“Phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust.”
—-London Calling, The Clash
England – 1970’s. A serious economic crisis in the early years of the decade meant mass unemployment for young people and those working in public services. This triggered an enormous number of strikes and protest marches as trade unions struggled to reach agreement with a succession of weak governments; a three day working week was implemented in the early 1970s to conserve electricity due to industrial action from coal miners.
This unrest caused a lot of confrontations with police. In 1970, police racism seemed to be at an all-time high which caused even further divides in society. By the end of the decade, civil rights riots were breaking out across urban areas, mostly between the National Front, and organised groups of anti-fascists and anti-racism committees.
—-Bush Green Blog
And then out of this morass of misery – BAM! In 1976, The Sex Pistols exploded on the scene. Young, loud and snotty (to quote the Dead Boys), they rejected convention but also wanted to bring rock back to its raw garage-based roots.
They (and the punk culture) saw then-current rock music as “pointless noodling” and disdained bands such as Yes, Pink Floyd and even The Beatles. And blues, especially blues. (In other words, pretty much my entire fucking record collection) 😀
And so the music was short, fast, loud – and pissed off. No time for ballads, love songs or solos. Just aggression, manifested in snarling guitars, strangled vocals and riled-up audiences, with mosh pits which fans hurled themselves into from the stage.
And the scene also supported – or at least did not discourage – casual violence. So it was common for fans to spit at the stage, throw bottles at the bands, beat each other up, get beaten up by bouncers and skinheads. In other words, fun for the whole family.
The Sex Pistols became famous – or, depending on your viewpoint – infamous, for swearing on live TV in Britain. They were being interviewed by talk show host Bill Grundy and in playing into their “fuck you” attitude, referred to Grundy as a “dirty old man” and a “dirty fucker.” Grundy seemed to enjoy encouraging this behavior. It pretty much ended his career.
But complaints came into the TV station and the British tabloids had a field day with it. Most of them ran headlines, the most famous of which was The Daily Mirror whose, “The Filth and the Fury,” eventually became the name of a Pistols’ documentary.
The Sex Pistols were, of course, not the only British band playing punk. There were also groups like Siouxsie and the Banshees, Buzzcocks. And the Pistols’ mates, and musical rivals, The Clash. (It was Siouxsie’s mock flirtation with Grundy that kicked off that whole “Filth” incident.)
Interestingly, if you read the music press from that time, it’s generally believed that New York’s Ramones were not only one of the first punk bands but also heavily influential in the British scene. (Or maybe that was just the American rock press’ take on it). And yes, the Brit punks were aware of The Ramones and had heard their debut album.
But Johnny Rotten has repeatedly rejected any suggestion that the album The Ramones influenced the Sex Pistols: “[They] were all long-haired and of no interest to me. I didn’t like their image, what they stood for, or anything about them. They were hilarious but you can only go so far with ‘duh-dur-dur-duh’. I’ve heard it. Next. Move on.”
While punk had some legitimacy in the US, especially in clubs like New York’s CBGB, it seems to have had much more urgency in the UK. Maybe this was because there seemed to be more of a sense of desperation among teenagers in the UK.
And by 1976-77, the younger crowd in America seemed be more into mindless non-political disco than into punk as a scene or a movement. In England there was No Future but in the States, the Vietnam War was over and good times seemed to be rolling back in. And for the most part, New Wave was more popular in the States than hardcore punk.
That said, American groups like the New York Dolls, Boston’s Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers (“Roadrunner”), Richard Hell & the Voidoids all had an impact. And the Velvet Underground, despite having little commercial success, inspired many punk and rock bands. (When Lou Reed died, someone jokingly said that 40,000 people bought Velvet Underground’s album. And all 40,00 of them started a band.)
Wikipedia: Music that followed the anarchic garage band ethos of the Sex Pistols was distinguished as “punk,” while music that tended toward experimentation, lyrical complexity or more polished production, came to be categorized as “new wave.”
In the U.S., the first new wavers were the not-so-punk acts associated with the New York club CBGB (e.g., Talking Heads, Mink DeVille and Blondie.)
In short order, perhaps because true anarchy cannot sustain, the Sex Pistols splintered and folded. But their mates, the band who got their name from its frequent appearance in the newspaper (“Police Clash with Unruly Gangs”), flourished.
Sources: Bush Green blog, Passion is a Fashion: The Real Story of the Clash. by Pat Gilbert.
Next post – The Only Band That Matters.