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PUNK ROCK TURNS 40: The Rock Movement That Shook The Globe

DETROIT, MI – When I say Punk you say what? I mean, what is it exactly? Well that all depends on where you ask that question. If you were to ask that in the UK then all the credit goes to the movement in London – circa 1976. If you ask that question in Detroit then the credit goes all the way back to Iggy Pop back in 1969 and then things get a little dicey. It turns into a school yard with a lot of bickering and name calling because punk and its roots is something that music guys take very seriously. But for all practical purposes let’s try to keep this all very simple and relevant to the anniversary date.

Punk Rock was a term used by the press in 1976 to collectively phrase a whole gang of motley bands from the UK. But if you were to ask the bands themselves what this whole movement was all about and they would tell you that it was just stripped down rock and roll. Sort of…..   A lot of the bands from this period looked upon themselves as bare bones rock and roll. The Sex Pistols on the other hand were on a vengeance to kill it off altogether according to lead singer, Johnny Rotten. Once Rotten was removed from the group and replaced by the unctuous Tenpole Tudor the band took a wicked swipe at rock music again with a film, “The Great Rock and Roll Swindle”. The film, released in 1980, was a mockumentary of how to rip off the rock music industry for as much money as possible. The songs on the soundtrack included, “Rock Around The Clock”, “Road Runner”,  “Come On Everybody”  which were revved up versions by the original rock artists such as Chuck Berry and Bill Haley and the Comets, (from Highland Park, Michigan of all places).

The idea here was that you in order to have something new you had to destroy the old order and, “Get rid of it” according to Rotten. 1976 proved to be a significant year of change in music in London and the record companies did take notice. The Sex Pistols led the bizarre parade by holding record companies ransom and creating large contracts from the biggest names including Warner Brothers, A&M and Virgin Records. The story is well known now for its outrageousness thanks to the web and many books that have been written such as, “England is Dreaming” by Greil Marcus. These stories weren’t really getting around much in the main media at the time. Punk music didn’t really see the light of day in the US mainstream until 1978 or even as late as 1979 when the events were pretty much over.

Some say Punk really ended when CBS Records signed on The Clash. Some people claim the movement died with Sex Pistol bassist, Sid Vicious, violently murdered his girlfriend. I am going to tell this story from U.S. stateside. There was a lot of things happening in the streets in the U.K. A lot of bands were forming in legendary status with the ideology, “anybody can be a rock star”. The kids clamored to the streets to prove they were somebody in spite of an epic long garbage strike, unemployment and little opportunity. This came out of boredom and anger and at a time when flash rock bands played in Hammersmith Odeon with the likes of Led Zeppelin, Emerson Lake and Palmer, and Yes. This grungier version vomited all over the pretty boy rock scene with vile and repugnant bands. This came from the kids themselves and the music was angry, violent and very crude in nature.

The Damned released the first Punk single in 1976 with, “New Rose”. This was a weird hybrid of Gothic vampire looking rock meets the Three Stooges, (Enter Captain Sensible on guitar) meets Psychedelia. This was followed up with The Clash, (formally the London SS ) which brought a speed element to rock music headed by singer, Joe Strummer, who sang like an off duty police captain. These two bands were added onto a tour schedule along with The Sex Pistols and Johnny Thunders, (The New York Dolls) for the, “Anarchy in the UK Tour”. This tour would eventually have half of its dates cancelled due to the notorious nature of the Punk movement. They played colleges mostly and just about anywhere that would have them. The Pistols would eventually play prisons and striptease clubs and in makeshift underground music venues such as The Roxy, (a defunct store front).

I grew up in Stratford, CT in the late 70’s and early 80’s and can vouch for the almost non-existent airplay or media coverage. I had to stay up late nights and watch rock music video shows and try to piece together what was happening, (MTV was a still a couple years off). The New York TV stations and radio stations did cover some of the music at this time but you had to go digging for it. The one video show I used to watch on Friday nights was a combination of popular rock bands like Cheap Trick while sharing airtime with Lene Lovich and The Clash. Many of the bands that we know about today weren’t introduced into the American media mainstream such as The Buzzcocks and X Ray Spex.

1979, was a very interesting time. The influence of Punk Rock and what it meant had some sway over American media writers and commercial producers. Even though most of the US had barely heard of The Sex Pistols the overall style to be lewd and confrontational had been catching on.  The day glow color combinations and odd ball editing carried over into Bon Jour Jeans commercials and even kids food products.

