No Future: Punk Against the Boredom of the Law

by | 4 Jul 2021


Punk is …

the transgressive politics of boredom

In Memoriam: Ari Hirvonen a.k.a. Sally Flesh (1960 – 2021)

This article was initially published in three parts for a series on Punk, Law, Resistance in CLT in 2011.

Pawn in their game

And that’s the way they try and run this land
How they hold you down and keep you in hand
You’re just a pawn in their game.
(Stiff Little Fingers, “Law and Order”)

Being nothing other than a pawn in their game – who has not sometimes woken up in the middle of the night imagining this. The Big Other that pulls the strings has various figures: national and transnational law and order apparatuses, global capital and the alleged economic necessities, bureaucratic and administrative regulations, the demands of social security, educational standards, images, ideas and idols constantly produced and re-produced by the mass-media, and so on and so forth. Things go from bad to worse when one starts to wonder who really is in charge, since today sovereignty is fragmented, which does not make it less pervasive and omnipotent. Then again, you may find some comfort from the fact that this is not your paranoid delusion but reality, “the only things we got today” as The Clash already told us in “Hate and War”, which you’ll find from their first LP, The Clash, released in 1977: “An’ if I close my eyes / They will not go away / You have to deal with it / It is the currency”.

However, things were different then, and also some years later, in 1979, when Stiff Little Fingers’ first album, Inflammable Material, was released. The band, which took their name from the Vibrators’ song of the same name in their debut album Pure Mania, was founded the same year The Clash’s album was released in Belfast. It was near the height of the Troubles and their manager, Gordon Ogilvie, the Marxist journalist, suggested the band do songs related to their experiences of the Northern Ireland conflict. When they did so, they were accused by another Northern Irish punk band, The Undertones, of sensationalising the Troubles.

In July 1979, Stiff Little Fingers performed at Helsinki’s Kaivopuisto, a gorgeous park in the middle of the city. The sky was cloudless, some had a picnic, some a drink or two and some danced the pogo wildly, recalls Sally Flesh, then a first year law student with orange spikes and yet-to-come guitarist of The Stompin’ Chickens and The Pin Ups. Even if punk attracted violence also in Helsinki, and even if the rockabilly and teddy boys — who later started to hang around at the same clubs with punks listening to bands like The Cramps, The Meteors and The Stray Cats — attacked punks during the gig armed with socks filled with sand and stones, one may wonder what the situation in Belfast had to do with Helsinki. Certainly, “they” were not the same as the lads coming from the war zone — where “hate has made you blind / And you’ve spent the last ten years of your life / In this emergency” (Stiff Little Fingers, “State of Emergency”) — and as the Finnish punks, who were raised in the consensual Finnish welfare state.

In spite of this contextual difference, it was clear to every Finnish punk (actually in Finland, which in the end of 1970s was an intolerably oppressive and homogenous society and an authoritarian state ruled over twenty years by the same president, punk spread extremely fast, second only to England in Europe) to whom Jake Burns, the Stiff Little Fingers singer, referred to when he screamed “they”. The songs were not merely about Belfast but more generally about us, Sally Flesh tells, about our common situation and feelings, about repression and intolerance we all confronted:

Everybody’s down in the centre of town
Doing nothing wrong we’re only hangin’ around
They put you up against the wall
Make loud mouthed jokes just to make you feel small
Laugh at your appearance and the clothes you wear
Call that justice just isn’t fair.
(Stiff Little Fingers, “Law and Order”)

At the end of the 1970s, the opponent, that is, the one who ran the game and pulled the strings, was more clearly identifiable than today: the state and its apparatuses. There was the Sovereign, the State, and the Police – and all those good citizens who were submitted to the System and Normality. Let us call this complex of the legal, social, and moral norms, the legitimate ruling power, the establishment and the institutional apparatuses, oppressive structures, institutions and practices as the Law. For the Law, punks were merely: “Just another number you ain’t got a name / Just a little punk y’know they don’t care” (Stiff Little Fingers, “Law and Order”).

During those days, things were black and white, good and evil, just and unjust and there was a categorical division between we and they: “Talking bout their law and order /… / Law and order / There’s no justice in it /None!” (Stiff Little Fingers, “Law and Order”). Punk raged against the Law: “So please don’t just sit there / Let’s try to break out” (Stiff Little Fingers, “State of Emergency”).

