Saturday, April 12, 2008

1977 The Year Decency Died (PopMatters Article)

Two really good articles about Punk from the PopMatters Website. I'm widening the scope of what I post on here from now on, Adam and the Ants 1977-82 are related to a cultural change (Punk) and changes in pop music in Britain and the US, so I am going to post items about all of that too. After all, it's Music For A Future Age, and music from 1977-84 is precisely that, music that with hindsight was a lot more innovative than today's pop music, and post-punk music that was full of a whole lot more ideas and experiments in sound than much of today's music.
See Simon Reynold's book Rip It Up And Start Again to read more about this and visit his excellent website.

Channel Crossings:
1977: The Year Decency Died - Part I

[9 April 2008]

"I loathe and detest everything they stand for and look like. They are obnoxious, obscene and disgusting."

by Raphaël Costambeys-Kempczynski

Instead of identifying a contemporary sociological problem, the headline of a March 2008 issue of Time, “Unhappy, Unloved and Out of Control”, could well have been the definition of the punk-led youth of England just over 30 years ago. The year 1977 began with the International Monetary Fund lending Britain £2.3 billion in order to stay the decli

ning value of sterling. The Labour Party’s popularity was falling in the polls. A dynamic Conservative opposition leader was putting James Callaghan, the Labour Prime Minister, in difficulty; only a pact with the Liberal party would postpone the eventual demise of his minority government.

Although Labour was suffering in Parliament during those first few months of 1977, media interest was turning its attention to the nostalgia-fuelled Queen’s silver jubilee scheduled for the weekend of 4th June. But not everyone was caught up in the bunting and flag waving. A shadow was being cast. Writing in his essay ‘The English People’, George Orwell suggests that “England is the only European country where internal politics are conducted in a more or less humane and decent manner”, the English people he claims “are not good haters”.

Ten years after the Summer of Love, 1977 had it s Summer of Hate. This is how Jon Savage summarises the jubilee celebrations in his seminal punk history, England’s Dreaming (1991):

Out of the morass of mid-1970s pluralism emerged the old spectres thinly disguised with a fresh lick of paint. Here was the blind superiority that had characterised the English world-view after the Second World War; here was a concentrated dose of all the unappealing traits—snobbery, insularity, xenophobia—that rendered England’s continued claim to be a world power meaningless.

England's Dreaming

(St. Martin's (Revised);

US: Jan 2002)

Savage’s insistence on England rather than Great Britain suggests that the Silver Jubilee was an English moment—the United Kingdom had no Empire, Scottish devolution was a burning question, Welsh nationalism was high, and the IRA campaign had spread to the mainland. As if the Establishment needed reminding of England’s social frailties, at 7.30pm on 7th June a boat called the Queen Elizabeth sailed down the Thames with the Sex Pistols onboard. The Sex Pistols were banned from playing on land and so a water-bound performance of the song “God Save the Queen” must have seemed like a good idea.

Except that the self-congratulatory act of performing to a captive audience put John Lydon a.k.a. Johnny Rotten, the vocalist and lyricist of the Sex Pistols, ill-at-ease. Neither was Lydon quite comfortable with sharing the stage with Richard Branson his hippiesque record label boss. Lydon’s performance was spiked with added resentment and when the boat docked there was a stand-off between the audience and the police. As night fell tensions increased and the police lost patience.

John Varnom, an associate of Richard Branson’s at Virgin, recalls:

We reached a high point, from which short steps descended to the pavement. It was at precisely this point that Malcolm [McLaren] raised his fist and, in full view of about five or six police, screamed: “You f**king fascist bastards!” It was a direct invitation, and it was not declined.

The release of the single was itself fraught with difficulties. The original release date had been decided as 27th May so that the single would reach the top ten by Jubilee week. But workers at the CBS pressing plant protested against the single’s content, downing their tools on various occasions. Once released, the promotion of the single was equally difficult—the Independent Broadcasting Authority deemed the single to be in direct contravention of Section 4 (10) (A) of the IBA Act, i.e., “against good taste or decency, likely to encourage or incite crime, or lead to disorder.” The commercial television stations and radios were instructed not to broadcast the single and the BBC banned the record altogether. Regardless of these efforts, or perhaps because of them, the single sold 150,000 copies within five days of its release sending it to number 11.

