25 Up: Punk's Silver Jubilee: So bored with the USA?: reflections on a transatlantic divide
On their first album, in 1977, the Clash included the track 'I'm So Bored with the USA'. It was a sweeping rant. But with which USA were the band so bored? Was it the Velvet Underground or Iggy Pop? Unlikely. Was it US television, was it US militarism? More probable. Was it more to do with the Clash resenting the idea of latterday American imperialism and, by extension, a suggestion that that very imperialism might be claiming this simmering sub-cultural volcano as its own? Quite possible. Or was it something else?
Punk has been adopted, appropriated and subverted in different ways and in different places since the cauldron of 1975 and 1976 spilled its over-heated and, some would say, contaminating cargo. During summer 2001, holidaying in France, I realised the curious ways in which the ideology, the mythology, of punk had been re-shaped, musically and symbolically. The post-modern manipulations of the home-grown band Daft Punk, with their echoes of late-'70s disco, seemed to mock the very idea, the very ethos of punk -- through their curiously infectious, retro-techno music and their name. In a back alley of a tiny hill-top town south of Cognac, the words Joy Division had, at some point in the last two decades, been crudely sprayed: concentration camp slang in a once occupied state re-formulated as new wave graffiti. On sale in the glacé cabinets of a hot season, was a plastic figure -- Punky the Penguin -- containing vanilla ice cream, combining elements of kids' cartoon innocence and punk style in the toy's strikingly spiky haircut.
But in this account I want to go back to the start and think about the ways in which punk was forged and the trans-national tensions that were generated by the disputed terrain of ownership -- who invented punk, who owned punk? These questions were raised from the early days of this loosely drawn movement and revolved primarily around the contending claims of the US and the UK. The French had their own claims, too (see Boot & Salewicz, 1996, p23) but in this piece we will consider only the two English-speaking players.
On their first album, in 1977, the Clash included the track "I'm So Bored with the USA". It was a sweeping rant. But with which USA were the band so bored? Was it the Velvet Underground or Iggy Pop? Unlikely. Was it US television, was it US militarism? More probable. Was it more to do with the Clash resenting the idea of latterday American imperialism and, by extension, a suggestion that that very imperialism might be claiming this simmering sub-cultural volcano as its own? Quite possible. Or was it something else?
If we look at the lyrics to the song, they seem to have a general tone of concern about the influence of America, as a military, financial and cultural power. Perhaps they express an Anglo fear of cultural swamping by the US. In an early interview with Caroline Coon in 1976, Joe Strummer explained the importance of punk rock. "It's the music of now", he said. "And it's in English. We sing in English, not mimicking some American rock singer's accent. That's just pretending to be something you ain't" (Coon, 1977, p63). So perhaps the song is less anti-American, more a late-in-the-day attempt to assert the claims of Englishness or Britishness in global rock culture.
There is no doubt that the mid-'70s did produce some notable spats between the contenders in the corner marked Stars and Stripes and those placed in the opposing corner, rallying under an indeterminate standard featuring anarchist, revolutionary, socialist and situationist signs, but all linked to the socio-political ferment of the UK.
I cannot spend time here discussing the lexicography of punk -- for example, its use as Shakespearean insult, as a tag used by gangster types in film noir, William Burroughs' reference to a sexual stool pigeon in jail, its association with the garage rumblings of marginalised America in the mid-'60s. Instead I want to consider some of the different ways in which the two principal nation states involved in this quasi-drama -- the US and Britain -- perceived and presented and consumed the allegedly poison pill of punk, around a quarter of a century ago.
Old perspectives: a judgment 20 years on
To mention ripped clothes and safety pins is not a bad place to start. Who concocted that inflammatory device, for example? This ragged, DIY couture was one of the first sites of contest from the very start of punk rock's headline-grabbing moment. For it was in this anti-fashion statement that punk made its most dramatic visual gesture, one that would entertain the media, not to mention the catwalks some time on, for many years to follow. Like Carl Andre's bricks in the modern art debate, punk's attachment to the safety pin, in all its functional cheapness, has prompted the tabloids to use it as both hook and weapon against the movement.
