Dear Joe Corré: Please don’t

4305213891_88d17c1da0_oDear Joe Corré,

I read with concern that you plan to chuck all of your punk memorabilia onto a fire. And I wanted to write to ask you, politely, if you would mind awfully, you know, not. Please.

See, you may believe that punk has been co-opted and absorbed by the British establishment. And you may well think that Punk London, the National Lottery-funded programme of events and exhibitions, is an attempt to turn punk into a museum piece or a tribute act. In fact, you said that. You said: “Punk has become like a fucking museum piece or a tribute act.” You said it the other day in The Guardian. I read it.

Well, it is already a tribute act. You’re looking at someone who grew up during pop-punk. (I legitimately liked Blink-182 and I went to their gigs and everything. Yes, I know. Shudder.) It is also a museum piece. Loads of punk stuff is already in museums. Like this jumper designed by your parents, Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren. It was sold in 1976. It has been in the Victoria & Albert Museum’s collection for 22 years. You probably remember the V&A from when they did that richly successful exhibition of your mum’s work with all her punk clothing and whatnot. They did that 12 years ago.

Punk London isn’t just about letting middle-class people gawp at punk. Just because you think that punk is being recycled by the establishment to suit its own ends doesn’t mean that punk doesn’t belong in museums, nor that its cultural legacy should not be subject to the kind of critical inquiry that is made possible by museums, or historians. Punk has a history – one embedded in the history of our society and culture – and it is right that this history is understood and analysed. It helps us to learn who we are. We being the punks, we being the people. Does the (highly debatable) view that nothing like the Sex Pistols has existed before or since show that punk was a phenomenon that ruptured itself from cultural history, or from time? Of course it doesn’t.

You see, on behalf of historians everywhere, it makes us really upset when people destroy our sources. We fucking love sources. God, how we do. We love touching them, reading them, looking at them. But most of all – and this is where we really get horny – we love evaluating those sources in a bid to unpick assumed narratives of power handed down from the past and thereby democratising and radically transforming both our collective social understanding and our memories of who we are. We’re wild. We scrutinise the tales of the rich, critique the lies of the powerful, empower the voiceless. AND THAT’S ONLY ON THE HISTORY CHANNEL. What’s more punk than being a historian? Absolutely nothing. Honest to God, we’re great.

But we can’t do all of that cool shit when you destroy our sources. We need stuff. Now, there’s a field of historical inquiry that borrows techniques from anthropologists to study the past via the objects, things and stuff that humans made, used and owned – and humans made cultural expression through these things. Stop me if you know this. This stuff, this “material culture”, is cracking good. Not only is this a relatively new sub-discipline of history (about 20 years old, which in historian terms is fashionable as hell), this approach also offers exciting ways of studying the past that weren’t previously available to historians. So instead of just studying punk through, say, contemporary newspapers, TV coverage or photography, we can think about the things that were key to punk and elucidate their histories, their biographies.

Take, for example, that door handle you have, the one from the front door to Sex, McLaren and Westwood’s shop on the King’s Road. It’s a self-evidently valuable (I’m not talking £££) piece of punk memorabilia. It’s cool AF. It also tells us something about Sex that we can’t learn from photographs. For example, we can feel how heavy the handle is. You said it’s a metal handkerchief with a pink enamel logo saying ‘Sex 430’. I would guess that a metal handkerchief isn’t necessarily a very practical instrument with which to open doors. The weight of it, its shape, its size – these things tell us something about how Westwood and McLaren might have wanted us to feel about entering the shop. It might also tell us something about the processes that went into making it. Where did the metal come from? Who crafted it? How much were they paid? How old were they? Were they professionally skilled or a willing amateur? These questions help us to understand, among other things, the social, economic and political make-up of Britain in the late 1970s and 1980s. These questions help us to challenge the stories of the powerful that pretend that people like this don’t matter, that the histories of class, difference, protest and resistance are footnotes in the Oxford English Biography of Civilised Progress. That stuff is vital. That shit is dope. It is our history and it belongs to all of us.

As such, that handle belongs in a museum. Now, museums aren’t politically neutral. Of course they aren’t. Exhibitions and collections are very often expressions of power of various ruling groups and ideologies. For example, the British Museum’s forthcoming ‘Sunken Cities’ exhibition on ancient Egyptian cities lost underwater is likely to include a fair bit of Egypt’s past offered up as carnival for the white, western gaze. Indeed, some of Punk London’s events are barely-disguised and patronising admonitions of working-class culture. A quick look at the list of events will point to… hang on. What the… You’re on here! Your burning thingy! It’s right here on November 26. Listed as “Joe Corré burns his punk stuff”. You never said!

