In my punk rock youth, I liked to say that I was born the same year as punk —1977, just after Elvis died. I thought the symmetry spoke for itself, and that by situating myself into this arbitrary schema I had a natural claim on the topic. I didn’t. Not even close. And even less so after reading Punk is Dead: Modernity Killed Every Night. Not only did I not have a clue, I even got the year wrong: 1977 was the year punk died. If punk was “born” (“emerged” is a better word), that date stretches further back, to 1974 at the least, but more accurately to the mid-1960s, when some of its progenitors were seduced by the ideas of French troublemakers known as the Situationist International. This itself goes back to 1957, and its influences originated in the Paris Commune of 1871, or perhaps the so-called Gordon Riots of 1780, and . . . well, you see how difficult this excavation work becomes.
The connections are suspect. And what exactly are we talking about anyway: a music genre, a social movement, a fashion clique, or simply a state of mind?
The various writers in this collection of essays were around in those early years (in the 1970s), taking part in the shaping of this idea we call “punk.” Most of them defined punk as a social scene in London, of which they were a part. Their punk was before codified dress or established musical styles, and before people across the U.K. and the world knew what that word meant. Even the word “punk” irritates some of them. A journalist invented it and somehow the name stuck. Andrew Gallix, one of the editors of this collection, writes that real punk was as short-lived as a season: “Assuming, for the sake of argument, that punk died with Bill Grundy, the initial stage of the movement would only have lasted four months. Before August 1976, it was too small; after December it was already too big. Blink and you miss it.”
This book is mostly about that brief period, that “blink” that has been forgotten or ignored or, more probably, never fully understood. The collection includes works by punk-turned-philosopher Simon Critchley, Marxist academic Mark Fisher, artist Dorothy Max Prior, and many others. Some of the pieces are recent, a few are decades old, and they vary from think pieces to memoir to interviews to theoretical examinations. Some of the authors’ claims are in conflict with one another, a reminder that punk’s cohesion was always fraught and largely a myth.
If generations of punks since the late-1970’s have been uneasy (or uncertain) about their subcultural origins, this book mostly celebrates those beginnings and the intentional shape the movement took as conceived in part by Malcolm McLaren and Vivien Westwood, owners of a notorious clothing shop and hangout spot called SEX. It was McLaren who read French anarchist theory, who assembled the Sex Pistols and managed their tours. Those origins, as musician Andy Blade writes, were of an “intellectual, arty” sort. What they gave way to was the more masculine, more codified “hardcore” punk—a decidedly less intellectual subgenre, Blade claims—whose fans insisted on “signposts” for guidance.
Blade’s analysis overlooks so much. It ignores the very “intellectual” and feminist undercurrent that was brewing, represented most famously by the legendary band Crass, who emerged on the heels of the Sex Pistols, and right under their noses.
Punk was always tough to pin down, and tougher the more fragmented it became. Ask a hundred punks their history and you’ll get a hundred and fifty different versions. Barney Hoskyns (channeling Dick Hebdidge) sees punk as a reaction to glam, David Bowie’s terrain. Others see it as an affront to hippie culture. Still others see punk as a living art, a sort of neo-Dadaist movement, the end of the avant-garde. For some it is mere survival, a new family, a welcome home. And then there are the radicals, the anarchist true believers.
The establishment of a subculture is a bit like the formation of a religion. Various competing sects battle it out until one group asserts itself as orthodox. Then new sects emerge in reaction to the dominant group, each attracting loyal converts, and they codify and they splinter. New groups form, and the cycle repeats ad infinitum. Punk followed this pattern as well. In October 1977 Penny Rimbaud from Crass wrote a diatribe called “Banned from the Roxy” (included in this collection), in which he announced the death of punk and simultaneously proclaimed its truest adherents would persist. “If the first wave of punksters became Concorde anarchists under the ownership of some wanked-out economic system, it’s down to us, the second wave, to fight a hard battle.” More than any of the other early bands, Crass earned the reputation as the purist, the realest, the punkest. They were already calling out the Sex Pistols and the Clash by 1977. They wrote songs about “poseurs” and their effect on the integrity of the scene. “They talk of revolution from the safety of the stage,” Rimbaud scoffs. “They talk of revolution, but it’s from the back seat of their limo.” This has been his attitude ever since.
Punk purists—purists of anything—will try to understand their roots. They will look not just at who was there in the beginning, but what ideas were kept alive by later, uncorrupted generations replicating and expanding the form. I remember how much these distinctions mattered to me, how discovering something utterly new and rare was like finding a buried treasure. I remember how quickly we forgot where we were just six months before, a year, two years. The “true” punk makes fun of the “mall” punk, the Hot Topic punk. A true punk no longer respects the Sex Pistols, so we thought, and thinks anyone who is into them must not be savvy enough to discover the purer stuff like Crass or Black Flag or Dead Kennedys or Minor Threat. But in time those bands became old hat, too. We have better examples now, we think, more underground, more authentic, real bands still playing in basements across America and indeed the world.
I once caught a ride from Sweden to Belgium with a d-beat (a subgenre of hardcore punk) band from Australia called Pisschrïst, who in the van told stories of their many tours. They said the best shows they had ever played were in Indonesia. If a good show in Australia or North America brought a hundred people, and in the bigger European cities perhaps two or three times that, Indonesian punk shows brought more than a thousand, they said. For a band called Pisschrïst, that few have ever heard of. And, they reported, the kids there were punked out! Mohawks, studded jackets covered in hand-sewn patches. Absolutely dedicated and completely into the music. Repression in Indonesia was real, too. You could be beaten by the police just for looking punk. The point of this story is that something about punk feels right to people in the unlikeliest places around the world. The idea has stayed alive for forty years. It meant something then and it means something now, though as punks age, we tend to forget.
Punk these days is the label of choice for many young people at war with conformity. Queer punks, bike punks, folk punks, people who don’t even listen to traditional “punk” music but identify with the label. Few other terms have as brash a reputation as this four-letter word, which is as unwieldy as it ever has been. The writers in this collection may be too far removed to realize that the beautiful chaos that they celebrate is alive and well, and like those earliest of days, is resisting meaning all the time.
Jason Christian was born and raised in Oklahoma. His fiction and essays have appeared in Atticus Review, Cleaver Magazine, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and elsewhere. He is currently an MFA candidate at Louisiana State University, Nonfiction Editor at New Delta Review, and Co-Director of Delta Mouth Literary Festival. He lives with an adorable dog called Seymour.
Punk is Dead is available from Zero Books (October 2017).