|(THE FACE February 1983)
PUNK'S NEW CLOTHES
text by Marek Kohn
Photographs by Mike Laye
PUNK'S NEW CLOTHES
A little surprise for you: an acknowledgement in THE FACE that despite everything, people persist in re-creating rock. Here's an account of an Attitude and some groups to go with it...
NO IT ISNT! If this is to be an examination of a kind of punk, then that snappish reflex should be its first axiom. That was it's attitude. You might think the style more
important. Indeed, if this new phenomenon were just a fad and a prayer, I'd either have to chat about some nearby subject or dress this piece up in linguistic Doc Martens; make it look punk. But this kind of punk isn't about the number of syllables in a word, it is, as everyone concerned seems to affirm, about an attittude. This new feeling (this substitute for the controversial term 'movement') is "/ wish it was..."
Punk was first of all a reaction which stoked the confrontation by refusing to explain itself. "No it isn't" would be a fair translation of each step in the dance punk led its host community. It depended on being probed and explained so it could keep saving "no, that isn't it". It had
to wriggle out of being caught by definitions, and stay
incomprehensibie to outsiders. It was triumphant until it lost its strangeness. And its brilliance was to know intuitively how to fight a battle of signs, to express the contempt of its participants for and their difference from the majority. Its worst conceit was to try to progress
Punk was in one sense a giant bluff which was never actually called. Other people just got used to it. Those on the inside did do too, pulling out strands from the tangle which, in its wilful disorder, defied explanation or an agreed meaning. They made it ordinary.
|Consigned to a foul demise by the forces of cash and chaos, punk broods alone in its dark tomb. Its evolution away from the light has been a cruel and twisted one, from guerilla assault on the media to ghost dancing on the bones of Red Indian mysticism, from glue to Gothick. Naturally, unattended for so long, its hair has grown. So have its aspirations. It has risen to the call of groups like Southern Death Cult and Sex Gang Children and craves a positive communion through music. Come with us through the veil of gloom to meet the new romantics.|
|The Clash forged a misguided alliance between the sensationalism of a Daily Mirror Dead End Kids shock report and the romance of a Che Guevara bedsit poster. But the biggest musical disaster for punk wasn't so much them as Siouxsie, because she wasn't seen through.
She was a trouper. She kept the faith and preserved the star-fan relationship which The Sex Pistols refused. Nobody ever came out and said that her songs were the sort of shallow pop pulp that had as much inspiration as anyone could get from a few hours with a random selection of secondhand paperbacks. If nothing else, she's a testimony to the power of make-up and a stony silence.
ANARCHY IN THE UK
The way our young people turn out tends to support Darwin's observations on the peculiar development of creatures cut off from their fellows by a stretch of sea. Even the disaffected are cast differently from their continental comrades. Over there, those allergic to mass culture seem to make more connections amongst themselves, in Germany, you have the Green ecological movement, in Italy, the desperately committed Autonomists; and more autonomes in Zurich in the Seventies, the French "marginals" had as dogmatic a uniform as British skinheads, with their check shirts, straight jeans and long hair. All these have a fairly firm ancestry (b. 1968. in effect) and often an unstoppable tendency to generate intricate political theory, appreciating as they do the value of tradition and thought.
We of course have our Social Democrats
and hand-wringers, and on the political side
there is the disarmament movement, but our
chief equivalent of a 24-hour social
opposition is the Punk.
Like all real Britons, punks distrust theory,
politicians and intellectuals. They believe in
the individual, and as true Britons one of
their greatest concerns is for the welfare of
animals. The really unapproachable
anarchist punks, like tortoises in their crusty
shells, are quite separate from the
developments sketched in this article. They
did help give it a definition by giving the new
versions something from which to distance
themselves. The word is accessibility, not
purity. Brigandage, for instance, want to
encourage punk fellow-travellers who might
be scared off by the anarchist extremists.
This is a shift of strategy rather than a
change of heart. But there's still a sense of
disaffection. Bob Short of Blood & Roses has
a keen sense of anarchy but is against it on
the unusual ground that if it were achieved,
it would put an end to further progress. It's
this kind of abstract argument that has
difficulty getting out of the squat and down to
practicalities. And no amount of imported
earnest Italians could persuade these
diffident dissidents to abandon idealism and
individualism for the great leap forward of
materialism. There's always that complacent
British satisfaction with having good
THE GREAT ROCK'N'ROLL MYSTERY
Two things in rock are really easy to conjure
up without trying very hard: a loud noise and
an air of mystery. For the latter, you just
drop a few hints and your audience fall over
themselves to do the rest. A lack of irony, playfulness and humour; a handful of horror images (both the supernatural and the violent varieties), a need to conjure up an aura... You can see it in The Birthday Party, Bauhaus or Theatre Of Hate in their various way: Groups like those, especially the latter two are straws in the wind. Bauhaus would be the band in the scene (even if the fiercest demon they conjure up is Ziggy Stardust) but they're so acutely polished and commercial. Being "underground" is mysterious in itself.