WHAT REALLY HAPPENED OVER THERE IN LONDON?

It’s difficult now to see what the big deal was all about. The Sex Pistols debut album, “Never Mind The Bollocks Here’s The Sex Pistols” is very confrontational and jarring. Compared to what is being released nowadays the album is quite tame and almost harmless. The album opens with the sound of marching jackboots which only European kids could fully understand and appreciate. When I first heard it I thought it was a bunch of clapping hands. This takes away the full meaning of the song, “Holidays In The Sun” which talks about the Berlin Wall… whew… that went right over my  head when I first heard it. Growing up in the USA most of our enemies in the super structure remain cleverly hidden.

Johnny Rotten wrote the lyrics to the album and in its proper context it is a work of violence. The bands manager, Malcom McLaren, is of most particular interest. He was an anarchist architect full of vile contempt for the world around him and the order of the day. McLaren had true distain for where culture was heading and created The Sex Pistols, (according to him) to be sexy assassins who would dismantle the entire rock and roll industry and replace it with a full on movement of free thinking individuals. That is a beautiful artistic vision except that McLaren sort of lost interest after he made a significant amount of money. I think when the whole onslaught was over he had pocketed about five million dollars.

The singles were banned in the UK and weren’t even allowed to be sold in shops. The Sex Pistols actually broke an advertising law by having their posters plastered all over the shops. The fans of the group wore ripped up painted t-shirts held together by safety pins. They rebelled against everything and they mutilated themselves with safety pins. One of the kids had her hair shaped into cat like ears and was transformed into this sexless beast of the street – enter Sue Catwoman. Her design was to live free and be of the upmost free spirit in nature. Other kids paid homage to their local psychopaths like the Cambridge Rapist by dressing like him in clubs. According to Rotten this was his favorite time in the Punk movement. This was a time when kids were being themselves and creating their very own look while going out to the clubs. There was no standard set uniform in the likes of a black leather jacket and Doc Marten Boots. Johnny Rotten says that his favorite band at that time was X-Ray Spex which is a very interesting choice. X Ray Spex got zero airplay in the US when I was a kid. I doubt they even get any now to be quite frank. The band was headed by a loud screeching girl with buck teeth and braces – Poly Styrene. That particular band even had a bizarre saxophone in it of all things.

Rolling Stone Magazine sent a reporter over there to check things out and there was an article written called, “Rock Is Sick And Living In London”. The full article is online and anyone can read it and it is worth looking at. I don’t feel that it tells the whole seedy story because that one is quite short. It was a tiny window of time where all kinds of insanity went on. The reason for this was drugs and I am not just talking about marijuana. I am referring to the blackest drugs you can get your hands on namely heroin. The Sex Pistols were the most interesting band at the time because they took things to such extremes. They would vomit in front of photographers, slash themselves, beat each other up in public, and cause a ruckus wherever they appeared.  Record AR people were afraid of them. There were reports of them stopping a radio interview to go outside the station and partake in a street fight with their critics. They would come back into the station and finish the interview. The city councils all hated them and banned their appearances from playing live.

The Sex Pistols had to change their name to SPOTS just to get gigs. The band’s new moniker stood for Sex Pistols On Tour and the band carried on. Some of the stories that came out of this period are straight out of a horror movie. Bassist, Sid Vicious, reportedly ripped the ear of his girlfriend heroin junkie Nancy Spungen. The ear had to be partially stitched back on. The two of them partied until they blacked out and woke up with a dead person who spent the night. The story here is that it was a record company assistant or photographer, (the story varies). The whole bizarre circus included their very own stylist. Enter one – Vivienne Westwood – who constructed a wide range of offensive t-shirts and muslin shirt wraps with Christian and Karl Marx imagery. One t-shirt featured a teenage boy prostitute and according to one story it was offensive enough to have one of the fans on the street arrested. The bands manager let the fan sit it out in jail while enjoying the free publicity.

Malcom McLaren also had a bizarre midget girlfriend, Helen of Troy, and I wasn’t able to find much about this story. She does, however, appear in the Sex Pistols movie. The one thing that set the Sex Pistols apart from other punk bands was that they were put together different than any other band. Westwood and McLaren framed the band around such notorious figures as Ronnie Biggs, (the Great Train Robbery), children serial killers Myra Hindley and Ian Brady, and porn star Mary Millington. The result was ferocious notoriety that stunned and humiliated the British press. It also mocked the British Royalty. The band released a song for the Queens Jubilee, “God Save The Queen” where the band warns there will be, “No future”.

