1977: The Year Decency Died - Part II

[9 April 2008]

By Raphaël Costambeys-Kempczynski

1977: The Year Decency Died - Part I “I loathe and detest everything they stand for and look like. They are obnoxious, obscene and disgusting.”

The year of the Sex Pistols was punctuated by the Grundy interview, the Queen’s Silver Jubilee and the troubled release of their album Never Mind the Bollocks Here’s the Sex Pistols. On 5th November 1977 WPC Julie Dawn Story informed the branch manager of Virgin Nottingham that the word ‘Bollocks’ on the record cover was in breach of the Indecent Advertising Act of 1899. Pivotal to the subsequent court case was the witness account of Reverend James Kingsley, professor of English at Nottingham University and former Anglican priest. In Kingsley’s account of the etymology of ‘bollock’ he argued:

The word has been used as a nickname for clergymen. Clergymen are known to talk a good deal of rubbish and so the word later developed the meaning of nonsense… They became known for talking a great deal of bollocks, just as old balls or baloney also come to mean testicles, so it has twin uses in the dictionary.

Calling upon a sense of pride in the English language’s Anglo-Saxon inheritance, this line of defence was enough for the magistrates to find in favour of the Sex Pistols although the senior magistrate stressed this was done “reluctantly”.

The battle ground between the Sex Pistol-led English punk movement and the Establishment was that of decency. The punk events of 1977 were driven by a need to re-appropriate decency as the domain of the subject, to inject responsibility back into a notion too long left in suspension. The claim of English punk music in 1977 was about empowering the social actor through responsibility with subjectivity.

There should be no mistake, however. Punk’s English dream of decency, to play on a line from the song “God Save the Queen”, was itself a construction. If the Sex Pistols were the unadulterated voice of the working class, or the unemployed class, this could only sit uncomfortably with their fame and money. The class issue would fuel the artist’s age-old struggle of how to remain authentic to the artistic endeavour and the message.

Margaret Thatcher Che Guevara Revolutionary T-Shirt© image (partial) from Red Molotov.com - Revolutionary T-shirt Designs

Margaret Thatcher Che Guevara Revolutionary T-Shirt© image (partial) from Red Molotov.com - Revolutionary T-shirt Designs

The direct attack on the social realities of 1977 would lead to added attention, better record sales, increased wealth and greater distance from the class struggle within which the music knew its genesis. Critics have therefore argued that a popular musicians view of contemporary reality is fuzzy, distorted by the pull between the utopian message of production and the capital gain of consumption.

Ultimately what we need to bear in mind is that beyond the performance of punk bands of this period, whether on stage or in the media, many of the band members did not have working class backgrounds. Of the Clash, Joe Strummer’s father was a diplomat and Mick Jones went to art school. For the Sex Pistols with such figures as Situationist Malcolm McLaren and the fashion designer Vivienne Westwood pulling the strings from their Kings Road clothes shop, it is difficult not to peer at this working class subculture through the microscope of art school filtered postmodernism. Katrina Irving may argue that what differentiates US punk from English punk is that the Americans considered themselves artists, quoted Genet and played concerts in arts centres, but we must not forget that McLaren, if only briefly, had managed the New York Dolls.

Not only this, but, John Lydon, the mouthpiece of the dole queue, had never been unemployed for any particular length of time himself. Lydon had an ambivalent relationship towards class. He appears to have a nostalgic association to the English working-class community of his youth and yet his Sex Pistols persona, Johnny Rotten, an imagined alternative identity born out of his extensive cultural capital, a product of an intellectual construct, firmly rejects this wistful vision of the past.

To attack the generation of World War II, however, it would be necessary to demonstrate the suffering experienced at the hands of post-Empire inertia characterised by the Silver Jubilee. Perhaps the most violent aspect of “God Save the Queen” is not the attack on the “mad parade” itself (the song was written about a year before the jubilee celebrations) but the songs mantra that there is “no future / in England’s dreaming”.

With the seeming impossibility of prospect, all that was left was the immediacy of a present perceived as the apocalypse –- The Sex Pistols sang “I am an antichrist” in “Anarchy in the UK”, The Clash sang “London’s Burning”, X-Ray Specs sang “Oh! Bondage Up Yours”, The Stranglers sang “Something Better Change”.

