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Friday, 4 March 2011

What's the story punk? Vive le France.

Over the years there has been many opinions promoted forward as to when punk began.
Straight away I would have to ask for clarification.
Is it punk, or punk rock the musical genre they mean, but even then I'll admit that I'm not sure why I would even ask as it seems to be more about splitting hairs on the matter.
It's such a wide and encapsulating subject that very often there is no right or wrong, but simply a difference in opinion.

Did it start in New York or the UK?
What about Australian band The Saints?
Well what about The Sonics,
Well what about the rock and rollers of the fifties who embodied the punk attitude?
Can't forget Rimbaud.
Well what about the composers whose latest concerto caused riots?

My take on it is that punk as a sort of ethos is about freedom of expression regardless of the constraints applied by society based on race, gender and education lines, and therefore it has always existed.
To say that it has a specific moment when it burst into being is akin to claiming a rock didn't exist prior to the term rock being coined. Of course it did.
Cavemen had been tripping over rocks regardless of what they called them since they first stumbled out of their caves.
Rocks were always there and so was an attitude.
Taking it as that I can also comfortably fit in art, theatre, cinema and just about anything else under the broad umbrella of punk.

I'm not even going to claim that I'm right. This is just my personal take on it, but it is always interesting to hear other peoples.
The reason I'm waffling on about this (again) is because last night – 3/3/11 – Radio 4 aired a show called “Liberty, Fraternity, Anarchy - Le Punk Francais” that was presented by Andrew Hussey.

All rather interesting.

For some punk started in the eighties with bands like The Exploited stereotyping a look with an intellectually and emotionally stunted understanding of nihilism and anarchy.
Lets's fuckin tear everything down because....well because.......well I'm a punk aint I, that's what we do.
Many people will claim that this cementing of a uniformed look, sound, and misguided attitude was the death knell for punk, and in the past I have agreed, but it wasn't.
Instead it just seems in hindsight that some people took some steps into an artistic cul-de-sac that was the polar opposite of the rich and vibrant ethos of what punk is, and then it became the accepted norm of what punk was by people who weren't really interested in it.
No more would experimentation be tolerated and unless you wore the obligatory leather and studs combo then the opinion that you couldn't possibly be a punk settled in.

Can anyone now, in 2011, see how that flies in the face of the ethos behind what most peoples understanding of what punk originally was?

For me, it seems that this was the end result, or maybe a reaction to, depending on your point of view, of the mainstream getting on board and absorbing what is a counter culture attitude and moulding it into something they can sell.
Packaging rebellion so to speak.
Anyway. I partially digress, so before I lose all track of time and end up penning a 10,000 word essay about MY views on punk let's go back to the Radio 4 documentary.
This was all about how the French, who while maybe not maximising on punk rock, can firmly lay a claim to providing much history that acted as a catalyst for the year zero UK storm that would be whipped up.

Personally I was aware of much of what they were talking about, and the how the passion for political agitation that the French have, and how they express it, was co-opted by McLaren and the likes and even how much of that can still be seen in the imagery of punk, but it was good to hear it getting aired none the less.

So I guess this is like an over long ad for something that has got feck all to do with me.

All I can say is that if you do think that punk started on a specific date in a specific country and was created by one specific individual then it would maybe be worth your while opening up a little and giving it a listen as it is still on the i-player.
(As a side note if anyone knows how to rip it and upload it I would appreciate if they did so and shared.)

Here's some more on the subject from the BBC themselves.

The story of punk rock has become a decidedly British affair, through its many retellings, with the Sex Pistols providing its Anarchy in the UK strapline as well as its chief emblem - the Queen with a safety-pinned face.

Sure, the Americans got in first musically with their scene at venerated New York punk club CBGB - where bands like Blondie, Television and The Ramones were on stage from as early as 1974 - but the social impact of British punk was more profound and its ramifications more lasting.

There is, though, another essential part of the story that has been forgotten by all but the staunchest connoisseur, and that is the contribution of the French.

"Punk rock would have happened in the UK without France," said Andrew Hussey, head of French and Comparative Studies at the University of London Institute in Paris.
God Save the Queen print Jamie Reid's God Save the Queen artwork become synonymous with the punk movement

"But without the French, without their big ideas and their politics and fanaticism, punk rock in the UK would've been nothing more than growly old rockers with shorter hair."

He believes the confrontational attitude and much of the thinking behind punk came from across the Channel rather than the Atlantic.

"The real influence of French punk rock lies in the ideas, the style and the ruthless elegance - they never produced a (British bands) Clash or a Sex Pistols, but what they did was introduce the real politics in punk."

The roots of those politics, Hussey said, were to be found in a movement of intellectuals and rebels who became known as the Situationists.

