It seems as if 1976 was a momentous year for British music. The “classic rock” period of the 1960s and early ’70s was finally coming to an end. Cocaine-fuelled car crashes, numerous hospital admittances and calls for the support of Enoch Powell all culminated in classic rock calling for its own head. The excess and inflated sense of self-importance that rock had become concerned with, via the contemporary caped pomposity of prog, had got many younger listeners thinking that it was about time for a reset.
On both sides of the Atlantic, a tsunami of rage would engulf the musical world. Fed up with the beige colour schemes of the ’70s and the general feeling that society as a whole had become complacent, this tidal wave of creativity would become known as punk, and it would change music and society ad infinitum. A musical embodiment of a successful Wat Tyler, it would overthrow those who sat atop the throne and take music by the lapels, forcing it into the modern era.
Before the purists get all flustered, punk is, for all intents and purposes, an indefinable beast. One couldn’t necessarily label this moment – or that band – as the beginnings of a movement that, despite trying to distance itself from the past, was integrally aligned with music’s history. But, no matter your opinion on what punk is now or what it tried to be then, there can be no doubt that, in many ways, 1976 was the year that British punk really took off, the year it blew “the bloody doors off”.
On June 4th, 1976, that year, Sex Pistols played their iconic show at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall to a crowd of around 40 people. Although not a large number, this show would go on to have far-reaching effects, and without it, we would not have had the majority of Manchester’s most important musical exports. The concert managed to gather a host of incredible artists who would, in turn, create their own group, spurred on by the DIY ethos that pervaded the entire venue.
However, one would argue that another event in 1976, one that occurred across two days, on Monday the 20th and Tuesday the 21st of September, would be more critical to the genre’s sweeping engulfment of culture. The ‘100 Club Punk Special’ became the first actual occasion in Britain where punk music really arrived as a concerted and coined movement. Retrospectively, the showcase can be taken as the definitive moment where the British punk scene crystallised and embarked on its raucous journey of rock and roll reform.
The gig showcased eight punk bands, all of whom were unsigned and largely unfettered, but this was the spirit of the day. Collectively, the bands and crowd members assembled would proceed to have a defining impact on the immediate scene, and the following movements of post-punk, new-wave et al. The show galvanised all in attendance, and the first wave of punk as it came to be known would have far-reaching consequences.
Organised by concert promoter Ron Watts with the help of Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren, backed by the exhaustive promotion from Melody Maker’s Caroline Coon, the iconic 100 Club on London’s Oxford Street would find itself at the centre of the movement. The Melody Maker’s opening line of its review stated, “The 600 strong line that stretched across two blocks was indisputable evidence that a new decade in rock is about to begin.” This take from the now-defunct Melody Maker is incredibly pertinent, and it’s as if everyone involved in the event could sense that this wasn’t any ordinary festival. This was punk’s Big Bang.
If we heed the bands who played and some of the names in attendance, you will quickly get a sense of the event’s spirit. On Monday evening, the bands who performed were Subway Sect, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Clash and Sex Pistols, a line-up that would leave mouths utterly drooling in the forthcoming years. Famously, this was Siouxsie and the Banshees’ first ever show. They performed a completely improvised set, a piece of “performance art” that consisted of a 20-minute take on ‘The Lord’s Prayer’. Interestingly, this first iteration of the Banshees featured a then-unknown Sid Vicious on the drums and saw Siouxsie instantly become a star.
The Tuesday evening saw Stinky Toys, Chris Spedding & The Vibrators, The Damned, and Buzzcocks (who’d only truly formed after the aforementioned Pistols show in Manchester) take to the stage. Again, the day was characterised by a loose idea of what performance meant. For instance, The Vibrators were a new band and they had only recently begun writing original music. Their appearance at the ‘Punk Special’ stemmed from the support of Ron Watts, who persuaded them to perform as the backing band for Chris Spedding at the gig.
Spedding taught The Vibrators a few of his songs in the dressing room immediately before they went on stage. This gung-ho approach captures a large chunk of the punk spirit, and it wasn’t just Spedding and The Vibrators that hadn’t rehearsed; the entire festival was left to run. It was a big middle finger up to the mores of the organised music industry that the shows were enacted in this way. Looking back, Watts said: “It was just people, getting up and trying to do something.”
