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Sunday, 23 October 2011

Punx is not dead

I saw a "Punx is not dead" graffito in Corso Garibaldi (a shopping zone for affluent Milanese) in Milan yesterday. It’s nice because of the faulty English (like a sign on a toilet door in a Turkish cafĂ© I heard about which read “Today is broken”).

As a ubiquitous tag on street walls apparently all over the world (well all the bits I’ve visited), the slogan’s the most visible trace of a 35-year-old subculture. Presumably third-generation teenage punks are spray-painting the phrase as a deliberate homage to the Exploited/GBH-era, studded-jacket punkers who first fought their (unsuccessful) battle to stop punk from dying. Or is it just some half-understood message about “keeping the faith” over punk? Punk as fundamentalism.

Seen as an Iain Sinclair-like piece of psychogeography, the “Punx” slogan is fascinating. What other music-based movement of the last 50 years continues to generate this level of visible devotion from a small band of acolytes?

In reality punk was surely dead as soon as it started to appear in the Sunday newspapers (Wire’s A Field Day For The Sundays). It probably began to die after the Grundy affair and gave up the ghost with the Silver Jubilee in mid-1977. But the fierce/foolhardy loyalty of the mohican’d Discharge crowd, punk’s first fundamentalists, has succeeded in establishing a sort of cult of survivalism around punk.

Simon Reynolds recently noted the conservative strand within House music – House traditionalists have long been keen to tell you (partly to PR their club nights) which year was the supposed high watermark for Deep House or whatever. Same goes for punk, which of course brought this upon itself with its stripped-down, back-to-basics rock template (at least according to the crudest interpretation).

Oddly enough, now that so much time has passed, I’ve come to almost enjoy seeing the “Punk’s not dead” daubs. They’re a kind of pleasingly ever-present reminder of a music – and much else – which has, one way and another, engendered massive creativity and produced a fantastic body of work.

Meanwhile, with a growing number of the original figures in the first wave of punk now actually deceased (Joe Strummer, Malcolm McClaren, Tony Wilson, Poly Styrene, John McGeogh, three Ramones and Ari Up, to name but a few), there’s also a new irony to claiming that punk’s not dead. The impulse behind it – in the best sense – may not be, but many of its prime-movers most definitely are.

I suspect that for some diehards – young and old – “Punk’s not dead” will continue to be a clarion call to man the barricades. To keep launching ever more decrepit zombie versions of “real” punk into the world. (I’ve seen some of these bands recently. It’s not nice meeting a zombie face to face).

But I also like to think that the punk’s not dead declaration might also come from digital hardcore musicians or purveyors of modern electro-dub sounds. No, the graffiti kids are right after all. Punx is not dead. Long live punk.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

This t-shirt is Crass, not Clash

Reading a recent Guardian feature about the My Band T-Shirt site got me to thinkin'... is it so bad that middle-aged people try to recapture their youth by wearing a Ramones or a Clash t-shirt? No, course not. Wear anything you like, I say.

I personally gave up on band t-shirts about 15 years ago. The last I wore was a Beastie Boys one - a rather fetching baby-blue colour, basketball logo on the front.

You could get into a whole discussion about visible identifiers of musical preferences - from lapel badges (still got my "two fingers up to you" SLF one), the steam-pressed lettering that people put on their Harringtons in the late 70s (remember that?), band names on school rough books, etc. Even walking back to the bus stop from the record library has been known to involve complicated judgements about which record to leave visible on the outside as you carry them ("hmm, shall I put the Gene Loves Jezebel one there, or The Marine Girls?")

Back to t-shirts. When it comes down to it, I'm a non-wearer. Of any t-shirts. To me they look like a child's item of clothing. Hey, if you want to look like a three-year-old why not wear some baggy shorts and dinky, colourful trainers? (ah, too late, thousands of 45-year-old men are already at it ....). So I tend to think that emblazoning a band name on the front of this ensemble hardly redeems it.

Also, how imaginative/creative is it, anyway, to don a top with someone else's band written on the front? Kind of clone-like. (It must be awkward, by the way, to bump into someone at a bar or gig who's wearing a t-shirt that exactly mirrors yours. "What kind of music are you into ...?").

No, band t-shirts are a little too like replica football shirts. Essentially, overpriced tat drained of imagination.

It also goes without saying that t-shirts are a convenient way to fleece the punters while getting them to act as a walking advertisement for the band-as-brand. Hey, it's a win-win. That's why I always liked the (mildly) subversive gesture of John Lydon's, with his "I hate" addition to a Pink Floyd t-shirt (better still was the "I hate" Rich Kids one he did). Similarly, I think putting rips and whatnot into t-shirts, a la punk, at least showed some spirit.

Meanwhile I think the outrage of veteran punks over rich celebrities wearing Crass t-shirts is petty and misplaced. If Angelina Jolie wants to be papped in a Crass top, so what? If David Beckham thinks it's cool to strut his stuff in a diamante-studded Crass t-shirt, then let him. Penny Rimbaud doesn't like it, but at least he's sensible enough to denounce Beckham in a half-serious, half-humorous way. There's nothing sacrosanct about Crass products ("we are all products" etc) and, while I like their music and much of their political stance, Crass fans - and former band members - ought to adhere to the Anarchism-influenced principle that people should be free to wear whatever they want. 

In fact, as it happens, I can't help thinking that Beckham's luxury Crass shirt is a bizarre but brilliantly decadent move. If you're going to go around in a band t-shirt, at least do it with a little flair.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Party people: don't do it!

There’s a long and rather tedious history of political parties using pop tunes that get them into trouble with their creators.

Why oh why do they do it? Not why do they use music without apparently checking first, but … more importantly, why Primal Scream’s dire Rocks? Or why The Cure’s yucky Lovecats?

A failure of taste? Of imagination? Probably both. Using Bobby and the boys’ Rolling Stones number for Theresa May’s walk-off tune is not just bizarre (drugs, prostitution, er, freak shows … “Strip joints full of hunchbacks”) but musically witless. What was the point of this tune in the first place? Ersatz Stones for a mid-90s indie crowd. A blowsy howler of a song. In a moment of madness I actually bought a copy of the Give Out But Don’t Give Up CD. One of my least-inspired musical acquisitions.

Meanwhile, Lovecats. What can you say? The blockheaded “humour” of the Conservatives using a cat tune after the “catflap” row yesterday is one thing. But this one?  Bloody hell. Robert Smith at his most indigestibly saccharine, an over-insistent double bass and an irritating plinky-plonky piano. Supposedly a fun pop tune for the Goth kids, it was for me the moment when The Cure drifted off toward less interesting waters and never came back. I found The Head On The Door album pleasant but not exactly essential listening. After that … there was no after that really. 

So, OK, I’m not exactly thinking the Tories could have used The Cure’s Cold or Primal Scream’s Kill All Hippies, but … er, well they probably could have done actually. It would at least have shown a little imagination.

But in the end why bother anyway? Who are the politicos trying to fool? Throwing out a bit of mid-80s pop or mid-90s retread-rock doesn’t make them look au courant, or even knowingly retro. They’re not down with the kids (young ones or middle-aged ones) and I suspect they’re “connecting” with virtually no-one. To me it all looks and sounds tired. Slightly desperate. Stick to Elgar or The Beatles I say.