My Punk Epiphany
Music in the 1970s was tribal. I mean, really tribal. If you are older than 50 you know what I’m talking about. For those who are younger, let me explain. If you were a punk at our school, then you liked punk music and nothing else. If you were a teddy boy, it’s unlikely you would bother trying Motorhead or Rush. And if you liked disco, well, to be honest no-one would admit to that because everyone else would think they were a dickhead.
That’s just how it was. And it wasn’t just your taste in music you were opting for when you chose your youth culture tribe. It was an entire lifestyle and outlook. It affected everything, from the clothes you wore to your political beliefs, and even your life philosophy. And there was the possibility that you would have to literally fight over your views – woe betide any punk who ventured into a heavy metal band’s gig for example. True, there were some kids who didn’t quite go for this black-or-white world view, but they tended to be the non-smokers, so were largely ignored.
For the rest of us, choosing your tribe was a major life decision, a rite of passage, a coming of age.
Yet, when I was 14 I was a bit lost. I had liked glam rock in the form of Slade and T-Rex like all my friends, and I had ogled Suzi Quatro as much as any other teenage boy. But it was all starting to seem a bit inane, and anyway it was over by the middle of the decade. My older brother had forced me to listen to some rock but nothing had grabbed my attention. Nothing made me sit up straight and go 'Wow'!
Until one fine day in July 1977.
It was sunny, and I was out in the back garden doing some digging for my dad. We had a largish brown wood-effect transistor radio with a good bass sound and plenty of volume. It was lying on the lawn with the speaker pointing up and I was tuned into Radio 1 (obviously, since there really was no other choice at the time).
The DJ, possibly Jimmy Saville, or Dave Lee Travis, or some other seemingly-child-friendly BBC employee of the 1970s had been abusing my under-developed ears with their usual rubbish. Suddenly, he announced that he would now play the new single by the Sex Pistols, a song called Pretty Vacant.
Of course, like everyone I had heard of the Sex Pistols, but until that moment I had heard nothing by them. Their previous two singles, Anarchy In The UK and God Save The Queen had been banned from daytime radio. Anarchy because of the furore over a TV appearance in London when the band had been goaded into swearing, and GSTQ for apparently calling the Queen ‘a moron’ in the week of her silver jubilee.
I had been told they were violent, rude louts who were sick on stage, could not play their instruments and were simply intent on causing mayhem and destruction up and down the land. All of which made it difficult for me to hear the music or understand what punk music was about.
The problem for the BBC and Radio 1 now was that they couldn’t find a reason to ban Pretty Vacant. It contained no (blatant!) swearing and insulted no major public figure. What’s more, it was shooting up the charts so they were forced through gritted teeth to play the damn thing and pretend they were cool by the fact they were embracing the new teenage culture.
In other words, I was intrigued even before the song started. And for those few of you who don’t know this masterpiece in great detail it goes like this:
First of all there is a relatively lightweight guitar twiddle designed, I think, to lull the listener into a false sense of security. Then after about 10 seconds, bass and heavy tom-tom drums pile in, building it up, just enough to let you know there is more to this baby than meets the eye.
Then, at about 25 seconds, it really kicks off. This is where the full-on power-chord guitar, cymbals and snare drum all explode into a glorious chaotic mess. A form of musical anarchy during which, just for a second or two, there seems to be no beginning, no end, no structure, no song, just noise.
Suddenly though, it all pulls together. Because now it’s time to top it all with the vocals. Johnny Rotten, middle England’s favourite hate figure steps up. ‘There’s no point in asking you’ll get no reply’ he sneers. Whaaatt??!! Here is this nobody kid from a council estate in north London giving two fingers to all grown-up authority everywhere. He is not even prepared to listen to their tedious, boring grown-up questions, let alone dignify them with an intelligent response.
Well. Back on planet earth, in our garden, the shovel fell out of my hand as I stood transfixed over our little brown radio. I simply could not believe what I was hearing. For the next couple of minutes I was just jumping up and down around the radio. The music was glorious, but it was the audacity of the whole thing that amazed me the most.
My reactions during that amazing first minute were:
- Mmm interesting start
- Wow this is cranking up a bit
- Bloody HELL!!!
- This is... awesome, this is... magnificent, this is unbelievable. This is life, youth, rebellion, rhythm, power, style, everything.
It was nothing short of a miracle to me, a revelation. I had found meaning in my life. My eyes were opened.
It was my punk epiphany.