In autumn 1996 two new books were published, celebrating 20 years of punk, attesting to writers' and social commentators' enduring fascination with that musical genre -- its birth, its fall, its influences. One was of UK derivation -- Punk: The Illustrated History of a Music Revolution by two New Musical Express stalwarts of the punk period, journalist Chris Salewicz and photographer Adrian Boot. It brought a distinctly British emphasis to its tale.
From the States, came its transatlantic equivalent -- Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk by Legs McNeil and Gillian Cain -- similar in the sense that it also tried to unravel the punk story except from the other side of the water. The title came from a T-shirt slogan that Richard Hell of Television and the Voidoids devised but, somewhat wisely, never actually wore.
The reviews drew attention to a difference in tone, a difference in perspective. The British book, critic Ben Thompson told us in his double review in the Independent on Sunday, documented "the full psychodrama of the punk movement" and the fact that "music revolution" was at the heart of the title was not insignificant (Thompson, 1996).
But the reviewer focused more closely on the American tome which, he told us, was keen to point up "the dividing line between American innovation and British appropriation". In other words, the Yanks thought this one up and the Brits pinched punk for their own uses, Thompson summarised. "The basic thrust of the book is that punk was invented by Legs McNeil and his clever New York friends to amuse themselves between bouts of heroin addiction and trips to McDonald's but then the dumb Brits went and spoilt it by transforming it into a cultural cataclysm of massive global import" (Thompson, 1996).
Thompson found the position of McNeil -- founder of the magazine called Punk in 1975 -- hard to stomach, even if Malcolm McLaren did return from the US, where he had had experience managing the New York Dolls, with a picture of Richard Hell in a ripped T-shirt saying he felt like "Marco Polo or Walter Raleigh" arriving in the UK with some vital new artefact. But Hell, the reviewer believed, had a more sensible approach to the whole topic.
Notwithstanding that the bass player claimed to be the first to tear his clothing, use safety pins as utilitarian jewellery, and saw a distinct link between an anthem of his own and a later Sex Pistols' work, Hell comments: "I was pretty pissed off when I first heard the Sex Pistols' "Pretty Vacant". Malcolm had stolen that whole attitude from "Blank Generation". But ideas are free property -- I stole shit, too" (McNeill & McCain, 2000, p247).
Antecedents and attitudes: a brief summary
The retrospective Independent on Sunday article, which colourfully re-captured the sniping spirit of punk US and punk UK, was both entertaining and revealing, reminding us that the new wave in New York City was a different beast from the one that grew up in London, Manchester and other British cities. The discrepancy in experience between these two lands "divided by a common language", as one UK politician once remarked, is at the heart of this survey.
Shuker (1998, p276) acknowledges the lack of clarity to the history: "While punk has been regarded by some commentators as originating in England and then being taken up intellectually, there is a strong case for its origins being rather in New York's alternative music scene". Heylin (1993, pxiii) is less able to sit on the analytical fence. "Much, indeed too much, has been written about the similarities between American and British punk scenes. The differences were considerable. Only with the new wave did bands synthesise the bam-a-lam rebelliousness of British punk with the self-conscious artistry of American punk".
While Americans were making gestures on stage and through their songs that were a curious mixture of the anti-social -- Jayne County -- the anti-intellectual -- Blondie -- and the quite simply moronic, if ironically so -- the Ramones -- juxtaposed with the poetry and art school style of Talking Heads, Patti Smith and Television, very little of what was going on at CBGBs had focus or political edge. Later, more outrageous yet much less noticed bands like the Dead Kennedys did mix outrage with a serious sense of angry protest but their immediate ancestors did not have the kind of verve and fury that characterised the politicised punk of the UK.
