Forty years of punk and why it still rocks

It’s 40 years since angry young bands like The Sex Pistols outraged society, but their influence is everywhere, says Suzanne Harrington.

Forty years of punk and why it still rocks

PUNK is not dead — it’s just old. Forty years ago this summer, it burst from society’s ribcage like a furious, screaming alien, offending everyone.

Everyone, that is, apart from an emerging generation thrilled and energised by its raw, raging force.

It didn’t last long, beginning in 1976 and having ended by 1978.

Post-punk and New Wave carried on into the 1980s, but the initial explosion burnt out within two years.

And yet, punk has left a cultural footprint — the 14-hole Dr Martens kind — that still influences today.

Just look at former Disney princess, Miley Cyrus, all metal spikes, shaved head, and attitude — while she might be as genuinely punk as, well, a Disney princess, Cyrus knows a powerful image when she sees one, and how to appropriate it accordingly.

That in itself is kind of punk.

Miley Cyrus arriving at the MTV Video Music Awards, at The Forum, in California, in 2014. Cyrus has been influenced by punk
Miley Cyrus arriving at the MTV Video Music Awards, at The Forum, in California, in 2014. Cyrus has been influenced by punk

Punk’s 40th is being commemorated in a year-long series of cultural events all over London, the city of its birth, including exhibitions at the British Library and various museums.

That is borderline hilarious, when you contemplate the movement’s original message — do it yourself, take no prisoners, destroy.

Like the Queen at which it once snarled, punk has taken on the mantle of national treasure.

We know all about the boys of punk — the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Damned, Buzzcocks, et al — whose histories have been endlessly documented and archived.

But what about the girls? Punk, for all its spitting and swearing, was considerably more feminist than rock.

In the era of Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith, men were rock gods and women were groupies.

Other than Nancy Spungen, punk didn’t do groupies, and, despite the surrounding culture, it challenged 1970s ideas of what women could and could not do — like picking up a guitar, or walking down the street looking alien enough to invite acts of violence against your person.

Being a punk girl in an era of flares and Farrah Fawcett flicks took guts.

Jordan, the most imposing shop assistant in the history of fashion, worked at Vivienne Westwood’s shop, Sex, on the King’s Road — when she commuted daily from Brighton, British Rail had to seat her in first class for her own safety.

She went on to star in Derek Jarman’s seminal punk film, Jubilee, and managed Adam and the Ants, before retiring to Sussex, bored with it all.

Westwood herself, while today one of the grande dames of couture, was, forty years ago, provocative and incendiary, as keen on creating chaos as her then partner, Malcolm McClaren.

In his autobiography, Anger Is An Energy, John Lydon refers to her as “the absolute dictator”.

(He also claims that the punk safety-pin look came about because Westwood’s designs were so flimsy they would fall apart and need pinning-back-together.)

Initially, punk was a tiny, incestuous scene. Chrissie Hynde, newly arrived from Ohio, also worked at Sex, before kicking off her long career as lead singer of The Pretenders, and the late Ari Up, of The Slits, was Lydon’s stepdaughter.

The Slits were a revolutionary girl band, uncompromising and years ahead of their time, supported by Ari Up’s mother (and Lydon’s long-term partner), Nora Forster, whom Lydon refers to as “punk’s mummy warrior”.

Without Nora’s encouragement, Lydon says, “there wouldn’t have been The Slits”.

Or, as Jordan said at the time: “It’s been a man’s world in that area for a long, long time… It’s good that girls are getting up there now.”

Yet, mainstream hostility to punk — and to girl punks, in particular — remained ferocious.

The Slit’s guitarist, Viv Albertine, in her brilliant memoir, Clothes Music Boys, remembers how Ari Up was twice stabbed by strangers in the street: “People didn’t know whether to f**k us or kill us,” she told an interviewer years later.

Girls just didn’t go out looking or sounding like that.

Actor Hugh Grant, with his then girlfriend, Elizabeth Hurley, wearing the punk-inspired Versace dress that launched her career in 1994.
Actor Hugh Grant, with his then girlfriend, Elizabeth Hurley, wearing the punk-inspired Versace dress that launched her career in 1994.

Before The Slits, Albertine had formed a band, with Sid Vicious on saxophone, which he couldn’t play, called the Flowers of Romance.

The Bromley Contingent — a bunch of Kent kids who escaped 1970s suburbia to hang out on the King’s Road, frightening the tourists — contained one of the most fearless of them all, Siouxsie Sioux, bare-breasted with a swastika armband and bogbrush hair.

This glacial femme fatale went on to be the queen of the goths, a dominatrix warrior, and the heroine of every angry teenage girl who hated Wham! and Kajagoogoo.

Poly Styrene, of X-Ray Spex, who died of cancer in 2011, was a girl-power prototype reacting against conventional notions of ‘pretty’ by performing, still in her teens, while wearing metal dental braces, binliner dresses, and screaming lyrics like, “Some people think that little girls should be seen and not heard, but I say, ‘oh bondage, up yours’!”

In New York, Patti Smith and Debbie Harry were punk queens, albeit with a slightly different approach — Smith as a Rimbaud inspired poet, Harry using her looks like a weapon — but in Ireland, punk remained very much a bloke thing: Stiff Little Fingers, Virgin Prunes, Radiators From Space, Paranoid Visions, and, um, the Boomtown Rats. Blokes, blokes, blokes.

Apart from one all-girl post-punk band, called the Broken Hymens, with whom my friend, Sonia, played bass, the Irish punk scene did not embrace the ladies, other than as spectators.

Today, the legacy of punk remains seen and heard.

While some bands are now heritage acts, still gigging and playing their old stuff — Sham 69, Buzzcocks, Chelsea, Discharge — others continue to make new music.

Lydon did those butter adverts to finance his band PiL’s new music; Wire just released another new, critically acclaimed album, and The Fall never stopped touring or releasing new material.

Just as Iggy Pop, MC5, and the New York Dolls influenced the emerging London punk scene four decades ago, punk and its DIY ethos influenced performers like Nirvana, Green Day, My Chemical Romance, Beth Ditto, and Savages, as well as the entire Riot Grrrl movement.

Later, in an era of manufactured music, the internet paved the way for a new generation of punk-inspired DIY attitude — bands like Arctic Monkeys were amongst the first to release music directly online, bypassing traditional channels; like the fanzines and 45s of the punk era, but digital.

The impact of punk on fashion is far-reaching. Jean Paul Gaultier’s designs have been unashamedly influenced by the scene, as was that Versace safety-pin dress which launched the career of Elizabeth Hurley.

In 2013, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art ran a show called ‘Punk: Chaos to Couture’, which assembled designs by people like Karl Lagerfeld, John Galliano, Balenciaga, Givenchy and Alexander McQueen — all riffing on the ripped-up clothes, chains, pins and binliners of the original London kids.

Which, again, is borderline hilarious, given the inventive pennilessness of the original punks.

(Even the Sex Pistols, according to Lydon, had to pay almost in full for any of Westwood’s clothes from Sex, despite the band originally existing to promote the clothes sold in her shop.)

The 40th anniversary of punk might make you feel very old.

I was in kindergarten when it all kicked off — 40 years later, I have tickets to see Buzzcocks in October. I can’t bloody wait.

Punk commemorative events in London, 2016:

Punk 1976-78 at the British Library: until September 19

Punk display at the Museum of London: July

Punk Weekender at the Roundhouse: July 9-10

Punk on Film at BFI Southbank: August

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