In What Ways Did the Iconography, the Music, the Lyrics and the Performances and Behaviour of Punk Rock Acts Present a Challenge to ‘Establishment Notions of Englishness’ in 1976-77?

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  • Topic: Punk rock, Punk subculture, Sex Pistols
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In what ways did the iconography, the music, the lyrics and the performances and behaviour of punk rock acts present a challenge to ‘establishment notions of Englishness’ in 1976-77?

The early roots of Punk rock were appearing in the form of The Velvet Underground in 1965, closely followed by The Stooges and MC5 in 1969, but it wasn’t until the early 1970s that punk began to globalise, hitting Australia in 1972 with The Saints. Within a year, legendary Punk club CBGB’s opened it’s doors for the first time, becoming a constant dwelling for the up and coming acts of the 70’s, and more importantly, providing a regular crowd of punk kids to listen to them.

Britain in the early 70s, according to Spicer, was filled with ‘political frustration, surging unemployment and a gag-reflex to the patriotic froth generated by in celebration of Queen Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee, giving punk’s raw noise a particular spice and vigour. The UK had either been in decline, recession, stagflation or worse since the end of the swinging sixties.’ (Spicer, 2006: 3). ‘Eight years later when the idealism of the 60s had well and truly faded, the strategies and rhetoric of street protest were still going strong. So when mainstream politics wouldn’t even listen to what was driving the kids insane, the Sex Pistols’ cry of “Anarchy in the UK” seemed like a viable alternative.’ (Spicer, 2006: 5)

‘Punk came with a philosophy that was influenced by the anti-establishment turmoil reverberating from the 60’s.’ (Spicer, 2006, Page 4), so in a time when the youths of Britain were so ignored and undervalued as a part of society, it seemed like a natural outlet to make the government and the authorities stand up and take notice of what they were saying. Renowned Manchester based punk journalist and singer John Robb stated that ‘Punk Terrified the establishment’ (Robb, 2006: 3), suggesting this outcry for non-conformism was having an impact and the message of challenging the government was being heard. Despite this, however, critics are still divided about whether the punk phenomenon was in fact a significant cultural shift. ‘Was it just another youth craze (with a hairstyle calculated to drive the parents crazy), or did it offer a real challenge to the complacency of the times? A Challenge that was more than just musical and sartorial, but political as well?’ (Spicer, 2006: 2).

Hebdige stated that ‘the punks were not only directly responding to increasing joblessness, changing moral standards, the rediscovery of poverty, the Depression, etc., they were dramatizing what had come to be called “Britain’s decline” by constructing a language which was, in contrast to the prevailing rhetoric of the Rock Establishment, unmistakeably relevant and down to earth (hence the swearing, the references to “fat hippies‟, the rags, the lumpen poses). The punks appropriated the rhetoric of crisis which had filled the airwaves and the editorials throughout the period and translated it into tangible (and visible) terms’ (1991: 87).

A significant part of the construction of the punk rock movement in the British media was the fashion of the stars, which was later emulated by the fans, with the iconic style quickly becoming a obligatory staple of “being punk”. According to Paul Gorman, speaking in Punk: The Whole Story, ‘Almost every element of punk’s style, attitude, politics, musical tastes and even personnel emanated from two tiny clothes shops on Chelsea’s King’s Road 30 years ago.’ (2006: 84) These two shops were Acme Attractions and SEX, both in London. Don Letts, ex-employee of Acme, and later member of Big Audio Dynamite said in Punk: The Whole Story, ‘Acme was more than a shop. It was a club, a lifestyle, a forum for talent. It reflected the way London was going – it was about multi-culturism’ (2006: 84). I think this really exemplifies the importance of the fashion and self-representation of the punk movement, even at the beginning. Robb recalls, ‘I saw...
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