Monday, 21 April 2014

I was an infant punk (part 1)

Like the people invoked at the start of this article, I just about remember punk as a vibrant subculture. By the time I got around to listening to punk music, the bands had broken up and I am less than pleased to note that one band I kinda liked are pretty much dad rock compilation fuller these days and... and...

collection of Andrew Kirvine
At primary school, Lee Bedford won the fancy dress in a punk outfit (designed by his brother). He had the sneer and everything (that was less fancy dress than a natural irritation of being made to stand about in the blistering heat). Someone dressed as a rocker came second. Alas, my Robin Hood was not placed.

However, I am interested in punk as an aesthetic (if not a musical) culture. I use my age to bemoan subsequent generations of bands who think they are punk (loud and fast and a bit shouty), while recognising that my punk phase was probably more to make Shen (a Bigger Boy) lay off my surname.

As far as it goes, the exhibitions in the article are a good example of why punk is very dead, and less inspiring that I would like. First of all, Pretty Vacant: The Graphic Language of Punk (Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia) came from 'the collection of Andrew Krivine, a commercial banker and punk-stuff collector since 1977.' Just to be clear, punk in the UK was a leftist movement - in fact, it managed to limp on as a musical presence mainly due to its connection with protest politics in the Thatcher years (I saw a band in 1994, in Stoke, still singing a song about how nasty Maggie is). Commercial bankers, collectors: neither of these roles seem to embody that punk ethos.

But Kirvine said he championed punk in the old days, as did Kaytie Johnson, the director and chief Curator for the Galleries at Moore and the curator of Pretty Vacant. She talks about the 'nostalgia' of looking through the archives - again, the austere punks of my primary school days were not about the past, or the future. Lee Bedford lived in the now: he rarely practiced on his recorder for our weekly class lessons.

The exhibition demonstrates how punk was not an isolated event - Krivine has stuff from T-Rex (very dubiously called proto-punk), The Velvet Underground (art sensibilities and a garage rock force), Roxy Music (Eno's anti-musician stance was kinda punk, as long as you ignore Brian Ferry's louche glamour) and bands off various post-punk labels. The choices Krivine made are probably more personal that the exhibition dares admit - it is perfectly possible for a punk fan to like other music, but that doesn't make it punk. Besides, false consciousness is one of the things that rock'n'roll has managed to bring to revolution, anyway.

“It’s retro, it’s cool, it’s loud and in-your-face, it’s anti-establishment, it’s analog," Johnsons says. "It’s everything students in their early 20s hold near and dear, especially art students. Punk’s appeal to subsequent generations of teenagers and young adults is a testament to its potency and legacy. Its visual codes and oppositional stance still ring true with youth culture, 30 years after the fact.”

Well, yes, because those codes and stance are completely fake, art students are going to dig them. Punk was based on celebrating a word used as an insult (one etymology is that it comes from the word for the guy who got bummed in prison), and while there are prouder reclamations (queer, for example), punk was feeding off an energy that goes back to Jean Genet's inversion of Catholicism, or the silly satanists of the nineteenth century.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with being fake, or unoriginal, but the story of Darby Crash might give some pause to anyone championing punk as a civil rights movement. Equally, the idea of rock music as a medium for revolution is a trope that has been hawking its arse around any musical movement that needed a bit of hype (hello, Elvis - what about them hips? Hey Eminem, saying 'bitch' will get attention). Dear God, these days, outrage is the domain of Miley Cyrus. I am sure some cultural theorist is thanking punk for that.

Unknown artist, Circle Jerks Flyer, 1981, photocopy. Collection of Andrew Krivine.

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