One of the longest standing debates in music has been who should be accredited with first creating Punk, kick starting a revolution of kids and young adults wearing ripped shirts, spray painted jackets and studded jeans with the aim being to represent a subset of people who were dissatisfied and voiceless. More often than not, the same three names seem to continually crop up. The Ramones, the Sex Pistols and The Buzzcocks are all synonymous with the rise of Punk during the 1970’s, creating a subculture that turned on the fundamental establishment of the music industry as it was then.
Starting out less positively, it has to be said that a considerable amount of the Punk 1976 – 78 exhibition concerns itself with these three bands, despite being so small in size. Focussing on how the image of Punk was first established and how the attitude towards musicians changed, the limited space the British Library has to work with only offers a glimpse at these perspectives.
However, with that said the displays that were chosen to illustrate the origins, image and establishment of Punk are memorable and stimulating. Turning the idea of tight closed contracts and buying into big labels to make it in the music industry, the British Library reveals the role Punk played in allowing DIY labels to grow, reversing the idea that to make it you had to ‘sell-out’. The exhibit looks at how this restructuring of the industry came out of a combination of the new technology that became available, allowing people to record their own music for the first time, and the attitude people began adopting that shunned the idea of melody without meaning. It looks closely at both fans and audience and how they were becoming more and more attracted to the idea of lead singers not changing their opinions or image based on what their audiences wanted. GG Allen is clear proof of that!
Beyond trying to establish the grassroots of the 70’s Punk movement, the British Library’s precarious exhibition attempts to outline the first bands that imagined the stripped down, sped up version of rock that eventually evolved into Punk as we knew it in the 70’s. Outlining how both the sound and image of Punk were created in parallel, the exhibit looks at how the subculture evolved into the staple of Punk we all remember and still see sometimes in and around Kentish Town. When we think of Punk we often imagine anarchy, safety pins, patches and someone spitting at you, but the origin of where all these images came from remain split across varieties of bands that were looking to represent themselves in a unique way. The British Library meticulously traces the lines of how these ideas were adopted and appropriated to represent Punk beautifully, researching in depth the history of how these ideas started.
This is where the exhibit displays its brilliance. The level of research involved in documenting the history of Punk is exceptional. Tracing back to the beginning, the opening of the exhibit looks at how the French situationalist movement influenced the designers responsible for the image of the Sex Pistols and how the strategy of the détourment was used to promote their ideology.
Second to the formation of Punk debate has been the “Punk is dead” debate. Exhibitions like this seem to both defy and verify that Punk is dead. Existing in a perpetual state of in limbo, being used as much to rebel against the established order as it is also used to monopolise on a subculture that has now entered into the mainstream. This becomes even more apparent when you enter into the Punk gift shop where you’ll find a variety of overpriced memorabilia. If you have any knowledge of Punk you would know that a lot of Crass albums contained phrases like “pay no more than £3 for this album.” But the worst thing about the exhibit is undoubtedly its size. Overall, the exhibition is a thoroughly interesting and exciting way to spend half an hour but more likely than not you will end this tour wanting more; feeling satisfied, but hungry to learn and discover. This does work to the effect of motivating those that attend to seek out the other strands included in the London Punk series that are spread across London.
For more information on the Punk London series visit:
For more information on location, opening times and other exhibits at the British Library visit: http://www.bl.uk/events/punk-1976-78
Words and images by Joshua Gill.