In memory of MALCOLM MCLAREN (1946-2010)
Punk had from day one a strong emphasis on the ability to shock. An agent provocateur with a license to ill. Maybe not that strange, pondering the fact that punk was just another product of the 70s, a decade that started out in student protests, the on going war in Vietnam, the live broadcast of Japanese writer Yukio Mishimas suicide speech, the cold war etc. The global temperature was rising, well documented and distributed by the world press. World media had already by 1963 given you the image of what happens when the temperature gets too high,over heathens, ultimately putting the meditating body of a Buddhist monk in Lotus position to fire. This photographic icon of horror, whose extreme effect on the human psyche is studied in Bergmans motion picture Persona (1966), had its second coming on the cover of the RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE debut of 1992. If you wonder where that will to cause a shocking effect in punk rock expression came from, just consider the many contemporary events in the world of the mid 70s and how they all must have affected the creation of it. The nihilistic rock artist, unconventional, rebellious,and very ad hoc to most matters of life, had much in common with the political terrorist. A cultural terrorist, reborn into the cycles of capitalism and mass culture.
If you were offended by the sight of SIOUXSIE SUE wearing a swastika on the debut show of THE BANSHEES at 100 Club, London in 1976, beware the story of another young woman of those days, Ulrike Meinhof. She went straight out to the outer extremes on her debut eve, helping a feared terrorist (Andreas Baader) to escape prison. SIOUXSIE may have left school to pursue the career of a punk artist, but Meinhof left the job of a star journalist, husband and kids, to compose official statements for a left extremist urban guerrilla group(Rote Armé Fraktion). She even took a physical part in the terror acts herself. A license to ill, "Carcass"(BANSHEES) or“Born To Kill”(THE DAMNED),fails to scare much held up against a pamphlet that literally was used as a license to kill. While THE CLASH only formulated a wish for a “white riot of my own” (“White Riot”), RAF actually had it. Nevertheless, punk was at least a child of its time.
Rock n roll had the reputation of a troublemaker since the days of LITTLE RICHARD, but where the rock star of the 50s wiped potential outrages under the blanket of a slick facade, punk brought them up to the very front, wore them on chest. Punk even engaged suspicious symbols, like the swastika, that had zero relevance to what the artist was all about, regarding political views or conviction. Both learning from the success of Goebbels Nazi Propaganda as visual seduction, as well as from the provocative effect Nazi symbols had on the immediate post-war world, the use of the swastika in punk was very predictable, the first offense to expect. The essence of the punk promotion ideology was easy as can be: if you create a media blitz, you soon enough have the hits. Everything that could possible bring along some fuss, irrelevant to the actual message or meaning of it, was suitable as means for the designers of punk. Inspired by US pop art, especially Andy Warhols conceptual Death Series, Situationist International, the classical futurists, Dadaism and contemporary terrorist groups like RAF and Black Panthers, punk developed into an idea of a style that was perfectly fit for the rebel of the 70s, the sort of pop cultural jugend of an urban guerrilla.
Malcolm McLaren, a young art student gone underground fashion designer, went from
to NY to save the image of NEW YORK DOLLS in 1975. He dressed them up in red Mao uniforms and hung up some communist banners in the background of the stage, thinking his job was done. He honestly thought THE DOLLS, at the time torn apart from reasons much more serious than official band image, were looking towards a golden second chapter. Unfortunately, McLaren was terribly wrong. The disaster was so total that he had to flee the big apple, back to his “Sex” clothing shop on Kings road, UK . London
“Sex” was a business he ran along with his wife, the young aspiring fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, nowadays an established institution in the fashion world. When they launched a band of youthful “Sex” hang arounds, the SEX PISTOLS, intentions were first and foremost to promote the shop and sparse beginning of a clothing collection ,which by 1977 was known as Seditionaries. McLarens failed attempts with elements from political propaganda in the visual line of THE DOLLS now came up to surface again, though this time they mainly approached the opposite political polarity; the swastika, the sSM touch of the many underground sexploitation movies of those times. Nevertheless, the portrait of revolutionary leftist political thinker Karl Marx, was used in an early item of the Seditionaries, later worn by THE CLASH on several occasions. Headed by the Waffen SS International eagle insignia, turned upside down.
McLaren, together with the other parts of his team, Westwood and UK artist Jamie Reid, could not care less if the motif was a Soviet-style hammer and sickle motif or a Swastika, the only purpose was to stir up some attention, which they surely did, in a most successful way. The marriage of McLaren and Westwood bore fruits for the history books, a matrimony of pop shock perfection. Later the two had a son who grew up to found a lingerie line named “Agent Provocateur”.
