Anarchy in the UK

In the first of a week-long series of features celebrating 30 years of punk, Arts Editor Rod McPhee looks back at the cultural phenomenon and its lasting legacy.

NO one can say for sure exactly when punk was born. It was, after all, an evolutionary addition to the broad church of rock.

But it turned out to be more than the black sheep of the family, here was a snarling wolf fearlessly barking at everything which had gone before.

Rock music always had an edge but nothing was so unashamedly aggressive, rebellious or unprecedented as punk which pivoted on the notion of a complete break from the past. It's leaders opposed tradition, the status quo, the establishment.

And leading the revolution were The Sex Pistols who not only set the benchmark for generational dissent but came to represent its high water mark.

Understandably a shocked old guard viewed their mantra as little more than anarchy but far from wanting to entirely dismantle society punk actually came to symbolise a new kind of democracy.

For the first time an entire wave of youth were provided with a culture which was entirely their own. Anyone could grab a few instruments and call themselves a band.

But it was about more than music. Now anyone could tear a T-shirt and call themselves a fashion designer. Now a few newspaper headlines placed on a poster of the queen's head could become an enduring iconic image.

They no longer sought success by seeking patronage from the powers that be, they took it by standing against them.

Reactionaries viewed it as destructive, and it was on some level. But, in the words of the Sex Pistols' manager Malcolm McClaren: "You have to destroy to create."

Milestone

Of course punk didn't have the substance or organic quality that some contemporaries would have us believe, but it remains a milestone in 60 years of post-war history nonetheless.

Dr Max Farrar, sociologist at Leeds Metropolitan University said: "What this movement symbolised was the desire of a generation of people to put fire back into the paunchy belly of British culture.

"Punk was skinny and sharp and a kick up the backside of corporate culture which, after the revolutionary fervour of the 60s, had seen things become very conventional and conformist.

"People like Malcolm McLaren, who has received varying degrees of credit for the phenomenon of The Sex Pistols, were a group of people from the 60s who saw a very clear link between art, fashion, music and politics.

"And whatever people say, he was very adept at putting the band into situations, like the infamous TV interview with Bill Grundy, where they could be showcased at their most extreme.

"Looking back on their bad language in that interview it doesn't seem that shocking now, it actually wasn't then, but it was very exciting because suddenly for the first time, out of this conformity, came this fearless voice.

"So punk was about more than surface – there was real depth there, depth which later became manifest though organisations like Rock Against Racism which made very great strides in combating the problems facing a disaffected youth.

"By the end of the 70s, the Labour government, the dismantlement of consensus politics and with the arrival of Thatcher there was a strong sense of disenchantment with the British establishment and ultimately punk was the outlet."

The precise chronology varies depending on which chapter of punk history you choose as a guide. The subculture appears to have developed in various forms and at various speeds in cities around the world.

Some claim its origins lie in US 'garage bands' of the mid 1960s though the term Punk Rock didn't come into use until 1971 when the movement was still in its infancy.

It wasn't until 1976 that distinctive bands like The Clash, The Ramones, The Stranglers, The Damned and the standard-bearing Sex Pistols started to emerge and that year is seen by many as the moment that punk reached its zenith.

It was in this year that The Sex Pistols signed a major deal with EMI and released their first single, Anarchy in the UK, which served as a statement of intent – full of wit, anger and visceral energy.

Another defining moment came on December 1 when the band appeared on Thames Television's Today programme.

Goaded by host Bill Grundy the Pistols subjected him to a burst of foul-mouthed abuse which was so unprecedented at the time it led to outrage and the infamous "Filth and the Fury" headline in The Daily Mirror.

Soon after The Sex Pistols joined forces with The Clash, The Damned, and Johnny Thunders & The Heartbreakers on the Anarchy in the UK tour.

But due to the controversy surrounding the band numerous venues cancelled their gigs and, by default, Leeds became the first provincial city to experience the full force of the punk roadshow.

It wasn't the first time The Sex Pistols had played in the city, that honour fell to the Fforde Grene pub in Harehills months earlier when the band were reportedly booed off stage.

Their performance at Leeds Polytechnic on December 6 didn't earn them much praise either, but the quality of the gig mattered less than the young imaginations it fired.

In '76 Shonna was the teenage lead singer in newly formed Leeds punk band the Abrasive Wheels. He said: "It was funny because the press tried to rubbish the Sex Pistols and made a big thing of the fact that they weren't real musicians and couldn't play.

"But instead of putting people off it backfired on them and all of a sudden you saw loads of young people in Leeds saying 'Yeh, this means I can do what they do.' That was just the spirit of punk.

"If it weren't for the likes of the Pistols we wouldn't have had that spirit. They were so anti-establishment, so in your face and political.

"And that was a big inspiration to people like myself in Leeds because back then there was already a lot of unemployment – the writing was already on the wall for my generation.

Angst

"At school our careers advisers used to teach us how to sign on, do you know what I mean? So we had a lot of angst to get rid of. So seeing the likes of the Pistols venting that anger inspired us, 'cos we had a major beef too."

In the late 70s local bands blossomed and, if they were lucky, they would find themselves playing in the now legendary

F Club or the Fforde Grene.

But by 1979 many post-Pistol bands, including the Abrasive Wheels, had split. By the time Thatcher came to power observers claimed punk was already dead. Like all pure enigmas their existence must be, by definition, short lived.

But punk reinvented itself and lives on today. It has evolved and devolved into different forms but its influence has permeated into the artworld, fashion, design, even politics. Many of the cultural nuances we take for granted now didn't exist before the arrival of punk – from spikey hair to avant garde clothing and cut 'n'paste graphics.

Devotion

But at the core of its enduring appeal is the music and Leeds remains one of biggest punk heartlands in Britain with more local bands than ever playing at Leeds venues like The Fenton and The Cockpit.

Rebecca Pollard was just a toddler in '76, yet despite having no direct experience of punk's early days she's grown up to be a stalwart. Her devotion began in her teens at a time when the movement was at a relative low point.

Now 33 she's seen an increasing number of Noughties teenagers getting in on the act and business is booming on her website www.punkoiuk.co.uk – an emporium of music, clothing, jewellery even homeware which she runs from her base in Headingley, Leeds.

"There was certainly a time in the late 80s and early 90s when things reached a low but recently, in the last few years there's been a real resurgence." she said.

"And I'm talking about teenagers who are into the original music and the original look too. One explanation is that a lot of young people have been influenced by their parents who are of the right age to have experienced punk the first time round – which is ironic because punk was always about rebelling against previous generations.

"But I think one thing which appeals to young people is the fact that punk is rather like the white equivalent of today's RnB and hip hop.

"That's not meant in a racist way, I just mean it has that edgier, street, in-your-face attitude to it which young people will always be drawn to."

TOMORROW: Two 70s punks turned forty-something fathers... only with quite different looks.