Brand new beat

When the law break in
How you gonna go?
Shot down on the pavement
Or waiting in death row.
(The Clash, “The Guns of Brixton”)

Law enforcement was not merely in South London, which “The Guns of Brixton” told about, but all over European cities, to “crush us” and “bruise us”, as The Clash’s song tells. It served the interest of the Government, Capital and conventional Morality. There existed, if not formally at least in practice, a permanent state of exception all over Europe. At least those at the margins of the society experienced the situation as totalitarianism — not as the totalitarianism of Nazism or Stalinism, but as a new kind of totalitarianism, which regulated every part of your life and which demanded unconditional submission, obedience and mediocrity in the name of Nation, Economy, Morality and Security. It was George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four realised here and now, or as the Sex Pistols defined the state of things: “God save the Queen / The fascist regime”.

People who lived in this kind of pervasive soft totalitarianism did not even realise — or readily ignored the fact — that they were totally subjected to the Law:

An’ everybody’s doing
Just what they’re told to
An’ nobody wants
To go to jail!
(The Clash, “White Riot”)

The Law would laugh sarcastically if an excluded punk would start to speak about equality before the law, subjective rights shared by everyone, fundamental freedoms and human rights, or the ideals of the rule of law and constitutionalism. Then again, punks could not care less about these ideological superstructures which have significance only for the establishment: “All the power’s in the hands / Of people rich enough to buy it” (The Clash, “White Riot”). All these nice principles of law merely disguised and veiled not merely the reality of unjust and exploitative political and economic conditions but also violence that was the ultimate foundation of the Law and which was present in every legal norm and its interpretation, application and enforcement. Punks did not need Robert Cover or any other legal scholar or philosopher to tell them about this daily fact. Your being was surrounded and even pervaded by legal violence that forced you to the pre-given roles, positions, and careers.

They offered me the office, offered me the shop
They said I’d better take anything they’d got
Career opportunities are the ones that never knock
Every job they offer you is to keep you out the dock.
(The Clash, “Career Opportunities”)

“Well, I got no choice”, Joe Strummer, the singer of The Clash, finishes the song, but there was a choice. As Pete Malmi, the singer of Briard, the first Finnish punk group, sings in their second single: “Fuck the Army”. Do that and dance the pogo, a dance style credited to Sid Vicious, with raised wrists shouting “I wanna riot / White riot – a riot of my own” (The Clash, “White Riot”). Instead of “taking orders” and “going backwards” they were “taking over” and “going forwards”, which was possible thanks to “a brand new rock”, “a bad, bad rock, this here revolution rock”.

Everybody smash up your seats and rock to this
Brand new beat
This here music mash up the nation
This here music cause a sensation.
(The Clash, “Revolution Rock”)

This here revolution rock did cause a sensation, but punk was not a political movement. On the contrary, it despised not only all the political parties but also the pacifist utopianism and ecological movement of the hippies. Punk was, first of all, “brand new beat” whose revolutionary force that would “smash up the nation” did not aim at destroying the liberal-capitalist rule of law democracies but more at an intentional self-alienation from the dominant juridico-politico-economic order and mainstream morality and culture that were experienced as totalitarian and oppressive. Some punks were working class lads, some unemployed, some educated in art schools and universities, but what was common to them was that they deliberately separated themselves from careers they were presumed to have.

The songs were about their situation and life in the totalitarian rule of the Law and normality that reigned over the grey European cities, where “The wind howls through the empty blocks looking for a home / I run through the empty stone because I am all alone” (The Clash, “London’s Burning”). According to Pete Shelley, the guitarist and later singer of the Buzzcocks, their songs were reflections of how they felt, which enabled others to do that as well: “We gave everybody a voice. You could go on stage and say, ‘Fuck.’ It was a word you used if you weren’t hiding away from anything. It was like, ‘I can do and say anything I want.’ It encouraged people to become creative and form bands and do the things they wanted to make their own fun. It enabled people to become active participants in culture, rather than just being passive consumers.” Punk was a subversive scene, a big refusal to conform, the absolute other of the Law.

