40 years on and the punk revolution remains irreversible

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Punk’s Not Dead” is a legend you will still find defiantly scrawled on leather jackets or semi-demolished walls. Once the rebellious call to arms of a dedicated, subversive sub-culture – one with a particular penchant for loud, fast melodies and a defiant embrace of neo-libertarian, anti-fascist ideals – today it can seem little more than a nostalgic conceit. Many, though, maintain that its rebellious ethos persists and that one of the most potent youth movements of the 1970s is still far more than just a novelty.

This year, with punk celebrating the 40th anniversary of the days when it first detonated on to the music scene, some would maintain it’s still in (very) rude health. As a musical discipline, at the very least, it has cemented its place as one of the most memorable sub-genres in rock history, easily as seminal as rap or heavy metal. That said, contemporary punk is a far cry from the explosive, anti-authoritarian movement that saw a disgruntled, disillusioned generation first find its voice some four decades ago.

As with any organically-formed musical movement, putting an exact time and place on the birth of punk is nigh on impossible. Depending who you ask, the first punk chords rang out anywhere from New York to London to Brisbane. What is undeniable, however, is that punk was born out of the imperial ashes of a post-war industrial boom, ultimately embraced by an increasingly alienated and marginalised generation coming to terms with the economic recession that would define it.

Regardless of your allegiance, it is not difficult to pinpoint the bands that catapulted punk from cult obscurity to public outrage. The bands widely acknowledged as the pioneers of the genre are legion – The Ramones, The New York Dolls, The Damned, The Clash, The Stranglers, Crass, The Buzzcocks, Siouxsie and the Banshees and, to a slightly lesser degree of notoriety, The Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, The Saints and Stiff Little Fingers to name a few. Towering above them all, of course, was the mighty Sex Pistols.

While each different scene – be it in London or New York – had its peculiarities, the first wave of punk bands were united by common ideologies and a uniquely raw and unpolished sound. The wider world, though, first became aware of the phenomenon in the wake of the infamous Sex Pistols’ June 4, 1976 concert at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall. This has rightly been hailed as the gig that changed music forever.

Such was the anti-establishment sentiment at the time, punk was embraced by a vast tranche of an apparently lost generation. More than just a musical genre, it was a fierce ideology and one that lent itself to an unprecedentedly raucous lifestyle. Malcolm McLaren, the Pistol’s messianic manager, and Vivienne Westwood, the doyenne of punk design, were the key movers in establishing the genre’s DIY aesthetic – safety pins, leather jackets and bondage gear.

With the music press of the day anointing the movement as “punk”, it wasn’t long before it became a truly global phenomenon. Conquering mainstream radio, popular music charts and giving rise to an explosion of musical offshoots and subgenres, its influence on the contemporary scene should not be underestimated.

Arthur Urquiola, a musician and founder of the independent Hong Kong music label Artefracture, which still releases punk-style rock, says: “I always saw punk rock as an entire universe that existed outside of what was directly in front of you. It started with music that sounded different – and better – than the stuff with the Giant Machine behind it.

“There was also literature, live music, film and an entire subculture built on the idea of doing more for yourself. Today, you will find that the people behind the music, zines, and websites are hugely like-minded people with similar aspirations, many of whom have been trying to do things in a way that doesn’t require huge resources.

“The idea of being self-sufficient has stuck with me. To me, DIY is the defining characteristic of punk.”

Although remote from many of the cultural cues that gave birth to punk, Hong Kong was far from immune to the phenomenon. In the early 90s, as a second wave of bands coalesced around 924 Gilman Street, California’s legendary punk incubator, Hong Kong began to take notice.

Inspired by this generation of US bands – Operation Ivy, Green Day and Bad Religion – the Hong Kong music scene was transformed by the arrival of the Pregnant Men, Star Whores, Tokyo Sex Whale and That Guy’s Belly. While the scene was small and didn’t have the impact of its US or UK counterpart, it had a hugely immersed following. Ultimately, it gave rise not just to bands, but also to such esoteric publications as Defecation Fanzine and Thrown Overboard, magazines that defined a way of life for the initiated.

Brendan Sheridan, a songwriter and guitarist in That Guy’s Belly, was also the driving force behind Defecation. Recalling its heyday, he says: “It was about questioning authority and being true to your ideals. The bands and zines were a lot of fun and affected our lives as well as those around us, even if just in a minor way.”

ce the battle cry of an entire generation of disillusioned youth – a movement that was pervasive enough to cause real concern among the establishment – has now morphed into something quite different. Today, it is seen as an authentic art form, one with an unshakeable identity and an enduring look.

Acknowledging this, Urquiola says: “Punk’s not dead and I wouldn’t say it’s even grown up. It has had to change with the times, though, and redefine itself.”

“It’s a very different world to back when I first discovered punk, just as things were wholly different 15-20 years before that.”

Understandably, things are also wholly different now for many of punk’s founding fathers. Steve Ignorant, 58, back then the singer with Crass, is now a lifeboat man, while Terry Chimes, 59, the onetime drummer for The Clash, is now a chiropractor. Looking back from his 40-year-on perspective, Chimes says: “The experience of challenging and changing the establishment was good for everyone at the time. Whatever you do after that, you always take that with you. You never lose that sense that things don’t have to be the way they are.”

Not everyone, however, has moved on quite as dramatically as Chimes. John Lydon – the punk formerly known as Johnny Rotten during his years as the frontman of the Sex Pistols – is still making music. He now composes and performs with a number of bands. Similarly, Jello Biafra, the former lead singer of The Dead Kennedys, remains heavily involved with the Alternative Tentacles record label.

As the first generation of punks turned to gainful employment – with many of them now contemplating retirement – a wholly new lot picked up the baton and ran with it. Today’s punk bands have lost none of the zeal and gusto of their forefathers. While the look and ideology remains largely the same, the only real difference is that many of them are now considered almost mainstream.

In line with this, bands such as Green Day, Blink 182, Bad Religion and Good Charlotte are pretty much household names. This is all the more surprising given that contemporary technology provides ever more DIY avenues for bands to shun the conventional channels to success. As ironic as this mainstream acknowledgement may seem, the punk message remains robustly anti-establishment. While some hardcore devotees to the cause see this wider acceptance as tantamount to selling
out, others maintain it is just a sign of the times.

Urquiola says: “I think it’s all a little less black and white now. Back in the day, the notion of bands selling out meant signing with one of the music industry’s corporate giants, as opposed to sticking with the DIY world where everyone helped each other out albeit in a much smaller musical universe. Now the overall music industry is a lot smaller and signing to a major label might not be quite the advantage it once was.

“By the same token, even much smaller operations – whether they’re just tiny labels or even solo bands or musicians – can do so much on their own. It’s easy to get connected and present your music, wherever you are, to anyone anywhere in the world.

“An alternative way of looking at it, though, is that it is this very ease of access that makes it difficult for anyone to get noticed. It could be argued that signing with a major label isn’t so much a shortcut as a smart option. It means you can have professionals overseeing the different ways in which you operate as a band. Selling any number of records through this avenue is still pretty admirable.”

With the torch well and truly passed, even 21st century Hong Kong still boasts a small but devoted handful of punk bands – most notably Oi! Squad, Defiant Scum and Two Finger Salute – as well as Artefracture, a record label dedicated to helping such bands find an audience. So the next time you see a green mohawk or a safety-pinned nose, don’t just come over all nostalgic and think: “These kids should have been there back in the day… ” Instead, just reflect on the fact that Punk’s Truly Not Dead and that the world’s an arguably far better place for its persistence.

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