The story of punk seems, in music circles, to be second only to that of The Beatles in being told and told again. Fussed and argued over to the point it becomes tiresome. The British Library's Punk 1976-1978 has the added problem that there are many who still claim to hew true to its ideals and that those ideals weren't about putting Rat Scabies' leather jacket in a perspex case for people to gawp at. No more heroes and all that.
To be fair the curators have, on the whole, steered away from such ephemera and concentrated on telling the story via the records and gig themselves and eye witness testimony from those that were actually there.
There can't be many people left in the western world who haven't heard the story about the banning of God Save The Queen or seen the footage of The Sex Pistols (standing in for Queen) being mildly rude to pervy old Bill Grundy. The Television Personalities were eulogising the event as early as 1978 and Kevin Eldon's hilarious Amish Sex Pistols sketch works precisely because of our collective knowledge of it.
The exhibition begins on 12th February 1976 with The Sex Pistols first live review in the NME. Soon they were keeping Idi Amin, if not Ian Botham, off the front page of the daily tabloids. In July that year The Clash supported The Sex Pistols at The Black Swan in Sheffield and the first issue of the fanzine Sniffin' Glue was released.
Further key players came into the story that September when the 100 Club punk festival showcased, along with The Clash & The Sex Pistols, performances by The Damned, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Buzzcocks, The Subway Sect, and The Vibrators. On the 22nd October The Damned released the first punk single, New Rose.
Then came Grundygate which saw The Sex Pistols EMI contract terminated. January '77 saw the release of The Buzzcocks' self-financed Spiral Scratch EP. God Save The Queen came out in May that year and there still seems to be some debate as to whether or not it was intentionally kept off number one to not upset Elizabeth Windsor during her jubilee year. Certainly Johnny Rotten, Paul Cook, and Jamie Reid were all attacked in the frenzied scrum that surrounded it.
It was a violent time. The National Front marched through Lewisham clashing with protestors. I can't remember those times but certainly as late as the eighties the National Front were considered less egregious than the 'undesirable' elements who protested against them. Bad call, England.
A far better call was April 1978's Anti Nazi League gig in Victoria Park with The Clash, Steel Pulse, X Ray Spex, and The Tom Robinson Band. There's a recording of Linton Kwesi Johnson where he talks about playing with PiL in Manchester. He said as the white working class (he soon corrects this to middle class) youth were starting to identify with reggae the black kids were warming to British rock. It also helped that, due to the scarcity of punk records, Don Letts used to DJ dub and reggae between bands at punk gigs. Generation X, surprisingly, released the first punk-dub remix. Their b-side Wild Dub wasn't entirely successful but contained, within it, the seed of a great idea that others were to hone to greater effect (and reward) in the next couple of decades.
Rock Against Racism was born from the disgust that followed Eric Clapton's speech in support of Enoch Powell. I'm paraphrasing but the gist was that now he'd nicked the blues off black people could they all fuck off back to wherever it is they came from. Pussy Galore probably put it best when they subtitled one of their songs Eric Clapton Must Die.
At the same time as the punks were getting politicised The Sex Pistols themselves were imploding. Everyone's seen the footage of their last gig (Winterland, San Fransisco, Jan' 78) with Lydon clearly having lost all respect for his band, his audience, the whole fucking thing.
He definitely had the feeling he'd been cheated. By October that year Public Image Ltd had released their debut single and The Sex Pistols had essentially become a novelty band.
Bathetic considering the lofty mission statement Malcolm McLaren and Jamie Reid had ghost written for them. Both McLaren and Reid (who'd met at Croydon Art School in 1968) were influenced by Situationism and detournement (the modification of an existing image to subvert its intended meaning). They believed modern consumer society alienated the individual and needed to be combatted by provocative means. Nothing less than musical Marxism.
In 1972 McLaren was taking a break from his shop Sex and on a trip to NYC where he'd ended up managing The New York Dolls. Who in a foretelling of The Sex Pistols story were crumbling in on themselves due to hard drugs and harder ego clashes.
