The filth and the fury: The Sex Pistols in 1977 (NationaalArchief CC BY-SA 3.0)
It was 40 years ago today that Malcolm McLaren never taught the band to play. They’ve never been out of style, but they’re guaranteed to raise a smile, because they broke up after one album, and had a saucy postcard wit. The Sex Pistols, whose sole digression into good taste was to quit while they were ahead, still define our image of punk. The legend, though, is only half true. Which half you choose depends on whether you view punk as an art movement or a social one, and how long you believe it lasted.
As art, punk was American music with a British accent. Its performers were largely working-class, its managers mostly Jewish, and its youthful rebellion entirely compatible with show business. Only one of 1976’s “Big Three”, The Damned, signed to an independent label; the ostensibly anti-capitalist Sex Pistols and Clash followed the money to major labels. In all of this, punk was no different to earlier British pop music. In the Fifties, Larry Parnes had groomed a stable of likely lads with daft pseudonyms: when Sid Vicious was in nappies, Parnes had Dickie Pride and Vince Eager. In the Sixties, Brian Epstein had spun major label gold from four “foul-mouthed yobs”, just as McLaren did with the Sex Pistols and Bernie Rhodes with The Clash.
Sonically, punk instrumentation, harmonies, and song structures were nostalgic; the real innovation came in the Eighties, when the synthesisers and computers took over. Apart from its amateurish and accelerated delivery, early punk differed little from its Fifties and Sixties forebears: guitar-driven songs about teenage life. After the rococo improvising of Seventies rock, punk’s return to three-chord, three-minute songs had a neoclassical clarity. The middle eight in a minor key, an artefact from Tin Pan Alley, survives wordlessly beneath the guitar interlude in Anarchy in the UK.
As that title suggests, punk’s controversy lay in “the filth and the fury”: alienated lyrics and antisocial behaviour. McLaren and Rhodes, two situationists replaying the Sixties, packaged this anarchic exuberance as political anarchism. Their art school pranking turned punk into a fashion phenomenon and a career opportunity, but, just as the French situationists of 1968 had failed to control the striking workers at the Renault factory, it failed to commodify punk’s politics. These, having begun in creativity and generalised disgust, ended in stupidity and fascism.
The first wave of punk was over by the time the Thatchers moved into Downing Street. The Sex Pistols had broken up, The Clash had become a conventional rock band, and The Damned had done both. Punk staggered on, splitting amid the class war of the early Eighties. The art students went for synthesisers and New Romantic pop. The working-class punks doubled down, creating Oi!, some of the worst music ever made.
Not all of the Oi! bands were fascist thugs. Some, like the Angelic Upstarts, were Communist thugs. Others, like the Cockney Rejects, were sporting thugs; the Rejects’ execrable music soundtracked the hooligans of West Ham’s Inter-City Firm in the way that brass bands accompany a May Day parade. Garry Bushell, the journalist who named and promoted the movement, was a Trotskyite. But all the Oi! bands were white and liked a punch-up. All complained, not unreasonably, that mainstream politicians had abandoned the English working class. Most of them thought that “Enoch was right.”
Recruiters from the National Front and the British Movement targeted Oi!, along with other symptoms of working-class breakdown, the football yobs and the resurgent skinheads. The boneheads were halfway there already. Bushell had titled the first Oi! compilation Strength Through Oi!. Apparently, he had believed that “Strength Through Joy” was the title of an EP by The Skids, not a Nazi slogan. Then again, Bushell had also airbrushed the swastika tattoos from the barechested skinhead on the album’s cover — one Nicky Crane, who was precluded from attending Oi! soirées because he was in prison for racist violence.
The truth is, punk’s politics were always closer to John Tyndall than Guy Debord. The first wave of punk had glamourised violence and fascist imagery. The Clash and The Damned emerged from a rehearsal group called London SS. The Damned took their name from Visconti’s eponymous film, a prurient fantasy of Nazi sexual decadence. The Sex Pistols, egged on by McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, used the swastika to épater le bourgeoisie. It was only a small step from antagonising the generation who had fought the war to declaring a new one. “I feel like a wog,” The Stranglers said. “Too many Jews in here,” sang Siouxsie and the Banshees. Not all of this was attention-seeking or naivety. Confirming prejudice as she denied it, Siouxsie Sioux changed the line to “Too many businessmen in here.”
What happened to the glue-sniffers and football thugs? Nicky Crane acted in gay porn films and died from Aids. Garry Bushell became a tabloid newspaper columnist. The sons of the dockers who marched for Enoch became the fathers of the English Defence League and moved to Essex. The disappearance this year of the BNP from the Electoral Commission’s register does not reflect the eclipse of racist sentiment so much as its battening on to UKIP as the NF once attached itself to Oi!. The UKIP stronghold of Clacton-on-Sea happens to contain Frinton, one of Britain’s whitest towns.
Musically, punk died with the Callaghan government. But socially and politically, as they used to say, “Punx not dead!”