My new rose, lets go

Hey ho, lets go
Hey ho, lets 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 becomes 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 yourself — records, fanzines, gigs, clubs, flyers, etc. — 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 provoke outrage and to shock. It denied any political context for their songs; Johnny Rotten spewed the vocals “I get pissed, destroy!” (Sex Pistols, “Anarchy in the UK”) “as if his teeth had been ground down two points” (Greil Marcus)  through Steve Jones’ searing wall of guitar sound. 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 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 best rock’n’roll moments EVER.”

Their second single “God Save the Queen”, an alternative national anthem, was released on May 27, 1977. It was nothing but a provocation that was meant to shock, even if the drummer Paul Cook has denied that this was their purpose. According to Johnny Rotten, “You don’t write a song like ‘God Save The Queen’ because you hate the English race. You write a song like that because you love them, and you’re fed up of seeing them mistreated.” Anyhow, it struck the Law across its face. At the same time as the British people were celebrating the monarchy and Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee, Johnny Rotten bleated sneeringly: “God save the queen / She ain’t no human being / There is no future / In England’s dreaming”. The sleeve for the single, designed by Reid depicted a defaced picture of Queen, which is actually the offence of Contempt of the Sovereign. Both the BBC and the Independent Broadcasting Authority refused to play the song and many shops refused to sell it. In spite of this, it reached number one on New Musical Express charts and number two on the official UK singles charts, which may have been fixed to prevent its rise to number one. According to the official Sex Pistols site, “The powers-that-be refused to acknowledge it but the Sex Pistols were Number 1”.

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 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
we’re vacant
(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 the established distribution of the sensible (to use Jacques Rancière’s term), 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 was violently subverting 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.

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 in which the sweary Sex Pistols were being interviewed, he became so outraged that he kicked in the TV screen: “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 that 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 describing them as a dangerous and strange phenomenon and referred to their criminal records. 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 claimed by the Law. 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 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”.

Boring life

What a boring life /
How could anyone survive
Boring life”
(The Slits, “A Boring Life”)

Punk spoke not of ideals and dreams but of boredom. For punks, the 1960s hippie dream was dead and the socialist utopias were as boring as the ideologies of the law and order state or the welfare state. There was Crass, who had these kinds of utopian dreams, but not even The Clash shared them. Punk’s celebration of nihilism and chaos was something that the old school disciplined left wing intellectuals, with too thick glasses, or the committed green hippies, with too long hair, could never accept or understand. According to them, punk lacked political stance and positive political goals – “And we don’t care” (Sex Pistols, “Pretty Vacant”).

“London’s burning with boredom” (The Clash, “London’s Burning”), London being here an empty signifier that can be filled with the name of whatever European city ruled by the norms of stifling mediocrity and incapacitating vapidity. Everyone was forced to live inauthentic life as das Man, as everyone, in grim and gloomy cities. The Law was so pervasive that there was no way around or out of the “reality” that it defined. The one-dimensional symbolic order dominated one’s being, language, styles and desires. As it made possibilities for everyone, it killed all possibilities of being-in-the-world in an authentic way. The Law negated the fury of existing. Everyone had to act in accordance with the thoughts, intentions and needs instilled in them by the Law, by the economic, social and moral conditioning. Deadening routines and monotony ruled everywhere: schools, streets, universities, factories, homes, consumption, entertainment, mass-media, democratic participation, etc. forced people to be dead. People continued “to circle around their own corpses”, as Antonin Artaud, the first true punk, once wrote.

As Howard Devoto gabbles through the distorted treble of Pete Shelley’s guitar: “I’m living in this movie / but it doesn’t move me” (The Buzzcocks, “Boredom”). The answer to this situation was: “I want you / Autonomy” (The Buzzcocks, “Autonomy”). Raoul Vaneigem wrote in his The Revolution of Everyday Life, that the same energy is torn from the worker in his hours of work and his hours of leisure. This stolen energy drives the turbines of power. Therefore, “we have a world of pleasure to win and nothing to lose but boredom”. Punk became, as Savage says, a theatrical expression of the prison of boredom: “Boredom described the expansive, occluded, utopian politics that built up at the Sex Pistols’ core”; moreover, “everyone involved with the Sex Pistols instinctively realized Boredom’s spatial aspect and used its rhetoric as a key. For Viv Albertine, the guitarist of The Slits, “There was a terrible fear of boredom, actually, an absolute horror of it which I don’t think I’ve ever shaken.”

