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Punk

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"I do seem to remember myself saying in the mid-70s prior to punk that I would like to see some sort of return to the discipline that was imposed by the two and a quarter minute long single thing, like Jerry Lee Lewis was the example I think I seem to remember using at the time. Was that when you went into the studio, you’d got 2 minutes and 15 seconds, 2.30 at the outside, in which to say everything you’d got to say, possibly in your life if the record didn’t sell well enough. And that seemed to me to concentrate the mind wonderfully and to produce quite extraordinarily passionate records." (Peeling Back The Years 4 (Transcript).

It is arguable that without John's championing of the genre, punk rock might never have had the visibility and influence that it did. From the first playing of the Ramones' 'Judy Is A Punk' on 19 May 1976 until approximately the end of 1978, it encroached on Peel's playlists at a steady but inexorable rate: by February 1977, the ratio of rock to punk was 50-50 [1], and when Fridays were given over to The Friday Rock Show at the end of 1978, the show became a mixture of punk, the burgeoning new wave, and reggae. However, although
The Vibrators - We Vibrate02:27

The Vibrators - We Vibrate

The Vibrators' début release, taking its cue more from US punk than British.

this era is fondly remembered by Peel fans, JP professed some ten years later to not enjoying it that much, since the shows had little variety. Nonetheless, the number of punk bands who recorded sessions for Radio 1 and had their records played on Kat's Karavan reads like an inventory of talent that would never be repeated: the Clash, Sex Pistols, Vibrators, Lurkers, Siouxsie & The Banshees and Slaughter & The Dogs to name but a few. Napalm Death owed their motivation to hearing those early shows and the songs that other stations (and even other DJs on Radio 1) would not play. Finally, it allowed women the chance to get in on the act and form bands that could match the energy of the males: the Slits, X-Ray Spex, the Banshees and Penetration featured strong female personalities who proved rock was not just for the boys.

Punk's Pre-History

On 10 December 1976, the entire show was given over to protopunk, punk and a new session by the Damned, and this is seen as a watershed in the show's history, as JP attempted to trace the origins of the movement, as well as playing its finest new material. Yet any attempt to either solve the question of what the first punk record was, or to categorise the material, is futile, since as JP pointed out, the expectations of what constituted punk differed between the USA and the UK and even between individuals. What is certain is that journalist Dave Marsh was the first to use the term (in 1971), even though the roots of its style and its ethics seem to have begun much earlier.

The first song that contained elements that would not seem alien to the 1977 scene was the Kingsmen's 1963 hit 'Louie Louie.'
Kingsmen-45-jergenRecordsMay1963
It broke many conventions of the time: the structure was stubbornly based around merely three chords (and punk bands would come to be dubbed 'three-chord wonders' at the time of the scene's explosion), the lyrics were declaimed rather than sung (and so ambiguous that the song was ostensibly investigated by the FBI and was banned by the governor of Indiana for alleged "dirty lyrics" [1]), and featured an unfussy guitar solo consisting of individual notes stabbed out rather than a elegant variation on the main theme. The whole song gave energy and volume pre-eminence over content.

This undoubtedly influenced the Kinks' 1964 smash 'You Really Got Me', which was strongly reminiscent of 'Louie Louie' but added further brashness to the guitar sound. This provided a staple for the band's early sound: 'All Day And All Of The Night' (later covered successfully by the Stranglers) was little more than a rewriting of it. The following year, the Who's 'My Generation' plugged into a growing awareness of the age gap between the teenagers who were buying the records and the parents who complained about the noise, ending in a squall of feedback and what was termed 'Auto-destruction' (smashing up the instruments during performance). Although the band themselves were firmly allied to mod culture, the track pushed the envelope in terms of what was considered allowable in music, a concept taken to its limits by the Velvet Underground in their first two LPs. The eponymous first album, picked up on by Peel during his days on Radio London, was a heady brew of threatening ballads ('I'll Be Your Mirror' and 'Sunday Morning') and walls of white noise ('European Son Of Delmore Schwartz' and 'Heroin'). As with most protopunk albums, this sold poorly, but its influence was immense. The second LP, White Heat / White Light, retreated even further into the noise and droning that John Cale had learned from his performances with avant-garde composer La Monte Young: Sister Ray (later covered by Joy Division) was a 17-minute epic lesson in pushing the audience's patience with the repetition of a single tune (and lyrics about oral sex) to its limit and beyond. Nevertheless, this was "the prototype punk guitar sound everyone wanted in 77." [2]

