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Punk Rock: So What? The Cultural Legacy of Punk
Roger Sabin, ed.
London & New York: Routledge, 1999.
£15.99, 262 pages, ISBN 0-415-17030-3.

Georges-Claude Guilbert
Université de Rouen

Punk Rock: So What? The Cultural Legacy of Punk, edited by Roger Sabin, came out in 1999, but it is still in print in 2002, and remains the best book of its kind on the market. Chapter I, written by Robert Garnett, is entitled “Too low to be low: Art Pop and the Sex Pistols”. Garnett argues notably that since “Anarchy in the UK” by the Sex Pistols, “nothing with the same gravity, nothing so abject has been made” [18]. This is indisputable. I for one would have liked him to make a little bit more of the notion of abjection, though. I’m not sure I entirely agree with his idea that punk and / or the Sex Pistols were “too low to be low”, but it is certainly a striking concept. Garnett is very concerned with the visual aspects of punk, most particularly with Jamie Reid, who did produce record sleeves that will forever count among the top twenty classic covers. As early as line 3, Garnett mentions Greil Marcus, quite appropriately. No Cultural Studies scholar undertaking the examination of punk can afford to bypass books like Lipstick Traces (1989). He calls it a “flawed classic”, however, and fails to establish precisely in what way it is flawed. Is it because of the way Marcus used Adorno and Debord, encompassing their own “flaws”? He also uses Dick Hebdige and Simon Frith, again quite appropriately (although I disagree on many capital points with Hebdige, as I have argued elsewhere). One of Garnett’s key ideas is that “more than a simple inversion of hippie optimism, the Pistols literally trashed the claims of any previous rock radicalisms” [22]. He goes on to mention “one of the most important aspects of the Sex Pistols: their trashing of the pretensions of engaged ‘political’ rock, punk or otherwise” [24]. And he concludes: “Reid and the Pistols were able to realize something that no other punk band could quite do: for a brief moment their assault on rock amounted to a demystification of it.” [27] Even if you don’t share Garnett’s views on the postmodern or his definitions of pop and rock, his piece is globally convincing.

Chapter II of Punk Rock: So What? The Cultural Legacy of Punk, written by Miriam Rivett, is entitled “Misfit Lit: Punk writing and representations of punk through writing and publishing”. It also mentions Jamie Reid and Dick Hebdige. It is quite short, and consequently a bit frustrating. Rivett announces herself that her piece “deals with a rather selective assemblage of writings which might be termed punk”. She does nevertheless make a persuasive case, alluding in particular to the work of Stewart Home, Richard Allen (I remember reading his thrilling Punk Rock back in 1977), Richard Hell (member of Television and of the Voidoids / Voivoids), Martin Millar, and Mark Perry. She rightly gives special attention to Gideon Sams’s The Punk (1977), often reprinted and plugged as “the first punk novel”. I myself would have been tempted to offer William Burroughs as inventor of punk writing decades before punk rock was born, and Kathy Acker as the punk writer of all times. I would also have developed the notion of post-punk writing, which Rivett tackles (she mentions Gary Indiana, Dennis Cooper, Irvine Welsh of course), adding people like Poppy Z. Brite. She doesn’t broach cyberpunk, which I believe can be classified as part of post-punk, but that is because she did not want to tread on George McKay’s territory.

Chapter III of Punk Rock: So What? The Cultural Legacy of Punk, written by George McKay, is entitled “I’m so bored with the USA: the punk in cyberpunk”. It interestingly questions the use of “punk” in “cyberpunk”, examining cyberpunk writers, cyberpunk critics and critics of cyberpunk. Naturally, William Gibson is called upon. His name immediately comes to mind whenever the word “cyberpunk” is heard or read. I have repeatedly argued elsewhere that punk is not in the least postmodern, but on the contrary the last gasp of the modern (in rock); I am rather glad to say McKay agrees with me (unlike other contributors of Punk Rock: So What? The Cultural Legacy of Punk). Our explanations differ, however. McKay sees punk as “a last / late utopian gesture […], combining an avant-garde aesthetic with a (however ironized or mediated) degree of political engagement”. I am not so sure about the “utopian” bit, and I have always suspected that the desperate nihilism of self-destructive junkie punk rockers was more genuinely punk than the political activism of class-conscious bands. It was certainly avant-garde, though, in the most derogatory passé sense of the word. Like several other commentators, McKay muses about the recuperation of punk, and its retrospective Americanization. The debate will last forever: was punk born in the US or the UK? Is British punk more truly punk than American punk? Many agree to say that punk’s fathers (or godfathers) can be found on both sides of the Atlantic: David Bowie, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, even the New York Dolls… But then critical flick knives are quickly drawn when it comes to telling the gold from the gold-plated, or the innovators from the opportunistic followers (the authenticity discourse). A side debate consists in wondering whether punk is strictly urban, or suburban, or even rural, which is complicated by the fact that “urban” and “suburban” do not necessarily mean the same thing, socio-economically speaking, in the US and the UK. McKay mentions—surprise surprise—Dick Hebdige, and also alludes to the gender problematic (are punk and cyberpunk masculinist?). My own conclusion to this (and to the whole book really) would tend to be that punk was modern, more British than American, and died in 1977. Cyberpunk is post-punk, and postmodern, as is much of the New Wave, and Goth (a lot of the latter is not postmodern, merely uninspired). I might even be tempted to add that a real punk is a dead punk—preferably one who succumbed to an overdose or was stabbed and bled dry. Maybe I am being a little bit extreme; surely my having lived in London in 1976-1977 has something to do with it.

