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In what ways did the iconography, the music, the lyrics and the performances and behaviour of punk rock acts present a challenge to ‘establishment notions of Englishness’ in 1976-77?
The early roots of Punk rock were appearing in the form of The Velvet Underground in 1965, closely followed by The Stooges and MC5 in 1969, but it wasn’t until the early 1970s that punk began to globalise, hitting Australia in 1972 with The Saints. Within a year, legendary Punk club CBGB’s opened it’s doors for the first time, becoming a constant dwelling for the up and coming acts of the 70’s, and more importantly, providing a regular crowd of punk kids to listen to them.
Britain in the early 70s, according to Spicer, was filled with ‘political frustration, surging unemployment and a gag-reflex to the patriotic froth generated by in celebration of Queen Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee, giving punk’s raw noise a particular spice and vigour. The UK had either been in decline, recession, stagflation or worse since the end of the swinging sixties.’ (Spicer, 2006: 3). ‘Eight years later when the idealism of the 60s had well and truly faded, the strategies and rhetoric of street protest were still going strong. So when mainstream politics wouldn’t even listen to what was driving the kids insane, the Sex Pistols’ cry of “Anarchy in the UK” seemed like a viable alternative.’ (Spicer, 2006: 5)
‘Punk came with a philosophy that was influenced by the anti-establishment turmoil reverberating from the 60’s.’ (Spicer, 2006, Page 4), so in a time when the youths of Britain were so ignored and undervalued as a part of society, it seemed like a natural outlet to make the government and the authorities stand up and take notice of what they were saying. Renowned Manchester based punk journalist and singer John Robb stated that ‘Punk Terrified the establishment’ (Robb, 2006: 3), suggesting this outcry for non-conformism was having an impact and the message of challenging the government was being heard. Despite this, however, critics are still divided about whether the punk phenomenon was in fact a significant cultural shift. ‘Was it just another youth craze (with a hairstyle calculated to drive the parents crazy), or did it offer a real challenge to the complacency of the times? A Challenge that was more than just musical and sartorial, but political as well?’ (Spicer, 2006: 2).
Hebdige stated that ‘the punks were not only directly responding to increasing joblessness, changing moral standards, the rediscovery of poverty, the Depression, etc., they were dramatizing what had come to be called “Britain’s decline” by constructing a language which was, in contrast to the prevailing rhetoric of the Rock Establishment, unmistakeably relevant and down to earth (hence the swearing, the references to “fat hippies‟, the rags, the lumpen poses). The punks appropriated the rhetoric of crisis which had filled the airwaves and the editorials throughout the period and translated it into tangible (and visible) terms’ (1991: 87).
A significant part of the construction of the punk rock movement in the British media was the fashion of the stars, which was later emulated by the fans, with the iconic style quickly becoming a obligatory staple of “being punk”. According to Paul Gorman, speaking in Punk: The Whole Story, ‘Almost every element of punk’s style, attitude, politics, musical tastes and even personnel emanated from two tiny clothes shops on Chelsea’s King’s Road 30 years ago.’ (2006: 84) These two shops were Acme Attractions and SEX, both in London. Don Letts, ex-employee of Acme, and later member of Big Audio Dynamite said in Punk: The Whole Story, ‘Acme was more than a shop. It was a club, a lifestyle, a forum for talent. It reflected the way London was going – it was about multi-culturism’ (2006: 84). I think this really exemplifies the importance of the fashion and self-representation of the punk movement, even at the beginning.
Robb recalls, ‘I saw photos of punk rockers in the papers, and I knew instantly what they sounded like. Never had a music and its threads been so closely associated’ (2006: 2). Hebdige also observed, ‘The various stylistic ensembles adopted by the punks were undoubtedly expressive of genuine aggression, frustration and anxiety. But these statements, no matter how strangely constructed, were cast in a language which was generally available – a language which was current’ (1991: 87). I feel this rings true in a big way, especially when you contrast another artist of ’74 with the way, for example, the Sex Pistols presented themselves. In image one, we see the Sex Pistols wearing typical punk style clothing, however, in image 2, The Who, another British band making music in 1974, are seen to be sporting a much more reserved fashion, that could be classed as smart/casual, due to the tailored trousers, tucked in shirts and sports jackets, and even be called patriotic, with the presence of a union flag jacket.