Punk demanded commitment and was a chance to be something larger than the totality of the Law that made you a pawn in its game allowed you to be in your isolated position as a producing-consuming-submitting subject. In the middle of the absolutely grey immanence of the 1970s cities, punk offered the possibility of transcendence. Oscar Wilde knew all this when he wrote: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”, which line is contained in the Pretenders’ “Message of Love”.

In various cities around Europe punks became a community without common essence, an inoperative clan, which was proud of its totem animals, of its style and clothes, of its subversive attitude and its rebellious ethics, of its being in the world. It was the way you looked, the way you acted, spoke and posed, the way you were present, the things you respected and despised. A blank stare, cold coolness, arrogant gestures, a tough pose, a grandstanding fuck you to the Law: “You were full of poison”, as Savage says, “you submerged”.

Punk was an absolute deviancy, which resisted the intolerable horror of apathy and the mediocrity of the mode of existence that was pure survival. Being bored out of one’s head could be transformed into resistance, into the subversive rupture of the everyday practices of boredom. These spaces of interruptions were places of spontaneous action, subversive events, experiences, surprises, passion, risks, kicks, possibilities, revelations, explosions and shocks that escaped the control of the Law. Hence, punk shifted the interest of life from boredom and the passivity of being (work, unemployment, leisure) into the struggle for the actual domination and radical transformation of one’s way of being in the world, into “a single but infinitely diversified” productive activities, as the Situationists claimed. Punk called for a furiously passionate multidimensional life. Arthur Rimbaud’s words of “Bad Blood” perfectly describe punk: “Boredom is no longer my love. Rage, perversion, madness, whose every impulse and disaster I know, — my burden is set down entire”. Punk was not a means to socialism or to any other new social order but revolution itself. What drove The Slits, Ari Up says, was “making a revolution […] we were thinking, living, breathing music. We were thinking revolution along with music.” For her, boredom and poverty makes the mixture of revolution. Punk is, thus, the transgressive politics of boredom.

Therefore, the no-future nihilism of this “bad rock” was not a cynical withdrawal from the world. On the contrary, the irreverent punk attitude contained strong emancipatory beats. Punk’s fury and disorder was about freedom, about discovering one’s own power and desiring what one really desires, about being and doing what one wanted to be and do. Punk created various dramas of existence and multiple stages for the events of freedom. As Savage puts it, the ultimate nook on punk, the infernal power of punk offered the chance of action: “In becoming a nightmare, you could find your dreams”. Punk was a way to survive and become, not what one was expected to be, but what one was, not essentially, but as someone who in a constant state of becoming created and re-created oneself in and through the shared experience of angst, nihilism, anarchy, fury, filth and resistance. Punk was unconditional resistance beyond all political parties, programs, ideologies and utopias, but it was also fun, Sally Flesh says, “or more properly, some kind of fun of no fun, more about jouissance than pleasure”.

Then again, in 1979 London was drowning: “The ice age is coming, the sun’s zooming in / Engines stop running, the wheat is growing thin / A nuclear error, but I have no fear” (The Clash, “London Calling”). One could say that the first wave of punk destructed itself in 1978/1979. In 1979, The Clash covered a song of The Crickets, which conceded: “I fought the law and the law won”. Then again, “Only those movements which were able to cease, to stop by themselves before dropping dead, have existed!”, writes Paul Virilio and Sylvère Lotringer.

Instead of considering punk as either an adolescent music or a youth subculture (this is how all the sophisticated subcultural sociologists see it), which one either leaves behind, as in a normal case, or refuses to let go, as in a pathological case, we should consider punk as the style of radical critique and subversive fury, or even more fundamentally, as the scene of being. Even if punk ceased, it was not the end of punk, the intensive energy of which did not vanish in the thin air. Some may consider this naïve but “we don’t care”. A poster that Reid designed for the Sex Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant” features two city buses, the first headed for “Nowhere”, the second for “Boredom”. The energy and fury of punk did not disappear but continues to travel on the bus it boarded. There is a brilliant movie, Helsinki Twilight 1984, directed by Pete Europe, which shows how the early 1980s post-punk and club culture in Helsinki and London carried on this attitude.