Members of the crowd were equally as esteemed in music. Paul Weller, Shane MacGowan, Viv Albertine, Vivienne Westwood, Chrissie Hynde, David J, John Keane and Steve Strange, to name but a few, all attended. These legendary audience members display the day’s triumph as, directly and via proxy, these names would help change the creative landscape that was slowly moving into the future, providing a strong foundation for all who followed suit in their subversive behaviours.
Given that it was 45 years ago, I wanted to find out if the ‘100 Club Punk Special’ still holds relevance to those who were there. Understandably, for such an iconic event, it still retains some of its original magic. Steve Diggle of Buzzcocks told Far Out: “When we played 100 Club Festival, it was the early days of punk, and you knew these gigs were going to explode and send music and the world into another universe! You had to rethink your whole consciousness and what music and its power was.” Diggle’s statement speaks volumes of the transformative impact of punk.
Out were the dull colour schemes and conservatism of their parent’s generation; now, the youth were in revolt, and much like the counterculture of the ’60s, they were leaving no stone unturned. It wasn’t just a momentous event for those who were there, either. It became one of the 100 Club’s defining events from across its history. After the ‘Punk Special’, the 100 Club became somewhat of a spiritual home for British punk, and given the notorious image that punk devised for itself after the event, not many venues were prepared to host punk gigs, but the 100 Club remained unwavering in its support of the movement. For the following decade, the venue hosted the bands that followed suit, including the second wave, which boasted the likes of G.B.H. and Discharge. Without the 100 Club’s characteristic commitment to the organic side of music, perhaps punk would not have gained such a foothold as it wouldn’t have had an environment to flourish.
100 Club owner, Jeff Horton, told Far Out of the venue’s commitment to grassroots music, and the definitive impact the ‘100 Club Punk Special’ had on forging their own identity, explaining: “We’ve been at the forefront of a lot of different musical conceptions over the years. The music policy here has always been very diverse. We pride ourselves on being a ‘music venue’ rather than being restricted to promoting just one or two of music’s many facets. But it’s safe to say that those two days are probably what forged the club’s spirit and its ethics that still live on today.”
Horton concludes: “Punk was, and is, so much more than a three-chord guitar riff and a haircut. The importance of that movement still lives on and resonates today. So much of the music, the fashion, the art, the rebellion, the inclusivity, even the calligraphy you see around you today; all stem from that movement. The most important youth movement there’s ever been, in my opinion. And those two days here in September 1976 sent it on its way into the world.”
Together, Diggle and Horton’s comments are as potent and pointed as one would expect, hitting the mark with aplomb. The ‘Punk Special’ signified the dawn of a movement that would change everything. Like a religious schism, punk’s effects would be so far-reaching that we still see many of them alive and well today, perhaps just marauding with a different guise. Its impact on music, fashion, art, inclusivity and the rest is unmatched. The likes of N.W.A, Kurt Cobain, Aphex Twin, U2, Björk and even Billie Eilish all hail from different corners of the musical realm but carry, or have carried, within their artistry, the punk spirit in one way or another. This is a testament to the ‘100 Club Punk Special’. Without it, the creative landscape would look very different today.
However, it is worth mentioning that nothing is ever purely roses. Of course, to acknowledge the good is also to see the bad. Punk was not some purely heroic tidal wave that ousted the problematic classic rock gods and drafted a new world order of balanced benevolence. Instead, like the scene it was railing it against, it also came with an Achilles heel that would leave the genre gasping for breath.
The faux-nihilism, an almost laughable James Dean-esque adherence to an ideal, violence and excess all culminated in the first punk wave being a remarkably short affair. Estimations vary, but it is clear by 1980 (at the very latest), music had started to move on from such an explicit adherence to punk’s first wave. The likes of Sid Vicious became tragic figures, and the whole scene became a sad caricature of itself. It came to represent what it hated all along, and by the turn of the decade, punk was more similar to classic rock than anyone could ever have imagined back in ’76 at the ‘Punk Special’.
Though Woodstock can be seen as an equivalent of the ‘Punk Special’, its reflections only mirror one another in cultural impact. As one might expect, there was little peace and love to be found on Oxford Street during those nights. The event was far from a purely peaceful moment, as, after all, this was punk, and it was Britain in the 1970s. It would be reductive for us to think of it as simply a positive and creative experience. It wasn’t. Artist John Keane has provided us with a more weighted account of a moment with Sid Vicious that will go down in infamy.
