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Forty years of punk: More than music

KEITH FLETT writes on the history of the music genre and the political movement which developed alongside it

THE first British punk rock single, New Rose by The Damned, was released 40 years ago this month on October 22 1976.

I bought it on release and it was played a lot in a student occupation (against overseas students’ fees) that I was then involved in organising in Middlesbrough.

Perhaps the ultimate band of that era (along with the Sex Pistols), The Clash wrote (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais, a song about turning rebellion into money and that surely will be the dominant way that the 40th anniversary of punk is remembered.

The British Library has already held an exhibition about the beginnings of punk music.

To be fair, it was free, but there was of course also a shop where you could consume punk artefacts.

With The Damned it was more the music than any wider point, but the music in itself sent a message to those times.

There was a Labour government in office and Tony Benn was a minister.

Yet this was the time of the rise in support for the National Front and the IMF austerity package pushed through by Labour chancellor Denis Healey, which led to cuts in public services and jobs.

It was the beginning of the period that meant not just Margaret Thatcher but arguably the present crisis too.

Popular music of the early and mid-1970s had become ever more grandiose and overblown. It was a complacent music of an apparently successful capitalism.

Punk blew all that away.

The Damned’s New Rose was fast, furious and brief.

The B-side was their version of The Beatles’ Help played at twice the speed the Fab Four had managed in the early 1960s.

Jon Savage’s excellent book England’s Dreaming on the history of punk — and in particular the Sex Pistols — sums up well the wider attitude of the music.

It was anti-Establishment and it was anti-consumerist. Punk was for many a political reaction to late 20th-century capitalism and the excesses it indulged in.

The specific politics of punk were more complex.

Sticking two fingers up at authority could go in many directions and one — certainly a minority — was towards nazi images and memorabilia.

Nothing was guaranteed to outrage an earlier generation who had been in World War II than this. But the outrage was justified in this case.

Savage notes that such was the impact of punk in the ’76-77 period that gigs were often banned and punks harassed by the police. The media were disdainful and often hostile.

Yet a more positive politics won the day.

In the summer of ’76, the guitarist Eric Clapton had made racist comments at a Birmingham concert. Many fans were dismayed.

After all Clapton was a leading white exponent of the blues — a music of black oppression.

A letter was written to the New Musical Express and other music papers and out of it came the formation of Rock Against Racism.

The flavour of the times can be understood by the reality that the first Rock Against Racism gig in a pub in Forest Gate, east London, was protected by shop stewards from the London’s Royal Group of Docks in case fascists intervened to try to stop it. But it was Rock Against Racism that got the upper hand.

By 1978 it was able to organise a huge carnival against the nazis in Victoria Park with the leading punk band The Clash heading the bill.

The Damned’s New Rose was the first sign of something that led to a movement that would challenge and change British society.

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