Heavily defined by its class system, English society in 1977 had a voice for its alienated bored working class youth. With the Labour government hanging on to power by the skin of its teeth social order seemed in turmoil. The vicious sound of these English punk bands reflected the destruction around them: the dissonant snarling singing voice, the raw guitar wall of sound, every beat of every bar accented and the percussive high pitch of continuous crashing symbols makes listening uncomfortable.

Richard Middleton argues that teenage rebellion in the 1950s and 1960s, though set against the backdrop of growing liberal ideology, was articulated to safe musical patterns with little subversive content. Punk offered a more testing musical and message-driven assault at a time of more critical socio-economic unrest. One could argue, however, that the various moments of youth culture are self-regulating revolutions as the actors of one generation necessarily grow older and therefore normalise any sense of fracture. In the meantime the social realities of economic failure persist.

It would appear misleading then to suggest that punk helped shape the politics of the time, but these punk groups did project themselves as the voice of the English underclass, the Everyman voice of “Another Country / Another council tenancy” to quote from “Anarchy in the UK”. This is the little man against the big man mentality seen as a defining characteristic of Englishness -– as the sociologist Krishan Kumar puts it, the English have always “championed the good sense, resourcefulness and courage of the ordinary ‘little chap’”. Indeed, with such direct implications in movements like Rock against Racism, punk groups like the Clash, Buzzcocks, X-Ray Spex and Sham 69 did more than symbolic resistance.

Class differentiation was also identified along musical lines, notably in the polarisation of punk and progressive rock. Prog rock was the genre of popular music seen to be indulgently arty, intellectual, Romantic and middle class by punk. It lacked authenticity whereas punk was purer, had more street credibility.

Contrary to many of its predecessors, at the musical core of punk—from its conception to its performance—lies the action of protest. Instrumental solos, seen as superfluous to this and a sign of slickness, were to be condemned along with the banks of electronic keyboards so revelled in by the progressive rockers of the time. The lack of rhythmic variation made punk undanceable but added a sense of urgency. The simplicity of the riffs was the stance of individualism and allowed the anger of the voice to stand out.

Protest song in the form of folk or hippie music had been plaintive, punk, however, was declamatory. The Clash and the Sex Pistols confronted their audiences often provoking them into a violent reaction. The sense of confrontation is then worked on in the studio to reproduce this live feel. No sense of artificiality must come between the band and the audience, and though it may be difficult to make out the message because of the sneer, the snarl and the slur, the sincerity of that message must not be brought into question.

Often criticised for being out of tune one need only listen to a song “Pretty Vacant” to here how Rotten aggresses the listener with his political message sung out of key during the verse but then neatly falls into key for the rabble rousing chorus inviting us to sing along, to answer his call to arms. In this way punk positions itself against the music that had preceded itself—breaking away from rock ‘n ‘roll, from hippie music and prog rock, and expressing a real disdain for disco. And yet punk reworked rock ‘n’ roll in a pub rock guise, and inherited the rhythms of reggae. These articulations went some way to guarantee the bands’ commercial success, pointed at their mainstream bent.

Some writers, however, still see punk as fundamentally changing the nature of popular music. Ian Chambers for instance believed punk created a breach in the sequentiality of pop which would lead to “a proliferation of margins rather than a predictable return to a renewed ‘mainstream’ and subordinated ‘alternative’”. Today we can deplore the fact that sanitised Euro pop is still fed to us by such television programmes as the X-Factor where contestants churn out over-produced songs of the past, but television itself is becoming a marginal medium in the face of the Internet, which offers on demand access to an almost infinite possibility of marginal existences. Chambers is perhaps right, but is this down to punk or the digitalisation of the audio medium that would begin just five years later, in 1982?

Perhaps the public uproar over punk reflected a real threat to public order, but cultural theory teaches us well. Although much of the media attention focused on the public displays of violence that characterised punk—the imagery of bondage, the aggressive musical snarl, the lyrics of desolation and oppression, the public goading—there was also a commodification of this violence. After the Grundy incident, small retailers began to take notice of punk’s apparent individualist ethos and started setting up independent record labels. Added to this were the ‘one stops’—firms that bought bulk records from the major labels and then sold them on to independent record shops but without the small order surcharge imposed by the major record labels—in effect decentralising the chain of distribution.