Keane had missed the first day of the event but managed to catch the second one. In stark opposition to what many would have you believe, the music on the day wasn’t of high quality. Who can be surprised as this was the nature of such a haphazard event? We have to remember this was the antithesis to Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii. Keane remembers writing in his diary that the event was “musically ‘disappointing'” and that the general atmosphere made him feel “uneasy”.
Keane also happened to be at the centre of one of the event’s most notorious occurrences. Watching the Damned, Keane was minding his own business when he felt something “whizz past” from behind, nicking his ear as it went. He recalls Damned frontman Dave Vanian getting “very upset that a glass had smashed on a pillar in front of the stage and someone had been hurt”.
This wasn’t all, though, as Keane remembers: “I turned to a guy standing directly behind me and said ‘did you throw something?’. His very menacing response was, ‘You didn’t see me frow nuffin – did ya?’. This, of course, was true, and his general demeanour suggested to me I should not pursue the matter. Later on, police came, and the guy, who someone told me called himself Sid Vicious, was arrested.”
Keane wagers: “I think this undercurrent of violence did not endear me to the punk thing”, and, in this sense, it can be taken as one of the main reasons that contributed to its downfall. This can also be taken as to why a lot of the punk movement has now been forgotten. Critically, Keane notes that punk gave way to “more interesting areas”. It was a ‘Big Bang’ that needed to happen, but due to its intrinsic attitudes, it was almost doomed to fail from the outset. Keane notes that it continues to live on as a “kind of ‘attitude'”, and it is safe to say it would not do so without the ‘100 Club Punk Special’.
After those two iconic days, punk would continue at breakneck speed before it all fell apart. It is not outrageous to argue that out of the bands who played that day, the ones who have endured were the ones that were willing to take punk and repackage it, The Clash, Buzzcocks, The Damned and Siouxsie and the Banshees (post-Vicious).
Although Sex Pistols have endured as icons and are one of the most legendary punk bands of all time, these days, given their off-stage antics, they seem a little redundant in comparison to their contemporaries. Of course, they are forever remembered in their own way, but one would argue it’s about time that the likes of Siouxsie and the Banshees and Buzzcocks get more praise for their appropriation and augmentation of the punk spirit rather than someone’s snotty remarks.
Regardless of the negatives, the ‘100 Club Punk Special’ set the wheels in motion for an inter-generational movement that would permeate music forever. Without it, there would be no “indie” culture, no Smiths, Dinosaur Jr, to some extent, no Oasis or Blur. The Strokes, The Libertines and The Arctic Monkeys — all gone. Without this moment, there would have been a creative black hole in the middle of the 20th century that few could have escaped.
Like with any momentous event, we have to approach it with a balanced perspective. The positives punk brought about were incredible and continue to be so. Without it, we wouldn’t have modern refreshers such as The Linda Lindas. On the other hand, we need to learn from the negatives it brought. Unfortunately, the excess and the darker side of the human ideation that punk spoke to would go on to have a hold on music in the 1980s, ’90s and ’00s. In fact, it seems that only recently, society has started to finally let go of these worn-out tropes that are nothing but harmful to the human condition.
With that sobering point, it is important to heed that the positives to take away from the ‘100 Club Punk Special’ are innumerable, and we shouldn’t overlook them. The show gave us The Clash, The Damned, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Buzzcocks and Sex Pistols; without their contributions to music, life would look very, very different. Would guitar music still be as pompous as it was in the mid-1970s? Would Emerson, Lake and Palmer now be hailed as Beatles-like figures, or would Robert Fripp be regarded as that generation’s Jimi Hendrix? Probably not. The thought of that is truly horrifying. However, it’s easy to see how this was the fire that burned those bridges once and for all.
The ‘100 Club Punk Special’, in the timeline of music, is akin to Woodstock ’69 that came before it in the way that it crystallised an entire movement and cemented its ethos for subsequent generations to learn from. Given that these occurrences seem to happen on a generational timescale, one can’t help but thinking, when are the tectonic plates of music set to shift next? It’s well overdue.
Listen to a recording of Siouxsie and the Banshees’ performance below.