The History of Punk: Still a Work in Progress…

Cover photo of Syl Sylvain's book "There's No Bonies in Ice Cream" about his time in the New York Dolls.
Syl Sylvain’s book covers his time in the New York Dolls.

I blame the New York Dolls for this. Well, to be more precise, I blame Sylvain Sylvain. In his recent biography, “There’s No Bones in Ice Cream”, which is well worth a read, he covers his life up to the (first) demise of the New York Dolls. In it he describes how the idea to wear bright red clothing and use the communist flag came from the Dolls themselves. They were talking to Malcolm McLaren at the time, and that led to Vivienne Westwood making the red gear for them. In common with most people, I had always believed that the communist image was McLaren’s idea, whereas his only contribution was to write the “manifesto”, which came later.

McLaren had wanted Sylvain to join the Pistols. He even took Sylvain’s Les Paul Guitar and Fender Rhodes piano back to London with him. He also promised to send Sylvain a ticket for his air travel.  Needless to say, the ticket never arrived, and McLaren apparently gave Sylvain’s Les Paul guitar to Steve Jones and sold the piano to pay for the Pistols’ rehearsal space on Denmark Street.

Cover photo of Jon Savage's book, "England's Dreaming: Sex Pistols and Punk Rock"
Jon Savage’s “England’s Dreaming”, regarded by many as the definitive book about Punk.

These two episodes set me thinking about punk rock’s history and some of the other half-truths, myths and fibs that are lurking out there. So I decided to go back to Jon Savage’s “England’s Dreaming”, which many people describe as the definitive book about punk. Having been around at the time—I used to frequent the Rock Garden in Middlesbrough—the way that Savage describes the punk rock scene is not quite how I remembered things in the North East, at least. I have high hopes that the book, “Gob on The Tyne”—which also covers Wearside and Teesside—when it finally emerges will provide a much more accurate picture of events in North-East England between 1976-1980.

In my view (and I am not alone here), “England’s Dreaming” presents a somewhat over-intellectualised, one-sided view of punk rock. It takes the view that punk more or less began and ended with the Sex Pistols, and lays the blame for their demise largely at the feet of John Lydon. The book was originally published in 1991 so it may be partly attributable to the inherent problems of trying to write history several years after the event: it invariably ends up being revisionist, and the authors always put their own particular spin on it.

As an aside, 1976, nominally the start of the punk rock era, saw the release of Peter Cooke and Dudley Moore’s “Derek & Clive Live”. Even though a lot of the material had been kicking around on bootlegs since 1973, the album still reached no. 12 in the UK charts, where it spent 15 weeks in the top 40. It was the first time that obscenity had really been available on record, and Peter Cooke maintained that his character helped to provide the basis for the persona of Johnny Rotten.

So, if punk didn’t begin with the Pistols, who were the first punk band? I would probably plump for The Sonics. Hailing from Tacoma, Washington in the USA, they are more often described as a “garage” band, but they certainly have punk credentials. Their history, which began in 1960, is documented in last year’s well-received film, “Boom! A Film About The Sonics”, which is on my must-see list

Cover photo of the Julian Temple DVD "The Future is Unwritten" which focuses on Joe Strummer.
“The Future is Unwritten”, the second part of Julian Temple’s trilogy on 1970s music, focuses on Joe Strummer.

If you were to ask me who invented (re-invented?) punk rock in the 1970s, though, that would be a much harder one to answer. McLaren (surprise, surprise!) always promoted the idea that he was the one behind it all. If you watch Julien Temple’s fine documentary, “The Future is Unwritten”, however, you can see Bernie Rhodes—who worked very closely with McLaren—say that it was he that formed The Sex Pistols, that it was he who found John Lydon, and that it was he who was the philosopher behind it, boldly claiming, “I am Punk”. Maybe the forthcoming Stranglers documentary will offer some further insights, given that they formed before the Pistols, in 1974.