With The New York Dolls, The Stooges, and The MC5 the crucial influences the New York punk scene centred around CBGBs and, with the honourable exception of The Ramones, was considerably artier and more literate than the UKs wilfully ignorant take. Blondie, Television, Patti Smith, and The Heartbreakers cited such influences as Arthur Rimbaud and John Coltrane.
Whilst the New York scene remained pretty much a closed shop to all but a few hundred people in Manhattan when McLaren brought it back to London it exploded to the degree that the British Library has now got a Pete Frame rock family tree of the early days.
It's quite fascinating too. London SS and The 101ers are Frame's chosen starting points but the branches fan out to include Alternative TV, Generation X, The Slits, Siouxsie, The Sex Pistols, Johnny Moped, Chelsea, and The Rich Kids. There's even space for some names time's not been so kind to. Step forward Bastard, Rot, and The Swankees.
As is the style of Frame's work there's room for recollection and anecdotes. Amongst the highlights are original Banshees guitarist P T Fenton getting kicked out of the band after being 'caught' listening to an Eagles LP. Johnny Moped's guitarist was called Slimy Toad and Morrissey applied to audition for the London SS but his request was ignored because he lived in Manchester.
As Frame's work tells the story of the time with the helping hand of hindsight the fanzines of the time collected at the show document how it actually was. Sadly you can't flick through Jon Savage's London Outrage, Sideburns, Ripped & Torn, or even Shane MacGowan's Bondage. Both Kris Needs and Danny Baker wrote for Zigzag magazine and a 1977 copy of Alternative Ulster features a contribution from Morrissey who was clearly desperate to be part of the punk scene (in some ways The Smiths seem like the last of the great punk bands). Mott The Hoople crop up more than once!
DIY fanzines soon gave way to an entire DIY scene. Belfast's Good Vibrations put out The Undertones' Teenage Kicks. I've already mentioned Spiral Scratch which came out on Hormones. Hormones' second product was The Secret Public, a photomontage by Linder and Jon Savage exploring gender and sexual politics.
Sexual politics soon become an important part of the punk scene. Despite Viv Albertine's graffiti on the wall outside the exhibition the British Library does give the girls their due. The story of Siouxsie, Patti Smith, The Slits themselves, The Raincoats, The Mo-dettes, Pauline Murray, and Poly Styrene is told by members of some of the above bands. The hostility they initially faced was even more severe than the boys had to deal with yet despite, or because, of this some of the music, The Slits particularly, was far more interesting than the chugging rock formula employed by some of the less imaginative gangs of lads.
John Lydon's frustration seems to have come, in part, from this lack of imagination. When he drops his Widow Twankey persona he's clearly an intelligent and thoughtful man. There's an interview with him conducted by Tommy Vance on Capital Radio where he talks about being beaten up and plays tracks by Dr Alimantado, Tim Buckley, and Kevin Coyne suggesting he had a much wider frame of reference than The Sex Pistols would allow him to indulge.
Yet, it's to The Sex Pistols that we keep returning. The furore surrounding Never Mind The Bollocks saw the band nominated as Young Businessmen of the Year in Investors Review magazine. The two cowboys t-shirt, below, got Sex shop assistant Alan Jones nicked. There's an early setlist from a Pistols rehearsal (yes, they had them) that includes, amongst their numerous Small Faces covers, the lost tracks Kill Me Today and I Hear You Are Raising Rabbits Now.
Best of all there's a Newsbeat interview with Steve Jones that goes like this:-
SJ:'The country's a right state, innit?'
NEWSBEAT:'What are you trying to do about it?'
SJ:'Make it worse'.
That's amusing and the fact that the British Library shop new sells highly priced Clash cushions is a fun way to piss off the purists. But after the scandal and shock was done a lot of the music is clearly lacking. There's a room where you can listen to about 100 different 7" singles from the early days. The Nipple Erectors, The Fall, Scritti Politti, Wire etc; still sound utterly vital. Others fare less well.
Much like this exhibition punk was at its most interesting when it gave oddballs a chance to shine. It helped to give a voice to people from other classes, sexes, and races that'd been previously marginalised and for that we should all be thankful. At a time when a Tory government seems to view culture as something to be monetarised and commodified it's worth bearing in mind it doesn't have to be that way. People need to remember that far more than they need to see Rat Scabies' leather jacket.