It was also at this time that another element of what was to become punk rock fell into place: the Fugs wrote frank songs with lyrics about sex, drugs and politics, and the Seeds and the Sonics made tight, energetic tracks which simultaneously satirized rock'n'roll and called for a renewal of its primal energy.

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"Well it's 1969 okay / All across the USA / It's another year / For me and you / Another year / With nothing to do."

At this time, with the growth of hippy culture and its emphasis on peace and love, angry, aggressive music was for the most part unwelcome on the air or in the shops. Nonetheless, James Jewel Osterberg, who had been a drummer for various blues and garage rock bands, saw Jim Morrison's establishment-baiting stage act in the Doors and recruited his own band in which his vision of a union between deliberately shocking onstage behaviour (throwing up, picking fights with the audience, indulging in fellatio with them, exposing and mutilating himself) and violent music to match it could be realised. The first two LPs by the Stooges contained track after track of three-chord slobbering rock'n'roll: they were quintessential punk, years ahead of their time. (Both were re-released in the mid-70s due to public demand: 'No Fun' became a staple of the Sex Pistols' repertoire.) In fact, it was to describe Pop's music that Marsh's phrase was employed.

The Stooges would disintegrate a few years later but not before Metallic K.O., a bootleg of their notorious last gig in which Pop lost a fight with a member of the audience and which Peel would describe as one of the most uncompromising LPs he had ever heard, proved to be their swansong. In the UK, meanwhile, a sub genre known as glam rock and spearheaded by David Bowie (who attempted to reignite Pop's career by producing his solo Raw Power in 1973), Suzi Quatro and the Sweet, produced some extremely raucous material that nevertheless stayed on the right side of melody enough to gain regular airplay and considerable sales. One track worth noting is Bowie's 'Hang On To Yourself,' which contains a chain of descending chords the Ramones would base their entire career on. However, aside from the quirky and arty compositions of Roxy Music, the early 70s produced a series of albums with longer and longer tracks churned out by the same artists, who presumably felt they had made a safe career out of self-indulgence. In fact, some music of this era is mistakenly touted as protopunk: Jonathan Richman's Roadrunner is a homage to rock, not a call for its dismissal, and the New York Dolls, whom JP never really liked, had clearly modelled themselves on the Rolling Stones, even down to having a Mick Jagger lookalike singer in David Johansson.

The underlying musical structure was in place: anti-establishment, political and taboo subjects provided the shock value needed to get the music noticed: and shocking stage antics had their precursors. All that was lacking was an antagonistic attitude, and Patti Smith, although never a Peel favourite, provided that with Piss Factory. Musically sparse, it was basically a poem relating Smith's frustration with the boredom of 9 to 5 working and the wish for something better to take its place. Again, it passed by virtually unnoticed by the record-buying public, but provided meat and drink for virtually every punk single issued in those frantic two years from 76 to 78. The die was cast. Punk needed only a public face.