In contrast, while the Sex Pistols are also wearing union flag attire, however, it seems to be done so in a satirical, ironic way. The flag is cut into and is covered in holes, which could suggest the way that the punk youth saw the state of the government, or at least what they thought of it. Similarly, there is also a sports jacket being worn, however, it is teamed with a punk print T-shirt, which could easily be seen as a rebellion against the notion of looking presentable and dressing in your Sunday best.
Ruth Adams discusses Hebdige’s notion of punk fashion being a bricolage, and states ‘Bits and pieces of both officially sanctioned and popular English culture, of politics and history were brought together in a chaotic, uneasy admixture to form a new culture’ (2008). I feel this accurately describes the way punk took what it wanted from English culture and used it as a way to challenge the established notions of “Englishness”.
Icons such as swastikas were often wore as a fashion statement , however, ‘for punks like Siouxsie and Sid Vicious it became just one more ingredient in the imagery of offence – not devoid of meaning, but mainly a way of getting up the noses of the straight and the narrow’ (Spicer, 2006: 4). You can imagine that this explicit and in your face approach to fashion and iconography would starkly contrast with the dreary fashion of the 70’s. Spicer states that ‘as the decade that saw beige, brown, orange and gold recommended as a desirable colour scheme for the home, the 70’s had little going for it stylistically either’ (2006: 3). I feel that this contrast in style would have made punks even harder to ignore, insuring that someone was always looking at them and listening to what they had to say.
‘Punk rock lyrics are typically frank and confrontational; compared to the lyrics of other popular music genres, they frequently comment on social and political issues’ (Laing, 1985: 27). An obvious example of this would be “God Save The Queen” by the Sex Pistols (1977, Sex Pistols). At the time of release, the song was highly controversial, mainly for the fact it was explicitly ‘anti-monarchy’, implying that the Queen was a part of a fascist regime, as shown by the lyrics ‘God save the queen, the fascist regime’, and also for quite blatantly writing England off as being bleak and without any hope, shown in the lyrics ‘There is no hope in England’s dreaming’ and ‘There’s no future, no future, no future for you’.
This contrasted significantly with the jingoistic ideals that were being put forward in the wake of the Queen’s silver jubilee. Savage stated, ‘“God Save the Queen” was the only serious anti-Jubilee protest, the only rallying call for those who didn’t agree with the Jubilee because […] they resented being steamrollered by such sickening hype, by a view of England which had not the remotest bearing on their everyday experience’ (2001: 352-353). Laing speculated that ‘Punk was a total cultural revolt. It was a hardcore confrontation with the black side of history and culture, right-wing imagery, sexual taboos, a delving into it that had never been done before by any generation in such a thorough way’ (1985: 27). I feel this really sums up the ideology at play with ‘God Save The Queen’, as it was a total revolt of the dominant ideology at the time it was released.
Punk rock is not known for its musical ingenuity, its creativity, or even its skill. John Robb described punks as ‘The DIY brigade fumbling with musical instruments, trying to make sense of the world with three chords learned last week on second hand guitars’ (2006, Page 3). I feel this expresses the rebelling of the establishment in a way that goes above lyrics or fashion. Here we can see that punk was not about pleasing people or making everyone happy, it was about doing what you wanted because you could, and not caring if people liked it or not. This directly challenged the English ideology of the 1970s, which was predominantly all about keeping a stiff upper lip, being polite, and being, for lack of a better word, nice.
Rock journalist Caroline Coon wrote about the Sex Pistols’ live performances, stating that ‘participation is the operative word. The audience revels in the idea that any one of them could get up on stage and do just as well, if not better than the bands already up there’ (1982: 98). This again draws on the angry, challenging, do-it-yourself attitude attached to the punk genre.
