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(en) Freedom 6315 (27th July): Punk - but where's the fury

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Mon, 5 Aug 2002 07:06:43 -0400 (EDT)


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It's 1979. In a dark, seedy club in Islington, anarcho-pacifist punks Crass
are on stage chanting over and over and over again, 'punk is dead'. I was
a punk then, and it did feel as if the movement that burned so brightly
only a few years before, with bands like The Clash, Adverts, X-Ray Spex
and the Damned, was fading. Crass and a nascent American scene,
beginning to emerge around bands like Black Flag, Husker Du and
Youth Brigade, were the only bright spots in an increasingly gloomy and
apolitical music scene.
Fast forward to 2002. It's 25 years since punk first kicked, spat and
screamed its way into the public consciousness via Bill Grundy, Johnny
Rotten and Sid Vicious. It's two decades since I was at that Crass gig in
north London. Forget the queen - punk's Silver Jubilee is the only
anniversary that matters this year.
The Sex Pistols have reformed, again. If you've got £32.50 plus the
'booking fee' to spare, you can see them at Crystal Palace next week.
Crass themselves recently had a retrospective at the National Film
Theatre (Freedom, 29th June).
Television, one of the New York bands who helped to forge punk along
with the Ramones, Blondie and New York Dolls in the mid 1970s,
played the Royal Festival Hall as part of Bowie's 'Meltdown' festival in
June. I saw them. They were storming, brilliant, their guitars blazing
through classics like Marquee Moon and See No Evil.
All well and good, but the last time I saw Television was in late 1977.
Another small club in London, packed with spiky punks slightly unsure
how to react to the band's arty, new wave sound, the songs more than
twice as long as the required three minutes. I mostly remember it being
unbearably hot. The Royal Festival Hall is air-conditioned.
It was unimaginable in punk's first flush that bands like Television and
Crass would ever turn up at establishment and middle class venues like
the NFT and RFH. This isn't a case, as the Clash once sang, of 'turning
rebellion into money'. It's about neutering rebellion and repackaging it
as 'art' to be consumed safely from an air-conditioned seat.
The music's still great, but there's something faintly depressing about
this middle class, middle aged nostalgia for punk. Wasn't punk always
supposed to be about 'now'? The past was something to take the piss out
of. That's why the Clash sang 'no more Beatles, Elvis or the Rolling
Stones' on the b-side of White Riot.
Of course, there's a reason for this nostalgia, apart from the accident of
the anniversary. Punk is currently 'big'. Big, that is, as in 'big business'.
Modern day 'punk' bands, like Blink-182, Weezer, Sum-41, Offspring
and Green Day shift millions of CDs, mainly to young teens. They
follow the classic three-chord punk formula - 'play it fast and play it
loud' - but there's no hint of rebellion in this music. This is corporate
punk.
Last week, Green Day played two sell-out gigs at Wembley Arena. I
went with my 14 year old son, Aleister. Thousands of teenage boys and
girls, all wearing their £32 hoodies, all chanting when they were told to
and all picked up by their parents afterwards. As Aleister observed as
we left to get the train home, outside the stadium looked like a school
run.
Punk was my way into anarchism. First of all, the punks' use of
anarchist symbols and imagery drew my attention to the fact that there
was something called 'anarchism'. Later, through Crass, I was exposed
to anarchist ideas themselves. Punk's whole DIY attitude was political. I
couldn't play an instrument so I wrote a fanzine instead. With my mates
I put on gigs in Reading for local bands.
It's impossible to imagine anyone going to a Green Day concert and
coming away with a single political thought in their head. Punk is bigger
now than it ever was, but despite excellent (and political) bands like
Rancid, Bad Religion and Sick of It All, it doesn't matter any more.
Punk is just another product to be consumed and disposed of.
Back in 1976, capitalism was in crisis. Unemployment was rising.
Inflation was going through the roof. Industrial militancy was rampant.
Capitalism's grip seemed to be weakening. In the battle between labour
and capital, it seemed for a while that labour could get the upper hand.
Perhaps this loosening of capitalism's stranglehold created a space for
punk to develop. Was it really an accident that punk coincided with the
end of the post-war settlement? Punk was the theme tune to Keynesian
decay. The Clash's first album tells you everything you need to know
about Britain in 1977.
Today, capitalism in its neoliberal form seems dominant. The middle
classes are doing okay. They feel content. Two decades of attack by
Thatcher and Blair have left the working class down but not out.
Modern corporate punk reflects this.
Innovation still exists in music, as the latest albums from Sonic Youth
(Murrey Street) and Bob Mould (Modulate) testify. But as capitalism
seeps further into every nook and cranny of modern life, is it any
wonder youth rebellion and counterculture are being squeezed?
What's happened to punk has also happened to that other youth craze of
the 1970s, skateboarding. The film Dogtown and Z-Boys, just released,
documents the story of a gang of LA surfer kids who took to
skateboarding in the early '70s. They skated where they could, draining
the swimming pools of the rich at night if they had to. Nowadays,
skateboarding isn't symbolised by subversive acts of defiance, but by
multimillionaire Tony Hawks and £40 Playstation games.
Crass were right. Punk was dead in 1979. But looking back today, as the
country wallows in nostalgia for it, we can see that it wasn't just punk
that died. The chance for a genuine counterculture - for a thriving
non-commercial underground, for free thinking and true innovation -
died too.
As capitalism lurches into crisis once again, as the anger builds up, let's
hope the spirit of punk is reborn. The next time I see Crass, it shouldn't
be in the NFT but in a crummy run-down pub.
Richard Griffin




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