June 1977 – a seemingly endless summer of strikes, street parties and social upheaval, a time of royalty, rebellion and recession. The news was full of the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations, but at the number two slot in the music charts there was an ominous blank spot. The voice of a generation had just been denied its freedom of speech.
Iit seems almost unbelievable now that a single song could so terrify and outrage those in power that not only would they ban all mention of the song, but they would refuse the band behind it permission to play in London for fear that the performance would cause a riot.
The song was, of course, “God Save The Queen” – the band: The Sex Pistols.
To understand the reasons that Punk Rock swept the nation with its short savage style you have to understand the times. They were not so different to those we face now: it was a time of endless strikes: the miners, the steel workers, the bin men. For those on the dole there were few jobs to be found and there was a feeling that there really was no future.
Ever since the dawn of rock and roll in the fifties music had become the voice of the emerging generation, but somewhere in the transformation to prog rock and Pink Floyd it had become increasingly for academics and people looking to expand their minds man, leaving a void for the man on the street that was screaming to be filled.
And then a new form of music started to trickle in from the USA. Bands like The Ramones, The Stooges and The New York Dolls had produced a new sound that spoke to the disaffected youth. It didn’t matter if you couldn’t sing, it didn’t matter if you couldn’t play: anyone could be in a Punk band as long as they had attitude.
Punk was also the first form of music to really recognise fashion as being an integral part of the music – savage haircuts and safety pins becoming the word of the day, and it even had its own designers in the likes of Vivian Westwood and Svengalis in the shape of Malcolm MacLaren.
It was as urbane as it was unique, as sacred as it was profane: for every band like Joy Division singing hopelessly beautiful songs about the dark depths of depression there was an Ian Dury and The Bliockheads with their tongue firmly in cheek, for every effort of bands like The Clash to unite rock with dub and reggae there was a Sid Vicious openly wearing swastikas to incite a reaction.
They deliberately adopted names and images that they knew would cause a reaction. For me this was the most distasteful side of Punk, because what started out as rebellion inevitably led to the attraction of people who really meant it.
The Punk Rock movement burned quickly: that initial level of anger could not be sustained – but what is perhaps more important is its legacy. It has often been said that Punk Rock was the last time that music was truly innovative – I don’t believe that’s true: because the bands that came out of the fire were, in many ways, far better for the burning.
If it were not for Punk we could not have had bands like The Clash, The Smiths, The Jam, Talking Heads. If it were not for Punk we could not have had 2-tone, Ska.
Today musicians create music at home, promoting it on YouTube or Myspace, doing away with the need for record companies. This “Do-It-Yourself” approach was very much part of the Punk ethos
However in many ways Punk must also be blamed for the ultra safe pop of Westlife, Girls Aloud and endless talent shows that now seek to control what we see and hear in the charts, created in direct response to the fear that punk spread through the music industry.
Ironically, however, it was the next generation that would finally sound the death knoll of Punk: with the next wave of music being made by the very people that the punks had set out to destroy.
These were people who wanted to be in music not just to make records, but to make money. Fame swiftly became the goal, with music often merely a means to an end. The Punks wanted to rebel against the beautiful and the rich: the next generation would want to be them. In our seemingly endless quest for fame and fortune Generation X have become The X Factor Generation.
I said at the start of this post that it seems almost unbelievable now that a single record could have such an impact and it seems equally hard to believe that music could ever be as important now as it was then. Take a look back to Christmas of 2009 – we had a number one single with over forty uses of the “F” word. Not only was it not banned, but it was played uncensored with barely a raised eyebrow.
When I was a kid if you wanted to buy an album you had to walk all the way into town, buy it, come home, find out there was a scratch or a warp and take it back – if you were prepared to do that then you were damn well going to commit time and energy into caring about the songs. We were as passionate about our music as the musicians were themselves: maybe even more.
Today people download entire albums at the click of a button and if they don’t like them immediately they delete them. Inevitably this means that there just isn’t the same level of emotional involvement.
But perhaps this isn’t such a bad thing – perhaps it’s only natural that music should no longer be the voice of the disaffected youth: perhaps that’s the nature of rebellion and change.
Perhaps it is only natural that in a generation where everything is disposable our music has become so too.