Cover photo of John Robb's book, "Punk Rock: An Oral History", which is made up of quotes from many leading punk and post-punk musicians.
“Punk Rock: An Oral History” captures the spirit of the times in the words of Punk and Post-Punk musicians.

It seems clear to me, then, that the history of punk rock is still being written. To get a better, more complete understanding, you have to go beyond “England’s Dreaming”. Fortunately there is an ever-expanding collection of other resources that can be consulted. John Robb’s “Punk Rock: An Oral History” captures a bit more of the spirit of the times, and beyond, for example, while Sylvain’s book fills in some of the pre-punk background. The latter left me with the overarching impression that Malcolm McLaren was even more of a chancer than I had previously thought. He was more than willing to appropriate ideas from anywhere, as long as it furthered his own agenda, which he seemed to make up as he went along.  The infamous Bill Grundy television appearance, for example, only came about because Queen pulled out at the last minute, but McLaren milked the subsequent publicity for all it was worth, maximising the notoriety of the band.

Cover photo of John Lydon's book, "Anger is an Energy".
Lydon puts across his side of the story in “Anger is an Energy”.

Anyway, John Lydon has always been pretty scathing about “England’s Dreaming”. In his erudite (and entertaining) autobiography, “Anger Is An Energy”, he talks about how he feels that Savage essentially stitched him up. He also flags up how punk rock was very much into equality, and there were many women who played in bands and formed bands of their own.

Cover photo of Helen Reddington's book, "The Lost Women of Rock Music".
“The Lost Women of Rock Music” gives voice to many of the women involved in Punk and early post-Punk.

The role of women in punk (and beyond) has been elaborated at length (albeit with a more academic slant) by Helen Reddington (aka Helen McCookerybook) in “The Lost Women of Rock Music” and, more recently, captured on film in “Stories from the She-Punks” (also on my must-see list) and in Vivien Goldman’s book, “Revenge of the She-Punks”. As Reddington highlights, the female musicians and bands (The Slits, The Adverts, Poison Girls, X-Ray Spex and many more) provided a major contribution to what was still, up to that point, a very male-dominated rock scene.

Cover photop of the Julian Temple DVD "The Filth and the Fury".
“The Filth and the Fury”, the first part of Julian Temple’s trilogy on 1970s music, focuses on The Sex Pistols.

Lydon’s conflict with Glen Matlock during their time in the Pistols has been well documented. Julien Temple reveals a bit more of the background to the spat, however, in another great documentary, “The Filth and The Fury”. Steve Jones describes how McLaren stirred things up by telling both Lydon and Matlock untrue things that the other had said about them. McLaren already had first hand experience of how infighting was at the heart of the New York Dolls, having invited them all to air their grievances in a group meeting. He appears to have believed that these tensions were one of the reasons why the Dolls were so good. Knowing that now makes me wonder if that was why he stirred things up between Lydon and Matlock.

Cover photo of Wolfganf Buld's DVD, "Punk in London".
“Punk in London” provides a snapshot of the Punk live scene in 1977.

If you believe the vision of the punk rock world in “England’s Dreaming”, then The Sex Pistols were, more or less, the only game in town and the only town that (really) mattered was London. This vision is somewhat reinforced by Wolfgang Buld’s documentary “Punk in London”. Filmed in 1977, it gives a very limited picture of what was happening back then. It’s worth pointing out that it uses overdubs and the DVD (at least) includes Berlin(!) footage of The Clash tagged on the end, which some have suggested was a marketing ploy. It overlooks the many bands that were already active elsewhere in the UK, e.g., The Jam, who appear in both, were from Woking, rather than London, and The Jolt (sometimes described as The Scottish Jam) who appear in Buld’s film, were from the Glasgow area, although they did move to London. Faye Fife recently reiterated that The Rezillos had never even heard of the Pistols when they originally formed in Edinburgh in 1976, the same year as The Jolt and, in Dublin, The Radiators From Space were coming together. Bearing in mind that the Pistols did not play all that many gigs in the UK, and they were usually to small audiences, perhaps their influence may not have been quite as widespread as some people claim.

