Monday, May 12, 2008



Remember punk?

As I recall, punk arrived in a storm of outrage, a hail of spit and a wave of enthusiasm as we kids rejoiced in the slaughter of sacred cows, the formerly irreproachable titans who held sway throughout the world of music.

Where there had been prog rock's endless noodlings, now there was three-chord bashing. Where we had the airbrushed perfection of disco, we now had the scratchy Mohican "fuck you" of the street-level DIY ethic.

It was supposed to be the great musical democratic revolution, where everyone discovered that you didn't have to have an art school degree or a childhood's misery of music lessons to become a rock star. Anyone could do it.

And for a while, we believed it. Stars like Sid Vicious, Rat Scabies, Hugh Cornwell, Gaye Advert, Poly Styrene all seemed to be telling us that we, too could be up there.

But you know, I'm not so sure punk really was the blast of fresh air it was supposed to have been.

For a start, most of these people were pretty damn good musicians. Listen to Laura Logic's saxophone on "Oh Bondage, Up Yours!" Or pretty much everything by The Stranglers. The Adverts' "Gary Gilmore's Eyes", on of the first supposedly "punk" hits, features some pretty un-punk harmony singing. The Clash.... well, the Clash came in with reggae.

Even the Sex Pistols, that untouchable lodestone of the whole punk and new wave ethos, were a pretty tight unit - at least Cook & Jones were.

What probably set punk apart, more than anything, was the look. I mean, hearing the Damned singing "New Rose" for the first time wouldn't have had anything like the same impact if Dave Vanian hadn't looked like Bela Lugosi's understudy and Rat Scabies hadn't looked like Fozzie Bear on day-release.

So, if the very first flush of punk wasn't even "punk" enough, what hope did those who followed have?

Siouxsie & the Banshees, Blondie, Adam & the Ants and before you know it, punk was left far behind and we were knee-deep in art-school new wave.

Which is a roundabout way of working up to this song.

"Bodies" was probably an experiment in seeing how tasteless one song could be. It was probably one of those dares that guys will come up with in the pub, to see how many utterly foul things they can put together. Either that, or Malcom McLaren had a deal going with the Daily Mail.

"She was a girl from Birmingham;
She just had an abortion.
She was a case of insanity;
Her name was Pauline, she lived in a tree.
She was a no-one who killed her baby.
She sent her letters from the country.
She was an animal, she was a bloody disgrace."

The intro is utterly fantastic, more menacing even than the Stones' "Gimme Shelter", the guitar is a wall of sheer sweaty fuzzbox, and Paul Cook never drummed better in his life.

But even though it's a terrific tune, it's songs like this that make me wonder whether there really was any purpose to, or result of, the whole punk genre.

Was punk meant to be nothing more than a wrecking ball? What was it supposed to actually build?

As the video below shows, the Pistols live were fucking awful. It's obvious that the only musicians in that band were Cook & Jones, and it's equally clear that producer Chris Thomas had to do a lot of work to make the Pistols' only album presentable. The only real saving grace is Johnny Rotten's stage presence.

I suppose all of this is nit-picking. The Pistols were one of a handful (and I mean handful) of bands that changed music. In this case, they ripped up the convention that said "thou shalt not speak of the ugly realities." Johnny Rotten was the perfect personality to drive a stake through the heart of the complacent dinosaur that music had become - in the video below he's utterly magnetic: Fagin the AntiChrist, if you like.

It's more a case of BandWithoutWhich than a SongWithoutWhich....


Uncle E said...

Very, VERY well stated. Your point on the punks in hindsight being fairly adept at playing was spot on, especially the older Stranglers, who were more Doors than Sex Pistols. I've always thought that.
The punk message and attitude means little to me now, but back in my teens it meant everything. You're right about the look, but in the beginning the safety pins and ripped shirt look (attributed to Richard Hell, I believe) were meant to differentiate the punks from the masses, that something was 'afoot".
If nothing else it inspired a whole slew of kids to pick up a guitar and play, which has accounted for some of the most fantastic rock music of the last 50 years in my opinion (everyone from The Clash to The Flaming Lips).
Again, great post. And welcome back!

Natsthename said...

Brilliant post, Londinium, as always.

I laugh at what the kids of my son's generation called punk. Green Day? Blink 182? They're not punk, they're kids who think they're punks!

And you are really right about the number of artists who have actually changed rock/pop music. There are precious few of these game changers, and The Sex Pistols have to be included there. They may not have created punk, but they brought mass awareness to the music, which did end up changing the game. Followers simply one-upped them.