By Raoul Djukanovic
In the 1970’s, Britain bore all the hallmarks of a failed state. A war on the streets of Northern Ireland had spilled over into terrorist attacks on English cities. Factories were unproductive, there was mass unemployment and the government had to go begging to the International Monetary Fund for an emergency loan.
Yet in 1977, Queen Elizabeth II toured the country to wave at her subjects in celebration of her 25th year as Britain’s constitutional monarch. There were even street parades in the former colonies of a British empire that had once occupied a quarter of the world, despite the collapse of this unsustainable system at the beginning of Queen Elizabeth’s reign.
Disgusted by the deferential nationalism of their parents, and the general state of society, some young people protested.
The medium they selected was music, channelling their frustrations into three-minute anthems of raw energy that also symbolised their rejection of the self-indulgent caricatures that many rock stars had become.
“In the mid-70’s, we had to turn the culture around,” remembers Malcolm McLaren, the manager of two of the bands that defined punk rock: the New York Dolls and the Sex Pistols. “We had to say, Oh my god – what did the 60’s bring us? Nothing. After this continual drug-induced abuse of ourselves, we all woke up.”
As an art student in the mid-1960’s, McLaren was inspired by the Parisian Situationists and their philosophy of revolutionising society through direct action in everyday life. In May 1968, students protested in Paris about university conditions and proposed reforms. They battled the police from behind concrete barricades and occupied buildings throughout the city. By mid-May, there was a general strike across the country and workers had occupied factories demanding the right to manage themselves.
A decade later, McLaren attempted to upstage the Queen’s Silver Jubilee.
On June 7, 1977, a day marked by street parties around Britain and the lighting of a chain of bonfires stretching the length of the country, he hired a 175-seater boat for a cruise down the Thames in central London.
On board were the Sex Pistols, who 10 days earlier had released “God Save The Queen”, a record with the same title as Britain’s national anthem.
“God Save the Queen, the fascist regime, that made you a moron…” The opening lines, as snarled by the band’s vocalist, Johnny Rotten, were so heavily drenched in irony that everything in them seemed open to question. It was hard to know for sure who was the target of his venom.
Whatever the song meant, McLaren was counting on the fact that with Jubilee hysteria in full swing, the mainstream media would seize on the worst possible interpretation as soon as they heard it. He was right. The record sold 100,000 copies in a week, despite being banned from the radio.
“The single is nothing personal against the Queen,” Johnny Rotten said at the time. “It’s what she stands for… a symbol. She’s probably just like everyone else but, watching her on telly, as far as I’m concerned, she ain’t no human being. She’s a piece of cardboard that they drag around on a trolley.”
On Jubilee Day itself, McLaren invited a handful of sympathetic journalists to join him and the band on the river. Police boats chased the pleasure cruiser carrying them down the Thames and intervened every time they tried to approach the Houses of Parliament. After jockeying with the police for several hours, the Sex Pistols pulled alongside the seat of the British government and started to belt out “God Save The Queen” from an improvised stage on the deck.
It was a moment that couldn’t last. When the boat pulled up at Westminster pier shortly afterwards, about 50 policemen were lined up waiting. People started throwing bottles and an exasperated McLaren raised his fist at the police, screaming: “You fucking fascist bastards!” Moments later, two burly police officers dragged his feeble frame off the boat and a fight started on the pier.
“It really felt like we were living in a fascist state,” said Jon Savage, one of the journalists who attended the event, “and the jubilee was being used as something to keep our minds off how bad things had become.”
One hysterical tabloid newspaper urged its readers to “Punish the punks” and, within days, Johnny Rotten was attacked outside a pub in North London by a gang of thugs wielding razor blades.
Another punk star, Gaye Advert, and her boyfriend TV Smith were beaten up on the streets of Hammersmith. “What do you expect if you go around dressed like that?” Gaye was asked when she arrived at a hospital for treatment.