In some ways American bands may have been responding to a despised musical establishment -- the Eagles or Emerson, Lake and Palmer -- rather than the Establishment. Or they were perhaps reacting to the very idea of the music business -- its bloated corporatism was peaking in the early 1970s, symbolised by high-rise culture of Columbia or Warner Brothers. Most likely they were simply perpetuating that appealing tradition of low life bohemianism in underground Manhattan, which stretched from the Beats through to Greenwich Village folk rock to Warhol, Pop Art and the Factory. They espoused the short, sharp shock tactics of the American garage bands of the mid-'60s and, of course, the Velvets and married them to graphic but somewhat detached urban commentaries. Their creed seemed to be built on abstract minimalism rather than a manifesto of rebellion or social disjunction.
In Britain, the genesis was different. An anti-musical establishment grouping -- a back-to-roots rejection of progressive excesses -- was in place in Britain from around 1972/3 as a phenomenon called pub rock attempted to reclaim the music for bars and small venues rather than stadiums, relying on basic, unrefined R&B as its source. First, hippie survivors like Brinsley Schwarz, then R&B renegades like Dr. Feelgood and Eddie and the Hot Rods, were typical exponents. A little later, the same circuit that had hosted the pub-rock surge -- bars like the Hope & Anchor -- was providing early British punks with a seeding ground.
In fact, there was an interesting paradox at play here. While British punk quickly claimed to be turning over the tables of the music scene, its exponents largely re-hashed musical styles that had been sidelined by progressive rock. They were social subversives, but musically they were actually conservative. The Sex Pistols used the three-chord trick and turned up the distortion; it was electric blues and heavy rock pumped out alongside the occasional '60s classic, twisted a touch by a strangulated, often unintelligible, vocal. Bands like the Damned and the Clash offered more of the same, often even less sophisticated. The Jam cast a nod in mod's direction -- the Small Faces -- while the Stranglers were essentially an organ-led rock band reminiscent of the Animals, or even the Doors, for example.
Complimentary reviews of American punk in NME and other British outlets had already begun to filter through to the UK from summer 1975. While only New York -- and a specific in crowd -- had much awareness of the new US combos, a significant portion of the UK now began turning on to them via write-ups that Charles Shaar Murray and Nick Kent were producing on the Bowery scene. Yet within months, the British version would take on a much more passionate, even torrid, form with the Sex Pistols as its shock troops. Their debut single "Anarchy in the UK" , in late 1976, was "a vitriolic assault on the Establishment generally. Adopting a snarling, sneering tone [the band] took a verbal and musical stab at anyone and everyone" (Warner, 1996, p264).
For punk, Brit-style, channelled its anger in a way that was far more focused than the deadpan detachment of New Yorkers like David Byrne, Tom Verlaine and the Ramones. The Manhattan-ites appeared to be making an intellectual statement through their art; British punks wanted to make a distinctly anti-intellectual statement through their unadulterated noise. If it had a manifesto, nihilism, seemed to be at its heart. But that hopelessness seemed to carry a political charge.
It was much more political than its American equivalent, in the sense that specifically political points were made -- institutions were attacked; the government was reviled; the Queen abused; unemployment and race and, to a degree, gender became platforms of debate among the young; the tired old dinosaurs of rock were cruelly ridiculed. Rotten's "I Hate Pink Floyd" T-shirt logo, Strummer's "Chuck Berry Is Dead" and the Clash's song "1977" were fairly typical.
Brit punk was loud, crude, often incoherent, frequently contradictory, yet, in terms of genuine commitment and passion about real issues, it ran at full throttle. Its power often rested on its native instinct; it was frequently of the heart rather than the head. US punk gesture seemed to be of the head rather than the soul; it had a knowing self-awareness. As Jon Savage comments of the early American setting: "The new affiliation without a name proclaimed its difference, as all pop movements must: downtown rigour instead of midtown glitter. There was a new musical lineage that was the authorised version: Sixties punk coupled with despised bubblegum groups, but this was a deliberate simplicity, a sophisticated naivety" (1991, p91).