The Sex Pistols and punk's first wave

The aforementioned New York Dolls had been managed (unofficially) by impresario and self-publicist Malcolm McLaren, whose first venture was a clothing shop in London called Let It Rock, which became SEX and then, when the Sex Pistols achieved their notoriety and public image, Seditionaries. He had seen bands such as Television, Talking Heads and the Voidoids at CBGB in Manhattan and was attempting to emulate this anarchic persona. Unfortunately, the 'hammer and sickle' change of image for the Dolls was so unsuccessful that it precipitated their split, causing McLaren to return to London and take over management of the Pistols, originally known as the Strand. His desire was to cause shock and reaction in the audience: their lead singer John Lydon, who renamed himself Johnny Rotten (owing to the fact that, as McLaren stated in the film The Great Rock'N'Roll Swindle, he had green teeth through refusing to brush them), taunted the audience to the extent that gigs ended up as near riots. (Peel attempted to see them twice, unsuccessfully: firstly at the 100 Club on 11 May, when he had to leave halfway through their opening number to do his show, and he drove up to Derby for their 4 December gig, which was cancelled before he arrived, although this did not disappoint him. He thought this was splendid and much more in keeping with the spirit of punk than if it had gone ahead. [2] Moreover, he missed their appearance on the first night of McLaren's 100 Club punk festival in late 76, going on the second night instead.)

Their gig at Manchester's Lesser Free Trade Hall on June 4 1976 is counted as one of the most influential of all time, since many people who would form punk bands of their own (the gig was organised by Howard Devoto and Pete Shelley of the Buzzcocks) were among the admittedly small audience. Later that year, they appeared on the fondly-remembered Granada programme So It Goes, performing the as yet unreleased Anarchy In The UK, and Rotten invites the audience to "get up off your arse." A fan of the Pistols, Susan Ballion (aka Siouxsie Sioux), was there when the group subbed at the last minute for Queen in a by now legendary TV interview for Thames with Bill Grundy where they swore at prime time.
Sex Pistols - Bill Grundy Interview 1.1204:20

Sex Pistols - Bill Grundy Interview 1.12.76

Steve Jones calls Bill Grundy a "fucking rotter." December 1, 1976.

Finally, punk had become visible after lying dormant from the public consciousness for over a year.

However, Peel got there first. The gritty pub rock of the mid 70s had given way to something harder and faster, with little concern for musical capability, and he remembers sensing a change in style after seeing Eddie & The Hot Rods, whose main show piece was a lightning fast version of Bob Seger's Get Out Of Denver. He picked up on the Ramones' first LP and was immediately captivated by its imagery and the unselfconscious brevity of the songs, and was to play it regularly throughout the summer of 1976. His listeners were unimpressed, thinking it was a 'stage' JP would grow out of (none of the punk records he was playing made the 1976 Festive Fifty). Exactly the opposite: the first punk session, by the Vibrators, went out on 28 October 1976 and the Damned's first on 10 December 1976, and John played Anarchy In The U.K. a week prior to its release. He was resistant to the label punk, preferring to call it 'new wave rock': after all, he had been in the States when garage rock briefly mushroomed in popularity in the mid 60s, and regarded it as a natural progression from (and reaction against) the excesses of the rock establishment.

"I'm very grateful to the bands and the people who make the music, or most of them anyway, for the excitement and heated debate and general bewilderment they've brought back to the rock scene. And it's been long missed and sorely missed, I think." (10 December 1976 (Transcript))
Mid 1977 has often been called the summer of punk. Peel's programme was by now desperately trying to keep up with the plethora of new acts being formed. He and the Pig saw Generation X at the Roxy in January 1977 [3]: Walters was the first to see the Slits, who he related were "banging and shouting....unhindered by talent, the very essence of punk", a similar reaction engendered by Jordan who was part of Adam & The Ants: he wanted to let her "scream to the nation.",so a session was arranged on the spot. [4] Despite (or, if Rotten is to be believed, because of), the Queen's Silver Jubilee, the Pistols' God Save The Queen was released on 27 May 1977, and banned by the BBC (although, since Kat's Karavan was a late-night show, JP played it frequently). The song made number 2 in the UK charts, although there is a conspiracy theory that the charts were fixed somehow and it should have displaced Rod Stewart at number 1. The 29 August 1977 show was something of a celebration of the best part of a year in punk, and is commonly known as the 2nd punk special. It featured a new session by Squeeze and repeats of three other debut sessions that had already assumed iconic value: Generation X, the Cortinas and XTC.