This was the Do-It-Yourself drive of punk, though one should eschew all temptation to call this democratisation of the English record industry. If anything this was the transformation of the punk from consumer to producer, from the unengaged to the socially responsible subjective agent. Moreover, you no longer had to feel frustrated by lack of talent as this image from the fanzine Sniffin’ Glue demonstrates.

The Sex Pistols and the Clash had both originally signed to major record labels, increased exposure promising larger audiences and the wider communication of their message. But commercial pressures would call into question the authenticity of punk. Technical pressures of trying to reproduce the emotions of a live concert would also eat at the heart of the authentic punk experience.

And then there was the gimmick. Soon it was difficult to escape the coloured 12-inch or the limited edition. Post-punk would come to embrace the commodification of authenticity and leading the way would be John Lydon post-Sex Pistols with his new band, Public Image Limited, the name of which conjures up the notion of privately-owned limited liability companies.

As with many English bands since, the straw that finally broke the anarchist camel’s back was the Sex Pistols’ attempt to break America. The positivistic attitude of Americans did not appear to be a comfortable bedfellow for nihilistic apocalypse. And so often nihilistic apocalypse did not turn up, as Savage puts it “There was no murder, no vomiting, no mutilation: just four 20- to 21-year-olds”.

Reflecting the attitude of their manager back at the Queen’s Silver Jubilee when McLaren had aggravated the situation with the police, on 7th January 1978 John Lydon at a concert at Randy’s Rodeo in San Antonia decided that this was his moment of hubris and shouted: “You cowboys are all a bunch of f**king faggots”. Needless to say, the concert had to be interrupted for several minutes. Just ten days later the Sex Pistols were no more.

It would be all too easy to conclude with an image of the stereotypical Sex Pistols, leaving us with an ironic sense of the commodification of authenticity. But punk was the voice challenging the original generation of teenagers as they were turning into parents. The Sex Pistols were also the enemy within, willing to expose the record industry to show their authenticity as they sung on the track “E.M.I.”: “and you thought that we were faking / that we were all just money making / you do not believe we’re for real”.

If punk’s message was ‘destroy’, then inevitably wrapped up in its own scream of existence was its dying breath. No sooner was 1977 declared the year of punk than the death of punk was in the cards. The release of “God Save the Queen” and the publicity stunt on the Thames were accompanied by the Sex Pistols’ sighs of regret and the prerequisite boredom. Within the space of a year the proliferation of generic punk bands with the formulaic snarl had turned punk into a conservative mode of musical expression. Ironically one could see the symbolic death of punk as the election of Margaret Thatcher in May 1979.

The wave of post-punk bands would push the Clash to sing in June 1978 “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais”: “The new groups are not concerned / With what there is to be learned / They got Burton suits, ha you think it’s funny / Turning rebellion into money.” Indeed, 1977 was the year decency died. Social decency suffered from the political upheaval of that year, public decency could no longer be stabilised by its hypocrisy, and musical decency in the form of punk was commodified by post-punk before even the first punk album had been released.

Perhaps the most indecent thing of 1977 was that an ex-Beatle, backed by the music of bagpipes, topped the charts singing “Mull of Kintyre”.

Raphaël is maître de conferences at the Sorbonne, Paris, where he lectures in English literature, Cultural Studies, Media Studies and Radio Journalism. Though born and bred in England, Raphaël has spent much of his adult life travelling between London, Edinburgh, Dublin and the Continent. After a short career as a rock band front man and music critic, he worked for several years as a radio presenter/producer and is currently piloting the Radio Sorbonne project. His radio work mainly focuses on the analysis of British current affairs with a cultural angle as well as issues dealing with the reception of popular music. He is known in radio circles as the "Dr of Pop". He completed his PhD in 2001 on the performances of postmodernity in contemporary British poetry and subsequently left his home in Britain to take up his post in Paris.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/1977-the-year-decency-died-part-ii/