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The Filth & the Fury – Punk Rock in Seventies England, Forty Years Later

Attending an all-boys school in West London in the mid-seventies was an experience. You didn’t know how many fights you’d see in the school yard on a daily basis or if you were going to be in one of them. It was the summer of 1976. The kids you steered well clear of suddenly gave you all the more reason to steer further clear of them: they turned up with their hair scruffier and more unwashed than normal, sporting razor-blade earrings, safety-pins threaded through their cheeks and had started wearing drainpipe trousers (ones I still wore when everyone else had on flares. Great, now I’m trendy… by accident).

They seemed angrier than normal and had this attitude about them that pricked my curiosity. What is this ‘punk’ thing all about? Later that year on the first of December, the infamous Today Show interview with Bill Grundy and the Sex Pistols occurred (the band were a late addition as Queen had to drop out), and with Steve Jones egged on to say some “other bad words” by the interviewer after Johnny Rotten had said “shit”, the phones were ringing off the hook at Thames TV. Nothing as outrageous as some foul-mouthed yobs on London TV had ever happened before and now truck drivers were smashing their television sets in disgust! One tabloid declared: ‘The Filth and the Fury!’ as its headline the next morning. The Sex Pistols continued to add to their notoriety within the music business by being dropped by EMI (pretty much as a result of the Grundy affair) and later by A&M for their outrageous behaviour.

The youth of London were heavily influenced by the band and wanted to look and behave like them (kids who went to my school and had probably not seen them live, but quickly saw how it would piss off their parents). Now the general public knew what a punk rocker was. And they didn’t like it. The ‘Anarchy in the UK’ tour when the Pistols gigged around England to promote their single of the same name, along with The Clash, The Damned and New York’s Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers almost immediately after the ill-fated TV appearance, was supposed to consist of nineteen gigs. Due to the public outrage, only a few of the gigs went ahead. Local councils would not permit the group to play at the venues they’d booked and the police at times would not even let the coach into town (click HERE for a deeper look in to the ill-fated tour and how provincial UK saw punk in 1976-77).

I still was not any wiser about what all the fuss was about. I think I smirked over the Pistols mayhem on television but I still had not heard the music. That following summer – also the celebration of the Silver Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II – the Sex Pistols reared their cleverly assembled PR machine into the public conscience again by releasing the single: “God Save The Queen”. Immediately banned by the BBC, surely the expected action, the single almost topped the UK charts without any single-buying audience having heard the song! I certainly had not heard it and still being on the wrong side of my teens, was not in a position to bring a copy into the house and play it, unless I wanted to live in a box under a bridge (my mum and dad were way too conservative to see this new music as anything but vile and revolting. It would be a little longer before I brought punk records into the house but when I did, boy was it exhilarating!

Fast forward about a year and another town in England; I went to school with Rupert Graves (the actor) and he came to class with one of those army surplus shop backpacks and had adorned it with these little 1” badges of punk bands that had emerged during 1977 and 1978. He had also handwritten band names or song titles on his bag and this once again pricked my curiosity. Even today, Rupert will openly confess to his punk leanings in the late ’70s and he clearly stood out then as a single-minded individual and openly displayed that punk attitude back then. I was in admiration and wanted to know more about this “Orgasm Addict” he had on his rucksack.

By now, I also had some say in what was on TV in our house. The weekly show, Top of the Pops being about the only show I really needed to watch (this is the same show that pretty much launched Bowie into the stratosphere back in 1972 when he performed “Starman”). All of a sudden I’m seeing Generation X, Penetration, the Police and other attitude-laden, peroxide-blonde, spiky-haired urchins and I’m curious. I also suddenly had money and mates that steered me towards the 45s rack in the record shop and that was it.

The Clash’s first single: “White Riot”, signed by Mick Jones, Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon. On display at the Hard Rock Cafe, Houston

It was definitely a great time to be alive. Even in post-punk 1979, the strange looks (more out of disgust than curiosity) still existed if you didn’t look like other youths of the day (Afghan coats, flared Levis and Hush Puppies were not my scene even before I took on my punk persona). I did not have a twelve-inch orange Mohican (that’s a “Mohawk” to the Yanks) and did not own a pair of bondage trousers. But, I did buy clothes at charity shops, wore Doc Martens, rolled-up jeans, owned bondage straps and studded belts along with a wonderful fishnet sweater (that was awesome in an English winter). Punk badges were the accessory du jour and I’m proud to say I still have many originals from the late Seventies.

The bands that took my eye – and my ear – were the Pistols, the Clash and the Stranglers. I latched on to Siouxsie and the Banshees, who played a huge role in leading the Goth scene along with bands like the Cure and Bauhaus (Siouxsie Sioux was part of the Bromley Contingent – which also included a young William Broad; who was to become Billy Idol and front Generation X – who all hung out at the 100 Club and the Roxy in the early Pistols days, was on the infamous Today show and prompted Grundy’s lecherous comments). I quickly expanded my horizons to the Damned, the Cure, the Skids, the Undertones, the Ruts, the Slits, X-Ray Spex, Adam and the Ants and although a little more hardcore, the UK Subs. Despite punk as defined by the Sex Pistols having exploded just two years earlier, the scene ran its course by mid-1979 as the Post Punk era arrived. The Pistols broke up in early 1978 after their ill-fated Winterland gig in San Francisco; other groups came and went; but as punk bands were releasing their second or third LPs in 1979, the sound changed and the message was somewhat different. That raw sound from 1977 was quickly becoming a thing of the past as the “New Wave” bands appeared.