The question of exactly how punk rock began is a difficult, maybe impossible, one to answer. What is clear, however, is that several of the musicians on the front line of punk (in The Pistols, The Clash, The Stranglers, The Jam, and The Ruts, for example) could already play and had been doing so for a while.  I have no doubt that there were many that could not play too, but that was also true of several Scottish beat bands in the 1960s, for example, as highlighted in the series “Rip It Up Unwrapped”, which recently aired on BBC Television. So a lack of musical talent was hardly a new thing.

It is particularly worth noting the effect of guitarist Chris Spedding’s on the direction of The Pistols’ early career. In his biography entry for 1976, Spedding notes that he produced demos for them in May 1976, which brought them to the attention of producer Chris Thomas. He also points out that they could play, and were actually good, in spite of what others said. He helped bolster their confidence, however, as Caroline Coon indicates in “England’s Dreaming”. This episode appears to be another example of McLaren’s opportunism: Spedding believes that he was chosen for the job simply because he was just about the only musician that McLaren knew.

Cover photo of Idles' CD, "Joy as an Act of Resistance".
Idles cover “Don’t You Feel Like Cryin'” on their “Joy as an Act of Resistance” album.

Despite what some may think, punk rock did not spontaneously appear out of nowhere, in complete isolation from all other forms of music. You do not have to look far, for instance, to see/hear the influence of the likes of pop music—The Clash’s “Spanish Bombs” and The Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant” both owe a debt to Abba—and reggae (The Clash, The Ruts, The Slits and so on). Lydon’s well-documented love of reggae (and dub) led to Virgin taking him to Jamaica (with Don Letts) to seek out artists for their Front Line imprint (he wrote the introduction to their 2014 anthology “Sounds of Reality”). Elsewhere, Paul Weller was a big soul fan, and several bands, including The Jam, used to include soul covers in their early live sets. Many band also covered songs from the 60’s and 70s including The Pistols (The Monkees’ “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone”), The Saints (Connie Francis’ “Lipstick on Your Collar”), and London (The Easybeats’ “Friday On My Mind”). This is not unusual, many bands do this in their earliest days, and some carry on doing it as they progress: Idles, for example, covered Solomon Burke’s “Don’t You Feel Like Cryin’” on their mighty “Joy As an Act of Resistance” album.

The high energy was not unique to punk, in its various guises, either. Much of it, in the UK at least, came from the pub rock/rhythm’n’blues scene (bands such as Ducks Deluxe, Brinsley Schwarz, Dr Feelgood and The Pirates). Lydon has openly acknowledged how much he liked the early Dr Feelgood. It is also likely that more of the early punk bands had heard Dr Feelgood than had heard The Sex Pistols, given that the former had already released two albums in 1975, and their live album “Stupidity” reached number 1 in 1976. (If you want to see a rowdy, scary-looking pre-Punk bunch of accountant types, track down the recording of their 1975 performance of “She Does It Right” for ITV!)

Cover photo of the compilation CD box set "All the Young Droogs".
“All the Young Droogs” provides many of the missing links between Glam Rock, proto-Punk and Punk.

You can also hear the seeds of punk being sown in the early 70s on the recent compilation album, “All The Young Droogs”. Many of the bands may not be familiar, but you should recognise a few names, including one TV Smith, who was very much a glam rocker! You can also hear the beginnings of the raunchy guitar sound favoured by many punk bands in The New York Dolls, Iggy and the Stooges, and the MC5 (have a look for their 1970 live recording of “Looking at You”, later covered by the Damned), or going back further to Lenny Kaye’s “Nuggets” album.

Cover photo of Buzzcocks' second album, "Love Bites".
“Love Bites” made Pete Shelley have doubts because Punks were not supposed to be successful!