These characters, led by rebel extraordinaire Guy Debord, were dead set on cultural subversion, changing the world through art and ideas.
They enjoyed their most notorious moment by providing the philosophical muscle to the Paris riots of May '68, when students and workers took to the streets to attack the state.
This was disorder versus authority, youthful zeal versus a sclerotic status quo, and it was a direct inspiration of punk.

Now deified as arguably punk's most important individual, Malcolm McLaren, who went on to become the Sex Pistols' manager and helped cement punk style, was then an impressionable young rebel looking for direction.
The Francophile dashed across to France in the aftermath of the riots and was seduced by Situationist posters and slogans like, "Be realistic, demand the impossible" and others that would later feed straight into Sex Pistols lyrics, "Cheap holidays in other people's misery" and "No future".
Situationist thinking, McLaren said, "was bleeding from Paris into England", and others soon caught on.

The man behind the Manchester punk scene, Tony Wilson, went on to name his club the Hacienda after a Situationist text, while arguably punk's most important artist Jamie Reid became a master of detournement, flipping images directly against themselves and subverting them so they became cultural weapons.

Perhaps the most famous example was his cover for the Sex Pistols' famously banned single, God Save the Queen.

One of the natural products and great evils of Western life was boredom, according to the Situationists, and punks felt very much the same.

Eric Debris from Parisian band Metal Urbain said: "Everything was black and white - the TV was in black and white, the streets were in black and white.
"Everyday life was extremely boring, you felt people needed a push so they'd feel alive - the idea was to stir the pot and see what happened and of course people in England were doing the same."

In New York, the US proto-punks looked further back for Gallic inspiration.
US punk "godmother" Patti Smith obsessed over French writer Jean Genet and the poet Arthur Rimbaud, while guitarist Thomas Miller became Tom Verlaine (in honour of the poet Paul Verlaine, Smiths lover) and set up the band Television with Richard Hell, whose cropped hair and torn clothes became an influential look and similarly nodded towards fin-de-siecle poets.

But it was not just a story of influence, either. France's very own punk scene was taking shape if anything slightly earlier than the UK's.
French bands like Metal Urbain and Stinky Toys began performing in 1975 and the likes of Marie et les Garcons, Asphalt Jungle and Gazoline soon followed.
Europe's first punk festival took place at Mont-de-Marsan, Aquitaine in 1976, and was organised by Marc Zermati.
Zermati said the French felt close to the US scene: "The real punk movement started in New York and Paris came before the UK because we were really connected to New York... it was exciting because we thought we were conspiring against the establishment."

He said it was in his record shop in Les Halles, Paris that he persuaded McLaren to call the movement punk rather than New Wave, which McLaren preferred for its overtones of the French "Nouvelle Vague" movement of the early 60s.
The French bands were not quite the equal of the best of their foreign counterparts, which is perhaps why their contribution has been largely forgotten.
But they marked a major step forward for popular music domestically.

The US and the UK had been leaders of the musical pack since the birth of rock and roll, while France lagged far behind, providing dismal rehashes of a succession of musical movements long after those scenes had become passe on their home soil.
CBGB's club in New York before it closed Festival organiser Marc Zermati said French punks felt connected to the NY scene at clubs like CBGB's
With punk, for the first time, French groups were in the thick of things from the get-go, undeferential and deeply committed to the cause.
Stinky Toys' singer, Elli Medeiros, said it was a tight-knit, hard-drinking scene.
"Everything had so much energy, like you were screaming all the time," she said.
"It was a bit like sometimes you think it must have been in the 30s or 50s - not in music but those moments when there's really a movement where everyone knows each other and you're always together, and it was just like that in 75 and 76.
"It was like a whole world - you had Paris and then you had 'our' Paris - the music and the fashion, our own world inside the city."

Now rebel extrordinaire Guy Debord has been proclaimed a "tresor national" (national treasure) by the French state, and, hip-hop aside, music is now rarely the vehicle for rebellion that it most certainly was then.
Remi Pepin, whose book Rebelles examines French punk, said: "The idea was to create things out of chaos. We were definitely into revolution. We were against - that was the point."


  1. Just had another thought there about how things progress and how it is worth not writing anything or anyone off.
    A band like The Duel from London encapsulate punk rock in all its forms. There is room in what they do to embrace the whole situationist angle and even the mid eighties punk without breaking their stride at all.

