The future isn't written maybe, but the past is being rewritten.
As Julian Temple releases another contribution to the revisionist Punk heritage industry, I feel obliged to say that the relationship between the Clash and punk is usually considered too uncritically. The character of Joe Strummer was especially problematic, using punk as a stepping stone to being a rock star.
Punk was a profound cultural revolution that has had lasting impact. The difficulty with the narrative put forward by Julian Temple is that it reduces complex social processes into the history of “great” individuals. So in the “Great Rock & Roll Swindle” McLaren was the Svengali who created punk, while in the “Filth & the Fury” it was Rotten who was the daddy.
Punk wasn’t even just about music, it was about self-empowerment and authenticity, in an anti-corporate culture, and it extended beyond music to street fashion, the visual arts, self-publishing and fanzine journalism, and of course people making their music and their own records.
Let’s go back to the 1970s. Even for those who experienced the period it seems extraordinary to look back on the degree of cultural conformity. There were just three TV stations, and no way of recording programmes, no videos, no DVDs. In most of the country there was no competition to BBC radio, and Radio One and Radio Two were both dominated by the utterly fatuous. In contrast to today’s diversity of genres and styles, there was a cultural monolith, symbolised by that insufferably smug piece of shit Bob Harris and the Old Grey Whistle Test. There were only the major record labels, and even if something alternative was happening then information about it spread largely through word of mouth and if something new was reported in the music press then you couldn’t even hear it or buy it because you were depending on your local record shop to stock it, and it was usually run by a hippy.
Punk self-empowerment meant that people made their own fashion, by spray painting second hand clothes, and chains and safety pins. People wrote their own magazines, and the influence of “Sniffin’ Glue” has had a lasting impact. Punk music also adopted its own aesthetic. And as another lasting impact, a whole series of minor labels were born, not entirely based upon punk, but riding on the wave of their explosion: Beggars Banquett signed the Lurkers, and Stiff signed the Damned. Bands also learned that they could press their own singles, and sell them. This was an important political and cultural space being claimed outside the control of the market.
Authenticity was also important, by which I mean an experience that has multiple potential outcomes. The closeness of a punk audience and the band, the invasions of the stage, and the general lack of deference meant that there was no passivity. The immediacy of making music, or writing fanzines outside corporate culture also brought songs and writing about acne, wanking, loneliness, sexual inadequacy and all sort of other taboo subjects.
Being a punk was rebellious in a way that no youth culture could be today. Our fathers or grandfathers had fought fascism, so wearing a Nazi armband (as I did) was a total rejection of their moral authority. The hippies, just ten years or so older than us had made a safe and personal rebellion in a time of full employment, and a period of political optimism. In the 1970s, British society was in crisis, political, ideological and identity crisis. There was no future in England’s dreaming.
The paradox that our own rebellion would be commoditised and sold back to us was always known and recognised. (And the genius of the Pistols is that they exploded in the faces of the record companies who signed them.) Looking back on the early days of punk it is remarkable how different we looked from the identikit punk-clones who later bought bondage trousers from shops and wore spiked Mohican hair dos. It was very personal, and for example I used a plastic coat hanger to fasten my jacket. It was even difficult to buy straight trousers – everyone wore flares everywhere. I pinched a pair of my dad’s old gardening trousers, and hid them at the end of the garden, so I would leave my house in flares and change in the shed! I also remember having to pierce my ears and cheeks with safety pins on the bus each time I went out, because it was simply not safe to have permanent piercings due to the reaction it caused. I was beaten up twice by strangers.
But quite apart from the Pistols, punk was happening anyway. The Hollywood Brats , a homegrown version of the New York Dolls (and rather better!) had first recorded in 1973, and ex-Brat, Casino Steel was involved with the Matt Dangerfield’s basement recording studio, which during 1975 and 1976 brought together a number of punks, and out of which grew both London SS and the Boys. In parallel, bands like the Lurkers were directly influenced by the Ramones and New York punk, and the Vibrators and Adam and the Ants grew out of pub rockers Bazooka Joe. (of course it is easy in retrospect to dismiss the Ants, but the later New Romantic version has almost no continuity with the art school faux fascism of the earlier band)
Former bank clerk, Mark Perry, was so influential, he had started the Sniffin’ Glue fanzine after seeing the Ramones, and co-founded Step Forward Records, which produced Sham 69, the Cortinas and Chelsea. But Mark also formed Alternative TV (pictured below), the best British punk band, and created by far the best album, “The Image has Cracked”, which confounded all expectations of the identikit punks by including Jools Holland keyboards, and a Frank Zappa cover-version. But it also showed with songs like “Splitting in Two” that great art could be made within the minimal punk musical aesthetic.
I used to think it was a bit sad that bands like the Vibrators, UK Subs, and others are still gigging round small venues 30 years later, or that bands like the Damned, the Adverts and the Boys play nostalgia festivals. But actually it is an achievement, they opened a space where they could make a modest living out of playing their own music, they did break forever the monolithic control of the corporate music industry.
Of course some individuals like Billy Idol and Adam Ant used their brief 15 minutes of fame to make as much money as they could, but they never pretended to be doing anything else, and why shouldn’t they. Of course the insufferable Paul Weller has become the new Paul McCartney, but he could only do so by breaking from Bruce Foxton and Rick Buckler, and reinventing himself.
But then there is the Clash. The only big name punk band to have an uncomplicated signing with a major label (Look at the trouble the Banshees had getting a deal). The only ones to become Stadium rockers. The only ones to aspire to being big international rock stars. Of course they succeeded because their ambitions were comprehensible and compatible with the big corporate ethos of the music industry. Their punk identity a thinner veneer. Of course they were more commercially successful because their music was more conventional and less innovative than many punk bands.
From my observation, the Clash never saw the potential of Punk as constructing a creative space outside corporate control, instead they sought to get the best commercial deal so that they could proselytise their ersatz lefty message and get rich trying. Look at the cover of their first album! It is as posed and contrived in designer clothes as any image created for Busted or Westlife!
The Clash’s relationship with its audience very soon ceased to be an empowering one, that was two way. I last saw them about May or June 1978, and many of the audience groaned and mocked them when they played “Garage band” (with no sense of self-irony) in the style of preening rock stars. Many punk bands sang songs with some integrity and authenticity about their own experience, but how could diplomat’s son Joe Strummer really be sincere that he hated the rich? How could they be sincere that they hated the USA, when they wanted more than anything to be a success there?
In "Alternatives", an open mike session on "The Image has Cracked" recorded in january 1978, Mark Perry says: "You all think we've won because bands like the Clash ... are on the Telly, but there's no way you've won brother, ok so I'm a communist, there's no way you've won sister, what you are getting is diluted shit".