DIY, the second wave and the new order

The final element of the punk ethic was provided by the Buzzcocks, whose Spiral Scratch EP of January 1977 was the first on an independent label (New Hormones) and an East London band named the Desperate Bicycles,
Desperatebicyclesfrontsmall
who formed in March 1977 with one purpose in mind: recording and releasing an entirely self-financed single, with the intention of encouraging others to do the same. Up to this time, bands had found it necessary to sign to major labels in order to get their music distributed and heard (the Pistols signed in rapid succession to EMI, A&M and Virgin; the Stranglers and Buzzcocks to United Artists; the Clash to CBS; and Polydor, having missed out on all four big names, signed the Jam, even though their music was an offshoot of mod, not punk). However, the Bicycles proudly detailed their DIY procedure for Smokescreen and used the profits to finance their second 7 inch. JP was bewitched by their drive and included the track in the top five of his self-created Festive Fifty to round off the year, which was mostly punk. The year was satisfyingly rounded off with the debut session from Siouxsie & The Banshees, which remains the most frequently repeated of all, although Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons' book The Boy Looked At Johnny, published in December, would proclaim the movement to have finished already (she would later call it "shit in safety pins"). Nonetheless, although its original impetus had been diluted, the ethic survived and diversified. 1978 was to see the second wave of punk increase in force, as bands changed the style to suit their own purposes. The Clash began to adopt a rockier sound that endeared them to the US, the Banshees released The Scream, which both looked back to the past ('Helter Skelter') and forward to the Goth style that they arguably created ('Switch'). But the band that brought punk into the British consciousness was no more: Sid Vicious committed suicide while awaiting trial for the murder of his girlfriend, and a messy divorce was documented in rather one-sided fashion in The Great Rock'N'Roll Swindle.
PIL - Public Image03:16

PIL - Public Image

Lydon's epitaph for the genre that made his name.

The streetpunk style of the Cockney Rejects, Sham 69 and the Angelic Upstarts made inroads to the charts, and also regrettably engendered the skinhead, White Power and Oi factions that seized on punk's energy and translated it into physical action, usually directed toward minority groups. On the other hand, as Peel points out in the video on this page,
Peel on Punk and Fascism01:33

Peel on Punk and Fascism

Peel disusses the links between punk and fascism

Joy Division took their name from a Nazi prostitution wing, the Skids' Days Of Europa is a direct copy of a poster from Hitler's Germany, and Nazi imagery seemed to be popular with the punks from the very outset.

The sessions for Peel's programme continued unabated, but two noticeable by their absence were the Sex Pistols (not invited by Walters due to Rotten's threatening appearance) and the Clash (who abandoned the session due to friction within the group). Though recordings at Maida Vale by bands that fell broadly into the category of punk did not stop, it was a genre that was fast being surpassed by the New Wave, and within a year would be usurped by the fad for ska. (Its 'revival' in the 1990s, spearheaded by bands such as Blink-182 and Green Day, passed Kat's Karavan by completely.) Peel never relinquished it entirely: favourite tracks such as 'IRT' by Snatch would reappear almost to the end of Peel's radio career. Moreover, 'Anarchy In The U.K.' remained the quintessential track for his listeners and a constant reminder of the headiness of the mid 70s, as it reappeared in the Festive Fifty at every available opportunity: and John's favourite track of all time, Teenage Kicks, was one that he said could never have existed without punk.

Links

Footnotes
  1. The Peel Sessions, p. 217
  2. Margrave Of The Marshes, Corgi edition, p. 366.
  3. Margrave Of The Marshes, p. 368, Corgi edition.
  4. The Peel Sessions, p. 97.

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