Well, now what? That’s sort of just proved my point. Now you’re a part of this tribute-act-museum-piece thing that you wanted to avoid. It’s almost as if you are part of the spectacle. Perhaps what this demonstrates is that the meaning of punk is far more complicated and far more powerful than you suggest. Punk isn’t a victim of capitalism; it needs capitalism. Its practices follow the most basic examples of capitalist enterprises. Produce, market, exchange, invest. Sell records, make clothing, spread the message. Far from being manipulated by the processes of capitalism for commercial gain, as you say, punks were heartily involved in commercial manipulations of their own. 

After all, Westwood and McLaren were traders. They marketised punk, put a barcode on it and sold it to kids on the Kings Road before anybody heard the first G-chord of Anarchy in the UK. And they did rather well out of it. So did you. Inherited wealth, by the way, whether that is cash or assets tied up in punk memorabilia, is pretty close to the definition of “establishment”. (Ah, to be 48 and white and male and rich and punk!) Moreover, selling was always part of what punk was about. It has always been ephemera. It has always been throwaway trash. That was the point. Was it not always about holding up a mirror to meaningless degradations of capitalism, to the horrific unreality of its depressing spectacle, to highlighting the life-affirming truth that under the modern world’s alienating machinations we have all become sick?

So you are right to identify that the monetary value of your memorabilia is a warped way of understanding its importance. You are right, too, that “we need to explode all the shit once more.” But please, please don’t. On behalf of historians everywhere, put down the petrol can. Step off the flaming barge.

Giving this stuff to a museum is possibly the most punk thing you could do with it. You can help to challenge the stories of the powerful, stories that pretend that the people who created and adored this stuff don’t matter, that the histories of difference, protest and resistance are without value.

In so doing, you offer people their own history. Their own, for them to claim, if they want it. Future, no future. Whatever.

Image: John Blower

 

Review: A Wilhelm Scream at The Borderline, London (March 15, 2014)

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Some gig reviews get written on the bus home. Some are written in an orderly way, the following morning with a nice pot of the black stuff, with a marshalling of the facts, a prosaic and faithful transcription of the show. Some are hurriedly scribed on the backs of hands before being finished, in haste, at 4am. But all are written – whether kindly or unkindly – from a place of arousal, with opinions being teased or tempted out, completed when one has emptied the mind of all it was provoked to say. That, amongst other truths, was utterly detonated by A Wilhelm Scream at the Borderline on Saturday night. Sitting down to write this almost 48 hours after the show, I am hampered by the total inability to feel – my sensibilities brutally, gloriously, majestically exploded. It is impossible to begin to get this show, to get near it, to enter its post code. The cliché is (almost) warranted: there are no words.

The Borderline is a scraggly place. A dusty, red curtain hangs behind the stage, framing the action like a poor school play. The sound is a little cruel. From anywhere other than five yards back, plum centre, it can sound a bit like a fart in a packet of Maltesers. But Gnarwolves, the featured support, fire gamely through, sweeping all away in the melody of the brilliant Community, Stability, Identity like a frenzied Menzingers, a proto-anthemic Parquet Courts.

No words, indeed. Let’s have a go. It’s owed. Opening with the tanking duo of Boat Builders and The Kids Can Eat a Bag of Dicks, the former from the headliners’ new album Partycrasher (No Idea, 2014), it’s clear we are all about to get hurt. The heat is incredible – sticky, aching heat through which A Wilhelm Scream have to carve rather than play. And how they play. Trevor Reilly and Mike Supina (the newest member of the band, having joined in 2008 after Chris Levesque, who captured some of the supreme work on Ruiner (Nitro, 2005), departed) swap frenetic glances, looks of delight, madness, endeavour, as they share orchestral fretwork and grinding palm muting, this kind of totalising guitar romance. A Dave Murray and Adrian Smith for punk rock.

Is this punk? Who knows. It’s fast. A 19-song set is kicked into the throat in just about 45 minutes. Their sound has all the jangling, gothic ephemera of Iron Maiden but all the snotty muscularity of Pennywise or Dead Kennedys. Their set is beguiling. They take liberal fistfuls of material from past albums, like The Soft Sell, I Wipe My Ass With Showbiz, 5 to 9 (the latter stitched together fiercely), with Partycrasher’s highlights like The Last Laugh and Born a Wise Man. It is uncompromisingly urgent.