“Looks didn’t matter during the punk days,” said Dennis Morris, a journalist who photographed the Sex Pistols regularly. “It was what we were saying that counted.”
The message sunk in. Fusing 1960’s Parisian philosophy with the energy of New York’s arts scene, punk inspired Britain’s working classes to form guitar bands that became popular around the world.
“More than any other youth movement, it changed everything,” said John Peel, a BBC Radio 1 DJ. All over the country, new acts began playing to small crowds in pubs. Record companies sprang up everywhere to promote the talent that major labels wouldn’t touch.
“My theory was that there’s an Elvis Presley out there but he’s working in a factory in Coventry and he doesn’t know how to get in touch with me,” said Dave Robinson, who founded Stiff Records with a 400-pound loan.
In 2002, the Queen celebrated her Golden Jubilee and hundreds of thousands of people lined the streets to wave at her golden carriage.
Punk was ultimately a flamboyant failure. But it created an identity and an alternative code of living that continue to inspire young people around the world.
“There are still vast numbers of kids who go through a punk stage in their lives,” said Deborah Harry, the singer from Blondie. “It’s a kind of bursting out, a first real expression of breaking away.”
The radical philosophy of a group of mainly French social and cultural critics whose views first appeared in the avant-garde magazine Internationale Situationniste from 1958 onwards. Heavily influenced by Surrealism and the flippant statements of Dadaist art, their thinking defined the ideas of the student radicals who barricaded Paris in May 1968.
The Situationists denounced all left-wing radicalism, including Marxism, as narrow-minded and anachronistic. Instead of the take-over of the state and the economy that was the aim of most revolutionaries, they demanded a “revolution of everyday life” that would transform personal relationships and cultural outlooks. Through changes in attitudes to sex, family life, religion, work and the urban environment, culture would in effect become so politicised that it would eventually substitute itself for the conventional institutions of politics.
“Young people everywhere have been allowed to choose between love and a garbage disposal unit. Everywhere they have chosen the garbage disposal unit,” wrote Guy Debord, one of the movement’s leading publicists. “Boredom is always counter-revolutionary. Always.”
Born in Romania, Isidore Isou moved to Paris after World War II, where his ideas about the nature of art attracted a following. Isou believed that the engine of social evolution was not the survival instinct, but the will to create. Through the act of creation, the artist moved from the slime of unconscious existence to the eternity of history and in essence became god, since it was only through the creation of the world that god could be said to have established his own existence.
“We will call young any individual, no matter what his age, who does not yet coincide with his function, who acts and struggles to attain the realm of activity he truly desires, who fights to achieve a career in terms of a situation and a form of work other then that which has been planned for him,” Isou wrote.
“Those who know and love their places, whether proletarians or capitalists, are passive, because they don’t want to compromise themselves by appearing in the streets. They have gods and children to protect!
“The young, who have nothing to lose, are attack – indeed, they are adventure. Let youth cease to serve as a commodity merely to become the consumer of its own elan.”
d) PARIS GRAFFITI FROM MAY 1968
“Do not adjust your mind, there is a fault with reality”
“Demand the impossible”
“Je suis Marxiste, style Groucho”
e) NEVER MIND THE BOLLOCKS, HERE’S THE SEX PISTOLS
After Malcolm McLaren was thrown out of art school, he opened a shop in the King’s Road in Chelsea with his partner Vivienne Westwood. The couple designed and made clothes together, taking fabrics and deliberately ripping and dirtying them to make them look old and at the same time new. In the summer of 1975, four of their customers decided to form a band, which McLaren named the Sex Pistols. McLaren wanted the band to “shoot down anything we didn’t like, which in our case was absolutely everything. Naturally it was too wild to be tamed.” The band members soon started arguing with each other and Johnny Rotten left in 1978. A few months later, Sid Vicious, the bassist, died of a drug overdose in New York while awaiting trial on charges of murdering his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen.