Punk Britannia

The BBC is currently running a series entitled Punk Britannia. If you don’t already know the story (or even if you do) it’s worth watching. It charts the lead up to 1976, and the dawning of punk as we know it. Starting with the early ’70s and the reaction to the more snobbish, chin stroking prog rock and glam movements to the more rock’n’roll sounds of the mostly London pub rock scene (Dr Feelgood, Ducks Deluxe, Ian Dury’s Kilburn and the High Roads), right through to the spit and anger of the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Damned, and the Slits. The influence of the New York Dolls and what they were doing around 1973 also gets a worthy mention.

If you happen to find John Walters interviewing his good friend John Peel at the BBC from around 1987 it will give you another interesting feel of this period and the sudden coming of punk. The story goes that prog rockers Caravan recorded their last session of several for the John Peel show on the very same week that the Damned recorded their first (I actually think they recorded it the same week the Damned did their second but why let facts get in the way of a story?). John lost a lot of his listeners in the weeks that followed, but he never shed a tear (“if you weren’t coming with, it was your loss” would have been something like John’s view). Peel also says here that, with Dr Feelgood especially during the couple of years that lead to punk, you sensed there was “something in the air”. John then describes the way he felt when he first heard the first Ramones album (he wouldn’t be alone) that was akin to first hearing Elvis.

This very same “something in the air” description is also given a run-out during Punk Britannia when describing the magic around at gig front during 1976.  There is little doubt that what came along in ’76 took things up a notch, leaving what were the supposed punk rockers sounding something more like soft old-schoolers that were suddenly too old for the party. Punks arrival polarised many people– from both inside the record industry, including radio DJs and their bosses, and in society itself. Dave Robinson: “you could hear record company execs hitting the pavement from high buildings”. Many seen it as a fad that wouldn’t last. In a way they were right, within a couple of years this fresh and, ahem, healthy burst of energy and controversy had in some ways imploded, but what was left was bands influenced by punk– Siousxie and the Banshees, Echo and the Bunnymen, the Jam, Undertones, Dexys, Joy Division, and later the Smiths and the Pogues.

There were, of course, many other bands (on new labels like Mute and Rough Trade) doing something more interesting as the ’80s arrived in comparison to what was going on just five years previously. Even bands that used keyboards instead of guitars (the Human League, Depeche Mode) came from the same idealism as punk. I guess too many acts ended up sounding derivative, but at least there was, to use that quote again, “something different in the air”. Interviewed for the series are Rat Scabies (“it allowed you to live out your fantasies”), Jim Kerr, Billy Idol, Paul Weller, Glen Matlock, and John Lydon (who talks about the concept of “unsinging”) among many more.

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