by Chris Jarvis
Anniversaries are strange things. Almost exclusively, they consist of rose-tinted, uncritical and nostalgic assessments of whatever they seek to commemorate. 2016, forty years since the ‘birth’ of punk, appears no different. Expect Union Jacks, safety pins galore and excessive images of John Lydon in BBC sanctioned documentaries. Expect descriptions of how important Malcolm Mclaren was to punk’s success, claims that New Rose was without contention the first punk rock single and a neat lineage where pub rock became punk – a very British phenomenon.
Inadequate as such histories are, they are demonstrative of the problem we have with understanding punk as a cultural occurrence. Debate rages amongst fans about whether punk was ever grassroots, whether it was ever political, whether any of the anti-establishment ethos was ever genuine, or instead fabricated by an astute record industry seeking to find the new zeitgeist. Adherents to either theory will read selectively into the evidence and ignore anything which would disprove their dogma.
Such airbrushing is illustrative of how important punk was and is to people. Clinging to their notions of reality, they seek to apply their own values and ideals to its history. But to do so fails to understand a deeply nuanced phenomenon. I would love for punk to be a long line of progressives seeking to change the world through art, but the reality is a little different.
We can’t ignore that Sid Vicious frequently wore t-shirts emblazoned with swastikas, or that Blood & Honour, the neo-nazi skinhead group, organised around punk. But we also can’t forget that Rock Against Racism, a punk movement, brought 100,000 people onto the streets against the far-right, that Crass brought anarchist philosophy and action to many who had never encountered it, or that punk has for generations politicised and inspired countless people.
Men and Music
There is a more damaging problem with cherry picked versions of punk history, though. In virtually all of them, punk is a very male affair: forty years of men growling into microphones, thrashing on guitars and trying to change the world. Ramones, Sex Pistols, The Clash, Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, Rancid, Sham 69, Refused, Buzzcocks, Crass and so on and so on. The more commercial, radio-friendly manifestation at the turn of the century was little different: Green Day, The Offspring, Blink-182, New Found Glory. Despite the passage of time, the popular understanding of what punk is and was cannot be divorced from its masculinity.
Men’s outputs are seminal, women’s are footnotes.
Not only is this a result of the wider dominance of cultural spaces by men, but also the, intentional or otherwise, erasure of women’s creations from the history books and the public perception. Men’s outputs are seminal, women’s are footnotes.
Riot Grrrl, Roots and Race
In the early 1990s, women in punk circles took matters into their own hands, with Washington, USA seeing the burgeoning of all-women bands. They organised their own shows, collaborated on the production of zines and led campaigns– embracing foundations of the DIY ethic. The movement emerged in response to the lack of representation of women in the scene of the time, as well as the way that punk spaces were male-dominated, where sexual violence was prevalent.
‘Riot Grrrl’, as it came to be known, was primarily about women’s empowerment, amplifying voices and reclaiming space. Lyrical themes and zine articles would cover feminist issues: abortion rights, domestic abuse and patriarchy. Bands like Bikini Kill and Bratmobile would be crucial to its formation, before more grunge-orientated acts L7, Babes in Toyland and 7 Year Bitch would amass larger followings. Riot Grrrl placed women front and centre, and took back a culture from its domination by men.
But to see punk rock as a male phenomenon, and Riot Grrrl as its women-only sister is again to see women in punk as an aside, rather than having always been at its heart. Poly Styrene was crucial to the early development of the genre. Patti Smith was as important as Iggy Pop in setting the US groundwork of proto-punk. The Slits were central in the evolution towards post-punk. Siouxsie Sioux was as vital in turning that into its gloomier gothic descendant as Robert Smith and Young Marble Giants provided post-punk with possibly the purest of its stripped back, eerie, pre-apocalyptic moodiness. Without these women, punk, and by extension, much of modern guitar music would be a very different place.
to see punk rock as a male phenomenon, and Riot Grrrl as its women-only sister is again to see women in punk as an aside, rather than having always been at its heart.
Much of the above is true for black artists too. The two-tone explosion at the end of the 1970s is no longer seen as integral to punk’s development and instead as an isolated moment of a bygone era. We remember Madness (naturally) and Ghost Town but forget all about The Beat, The Selecter and, unsurprisingly, the all-woman band The Bodysnatchers. Musicians who drew as much, if not more, from reggae acts from the 1960s as they did from punk, that would influence a whiter, more punk-heavy ska scene at the end of the century through Goldfinger, Less Than Jake and their ilk are often not recognised for their contributions.
Similarly, when looking at the early development of the American hardcore scene, it is clear that it is the white musicians who have survived the attrition of history, becoming recognised as the trailblazers. The iconography of Black Flag and Minor Threat, as well as the semi-celebrity status of their frontmen, speaks volumes. Bad Brains, a band who did more to influence the future of the scene than almost all of their contemporaries, as well as bend perceptions of genre are viewed as a relic, rather than as a continuing contributor to culture and society.
Lenses of History
The gender-erasing and white-washing of punk history needs reviewing, as does the way we understand cultural movements more broadly. Black musicians are given little credit when we reflect on the emergence of rock ‘n’ roll. Women pioneers of hip-hop like Salt ‘n’ Pepa or Roxanne Shante are oft forgotten, replaced by male counterparts whether it be Run DMC or NWA. Latin American and East Asian metal musicians are considered separate to rather than part of the genre’s evolution.
Conceptualising cultural history in this way is reflective of the recurring problems we have in viewing political history too. Trans and black women are removed from the narrative of the emergence of the LGBT+ movement, the end of slavery and colonialism are portrayed as moments when paternalistic white people gave others their freedom back, rather than as a long-standing struggle by people to liberate themselves, major battles of workers’ struggle that were led by women are deprioritised, whether it be the Ford Dagenham workers fighting for equal pay or the Russian International Women’s Day protest that sparked the February Revolution in 1917.
Perceptions and histories of both the arts and of politics are intertwined, and so their prejudices are alike. They also mirror how society collectively views these spheres in the present. Therefore, when taking a moment to reflect on the past, we should also take a step back to look at the here and now. Forty years since the brattish, anarchic and aggressive punks first inelegantly strummed their out of tune guitars, are we seeing history repeat itself? Are women and people of colour still being shut out of the scene, and is the media still failing to report on their achievements and creations?
Next Sunday, we will be looking at 2016 in punk music, and the people who are shaping it.
Featured image © X-ray-Sez