Pick a documentary or drama – almost any documentary or drama – about the 1970s and an assortment of now clichéd motifs are bound to appear. Binbags piled high in Leicester Square. Workers on a picket blowing cold air on colder hands, or maybe gathering around a vehicle breaking through the lines. Police on the street, ducking bricks or pulling rank. Union Jacks being raised at marches by the far-right National Front. Cut again and beleaguered Labour politicians appear caught in a snapshot, while Margaret Thatcher busily campaigns towards 1979’s moment of reckoning. IRA bombs explode; football fans rampage on terraces; corrugated iron lines the roadside to a landscape of tower blocks and deindustrialised wasteland. In between, clips of sweaty youths in sweaty clubs segue into British signifiers resonant of the time: the Queen in her Jubilee year of 1977 or light entertainers in ill-fitting suits colonising the TV.
More often than not, the soundtrack to this seventies montage will be punk: the aural and visual accompaniment to a time presented still as a decade of crisis. No matter how many historians unpick the popular memory, highlighting the possibilities of the 1970s and questioning the presumptions that formulated a discourse bound to the advent Thatcherism, the perceived wisdom remains of Britain falling into disrepair, succumbing (almost) to anarchy in the UK. But was this so? Was punk really a cultural response to economic uncertainties; the noise of a country lost to anger and despair?
To an extent, of course, punk’s emergence did indeed reflect on-going tensions and deep-seated processes of socio-economic and cultural transformations occurring across the twentieth century. The fact that punk infiltrated the public consciousness at exactly the same time as the 1976 IMF ‘bail out’ and spiralling inflation, with unemployment closing in on one million, ensured that youthful disaffection was read in response to the ‘No Future’ proffered by Johnny Rotten in the original song title for the Sex Pistols’ infamous single ‘God Save the Queen’. ‘Dole Queue Rock’ an article in New Society opined. In late 1975, Malcolm McLaren – the manager of Britain’s premier punk band the Sex Pistols – spoke of capturing a ‘mood’ with the clothes he designed with Vivienne Westwood from 430 King’s Road, conflating sexual, youth-cultural and political extremes on distressed fabrics ripped and torn. Jamie Reid, who designed the Pistols’ artwork, presented the group via a shredded Union Jack held together only by safety pins and bull clips. For ‘God Save the Queen’, he muted and blinded Elizabeth II with blackmail lettering, presenting her as a hostage to history symbolised in the ‘mad parade’ of her Silver Jubilee.
The Pistols were not alone. The Clash committed to reporting back on ‘what’s happening’, sending first rock ‘n’ roll newscasts of the 1976 Notting Hill riot and the prospect of ‘sten-guns in Knightsbridge’, before then conceiving ever-more global readings of a world beset by hate and war. Their second album, Give ‘Em Enough Rope (1978), came with an ‘Atlas’ poster pointing to trouble spots and despots across all continents. In short, punk – and hear also songs by The Adverts, The Jam and Chelsea – ruminated repeatedly on the state of nation, articulating critiques, concerns and anxieties that echoed prevailing discourses of decline.
And yet, the evident disaffection given expression by punk should not be reduced to a cultural spasm occasioned by economic or political travails. To revisit the moment of British punk’s emergence in the mid-1970s is to find deeper and more varied triggers of creative antipathy. Integral to punk’s ire, for example, was the perceived state of pop music and rock ‘n’ roll in the mid-1970s, be it the novelty acts filling up Top of the Pops or the grandees of the 1960s ever-more distant relationship to ‘the kids’ who bought the records. The ‘politics of boredom’, expressed in delinquency and the urge for something (anything!!) to happen, might better describe punk’s anti-social demeanour. The futility of work (not the lack of it) and the void of suburbia ran through punk commentary on ‘the state of things’; that is, the banality of dead-end ‘career opportunities’ or the ‘restricted-home zones’ of London’s satellite towns. Equally, critiques of consumerism (such as X-Ray Spex ‘Oh Bondage! Up Yours!) and the inevitability of youth cultural co-option by corrupt music and media industries repeated across punk’s emergent ‘canon’ (see Crass ‘Punk is Dead’ and the situationist theory underpinning at least part of the Sex Pistols’ Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle). As punk bands signed to major labels, the concern as to punk’s dilution begat critiques of ‘selling out’, leading others to release their own records across a growing number of independent labels (most famously Rough Trade).
The media discourse of the time was often reproduced. Record covers and fanzines repurposed newspaper headlines to locate punk in the here-and-now; banal advertising was détourned and exposed; and the prurience of the tabloids was mocked for its double-standard. For those more concerned with social realism, rage was directed against class inequalities and social structures that restricted rather than facilitated individual agency. True, concern as to an authoritarian response to the social dislocations of the 1970s provided a notable strand of punk dystopia, inspired often by a combination of George Orwell’s 1984 and Stanley Kubrick’s filmic interpretation of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. But nightmare visions of automation, social collapse and (especially from 1980) nuclear apocalypse likewise formed part of punk’s future gaze. By 1979, the more overtly political punk groups and artists were proffering feminist critiques and lending support to anti-racist campaigns such as Rock Against Racism.
Punk, then, was enveloped by the socio-economic and political context of its emergence. But the cultural and political resources from which it drew and responded were far wider and more diverse than the drag of productivity and the price of milk. Much of the politics of punk can be traced back to the 1960s counterculture and parts of the radical left; punk’s praxis bore resemblance to creative practices rehearsed previously through an array of modernist artforms. At its root, punk provided a cultural critique and a modus oprandi. The cost of living might have provided one symptom of punk-fuelled disaffection, but the stimulus to participate not spectate, to create rather than consume, to be active not passive, lay more securely at the heart of punk’s critical engagement.