It is sad to realize that many in Middle America missed the punk phenomenon entirely because they didn’t live in an urban environment or a college town – punkers often started off in college or art school. The same could be said for the early part of the whole Post-Modern moment. Some call it the Eighties. The authentic anarchy thing in the UK was not missed by anyone however. In Blighty, the power chords of the Sex Pistols shook the nation, their name splashed across every tabloid like a break out of plague. They are still heard on pop radio as a form of nostalgia. From this heyday emerged thousands of musicians, fans and artists with their own badge collections, posters, flyers and ticket stubs. These fans of punk music raised little punk families. School children all over the world have festooned their cute shoulder bags with myriad buttons ever since 1977.
Pretty Vacant is a must see for artists especially young creative’s who need a crash course in Do-It-Yourself design. An anthropological gold mine, the exhibition illustrates a defining moment in civilization; the fleeting moments that can be so impactive then disappear into the ether of time like gunslinger myths, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday. Give ‘Em Enough Rope, the Clash album with cover of garish dead cowboy and hungry vulture says it well. Joe Strummer and band cottoned on to the power of image from the start, subtext: outlaws. At Moore, a massive fly poster for the Clash sent me into a nostalgic reverie emoting New York in 1980. This was for the release of the ambitious Sandinista triple album with its infusion of reggae and dub. I was wandering around awestruck, wondering what to do with my life. Music or art? The posters were everywhere, announcing a brand new invasion. If only I’d chiseled one off the side of a building. Too bad. Before I knew it, I was getting an MFA and reading Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle for myself. I discovered there was a bookworm precedent for all the madness. First stop was Dick Hebdige’s wonderful book, Subculture. To borrow Hebdige’s own twist on ‘out of context’ Althusar’s teeth gritting whole, we are held in a nearly happy stasis just shy of class conflict. Thus the tension is created to “stick it to the Man,” and dress accordingly. Millions of suburban twerps like me actually formed a subculture? Yes; a massive one that now buys cars and holiday homes.
At Moore, there was a poster for Joy Divisions’ second album. I’d never seen the advert and it made me shiver. The music haunts me to this day. It is, in fact, a touchstone in my fledgling novel (plug) about an artist’s disastrous life in the same era. One simply cannot describe the powerful symbiosis between creative life and this music. Many designers like Jamie Reid borrowed liberally from their dusty art history books, first crazy Dada poets, then more constructivist artists like Malevich. Imagine that? Anti-Branding! Malevich matched the Buzzcocks perfectly. If only Kurt Schwitters had lived! The German uber-collagist could have been made rich designing ransom notes for bands big and small. His Merz continues to encapsulate the scrapbook prevalent in Michael’s art stores and has a distinct parallel to contemporary greeting cards. This is unlike the slick rock and roll merch and downloads of today. Not another CD and a tee shirt with skulls and dystopian imagery! We still see punk creeping through the hardcore rap (as the musical backdrop) and myriad spin-offs of Electronica that creates euphoria without drugs.
As for theoretical underpinnings, French writer, Guy Debord was absorbed. Perhaps, unknowingly, Joey Ramone singing I’m Against It demonstrates the Situationist theory. The impresario behind the Pistols, Malcolm McLaren (after sucking up the Ramones and the downtown NY scene) played an updated Warhol and pulled fashion strings. He commodifed Debord’s methods, literally. Uncanny?! That is what the Sex Pistols have in common with the under-acclaimed Monkees.
Last week, after a particularly frustrating day, I was only relieved by listening to the Ramones’ Road to Ruin, 1978. This prized record is a bright yellow vinyl. Sounded fresh as ever particularly I Wanna Be Sedated. They don’t write them like that anymore. Unfortunately, we don’t listen to music in the same way. Music and art are less important.Of course, as an anachronism, I am dedicated follower of records. I still perform a fairly decent English accent and imitate Mark E. Smith iconic stuttering, singing in his band the Fall. Late and beloved Radio One DJ, John Peel called them, “the Mighty Fall.” The band played his fiftieth birthday.
Pretty Vacant can give the viewer pause to mull the connections between the USA and Britain. Two strands of anarchy, as it were. The California brand (hardcore and skin-headed) made the Sex Pistols look like country gentlemen. See scary film The Decline of Western Civilization for documented illustration. Nihilist heaven! The Dead Kennedy’s lead the charge on the West Coast with California Uber Alles. Not everyone had an ear for the stripped down sounds of Black Flag and the Germs. Possibly, X’s superb punkabilly was acceptable! This went on while most Americans were still vegging out to the Grateful Dead. It took Nirvana (much later) to wake us all up in great numbers. Kurt Cobain was not prepared for the commodification. It should be noted that we were invaded again by Young British Artists a bit later still reading Debord’s, Spectacle. Their leader Damian Hirst knew what he was doing. He had serious mentors at Goldsmith’s College and produced upsetting concepts (art sharks) with a mind to overturn the stuffy established order. They did. In simple terms, this was the theorist version of punk. By the 90’s, it led to a sophisticated (commodified) Cool Britannia, the invaluable Tate Modern and Oasis, the band who adored being adored.
Kudos to the Galleries at Moore and collector Andrew Krivine whose keen eye made this vivid history lesson in design and anarchy possible. And bless their hearts for the unique Karaoke, an opportunity to sing to a live punk band at Vox Gallery. We kicked out the jams that night. I was only disappointed that there weren’t more young folks living or re-living the dream with studded leather coats. Perhaps resistance isn’t fashionable anymore.