* *



Like mail art, punk was a movement in which the majority of the participants were only semi-conscious of its origins. Some critics have made much of punk's recycling of specto-situationist theory. A typical example of this is Dave and Stuart Wise's "The End Of Music" (Box V2, Glasgow 1978):

"A musical situationism was born in the dressed up rebel imagery of punk and New Wave. While, the situationist influence can only be thoroughly credited in the one specific instance of the 'Sex Pistols', the rebellion of modem art forms, first expressed pictorially and in literature, though now recuperated, have increasingly been applied to the production of music through intermediaries like 'The Velvet Underground' and Lou Reed. Antecedents from the old cultural avant garde run into and feed the musical new... Part of the genesis of punk goes back 16 years to the English section of the Situationists and the subsequent, King Mob... Malcolm McLaren, manager of 'The Sex Pistols' had been friendly with individuals versed in the Situationist critique in England and had picked up some of the slogans and attitudes of that milieu... The E.P. (sic) 'Pretty Vacant' was promoted through a poster campaign displaying cut out photos of two long distance coaches heading for 'BOREDOM' and 'NOWHERE' - lifted straight from the pages of 'Point Blank' ....."

Unfortunately, Dave and Stuart Wise completely overestimate the influence and importance of specto-situationist theory, both on punk and in general. This is perhaps not surprising, since at the time the text was produced they were part of the miserable milieu centred on Guy Debord and the Champ Libre publishers in Paris. Although the Wises sneer at the negative influence of the Motherfuckers on King Mob, they ignore the fact that this influence was actually more determinate than that of the specto-SI. (1) Indeed, the English section of the specto-SI were expelled from the International because they refused to break with the individuals who went on to found the Motherfuckers. King Mob were one result of this expulsion. The Wises chide the plagiarism of graphics from Point Blank but conveniently forgets that Jamie Reid, the Pistols' art director, had contributed visuals for a number of Point Blank productions and was merely re-using work he had been involved in producing! (2) Although specto-situationist theory was known by some of those at the centre of the original punk movement, the influence of futurism, dada, the motherfuckers, fluxus and mail art is more obvious and important. Mail artists such as Irene Dogmatic in the States and Genesis P-Orridge in England became involved with punk music during its early stages. It was through these mail artists that the influence of fluxus was spread. The influence of mail art was most strongly felt in the choice of bizarre stage names. The iconoclastic nature of punk identities (ie Johnny Rotten, Sid Vicious, Siouxsie Sioux, Dee Generate and Captain Sensible) echo the assumed names of mail artists such as Cosey Fanni Tutti, Pat Fish and Anna Banana. Through art school training, members of bands like the Clash and Adam and the Ants had been exposed to the influence of Futurism and Dada. (3) The backwardness of British art schools, the environment from which much of the original punk milieu emerged, resulted in a familiarity with early manifestations of the utopian avant-garde combined with an ignorance of its post-war developments. However, the rank and file of the punk movement remained ignorant even of these classical influences.

But this 'ignorance' didn't prevent kids on the street from understanding punk as an expression simultaneously of frustration and a desire for change. Punk was a politics of energy with a bias towards expressing itself in the rhetoric of the left, but which more than occasionally assumed the voice of the right. Lumpen-intellectuals who have attempted an analysis of punk have usually understood far less than the punks they criticise for lacking a perspective. Dave and Stuart Wise state in "The End Of Music":

"Punk is the admission that music has got nothing left to say but money can still be made out of total artistic bankruptcy with all its surrogate substitute for creative self-expression in our daily lives. Punk music, like all art, is the denial of the revolutionary becoming of the proletariat"

Such a position is clearly ridiculous since only an imbecile could confuse punk with art. Besides which, punk very clearly did have something to say, and the fact that this was effectively communicated is demonstrated to this day by widespread teenage identification with it. (4) The Wise brothers go on to repeat the specto-situationist fallacy that art is dead, when from a genuinely materialist perspective there will always be art as long as there is a bourgeois class. Art cannot die, because it is a social process, capitalist societies produce art while non-capitalist societies don't. As we have already seen, to impute an essence to art is mysticism. The Wise brothers compound this idealism with another abstraction 'the revolutionary becoming of the proletariat' . Although, as a lumpen-intellectuals, Dave and Stuart Wise might find solace in such a concept, the proletariat which they mythologise would find such ideas completely meaningless, if by some freak of fate they should ever come into contact with them.