Breaks are minuscule, to be taken only so as to take fluids and not die. And then it is on, forward, to something unreal. Brian Robinson is frightening all on his own, bass-playing of such a remarkable quality, so high a top drawer that most, including myself, just gaze at his fingering with eye seared open, almost forgetting to blink. (Speaking of fingering, overheard at the bar: “I saw Rage Against The Machine at Wembley Arena and I got fingered.”) Skid Rock displays all his powers, thundering along the fretboard, matched, pound for pound, by Nicholas Pasquale Angelini’s acerbic beats, his charging kick pedal. Nuno Pereira jumps buoyantly, grinning like an eight-year-old. Peak up, vest top, flinging himself like Pepe Reina, he looks thrilled to be fronting such a breathtaking unit, as we all are to be there witnessing it. But Pereira has chops of his own, growling like Chuck Ragan or Mike Ness, a quick-lipped Eddie Vedder. “Tie me up to the radiator! Trust the sweat, not the face it’s on!”

The technicality at this speed is simply something beyond what other punk bands can do. And it has long been known. A Wilhelm Scream, the band’s band. The band bands wanted to tour with, the one they listed as inspiration. But now, nearly ten years in, the Borderline caught the fusion of skill and deft songwriting that their recorded work had so often captured so sweetly: songs so catchy they seem to vacuum the air from the room. Come tomorrow night to Kingston, Pereira said, when it will really get “hot and nasty”. But this room is baking enough. Punters fly into each other, leap from the stage and hang upside down from the lighting rig. The King is Dead is followed by an encore of Hike and The Rip and we tread out, exhausted.

And so to words. They come easily to Pereira whose barked aggressions fire into the Charing Cross Road like rockets but, then, unfathomable flair comes easily to this band. It is left to the reviewer, when words consistently fail to do justice, to feel. And that feeling, that emotion when you watch a band so tight, so energetic, so mesmeric that you feel your eyes tingle and the back of your neck burn white with anticipation, with the sense that time might have just fallen off its track, that feeling when you see such a ferocious statement of authority, when a gulf in punk rock might just have been ripped open, when you encounter what might be the best hardcore band since Black Flag, that feeling – if we can find but one word – is awe.

★★★★★

Reviewed for Punktastic

We called it America: the intellectual roots of American punk

(This is an extract of an article for The Phonograph, which was picked up in the Guardian’s featured blogs of the day for April 1st. The full article can be read here.)

In the UK, when we think about punk, we usually think about the Sex Pistols. We think about fluorescent mohicans, clothes pins in noses and gurning and snarling aplenty. Some of us might think about Joe Strummer, or Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, whose situationist SEX shop on King’s Road in London became, in many ways, the cultural and geographical epicentre of the British punk movement.

But across the Atlantic, they might take a rather different view.

In the United States, punk began some time before the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks. The reflexive intercontinental relationship between US and British punk has clouded the contemporary understanding of punk’s origins. From 1976, after the Sex Pistols and punk exploded in Britain, American bands borrowed heavily from the image and style of the British aesthetic. By the 1990s, some of the biggest cheeses in US punk, like Rancid and Green Day, had aural lineages traced straight from the jangly bass lines of The Clash’s Paul Simonon – bands who also wore the kind of sardonic post-fascist attire inspired by Westwood. This transport of ideas, along shipping routes between the Old and New World, distorts the history of punk, disfigures our understanding of where and how it began. Moreover, this entanglement obstructs our grasp of just what was so important, perpetual and revolutionary about punk: its ideas.

Not only were American punks and proto-punk bands the progenitors of what we now recognise as punk (the popular style, the image, and so on) but they also the propagators of a set of ideas that, throughout the 1970s, developed into a full-blown restatement, by young Americans, of a uniquely American cultural individualism.

(Read more…)

Why a history of punk rock matters

Punk rock, perhaps more than any genre in the history of popular music, is almost impenetrably tangled in ideologies.

What began as an artistic movement, as an expression of counter-cultural angst, crossed continents into film studios, literature, poetry, theatres, art galleries and catwalks. By the mid-1990s, punk was a global commodity. Green Day, Blink-182 and My Chemical Romance are now household names. Punk, the bratty, snot-nosed upstart breed of rock and roll, built on anti-musicianship, built on the rejection of stadium rock, built on a sneering denial of technical skill, built – crucially – on the breakdown of the performer-audience relationship, on the attack against the musical mainstream – punk had now arrived squarely in that mainstream.

Yet the history of punk remains unwritten. Oral histories, biographies, fanzines and critical studies have attempted to codify the meaning of ‘punk’, and in many ways have offered valuable research on the popularity of punk, its language, forms, associations and movements, its economies, its social makeup, the roles of women and ethnic minorities and its influence on outsiders, including the media perception and critical reception. But very little attempt has been made to trace the origins of the ideas at the root of punk rock, to understand the intellectual culture or the social and economic pressures that shaped this curious and enthralling bag of philosophies. From Schopenhauerian nihilism to Nietzsche’s Dionysian value of art, from the visceral poetry of Ginsberg to the hedonism of Kerouac, the philosophies of punk can be teased out of the words of the progenitors of punk themselves, from the mouths of Joey Ramone, Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Iggy Pop and Andy Warhol. Punk began as a set of ideas espoused, shouted and blasted through power chords, distortion and breakneck drumming.

