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What is punk?

Professor Matt Worley introduces punk and what led to its emergence in this article from Anarchy in the UK: A History of Punk 1976-78.
Anarchy In The Uk
© Paulbankier, via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Anarchy in the UK

The spread of punk across the UK was rapid and long-lasting but for much of 1976, the focus was on London, the Sex Pistols, The Clash and The Damned. Mention in the music press or via word-of-mouth might lead to inquisitive trips to gigs (or to SEX on the Kings Road).

New bands

As the London bands began to venture out of the capital, so new bands began to form – either through inspiration or a sense of ‘anyone could do it’. Most famously, the Sex Pistols’ two gigs in Manchester in the summer of 1976, organised by Pete Shelley and Howard Devoto from Buzzcocks, reputedly contained future members of The Fall, Joy Division and The Smiths among the audience.

A gear-change occurred on 1 December 1976, when the Sex Pistols appeared on the tea-time Today programme. Goaded by the show’s host Bill Grundy, the band responded with swear-words that fuelled a ‘moral panic’ the following day.

From the underground to the overground

Newspaper headlines reported ‘foul-mouthed yobs’ spitting the ‘filth and the fury’, transforming the Sex Pistols into a household name and effectively terminating the band’s contract with EMI and their planned tour of the UK. Punk went from the underground to the overground.

Punk encouraged people to be creative

More bands formed; more people came out for or against the new culture. The furore over ‘God Save the Queen’, released to coincide with the Silver Jubilee and predictive of ‘no future in England’s dreaming’, stoked the fires further, adding sedition to the Sex Pistols’ anti-social appeal.

By the end of 1977, every town and city in the UK had at least one punk band and one punk fanzine to its name. Often short-lived and unsophisticated, these successfully spread punk and punk-related culture throughout the country.

In cities such as Manchester, Sheffield, Liverpool, Leeds, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Belfast, imitation turned to innovation and new bands and clubs emerged.

Quite clearly, punk resonated; musically, aesthetically and in terms of agency, it encouraged young people to be creative. Punk tapped into prevailing moods (the ‘declinism’ Andy Beckett discusses in ‘When the Lights Went Out: Britain in the Seventies’), providing opportunities to engage creatively with the cracks appearing in post-war British society.

The spread of punk

The spread of punk resulted in:

  • New bands and new styles. Popular music was rejuvenated (the popstars of the 1980s served their apprenticeships in punk bands) and variants of punk’s sound and approach found expression in new sub-genres: New Musick, 2-Tone, ‘futurist’ sounds made on primitive synths, scratchy experimental records given airplay on John Peel’s radio show, Throbbing Gristle’s industrial music. This extended on into the 1980s with the new romantics, Oi!, anarcho-punk, etc.
  • Fanzines – punk’s alternative media, home-made and cheaply printed. Following the lead of Mark Perry’s Sniffin’ Glue, Tony Drayton started Ripped & Torn in Cumbernauld in late 1976. Thereafter, a trickle turned to flood: Shy Talk (Manchester), New Pose (Leeds), Hanging Around (Edinburgh), Breakdown (Southampton), Bored Stiff (Newcastle), Gun Rubber (Sheffield) and on and on and on.
  • New clubs and venues – as bands formed, so venues opened or adapted to accommodate punk gigs. Among the more well-known were the Electric Circus in Manchester, Eric’s in Liverpool and Barbarella’s in Birmingham. Equivalents opened elsewhere, often briefly but stimulating cultural change nonetheless.
  • Independent Labels – Buzzcocks released their first EP on their own New Hormones label in early 1977, setting in motion punk’s relationship with independent labels. Rough Trade and Small Wonder began via London record shops but labels such as Factory (Manchester), Fast Product (Edinburgh), Good Vibrations (Belfast) and Zoo (Liverpool) decentralised the music industry, stimulating independent production and new aesthetics.
  • Record Shops – many independent labels sprung from independent record shops, which flourished in the wake of punk. Between 1978 and 1981, the number of specialist record shops increased from 1,750 to 2,370. An independent Chart started in 1980 to record the post-punk alternatives to the mainstream charts, the major labels, and the record-shop chains.
Sex Pistols in Norway, 1977. Billedbladet NÅ/Arne S. Nielsen
© University of Reading
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Anarchy in the UK: A History of Punk from 1976-78

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