This original collection of insight, analysis and conversation charts the course of punk from its underground origins, when it was an un-formed and utterly alluring near-secret, through its rapid development. Punk is Dead: Modernity Killed Every Night takes in sex, style, politics and philosophy, filtered through punk experience, while believing in the ruins of memory, to explore a past whose essence is always elusive.
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About the Author
Andrew Gallix has lectured at the Sorbonne University in Paris since 1992. In 2000, he launched one of the first literary webzines, 3:AM Magazine, for which he is Editor-in-Chief. He lives near Paris, France.
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The Boy Looked at Eurydice
by Andrew Gallix
Retrofuturism, as we now call it, came out of the closet in the late Seventies due to the widespread feeling that there was indeed 'no future' any more. Whilst Johnny Rotten waxed apocalyptical, Howard Devoto screeched existentially about his future no longer being what it was. Time seemed topsy-turvy, out of joint; the future not something to look forward to, but to look back on. 'About the future I can only reminisce,' sang Pete Shelley on a dotty ditty dedicated to 'nostalgia for an age yet to come.' (Significantly enough, it was almost immediately covered — recycled — by Penetration.) This trend was knowing and 'ironic' in typical postmodern mode (à la Rezillos or B-52s), but also imbued with a genuine longing for a time — mainly the Fifties and Sixties — when the march of progress (in the shape of the space age and consumer society) seemed unstoppable. A time, crucially, when the future punks were still children, or twinkles in their parents' eyes. Twinkling little stars.
When we were young, we were very young. It was de rigueur. Kate Phillips, the first journalist to ever mention the Sex Pistols, focused almost exclusively on their youth: 'They are all about 12 years old. Or maybe about 19, but you could be fooled' (NME, 27 December 1975). 'We were 17; they were 25,' John Lydon recalls, dismissing the musicians on the New York scene as 'dirty old people.' Malcolm McLaren had fancied himself as the band's singer, rather than their manager, but, according to Nick Kent, his 'old paranoia' about 'being too old got the better of him.' After seeing the Pistols live for the first time, Richard Strange (Doctors of Madness) suddenly sensed that his time was up: 'I'm two years too old,' he lamented. Explaining that he was slightly younger than the Pistols and their entourage, Marco Pirroni feels the need to add that 'two years was a big gap, gigantic' at the time. Unlike Brian Eno, Judy Nylon 'fell on the punk side of Boring Old Fart' despite being the same age as him: 'There was one interesting moment when I was hanging out with Paul Simonon and Eno was spending time with Paul's mother.' Joe Strummer could have drawn the very same conclusion as Strange or Eno. Upon joining the Clash, he was deemed 'a bit old' by Glen Matlock (himself only four years his junior). Concealing his real age would be an essential part of the public schoolboy-cum-pub rocker's reinvention as a bona fide punk. A year on from the Pistols' acrimonious demise, Steve Jones confided in Sounds, 'I feel a bit old. I walk down the street and see these little punk rockers, about 13, and they don't even recognise me.' Already in his mid-thirties by 1980, Charlie Harper (UK Subs) screamed his desire to be 'teenage' as though it were a state of mind, or perhaps even the only way to be: 'Teenage / I wanna be teenage / I wanna be teenage / I wanna be.'
We were so young, we were so goddamn young. Sid Vicious boasted that he 'didn't even know the Summer of Love was happening' because he was 'too busy playing with [his] Action Men.' 'See my face, not a trace / No reality,' sang the Pistols on 'Seventeen,' the closest they ever got to a generational manifesto. Buzzcocks, who had barely reached adulthood, penned a paean to 'feeling almost sixteen again.' In a cheeky act of lèse-majesté — given that this was the single John Lydon had mimed to during his fabled King's Road audition — Eater wound back Alice Cooper's 'I'm Eighteen' to 'Fifteen,' thus reflecting the group's average age. The Lurkers, and others, glamorised the growing pains of being 'Just Thirteen' ... I can still see that picture of two prepubescent, second-generation skinheads in a black-and-white photo spread — doubtless compiled by Garry Bushell — from around 1979. If memory serves, the humorous caption read: 'Hope I die before my voice breaks.'