You would think that three decades on, the antics of the Sex Pistols would be viewed favourably; John Lydon bestowed the doubtful status of being an ‘institution’. And yet the Silver Jubilee seems to remain a touchy subject. After 30 years the secret government files of 1977 were taken to the National Archives in Kew and released to the public. Of the six files covering the Silver Jubilee, however, only two have been opened. The others have been held back under Section 40 ‘Personal Information’ and Section 40 ‘Information Provided in Confidence’. As Martha Kearney put it in her BBC Radio 4 documentary, UK Confidential, we may never know how the Queen felt about being “gobbed at by Johnny Rotten”.

In English popular musical terms, 1977 began at 6.15pm on 1st Decem

ber 1976. This was the day of the infamous interview of the Sex Pistols by

Bill Grundy on the Thames Television Today programme.

Goaded by a drunken Grundy, within two minutes punk, as a liberal socially complex phenomenon, was reduced to a flurry of four-letter words. So it was that 1977 was set up as the year decency died. Punk would still prove to be violent and political, but it had already been subsumed by the Establishment as bad boy rock. What had been an underground musical development was transformed into a media circus typified by the front page of the Daily Mirror published the next day.

Councils began cancelling tour dates, the record company EMI was urged to take action. Neither the group’s manager, McLaren, nor EMI had condoned the behaviour of the Sex Pistols on the Today show. This was the media condemning a scandal of their own making.

Was this a reflection of the age-old fear of a rebelling younger generation? or perhaps the indication of yet another moral panic sweeping the country? This then appears as an example of what Jurgen Habermas says about Late Capitalism and its propensity for crisis tendencies where policy becomes the management of these crises, a management which contains in itself the possibility of further crises, rather than the resolution of the fundamentals (see Habermas 1975). The fundamental issue in 1976 and 1977 was not punk but that great negator of common public decency: unemployment. As the Clash sang on their début album: “Career opportunities are the ones that never knock / Every job they offer you is to keep out the dock.”

As the closing comments of Steve Jones during the interview with Grundy suggest, it is the journalist, the broadcasting institution, and his proposition directed at Siouxsie Sioux that were seen as being indecent. Writing in the fanzine Bondage shortly after the interview, the singer of the punk band the Nipple Erectors and future member of the Pogues, Shane MacGowan, immediately identifies the vagueness of the notion of decency and projects it as a heuristic fiction:

Since when did EMI or any of those old c**ts put “public duty” before their precious money or the security it gives them. What it really is is they feel that security is threatened just by what the Pistols represent. And how could anything that appears on ITV offend public decency. There isn’t any public decency—people only know what’s decent by being told by ITV and the rest of the media and EMI too. (Shane McGowan in Bondage, N°1, December 1976)

Though placing the Queen at the head of a fascist regime in a song is defendable as the right to free speech in a democratic country (although there is no constitutional guarantee of this in the United Kingdom), this may not have been useful to the Sex Pistols and their anti-establishment stance. The message may have been one of decency, but the medium had to consistently be indecent to ensure the vibrancy of that message. Even this, however, would prove difficult to sustain as Lydon later admitted when talking about Public Image Limited, or PiL, the band he would form after the demise of the Sex pistols:

I formed PiL because I got bored with the extremist point of view that I’d had with the Sex Pistols… I attempted to move toward a liberal point of view and see if that could slowly but surely change society into something more decent… (Lydon 1993)

The Sex Pistols as “the poison in the human machine”, to quote from “God Save the Queen”, ensured that they would enflame the stereotypes of middle England they were reacting against, all those that the song “Liar” claimed to be in “suspension”. One such candidate was Bernard Brooke-Partridge, chairman of the Arts Council who had banned the Sex Pistols from performing in London. Writing in Rolling Stone Charles M. Young recounts his exchange with Brooke-Partridge:

“I will do everything within the law to stop them from appearing here ever again,” he says. “I loathe and detest everything they stand for and look like. They are obnoxious, obscene and disgusting.”

“Doesn’t the question of who should decide what’s disgusting in a free society enter in here?”

