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Welcome to Week 2

Article outlining what Week 2 of 'Anarchy in the UK' will cover and recapping the ambiguous perceptions of punk.
© University of Reading

Welcome to Week 2 where you’ll be looking at the impact punk had on gender, class, race, sexuality and protest. You’ll consider whether the legacy of punk in these areas is altogether positive and progressive or a more complex mixture of good and bad.

But first, let’s remind ourselves of the ambiguity surrounding punk by looking at the range of perceptions that existed at the time (1976–77).

  • In the music press, Caroline Coon (Melody Maker) and Jonh Ingham (Sounds) were the first to write about punk. Coon immediately drew attention to the disaffected working-class backgrounds of the Sex Pistols to explain the anger and attitude of punk, contrasting the band with the wealthy elite of British rock. Ingham outlined how punk broke from pre-existing 70s rock, in terms of aesthetic, sound and approach. Punk was presented as a response to the cultural and socio-economic climate of the mid-70s, a defining moment that reinvigorated music and youth culture and captured the tenor of the time.
  • The media’s interpretation of punk moved from incredulity to antipathy, particularly following the Sex Pistols’ appearance on teatime television on 1 December 1976. Fun pieces about a ‘crazy youth cult’ gave way to ‘shock-horror’ headlines about ‘foul-mouthed yobs’. From then on, punk was viewed in the tabloid press as anti-social and obnoxious: a sign of Britain’s decline.
  • Young activists in political organisations from both the left and right interpreted punk through the lens of their own particular points of view. On the left, organisations like the Socialist Workers Party and Young Communist League presented punk as a youthful class revolt against capitalism. Punk’s social commentary and affinity with reggae was noted and channeled, particularly through Rock Against Racism (RAR). On the right, the National Front and British Movement saw swastikas and anger that tallied with their own racist or ultra-nationalist visions.
  • Within punk, there was some opposition to being labelled and responses to the inevitable questions about it just increased the ambiguity. Here are some examples;

The Damned discussion of punk in Sniffin’ Glue, 3 (September 1976)

Rat What’s a punk?

SG It’s a ruffian, isn’t it?

David The actual definition means worthless.

Brian No one playing in a band’s worthless! […]

SG So how would you describe your music?

David There isn’t a name at the moment.

Rat It’s not rock ‘n’ roll but it’s like …

David It’s music for NOW!

Brian Power Music

Rat Get up off yer arse music!

Tim T from Blades ‘n’ Shades,1 (1977)

I believe the aims of new wave music were, and still are, to bring together radical youths and to be a communication medium between them. Towards this end, rock music has been simplified and taken back to its roots and is now being played with more energy than before. The simplification has meant that it is easier for people to relate to the songs and the bands. You can enjoy it […] without hero-worshipping the people who play it. If you’ve got anything to say you can now get up on stage and say it without the need for great musical prowess […] New wave is more than just music however. It is finally an attempt to make a better world to live in, something that only a united youth can hope to achieve. Politicians can argue with each other […] but only by changing the attitudes of the people can anything constructive be done…

Punk’s meaning, point and purpose would remain contentious. It was clear that it was a reaction to something. But a reaction to what? And why? These are the questions you’ll be exploring this Week.

© University of Reading
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Anarchy in the UK: A History of Punk from 1976-78

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