One day in Mrs. Watson's class Raymond Broon showed me the Blondie badge on his stookie. I don't know how he broke his arm but it was probably in the course of administering a violent beating on an unlucky acquaintance. "Punk's the best!" he says. "Ye like punk?" At this point in my life I associated punk with thugs like Broonie and his pals, who spray-painted Sex Pistols graffiti behind the supermarket and hung out at the chippy to make my life a misery when I went to pick up the fish suppers on Friday night. Naturally, this was something I distanced myself from. The Blondie badge posed a quandary though. The alluring image of Debbie Harry on Top Of The Pops haunted my pre-pubescent psyche the way Pan's People (the TV dance troupe of leggy lovelies that accompanied chart hits that didn't have a video) never could. If this was punk, maybe it wasn't so bad after all. "Are you a punk or a mod?" was a common interrogative opening gambit in the playground of Newmains Primary School. The wrong answer could result in a kicking but when everyone wore school uniforms it was hard to guess which one was right.
When a neighbor showed up at the lockups at the end of our block and put the soundtrack of "The Great Rocknroll Swindle" on the tape deck it just sounded like a comedy album. We'd fast-forward past the actual Pistols songs to hear "Friggin' in the Riggin'" and snigger at the swearing. We didn't really know who Ronnie Biggs was but we could sense that there was something bad, and therefore exciting, about his association with the record. By the time punk had made its way to our neck of the woods (post-Grundy and the resulting tabloid sensationalism) it was basically a magnet for violent schemies that believed what their parents read in the paper. As a swotty little smurf that spent more time at the local library than pogoing to the Lambrettas' version of "Poison Ivy" at the community center disco, I didn't really get exposed to it. Round mates' houses we'd listen to their records by The Specials and The Jam but I had neither a record player of my own nor the wherewithal to obtain records. I used to sit in my room on a Sunday afternoon and tape the latest songs off the Top 40 show on Radio 1. (Later I'd do the same with the John Peel programme but I hadn't discovered that quite yet). My absolute favorite at the time was Adam & The Ants (me and millions of others… although I'm not sure how many of them tried to duplicate Adam's make-up with tubs of poster paint).
From the ages of about 9 til 13 my tape collection consisted of everything Adam & The Ants put out after Dirk Wears White Sox (if I'd managed to get my hands on that art-punk masterpiece at my tender age it'd have blown my mind), one or two Madness albums, some Tchaikovsky my mum had left lying around, "Switched On Bach" from the library (classical music played entirely on Moog synths, the first electronica album!), a Johnny Cash tape that had been in my tape deck when my dad bought it off some guy in the pub, and several tapes of Top 40 rubbish off the radio. All this while a musical revolution was happening in bigger cities and towns all over the country. Who am I kidding though, I can't blame where I'm from – it's not like if I'd grown up in Manchester instead I'd have got my twelve-year-old arse straight down the Hacienda to catch The Fall and Joy Division after football practice.
Maybe if I'd been reading the NME and Sounds instead of hammering BASIC games into my ZX81 out of the pages of Your Sinclair I'd have had more of a clue what was going on. As it was, the finest years of UK punk passed me by. It wasn't until a bit later, when my interest in BMX widened my circle of acquaintances to include a skater in the next town over with a subscription to Thrasher and a music collection to match, that I got turned on to American hardcore, or Skate Rock as it was quaintly known in those innocent times. Soon those Top 40 tapes were getting dubbed over and the rest, as they say, is history.
There's a tendency to mythologize the good old days – in their eagerness to help the new kids understand what they missed out on, older people can sometimes over-state the importance of bands and scenes of yesteryear, and sometimes this emphasis on nostalgia encourages younger people to spend too much time looking back and not enough time creating something new. I think it's important to honor the pioneers of this stuff that means so much to us, but don't let it become the noose that hangs us. Let's not just sit around talking about how good things used to be. Maybe it's easy for me to say since I wasn't "there". Maybe it's because I wasn't at the birth of any important scene that I've always tried to appreciate the validity and importance and value of what was going on immediately around me. Maybe that's why I'm still interested in what's happening right now while a lot of friends my age are content to retreat deeper and deeper into their record collections. Who knows?
Speaking of the good old days, I just finished watching the Don Letts documentary, 'Punk: Attitude' that I TiVO'd off the Independent Film Channel. It's the same old boring talking head after talking head, although fewer and fewer of the usual suspects are still alive to tell their side of the story, so they've had to dredge up less photogenic and articulate players (like a slurring Glenn Branca). Don't you get sick of seeing these boring old farts trying to make sure we're constantly reminded of their place in rock history? If only Letts had talked to someone like John Loder or Randy Biscuit Turner. They'd surely have done more than try to emphasize their own importance. Now it's too late.
For the most part, it follows the usual timeline – MC5-Stooges-Television-Ramones-Sex Pistols-Clash. Unlike any other punk doc I've seen though, it does at least acknowledge Nuggets-era stuff like Question Mark and the Mysterians, Count Five, Standells, and The Sonics. It's also the first film that doesn't leave a huge gap for the entire 80s – you know, "The Winterland show would be the Sex Pistols' last. And then, in 1992, a little band from Seattle hit the spotlight…" Post-punk bands like The Pop Group and Magazine get a little attention, and there's some discussion of hardcore, including Minor Threat, Black Flag, and Bad Brains, but the bulk of the discussion of hardcore focuses on Agnostic Front. Agnostic Front! There's a brief mention (I think by Jim Jarmusch) that bands were pressing their own records, and people like Henry Rollins and Thurston Moore talk about the underground scene of the 80s, but mostly as some sort of precursor to the huge success of Nirvana, not as any kind of alternative to the major-label homogeny of the time.
I found the film interesting for the snippets of footage I'd never seen before, and to see what some people (like Poly Styrene) look like after all these years. (There's one word for Ari Up – Tanorexic). Unfortunately, at a time when punk rock is more mainstream than ever, younger kids looking to find out about the history of the music they're just discovering are going to get a pretty narrow version of it, mostly from people who haven't put out a good record in 25 years, telling them that it was better in the old days. If I was 16 now that shit would put me off punk for good. Boring boring boring. I wish they'd just shut the fuck up and show the footage, play the music. Really, that's all that matters.