“I am the person who decides,” he says. “The electoral put me here. My power is not in question. If the Sex Pistols want to change the system, they are free to stand for election from my district.”

“In the United States, the First Amendment to the Constitution says the government is not allowed to make such decisions.”

“We have our own way of doing things here. The Sex Pistols are scum trying to make a fast buck, which they are entitled to do under the law. I am entitled to try and stop them. We’ll see who wins.” (Rock Is Sick and Living in London, 20 October 1977)

The Sex Pistols with Bill Grundy - Today show excerpt

Image (partial) from Blair Air

Channel Crossings: 1977: The Year Decency Died - Part II

[10 April 2008]

If punk’s message was ‘destroy’, then inevitably wrapped up in its own scream of existence was its dying breath. No sooner was 1977 declared the year of punk than the death of punk was in the cards.

by Raphaël Costambeys-Kempczynski

1977: The Year Decency Died - Part I “I loathe and detest everything they stand for and look like. They are obnoxious, obscene and disgusting.”

The year of the Sex Pistols was punctuated by the Grundy interview, the Queen’s Silver Jubilee and the troubled release of their album Never Mind the Bollocks Here’s the Sex Pistols. On 5th November 1977 WPC Julie Dawn Story informed the branch manager of Virgin Nottingham that the word ‘Bollocks’ on the record cover was in breach of the Indecent Advertising Act of 1899. Pivotal to the subsequent court case was the witness account of Reverend James Kingsley, professor of English at Nottingham University and former Anglican priest. In Kingsley’s account of the etymology of ‘bollock’ he argued:

The word has been used as a nickname for clergymen. Clergymen are known to talk a good deal of rubbish and so the word later developed the meaning of nonsense… They became known for talking a great deal of bollocks, just as old balls or baloney also come to mean testicles, so it has twin uses in the dictionary.

Calling upon a sense of pride in the English language’s Anglo-Saxon inheritance, this line of defence was enough for the magistrates to find in favour of the Sex Pistols although the senior magistrate stressed this was done “reluctantly”.

The battle ground between the Sex Pistol-led English punk movement and the Establishment was that of decency. The punk events of 1977 were driven by a need to re-appropriate decency as the domain of the subject, to inject responsibility back into a notion too long left in suspension. The claim of English punk music in 1977 was about empowering the social actor through responsibility with subjectivity.

There should be no mistake, however. Punk’s English dream of decency, to play on a line from the song “God Save the Queen”, was itself a construction. If the Sex Pistols were the unadulterated voice of the working class, or the unemployed class, this could only sit uncomfortably with their fame and money. The class issue would fuel the artist’s age-old struggle of how to remain authentic to the artistic endeavour and the message.

Margaret Thatcher Che Guevara Revolutionary T-Shirt© image (partial) from Red - Revolutionary T-shirt Designs

Margaret Thatcher Che Guevara Revolutionary T-Shirt© image (partial)
from Red - Revolutionary T-shirt Designs

The direct attack on the social realities of 1977 would lead to added attention, better record sales, increased wealth and greater distance from the class struggle within which the music knew its genesis. Critics have therefore argued that a popular musicians view of contemporary reality is fuzzy, distorted by the pull between the utopian message of production and the capital gain of consumption.

Ultimately what we need to bear in mind is that beyond the performance of punk bands of this period, whether on stage or in the media, many of the band members did not have working class backgrounds. Of the Clash, Joe Strummer’s father was a diplomat and Mick Jones went to art school. For the Sex Pistols with such figures as Situationist Malcolm McLaren and the fashion designer Vivienne Westwood pulling the strings from their Kings Road clothes shop, it is difficult not to peer at this working class subculture through the microscope of art school filtered postmodernism. Katrina Irving may argue that what differentiates US punk from English punk is that the Americans considered themselves artists, quoted Genet and played concerts in arts centres, but we must not forget that McLaren, if only briefly, had managed the New York Dolls.

Not only this, but, John Lydon, the mouthpiece of the dole queue, had never been unemployed for any particular length of time himself. Lydon had an ambivalent relationship towards class. He appears to have a nostalgic association to the English working-class community of his youth and yet his Sex Pistols persona, Johnny Rotten, an imagined alternative identity born out of his extensive cultural capital, a product of an intellectual construct, firmly rejects this wistful vision of the past.