Machin describes the discourse of the melody of “God Save The Queen” by the Sex Pistols in a way that epitomises the ideology of the genre. ‘Here [image 3] we can see that much of the melody remains on the first note. There is therefore very little outward giving of emotion or positive energy. This means that there is something very contained about the way it is sung. In fact, the vocalist sings the song generally at a high pitch which conveys emotional intensity. Yet in this intensity there is no emotional outpouring or pleasure. There are only short sharp occasional outbursts on the 4th note. This is fitting of the punk discourse of nihilism and cynicism.’ (Machin, 2010: 105)
Philip Auslander proclaimed that ‘we may not usually think of musical performance, apart from opera and musical theatre, as entailing characterisation in the conventional dramatic sense. Nevertheless, we must be suspicious of any supposition that musicians are simply ‘being themselves’ on stage’ (2004: 6). Auslander goes on to quote Frith, who states that musicians are ‘involved in a process of double enactment: they enact both a star personality (their image) and a song personality, the role that each lyric requires, and the pop star’s art is to keep both acts in play at once’(2004: 6). I feel that this observation directly applies to the punk rock era, as it exemplifies the explicit and hyperbolic style of the genre. This can be exemplified by Sex Pistols front man, John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten).
In the public eye he is an anarchist punk rebel who is not scared to speak his mind and does not care who he offends, however in real life he is a man who was bullied as a boy for having an English accent while at his grandparents’ home in Cork, Ireland. This performance persona is a prime example of the way that punk challenged the notion of Englishness, as everything about “Johnny Rotten” was anti-establishment. This is typified with the quote from Rotten himself, stating “I’d listen to rock ‘n’ roll, but I had no respect for it. It was redundant and had nothing to do with anything relevant”. Here, he is dismissing everything that already exists in England as not being relevant or influencing him in any way, suggesting that he was the change that England needed.
Auslander later goes on to discuss that ‘both the line between real person and performance persona and the line between persona and character may be blurry and indistinct, especially in the case of pop music performers whose work is heavily autobiographical’ (2004: 7). Again, I think this is extremely relevant to the analysis of the performance of John Lydon as Johnny Rotten, as punks felt this allegiance with him through his work as he was them while he was on stage. He was also a working class, angry young person with no money who resented the royal family and the government. Al Spicer asked the question, ‘was it just another youth craze (with a hairstyle calculated to drive the parents crazy), or did it offer real challenge to the complacency of the times?’ (2006: 2) and I think the answer to this would have to be that they really did challenge the system, in every possible way.
Punk as a movement intended to shock and defy the norm of 1970s England, to rebel against the complacent and austere ideals of the time and radically confront the patriotic notions of Englishness put forward by the royal Jubilee, and I think that they succeeded. Instead of merely writing protest songs, punk bands were a protest. Every fibre of their existence protested, whether it was scandalous lyrics, deplorable fashion choices or unrestrained, extroverted stage personas who would say what they thought, and never care about the repercussions. Punk was one vast protest across England and the notion of English ideals.
Machin, David. (2010) Analysing Popular Music: Image, Sound, Text, London: Sage.
Spicer, Al. (2006) A Rough Guide To Punk, London: Rough Guides.
Blake, Mark (Editor) (2006) Punk; The Whole Story, London: Dorling Kindersley.
Sabin, Roger (Editor) (1999) Punk Rock, So What?, London: Routledge.
Robb, John (2006) Punk Rock; An Oral History, London: Elbury Press.
Adams, Ruth (2008) “The Englishness of English Punk: Sex Pistols, Subcultures
and Nostalgia.”Popular Music and Society, 31.4, P. 469–488.
Hebdige, Dick (1991) Subculture: The Meaning of Style. London: Routledge.
Savage, Jon (2001) England’s Dreaming: Sex Pistols and Punk Rock, London: Faber & Faber.
Laing, Dave (1985) One chord wonders: power and meaning in punk rock, Milton Keynes: Open University.
Auslander, Philip (2004) Contemporary Theatre Review, Vol. 14, London: Routledge.
Boyd, Brian (2010), The Making of a Rotten Public Image, The Irish Times: 08 Aug 2010 Issue.
Coon, Caroline (1982) The New Wave Punk Rock Explosion, London: Omnibus Press.
IMAGE 1: http://static.guim.co.uk/sys-images/Guardian/Pix/pictures/2008/12/30/1230675664257/Sex-Pistols-in-1978-001.jpg
IMAGE 2: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-GGKJf0MAI7k/UGBnnd-F1pI/AAAAAAAAAL4/YcGOn0sIe8E/s1600/The+Who.jpg
IMAGE 3: Machin, David. (2010) Analysing Popular Music: Image, Sound, Text, London: Sage. Page 104.