There's a constellation of images, mainly familiar ones from films or cartoons - who have also been taken up more rigidly and crassly by heavy metal - that fit the sensibility. Most of them are linked by the unseen Figure of Death, The silhouette of the Great Reaper himself turns up on the Sex Gang Children's single labels (By coincidence, he's also on the label of the current Rip Rig & Panic single, "Beat The Beast", which takes jazz to Blood & Roses' Crowley territory). Playing with the images of death is a running theme through youth culture, particularly those circles in which real chances are taken with an early grave, like Hell's Angels or drug-fixated groups.
Such history builds up the resonances of the symbols There's a coherence here that is
the opposite of the blind alleys, tricks and evasions of punk as she was first spoken. It's
neater: the music is mostly competently played and by now traditional, a support for a
cloud of images that you've run across before. You're halfway there before you start.
It's no problem to fail in with much of the new punk if you want.
|BLOOD & ROSES
To his credit, Bob Short doesn't trade on his interest in Aleister Crowley's Art of Magick.
True, he's fond of joss sticks, and the group does sometimes perform with black candles on stage ("The fans bring them!"). And it's fair to say he's some- thing of a paranormal, one of those people who interprets or invents coincidences as being arranged by some mysterious all-pervading force.
He interprets the emergence of a loose social group around bands like Blood & Roses. Sex Gang Children and Southern Death Cult in this way, rather than ascribing it to smaller and more down-to-earth causes; the search for novelty, for instance. In a loopy Zig Zag piece on Blood & Roses last year, a very impressionable interviewer recounted all sorts of fringe stuff about astral projection and so on. It makes good sensational copy but Bob explains the Art in much more respectable and restrained terms:
"There are three important factors in Magick. The first one is that any act of change made in accordance with your desires is an act of magick.
|The second one is do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law, love is the law, love under will. The third point is that magick's for all. That means it's not just if you want to be a guru, an ego trip like that. Making an effort to be the best is an act of magick."
The rest of the group seem to be happy enough with it as far as that definition goes. They're an unassuming bunch who don't make any great claims for the music and don't even especially want to talk about it. Like Brigandage, they sometimes sound like The Sex Pistols and I like them, sometimes they sound like Siouxsie and I don't. Their single, "Love Under Will" is a due example of punk formality. The music is third-gear three chord punk, a traditional arrangement for a basic Crowley manifesto as above.
One thing they manage (though perhaps only through shyness) is the lack of distinction between themselves and their audience. They don't have the tiresome high stringing of Sex Gang Children and their need to make people concentrate on them. Bob: "We make music, yeah, but I think it's purely soundtrack. It's just the music that's going on when everyone's in the room together."
And how would they express the new attitude-not-a-movement?
The bands that are around now are making a genuine attempt to be different. That's the common denominator. That's the only justification ot the term 'movement'."
"We're a punk group." No ifs or buts.
Michelle (the singer) is perfectly clear from
the very first sentence past the
introductions about what Brigandage are.
Pronouced by her 'Brigandaahzh', as in
Steve and Rusty's Visahzh, the name is a
nod to McLaren' s notion of banditry. Like
many of the people associated with this
scene, Michelle is old enough (23) to have
known what it was like first time round. Like
Richard North, who pitched a banner for the
movement ('Positive Punk') in the NME
a few weeks ago, she believes in punk
progress. (Six years to get to this? What
Brigandage do present themselves in a
positive fashion. They look at the same time
like punks and like individuals with
self-respect. And quite a lot of the time they
sound bless 'em, not unlike The Sex Pistols.
They are people who want to stay punks,
but don't want to decline slowly and
squalidly from year zero. As such, their
look and their music is a viable formula.
FEAR OF FUNK
The Tribe is a one-nighter run by Cloudy
and held at a once legendary gay club up West. Keep it dark and don't let them get comfortable
is the guideline for the decor. Which is right for the two undergrounds using the place, although it wouldn't do for the mythical creatures with no visible means of support for whom the party never stops or gets any more diverting. The prices at the Tribe are more in their range; not astronomical, but liable to encourage observers rather than observees.
Those Old records records they play sound suprisingly fresh if you haven't heard them for five years, but it's a nice club which would be a lot better if the music vvas more daring. At the moment, it's an odd place which, like the scene in general, is still working from an image to an identity. It's a bit gawky and really very punk especially compared to the largely vacuous, sporadically venomous
and very faded London club circuit.
SEX GANG CHILDREN
It is snowing. Photographer Mike Laye and I have
gone to Stevenage to see the live Sex act. The gig
is in a little sports hall. The Comic Strip's Bad News
Tour episode has just been shown - the one where
a struggling band's progress up the M1 leads to
pre-gig trauma and one member threatening to
leave and take the PA with him. I amuse myself with
When we contact the group, it turns out that the
drummer had just left, taking the van with him, so
the group had to dash for the train along with their
fans. Nothing can stop me after this, and I have a
perfectly entertaining evening doing desultory vox
pops with drunks.
The morning after, the Children and I do a faltering
interview. They are very cross about the idea of
THE FACE inventing a movement. "What I'd like to
say to the London music press." complains bass
player Dave Roberts, "is stop standing on your
fucking pedestal and looking down on those kids
across the country, as they do. Instead they should
turn around and give them some confidence, like
we're trying to!"
