This article was originally featured in tmrw magazine #18.
The beginnings of punk rock are contentious and often furiously debated. This is in part due to the subjective nature of music, with different parties having different definitions for what punk rock is and also because the foundations of the genre can be traced to several places.
Although often thought to be a British invention with bands like The Sex Pistols (we’ll get to them later) the genre actually has its roots across the Atlantic in America. With 60s garage bands like The Sonics utilising a raw sound in their music that had not yet been heard before, it’s these bands that made proto-punk that can be classed as the first floor on the tower of Punk. The second stage of punk sees groups like The Stooges enter the fray. Evolving on the work of their predecessors they added the style and swagger that we’ve become accustomed to. Stretching the tower analogy further with the third block and we come across the architect of pretty much the rest of the building: Malcolm McLaren.
Born in 1946 London, McLaren’s upbringing was unsurprisingly unconventional. He was raised and home-schooled by his grandmother who had a penchant for counter-culture slogans and a general distaste for the royal family, both ideas her grandson carried on with a great degree of success. After attending various art schools the budding entrepreneur left education in 1971. That same year he acquired a retail space in London which he ran with his girlfriend, the then unknown Vivienne Westwood. The store took on a variety of names before finding its most famous moniker, SEX. With each new name came a new style but with SEX the punk power couple had found something they could really sell. As Johnny Rotten later commented the duo would “sell anything to any trend that they could grab onto” and with this new style they’d picked a fruitful one. To help promote their new enterprise it was decided they would form a band who would wear SEX couture and thus the Sex Pistols were born. Drummer Paul Cook and guitarist Steve Jones were customers at the store, whilst original bassist Glen Matlock worked there as a shop assistant. The frontman was harder to find. Requiring swagger, a quick wit and the ability to model the look crafted by Westwood, McLaren ran auditions. In John Lydon later renamed Johnny Rotten they’d found the perfect man. The management continued to tinker and soon Matlock had departed. When Sid Vicious was named his replacement, it’s like the band had found the missing piece of the puzzle. Although he could barely play his instrument he embodied the Punk movement – an anti-establishment stance and a commitment to causing chaos. Although their discography consists of just one studio album, they are revered for the way in which they’ve shaped their musical successors.
An example of their ability to inspire their audience can be found by analysing their most famous gig, at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall. As the mythology of the gig has grown over time, thousands have claimed to be in attendance. In reality only around forty actually were, but it’s made up of a pretty good group. Those in attendance include The Fall’s Mark E Smith, members of The Buzzcocks and The Clash and possibly Johnny Rotten’s biggest rival for causing controversy: Morrissey. Morrissey formed The Smiths six years after attending the Lesser Free Trade Hall gig so no one’s really sure if it did have an effect on the precocious frontman. One person it did have a lasting effect on was Joy Division’s Peter Hook. The very next day he bought a bass guitar and announced to his dad that he was going to form a punk band. Although sparsely attended, the aftershocks of this gig can be felt through the bands that were not only influenced by the Sex Pistols but the bands that evolved from those in attendance.
With Joy Division and The Smiths being loved by what seems to be every teenager up and down the country since their respective inceptions it could be argued that the legacy of punk lives on through those that it influences. Punk is dead is an oft decreed phrase but with new artists gaining inspiration from the genres forefathers it could be argued that Punk never properly died, it was just reincarnated.