A Brief History of the British Punk Movement

Mohawks, leather jackets, metalwork, Vivienne Westwood, The Sex Pistols, Sid and Nancy. Characterised by the fetish-wear and its infamously tragic members, the riot lifestyle made notorious by the punk scandals of the 1970s is well-known. But what did punk actually stand for? Did punk materialise into anything meaningful? Did it move us forward?


Borrowed from prison slang, the term punk was first applied to music in the 1970s, taking inspiration from the ‘bloated dinosaur of progressive rock’, funk, ska, and reggae to create a new sound defined by its explosiveness. This textured sound of layered drums and guitars added a third dimension across the genre, which was often layered with unfiltered, hostile vocals tending to scream an anti-normative agenda above the music. Popularised by the statement haircuts, ripped fetish-clothing, makeup and metalwork which accompanied the music, punk has been described as everything from untalented white noise to a progressive political movement. With bands like the Clash being deliberately political from the offset, the punk movement came to symbolise something more than just youthful rebellion in the UK.


It is almost impossible to discuss the punk movement in Britain without addressing the strategic monetary advertising that McLaren (Vivienne Westwood’s husband and manager of The Sex Pistols) pushed for through combining his music management and fashion. Starting in the music industry by managing the American New York Dolls punk band, McLaren bought his Marxist-rooted ideology into cultural aesthetics in the UK by hand-picking ‘sexy young assassins’ to musically advertise his and Westwood’s store SEX. Hand-picked by McLaren, the members of The Sex Pistols soared to a level of fame unmatched within the punk generation after their last-minute National tea-time TV appearance on The Today Show. When questioned by Grundy on their ‘anti-materialistic authenticity’ despite just accepting a £40,000 record deal, the band’s members responded by throwing profanity and abuse back at the host. Broadcasting this profanity and their drunkenness to the masses after Queen’s last-minute cancellation, the level of (mostly negative) publicity that came from the appearance quickly plummeted The Sex Pistols, and therefore punk, into the mainstream. Ingram claims that this interview gave punk its ‘enduring identity’, as it proved there was finally ‘a band of suitably shameless menace upon to pin’ the movement’s politics.


McLaren’s continuous strategic marketing of the Pistols’ after this, such as coinciding the release of the single God Save the Queen with the Queen’s silver Jubilee in May 1977, ensured that the band’s brief run left them infamous in British culture. The anti-monarchist lyrics and artwork of the single got it outlawed by the BBC, becoming one of the most heavily censored musical pieces in history, and yet still reaching number one on the UK charts. When considering the environment that The Sex Pistol’s two-year active period was situated in, the success of the band is not entirely shocking. The economic decline and civil unrest in the UK which Simon Jenkins’ claims was so extreme the word strike sat on each page of every newspaper. This, alongside the ‘collapsing’ of public services, created an environment where the British youth would resonate with the manifestos behind punk music, such as the anti-establishment and anti-materialistic mindsets expressed in songs like Anarchy in the UK. Thus, despite the lack of musical training exhibited by the Pistols’ members, McLaren’s hand-picked members did appropriately advertise his left-wing ideological agenda.  


The Sex Pistols, quickly disintegrating as a unit after Sid Vicious (John Simon Ritchie) joined the band in February 1977 as a bassist, (with Vicious’ addiction, McLaren’s greed, and tensions between Lyndon, singer, and Jones, guitarist, growing to an all-time high) arguably successfully opened a pathway for both the birth and the death of the punk movement in the UK. By 1979 Sid Vicious has died from a heroin overdose whilst awaiting trial for the second-degree murder of his girlfriend Nancy Spungen and Johnny Rotten (Lyndon) was suing McLaren in court (a case that returned control of the band’s affairs to the original members in 1986). Meaning that The Sex Pistols’ success was made infamous in UK culture and newspapers as it was simultaneously buried into the ground just two years after their debut, supporting Nickson’s claim that ‘there was only so far’ punk ‘could go, and by then it had exhausted itself.’ This limit was proven for the Pistols’ as early as their Grundy appearance, which highlighted that the Marxist narrative behind the art-forms songs directly contradicted the materialistic lifestyle that came with its success.


Additionally, the Pistols’ failure was cemented into history with Vicious’ choice to sport Nazi symbols such as the swastika on stage, (as a supposed anti-fascist statement) ensuring that the band could never progress with the upcoming musical movements like R.A.R. (Rock Against Racism). However, despite the death of The Sex Pistols, the punk movement was arguably continued, edited, and diverged into separate paths throughout the remainder of the 1970s and 1980s in Britain. The Clash, who aligned themselves with the Rock Against Racism movement when releasing their song White Riot in response to the violence against Black revellers at the Notting Hill Carnival in 1976, found masses of success. Even today, The Clash remain in circulating in popular media forms, with the song Should I Stay, Or Should I Go re-entering the charts after being repopularised by the TV show Stranger Things. The late 1970s Rock Against Racism movement also displayed other punk bands evolving into the mainstream, with a ground-breaking carnival event being held on the 30th April 1978 under the slogan ‘We want rebel music, street music… Crisis music. Now music… Rock Against Racism.’ Thus, punk music continued to pick up political agendas, the R.A.R. movement highlighting how punk evolved into a musical cultural driving force. Not just sticking to London, but spreading to the north of the UK with bands like Joy Division morphing the genre with rock and the technological rhythms of disco, it is clear to see the ways that punk evolved and spread throughout the UK. Continuing to be a hub of political and ideological agendas, even though the characteristics of punk have evidently evolved since the rise of the Sex Pistols, (with less metal and more pop attached to recent takes on the genre) the music arguably remains a cultural driving force in the UK.


Featured Image: By Nicke on Flickr

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