BRINGING CULTURE TO THE BARBARIANS:  UK Punk Comes To America 1978

When the band came to America in 1978 things couldn’t have been more disastrous. Sid Vicious’s heroin habit was out of control and getting visas into the US proved difficult. The press was afraid of them and with good reason. The headlines in the UK were outrageous. They were recently kicked off the Bill Grundy Show for on air obscenities. The Sex Pistols didn’t come to cities that would embrace them such as New York City or Chicago. Instead they took their bizarre cartoon road show down to the bad American south. They played Randy’s Rodeo in Texas, and ended up in San Francisco for a farewell show.  Along the way they got into fights with anyone who challenged them and made complete spectacles out of themselves.

Malcom McLaren still played up the notorious angle as much as he could for the sake of their own media. Sid Vicious was trying to live up to his name and made his presence known. He was challenged on his own toughness when a Texan local stomped out a cigarette in the palm of his hand. Sid topped him by taking out a knife and stabbing his own hand and squirting blood across a plate of scrambled eggs. This freaked the shit out of the Texan and his family and sent them off running. On top of the heroin Sid was drinking straight vodka only adding to his own unpredictable lunacy. The bands manager couldn’t resist booking them in a venue once owned by Jack Ruby, the man who killed Lee Harvey Oswald, for another outrageous display of their “talent”. This type of alignment only added to their wacked out appeal.

During the San Antonio show things got particularly uglier than usual. Sid got into a confrontation with a hostile audience member and proceeded to smack him over the head with his white bass guitar. The event was filmed and included in the movie of course. The victim was quickly thrown out of the show where he was interviewed by news people. I have no idea whatever happened to this guy but I am quite sure he suffered some kind of skull fracture. As far as I know no charges were ever filed.

Out of all the shows in America the one in San Francisco seemed to make the most sense. San Francisco had some crazy problems all its own including a notorious serial killer known as the Zodiak. San Fran also had a black mass related church and a history of horrible characters roaming the streets. But the energy of the Sex Pistols was coming to an end and the band couldn’t continue on anymore. There was a lot of chaos and the group disbanded after  the Winterland Ballroom show.

The ABC show, “Good Morning America” did a segment on them and showed Sid Vicious in a hotel room. He asked the host, David Hartman, for $25 bucks. I have never seen the full segment of that program  but I know that it happened. That is an interesting bit of info there that even the fans might not know about. The band  members rarely had any money on them. The manager would tout them around like circus freaks and keep them amped up on beer, drugs and a designer wardrobe but would never give them money.

THE MURDER: New York City 1978

After the bands demise Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen moved into the Chelsea Hotel in New York City. This was the home of writer Dylan Thomas, The Beat Poets and where Warhol shot the film, “Chelsea Girls”. The hotel was a bohemian flop house of sorts. The rumor was that only junkies lived on the first floor of the historic Chelsea landmark. Even the local New York people will tell you that the Chelsea represents the, “Old New York”, ( and then they will smile at you like you understand.) That credit goes to the pinkish brick and black iron gate work on the building itself. In contrast the other buildings around it this place does stand out. There is something sinister about this building even to this day. There have always been stories surrounding it including people with pet alligators who are rumored to walk them down the hall at odd hours of the night. There are junkies and low lifes coming in and out of that place at all hours.

I was there in the early 90’s and checked out the plaque that mentions all of the famous residents. Someone, maybe McLaren himself, painted -  THE SEX PISTOLS – right on the brass wall plate in pink led paint. That famous shot was used for an album bootleg cover. It looked like someone took care to sandblast that clean off.

Sid Vicious and his girlfriend Nancy Spungen were living in room 100 at the Chelsea Hotel. The money was running out and by this time they were full blown junkies. Sid bought a knife to protect himself from getting jumped to the methadone clinic. I remember reading about the heroin and cocaine problems in New York. There was talk of the shooting galleries of the horrible people that it created and attracted. This was where famous model Gia Carangi was raped and beaten. There were streets that I stayed away from as a kid because of the drug trade. Guys stood out in the streets swinging baseball bats in the direction of the drugs in broad daylight.

There is something still sinister about that area of town and you can feel it even though the people are long gone. It is in Chelsea where I almost bumped into Lou Reed one cold winter morning in the 90’s. He was busy coming down the street and wouldn’t jump out of the way. We were about to collide so I stepped aside and I was too star struck to say anything. The original punks have all moved on in one form or another but there is an ugly energy there that still permeates the area. I have to admit on some morbid level I do find it fascinating.