  2. True so true, but i believe that Punk was purely a tag just to describe a deviant way of thinking,and this existed long before the advent of, ahem..Punk, punk to me was elvis presley doing the black man's rock and roll,punk to me was morrisey spraying the audience in imaginary machine gun bullets during a totp appearance of How Soon Is Now. It could be also used to describe freedowm of expression too,like going out dressed in make up when you are a male, or standing up in the houses of parliament and saying "this is bollocks,speak your mind not your public school claptrap". Where punk truly began is like saying, who really invented the wheel :)

  3. That's it. When Elvis took what was really black music with a bit of hillbilly he was pushing that envelope of acceptability. He wasn't the only one, but he really brought it to the fore and opened the door for so many other people to file through.
    Jerry Lee Lewis was out of control, same with Little Richard. Both are people who are at the mercy of their talent. It didn't matter what their background was, or what demons they had, because at the end of the day they had to create something, push the boundaries and carve a niche for themselves that wasn't already there.
    Billie Holiday singing Strange Fruit to white audiences at a time when lynching was still going on. That's punk. That big middle fingered salute screaming I'm going to do what I want.
    Take me as I am or move along because I really don't care.
    There's that chicken and egg arguemnet to all this to. What came first? Punk rock or punk as an attitude?
    To me it's all just one big ball of something. The music as a style isn't even punk sometimes. Once you get a band breaking through and then a million following them and doing the same thing then you must get to the point that dilution of what is coming out is no longer rebeliousness enough to be called punk. So therefore punk can't actually be a sound, a chord structure or a strangled yelp and growl. It must be more than that. It must have that pioneering spirit to it.

  4. exactly!, glad to see that someone else thinks it all all haircuts and leather. Many a time ive had an argument at a punk festival on what is punk, i say freedom of expression,the other guys say its spikes and being a drunken arse,hmmm i blame the exploited for it going all horribly wrong,even though im a big fan of theirs :)

  5. I think the Expoited have to carry a lot of the blame and I've said it often enough. I'm not a fan. Horrible one dimensional cartoon posturing.
    There saving grace is that many of the people who have went through their ranks have went on to do some great stuff. Blood Uncles, Goodbye Mr McKenzie, Grisly Ghosts of Guy and Gin Goblins to name but a few rather excellent bands.
    Camden bridge, dog on a string, 3 foot high liberty spikes and a bottle of cider. Hey Ho. Let's go....nowhere.

  6. lol,my sentiments exactly. I wish that Rough Cut and Ready Dubbed covered what the ol oi punks are doing 20 years on ha ha,yeah your right,they have probably died or addicted to electric white or buckfast,lol.

  7. The whole essence of Punk for me has always been about rebellion, in one form or another. The desire for some form of change. the need to tear things down be it, walls or any type of barriers. Ripping it up and starting anew is what punks have always done. The word punk has it roots in America from about 300 years ago. It means in one form something with which to light a fuse. Growing up and being influenced by American TV and Movies. A "Punk" was someone who was seen to hold very little or no value as a "I am gonna teach that little punk a lesson."

    We can debate the origins of the musical species till we turn blue in the hair. One fact remains that C.B.G.B's (Country, BlueGrass, and Blues) was the epicenter of the punk rock music movement as we know it in the 1970's.

    Lets go back even further. Imagine if you will, that you're an American Dad in the 1950's you come home on a friday night having worked all week in the office to provide. You and the family have dinner after which you relax in your favourite armchair listening to the radio playing your favourite songs by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Frankie Laine, Perry Como, Bing Crosby, Dean Martin or Jim Reeves to name a few. When all of a sudden the whole house shakes to the sound of Eddie Cochran giving it big yahoos from your kid's bedroom .

    "I'm a-havin' a nervous breakdown
    A mental shakedown
    See my hands how they shiver
    See my knees how they quiver
    My whole body's in a jitter
    I'm a-havin' a nervous breakdown..."

    I am sure you'll agree this is far from the "American way of life" of that time and age where the socially acceptable refrains of "Send me the pillow that you dream on" etc.. were view as the norm. I submit to you that Eddie Cochran was every bit as much a punk rocking rebel as Joe Strummer every was. I am not even gonna go into what was made by a god fearing father in the bible belt when he heard Elvis singing
    "Number 47 said to number 3
    you're the cutest jailbird i ever did see
    I sure would be delighted with your company."

    This scene was replayed for our parents the first time they heard the likes of "Bodies."
    "She was a girl from Birmingham
    She just had an abortion
    She was case of insanity
    Her name was Pauline she lived in a tree." This time the now classic statement was made! "what's that load bloody rubbish you're listening to?"

    How many of us have stood at a bar and heard the old guy with the brillcream quiff in the corner utter with much vitriol those immortal words "Rap music?! more like F**kin' Crrapp music." If it doesn't piss someone off it ain't punk! He doesn't even catch on that he may even be echoing his own father's sentiments from all those years ago. When like him he to dismissed the music of youth in those past days.

    The French are as punk as any nation can hope to be. Their history time and time again is littered with example of the people rebelling against the powers at be. If we in the UK have a problem with something the goverment is doing we have a mumble and moan for a couple of days and soon forget about it. The French on the other hand don't take no merde. If the citizen of France have a problem they take to the streets en masse and use their combined force to "Kick out the jams."

    As long as the Human race continues to produce Paines and Burkes. The punk spirit will continue to burn. The guise which punk adopts from each new generation to the next is dependent on the nature of the rebellion it faces! Punk atittude and music walk side by side.

    Jimmy Logan.