To attack the generation of World War II, however, it would be necessary to demonstrate the suffering experienced at the hands of post-Empire inertia characterised by the Silver Jubilee. Perhaps the most violent aspect of “God Save the Queen” is not the attack on the “mad parade” itself (the song was written about a year before the jubilee celebrations) but the songs mantra that there is “no future / in England’s dreaming”.

With the seeming impossibility of prospect, all that was left was the immediacy of a present perceived as the apocalypse –- The Sex Pistols sang “I am an antichrist” in “Anarchy in the UK”, The Clash sang “London’s Burning”, X-Ray Specs sang “Oh! Bondage Up Yours”, The Stranglers sang “Something Better Change”.

Heavily defined by its class system, English society in 1977 had a voice for its alienated bored working class youth. With the Labour government hanging on to power by the skin of its teeth social order seemed in turmoil. The vicious sound of these English punk bands reflected the destruction around them: the dissonant snarling singing voice, the raw guitar wall of sound, every beat of every bar accented and the percussive high pitch of continuous crashing symbols makes listening uncomfortable.

Richard Middleton argues that teenage rebellion in the 1950s and 1960s, though set against the backdrop of growing liberal ideology, was articulated to safe musical patterns with little subversive content. Punk offered a more testing musical and message-driven assault at a time of more critical socio-economic unrest. One could argue, however, that the various moments of youth culture are self-regulating revolutions as the actors of one generation necessarily grow older and therefore normalise any sense of fracture. In the meantime the social realities of economic failure persist.

It would appear misleading then to suggest that punk helped shape the politics of the time, but these punk groups did project themselves as the voice of the English underclass, the Everyman voice of “Another Country / Another council tenancy” to quote from “Anarchy in the UK”. This is the little man against the big man mentality seen as a defining characteristic of Englishness -– as the sociologist Krishan Kumar puts it, the English have always “championed the good sense, resourcefulness and courage of the ordinary ‘little chap’”. Indeed, with such direct implications in movements like Rock against Racism, punk groups like the Clash, Buzzcocks, X-Ray Spex and Sham 69 did more than symbolic resistance.

Class differentiation was also identified along musical lines, notably in the polarisation of punk and progressive rock. Prog rock was the genre of popular music seen to be indulgently arty, intellectual, Romantic and middle class by punk. It lacked authenticity whereas punk was purer, had more street credibility.

Contrary to many of its predecessors, at the musical core of punk—from its conception to its performance—lies the action of protest. Instrumental solos, seen as superfluous to this and a sign of slickness, were to be condemned along with the banks of electronic keyboards so revelled in by the progressive rockers of the time. The lack of rhythmic variation made punk undanceable but added a sense of urgency. The simplicity of the riffs was the stance of individualism and allowed the anger of the voice to stand out.

Protest song in the form of folk or hippie music had been plaintive, punk, however, was declamatory. The Clash and the Sex Pistols confronted their audiences often provoking them into a violent reaction. The sense of confrontation is then worked on in the studio to reproduce this live feel. No sense of artificiality must come between the band and the audience, and though it may be difficult to make out the message because of the sneer, the snarl and the slur, the sincerity of that message must not be brought into question.

Often criticised for being out of tune one need only listen to a song “Pretty Vacant” to here how Rotten aggresses the listener with his political message sung out of key during the verse but then neatly falls into key for the rabble rousing chorus inviting us to sing along, to answer his call to arms. In this way punk positions itself against the music that had preceded itself—breaking away from rock ‘n ‘roll, from hippie music and prog rock, and expressing a real disdain for disco. And yet punk reworked rock ‘n’ roll in a pub rock guise, and inherited the rhythms of reggae. These articulations went some way to guarantee the bands’ commercial success, pointed at their mainstream bent.

