sod” (Sex Pistols, “Seventeen”). Marcus claims that the Sex Pistol’s “Pretty Vacant” declared the right to not work and to ignore all the values that went with it: “perseverance, ambition, piety, frugality, honesty, and hope, the past that God invented work to pay for, the future that work was meant to build”.
There’s no point in asking, you’ll get no reply
Oh just remember I don’t decide
I got no reason it’s all too much
You’ll always find us out to lunch
Oh we’re so pretty
Oh so pretty
(Sex Pistols, “Pretty Vacant”)
This was reprehensible from the standpoint of the Law that aimed to reduce everyone to the state of (legal and moral) object. Its representatives could not understand what was taking place. They had been accustomed to their absolute power and authority to include and exclude, to establish the borders between the audible and inaudible, the sayable and the unsayable, the visible and the invisible and to determine the distribution of parts, roles and positions in the society. When punk challenged, using Jacques Rancière’s term, the established distribution of the sensible, the establishment was lost. From the collective nightmares of the Law emerged this anarchical process of angry resistance and disagreement that was a sensible, perceptual, audible and visual shock. Because of this, the establishment became scared of this social menace that violently was subverting the law and order. The startled Law reacted by attempting to exclude punk as an insignificant violent rowdiness. The Labour MP Marcus Lipton ranted that if the pop music is used to destroy the established institutions, “then it ought to be destroyed first”. The media called the Sex Pistols ringleaders of a sick and sinister conspiracy against the English way of life. The headline of the Sunday Times ran: “PUNISH THE PUNKS”. Punk was called “the filth and the fury”, as the headline of Daily Mirror ran on December 2, 1976.
The respectable normal people heard this call of the Law and regarded punk as a personal assault against them and their values. An English lorry driver tells that as he was watching with his eight year old kid Bill Grundy’s TV show where swearing Sex Pistols were interviewed he became so outraged that he kicked in the screen of his TV: “It blew up and I was knocked backwards. But I was so angry and disgusted with this filth that I took a swing with my boot.” It is funny how all these decent fathers revealed their intolerance and their fear of otherness in their reactions. On the streets and pubs, if they were served, punks invited aggressive attention, which once a while turned into physical violence.
When the Sex Pistols was supposed to visit Finland at the end of January 1978, the major Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat published a story about the Sex Pistols that described it as dangerous and strange phenomena and referred to the criminal records of Pistols. Not only the Central Union for Child Welfare and conservative and right-wing political children’s and youth organisations but also left-wing ones and the biggest trade union, SAK, fiercely opposed the visit and petitioned the government not to grant work permits. The Communist and Social Democratic youth organisations considered them fascists and no arguments could turn their narrow minded, unintelligent and dogmatic views. As Antti Einiö, who was organizing the gig, said: “the Sex Pistols is an English working-class band. In Finland, the working-class circles have stopped them. It is the extreme right that should have opposed this group.” Of course, the Home Secretary agreed that Finnish children and youth must be protected from this kind of filth and the Office for Alien Affairs refused the work permits.
If this was how the Law, its intolerant representatives and lobotomized normal people, regarded and treated punk, it is no wonder that many punks shared the message of “God Save the Queen”:
No future, no future,
No future for you
No future, no future,
No future for me.
No future was not, however, merely a nihilist withdrawal from the world. As Johnny Rotten said, “We are totally against apathy of any kind”. According to the ethos of punk, one should never stagnate and remain still, never take for granted the given situation and the possibilities and limits that it is claimed by the Law to have. Thus, punks painted on their shirts the Situationist slogan “Demand the Impossible”. Punk made, Jon Savage says in his England’s Dreaming, the seminal history of punk, impossible demands. This was the only way to free oneself from the apathy of the Law, which declared everything that it did not sanction as absolute impossibility. For punks, anger was energy that could make the impossible possible. This anger touches your ears and your whole body in the storm of overpowering noise, shrieks and shouts of the all-female band The Slits. Its singer, Ari Up later claimed that now girls lack the aggression, which they had in their performances of overflowing speed, resistance and revenge: “You gotta be really aggressive – you gotta really have the passion of anger with you […] you gotta carry that with you into the music and then let your anger out, you know, it’s just another emotion that needs to be expressed”.
Part 3 >>>