The next two chapters deal with cinema. David Kerekes’s Chapter IV, entitled “Tinseltown rebellion: Punk, transgression and a conversation with Richard Baylor”, and David Huxley’s Chapter V, entitled “Ever get the feeling you’re being cheated?: Anarchy and control in The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle” help the reader try to come to grips with the notion of punk cinema. What is a punk film? “Punk rock movies are shambolic. Or at least they ought to be”, writes Kerekes [69]. He mentions well-known works that often pass for punk, such as Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy (1986), and quickly moves on to Richard Baylor, having stated that in his opinion “it is with the ‘New York Underground’ that the only true punk celluloid has emerged. Baylor’s films—Cirsium Delectus (1993) is the one to watch—are listed, with a few lines of synopsis; an edifying conversation with the director follows. We learn that Baylor “was raised in a small, typically quaint […] little farming community which had more churches than bars” [78]. No wonder he fled and turned to punk. He actually joined the forces so as to get sent to Ipswich! His “main motivation in moving to Britain was the punk movement” [75]. Huxley for his part cleverly uses The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle (Julien Temple, 1980) “to elucidate several key issues surrounding the nature of punk”. He liberally quotes from Dick Hebdige (surprise surprise) and shows how difficult it is to define punk and the notion of authenticity. He rightly states that films which actually “capture something of the spirit of a subculture” are quite rare, he wonders about “selling out”, and questions the often mentioned links between the situationists and punk (which may have more to do with Jamie Reid’s situationist(ish) collages than with anything else); then he undertakes an excellent close analysis of The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle and takes on the infamous Malcolm McLaren.

Guy Lawley’s chapter VI is entitled “I like hate and I hate everything else: The influence of punk on comics”. Figure 6.1 reproduces the tremendous cover of Punk magazine #4, featuring Iggy Pop. The magazine appeared in 1975, and Lawley goes as far as to write that it “gave the scene its name”. He examines comics on both sides of the Atlantic; the whole piece sounds rather convincing, but I am no authority, being more versed in French and Belgian bandes dessinées , as well as American superhero comics. As far as underground comics are concerned, I remained stuck at some point around 1974 with Robert Crumb.

Chapter VII, “Concrete, so as to self-destruct: The etiquette of punk, its habits, rules, values and dilemmas” (splendidly oxymoronic title), by Mark Sinker, amusingly concludes Part I, which is entitled “Shock waves and ripple effects”. It also questions the very nature of punk. Sinker never recovered from punk, like many of this book’s contributors (I know the feeling). He notably tells about his own attitudes and clothing in the 70s, and writes about fashion, class, gender… There is a tremendous anecdote about an art class in 1979 which I’ll refrain from quoting or paraphrasing, as I do not wish to spoil the readers’ fun.

Part II, “Experience, memory and historiography”, is just what its title announces. And the titles of the seven (mostly inspired) chapters that compose it speak for themselves: “Distress to impress?: Local punk fashion and commodity exchange”, by Frank Cartledge (mentions Hebdige); “Chewing out a rhythm on my bubble-gum: The teenage aesthetic and genealogies of American punk”, by Bill Osgerby; “Leave the capitol”, by Paul Cobley (punk is not a strictly London-based phenomenon—mentions Hebdige); “The woman punk made me”, by Lucy O’Brien; “I won’t let that dago go by: Rethinking punk and racism”, by Roger Sabin (mentions Hebdige); “What did I get?: Punk, memory and autobiography”, by Andy Medhurst (mentions Hebdige); and “Is that all there is?”, by Suzanne Moore. That last piece, which, would you believe it, mentions Hebdige, constitutes an arresting conclusion to the book and contains very quotable lines:

If punk was the ultimate fuck-off then what kind of truth are we trying to tell these days? That I truly understand the meaning of fuck off? That I fucked-off first? That once upon a time ‘fuck-off’ meant something that it just doesn’t mean these days? Wandering about an exhibition of punk graphics in the Royal Festival Hall I bump into some people my own age. A trip down memory lane. Weird flashbacks, man. It was kind of touching in its way to think we could shock and be so easily shocked. There was really only one shocking spectacle at the exhibition and we turned and stared at it: the 20-year-old in full bondage gear with a blue mohican. These replicants repel us. They are not the real thing, which is why we are so desperate to claim that we were. [233]

Note that the very locale of the exhibition speaks volumes. Moore also writes: “As a lifestyle choice, though, punk is dead except in some theme-park way.” [235] And “Sometimes I catch myself thinking ‘Did it all happen for nothing?’ and I hate myself for it.” [235]

The presentation of the contributors is hilarious (it is so refreshing to find university lecturers and writers who don’t take themselves too seriously now and again), their selection by Roger Sabin impeccable, as is his introduction. Many pieces allude to Jon Savage’s England’s Dreaming: Sex Pistols and Punk Rock (1991), which is a landmark, although often contestable. Most of them give a personal answer to the question, “what is the legacy of punk?”, even if they do not answer the question “what is punk?”. But who can? I shall let Susanne Moore conclude:

But I never understood the herd instinct of punk, to wander round in gangs all dressed the same. Maybe it’s a guy thing. Still, I would rather read anarchist pamphlets than deal with the reality of the conformism of punk as it was lived, that’s for sure. I would rather inject it with theoretical sulphate to speed it up than remember the night after dull night of trudging around looking for a gig, a party to trash, a student to insult. I would rather fill my head up with the romance of revolutionary significance than admit that we have emptied the last dregs of meaning out of the whole damn thing. For to do so would be to acknowledge that yes, punk is dead, and we were born far too late in the day to so anything more than kiss its arse goodbye. [236]



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