My Saturday column in The National (online edition), June 13th, 2015. All comments/shares welcome.
PuNK’s NOt dEaD... even if its history has been hijacked by big business
‘DON'T know what I want/But I know how to get it.” Pin number please, sir! One of many lyrics you could quote, in response to this week’s news that Richard Branson’s Virgin Money is bringing out a new Sex Pistols-branded credit card.
My favourite Twitter quip was: “18.9 per cent APR In The UK”. The old punks are only wearily sighing. John Lydon has already flipped his bum flap for British butter, and Iggy Pop sold life insurance (whose policies wouldn’t actually insure musicians). No more heroes anymore, etc.
But hold on. Let’s remember the next few lines: “I wanna destroy passers-by/Cause I wanna be anarchy/No dogsbody.” The late Malcolm McLaren might have ended up as a tawdry “celebrity hijacker” on Big Brother in 2008, but in 1976 – as the Sex Pistols’ svengali – he knew exactly what he was doing. ”[This record] is a call to arms to the kids who believe that rock and roll was taken away from them,” he said of Anarchy in the UK. “It’s a statement of self rule, of ultimate independence.”
That’s a rich stew of a declaration, bubbling up in many possible directions this fine Scottish day. It would be easy to point to Branson’s vampire grin – sucking the blood out of his own legacy (Virgin did sign the Pistols, after all) – and shrug off the punk moment with embarrassment. Indeed, you could frame punk not as the Great Refusal, but as the herald of the last forty years of capitalist cultural dominance.
Generate “cash from chaos” as McLaren once preached? Isn’t that exactly what neo-liberalism, Thatcher’s legacy, does relentlessly – that is, subject common goods to commercial forces, and profit from fixing the resultant mess? “How many ways to get what you want/I use the best/I use the rest.” That’s a line from Anarchy, but it’s also as pure a statement of market individualism as you could wish.
Even punk style – raiding and parading taboos, making a bricolage of wildly different styles – is now one of the basic development methods for any advertising or brand agency: a strategy whereby they blast open a new consumer niche for their clients.
But hold on again. Yes, punk was planned as a trickster intervention by the most artful of London dodgers. We may well be able pick out of it the seeds of a style-capitalism to come. But what it also became – and especially as it flowered into post-punk – was a mass popular culture of rebellious experiment using music, fashion, technology, forms of organising and an ever-widening protest agenda.
Arguably, we face the same kind of overall social and political conditions that allowed McLaren and Lydon’s sparks to take flame. Punk emerged in the final years of Callaghan’s Labour government, which actually introduced Thatcherite monetarist economics before Thatcher did. Today, with the soft-Tory farrago of the current Labour leadership contest before us, could a young proto-punk be forgiven for wishing a snotty plague on all houses?
So let’s snip up the credit cards, and stick with the seditionary end of the punk legacy for the moment. To use the language of the geeks: what would a Punk 2.0 look like? For one thing, I think it might well be English first, before it’s Scottish. McLaren was thinking like a rocker and an anarchist, rather than a civic nationalist, when he talked about “self rule” and “ultimate independence” – he cited Eddie Cochrane as the paragon of the latter. But punk’s roots feed from a profound alienation from the current order. Isn’t one of the consequences of an effective and evolving Scottish sovereignty that we are a wee bit less alienated than that?
I don’t doubt the radical credentials of the Greens’ Patrick Harvie or the Left Project’s Cat Boyd. But their stance towards “passers-by” is to seek their proportional list-member votes, not their destruction. (Question: should Scots be more alienated than we are? Discuss.)
HOWEVER, with an explicit war on the poor and an amnesty for the rich being waged by a Government with a small but clear parliamentary majority in a broken electoral system, based on a quarter of the potential vote…
Well, it’s hard to imagine that something won’t soon begin to storm in the societal depths of the UK.
But will music and lead singers be the cultural weapons to hand for Punk 2.0? Maybe not. Russell Brand’s performances haven’t exactly restored Cockney rebellion to a Rotten-level status. I heard reports from Glasgow this week that Patti Smith didn’t trash her guitar on stage… just her guitar strings. An all-too-perfect metaphor for how well-behaved the music business is these days. (Though in other parts of the world – take Pussy Riot in Russia – the thrash of classic punk might still have its uses.)
If you are to find young men and women in dingy rooms furiously producing rebel culture, they’ll more likely be churning out computer code than grappling with three chords. And it’s not as if every disgruntled “script kiddie” (those pesky virus-makers) doesn’t have his or her digital heroes to follow, raising their radical ambitions. That’s Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, obviously – but it’s also Cody Wilson, the encryption radical who enabled the first open-source, 3D-manufactured gun a few years ago.
Original Punks revelled in the fact that straight society couldn’t make sense of them. Punks 2.0 revel in the idea that the powers that be can’t even access what they’re doing in the first place. The spreading surveillance ambitions of the Conservatives are set to produce their countervailing force.
And there is at least some continuity with the founding punk moment. The digital activists of Anonymous wear their V For Vendetta masks, based on Alan Moore’s comic masterpiece, launched at the tail of post-punk in 1982.
So Punk 2.0 might be as much about accelerating beyond the limits of the current situation, than just sticking two fingers up to it, using the slippery potential of digitality. “Our New Future” rather than “No Future”.
The Australian/US cultural thinker McKenzie Wark characterises these “data punks” by riffing on the old Sniffin’ Glue slogan: “Here’s three gigabytes – go form your own society!” But he also suggests there could be “metapunks”. Can we build platforms to manage our own metadata, and use for common benefit what Facebook and GCHQ use against us?
Or there could be “infrapunks…builders of tiny bits of the structure of another life”. Here, Wark refers to current activity around alternative currency systems (eg, Bitcoin) and new manufacturing technologies. This invokes an alternative legacy of the punk era – not the art-terrorism of McLaren, but the DIY community ethic of small labels and bands like The Slits, The Mekons or Crass.
We’re lucky in Scotland: to some degree, we’ve built our collective structures – whether made up of values, laws or institutions – to defend a robust sense of the good society, no matter the Westminster political weather. But England’s in trouble. A crisis of identity and purpose like theirs can go a variety of ways – and end up in some very dark places.
I wish for the non-conformist, ranting and rebelling tradition of English protest to link up with the new digital tools of “self rule” and “ultimate independence” and start to build an “alternative England”. Perhaps it could even disturb some Scottish complacencies along the way. To invoke a wonderful record by PJ Harvey (herself in the best post-punk tradition): let England shake.
Because – contra Branson, and his pestilential credit cards – punk’s not dead.