On October 12, 1978 the unthinkable happened and Nancy Spungen was brutally murdered. There is a lot of speculation to what exactly occurred but Spungen died of a single stab wound to the abdomen. She was only 20 years old. Sid Vicious admitted to doing it although he had no recollection of actually doing it. There are signs that point to at least two other people today that could have been responsible. Her murder was never solved. Vicious himself ended up dying in 1979 due to a fatal dose of heroin administered by his mother of all people.

The bands manager couldn’t help but trying to help Sid before he died. To raise money he and Vivienne Westwood created a t-shirt that read, “She’s Dead, I’m Alive, I’m Yours” in the notorious color and font style that made the groups image famous. The random typography spilled over the imagery that looked like blood.

But that’s not where the story ends.

 

WHERE IS PUNK TODAY – DOES IT EVEN EXIST?

I caught up with the scene as it splintered in New York in 1989. I caught the Damned at the Ritz in New York City where they did a midnight show celebrating their first album. They were to play the whole record in its entirety with no opening act. I remember feeling lucky to see them because they were so obscure. Outside of the one track on MTV’s 120 Minutes, “Alone Again Or”, (by the band Love) they really didn’t amount to too much airtime. There was no web back then and record stores rarely carried their music and yet the joint was packed. This was in the old hotel ballroom in the basement as I recall. The Ritz was touted as the first Rock and Roll Hotel which by today’s standards must sound ridiculous. Today we have The Hard Rock Hotels all over the world but back in 1989 this was kind of a big deal. You might recall Guns and Roses played there. I am going to take a wild guess and say that some of the original punks from the NYC scene were in that room that night. I was among them and they were older, more tired than us and had joyless faces. I do recall that.

The show – was incredible. I remember the lead singer Dave Vanian had such control over the crowd and that he dressed up like a vampire pretty much. He looked powerful up there and the guitarist Captain Sensible was a crowd favorite. On the encore they did a Beatles cover, “Day Tripper” and I recall he played naked. Not that we asked for that sort of thing but there we are. Bewildered.

I later found out that Sid Vicious partied at the Ritz and you can find footage of this on Youtube. I think it could have been filmed when he was out on bail from Rikers Island. I could be wrong but the reason why I say that was because he was filmed alone. He rarely went anywhere without Nancy.

Standing out in front of the Ritz was most memorable. I will never forget two kids standing in line with us. This guy was decked out like Eddie Munster and so was his girlfriend. She, however, was passed out on the sidewalk and he was dragging her down the street while in line. Her mouth was open and she was out of her mind and dead for all I know. He was stopped over and kicking her and insulting her trying to get her to wake back up.  I have no idea if they ever got in.

But does punk music even exist anymore? Does it have any kind of impact at all? The interesting thing about punk is that it appears all over the world in some form or another. There was a strong New York scene that existed before the UK movement. There was also a West Coast movement, (The Dead Kennedys, X, The Germs, The Circle Jerks, Fear and so on) and this gave birth to many indy labels. These smaller labels included Touch and Go Records, IRS Records, and Homestead and many, many more. The scenes splintered off in other towns like Chicago and Minneapolis, (The Replacements, and Husker Du). The idea of punk later translated to the freedom of expression.

That feeling also spilled over into movie making. The idea of turning up against the norm is felt in everything from fashion, television, and kids entertainment. It has been absorbed into our every day culture and in a very sneaky way. Punk has never returned to its extreme and outrageous roots because the shock has worn off. It remains one of the most destructive musical art form.

When I think of Iggy Pop and his ideas of what music could be in 1969 I think about the garage bands in the 60’s that never really made it on the map. The idea of creating something loud, crude and obnoxious just for the sake of making music sound new again is appealing. There is real freedom there.  I think of it as a free flowing energy that can be translated and retold in a brash new way. That spirit, that energy, will never really be entirely squashed out. Although the original UK punks are sure to disagree with you and they hold that time in history to be very sacred. That story they will tell you , has already been written and experienced.  But I feel that the energy, and the lessons learned from that time is open for another reinterpretation.

To quote John Lydon, (formerly known as Johnny Rotten) – “Anger is an Energy”.

Happy Birthday Punk – It Certainly Has Been One Interesting Ride.

Ted Cantu
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