Some writers, however, still see punk as fundamentally changing the nature of popular music. Ian Chambers for instance believed punk created a breach in the sequentiality of pop which would lead to “a proliferation of margins rather than a predictable return to a renewed ‘mainstream’ and subordinated ‘alternative’”. Today we can deplore the fact that sanitised Euro pop is still fed to us by such television programmes as the X-Factor where contestants churn out over-produced songs of the past, but television itself is becoming a marginal medium in the face of the Internet, which offers on demand access to an almost infinite possibility of marginal existences. Chambers is perhaps right, but is this down to punk or the digitalisation of the audio medium that would begin just five years later, in 1982?

Perhaps the public uproar over punk reflected a real threat to public order, but cultural theory teaches us well. Although much of the media attention focused on the public displays of violence that characterised punk—the imagery of bondage, the aggressive musical snarl, the lyrics of desolation and oppression, the public goading—there was also a commodification of this violence. After the Grundy incident, small retailers began to take notice of punk’s apparent individualist ethos and started setting up independent record labels. Added to this were the ‘one stops’—firms that bought bulk records from the major labels and then sold them on to independent record shops but without the small order surcharge imposed by the major record labels—in effect decentralising the chain of distribution.

This was the Do-It-Yourself drive of punk, though one should eschew all temptation to call this democratisation of the English record industry. If anything this was the transformation of the punk from consumer to producer, from the unengaged to the socially responsible subjective agent. Moreover, you no longer had to feel frustrated by lack of talent as this image from the fanzine Sniffin’ Glue demonstrates.

The Sex Pistols and the Clash had both originally signed to major record labels, increased exposure promising larger audiences and the wider communication of their message. But commercial pressures would call into question the authenticity of punk. Technical pressures of trying to reproduce the emotions of a live concert would also eat at the heart of the authentic punk experience.

And then there was the gimmick. Soon it was difficult to escape the coloured 12-inch or the limited edition. Post-punk would come to embrace the commodification of authenticity and leading the way would be John Lydon post-Sex Pistols with his new band, Public Image Limited, the name of which conjures up the notion of privately-owned limited liability companies.

As with many English bands since, the straw that finally broke the anarchist camel’s back was the Sex Pistols’ attempt to break America. The positivistic attitude of Americans did not appear to be a comfortable bedfellow for nihilistic apocalypse. And so often nihilistic apocalypse did not turn up, as Savage puts it “There was no murder, no vomiting, no mutilation: just four 20- to 21-year-olds”.

Reflecting the attitude of their manager back at the Queen’s Silver Jubilee when McLaren had aggravated the situation with the police, on 7th January 1978 John Lydon at a concert at Randy’s Rodeo in San Antonia decided that this was his moment of hubris and shouted: “You cowboys are all a bunch of f**king faggots”. Needless to say, the concert had to be interrupted for several minutes. Just ten days later the Sex Pistols were no more.

It would be all too easy to conclude with an image of the stereotypical Sex Pistols, leaving us with an ironic sense of the commodification of authenticity. But punk was the voice challenging the original generation of teenagers as they were turning into parents. The Sex Pistols were also the enemy within, willing to expose the record industry to show their authenticity as they sung on the track “E.M.I.”: “and you thought that we were faking / that we were all just money making / you do not believe we’re for real”.

If punk’s message was ‘destroy’, then inevitably wrapped up in its own scream of existence was its dying breath. No sooner was 1977 declared the year of punk than the death of punk was in the cards. The release of “God Save the Queen” and the publicity stunt on the Thames were accompanied by the Sex Pistols’ sighs of regret and the prerequisite boredom. Within the space of a year the proliferation of generic punk bands with the formulaic snarl had turned punk into a conservative mode of musical expression. Ironically one could see the symbolic death of punk as the election of Margaret Thatcher in May 1979.

The wave of post-punk bands would push the Clash to sing in June 1978 “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais”: “The new groups are not concerned / With what there is to be learned / They got Burton suits, ha you think it’s funny / Turning rebellion into money.” Indeed, 1977 was the year decency died. Social decency suffered from the political upheaval of that year, public decency could no longer be stabilised by its hypocrisy, and musical decency in the form of punk was commodified by post-punk before even the first punk album had been released.

Perhaps the most indecent thing of 1977 was that an ex-Beatle, backed by the music of bagpipes, topped the charts singing “Mull of Kintyre”.

Paul McCartney - Mull of Kintyre

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