Punk Rock

from by Tom Robinson

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Unpublished article written October 1998

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With the luxury of hindsight today's critical consensus is that Punk Rock was a mere blip in the long unbroken history of popular music. The rise and fall of Rock Against Racism, the collapse of Callaghan and ascendency of Thatcher, the musical shifts from punk to New Wave, Power Pop, TwoTone, Factory and beyond... all these are seen as part of an unalterable sequence of distant events.

All I can say is that it was an utterly disconcerting period to live through - and that there was nothing inevitable about any of it at the time. In the musical and political turmoil of 1977 old certainties gave way almost overnight to a sense that almost anything might happen. Fear of one kind or another stalked both the streets of Lewisham and the corridors of EMI. The National Front was making a concerted bid to become a credible fourth party at the ballot box. Rock Against Racism - founded by white SWP stalwarts - was fast becoming a rival force to be reckoned with. I joined on the spot.

Punk was about boredom, alienation and a hunger for change. The Callaghan government was wending its wretched way towards extinction, while the music business had become bloated and complacent. Paul McCarteney's 1977 "Mull Of Kintyre" was the biggest-selling single of all time, ever - and even before it was released he'd earned £19m in record royalties that year. 2% of all records ever sold anywhere in the world were by Elton John. Record executives sat back and watched this easy cash roll in.When a new band - such as Queen in 1974 - were launched, they were launched at the top, with the financial backing and connivance of a cosy cartel of fatcat managers, agents, publishers, disc jockeys and multinational record companies. The stars were as remote from the fans who bought their "product" (as records are called within the industry) as it was possible to get.

The first green shoots of punk could be found as early as 1976 - unemployed kids from council estates wearing razor blades round their necks and safety pins in their clothes, hair messed up with krazy kolor, who started hanging out along the weird boutiques of the Kings Road and forming their own bands. Whether you could play or sing didn't matter: attitude was all. The Sex Pistols, masterminded by inveterate agitator Macolm McLaren, blazed the trail and a thousand do-it-yourself bands were spawned in their wake - the Clash, Buzzcocks, Banshees, X-Ray Spex, Adverts, Vibrators, Damned, Stranglers, Eater, Slaughter And The Dogs... These were bands you could see - bands you could be !

You were either for or against the new music and movement, with an almost tangible sense of Us and Them. Those in favour included not only punks but older musicians like Steel Pulse, Elvis Costello, Ian Dury, Graham Parker and - yes - my own band TRB. We saw Clash gigs banned by councils across the country, punks assaulted on sight by Skins, Teds and the general public. Within days of the Pistols swearing on TV, drummer Paul Cook was knifed by strangers in a Shepherds Bush car park.

Now that we know the outcome, it's easy to forget or dismiss the very real flux of those tumultuous months. The Sex Pistols' "God Save The Queen" had hit number two in Jubilee week with no airplay. There were riots, brutality and a government falling apart at the seams, while the disaffected, dispossessed and extremists of every hue were seizing their chance for a piece of the action.

It was an exciting, frightening and enlightening time to be alive.

credits

from Smelling Dogs, released January 1, 2001

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tags: pop music London

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Tom Robinson London, UK

Tom Robinson (b.1950) is a UK songwriter & broadcaster first known in the 70s as an anti-racist and LGBT campaigner. He released 19 albums between 1975-2001 with various bands and has co-written songs with Elton John, Peter Gabriel, Dan Hartman and Manu Katché. He's an award-winning presenter at BBC Radio 6 Music, and released Only The Now (his first album in 19 years) in October 2015. ... more

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