COVENT Garden, London, on a night of squally showers, and how punks must have hated the rain 28 years ago - totally ruined the look. But these neo-punks with their limpet-mine hairdos held in place by advance-technology super-gel, they have brollies.
This must contravene one of the founding principles of the movement, but as they queue outside the art gallery, at least they’re keeping the spirit alive. There’s a party here and, for what must be the first time in 27 years, Rat Scabies finds himself on a VIP list. Jamie Reid, too.
Scabies was the drummer in the Damned and I’ve made it my mission tonight to try to pick him out from the crowd - despite hair-loss, middle-aged spread, saliva deficiency from all that spitting or whatever - and ask: "Do people still call you Rat?"
But Reid is the more interesting. He’s the Scot who ensured our contribution to punk didn’t just begin and end with the Exploited (bless their PVC breeks) and the Rezillos (who were radge-referencing in popular culture long before Irvine Welsh). He it was, Jamie McGregor Reid, who stuck a safety pin through the Queen’s nose during the Silver Jubilee.
Both have been invited to the opening swally for Punk: A True and Dirty Tale, an exhibition celebrating the, er, 28th anniversary of all that anarchy and bondage-wear. There’s no "Rotten, Johnny" on the guest-list at The Hospital but we’re promised appearances from Dave Vanian, the singer with the Snowcem complexion in Scabies’ band, Pete Shelley and Steve Diggle from the Buzzcocks, the odd Banshee (but not Siouxie) - and while Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood are both unavoidably detained in Paris, the two-minute, three-chord combo they, and Reid, unleashed on a grey, recession-ravaged mid-1970s Britain will be represented by Steve Jones, Paul Cook and Glen Matlock. Ladies and gentlemen, for the very last time (until the next filthy-lucre comeback): the Sex Pistols.
Were you a punk? By 1976, when it began, I’d already joined the world of work (no mohicans allowed), though the truth is I was too scared to go the whole way and kill a hippy or sniff one or whatever. But I pogo-ed at my 21st (where I also streaked) and, even though I wore midnight blue brushed Falmer flared denims and a rugby shirt to gigs at Clouds and Tiffanys in Edinburgh, I loved the music, collected the coloured vinyl and the lapel badges, sniggered at the silly names and thrilled to the Daily Mail’s marmalade-dropper headlines of end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it moral outrage.
An even better headline than the legendary "The Filth And The Fury", though, was "Halls Chief Shoots Down Pistols Rumours" which appeared on the front page of the Dalkeith Advertiser. Why was it superior? Because, as a byline-hungry cub-reporter, I completely fabricated the story that Rotten and Co - virtually declared menaces to society - were attempting to slip under the radar for a secret tour of miners’ social clubs in Midlothian. Very punk, I thought then. Balloon-ish, I reckon now.
But hang on, did I say loved the music? I listened to it 28 years ago, never since, and don’t expect to ever again.
Rugby shirts are, of course, trendy once more and sometimes it seems that punk’s ripped look has never been out of fashion. Original is best, however, and T-shirts of Reid’s vandalism of Cecil Beaton’s portrait of Her Lizness are displayed in glass cases alongside his much-copied ransom-note logos for the Pistols and McLaren’s first press release for the band: "We are teenagers from London’s Shepherd’s Bush and Finsbury Park and we hate everything."
The first proper punk I meet - as opposed to all these carefully-crumpled scenesters who are probably feeling incredibly dangerous tonight, sipping Pinot Grigio surrounded by all the swastika imagery - is Johnny Deluxe (real name: Lester Severity Deluxe), who’s reporting on the exhibition for the magazine Alternative London. At his feet, in a coat matching his tartan drainpipes, is his dog Roxy.
Punk, he says, was Stalinist: you hated teds, mods and especially hippies. In Reading, where he grew up, an open-air market stupidly sited a teddy boy clothes-stall next to a punk one; it closed down overnight after a mass pagger. But these days, he adds, everyone gets along.
How very unpunk. This makes me wonder if Deluxe ever truly was one; he doesn’t seem to have cut his hair since 1976 and now it stretches down to his backside. "Oh yes, we went to the 100 Club and the Vortex, then got the milk train home. Dave Vanian had odd little fingers, like sausages. And Knox from the Vibrators had the tiniest feet."