The debate over British punk's political nature was, of course, intense. Was the Pistols' anarchistic attitude a call to the barricades? Was it about a social revolution? For the hard left, punk seemed to represent a rising en masse of the young and disenfranchised, the popular front's blue touch paper lit and ready to explode. Yet punk's schizophrenia -- its early adoption of the shock tactics of swastika as a symbol and its allegiance to disorganisation through anarchy -- didn't allow it to fit easily, however, into the Trotskyite credo of the Socialist Workers' Party. Punk's later embrace of reggae changed the picture, of course, and the message of multi-racial harmony seemed more akin to socialist principles and programmes. With that multi-cultural leap, the scene became linked with campaigning bodies like Rock Against Racism and the Ant-Nazi League. They tapped into the energy and exploited it.
Some bands seemed to connect with the ideas of political change in a concrete way. But the Sex Pistols and most of their fans, most of their imitators, seemed to offer no substance to back up their gestures: anarchy just appeared to be a useful, controversial, headline-grabbing hook for their usually shambolic behaviour. Ironically, while McLaren and Rotten, 20 years on suggest that their attitudes were largely fabricated, there were other groups who did take a real interest in the issues of the day -- from the Clash to Sham 69, the Jam to the Tom Robinson Band.
Yet British punk, even if it much of it was accidentally political in the first place, did energise its followers, made people more politically savvy, generated important discussions about the Establishment, joblessness, the status of the young, the status of women, and stimulated questions about the place of taboo symbols, like the swastika, in post-war European society. It was undoubtedly consciousness-raising. "Punk", writes Street, paraphrasing Savage, "was a way of experiencing and articulating political feelings, a way of making sense" (1997, p121).
In New York, songs swung from the expressionistic to the ugly, from the cartoon to the cathartic, but none of them tried to shake up the world beyond CBGBs or Max's Kansas City. There was an intellectual posture about the New York circle that was about style rather than content; deep down it was shallow.
Difference and divergence: an overview
In fact, there are a number of points to be made about the contrasting structures of British and American society which helped to shape punk's presentation and reception in the mid-'70s:
Britain is small and relatively homogenous; America is vast -- the state of Wyoming alone is the size of the UK -- and heterogeneous.
Britain has a national press read avidly from Glasgow to London to Belfast and Cardiff: the outrage that punk raised was reported daily in its pages, on national TV and national radio. It became a headline grabber.
America had no authentic national newspapers: the New York Times and the Washington Post pretend to play that role but are actually quite parochial.
Britain has a national weekly music press which was read determinedly by hundreds of thousands of music followers every week. Every new stunt, every shimmy of the punk beast was recorded by NME, Melody Maker, and Sounds.
America had a far less significant weekly music press; the main magazines Rolling Stone, Creem and Crawdaddy gave virtually no attention to the Bowery scene, Heylin states (1993, p244). Publications that did try to cover the punk scene included Rock Scene, essentially a picture-oriented mag spun-off from the long established Hit Parader, and New York Rocker which only first appeared in 1975.
There were fanzines like Punk, a genuine Manhattan voice-piece, but Britain had its versions too, and many more of them, across the nation -- irreverent paste-ups like Sniffin' Glue in London, City Fun in Manchester, Wool City Rocker in Bradford, among dozens.
Broadcast media in the States have a different role to play. Radio is localised, niche-targeted, advertising driven. In the UK the BBC public service pop station, Radio 1, through the influential DJ John Peel particularly, made punk accessible and available to millions.
Television played a part in the UK, too, and, significantly, regional TV: think of Today, the Bill Grundy-fronted show on Thames; think of So It Goes on Granada. Material aired in those programmes attracted national press attention. America had no media network that would have picked up on such stories, turning the apparently local into the national.
Vast America has two, four at most, key foci of cultural shift -- New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago. Even if New York City and Los Angeles pick up on a band, a film, a play, there is no guarantee that the 3,000 mile gap between that country's ears will also tune in.
In tiny Britain, London isn't the only mover and shaker. During punk, Glasgow, Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Leeds, Belfast and other cities danced to the same dangerous tunes and attitudes, and actually brought their own ingredients to the party. In the US, New York was the overpowering focal point, even if Cleveland and Boston had some say.
