We Made Ugliness Beautiful: ‘Punk Rock: An Oral History’

John Robb’s Punk Rock: An Oral History reveals how exciting the sporadic connections to a bold and strange music carried fresh ideas and odd choices.

Imagine 150 pioneering musicians, managers, artists, and fans settled into a commodious pub. The oldest are well into their 60s, and the youngest have recently passed 50. Their spiky hair might be grey if they still sport some. They tell one by one (if such order might be imagined in politely logical, topical, and chronological sequence) of what they heard in the ’60s and ’70s on vinyl and the singers they watched on television. Gradually, they speak of their involvement in what would be peddled – if not in British cities and on tabloid and official media until the summers of 1976 or 1977 – as punk.

This scenario came to mind as I read over 500 pages of John Robb’s lively volume, Punk Rock: An Oral History. As the bass player for the Membranes and then as a music journalist, he’s well-placed for listening. For over two decades, Jon Savage’s England’s Dreaming remains deservedly the standard narrative, also by one who was there, but as Robb notes in his introduction: “It’s not just a bunch of Bowie freaks creating punk whilst hanging around the Sex shop. It’s not just the Clash’s heroic quest. It’s also the foot soldiers of the revolution: the smaller groups, the less-hip groups.” It’s also the kids, the energy, and the dream of liberation from a dismal future and a stagnant present across Britain and Ireland, for Robb examines the reach of punk beyond London, which dominated Savage’s telling.

Therefore, Robb begins with Elvis, rockabilly, the Beatles, the Stones, the Who, and mixes these familiar influences with those who tell of their love for music-hall and comedy routines and popular televised and printed entertainment. A hundred pages of such memories, spanning postwar popular culture before the rise of glam rock, enrich the context with a timeline stretching back from the usual Velvet Underground-David Bowie-T. Rex-Roxy Music-Iggy Pop-New York Dolls-Ramones opening gambit common to punk histories. The Damned’s comic foil Captain Sensible frequently emerges as one of the more eloquent and witty tellers of such monochrome or psychedelic times. His affection for Syd Barrett endures. He laments how today’s sponsored idols will never produce a Crazy World of Arthur Brown with its lead singer proclaiming “I am the god of hellfire”, hair set ablaze.

But such invention simmered. By the mid-’70s, bloated Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd appeared as corporate monoliths, and concept albums shunted out every year or so to arenas and mass adulation. For a few, such spectacles soured. Careers in short supply, declining economies, and cities in decay: John Lydon positioned himself among the discontented youth. “Out of that came pretentious moi and the Sex Pistols and then a whole bunch of copycat wankers after us.”

The rise of the Pistols under manager Malcolm McLaren, designer Vivienne Westwood, and the crew at their shop will be familiar to any student of this era. But how many remember that at their first concert, the lead act, a covers band, was fronted by the singer who would become Adam Ant? McLaren captures the grunginess of the setting in which punk sparked while pub and prog rock blazed in 1975 London in such unpromising circumstances as a stageless, open common room on the fifth floor of an art college. “It was not necessarily a plan to play art colleges first and avoid the pub. I hated beer. And that’s all you got in those stinking pubs in Anglo-Saxon land. Art school preached a noble pursuit of failure. It was part of the legacy laid down by William Morris: art for art’s sake. which we attempted to create and indeed succeeded at one level. We made ugliness beautiful.”

At one level, this phrase reverberates. Filmmaker and d.j. Don Letts discusses the transition that bridged the hippie vision to the punk potency, with McLaren and the equally clever and conniving manager of the Clash, Bernie Rhodes. “They could see the idea manifest itself before its musical expression,” adding the strategies of the Situationists and artistic calculation to target visual appeal and media attention. The two masterminds sought a third band to make a movement. That proved the Damned. The year 1976 opens as others read in the NME of guitarist Steve Jones’ boast after a February Sex Pistols show: “We are not into music. We are into chaos.” Some readers form their own bands, first in Manchester, then Birmingham, and across the sea in Derry, Dublin, and Belfast.

In Bristol, Mark Stewart watches the Clash’s new bassist Paul Simenon (chosen more for looks than talent) play onstage with letters stuck on his instrument to guide his fingers. “It’s not the arrogance of power; it’s the power of arrogance.” For Stewart, Simenon’s stance symbolizes the do-it-yourself spirit that animates ambition and rewards commitment, not by those who could already play, but by those who could not – those who punk inspired to learn three chords and to form a band.

Poly Styrene finds encouragement, and after a failed reggae (a genre with considerable overlap on punk, as interviewees attest to repeatedly) single, she turns away from the Zep and Floyd and Yes and Genesis offerings sold to her generation as art. She comments that before punk, rock musicians resembled classical musicians, patrons of the French aristocracy, who married into royalty and acquired country estates. No room for the likes of her opened in the music business, so she created X-Ray Spex. Her song “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!” was penned before punk as a paean to spiritual liberation, but in its release in the punk boom, it was seen understandably in a different interpretation. The associations of punk, Lydon notes wryly, with the “bum bandit” of an American prisoner came into British parlance and musical attribution later than they had for the Ramones and the New York scene.