Still no sign of Scabies, or Reid. But I bump into Gaye Advert, bassist in the Adverts (big hit: ‘Looking Through Gary Gilmore’s Eyes’), and the nearest this determinedly unlovely scene had to a pin-up. These days she says she’s "pretty boring" and works in social services in Hammersmith. "But I still go to gigs," she adds, by way of a plea of mitigation.
The badge on her leather jacket is for the Briefs, who perform a sort-of tribute called ‘Looking Through Gary Glitter’s Eyes’. Her old treacle mane is cut short and dyed red now, but once a Sounds centrefold, always one.
Ex-Banshee Steve Severin, showing more of the effects of a strict diet of amphetamines and other people’s spit, was one of the self-mythologising Bromley Contingent. "Roxy Music were playing their farewell tour, David Bowie was being the Thin White Duke, our heroes had all gone up to Wembley and we were pretty pissed off," he says. "Then along came the Pistols and we became their acolytes.
"We could see them every week, there were only 20 of us in the audience, but then came that silly TV show [chat host Bill Grundy goading the band into trying to break the studio’s delete-expletive device]." Severin, who now works on movie soundtracks, most recently for Richard Jobson’s The Purifiers, continues: "After that punk went massive. Right from the start, I knew it would. It was more than just about the music. We were really pissed off."
Unemployment was at its highest since the war, and school-leavers were the most vulnerable. No future for you. And you and you...
Gary Crowley, Keith Allen and Dom Joly. Exactly the kind of people you expect to see at an event like this. Were they punks, or just Falmers boys like me? I don’t bother to find out.
Don Letts, though, was there or thereabouts and later formed Big Audio Dynamite with Mick Jones of the Clash. "It’s great to be reminded of a time when designs and slogans and just a f*****g great attitude had such power," he says. "That attitude’s badly lacking these days and it’s like punk never happened."
But Reid, whose art is all over these walls, doesn’t show; he poops his own party. Now that’s what I call punk (not to be confused with Now That’s What I Call Punk Vol 53 or somesuch cash-in compilation).
The next day, in a gallery close to Euston Station that’s more of a front room, punk’s artist-in-resentment, its inky iconoclast, explains why he doesn’t do nostalgia.
"I hate it, all this looking back," says Reid. "At this rate we’re going to be looking back fondly on yesterday. When we eventually catch up, maybe we’ll discover the future.
"That would be interesting because this country is frightened of the future. Fear is the dominant weapon the establishment uses, to isolate people, box them in and keep them quiet." He might disavow punk, but he still speaks like one.
We’re at the Aquarium, where Reid, now 55, with natty dreads spewing out from under his up-the-workers flat cap, is showing in London for the first time since he quit the Big Smoke for Liverpool almost 20 years ago. His latest work, all done on slate, is brightly coloured, Native-like and Celtic-influenced. Reid is a druid, like his father and grandfather before him.
This all seems a long way from the King’s Road, from Sex - the shop run by Mclaren, the Pistols’ Svengali and his designer-lover Westwood - from the gear featuring images of the rubber-masked Cambridge Rapist and gay-bar cowboys naked from the waist down, comparing personal weaponry - to say nothing of Reid’s treasonable typography and that epochal safety pin. But he insists everything connects up.
While still in short trousers, he was dragged along to CND marches. He came at art from the situationist perspective, that movement emerging from the split between the surrealists and the dadaists. And, post-punk, he got involved in direct action against the poll tax, Clause 28 and the Criminal Justice Bill.
Reid was born in Croydon but, early on, remembers his Inverness-born father telling him: "You’re Scottish."
The old man worked in Fleet Street for half a century, at long-gone papers like the Daily Sketch and the Daily Herald, but didn’t try to influence his son’s career-path. Was he shocked when Reid arrived home one day as a punk in pink mohair? "No, both my parents were very encouraging. What I am is very much them. And as much as they believed in political change, they also sought spiritual change."
Druidism, he claims, is going through a great rebirth. I ask what it means to him. "Being absolutely in love with nature, this planet and the whole universe." Surely druids don’t have a monopoly on such feelings? "Well, I’m quite uncomfortable with the name. There’s a whole side of druidism that’s dark and masonic. Winston Churchill was a druid, you know."
