Aidan Smith: How punk showed the way for attitude to politics

Johnny Rotten hid his prog rock albums from view when journos came to interview him. But despite his rather conventional roots, his impact was revolutionary. Picture: Getty Images
Johnny Rotten hid his prog rock albums from view when journos came to interview him. But despite his rather conventional roots, his impact was revolutionary. Picture: Getty Images
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FOR ALL its posturings, punk really did change everything when it comes to how we ought to treat authority, writes Aidan Smith

So the Sex Pistols’ old squat in Denmark Street, London, is to be saved for the nation – awarded a Grade II listing and by a Tory heritage minister, no less. What next in the 40th anniversary year of punk rock, you wonder – frozen globules of gob, kept all this time in a suburban fridge, confirmed as genuine 100 Club spit and put on display in a museum?

Or how about Siouxie Sioux’s original design for her black bin-liner mini-dress, never worn because she painted the swastikas the wrong way round?

Or maybe an exhibit made up of Johnny Rotten’s collection of progressive rock, Van Der Graaf Generator prominent among it, which had to be stashed at the back of the rack when lifestyle journalists called round for those “At home with … ” articles – prog being the music punk wanted to kill?

Or maybe the birth certificate confirming Stranglers drummer Jet Black is in fact 77? I mean, we knew his real name was Brian something, and we guessed he was too old for the Youth Opportunities Programme, but had his first combo possibly been a trad-jazz one?

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Or how about the detritus from punk’s most shameless act of opportunism? This would of course be the hair-dye bottles discarded by the Police after Sting commanded the other two: “Guys, we’re getting absolutely nowhere with this pub-rock drivel of ours. Tonight we snip those barnets and go peroxide!”

Now, my sneering tone may make you think I was never a punk. Well, I was. Or rather, I liked the music but was too scared to wear the gear. In 1976 I was one year into cub-reporting. Presenting myself at church manses and police lost-and-found desks with the trouser legs of my Burton’s suit tied together, or with even a single safety-pin looped through my lapel, would have ended the career. At night, in search of live punk thrills, I timidly stuck to what I always wore to gigs: my trusty rugby shirt and jeans – flared (wait, there’s more), brushed cotton (it gets worse) in a colour you’d have to call “midnight blue”.

I did try to customise those Falmers. Not with 17 additional zips; rather I asked my mother to sew tartan patches on the knees. “But your jeans are brand-new,” she said. “I know, Mum, but punk is a vital youth movement and it’s sweeping the land.” Unfortunately, the only tartan in her sewing room was delicate and silk-like and the patches ripped as soon as I strode out to Bruce’s Records in Edinburgh for the latest punk 45s on snot-green and puke-yellow vinyl.

Did I say I liked the music? It was urgent, but the enjoyment didn’t last, kind of what I imagine amphetamines were like (or, since I’ve never taken drugs, what I definitely know Cremola Foam was like). It was bold, but given I had a job and our house had a sewing room (and an au pair room, for goodness sake) there was little for me to rebel against. If you came to punk from Van Der Graaf Generator, as I did, there was no escaping its poor technique. And it was delivered exclusively in Lahn-dahn accents, at least until the emergence in Edinburgh of the Rezillos, who beat Irvine Welsh to referencing “radges” by 16 years.

But I loved the moral outrage caused by punk, how it would provoke mild-mannered lorry-drivers enough to put a foot through their TV sets, how it would incense the Daily Mail sufficiently for a marmalade-dropper headline like “Filthy lucre”. I tried to contribute to the moral outrage at the Dalkeith Advertiser by writing a story about how the Pistols were intent on playing secret gigs off the beaten track in our neighbourhood having been banned from every city. It was complete rubbish and definitely should have got me my P45.

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Punk to me seemed like a jolly jape and I laughed when Rowan Atkinson, playing a punk having a piddle, couldn’t find the right zip; when Clive James called Johnny Rotten Kenny Frightful; when Terry Hall of the Specials, mocking punk’s worthiness, declared: “Tonight we’re rocking against bacon and eggs”; and when Citizen Smith’s Wolfie thought he’d captured the spirit of the age with the event he’d organised down at his local – Snooker Against Racism.

The practitioners, though, took it all incredibly seriously. They didn’t smile for five years after punk ended or laugh for ten years after that. It was in 2002 that Siouxsie Sioux admitted to me: “Punk wasn’t really a revolution, it was just a pose.”

In 2004, Steve Severin of Siouxsie’s Banshees told me how elitist punk had been, that the minute it spread beyond the Pistols’ coterie he got “really pissed off”. In 2006 Paul Mackie from another Edinburgh combo, the Scars, told me how “No future” didn’t apply to him either, hailing from the leafy suburb of Currie. “My liberal parents encouraged me in everything I did,” he said. “I played violin in the Edinburgh Secondary Schools Orchestra. But punk just seemed like great fun.”

But here’s a strange thing: punk, while it’s been downrated over the years, has increased in importance. Rotten – or John Lydon as he prefers now – can insist “We didn’t mean it, maan” and this frees him up to advertise butter and appear on I’m a Celebrity … The old punks can cash in with reunions and re-releases by admitting they’re no different from the even older bands they were only pretending to despise. But punk’s influence has been profound; you can see it across society. Anyone with an attitude, a DIY ethos or a desire to challenge owes something to punk. And when the order isn’t challenged like it should be – as in now – you can get nostalgic for the PVC breeks you sadly never wore.