Britain is a more politically attuned state -- whether we are talking clashes between the SWP and the NF in the '70s, or good old-fashioned rows between Labour and Tories, we differ from the US where two capitalist-oriented parties run the show.
Britain appears to exhibit more sub-cultural inclinations. From Teddy Boys to mods to skinheads to punks to new romantics to goths to ravers, our music fans have either determinedly aped or actually influenced the styles of the stars they fawn over. Punk, its look, its stance, was heartily adopted by tens of thousands of fans.
In America, youth styles and sub-cults have played a less potent part: they have been few and far between and much more conservative -- if we step out of the ghettos. Thus, in the mid-'70s, in America there were reports of long-haired, check-shirted audiences at the new wave gigs of the time; in the UK, the audiences were quickly as punk or new wave as the artists. Long hair and flares disappeared almost overnight.
Age difference is another factor to point up -- British punk was younger, more adolescent than its American counterpart. Caroline Coon, quoted in Heylin, says: "While New York cultivates avant-garde and intellectual punks like Patti Smith and Television, the British teenager, needing and being that much more alienated from rock than America ever was, has little time for such aesthetic requirements. British punk rock is emerging as a fierce, aggressive-destructive onslaught. There's an age difference, too. New York punks are mostly in their mid-20s. The members of the new British punk bands squirm if they have to tell you they are over 18" (1993, p245). Mary Harron, who wrote for Punk, backs up Coon's position. She remarks: "I felt that what we had done as a joke in New York had been taken for real in England by a younger and more violent audience.... What to me had been a much more adult and intellectual bohemian rock culture in New York became this crazy teenage thing in England" (McNeil & McCain, 2000, p303)
Charting punk's progress: Top 40 indicators
It is also interesting to make some assessment of how punk was being received beyond the rather narrow world of the media, beyond the sub-cultural underground, in both countries.
The actual impact of the punk explosion is usefully tested when we consider the records that made the charts of the time. Singles and the Top 40 are no water-tight barometer of a social moment but I do think these statistics are revealing, especially because punk gave a vital shot in the arm to the 45 rpm/7" format, long regarded to be in terminal decline as the LP became rock's main currency from the late '60s.
Between 1976 and 1980, an apt time-span which covers the commercial breakthrough of punk through to a point when the new wave had pretty well superseded it, there are revealing details.
The US in that period saw a mere eight records with punk associations enter the Billboard chart, seven by American acts -- six by Blondie and one by Talking Heads -- and a single entry by a UK band -- the Clash. In the UK, of the eight key punk acts chosen, all but Talking Heads enjoyed UK chart success during the period of the survey. British acts were responsible for 41 of the 61 hits, yet Americans enjoyed a favourable rating, with 20 single hits.
The general, mainstream recognition of punk in the UK was massive by comparison with the States. Punk was successfully projected, marketed even, in the UK; in the US, its connotations kept it off the radio, out of the national press, and out of the charts. After all, Blondie had to deny its associations with punk with Peter-like determination, to achieve that run of half a dozen hit singles in the US. The Ramones, the most archetypal US punk combo, never touched the American Top 40 during this time, yet had a credible six entries in the UK.
If we make our definition of punk more restrictive and drop the pop sensibilities of Blondie and the mod revivalist tendencies of the Jam (by far the most successful act in the survey), the figures are still compelling: 30 hits by punk groups in the UK (the Pistols, Clash, Damned and Ramones) to one in the US (the Clash).
We should also bear in mind, however, that different methods of calculating charts in the two countries can also be blamed for discrepancies. The UK chart is, and was, sales based; the US chart has used a fluctuating range of indicators, marrying sales and airplay. Without airplay, punk releases would have been unlikely to make a chart impression. Yet this fact in itself says something important about the status of punk records within the American system.
