Oh So Pretty's value lies among those images that challenge a quickly stultifying norm.
Oh So Pretty: Punk in Print 1976-1980Publisher: Phaidon
Length: 512 pages
Author: Toby Mott and Rick Poynter
Publication date: 2016-10-15
As a teen in Pimlico, Westminster, restless Toby Mott wandered down to the Kings Road in Chelsea. Ideally placed in 1977, he gathered up first the fanzines, then the magazines. He solicited, or tore down, the posters documenting the rise of punk, whose London epicenter was the boutique owned by Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood. But Mott eschewed the ginger mohican trim or bondage trousers peddled by BOY or Seditionaries, Posers wore those. He frequented concerts, and attended rallies.
His stash of ephemera has been preserved as The Mott Collection in this hefty paperback edited by Rick Poynter. After brief introductions by the compiler and the curator both, Oh So Pretty: Punk in Print 1976-1980 collects on pulp paper,. The fanzines begin, photocopied and stapled with scrawls and typewritten raves, mixed with collage. They comprise the first reactions to what was played at art schools or a few pubs or clubs. Then come the tours, as bands begin to expand their following, often by word of mouth and in the same fanzines.
The Mott Collection delves deeper than similar anthologies, which roam the realm of album covers, fashion photos, or iconography. For example, the first advertisement for the Sex Pistols turns up in programs for the Manchester City and Ipswich football teams. These promote the "Anarchy" tour in December 1976. The chronological rather than thematic emphasis of most of Oh So Pretty enhances the placement of product as it emanates, first from the core base of listeners, and then from the labels as punk bands sign up, and their raw recordings begin to be released, a few by the majors.
Commodification suited some ensembles better than others. A 1977 issue of Oh Boy! offers a pin-up poster of The Clash. By summer, even the less photogenic Pistols got theirs. Sunday supplements cover "happy punks" cavorting. Punk, New Wave, and Bomp! enter, aimed at this eager new market.
One tires of sneering lads in leather leaning against spray-painted hoardings or leering from alleys. Suburban Studs, Heartache, Eater, and The Boys hurry in, as the first punk bands had already signed. They gain silk-screened in-store promo posters, professional by the era's standards, but one perceives in these forgotten or never-heard lineups the inevitable cashing in on a suddenly conformist trend.
Therefore, for the connoisseur of this period, the book's value lies among those challenging a quickly stultifying norm. Jamie Reid's "ransom-note" lettering gains fame, but see here a predecessor in the Pistols' circle, from Helen Wellington-Lloyd's earlier posters. Reid's "Holiday in the Sun" 45 cover in Situationist style subverts that song's barbed lyrics onto a Belgian tourist pamphlet. Reid, one learns from the caption, was forced in the presence of that publication's lawyers to destroy his art in their presence. Its replacement is less arresting, but it too takes its origins from this '60s art-as-agitprop.
Few amateur designers depart from the template of sneers and slouches, monochrome or xeroxed. However, nods to Soviet Constructivism and to Audrey Beardsley glimmer if twice only. The hippie artist Barney Bubbles also graces a couple of colorful attempts to enliven the dreary black and white.
Yet, this limitation could spark invention. The Secret Public project of Jon Savage and Linder Sterling receives a welcome spread. Savage chronicled well this scene; Sterling merits recognition for her feminist cut-ups, which provoked, as on the disturbing sleeve of the Buzzcocks' "Orgasm Addict".
Sex flaunted itself. Billy Idol, still in Generation X, had yet to strut solo, so most press attention was granted Debbie Harry of Blondie. Patti Smith may have preceded her in the 'zines, but the cheesecake snapshots preserved by the young Mott favor that first Jersey transplant over the second one. He also rescued the first appearances of the provocateur Adam Ant. Before his New Romantic swashbuckling phase, Adam integrated bondage and S+M imagery to publicize his band. Letraset and clip art from instructions on catheter insertion characterize his stenciled and typeset forays into visual stimulation.
Eventually, jostling against many frantic men, a few daring women, rather than fantasy figures, fought their way onstage. Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex and the self-drawn stick figures who on their own posters paraded as The Slits rose above the melee. Photographed by Pennie Smith, the trio topless and covered in mud, they'd challenge the male and female gaze on their first LP cover, Cut.
Smith also caught the moment when Paul Simenon smashed his bass during a New York gig. This, echoing the iconic layout of the first Elvis Presley record, ornamented the Clash's London Calling. Another Elvis entered. "On the penultimate issue of the girls' comic Emma", the former Declan Patrick McManus appeared as "top popster". By then, in September 1979, the force of punk ebbed as the more genial sounds and stances of those dubbed part of the gentler musical new wave crested.
Misfits held out. Anarchists Crass represented, as did elders who glided into punk, an older strain of the British counterculture; their stencils and their dense manifestos asserted resistance to conformity as well as the new Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's regime. A strength of Oh So Pretty lies in its incorporation of material from Rock Against Racism, the Queen's Silver Jubilee, the National Front, Socialist Workers' Party, and the Young Communist League, who contended for allegiance. Radical rallies as well as concerts united many punks.
The last word will be left to the mainstream co-option, or confusion, over the ideals of the youth on the streets. The '80s-era Greater London Council banned for "anarchist" tendencies a show by the Plasmatics, with buxom Wendy O. Williams in nurse's uniform.