Such ties, as media attention grew in the wake of a November 1976 televised appearance by the Pistols when profanity was said to have been uttered, linked punk with outrage. Gavin Friday over in Dublin, fronting provocateurs The Virgin Prunes, summed it up: “Punk looked like the abortion Ziggy [Stardust] had.” The glam predecessors beloved by many fans merged with the considerable poverty most punks endured, and a fashion sense emerged, if very quickly co-opted by the likes of a Zandra Rhodes safety-penned dress selling for a thousand pounds. Lydon snipes that if people wanted a uniform, the army made the best ones. The bandwagon assembled, and opportunists flocked – what he derides then as now as “sheep”.

However, the impact of how punk looked rather than how it sounded mattered to the Pistols, their manager, and their sneering singer. A year after the Pistols’ debut gig, their skilled bassist Glen Matlock would be shoved out for the more photogenic and parodied Sid Vicious. Matlock uses the television debacle as a milestone. Before that, the music; after that, the media. Punk had turned rapidly into a caricature, and Sid’s sad fate represents the pivot around how rapidly a more individualistic, idealistic subculture turned into hype as the image replaced the invention. The ideas collapsed into imitation, as Lydon laments often. A movement, he jibes, might look great, but it generates too many pedestrians.

Robb patiently allows each side its say. He keeps his own asides to footnotes, but he places congenial and dissenting recollections side by side adroitly. His questions hover as invisible – unlike those which controlled Savage’s “director’s cut” when he published the original transcripts of his book as The England’s Dreaming Tapes. So, Robb’s version feels less top-down as the received wisdom from London than Savage’s, and more spontaneous. Both journalists sought a wide range of respondents, and their accounts intertwine, but Robb opts for a more pan-British and Irish coverage.

This edition (neatly indexed and with far fewer typos than many music-related volumes, even if some misspellings persist) does not keep each interviewee separate in his or her own chapter. This structure conveys a live feel, open to counterpoint and debate. For instance, Lydon and McLaren bicker (if safely via their paired explanations) on how the band or the shop should take credit for the Sex Pistols’ moniker. In turn, Lydon sides with Wire’s Colin Newman against the Clash’s slick first album’s sound on a major label, while impresario Tony Wilson and a footnoted Robb defend the distribution by CBS of an album that merited sales in far-flung places outside London, as a way to get punk’s message out to the masses. This then flips a few pages on as the Ants’ Marco Pirroni and the Prefects’ Rob Lloyd (both steady voices well worth including) square off over the Pistols’ own major-label signings first to EMI and then to Virgin!

These signings gained prominence as “God Save the Queen” appeared in the summer of the Queen’s Jubilee in 1977. Guy Trelford in Belfast recounts how two of his mates in a Loyalist pub rose to sing the Pistols’ version rather than the traditional anthem rendered at closing time and the sectarian reaction. Robb’s incorporation of such perspectives highlights the predicaments in which the few punks in public met a difficult time in sinister situations. Billy Bragg notes how you could be beaten up for not wearing flares. Violence began to follow some punks from those who hated their sight.

As the punk energy sputtered amidst the weariness of repetition and the lack of innovation among those copycats the Sex Pistols and their ilk spawned unwittingly, the scene fragmented. Musicians tended to revert to what they heard before punk and to blend that. That might be reggae, ska, dub, goth, power pop, New Wave, and post-punk: all gain attention here as 1978 signals a dramatic shift. The Pistols open the year with Lydon’s departure; The Damned break up (if not for long), and soon a second wave of street-wise, inner-city London, and “dole-queue” punk and Oi will confront new policies of Margaret Thatcher and the Tories. Politics enters this punk movement more forcefully. Penny Rimbaud of the anarchist collective Crass articulates the enduring hope of the progressive resisters to the norm and how punks and hippies have in common a positive notion of a more uncompromising refusal to capitulate. Many admire Crass, even if few can meet its exacting demands. The left sways punk’s majority, but some on its extremist right drift toward fascist and racist banners.

A teenaged Bragg comes from the provinces to London and finds himself at a Rock Against Racism concert to counter a Nazi-affiliated skinhead faction. He cherishes more than any song there the sight for the first time of men kissing openly as Tom Robinson’s “Glad To Be Gay” plays. Sexuality gains furtive glances here, often, as in the early Adam and the Ants or those who would front Frankie Goes to Hollywood, which is more of a suggestion than full exposure. Many punks, it seems, in their defiant appearance, felt grateful for whatever affection they could grab in a dismal time, often cold and lean.

Lydon holds his own throughout, one in a large crowd he helped create. He keeps the last word. Don’t copy; think for yourself: these are the truest of punk’s transmissions. “You should make your own of everything.”

Robb, in an ambitious compendium, with brief forwards by Michael Bracewell and (not Rancid’s Lars Frederiksen as originally promoted for this US release of a 2006 British publication but) Black Flag’s Henry Rollins, provides those who were there and many of us who listened from a distance in time or space the sensation of freedom. When so few chances to hear this music in its original setting were present, a radio’s sudden song or a concert’s rare opportunity revealed the promise of transformation. Those gathered here reveal once again how exciting the sporadic connections to a bold and strange music that carried fresh ideas and odd choices that many of us teenagers across the world in the late ’70s never would have conceived. Robb’s collection of spirited voices will remind readers today to become listeners to these tellers.

RATING 8 / 10