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How the British stole punk from America


A few years ago, Johnny Rotten and Marky Ramone almost came to blows at a punk event. “This daft c*nt is into drugs,” Rotten hurled Marky’s way and followed that volley with, “Look at you, you look like a heavy-metal f*cking reject.” All the while, a narked Marky stood firm on his assertion that the Sex Pistols were mere cheap imitators, simply stealing Richard Hell’s act and marketing themselves as progenitors because they had access to hair dye.

In truth, this spat was nothing new. The origins of punk have been fought over like the Holy Grail and have been just as hard to pinpoint. It’s like throwing a pebble into a swamp, the ripples might have pushed some claggy monster towards the surface, but the initial stone is lost forever. Nevertheless, what Marky Ramone proclaimed is entirely true, Richard Hell arose before the Sex Pistols, and the Sex Pistols stole a lot from the acts that came before them. 

However, if you were to ask an AI bot to generate you an image of a punk from all the culminating data available, then it may well print you off a picture of a young Johnny Rotten. What’s even more telling, is that if you wanted to crown a truly defining anthem of the movement then the Sex Pistols first and only studio album, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols is the one that you’d hand to an alien hoping to encapsulate it in quick time.

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Seeing as though the aforementioned first stone of punk may well be lost; the first sizeable ripples of recognisable of it arose in New York City. It was bloody horrible at the time—all crime, crumbling civility, stenches and brutalist architecture. The music of the era was completely amiss. 45-minute guitar solos replaced the prime of early American rock ‘n’ roll and the kids had no time for these prog show-offs. 

So snarling asocial iconoclasm stepped up to tackle it and the movement was underway. Bands like the Velvet Underground, the Stooges and the New York Dolls hinted at what was to come but it needed a place to call home. Then the CBGB happened. Inside this stuffy beer-stained bar where the walls and floor were as sticky as a toffee wrapper, bands could come together to crystalise ideas about where the youth was headed. 

As Patti Smith once said of punk, “I was young, but I felt our cultural voice was in jeopardy and needed an infusion of new people and ideas. I didn’t feel like I was the one. I didn’t consider myself a musician in any way, but I was a poet and performer, and I did feel that I understood where we were at, what we’d been given and where we should go, and if I could voice it, perhaps it could inspire the next generation.”

Perhaps the next generation were not the youth coming through, but the folks over the sea where Margaret Thatcher’s austerity Britain had rendered prog-rock ayahuasca epiphanies even more redundant. John Peel piped the sounds from the States over on his radio show. A few lads in a band called The Swankers or The Strand pick up on the influence and start to hone their act. 

The band spot John Lydon on London’s Kings Road in a homemade “I Hate Pink Floyd” T-shirt with green hair and is asked to join the band. He soon makes his live debut at St Martin’s College of Art in London on November 6th, 1975. They played for around 15 minutes in front of 20 people. 

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The original punks on the far side of the pond had been hinting at the premise the key tenet to punk was the attitude. As Joey Ramone once said, “To me, punk is about being an individual and going against the grain and standing up and saying ‘This is who I am.’” That idea the individual was more important than skill in the original sense was about to have its crystalising moment.  

In fact, it occurred on February 21st, 1976. A piece in NME written by Neil Spencer ran with the headline: “Don’t look over your shoulder, but the Sex Pistols are coming.” Therein it documented tales of band members cavorting with half-dressed members of the public on stage, chairs and tables being utterly Chernobyled in a seeming mutiny against anything perceived as banal, and a Frenchman shouting to Steve Jones “you can’t play!” and the guitarist flippantly replying, “So what?”

That was it—that was the tagline of punk: “So what?” Rarely have two words ever contained so much. As Joey Ramone also said: “All punk is is attitude. That’s what makes it. That attitude.” Now we had the right words for it. More than that, we also had a cartoonish caricature of the outfit too—the uniform that let you into the gang. 

Perhaps most important than the print, the NME article contained a small snapshot of a band who looked like they were on day release from an asylum in the dystopian future. A gaunt-looking villainous character with nothing in his eyes barring a clear determination to bedevil everything before him in an angry besiegement of his own sui generis and unfathomable design formed the manic centrepiece, and that mad angry wasp looking bastard went by the barmy name of Johnny Rotten, no less! A generation of stilted British music fans were sold in an instant. 

The attitude spread. Vivienne Westwood’s shop SEX dished the outfits out en masse. Punk had been a cult in the States, but it was ready to upset the status quo of the mainstream in the UK. Marky Ramone was right, Richard Hell and the Voidoids and New York Dolls and so on had all come before the Sex Pistols, but when the Ramones themselves beautifully upheld pioneering punk tenets with their debut record, it only sold 5,000 copies in a year

The Sex Pistols, on the other hand, were a riot that required literal government intervention. They had to escape the authorities by playing secret gigs under the names ‘S.P.O.T.S.’ (Sex Pistols Secretly on Tour), Tax Exiles, Special Guests, Acne Rabble, The Hamsters and A Mystery Band of International Repute. Punk was far from about rebellion alone. But it was the ubiquity of the attitude that allowed it to ripple through pop culture and arouse the youth once more. 

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