Alright, it’s 1976, and punk is here. With bands Black Flag, The Damned, Buzzcocks, Siouxsie and the Banshees and The Clash being formed and hitting the public eye and ear with full force. The punk rock pendulum swung back from its proto-punk home in the USA and returned most powerfully to the streets of London and Manchester. The impoverished working class inspired a dull apathy among the youth culture, as the city’s inhabitants recoiled into the concrete blocks of mundanity. Rupturing through the grey film of a suffocating city, these groups wrangled with a pervasive sense of frustration against the passivity of their antecedents, exploding with rage and unbridled boldness.
These groups didn’t really know what they were at the time, with Damned front-man Dave Vanian under the impression that his group was “…just playing garage rock”. Despite not having a label to identify with, the essence of the band’s sound was promoted through the iconic zine, Sniffin’ Glue. The monthly zine compiled names of upcoming gigs and reviews of past ones, capturing the DIY and anarchic punk ethos, with the zine being written in a black felt tip pen, alongside an overt disregard for grammar and spelling. The publication took off, and became the iconoclastic bible for punk angst and unrest. The editor, Mark Perry, ended production in 1977, as the zine neared collision with the god forbidden mainstream.
At the end of 1976, and following the release of the Pistols’ Anarchy in the UK, the iconic Anarchy Tour began, with the Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Damned and Johnny Thunder and the Heartbreakers. The tour created publicity for the subculture, and ample fodder for media outlets to sensationalise the movement with headlines along the likes of “rock cult filth” and “moral disregard” used to encapsulate the culture.
Before the lyricism of punk began to lack wit and meaning as the movement shifted into post-punk screams from blown-out amps, the words of The Damned and The Clash were echoing great significance. The Damned’s 1979 release, ‘I Just Can’t be Happy Today’, dismantled the social structures of worship, with anarchic proclamations that “the church is in ruins, the priests hang on hooks” and “they do what they’re told and never ask why, ignore all those fools, they don’t understand we make our own rules”. Coincidental to their lyrics, the radio was indeed “on ice”, as the profane and indecent slurs in the song were removed to numb the raw power and ruthlessness of the track. Similarly, the clash’s iconic ‘London Calling’ took the BBC’s WWII identification cry “This is London calling…” and used it as a tirade for the “nuclear era” which had beset the world. The poetry of these tracks offered a stark contrast to the typical associations of punk, such as The Sex Pistols’ “And I wanna be anarchy, know what I mean, and I wanna be, Anarchist, get pissed, destroy”. There was political punk and then their was chaos punk. Among the former could be counted bands like Crass, Dead Kennedys, Black Flag and the Subhumans. In the later camp bands like The Cramps, The Misfits, PIL and Husker Du.
In Australia, Radio Birdman had released their first EP, Burn My Eye in 1976, followed by LP Radios Appear in 1977. The group struggled to gain any commercial success, though found support from Sire Records, who signed the band alongside other punk group The Saints. The intensity of punk’s rise in social culture was disheartening for The Saints, who disbanded in 1978 following the popularity and increasing cult following of the movement. The Birthday Party took off simultaneous to The Saints’ demise, releasing their debut album Door, Door. Fronted by Nick Cave, Birthday Party were a group of art students from Melbourne, recording their LP Lethal Weapons at Swinburne University. Unlike Birdman and The Saints, Birthday Party relished in the increasingly typecast image of punk, sporting black fishnet tops and hair so frazzled that Robert Smith would be envious. These Australian punk progenitors would give rise to gritty ’80s punk bands like the Cosmic Psychos, The Celibate Rifles and The Mark of Cain.
Punk in its truest form seemed to die as soon as it became part of the social vernacular, prompting the beginning of the post-punk era. Post-punk blended the profanity and sombreness of punk lyricism, though in a way which also combined baselines that were more typical of rock. The product was one which was easier to dance to, rather than throw yourself around mercilessly to as had been the case with straight up punk. Groups which fell into this category included Devo, James Chance and the Contortions, and of course, every moody teenager’s fave, Joy Division. The influence of antecedent groups on Joy Division are recognisable in the nonsensical fits of rage in tracks like ‘Transmission’, whereby the fluctuation of tempo and intensity teeter on the edge of frantic overwhelm. Joy Division’s tragic lyricism shifted the outlook back from social commentary to introspective sorrow, culminating in their intergenerational ballad ‘Love Will Tear us Apart’. Their LP Unknown Pleasures was released in 1979, and featured Peter Cook’s seminal bass playing, which often opened their tracks – as heard in ‘Shadowplay’ – unlike the fury of drum solos which punk tracks generally begun with. Talking Heads also made use of punk’s legacy through enraged cries in their hit ‘Psycho Killer’. Talking Head’s 1977 LP Talking Heads: 77 (the band member’s art school creativity shone through in their ingenious titles) ventured into realms of psychedelic funk and dance beats, alongside Devo, who before shifting into new wave, were too injecting post-punk with tracks to groove to, such as ‘Uncontrollable Urge’.
The death of punk provided a grave upon which new wave, goth, synth-pop and everything that was great about the 80s could be built. The inevitable infiltration of the dreaded posers into the movement has recently inspired the incineration of Sex Pistols memorabilia by former manager Malcolm McLaren, proclaiming “punk is dead”. Remnants of the punk movement might be found from time to time as you pull on your doc martens, accidentally punch someone in the face who tries to dance with you, or venture into the Tote hotel in Collingwood.
If you wanna know more about groups like The Damned, Max Headroom on RRR interviewed front-man Dave Vanian, which you can listen to here: http://www.rrr.org.au/whats-going-on/news/the-damned-special-on-max-headroom/ . Radio Birdman is also touring Australia in late June/ early July alongside Died Pretty if you’re keen to have the first-hand post-punk experience.