In 1977, merely suggesting that the Queen was a moron (or a potential H Bomb) would get you banned from the charts. These days The Sex Pistols could duet with Eminem, three strippers and a donkey, and roll Her Majesty around Trafalgar Square in a barrel and nobody would give a damn. Times have changed.
Punk took Great Britain (the entertainment industry and the general public) completely by surprise. In the mid 1970s, the massive tornado of the British Invasion of the 1960s was a fading memory whose survivors sat atop the charts with pale echoes of their best work.
Disco and soft rock/pop were the trends of the day – as they were also in the USA. Britain’s economy was flailing and more and more teenagers left school to go straight on the dole with little hope of financial success or social stimulation. At the start of 1976 there was little warning that the world of popular music would be turned upside down before the end of the year.
Malcolm McLaren, who ran a boutique in London that catered to an ever-changing clientele seeking alternative fashion, was on the look-out for a band of loutish adolescents to use as a platform for his loosely held anarchist ideas.
He had aspirations to manage The New York Dolls, but when that band disintegrated he looked to even scruffier, younger musicians that frequented his store. In late 1975 The Sex Pistols began to perform with McLaren as their manager and mentor.
Throughout 1976, The Sex Pistols built up a fierce underground following with incendiary live shows which were often violence-ridden chaotic affairs. Late in 76, their debut single Anarchy In The UK established punk’s modus operandi – ear-splitting guitars, hyperactive tempo and inflammatory and venomous lyrics . . . with raw energy carrying the lot.
Johnny Rotten was goaded into swearing on national television and Fleet Street descended on punk with horror headlines and outrage. Other groups were already following the Pistols’ blueprint and quickly stepped into the breach.
The most famous members of what came to be called the ‘Class of ’77’ were The Damned, The Clash (who mixed punk and politics), The Jam (Mods who modelled themselves after the early Who) and Buzzcocks (whose punk sensibilities did not hide their keen grasp of pop hooks).
These bands were just the tip of an explosion that saw many minor but important groups adding their voices to the fray. Generation X, The Adverts, The Vibrators, The Saints (from Australia), X-Ray Spex, Slaughter & The Dogs and Chelsea are all esteemed by collectors for the one or two memorable songs they had in them.
Overnight, hordes of angry kids from huge, decaying council estates and soulless high-rise blocks, who were able to relate to the punk movement, chipped in to buy mini sound systems and bashed away at cheap guitars.
London venues such as the Vortex, Nashville Room, 100 Club, The Roxy and The Marquee threw open their doors to thousands of safety-pinned, cropped top, pogoing punks. At the same time, most council-owned halls barred any form of punk performance.
The punk fanzine Sniffin’ Glue once included three drawings of guitar chord shapes captioned; “Here’s a chord. Here’s another one. Here’s another one. Now form a band”.
Punk was a DIY business, a reaction against the establishment, pompous prog rockers, public opinion, the futility of many young urban lives, and anything else that got in punk’s way . .
Today, early British punk records still sound exciting. At the time however, they were also the epitome of nihilistic shock. They could not have caused more of a sensation . . .
The tempo was FAST (although hardcore eventually made it even faster), the guitars and vocals were LOUD and the lyrics addressed politics, sex, depression and society with a frank realism that had rarely been heard in popular music.
The performers were not seasoned virtuoso’s and they valued inspiration and attitude above professionalism. Some listeners viewed the end-result as unbearably crude. Others welcomed them as a necessary shot of air to blast rock & roll out of its complacency.
Punk never really took hold in the USA as it did in Britain, although those who were converted took up the music with a passion that equalled their British counterparts. The Sex Pistols found this out the hard way, with Johnny Rotten leaving the group in 1978 after the last show of a brief but legendarily chaotic American tour, where their album Never Mind The Bollocks stopped just short of the Top 100.
Perhaps punk failed to take hold in the US because it was diametrically opposed to the American Dream. US rock audiences liked a working class hero – as long as he behaved like a star. So in the US in the mid-Seventies there weren’t many takers for the notion of well brought-up, middle class kids ripping perfectly good clothes and pretending to have been born in the gutter.
Another reason Punk never took off in America – aside from the fact that the conventional music business chose to ignore it – was the sheer size of the country. Unlike in Britain, independent record labels could not reasonably expect to have anything more than a local hit.
In the end, punk did not so much die out as mutate and diversify. As liberating as the first wave of punk was, it was impossible to perform an endless loop of hyper-fast, bile-filled anthems, as the musician’s ambitions broadened and their musical skills improved.
The Jam remained huge stars in the UK through the early 80s, like The Clash who became stars in the USA at long last after 1979s London Calling LP, they refined their sound and incorporated reggae, R&B, soul and pop into their compositions without ever compromising their integrity.
Original British punksters like Generation X and Sham 69 played themselves out almost immediately and others went into arty minimalism (eg: Wire and The Fall), psychedelia (The Soft Boys), pop (The Undertones) or New Wave (Siouxsie & The Banshees).
By 1980, ‘New Wave’ had become the new label for a modified, tamed but no less innovative offspring of the original punk explosion.