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Punk 1976–78 at The British Library

29 May 2016 | Tom Faber

The Sex Pistols had just finished a furious gig in 1976, where chairs were thrown and vampiric girls snarled at the audience. Though the crowd was small and unenthused the band decided to do an encore: “We’re going to play ‘Substitute.’” This was too much for one French punter, who yelled out, “You can’t play!” The singer fixed the man with a blank stare. “So what?”

Stories like these litter the walls of The British Library’s new free exhibition on punk, which celebrates forty years since the musical movement irrevocably change the face of British culture. Given punk’s legacy, it’s surprising that so many of its key events took place in just two short years. The Pistols appeared and imploded, new DIY approaches to recording and journalism appeared, and anarchy found a popular foothold in modern culture. The exhibition assembles paraphernalia, photos and symbolic objects that tell the story of the time – a welcome nostalgia trip for those who were there, vital education for those who weren’t.

When someone says ‘punk’, most minds leap directly to The Clash, The Sex Pistols, Buzzcocks, and the other famous British bands of the late 70’s. Here the term’s roots are shown to stretch further back, to a young Malcolm Mclaren at university, who would go on to design clothes with Vivienne Westwood and manage The Sex Pistols. His early friendship with designer Jamie Reid was based on a shared interest in Situationist ideas. They believed that modern consumer society alienated the individual and had to be fought with subversive political action, such as ‘détournement’, modifying an image to subvert its meaning. These ideological threads gave birth to much of the imagery that made punk so striking, such as Reid’s print of the Queen with a safety pin through her lip, here displayed in a number of versions. We also see records of Patti Smith and The Ramones, two early influences on the UK punk sound. A poster announcing the release of a Ramones album is plastered with negative criticism of the band, proudly quoting British MP James Dempsey: “Shocking material. I’m horrified.”
 


Photograph of Buzzcocks, 1976. From England's Dreaming - The Jon Savage Archive held at Liverpool John Moores University
 

Though the Sex Pistols were far from the only name in punk, the band’s brief, mercurial career gave the movement its first icons, and they are justly given a lot of space across the exhibition. From the hand-written setlists of their first recording sessions to ultra-rare 7” records, the Pistols’ story is told through a series of key objects and interviews. The band’s notorious interview with Bill Grundy, where Johnny Rotten swore on daytime television, seems tame by today’s standards but launched the trail of controversial headlines that dogged the band’s career. But this was kind of the point – anarchic and rebellious, the more provocative the Pistols were, the more their fans loved them. The band were signed and dismissed from two record labels in quick succession, but they managed to keep the sign-up fees from both, prompting financial journal The Investor’s Review to label them ‘Young Businessmen of the Year’.

Some attention is also paid to other early punk groups such as The Clash and Buzzcocks, with key records, clips and leather jackets on display. A particularly interesting wall-chart excerpted from a fanzine shows the labyrinthine, incestuous links between these groups and their ever-shifting line-ups. Outside of the core bands there are a few informative displays about the relationship between punk and reggae, often put on the same bills and ideologically similar; and the transformative opportunities that the punk movement gave to women, who now had permission to rock out.

Beneath the violence, drugs and anarchy, there is one lasting legacy of punk which is truly inspiring. Through punk, people realized that they could just pick up instruments and play, they didn’t need to be amazingly skilled. They didn’t have to be on a huge record label, they could self-publish. Journalists didn’t have to be attached to a major publication, they could make and disseminate their own fanzines with total creative control. The success of punk was empowering not just to the musicians but also to its fans. These lessons feel relevant in our society, where soft skills, formal education and material prestige become ever more important. So next time someone accuses you of not knowing what you’re doing, maybe try quoting a certain Mr. Rotten. So what?

 

Punk 1976 – 78 runs at the British Library from now until 2nd October. Entry is free. There are also a series of events and talks running alongside the exhibition, find out more here.

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