Perceiving punk: the US problem
The US -- from its artists, to its critics, to its public -- had a real problems assimilating the punk phenomenon. It seemed to have too many difficult, negative connotations for that nation. Hilly Kristal of CBGBs had dubbed the NY movement "street rock" but by the start of 1976, punk rock was being used by that venue. Yet John Rockwell of the New York Times, cited in Bowman, objected to the description, saying that what he was hearing was not punk rock. He pointed out at the time that "NY rockers are cool, detached, alienated -- even in the profession of passion. Long gone are the explicit political enthusiasms of the '60s or the summer-of-love sentimentality, or folk-based humanism or even the glitter outrageousness of just a few years ago" (2001, p74).
David Byrne of Talking Heads seemed even more uncomfortable with the messages filtering through from the UK. Says Bowman, Byrne's view of the Sex Pistols' music was deeply suspicious. "They're something that was put together by Malcolm McLaren. The people fell for it hook, line and sinker. To me, it was like, once again, here comes the rock'n'roll image of bad boys in black leather. It used to be bad boys in drag, and now it's bad boys in ripped clothing. It's just another romantic notion that Europeans like to go for: The drunk on the corner has more wisdom than the guy in the ivory tower" (2001, p115).
Heylin also points out that there was a time gap in the US between punk's rise and the media truly engaging with it. He refers to different "gestation periods", explaining: "The British weekly music press was reviewing Sex Pistols shows less than three months after their cacophonous debut. Within a year of the Pistols' first performance they had a record deal, with the 'major' label EMI. Within six months of their first gigs, the Damned and the Clash also secured contracts, the latter with CBS. The CBGBs scene went largely ignored by the American music industry until 1976 -- two years after the debuts of Television, the Ramones and Blondie. Even then, only Television signed to an established label" (1993, pxiv).
Once the damaging effects of punk and its image had been conceded by the US rock business, a fresh spin was put on the movement -- new wave. Shuker says that new wave "in part provided a convenient marketing label for record label A&R people, journalists and DJs to distinguish music they did not want identified as punk, owing to punk's negative marketing connotations, especially in the US" (1998, p213).
Heylin offers a specific example. Blondie "had to play the game of accepting their new wave status in England and resisting it in the US where, throughout the late '70s, punk was treated as some kind of malignancy in modern music" (1993, p309). He also quotes Chris Stein: "The stigma of the word punk is something that could not be absorbed into today's American culture as representing anything remotely positive. And that's one of the things that held Blondie back so long" (ibid).
In short, a wide range of factors -- geographical, cultural, social and demographic -- affected the way punk was conceived, propagated and perceived in the US and the UK. The media played an important part in this: Britain had specialist music publications which nationally trumpeted the arrival of the style; this wave was aided by the shock-horror reporting of the mainstream national press and, at grass roots, by the spontaneous fanzine culture which unfolded. National radio, unfettered by concerns over advertising revenues, and local television also aided the explosion.
In the US, a lack of national newspaper exposure, an absence of influential and established music weeklies and relatively few fanzines, plus a radio system that felt unfriendly to the movement, conspired to marginalise punk; when the media did eventually take notice, it was merely to vilify it. Even if acts like Television and Blondie were musically distanced from the musical structure of punk, they were still tarnished by its reputation, herded into the same musical corral, and found their homeland a much tougher nut to crack than the British marketplace.
When the Clash told us a quarter of a century ago that they were bored with the USA, perhaps it was America's dyed-in-the-wool conservatism they felt most aggrieved by. If not, their complaints were prescient, for they would soon encounter it first hand. Certainly the punk insurgency, most vociferous in the UK, was resisted with fervour on the other Atlantic shores. The linchpins of information control and management -- the mass media -- under-reported the American activities, then demonised punk in its British guise. The result was that while punk in the UK became an overground powerhouse, in the US it remained, in its first wave at least, an esoteric slice of subterraneana.
(Note: This is a paper given at "No Future?", a conference commemorating the 25th anniversary of punk, at the University of Wolverhampton, UK, September 21st-23rd, 2001.)