PUNK - HOW WE GOT BRAINWASHED #1
In 2003, by a strange series of events, I was in email contact with Gail Zappa, as Zappa.com was just getting off the ground. She liked my writing, and asked for some essays on music culture, so I knocked this out, drawn from my experience of the now-legendary late 70s punk scene in Northern Ireland.
PUNK - HOW WE GOT BRAINWASHED
What’s a counter-culture? Is it something alienated people invent for themselves, as an alternative to the mainstream they detest? Do the individuals who subscribe make their own rules? Or are they open to manipulation from crafty people who only see a new market to be exploited?
The effects of the late 70s punk explosion on these islands still resonate in music, art and fashion. It’s taken as read that punk was driven by an authentic spirit of rebellion and change, and many regard it as the definitive stroke of youth culture - there are kids today who call themselves punks, there aren’t too many who call themselves hippies. Few seem to notice how little music of note got produced in the period. Teenage guitar bands will always respond to their predecessors, but beyond that, what? It’s easy to blame the mindless dross of the 80s on an MTV-driven market - if punk had been any way as influential as it assumed, we would never have needed the New Romantics. What happened to the music? And the musicians?
Everyone agrees the Sixties produced giants in music - the word ‘gods’ has often been used, and the music journalists of the era were the self-appointed priesthood. This reverential state of affairs carried on to the late 70s. When the Sex Pistols burst onto the scene, Malcolm McLaren (manager) was media-savvy enough to generate outrage in the national dailies, marketing the band as foul-mouthed yobs who couldn’t play their instruments. The astonishing thing was that everybody believed it. Everyone - including the entire English music press. This despite the fact the Pistol’s original line-up was manifestly a drilled, tight unit, and one of the most inspirational bands in the history of music - a gig at Manchester Free Trade hall, Dec 76 led directly to the formation of The Fall, Buzzcocks, Joy Division and the Smiths.
The Pistols didn’t last long, but the myth McLaren created took hold on the national psyche. Citizens bought ‘Never Mind The Bollocks’ in their hundreds of thousands, fully convinced this astonishing album had been created by a group of idiot, talentless drunks. It was a collective deafness, an ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ dynamic made manifest - people believing what they were told so strongly, the tale negated their other senses. McLaren knew little or nothing about music - and realised the general public didn’t either. But he knew the power of myth, and so did a new generation of music journalists, now given carte blanche to rewrite the book. Icons and symbols of the previous decade were torn down with glee - and so was musicianship itself, suddenly deemed ‘old’. The subtext of punk journalism was this - anyone who learns how to play their instrument is a fool. And my generation bought it lock, stock and barrel.
[end part 1]