This is the actual payphone from CBGB in New York. It’s currently on display at the Hard Rock Hotel in San Diego.

Back in 1979, I was not a nascent student of US punk. Having read many books about New York punk and English punk, I can adamantly state they were two clearly different scenes under one broad genre. The book Please Kill Me makes its case for the American scene while England’s Dreaming, makes a compelling case for the English upstarts. Both camps will always staunchly defend their corner and quite rightly so. There is no disputing that Television and the Ramones came first.

Having recently read guitarist Steve Jones’ autobiography – Lonely Boy – he was very clear that their sound was born out of their existing roots and not influenced by the New York Dolls or the Ramones. If anything, Jones and a huge percentage of the early London punks were more influenced by early-seventies English artists like David Bowie, Roxy Music and Mott the Hoople. The London punk scene was a different sound to that of New York: much angrier, more in-your-face, edgier and definitely more political.

One band that ticked all of those boxes: The Clash. This was the band that hit me hardest. My earliest recollections of ‘The Only Band That Band That Mattered’ was hearing “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais” being played on the excellent – and sadly missed – John Peel show on late-night Radio One. What an incredibly powerful song. It tackled everything: race, the dog-eat-dog music business, England’s disaffected youth and even a mention of Hitler! I quickly amassed all of their music. Their eponymous debut is a classic (and the largest selling import in the US in 1978/79). In 1979, London Calling followed on the heels of the Cost of Living EP that featured an excellent cover of the Sonny Curtis tune, “I Fought the Law”.

Their version was so good that when Green Day covered it in 2004, they essentially replicated the Clash’s take on the song note-for-note. The song “London Calling” remains an anthem for me. The power of the song still held a lot of punk values with its anti-Beatles message and apocalyptic overtones – and it resonates with my London roots to this day. In true punk style, upon release the band insisted it sold as a double LP for five quid. This was unprecedented. The album proved to be a huge statement for the Clash – shaking the industry as it covered almost every genre that related to England’s disaffected Thatcher youth: punk, rockabilly, reggae, ska and even slick pop sounds (“Lost in the Supermarket”). Not only was it revolutionary in its style, composition and pricing, it broke rules we didn’t know existed at that point. The cheek of the band to include “Train in Vain” at the last minute when the album cover art had already gone to press; rendering the track impossible to list on the LP. The etched scribble on the vinyl run-off was the only way you knew what that nineteenth track was. After its success on the US market, “Train in Vain” was hugely popular and to this day remains one of the more recognized Clash tunes in the States. So, not only do I hold the title track as my all-time favourite song, I hold the album as my favourite record ever.

Taking a leaf out of the Elvis playbook, the Clash used similar artwork for their seminal album, London Calling coupled with Pennie Smith’s iconic shot of Paul Simonon smashing his Fender Precision bass at the Palladium in New York City, September 1979

So, as the Seventies ended and the world still seemed to be in the toilet, there seemed to be no cause for optimism with the new decade. Who knew it would turn out to be even more defining? You could argue that punk had laid the foundations for the best music period ever (I say that clearly with rose-tinted glasses, but I feel vindicated by the legacy of brilliant bands that produced a vast catalogue of brilliant albums – particularly from 1978-1984 when Post Punk and New Wave dominated).

So to conclude and to hopefully help a new generation understand the importance of how punk shaped music as we view it today, let’s bring things full circle (and bear in mind, would Grunge have happened without the Pistols? Or the Alternative bands that clearly were influenced by what happened in the late Seventies? Probably not). It’s 2017. It’s forty years on from “God Save the Queen” and the first generation of Punk in ’77 – and they are still here. Well, most of them.

We have lost many icons over the years that would still make a huge impact today (Joe Strummer, Sid Vicious, Ian Dury to name a few), but many bands are putting tours together this year after significant gaps in their history to celebrate that heady era. Do yourself a favour and go and see the Damned on tour this spring in the US. If you’re in Europe, the Stranglers are still touring and the Skids are back together for the first time since the early Eighties (albeit without the late, great Stuart Adamson). The Buzzcocks are still gigging (I saw them last autumn and sang “Orgasm Addict” with a sly smile); The UK Subs are in the US in the spring and at the time of writing, Adam Ant is touring the US too.

Go listen to some powerful three-chord, two-minute tunes to make you want to go form a band that matches that skinny jean and CBGB t-shirt you’ve already worn out. Make some history and tell your own story. This is my music and this was my story. Oi! Oi! Up Yours!

Sid Vicious’s dinner jacket used in the video for the single, “My Way” that was part of the Sex Pistols film, The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle. On display at the Hard Rock International Offices in Orlando

Further Reading:
Please Kill Me – Legs McNeill & Gillian McCain
England’s Dreaming – Jon Savage
Rip It Up and Start Again – Simon Reynolds

Amazing music:

One comment

  1. Tara says:

    Great read! Now get me to London.

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