One of the cornerstones of punk rock was that anyone could do it: the DIY ethos. It is true that many bands did, either producing their own singles or signing to small independent labels. Most of the biggest bands, however, were signed to major labels: The Clash (CBS), Buzzcocks and The Stranglers (United Artists), The Sex Pistols (EMI, A&M and finally Virgin, although it was still essentially a large independent label at the time). The main exception was The Damned, who were signed to Stiff. This all seemed to go against the DIY ideal and, when interviewed by Steve Lamacq about “Love Bites”, Buzzcocks’ Pete Shelley confessed to having doubts because of the band’s success. This was not what was supposed to happen in the punk world! He even considered leaving the band, and discussed it at length with their manager Richard Boon. There were also many bands who never got further than doing it themselves, though, and for many reasons, e.g., some just ran out of steam and/or money, while some were just never going to get signed because, in truth, they were not very good! One of the few people who has followed the DIY ethos throughout his long career is Billy Childish (in all his different bands), which is captured on the new compilation “Punk Rock ist Nicht Tot: The Billy Childish Story 1977-2018”.

Cover photo of Stuart Cosgrove's book, "Detroit 67: The Year that Changed Soul".
Did John Sullivan, one time manager of the MC5, inspire Malcolm McLaren?

Several people, most notably McLaren and his cohorts, claimed that punk rock had come along to blow apart the music (and political) scene. Whilst this may be true, the idea was not new and had been tried before. In “Detroit 67: The Year That Changed Soul”, Stuart Cosgrove describes how, in the late 1960s an organisation called The Steering Committee had threatened to disrupt Detroit using rock music. Their weapon of choice? The MC5! Cosgrove describes John Sullivan, a founder of The Steering Committee, as a man with “a rock journalist’s grasp of hyperbole” who “found high drama in every living moment”… sound familiar? Once he had met the managers of the Grateful Dead, he realised that you did not have to be a serious stuffed shirt to manage a band, and wound up as the MC5’s manager, sealing for them a place in annals of alternative rock music. After reading “Detroit 67”, if anyone tells me that McLaren was inspired by Sullivan, I would happily buy into that theory.

Cover photo of David Cavanagh's book, "Good Night and Good Riddance: How Thirty-Five Years of John Peel Helped to Change Modern Life"
Even though John Peel championed Punk he still played a lot of other music.

And, as for blowing the music world apart… if you look at the official UK singles annual charts for 1977-79, you can see that punk rock failed to make much of a lasting dent. Even if you look at what the doyen of punk, John Peel, was playing at the time, its impact does seem rather limited. A quick scan through the late David Cavanagh’s excellent “Good Night and Good Riddance: How Thirty-Five Years Of John Peel Helped To Shape Modern Life” shows that even Peel was still playing a lot of other music alongside punk. On his June 7th show in 1977, for example he included the likes of Dave Edmunds, Bob Seger, Status Quo, Van Morrison and Pink Floyd in addition to several punk tracks. Furthermore, several of the prog-rock bands that punk was supposed to kill off are still hanging around, and even thriving, over 40 years later.

At the end of the day I guess that none of this really matters that much, and a lot of punk stuff just comes down to a gut feeling. If you were there at the time, you mostly did not care too much about which school a band had attended, what social class they belonged to, or what colour or gender they were. It was just about the energy and excitement and the fact it made you feel good. As Blank Frank from Middlesbrough’s Blitzkrieg Bop put it in “A Hard Road to Nowhere”: “Punk occupied an infinitesimally small space in this universe, but if it was in your space, it was in your face. A full-on freak-out of fans and fanzines, a riot of ripped T-shirts and ripped-off bands.” And it’s still rumbling on, and refusing to lie down and die. Several of the original bands are still doing the rounds, and sounding as good as ever, new bands are emerging, and thriving. Bandcamp daily, for example, recently reported on the thriving punk scene in Yakutsk, one of the world’s coldest cities, with the local Youth of the North collective having uploaded 13 releases to Bandcamp in 2018. So there’s life in the old dog yet, and the history of punk is still being made and written (and re-written).