The subcultural movement known as “Punk” is one of the most important counter-cultural movements of the 20th century. Its effects can still be felt around the world today, and despite the fact that several people argued that the movement died decades ago. Although it first and foremost denotes an anti-establishment state of mind, Punk has had a significant effect in almost all areas of culture, including fashion, music, theatre and film. It is also understood to have possessed its own political ideology and to have large effect on the personal politics of generations of people. In order to understand the history of punk, therefore, it is necessary to understand how its influence developed in each of these areas. This paper will examine the history of punk in the UK and will do so by discussing its key figures and the manner in which they can be seen to have influenced different areas of life.
Although the origins of punk may be difficult to define exactly, it is often understood to originated in New York, and to have been inspired, by amongst others, Richard Hell and the band Television, who were the first to adopt what is now commonly understood to be the punk fashion of torn clothes, safety pins and spiked hair. Arguably the most impotent person in the development of British punk was Malcolm McLaren who was in New York at the time that Hell became famous, and who imported the style back into the UK. In 1971 McClaren opened a shop called SEX, where he sold early punk clothing which was made and partially designed by his then girlfriend Vivian Westwood. Westwood herself would go on to become one of the most important fashion designers of the second half the century, and would become synonymous with punk fashion.
Following the success of the shop, McClaren went on to form and manage a band which largely consisted of people who knew who would spend time around the shop. McClaren named the band The Sex Pistols and oversaw their development and their overall look. Their music was based around an anti-establishment message and also an idea of aggression and simplicity. McClaren himself was influenced by politics of anarchism, and by the demonstration which had occurred in France much of the rest of Europe in 1968. One of the most important things about The Sex Pistols’ music, and also the music of bands who sprung up after them, was the basic idea that musical talent was no longer a crucial part of being in a band. Rather, punk emphasized attitude and confrontation much more than craft. In this way, it is possible to see punk as directly rebelling against the clean cut image of bands such as the Beatles who hugely successful in the 1960s and who were celebrated as extraordinary song writers. According to one commentator, from its origins, UK punk was directly influenced by a desire to move away the appearance of craft, and so songs were deliberately made shorter and abrasive, and band members did not seek to emphasize any particular talent or skill, rather they sought to be abrasive and confrontational. In this way, punk can itself be understood to be anti-musical movement and similar earlier artistic movements such as Dada in its contempt for what is considered to be high culture.
As well as directly questioning the nature of art and of pop music, punk functioned by confronting the establishment. In 1977 a large amount of controversy occurred when The Sex Pistol’s single “God Save the Queen” reached number on the singles charts, despite having been banned from the radio. The single was released during the Queen’s Silver Jubilee while the country was intended to be celebrating the 25th anniversary of the year that Elizabeth became Queen. Following this event, McCaren was arrested, however the band received a large amount of publicity and their first album was successful as a result.
The Sex Pistols were not the only British punk, however, and bands such as The Clash should be understood to have played a key role in the movement. In particular, The Clash differed from The Sex Pistols as their music openly embraced working class politics and was deliberately less nihilistic than McClaren’s band. Rather, as Sean Egan notes, The Clash deliberately addressed issues of inanity and suburban boredom, as well as songs topic ranging from Hollywood movie stars to the Spanish Civil War. As such, while it is possible to identify key features across the history of punk as a movement in the UK it is important to note that it also contained a significant degree of diversity.
In conclusion, therefore, it is possible to see Punk in the UK as emerging in the 1970s following the actions of Malcolm McClaren and the influence of figures such as Richard Hell in New York. In terms of music, bands such as The Sex Pistols were key in popularizing the movement, as were the fashions designed and, occasionally made, by Vivian Westwood. While different kinds of Punk music shared a relationship to an anti-art aesthetic and to a desire to be directly confrontational and abrasive, it is also important to note that different bands would often differ significantly. For example, while The Sex Pistols were positively nihilist in their music, bands such as The Clash wrote songs with a directly left wing politics which, while it was anti-establishment, was nonetheless focused on identifying and dealing social issues such as poverty and unemployment.
- Egan, Sean. The Clash: The Only Band That Mattered. (Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014.)
- Robb, John, Punk Rock: An Oral History, (Ebury Press: London, 2006.)
- Savage, Jon. England’s Dreaming: The Sex Pistols and Punk Rock. (Faber & Faber: London, 2005.)