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The working-class origins of punk

This article discusses the working-class origins of punk and how ideas of class and money influenced culture.
© University of Reading

In an early interview with the Sex Pistols, Caroline Coon said that it was only ‘natural that if a group of deprived London street kids got together and formed a band it would be political’ (Melody Maker, 27 November 1976).

Punk’s working-class origins

Much was made of punk’s working-class origins: the delinquency of the Pistols’ Steve Jones and Johnny Rotten; the urban iconography of The Clash; the borstal breakout of Sham 69. Mark Perry’s Sniffin’ Glue spoke directly to those ‘waiting out there in the discos, on the football terraces and living in boring council estates’.

Indeed, early interviews with the Sex Pistols and others focused on troubled childhoods, broken homes and disaffection with the state of things – rising unemployment, mounting social conflict, bad schooling, political and economic disarray.

As a result, punk was quickly defined as ‘Dole Queue Rock’ (Dave Marsh): the angry sound of young working-class ‘kids’ who saw no future in England’s dreaming.

The tensions around social-mobility

Of course, things were more complicated. The class background of The Clash’s Joe Strummer was contentious – his father worked in the foreign service as a bureaucrat.

And the fact that many early punk musicians and artists had been to art school raised questions as to its street-level origins, which in turn revealed tensions around social mobility (does going to art school or university immediately deny a working-class identity?).

Many punk bands – The Damned especially – denied any political connotations to their music, instead emphasising their youth and the energy of their music.

However, the influences and ideas that informed aspects of punk were aligned to artistic movements (Dada) and political critiques (situationist practice) that suggested much more than a ‘natural’ upsurge of youthful anger.

The core of Punk’s protagonists was working-class

In truth, punk was all these things (and more). The idea that pop music and pop stars had lost touch with their audience and their roots had class connotations.

The core of punk’s protagonists was from working-class backgrounds and punk did engage with questions of class and working-class experience.

That was the appeal for groups like Sham 69 and, later, the Cockney Rejects. But punk also tapped into suburban sensibilities of boredom and detachment that suggested there was more going on.

Blurring class distinctions

Punk, like pop music generally, blurred class distinctions. More often than not, it railed against the existing social structures in search of something different.

Ultimately, punk tapped into the faultlines of social change that were already widening due to:

  • the advent of the welfare state;
  • the rise of consumerism;
  • the ongoing processes of deindustrialisation;
  • the effects of immigration;
  • the advances of feminism and sexual liberation.

There was a rising sense of ‘popular individualism’ through the 1970s (1) that had ramifications for all classes in the UK.

By looking at punk’s words and imagery we can see glimpses of how this informed British youth culture and notions of class identity.

  1. Robinson, Schofield, Sutcliffe-Braithwaite and Thomlinson: Volume 28 Issue 2 Twentieth Century British History, Oxford Academic (oup.com)
© University of Reading
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