Reid has been accused of being a hippy in artfully-torn clothing before now, and I’m not about repeat that charge on the historic occasion of punk’s 28th birthday. Punk was always a slippery definition without Scottish-situationist-footballing-druid-punks entering the picture and confusing it some more.
Yes, he could have been a footballer, might have signed as a teenager for Queen’s Park Rangers, but instead enrolled in Croydon Art School where he met McLaren. Inspired by the uprising in Paris in 1968, the pair staged a sit-in at the college before Reid went on to set up the Suburban Press, a free-sheet dedicated to exposing local government corruption.
"Malcolm is an amazing guy, a really important artist," he says. "There’s a situationist expression about demanding the impossible; he’s one of those people who can make the impossible happen. He’s still a friend and I think we must be the only two guys from that time who didn’t fall out. But I think he’s slowly turning into Quentin Crisp."
Reid, who lives with his wife in the "posh bit" of Liverpool’s Toxteth and has a 12-year-old daughter from an earlier relationship with the comedy-actress Margi Clarke, believes passionately in education but thinks much of what passes for it these days is "shite". Art has slipped right off the school syllabus.
"In my day you could go to art college and get a grant; now you have to pay and that’s a disgrace. Malcolm and myself, Robin Scott who made that record ‘Pop Music’ and Sean Scully, who for all his sins has become a top international painter - we were all at Croydon together and yet we didn’t have an O-level between us. We wouldn’t have a hope in hell of getting in now."
But a generation of artists - the Britart brigade - have nevertheless established themselves in what Reid calls "this philistine culture" and many, including Damien Hirst and Tracy Emin, would doubtless acknowledge the debt they owed punk. Just don’t expect Reid to be flattered by this or to think that they don’t come across like "some Thatcher-inspired corporate advertising campaign".
Come to think of it, that’s not a bad description of the procession of professional punks, poseur punks and pretend punks probably still passing through Covent Garden and the latest celebration of a movement that, as pop-culture pundit Peter York tells me, "comprised just 60 or 70 people, all of whom were incredibly elitist" - and, it seems now, lasted not much longer than one of those incendiary calls-to-arms such as the Pistols’ ‘Anarchy in the UK’ or the Clash’s ‘1977’ or the Buzzcocks’ ‘Boredom’.
"They were these fabulous-looking kids from Bromley and Edgeware, suburban tykes with an extreme sense of style who were on the make and, as a result, broke through," York says. "And they were what we intellectuals call career opportunists - to the max."
Bless him, he’s still using phraseology from the 1980s - York’s true decade, that of the Sloane Ranger - and still dressing like a banker, a very big banker. But he was a punk once. "I wore what I called my Andy Warhol posse kit - no I couldn’t have, that’s a modernism - it was the Brook Brothers New England look I’d adopted after visiting Warhol’s Factory in ’75." And he wasn’t beaten up for that? "No, because punk was a very broad church..."
Hang on, how can 60 or 70 "natural snobs" (York’s words again) be said to comprise a broad church? And how can comedy prankster Dom Joly justifiably claim that punk was the most important musical form there has ever been? Clearly everyone has had too much free wine, including me.
It’s amazing how many small, bald, fat, conservatively-attired types can persuade me in the belief that they might be Chris Miller who was once Rat Scabies. I whittle them down to the prime candidate, who promises to blag me into a gig nearby showcasing Glen Matlock’s new band. That’s it, I tell myself, he’s definitely Scabies. I don’t hear him plead "But I’m a potter!" until I rewind my tape. It’s times like these when I think back to the Dalkeith Advertiser and decide that this career opportunist hasn’t come very far at all.
But at least now I can say I’ve met a bona fide punk. "It was a force of good, it gave people self-belief," says Reid. And despite seeming to turn his back on the movement, the truth is he’s never really stopped being a punk. An entire wall removed from a squat in Brixton has become a mural of every sneering slogan he dreamed up for the Pistols and it’s also a work-in-progress. "I’m adding to it all the time. In one sense it’s worth nothing, in another it’s priceless. I think it’s a f*****g fantastic piece of art."
And he’s probably f*****g right.
• Punk: A True And Dirty Tale is at the Hospital, Endell Street, London, until January 23