The Wise brothers confusion of punk and art is used as a partial screen against their ignorance of punk's non-intellectual origins in British street culture. It is therefore not surprising that both they and the semiologist Dick Hebdige in his book "Subculture: The Meaning Of Style" (Meuthen, London 1979) ignore the influence of Richard Allen on the blank generation during their pubescence. Allen (pseudonym of James Moffatt) authored a series of skinhead novels for New English Library during the early seventies. His books, which chronicled the violent activities of white working class youths, circulated widely under school desks and the belligerent attitude they espoused was a central element in the punk sensibility. Allen's books are ignored in academic analyses of punk, precisely because his writing lacks an intellectual pedigree. Lumpen-intellectuals prefer to compare punk with avant-garde artistic and political tendencies, because at least in this field they have the opportunity to demonstrate a conceptual acquisition of high culture. Dada might have shocked the bourgeoisie but at least its products were more than hurriedly written hack work glorifying football hooliganism. One need only compare the cover of the first Clash album, or almost any posed publicity shot of a punk band, to the covers of Allen's books to see the extent of their influence. (5) Whereas only a tiny minority of the punk milieu had heard of Futurism or Dadaism, and even fewer of the Motherfuckers or specto-situationist theory, the vast majority would have encountered Richard Allen's work in one form or another - and were just as likely to have experienced the culture he depicted directly on the football terrace. The fanatical Stretford End of Manchester United's 'red army' were chanting "We Hate Humans" in the early seventies, years before the blank generation appropriated hate and misanthropy as themes of their own. (6)

However, despite widespread ignorance of punk's relation to other utopian currents, the movement successfully propagated the essential tenets of the tradition. The division between audience and performer was questioned, if not overcome. Although a few groups attained superstar status, the vast majority remained accessible to the fans. Kids who had never played an instrument in their life formed bands and within a few months would be making public performances. A Do- It-Yourself ethic prevailed, with independent record labels issuing releases by unknown bands, a vast proliferation of the independent press in the form of punk fanzines (usually xeroxed in editions of a few hundred), and almost every punk making designer alterations to their clothes in the form of rips and tears.

As the first wave of punk groups - the Sex Pistols, Clash, Damned, Stranglers, Buzzcocks - made the pop charts and assumed star status, the hardcore of their following would switch loyalties and become supporters of bands who could still be seen on the club circuit. Real punks followed bands like the Adverts, Sham 69 and the Members in '77, by '78 Adam and the Ants were followed by what would become the gothic faction, the UK Subs by the future hardcore section, and Crass by the anarcho-punks. '78 also saw an increased stereotyping in dress.

The first wave of punk groups flirted with politics, the majority like the Clash and Pistols from a left perspective, others like the Banshees and Chelsea from the right. A few, such as Subway Sect, were genuinely committed to communism; at least during their early days. 1977 saw the emergence of groups like Crisis, who took the left rhetoric of the Clash seriously and whose members belonged to organisations such as the Socialist Workers Party and the International Marxist Group. Playing benefit gigs for organisations such as "Rock Against Racism" and the "Right To Work Campaign", often from the back of trucks leading columns of marchers, Crisis spearheaded the new ground-swell of committed punk groups. Songs like "Militant", "Take A Stand" and "Alienation" won the group a loyal following.

If Crisis were seen as extremists by many - their song "Kill" in particular was singled out for criticism (7) - better was yet to come. During the early eighties anarcho-punk fanzines such as "Pigs For Slaughter" and bands like the Apostles blazed a trail that would be mined for its black humour and media potential by the Class War movement. The track "Pigs For Slaughter" on the second Apostles EP (Scum Records 1983) defined what would become the platform of anarchist regroupment a year or so later:

"Glue the locks of all the banks and butchers or kick them in, Spray a message of hate across a Bentley or smash it up, Sabotage the meat in supermarkets poison them all, Go to Kensington and mug a rich bastard of all his cash.
We're knocking on your door, We're taking no more, For this is Class War.
Put sugar in the petrol tank, Deflate the tires with six inch nails, That's the way to wreck a rolls, So get stuck in it never fails.
We'll smash it up and we'll bum it all down."

Lumpen-intellectuals like Dave and Stuart Wise had, a few years earlier, been accusing punk of stealing its ideas from the revolutionary theorists. By the mid-eighties events had come full circle, Class War - a group of anarchoid ultra-leftists - would find their inspiration in punk.

Although I don't have the time or space to go into it here, the musical origins of punk - in sixties groups such as The Who, Small Faces, Velvet Underground and Stooges - should not be forgotten; even if in the course of my argument it has been largely overlooked.

The youth underground of the late seventies - centred on punk - was far weaker (in terms of the broadness of its social base) (8) than that of the sixties, in that its existence was dependent on rock music in a way that the more heavily po/iticised underground of a decade earlier was not. In retrospect, punk also appears as a very straightforward progression from the sixties, whereas at the time it was perceived as a break. The entourage around the Sex Pistols - in particular - appears to be little more than a copy of the milieu attracted to Warhol's factory. (9) One of the problems faced by the blank generation - that sixties youth did not have to overcome - was an institutionalised youth, and 'post-youth', culture. During the sixties magazines such as "Oz" and "International Times" didn't have to compete with the likes of "Time Out" or liberated teenage magazines, which took away a general youth audience for 'zines such as "Sniffin' Glue" and "Ripped & Tom". (10) It was this situation which forced the underground press of the late seventies to provide specialised music coverage. It was a weakness created by the success of the previous generation. Punk had a music, fashion and politics but socio-economic factors caused an increasing specialisation in (and separation between) the various disciplines united under its banner. Thus the broad social base that might have developed was, instead, weakened and destroyed. Many laudable strands emerged, but as a movement punk was finished very soon after it began.

