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How TV shaped punk rock


“It was the perfect stand up comedy.” That’s how John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten of The Sex Pistols) would later describe his appearance on The Grundy show in 1976. During the controversial interview, Bill Grundy was joined by the likes of Rotton, Glen Matlock and Siouxsie Sioux for what would be one of the most incendiary moments in British television history. It brought punk to the masses and caused a firestorm in the heart of middle England. And whilst, on the surface, the controversial interview looks like nothing more than a bunch of kids pulling the stuffing out of a drunk TV host, it reveals the fundamental paradox at the heart of the punk movement: that as much as punk riled against the establishment, it still exploited the power of the media for its commercial benefit.

Musically, British punk emerged from the brutal minimalism of bands such as The Stooges who, with their aggressive style and confrontational live shows, sat in stark contrast to the increasingly tiresome virtuosic twiddling of ’60s bands like Pink Floyd, The Beatles, and Led Zeppelin. However, as David Byrne once said, “punk was never a musical style.” It was more an all-encompassing outlook on the world, one which spat in the face of the all things that had once been deemed pioneering but which, by the mid-’70s, were as much a part of the establishment as the queen’s morning cup of Earl Gray.

Punk was a reaction to the realisation that all the angry young men of the 1950s were now grumpy old men with a lot of money. The musicians, who had once fought for a new world, had settled for money and fame, content to grow fat on their own self-importance. For punks, the music industry was a boil that needed lancing.

Their reaction was to seek alternatives to the routes offered by the musical establishment. Punks adopted a DIY approach in all things: playing music with cheap instruments in dingy garages, dressing in secondhand clothes torn to shreds, and creating handmade zines to hand out at concerts. It celebrated amateurism and self-creation, and, in doing so, carved out a distinct identity for a new generation of young people.

But, watching The Grundy Show incident, one thing becomes clear: the media was the perfect vehicle for the punk movement. Not only did TV allow the movement’s key figures to engage in eye-watering spectacles of dissidence, but it also heralded an opportunity to push a uniquely punk form of advertising on the British public. Let me explain.

John Lydon and Malcolm McLaren
(Credit: Alamy)

Anyone interested in punk’s history will know how much it was influenced by the social theory and philosophy of ‘the situationists.’ In his book The Society Of The Spectacle, situationist thinker Guy Debord identified the mass media as the “most glaring superficial manifestation” of the autocratic and totalitarian governments. In the 1920s, surrealist artists like Dali, Luis Buñuel, and Andre Breton, used the spectacle as an artistic tool. They believed that the art of the spectacle could be used to destroy the “rigged game of official culture” and renew the public’s imagination.

Sound familiar? Well, it should because that’s exactly what the punk movement did. By making a glorious spectacle of themselves on live television, Rotten, Matlock and the gang threw a grenade into the heart of middle England. During the Grundy interview, they showcased the punk way of life, one that had no respect for authority figures, for polite society, or for anything which might help them sell records.

But in treating the interview with such scorn, they were unknowingly using it as an advertising tool. For the British teenager in the ’70s, Johnny Rotten saying “shit” on live television established him as the ultimate rebel spirit — largely because it would have pissed off their parents. Combined with Siouxsie Sioux’s otherworldly make-up, it’s no wonder putting down the sandals and picking up the safety pins must have felt like such an intoxicating prospect. As a result of the interview, the sales of punk records went shooting up.

The behaviour of the interviewees on The Grundy Show caused a public outcry, and the media quickly seized on punk as a scapegoat of all that was wrong with the nation, causing one commentator to write: “If pop is the modern opium of the masses – and of course it is – then Punk Rock is raw heroin.” The moral panic that ensued (In which punk was held accountable for everything from falling grades to actual homicide) revealed British society’s taste for censorship. As a result, young people became more and more aware of the totalitarian grip their society held them in, so punk became more attractive as an antidote.

Another good example comes in the form of a story Vivien Westwood told when she was invited on to Desert Island Discs. With her partner, Malcolm McLaren, Westwood brought punk and new wave fashions into the mainstream. From their shop, SEX, the duo sold t-shirts onto which scandalous images had been printed. One such shirt, which had a picture of two naked men kissing, led to them being prosecuted on the grounds of obscenity. The press, of course, went wild. McLaren and Westwood recognised that the press attention surrounding the controversial charge had boosted interest in their products. Their reaction was to put more effort into producing even more scandalous clothing and, In doing so, they shaped the entire look of the punk movement.

Without the media, punk would likely have remained an underground phenomenon. But, by exploiting mass media such as TV, the movement shattered the country’s understanding of what music could be. It left countless sub-cultures in its wake and is still regarded as one of the most important eras in British musical history. However, the paradox at the heart of punk is inescapable. Despite fighting against any and all forms of control, punk fell into the trap of believing that mass media didn’t have the power to corrupt.

Punk quickly transformed from something with autonomy into something which relied upon the press to sustain its very existence. Now, if that’s not comedy, then I don’t know what is.