Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Aesthetics of Punk

In your recent post you mention hippie and punk as two sides of the same coin, (and I agree) yet so many self-identified punks profess to hate the '60's. Why? It seems this contradiction occurred back in '76 or so when various Pistols and certain others (Malcolm MacLaren perhaps) would be quoted as saying they "hate hippies and their bell-bottom jeans and long hair". It was clear they were simply referring to 60's fashion. But very soon it became "we hate hippies and everything they stand for like peace and love". Many people who read these comments about hating hippies took them very literally, and these people - especially would-be, 2nd generation punks - began to despise everything associated with hippie/'60's values, not just musical but philosophically and politically as well. I'm certain this contributed in some way to the rise of Thatcher and Reagan, especially in the UK where punk had far more cultural influence.

Sean Oliver
Madison WI

Thanks for an astute question, Sean. I agree with you about how changing cultural values and the rejection of the hippie's peace and love vibration helped usher in what proved to be a depressing era for many, and a boom time for a privileged few. Why did it happen? There's a certain clockwork inevitability about each generation reacting to their parents - a formula that Savage's teen tome also illuminates - even when their fundamental beliefs are not that different at all. The old myths decreed that The King Must Die; the old order must crumble or apparently the world won't turn. I finally caught up with Clatterford, and was amused to hear the Women's Institute chairperson moaning that their meeting had descended into "Anarchy." Would that word have come to her gently reared rural mind without Johnny Rotten's yowl? As Savage said, first wave punk veterans are slightly surprised at punk's staying power, but perhaps it's because punk is about constantly questioning and overthrowing repressive systems which, sadly, never seem to go out of style. Given that classic reaction is how the world works, what's next for today's celebrity hungry scene?


Time for our third session, punk people, and we're going to be looking at the aesthetics of punk, a recurring theme, particularly as in punk, visuals, style and aesthetics, are so clearly connected to the music.

Congratulations, you in the back there, for digging up some actual Vivienne Westwood type bondage trousers - unusual safety-pin - oh, I see, that's actually the dry cleaning tag and you accidentally put 'em on back to front… well, never mind, nice try. Apparently, part of being a Professor is the fun of seeing people you encouraged when they were starting out go on to do amazing work in the world, so it's particularly good to report that Jon Savage's new and long-awaited book, 'Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture' (Viking) is as engrossing and stimulating as fans of his much-loved punk book, 'England's Dreaming', had hoped. Jon's one of the writers I picked and edited at Sounds whose arrival I remember particularly clearly - he had just graduated from Cambridge when he turned up in the office with a copy of his fanzine. The stapled pages evidenced a strong vision and he became one of our main writers. Seemingly self-possessed even then, Savage often wore a dark, baggy overcoat, drainpipe trousers and winklepicker shoes, his hair in a glossy black Teddy Boy quiff. His scathing wit is still intact in Teenage. 
Jon once remarked to me "It was particularly gratifying that the definitive punk history was written by a posh homo," and I quite understood; the downside of mid-70s (and later) punk was an unreconstructed laddism sometimes expressed with an unthinking, knee-jerk homophobia or racism, that was at variance with the progressive, socially committed attitudes of, say, the Ruts and the Clash. Of course, parallel disputes still continue today, as Rock Against Racism and related organizations have had to rise again to combat problems in Europe. Now residing in rural grace in Wales, Savage can soothe his breast by walking to the sea, which is what he was about to do when he recalled what drove him to spend years writing the book. "It was a Runaways gig in 1976," he said, "I'd been in Chester, so it was the first time I'd seen loads of punks together at one time. They'd taken all these postwar youth styles and put them together with safety pins - brothel creeper shoes with 1960s trousers and zoot suits with winklepickers." The realization that fashion and style are an organic continuum that regenerates spontaneously for each generation's definition of youth set Jon thinking, with riveting results.

Viv and Jon
Vivien with Jon Savage
 An exhibit of Jon's photos from the period is currently up in London's Institute of Contemporary Arts, named after his fanzine, Secret Public, and Jon sounds like he's flashing back in time as he describes the memories sparked by seeing his old pictures again. Now awash with chic boutiques and restaurants, in those days the grim, grey streets of Ladbroke Grove, home to the Clash and so many more, still bore war scars, three decades after the Armistice. "You see corrugated iron everywhere, going through all these (bleak) cityscapes and right at the end there's a Clash graffiti," said John. "And there was nothing else there. There really was nothing else there, when you think about it. That's why I liked it so much. Of course, it's all lasted much longer than one could ever have thought. Now punk is huge. In England, Punk has become the Year Zero. No-one remembers the 1960s any more." Some of Jon's strongest fanzine work was done in collaboration with a Mancunian artist named Linder, a close associate of the Buzzcocks, whose powerful collages deconstructing domesticity were direct descendants of political artists like 1930s collage master, the prominent anti-Fascist John Heartfield. His unforgettable satires of the power structure in Hitler's Germany also rang the alarm for punks battling neo-Nazi groups in Britain with Rock Against Racism. Collage is closely identified with punk - something about its scrappy, recycling technique just fits with punk's indie, sustainable ethos. The wild women of Berlin's Chicks on Speed collective always blend art and style with their avant-garde dance music. The band's Alex and Melissa collaborated on the startling cover collage of their "Girl Monster" compilation of girly music with artists including Bjork, the Slits, and your humble correspondent.
Clash graffiti
 Under the Westway, Ladbroke Grove, 1977.  Image courtesy of Jon Savage
chicks on speed
Image courtesy of Chicks on Speed 