All in all, punk is the refusal to be a pawn in the game of the Law, a subversive protest against the order of things. Its essence is discomfort, confrontation and refusal. As Deirdre King says: “Punk, to be punk, has to hit where it hurts: to subvert the establishment and its mythologies wherever it finds them and in whatever style is appropriate.” Punk’s attitude and style, its desire to be present and fully engaged in every moment and its immediate furious and filthy “No” to the boredom of the totalitarianism of mediocrity has survived. Instead of dreaming yet-to-come democracies and just societies or green/socialist utopias, punk takes place here-and-now. No goals and ends justify the existing boredom. There is no future for dreaming. Because there is no future, you have to act and be now. The multiple subversive styles, acts and events of punk open new scenes for being-in-the-world, for becoming visible and audible.


And you all hold your breath
As you watch the last sunset
And your dreams will finally come
At the end of the world
(The Avengers, “The End of the World”) 

The commitment to be and courage to say “No” was too often transformed into a highway to self-destruction. For some, life just was too intensive and furious. “He was very clever, and the reason he went scooting downhill, he was so idealistic, and he really couldn’t stand the world and its premises”, says Viv Albertine about the tragic fate of Sid Vicious.

“They were … well Beautiful People”, Tom Wolfe writes in his The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, “not ‘students’, ‘clerks’, ‘salesgirls’, ‘executive trainees’ — Christ, don’t give me your occupation-game labels! We are the Beautiful People, ascendant from your robot junk-yard.” This furious beauty of being in the junk-yard was, and is, the scene of punk and its subversive style.


— The Avengers, “The End of the World”, Houston/Ingraham/O’Brien/Wilsey, Live at Winterland 1978, 2010.
— Bennett, Andy, “Punk’s Not Dead: The Continuing Significance of Punk Rock for an Older Generation of Fans”, Sociology, Vol. 20, 2006.
— Briard, “Fuck the Army”, Malmi, Poko, 1978.
— Buzzcocks, “Boredom”, Devoto/Shelley, Spiral Scratch, New Hormones, 1977.
— Buzzcocks, “Autonomy”, Diggle, Another Music In A Different Kitchen, United Artists, 1978.
— Cain, Barry, “Johnny knows he’s not mad. Can you say that?” Record Mirror, December 11, 1976.
— Canjeurs, Pierre, Blanchard, Danie & Debord, Guy, “Preliminaries Toward Defining a Unitary Revolutionary Program”, 1960. Available at
— The Clash, “1977”, Strummer/Jones, CBS, 1977.
— The Clash, “Career Opportunities”, Strummer/Jones, The Clash, CBS, 1977.
— The Clash, “Hate & War”, Strummer/Jones, The Clash, CBS, 1977.
— The Clash, “London’s Burning”, Strummer/Jones, The Clash, CBS, 1977.
— The Clash, “I Fought the Law”, Curtis, VBS, 1979.
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  1. Punk saved my life – as a depressed 15 year old in deeply rural England, it kick-started me and has never let me off the hook.
    The great thing about it was that there was no ’cause’ to sign up to, no ideological position that came with the safety pin and the scraggy haircut.
    This meant that, it had great ‘rip it up’ power – it dealt a death blow, in particular, to deference – ‘you fought the war to save freedom? So?’.
    Sadly, though, the cultural seeding of punk, Situationism, had collapsed, unable to follow through its razor sharp and prescient analysis with anything like praxis (not necessarily a criticism), had fallen foul of its own predictive power and been recuperated by the late 1970s, by the very academic cultural theorists the Middle class punks would be spoon fed at university, which would render them unable to act.

  2. Thankyou for this wonderful article – i was 12 at ground zero summer 1976 living in the English countryside county of West Sussex.. it was punk that engaged me with what was happening “outside” my life and it is the “idea” of punk rather than the pastiche music and fashion that followed that has always made me think of myself essentially as punk rather than Gen this or Gen that. It was my lead into American black music, it was what made me understand the advent of rave culture in 1988/89, it was what made me want to study literature and so on and so forth . But especially so it has informed me how it absolutely imperative to take the Hitchens contrarian view on absolutely everything..


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