On a infamous tee in the Seditionaries collection, McLaren/Westwood, in addition to the swastika banner print, also made use of the crucifix, although of course turning it upside down. In my eyes, a very neat and beautiful blasphemy, reinforced by the vague silhouette of the bestiality that lurks in the background of a symbol like the swastika. The tee/long sleeve was topped off by the heading “destroy”. This visual composition was later worn by PISTOLS singer JOHNNY ROTTEN(John Lydon) in the official video of God Save The Queen, another efficient element in the filth and the fury surrounding the band during their entire career. To create a business of success, they simply explored the sensible nature of the masses, the compulsory thrill of the horror and the scandalous. Usual suspects? The mention of sexual, religious and moral taboos, drugs, extreme propaganda, murder, violence and a life of crime. McLaren managed to find place for them all in the case of SEX PISTOLS. His business strategy can in fact be found in the lyrics of the classic PISTOLS anthem:
How many ways to get what you want
I use the best, I use the rest
I use the NME(enemy)
I use anarchy
“Anarchy In the UK”,
Punk was born against, which leads my memory back to a t-shirt of the
hardcore act BORN AGAINST, once bought and briefly sported by Vegard Waske, the ex-drummer of LASH OUT. One day he showed up to rehearsal wearing this particular shirt, and it definitely didn t go unnoticed. It depicted a guy with two huge gay bikers in leather on each side, both with their fat reproductive tools enrolled over the male shoulders. I had a good laugh, but I sincerely doubt this joy was shared by neither the guitar player of LASH OUT, nor the mother of the WASKE household. The t-shirt did not even survive the virgin trip to the laundry room, and since then it seems completely gone from the surface of earth. Even on eBay. In my childhood home, conditions were even worse. A Vision Street Wear shorts, with skulls on it, was confiscated by my parents when I was US 14, in a house with an unlocked room full of guns from a to z and ammunition enough to launch a goddamn mini war, as well as animal cadavers in guts, bowels and blood, lying around outside the porch during the whole hunting season.
Punk had that talent of getting parents red faced and, until the emerge of Norwegian Black Metal, punk was the undisputed genre in the angry reaction department, “shock rock” par excellence. Christians, teachers, judges and other representative members of the so called establishment were easy targets for these youngsters who listened to primitive rock music , entitled “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue”, and spiked their hair in red, yellow and green. They ripped up their jeans, like RICHARD HELL and RAMONES, who took the trend from hookers on main street, NY). They also wore inverted crucifixes and swastikas, featured in DIY stencil prints on shirts. The big fuss was of course carefully stipulated into the strategy. Punk bred much in a similar milieu of hyper active nihilism and total confusion like the later pioneers of Norwegian Black Metal came to operate in, becoming masters of chaos, as with the McLaren penned PISTOLS slogan,“Cash from Chaos”. Irrelevant to what you may think of the means, they both were blueprints for success, thanks to the touchy moral receptors of a post-Christian civilization. Hypocrite, of course, jerking off to what their laws and morals forbid. Nowadays, people almost take this contradiction as the normative rule, sing in a Catholic Church choir one day, rape some teenage boys the next.
Punk took most kinds of provocative turns, without any regards to direction. Nihilism(SEX PISTOLS,THE DAMNED), socialism/communism(THE CLASH), Nazism(SKREWDRIVER), fascism(THE GERMS) and anarchism(CRASS). With the latter, UK ex-hippie camp CRASS, came also a more serious accentuation of the political commitment of the message, defining new rules for a culture that so far had been a wild experiment completely out of no ones control. While the lyrics of “Anarchy In the UK” praised the squalid utopia close to what French original anarchist thinker Pierre-Joseph Proudhon thought of as the direct opposite political and social state to his true anarchy, CRASS revitalized his thoughts on freedom set in system, summoned up in Proudhons most famous slogan: “Anarchy or Chaos”. This political awareness orientated towards the extreme left would dominate the next generations of punk. Then came along a breeze of fresh unsophisticated air, a revival of the true spirit of punk, GBH, ANTI-NOWHERE LEAUGE, CIRCLE JERKS and, at its most poser workshop for working class misfits, THE EXPLOITED. Stepping up the discussion again, in a celebration of “Anarchy and chaos”.
DEAD KENNEDYS was some sort of hybrid of these two different approaches of punk. Their lyrics could break out in punch lines designed to shake the foundations of the moral majority of USA, spelled out in letters shaped to intimidate and provoke a wide spectrum of citizens. These could be satirical opinions on official political events, rooted in a serious leftist political commitment, but they were formulated in a dramatic and playful way, with a resonance for the comedian. I thinks JELLO BIAFRAs biting rhetoric is vaguely related to the one of Bill Hicks or, more precisely, a crossover of him and the sober John Belushi. Other stunts of JELLO BIAFRA and DEAD KENNEDYS could be of a far more mundane and speculative character, typically Too Drunk To Fuck”, or the inlay poster of the Frankenchrist album, a reproduction of H.R Gigers Penis landscape. The latter feature dragged the KENNEDYS to the court house for over a year, but at the same they also got closer to the position of a legend, with commercial appeal. Who do you think had the last laugh?
“…Ever had the feeling of being cheated…”, ROTTEN asks the audience towards the last minutes of the career closing SEX PISTOLS show, San Francisco, 1978.