Another worthy successor to the great Heartfield, Swedish artist Moki Cherry's rage against the destruction of the planet and the hypocrisy bedeviling our relationships, is pure punk. Perhaps it's no surprise that her musician daughter, Neneh, a sometime Slit herself, grew up to bridge punk, hip-hop and the free jazz she absorbed from her late father, trumpeter Don Cherry. Moki is a matriarch (her son Eagle Eye is also a musician,) and while she has made her whole life into a work of art and never stopped producing, her own great creative adventures have had too little recognition from the establishment. Few artists enjoy such a flexible range of creativity, each project stamped with a clear personality. Always excellent, Moki's contribution has ranged from making a children's theatre, including costumes and sets, to ceramics. She uses power tools to build emotive light boxes, and embroiders vivid satin hangings like those adorning some of Don's classics. But now it's Moki's limelight time, and she's engaged with collage. 'Moki, Sanna, Tonia,' a documentary about Moki and her longstanding artist friends, Susanne Beckman and Toni Roos, has prompted great press in Sweden. Even long-standing fans - face it, like me - were stunned at the punch of these peculiarly personal and political works -- and they're all good-looking, too.  Please check Art-O-Mat site for dates and times of Moki Cherry's exhibition, SLEIGHT OF HAND. 
"Fishwife" by Moki Cherry
"Future is Now" by Moki Cherry

  "We're Open Minded" by Moki Cherry

If each generation traditionally rejects their parents ways, will the next crew coming up say that celebrity obsession is boring and passé?

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Punk Class of '76 and beyond

Welcome to our second lesson, Class, and what are those suspicious noises coming from your laptop, you in the back there? Please remember that computers are only to be used in class for making notes, definitely not for viewing banned material.

No woman is an island and happily, the Punk Professor has gathered an elite cadre of spies to serve this column's community, all longstanding comrades in punk who continue to make a great contribution. Today's reports come from Chris Salewicz in London and Amy Linden in New York and indicate that many of the pupils of the Punk Class of '76 and '77 who lived to tell the tale are still at the top of their class.

Going back to their roots, Patti Smith, Lenny Kaye, Jay Dee Daugherty and Tony Shanahan played a small show in the storied Chelsea Hotel, a bonafide boho hangout that was Dylan Thomas' home at the time of his death. When she first arrived in New York, the Chelsea was home to Smith and her close friend, the late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. It was a low-key but typically intense Patti presentation to announce her new release, Twelve, - an album of covers from one of punk's more formidable auteurs. Perhaps the prototypical Punky Mummy, Smith took some years out to devote herself to her children and her late husband, Fred "Sonic" Smith, the guitar player for punk inspirations, the MC5. But her leave of absence from touring just seemed to feed Patti's commitment to total sincerity onstage and in the studio, so when she chose to cover songs by, among others, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix and Paul Simon she naturally followed her heart and stirred controversy; some critics found her rock-based selection to be predictable, others dug it. Always cosmically inclined, Patti munched on matzo in tribute to the second Passover Seder, which was taking place that same night. Linden notes that when an audience member asked Smith why she was doing Tears For Fears' "Everybody Wants To Rule The World," Smith came back with the classic punk zinger: "Because I want to."

And in London, the original members of the Clash are also still doing it their way. Après-Clash, bassist Paul Simonon initially reverted to his first calling as a visual artist, but has recently joined The Good, The Bad and the Queen, the band formed by Blur originator, Damon Albarn. When the much-loved West London theater immortalized by Clash singer Joe Strummer in "White Man at Hammersmith Palais" finally closed recently, Simonon's band played the night before last - the ultimate honors of sending off the venerable venue went to Mancunians, The Fall.

