Punk: the power of music

When second wave punk-band, the Exploited, one of punk rock’s most loud and ferocious bands, sang “punk’s not dead” on Top of the Pops in the early eighties, punk indeed seemed dead and gone – both musically and as an ideal.

Many of the original punk bands had either split, evolved or had become commercialized. And some of the ones that hadn’t seemed rather stale and dishonest in their insistence on retaining a ‘hollier than thou,’ DIY, inverted snobbism, self-conscious pose.

The youth fashion and music of the New Romantic wave of pop music, excessive glamour and make-up, escapism and self-indulgence was slowly but surely taking over from punk – although youth culture and sub-cultures, like all culture, is obviously porous and interdependent.

But that punk should be dead is only true if punk is seen in a generalised and superficial way. Yes, the Johnny Rotten clones, the postcard-punks with their Exploited-Mohawk’s and Sid Vicious leather jackets, and the fast, aggressive and socially conscious music of the mid-to-late seventies is no longer fashionable (although still influential, as the existence of Nirvana, Green Day and many other more or less copy-cat like or punk-influenced bands show).

But if punk is to mean anything more than a style of load and abrasive music, spiky hairstyles, and ripped clothes, then we must understand what this something is and why it is no longer fashionable.

No future
Punk rock for most people was born with a small handful of British bands in the mid-seventies who were inspired, amongst other things, by American acts such as the Ramones, Iggy Pop and Patti Smith.

Punk was basically a fast, bared-down, load and confrontational version of rock’n’roll music, which had linked style and music together since the fifties. But Punk was always more than simply style and music.

Punk was an angry response to both one of the worst recessions in newer British history, British class society, to what lead singer of the Sex Pistols, John Lydon a.k.a. Johnny Rotten, called “the false positivism of the hippies,” as well as to the focus on form and not message of much mid-seventies music, of which endless guitar solo’s and extravagant scene shows were symptomatic.

“Punk was a focal point because there were a lot of people walking around dissatisfied, disinterested, with no hope for the future,” as British DJ, film director, and Punk and Reggae musician, Don Letts puts it.

But punk was also about the voiceless – and more or less talentless – having they say and empowering themselves in the process. About democratising music.  About the medium being secondary to the message. About promoting attitude over aptitude – although not in the fashion of today’s artificial and commercialised X-factor, but by allowing people who could not afford piano lessons to be able to express themselves through music, art and culture. About making art, culture and music a first-hand experience, where ordinary people were participants, not consumers. And about having a laugh.

Punk widened the cultural climate in music and society in general, not least for ‘marginalized’ groups such as blacks, women and gays, and punk re-linked music to politics.

The British press, government, and mainstream society, who were conservatively inclined and fearful of change, were therefore intent on smearing, banning and deliberately misrepresent punk’s message.

The public outcry to punk rock in general, and Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones’s relatively mild use of swear-words on the Thames TV’s Today programme on December 1 1976 in particular, can be seen as a sign, however, of the improved openness in society and the media that punk had a part in bringing about.

Today, rock stars using explicatives and dressing ‘provocatively’ is such a common feature that we barely notice, although this hides the fact that some of the gains that have been made in the long run since punk have either been superficial or have been reversed.

Relearning punk’s message
If punk means anything, it is thus not a static style of music or dress, or a nostalgic yearning for these, but the will and ability to be truly individual and to partake in, and not be a passive consumer of, culture and life.

Unfortunately, the record companies and fashion designers understood that to make a profit out of punk, all they had to do was commercialise and commoditise it. Unfortunately, they ended up killing its message of individualism and social change in the process.

The Thatcher years also played their part in killing punk’s victories and streamlining culture. “Culture became dominated by selfishness. People were scared. Economics and style had control over culture,” as Chumbawamba’s Boff Whalley puts it.

Today, many people seemingly want to have their identity sold to them. What we can learn – or in fact relearn- from punk’s revolutionary potential, is thus that only as individuals who ‘create’ our own identity and speak in our own voice can we be true individuals, and only as true individuals, true to our own inner voice, can we bring about change.

John Lydon seemingly agrees. “’No future’ is even more relevant and timely today than it was when the Pistols first played it.”


Watch the documentary ‘The filth and Fury’ about the Sex pistols.

Watch the documentary series ‘The punk years’  (there are 10 episodes).

Watch the documentary 1-2 F U

Watch the documentary The Punk Rock Movie

Watch Factory Records documentary

Watch / read about South African punk band National Wake

Watch the documentary ‘Punk in Africa’

One Response to Punk: the power of music

  1. Sadly, there are probably fewer people in actual number and as a percentage of any of the worldwide English-speaking populations that are “happy” in 2011 compared with the years when punk or rap first emerged. The debt-ceiling crisis in the United States of America might catalyze a fullblown depression, at least in the U.S.. That would make the mid-1970s economies in the U.S. and England palatable to citizens born in the 1980s and thereafter on both settings.

    The celebration surrounding the elevation of Barack Obama to the most powerful elected office on the planet and likewise the celebration of the recent royal wedding in England expose expertly how certain people lust for an identity they did not forge for themselves.

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