Next they try and persuade me that they are not a
rock band, which strikes me as precious coming
from a guitar/bass/drums vocals outfit who, it can
safely be said, do not play bossa novas.
Much of their spiel is special pleading: they're
desperate to be different, and they push their
songs well beyond the safe working limits of what
talent they have. The effect is like a race between
the instruments and the voice to lose each other
and get to the end of the song on their own. The
group are so tense and twisted that I can't help but
guess that they like it that way.
So there I was with a useless tape, less
than pleased. Then I ran into Andi, the singer, who wasn't happy about it either. Off the spot and without recording, we got on okay - as long as we weren't actually talking about the group. Terry, the guitarist, gave me a copy of the LP, which has a very good sleeve that avoids doing the obvious and trading on the gothic. The lyrics are printed on the inside. They're hopelessly convoluted and belong to the rock school of apocalyptic masochism, but do show that they are thinking, and, from what I can make out, that they have some sense of right, wrong and politics. One thing they are is sincere - to the point of sounding self-righteous - completely committed to what they are doing. If they would only display the sense of parody they say they have...Unless it's all parody?
Anyway, I've come to terms with them,and I'm cheerily writing this piece when Mike phones me to say that the Children aren't coming out to play. So you'll have to buy another magazine to find out .what they look like.
The Whip was good during the first few years of its life, when it lived happily. Then I noticed that it had been born evil. An extraordinary fatality.
Whenever he kissed a little pink-faced child, he felt like tearing open its cheeks with a razor. And he would have done so very often had not Justice, with its long train of punishments prevented him. He was no liar, admitted the truth and said that he was cruel.
The Whip, drenched with unrestrained savagery and menace unveils a strange world. One of angels and gravediggers, hermaphrodites and lunatics. Delirious, erotic, blasphemous and grandiose by turns.
See before you a monster. The Whip's face I am glad you cannot perceive, though it is far less horrible than its soul.
Beware the painful impression he will not fail to leave upon your imagination. Become fierce and find your way across his desolate and poisonous swamps.
|THOSE NEW CLOTHES
The main title of this piece isn't simply sceptical. The actual clothes are fine. Individualism as a political position is a liberal dead end, but in dress and lifestyle it's a joy to behold. No single basic uniform emerges but you can tell it when you see it. There's an open approach to dressing, a desire to look good and a slight punky edge of toughness (not machismo). It's a look to live with rather than a moment's rebellious gesture. Not that it's particularly new. For what it's worth, the studs, leather and jeans worked their way (via the gay clubs?) back into the
|West End wardrobe, oh, ages ago. The music came later and it still doesn't seem crucial. Easy as it would be to make some sort of equation like 'tough music for tough times',
the return of rock in all its hard banality is more likely a result of boredom with funk and bright new pop.
There's a group squeezed between the complicity of the ex-punks (and their elders) and the pop kids. Both of these avoid rock for different reasons. In between, there are lots of people who will want a rock experience. They want to be in that crowd in front of that stage. They want to be all facing that same way, not |ust dancing around to records. At the least, they need the semblance of passion, even if it's only sweat and noise.
The aura of mystery helps because it never delivers, only entices. On another level, music doesn't matter. Heaven was packed for Southern Death Cult (This group looms small in this piece because one of its members vetoed any cooperation with THE FACE. One looks forward to such firm principles being applied to appearances on Top Of The Pops). I doubt very much that many of the customers had seen them before, and I should imagine many would go along with the person overheard the next night, "Y'know. I woke up this morning and I still didn't feel any better about Southern Death Cult".
The group fills a theatrical need. It doesn't really
matter what the bulk of the audience thought of
them, they'll do for now. To paraphrase Bob
Short, it's the right background noise for a
social event. Further ahead, as the charts
indicate the growth of a new market with no
shame about wanting rock, it's a correct
background noise for the time.
But it's okay, this new scene. It's individualistic
and positive - though it defines that positiveness
negatively against other kinds of punk; pack
punk, overcommitted purist punk, drug and glue
swamped punk, punk that cuts its nose off to
spite society's face. No doubt some will disclaim
the punk label before you can say bandwagon,
but they can't escape their roots! The doom 'n'
gothic theme is another way of expressing gloom
- which doesn't square with the Positive Principle
- another version of long raincoat music, but
more kitsch. It also allows a dose of very silly
mysticism (which is hardly progressive, except in
the old sense of Progressive Rock) an airing it
There's a quiet but significant leaning towards political idealism, as expressed by small labels and opposition to commercial pop. It's liberal, not radical, and it tends to end up having faith in faith itself. As style it's fine, as a faith it's insipid. What can be said for it is that it gives people hope, and that is not a quality to sneer at nowadays. The new clothes are very nice, but they shouldn't be blown up into the New Clothes of the folk tale. It's only a new combination of themes we've seen before and it wouldn't be anything without that familiarity.
There's a ghost hanging around whose words seem to have persisted like the Cheshire Cat's grin .
"The Sex Pistols are an attitude, not a band "
Ever have the feeling that you're hearing an echo that just won't go away?