Joe Stummer
(Joe Strummer from the book, Out Of Mind courtesy of Shawn Mortensen)

However, Clash guitarist and songwriter, Mick Jones, never stopped making music. After the Clash came Big Audio Dynamite (B.A.D) featuring two Dreads who helped put the reggae in punk, long time bred'ren Leo Williams and Don Letts, better known as a DJ, film-maker and recently, author. Now Jones has an intriguing outfit called Carbon/Silicon, put together with his old mates, the estimable Tony "T.J." James, and Leo Williams. Both James and Jones have fertile minds. In fact, James' previous bands have often seemed to be conceptual ripostes to the zeitgeist, as in the Op Art punk popsters Generation X with Billy Idol, followed by James' reinvention sporting an absurdist pink wig with post-post-punk posers Sigue Sigue Sputnik. Throughout he has remained a terrific bass player with a great sense of fun - and indeed, much flexibility, as he's currently playing guitar.

Mick Jones
(Mick Jones of Carbon/Silicon courtesy of Carbon/Silicon)

Listening to Carbon/Silicon's music online -apparently they intend to put all their songs up for free -one hears an odd yet inevitable sound: mature punk. These rhythms indicate artists who've been there, done that, with a range of styles - punk, funk, reggae, dub -- always reaching for the DNA of what moves them, and finding their answer in a sometimes almost skeletal sound that suggests a new way to dance. Jones' freeform rants are both pungent and pointed. Grown folks' wisdom informs lyrics like these from "Prophet":

"Ain't no profit/Being a prophet/Ain't no kudos being right/But it gets you through the night." Those words suggest a man who has learned that while compromise isn't necessarily always as bad as hard-line Punk says, the truth will always be non-negotiable.

Our London spy, Chris Salewicz, author of the epic new biography, Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer, happened on the band playing a down-low show at their rehearsal space in the charmingly untrendy enclave of North Acton. Reports Salewicz, "They've been working on it for four years. Mick Jones looked unbelievably happy, beaming with joy. The material is fantastic, probably the best he's ever written, like the new single, "The News", which is all about positivity and the conspiracy to bring us all down. Quite a lot of blokes of a certain age there had tears in their eyes."

From the start, Clash front man Joe Strummer knew how to pose -- throw a smoldering glance, strike a tough stance. For this warm view of Joe, and many other more anonymous folk who the photographer also knows to be stars, see the bold new photo anthology from Shawn Mortensen, Out of Mind. A gentleman adventurer whose natural habitat is the front line, Mortensen is a generous, genial type who's also a good host. With his first wife, Gaby, Strummer once wound up crashing in Mortensen's LA pad, and this portrait shows a Strummer I remember: droll, scathing, and always engaged in some great debate. As a fashion photographer, Mortensen loves to shatter industry expectations. He brings the same humanity and fine eye to photographing gunmen in Kingston or South African AIDS activists in flowing scarlet head wraps and robes. Whatever the subject, Mortensen's sensibility is strictly rad punk, fresh and ever ready for the revolution.

Now our time's up, and just before you leave - quietly, please, we've had some complaints -- a quick word regarding our host. If any of you were also hooked on French & Saunders and can quote chunks of Absolutely Fabulous word for word, are you aware that the old team has a new BBC America series called Clatterford? Put it this way, if I A) had a TIVO and B) knew how to operate it, Clatterford''s one to record. For real.

Class dismissed. We'll re-convene in two weeks.

This week's question:

Why did biographer Chris Salewicz name his biography of Joe Strummer after a song by Bob Marley?


It seemed like punk was a rejection of most everything that came before - but of course, that really is impossible. Who were the most important predecessors and influences upon punk? Who were the influences that perhaps the punks wouldn't want to admit to?

-- Noah Simon

Thanks for the perspicacious question, young Noah.

The roots of punk spread far and deep, though it magically seemed to spring from the air at the time. A blend of psychedelia and agit-pop whirl in the punk centrifuge:

T Rex, the MC5, Albert Ayler, Burning Spear and 1930s anti-Fascist collage artist John Heartfield, glam rockers, flag burners, teddy boys and fetish girls, marching leftist students in Paris in 1968. They all fuse, or maybe explode, in punk, along with much more. Personally, I've always been drawn to the libertarian, pagan, Druidic aspect of punk, personified in its most celebrated visualiser, Jamie Reid, the political artist and Druid priest who designed the Sex Pistols' sleeves and came up with the now classic conceit of using "kidnap" cut-out lettering. As to Punk's Dirty Little Secret, the influence that dare not speak its name -- here, images of a long-haired teenage schoolboy Johnny Rotten come to mind - it is the quiet punk penchant for longhaired UK hippy jam bands like Hawkwind and the Pink Fairies. The Sex Pistols' singer always had the sense to claim all his influences proudly even at the height of punk's dictum: The only good hippy's a dead hippy. That's partly why Rotten became a true Punk Archetype. Like my comrade in punk, artist and writer Caroline Coon, whose activism spanned both those eras and still continues, I know the superficially contradictory creeds -- the hippies' All You Need Is Love and punk's No Future/Blank Generation -- to be two sides of the same shiny coin, that both pay in positivity.