Witold Gombrowicz's debut novel, Ferdydurke (1937), reflected the emergence of the 'new Hedonism' Lord Henry had called for in Dorian Gray as well as the shifting human relations Virginia Woolf had observed in the early years of the twentieth century. Outwardly, we strive for completion, perfection and maturity; inwardly, we crave incompletion, imperfection and immaturity. The Polish author suggests that the natural progression from immaturity to maturity (and death) is paralleled by a corresponding covert regression from maturity to immaturity. Mankind is suspended between divinity and puerility, torn between transcendence and pubescence. In 1941, Max Horkheimer declared that the Oedipal struggle was over and that Oedipus had won: 'Since Freud the relation between father and son has been reversed. The child not the father stands for reality. The awe which the Hitler youth enjoys from his parents is but the political expression of a universal state of affairs.' 'It's funny,' says Nicky in The Vortex, 'how mother's generation always longed to be old when they were young, and we strain every nerve to keep young.' Was the Vortex club named after Noël Coward's 1924 play, or was it a nod to Ezra Pound's 1914 essay? All we can say for sure is that, more than any other subculture before or since, punk was afflicted with Peter Pan syndrome. Oscar Wilde's famous aphorism — 'To be premature is to be perfect' — had found its ideal embodiment. Early gigs frequently resembled a St Trinian's prom night gatecrashed by the Bash Street Kids. The ubiquitous school uniforms — all wonky ties and peekaboo stockings — were designed to rub punks' youthfulness in the wrinkled faces of the rock dinosaurs and other Boring Old Farts. One could also flag up the recurring theme of onanism ('Orgasm Addict' and 'Teenage Kicks' being the prime examples) as well as McLaren's dodgy flirtation with paedophilia (from the early nude boy T-shirt through Bow Wow Wow) to argue that the Blank Generation was more clockwork satsuma than orange. Bliss was it in that dawn to be young. But to be a punk rocker was very heaven!
The critic Brian Dillon describes the surface of Robert Rauschenberg's Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953) as being 'startlingly alive, active, palimpsestic.' The same could be said of punk, whose myriad influences shone through despite the tabula rasa of Year Zero; the attempt to wipe the slate clean ('No Elvis, Beatles, or the Rolling Stones / In 1977'). By the early Seventies, mainstream pop music — which now boasted a relatively long tradition — was becoming increasingly self-referential and started plundering its back catalogue. The Fifties haunted glam rock, and even teenybopper outfits like the Bay City Rollers (not to mention the likes of Mud and Showaddywaddy). Meanwhile, a proper Teddy Boy revival was in full swing (its sartorial needs catered for by none other than McLaren and Westwood). Punk was the culmination of this excavation of popular music history and regression — via the hardcore rhythm and blues being played in British pubs, the rediscovery of Sixties American garage bands (Nuggets was released in 1972) and discovery of the Stooges et al. — towards a stripped- back, primitive version of rock 'n' roll embodied by the Ramones' reductio ad absurdum of surf music and bubblegum pop. A regression running counter to the so-called progression of prog rock.
Punk's enduring legacy notwithstanding, the original movement had nowhere to go: literally, no future. Going forward meant that it would no longer be an event, just another collection of professional bands releasing records at regular intervals and touring to promote them. Musical progression, for a genre that rejected virtuosity in favour of enthusiasm and inventiveness, would also prove problematic: 'We say noise is for heroes (heroes) / Leave the music for zeroes (zeroes) / Noise, Noise, Noise is for heroes (heroes) / Oh yeah' (The Damned, Machine Gun Etquette, 1979). As Chrissie Hynde has often pointed out, the curse of the punk was to turn — imperceptibly, but almost inevitably — into a muso. In those days, lest we forget, Paul Weller would get a lot of flak simply for tuning up on stage. Punk's spirited DIY approach to music was symbolised by those hasty sketches of three guitar chords that featured in the January 1977 issue of a fanzine called Sideburns: 'This is a chord. This is another. This is a third. Now form a band.' They were famously referenced on Stiff Records' poster for the Damned's tour, that same year, supported by one-chord wonders the Adverts: 'The Damned can now play three chords. The Adverts can play one. Hear all four of them at ...' But what happens when the band you have formed can play those three chords as effortlessly as seasoned session musicians? How many times can 'White Riot' be imbued with the conviction, vitriol and sheer hormonal energy it warrants?