1. But Dave Wise should have been well aware of this since according to Nick Brandt's "Refuse" (BM Combustion, London 1978) he was a member of King Mob during the late '60s - as indeed was his brother Stuart Wise.

2. See page 68 of "Up They Rise - The Incomplete Works of Jamie Reid" by Jamie Reid and Jon Savage (Faber & Faber, London 1987). It is worth noting that when specto and pro-situationists 'plagiarise' other people's work, they call it 'detournement'; but when other people are perceived as 'detouming' situationist property they are accused of 'plagiarism'. Such double standards are endemic within the specto-situationist milieu, and are usually justified on the grounds that - with the exception of the proletariat considered as an abstract category - no one outside this milieu has any credibility as a 'radical'. Everyone from Debord, to Knabb, to the Wise brothers, to Brandt, employ this hypocrisy. It should, however, be noted that "The End Of Music" was published without the Wise brothers consent, after it had been circulated in typescript form. This said, the Wise brothers servile enthusiasm for the Debordist faction of the SI is evident in several texts they have played an active role in publishing; consequently it is not unreasonable to see "The End Of Music" as typifying their thought.

2. See for example the lyrics of "Animals & Men" on Adam and the Ants first Ip "Dirk Wears White Sox" (Do It Records, London 1979).

4. At its most basic punk was saying I'm young, angry, pissed off and I want change and/or excitement. Above all else it was a statement of identity. Even the media understood punk at this level.

5. a) Allen didn't design his own book covers; however the books themselves were consumed as a single package. The 'authorship' of the constituent parts was irrelevant to the readership.
b) Slaughter and the Dogs second single "Where Have All The Boot Boys Gone?" (Decca Records, London 1977) in particular echoes the Allen oeuvre. The opening lines run: ''Wearing boots and short hair cuts, we will kick you in the guts...". Allen had written a novel entitled "Boot Boys" (New English Library, London 1972) and most of his heroes had short hair and wore boots, although - ironically - the characters in "Boot Boys" did not have cropped hair.

6. And like football, punk emphasised a territorialism which the Super Groups of the seventies had largely eliminated from the rock music scene. In its negative sense this meant many punks saw themselves as opposed to 'teds' and 'hippies'. More positively, it meant that the movement viewed itself as being geographically specific. Thus the Clash were 'the sound of the Westway' (the motorway system that passes through West London); while the Sex Pistols were 'teenagers from London's Finsbury Park and Shepherds Bush' (according to some of their early publicity material). Outside London, Manchester had the earliest developed punk scene and boasted among its top acts bands like the Buzzcocks, Slaughter & the Dogs, & the Drones. Very quickly punk scenes developed in all the large urban centres in the British Isles. Punk was consciously urban, despising the country and the suburbs, and yet because it was also about displacement it eventually found its greatest support among suburban kids.
When the 'hippies' who'd started the Stone Henge festival formed their own punk band - Crass - as a means of disseminating anarchist propaganda, they eventually succeeded in injecting an element of ruralism into the movement. However, suburbia remained as despised as ever.

7. A sample of the lyrics to this song run as follows:

"Sack the teachers, standards fall, You send your kids to a private school.
Close the wards, the poor drop dead, You're alright Jack, you've got a private bed.
You're making me sick, You're making me ill, If you don't fuck off I'm gonna Kill, Kill, Kill!"

In the early eighties, Crisis degenerated into the utterly pathetic Death In June who I have dealt with elsewhere.

8. But its impact (in Britain at least) was as great, if not greater, due to the strength of its image. By exaggerating media stereotypes of working class belligerence, punk touched a raw nerve with the British establishment. If sixties rebels had been inspired by the esoteric theories of 'Che' and 'Uncle Ho', bands like the Clash appeared to have more in common with dockers leader Jack Dash; a threat that was much closer to home.

9. The role of the Sex Pistols in the punk movement has been completely mystified. They may have stolen the show, but even so punk would have happened without them - while they wouldn't have achieved fame without punk. What was important about punk was the Do It Yourself attitude, not the few stars who "swindled" their way to the top.

10. Nigel Fountain in "00 Anything Beautiful" (1968 supplement, New Statesman, London 18/12/87) has the following to say about the alternative press and specialisation:

"Al is one fat man... who did well out of the wars of those times. In 1968 he noticed that many of the people who bought the then flourishing American underground press - the Berkeley Barb, the East Village Other, the Los Angeles Free Press, et al were not doing so for their imaginative accounts of the occupation of Columbia University, the exploits of the Yippies, or the battles at the Chicago Democratic Party convention. They were the real army of the night, the dirty raincoat detachment, in search of sexual contact ads. Goldstein acutely perceived as he launched Screw that autumn that 'I am the man in the dirty raincoat.'... Goldstein's trick was to identify one of the crucial undercurrents, sex.
Attention to the other two hedonistic ripples paid off as well. The drugs obsession produced the briefly successful High Times; rock 'an' roll generated Joann Werner's Rolling Stone, still coining it 21 years after its launch. Both Screw and Rolling Stone helped drain the sea on which America's 1960s radical press sailed. One took the sex ads and thus the sex-orientated sales, while the other sucked in the music ads and the non-activist segment of the underground press market... It is a cautionary tale..... "

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