This extraordinary culture grew up in America. Historians of punk, though they are very few, have hitherto suggested that punk as an identifiable form of rock and roll – with a distinct set of ideas – started or came to fruition in Britain. Tricia Henry, whose Break All Rules! Punk Rock and the Making of a Style (1989) is among a tiny number of scholarly examinations of punk rock, argues that punk in its forms before The Sex Pistols arrived in Britain in 1976 was more a type of “underground rock” that only became the ‘punk’ that we may identify now with the influence of Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood on the band and the politicisation of the music. In America, she argues, the “underground rock movement consisted primarily of middle-class youths rejecting middle-class values. In Britain, punk generally represented working-class youths reacting to the bourgeois status quo.”[1] In the atmosphere of unemployment in Britain, “when the English [sic] were exposed to the seminal punk-rock influences of the New York scene, the irony, pessimism and amateur style of the music took on overt social and political implications, and British punk became as self-consciously proletarian as it was aesthetic.”[2]

The assumption that punk’s nature is in some way political is ahistorical. The very term ‘punk’ has roots in an American outcast culture, as a pejorative word used to describe an anti-social branch of urban society, “the hoodlum, the useless element in society”, long before 1977.[3] In fact, the images and ideas of punk owe far more to apolitical cultural memes like Marlon Brando’s Johnny Strabler in The Wild One (1953) than to Marxism, environmentalism or anti-Republican civil disobedience. As Henry shows, the New York “underground rock” scene profoundly influenced British punk and the later, more sharply ideological subdivisions like hardcore and Oi! which took form in the 1980s. And there is no doubt that much of this music was deeply political. But before 1977, before the explosion of what Henry terms ‘punk’, artists like the Velvet Underground, the Ramones, Iggy and the Stooges, the New York Dolls, the MC5, Patti Smith and more self-identified as punks as part of a new musical movement called punk rock. If we say that punk was not punk until 1977, who were these New York ‘punks’? What did they believe punk to be, and why was it important? This history is still to be written. The history of punk as a dialogue, a particular dialect and a movement of ideas can be understood only with a new, cultural history.

A cultural and intellectual history of punk must begin in New York, with the intellectual culture of the punk scene. At CBGBs in Bowery, New York, owner Hilly Kristal and others provided the dancefloor, stage and microphone for hundreds of unsigned bands and thousands of disaffected youths in one of the most rundown areas of the city. Between 1973 and 1977, in the early years of American punk – at the beginnings of punk itself – a developed, sophisticated and dynamic culture grew inside the sweaty walls of CBGBs, now one of the most iconic rock venues in the world. This culture had at its centre a collection of ideas. Nihilistic, pessimistic, anti-authoritarian and anarchic in its civil and political message; provocative, Dada-esque and theatrical in its artistic expression; hedonistic, experimental and egalitarian in its social values – CBGBs was the hub of these ideas, ideas that were not new but prevalent in 1970s youth culture, ideas that have a peculiar resonance in the growing historiography of the last quarter of the twentieth century. Identities, some forged along lines of gender, race and class, demarcated cultural spaces, the dissolution of the holistic ideals of a ‘society’, contributed to a growing disaggregation of the social fabric into self-identifying ‘groups’, with triumphal moves for rights, powers and cultures of their own. Punk, to a large extent, fits into this history: young, urban, American punks were not largely concerned with where they could slot into society, but were overwhelmingly invested in this process of identification, disaggregation and fragmentation.

Moreover, a history of the genre must consider the words and ideas of punk from punks themselves, from the oral accounts and fanzines, interviews and contemporary biographies. This musical movement cannot be seen merely in terms of a radical departure within rock and roll, for that devalues its impact. Historians must begin to place popular music at the centre of cultural histories, in the furnace of cultural creation. This research will attempt to contribute towards an understanding of music that it, like film, art or dance, is as valuable a medium of historical study as all other artistic forms. Punk, by way of an example, will try to show that music can be as artistically expressive of ideas as film or art, and, by implication, popular music history to be as valuable to our understanding of our cultural past as the history of film or the history of art. This research will focus on the primary accounts of musicians, promoters, producers, managers, roadies, groupies, reviewers and the voices of the age to highlight that music can carry and transform ideas in unique ways and can, for example, resonate in ways that the cinema or television cannot, can build cultures around itself owing to its own power and magnetism as an art form.


[1] Henry, Tricia, Break All Rules! Punk Rock and the Making of a Style (London: UMI Research Press, 1989), pp. x-xi.

[2] Ibid, p. ix.

[3] Henry, Break All Rules!, p. 8.