Simon Reynolds, who rates Plastic Ono Band's 1970 debut as a 'seminal proto-punk record,' provides a possible answer. Yoko Ono achieved the sound on that album by getting 'superbly skilled musicians' to play 'like brain-dead gorillas wearing oven mitts' (Totally Wired, 2009). Malcolm McLaren came up with another ingenious solution: sacking Glen Matlock, who had most contributed to the composition of the Pistols' repertoire, and drafting in Sid Vicious, who could not play for heroin, let alone toffee. In a neat instance of life imitating art, the manager's fanciful refrain about his protégés' lack of musical proficiency (which tapped into a long avant-garde anti-music tradition) became a self-fulfilling prophecy: 'Find yourself four kids. Make sure they hate each other. Make sure they can't play' (The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle, 1980). Neil Spencer's review of the Pistols at the Marquee — their first piece of exposure — highlighted the band's anti-music credentials: '"You can't play," heckled an irate French punter. "So what?" countered the bassman, jutting his chin in the direction of the bewildered Frog.' Incidentally, it was Matlock — probably the band's most accomplished musician overall, as we have said — who affirmed that they were about more than mere music. And then, of course, there was that clincher of a finale: '"Actually, we're not into music," one of the Pistols confided afterwards. Wot then? "We're into chaos"' (NME, 21 February 1976). Early punk had a distinctly Oulipian quality: lack of musical proficiency was exploited as a creative constraint. Not being great players generated a tension, an intensity — but also a fragility — that proper musicians can seldom replicate. The danger of walking a musical tightrope, fearing that it might fall apart at any moment, knowing that it will, and rejoicing in those sonic epiphanies when it all miraculously comes together. The best punk bands never went through the motions; the motions went through them. The American fiction writer Peter Markus has spoken beautifully about the flashes of brilliance that can be conjured up when amateur musicians make a virtue of necessity:
I'm a failed musician. As a kid I used to punk around with pals and find objects along our riverbank to bang on, bought pawnshop guitars and drums and broken-keyed organs and made music out of our not knowing what we were doing. It was pure accident, those moments when we found ourselves in the middle of some sound spell. We knew it when we came out of it, the times that we went there, the times we were somehow taken. I can count the times on one hand, but I hold those times in my hand still like stones or fossils that somehow manage to float, have found a way to displace space and gravity and have pushed back against the failings of memory and the thinning out of time. Those moments stopped occurring, it seemed, even then, once our hands seemed to know where they ought to go, what chords they ought to be playing, and it was this sense of knowing (or thinking that we knew what we were doing) that killed the magic of our song. (The Brooklyn Rail, 5 February 2015)
Punk was carpe diem recollected in cacophony — living out your 'teenage dreams,' and sensing, almost simultaneously, that they would be 'so hard to beat' (The Undertones). The movement generated an instant nostalgia for itself, so that it was forever borne back to the nebulous primal scene of its own creation. Its forward momentum was backward-looking, like Walter Benjamin's angel of history. The Wasps' introduction to 'Can't Wait 'Till '78' is a case in point: 'I mean it's still 1977, d'you know what I mean? Remember what happened at the beginning? Let's have a bit more of it, eh?' (Live at the Vortex, 1977). 1978 — Year One after Year Zero — is anticipated as a return to 'the beginning.' To quote the Cockney Rejects on their debut album,
I wanna go back to where it all began / And I wanna do a gig in my back garden / Wanna have a laugh before the press get in / If you give 'em half a chance / They'll kill the fucking thing. ('Join the Rejects')
By 1980, when that record was released, going back to 'where it all began' meant totally different — and even contradictory — things to totally different — and indeed contradictory — people. Every splinter group that joined the ranks of the punk diaspora (Oi!, the mod revival, 2-Tone, no wave, cold wave, post-punk, goth, early new romanticism, anarcho-punk, positive punk, psychobilly, hardcore etc.) was a renewed attempt to recapture an original unity, which the emergence of these very splinter groups made impossible. As Paul Gorman put it in a recent documentary, 'People began to play with, and tease out, the strands which were therein, and it was so rich, and so full of content, that one strand could lead to a whole movement.' When Garry Bushell claims that the Rejects were 'the reality of punk mythology' — which is precisely what Mark Perry had previously said apropos of Sham 69 — he is referring to a very restrictive, lumpen version of punk that excludes most of the early bands bar the Clash. (Even within the Clash, only Joe 'Citizen Smith' Strummer ever really subscribed to this view.) Many Blitz Kids felt that it was their scene — which was not only contemporaneous with Oi! but also its inverted mirror image — that captured the true spirit of the early movement. Each new wave of bands sought out this point of origin: punk prior to its negation by language, when it was still in the process of becoming. The moment when memory's exile would come to an end and literally take place. The moment that would coincide with the moment, which the philosopher Simon Critchley calls the 'now of nows.' His friend and collaborator, the novelist Tom McCarthy, explains that in cases of trauma, the brain often fails to integrate the traumatic event into memory's narrative thread: 'That gap, or absence, that few seconds of silence on the tape, become real; since everything else that is on the tape is fake, that gap must be real' (How to Stop Living and Start Worrying, 2010). That fabled gap — those weeks or months that everybody missed, even when they were there — became punk's ultimate reality. As Mick Jones remarks, 'By the time everyone had sussed it, it was already over.' Not accepting that it was over, trying to bridge that traumatic gap by reliving those 'few seconds of silence on the tape,' accounts for much of the movement's subsequent history.
Like the Faubourg Saint-Germain for the Proustian narrator, punk was always elsewhere. In the early days, in London, it was at CBGB in New York City (think of Eater's 'Thinkin' of the USA'). For those in New York City, it then became London. There was always somebody out there who was in the right place, or whose hair was spikier than yours — who seemed to be the real McCoy. The Silver Jubilee boat party, on 13 June 1977, was one of those rare occurrences when you could accurately pinpoint where punk was. It was there, on that drunken boat adrift upon the Thames. However, most people in the know remained stranded on the Embankment, like in that oft-reproduced picture where you can spot Richard Strange, Steve Strange and Kevin Mooney among a very English queue of lookers-on who had literally missed the boat. Even insiders such as Viv Albertine and Palmolive of the Slits: 'We turn up, but have no hope of getting on, I see Palmolive try and leap across the gang-plank but she's turned away' (Clothes Clothes Clothes, Music Music Music, Boys Boys Boys, 2014).
Excerpted from "Punk Is Dead"
Copyright © 2016 Richard Cabut and Andrew Gallix.
Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
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Table of Contents
Foreword: Punk's the Diamond in My Pocket — Judy Nylon,
Introduction: Prose for Heroes — Richard Cabut and Andrew Gallix,
1. The Boy Looked at Eurydice — Andrew Gallix,
2. Rummaging in the Ashes: An Interview with Simon Critchley — Andrew Gallix,
3. King Mob Echo — Tom Vague,
4. Glam into Punk: The Transition — Barney Hoskyns,
5. The Divining Rod and the Lost Vowel — Jonh Ingham,
6. Malcolm's Children — Paul Gorman talks to Richard Cabut,
7. Boom! — Ted Polhemus,
8. The Flyaway-Collared Shirt — Paul Gorman,
9. SEX in the City — Dorothy Max Prior,
10. A Letter to Jordan — Richard Cabut,
11. Punk's not Dead. It's in a Coma ... — Andy Blade,
12. Ever Fallen in Love? — David Wilkinson,
13. For Your Unpleasure — Mark Fisher,
14. 1977 — Richard Cabut,
15. Sexy Eiffel Towers — Andrew Gallix,
16. The End of Music — Dave and Stuart Wise,
17. Banned From the Roxy — Penny Rimbaud,
18. Learning to Fight — Tony Drayton talks to Richard Cabut,
19. Unheard Melodies — Andrew Gallix,
20. Punk Movies — Nicholas Rombes,
21. Some Brief and Frivolous Thoughts on a Richard Hell Reading — Richard Cabut,
22. Leaving the 21st Century — Andrew Gallix,
23. Tales of Low-Life Losers — Bob Short,
24. Positive Punk — Richard Cabut,
25. 1976/86 — Simon Reynolds,
26. Camden Dreaming — Richard Cabut,
27. Camera Squat Art Smiler — Neal Brown,
28. Punk Etymology — Jon Savage,
Acknowledgements and Credits,