Cultural Jamming

Punk, an Explosion of Negatives

Abstract

Rising like vapours between the cracks and vents surrounding music such as; The Blues (1890s-1900s), Rock and Roll (1940s), Soul (1950s-60s) and Disco (1970s), wrenched an ugly and unexpected side to the popular Cultural Revolution in Britain, Punk. Punk was intently dirty, derogatory and not to put too fine a point on it, its British born beginnings were not musically, nor aesthetically pleasing, making Punk a true reflection of life at that moment. It was the birth of another shock and awe counter-cultural trend and just like those that preceded it, the shock and awe was a way for working class youth to reveal and release the ugliness that life had dealt them.

The Roaring 20s is a pretty self explanatory description of the times (Scott, 2013). The birth of Rock and Roll emerged in the early to mid 1950s with Elvis Presley utilising its fever to spy on his ‘fans.’ Presley did not invent Rock and Roll, he merely capitalised upon its success (Editors B. ). The Hippie subculture emerged during the early 1960s and gained ground with the slogan ‘make love not War’ ensuring the understanding that teenagers were not like their parents at any stage in modern history and rebelled quite often (Bhaddock, 2011). Beatle mania also sky rocketed during the 1960s having an effect upon teenage girls, Beatle mania led the way for other Pop groups that saw a wave of hysteria around the world generally amongst the female populations (White, 2015). Every generation believes that what they do is new and shocking to their parental units and authority figures, on some levels they were/are correct, but no-one was really ready for the shock and awe of British Punk.

British Punk went further in some Subcultural sections of the movement, to ensure fear amongst the wider communities, such as the use of the Swastika. Its intent was to instil fear into the community, not as a fear of a return to Nazism, but as a repellent to those who might seek to culturally jam the growing Punk subculture. Punk provided a true snap shot into a politically constructed anarchistic generation that quickly infiltrated popular cultural music, film and fashion scenes, despite conservatisms attempts to completely destroy it. Punk was ‘Cultural Jamming’ at its finest, and Britain’s youth were not alone, Australia and America were also creating Punk around the same period.

This paper examines the grit and grime of Punk, the Australian, American and British youth cultures and how the political climate of the 1970’s created the perfect atmosphere for disaffected youth, to affect a culture of jamming: the act of resisting and re-creating commercial culture in order to transform society, a movement born out of an explosion of negatives. Punk bands such as ‘The Clash’, ‘The Saints’, the ‘Sex Pistols’ and the ‘New York Dolls’ are referenced. The Punk film ‘Rude Boy’ and the fashion guru Vivienne Westwood and artist, agent and manager Malcolm McLaren are also cited throughout this paper.

Cultural Jamming

The term, ‘Cultural Jamming’ first appeared on JamCon ’84, a 1984 cassette-only release by the audio-collage band Negativland:

Negativland used cultural jamming to disrupt that CB radio community. The group, whose sociopolitical satire and media criticism often have a sharp, Situationist edge, applied the idea of “jamming” to billboard banditry.  Mark Dery. 2010. Culture Jamming: Hacking, Slashing, and Sniping in the Empire of Signs.

It has been suggested by some that Punk might have arisen due to a political reaction to the decadence of the ‘me’ generation, though this conceptualisation of what it is to be Punk fails to grasp the ideology behind the movement. Punk certainly was a reactive against political situations, but unlike the ‘me’ generation, the youth during the Punk years were not celebrating life after a Great War or depression, they were constructs of political regime’ such as Edward Heath (1970-74), Harold Wilson (1974-76), James Callaghan (1976-79) and Margaret Thatcher (1979-90).

During post WWII, certain modellings were agreed to, to restore the western nations, to help rebuild, such as; the cutting of taxes and the boosting of spending to increase economic activity. National insurance and health services to provide an adequate income and free health when a family’s income was adversely affected, and greater equality for all citizens was agreed to by both the Labor and Liberal politicians. However, Britain’s economy began its decline during the 1960s and 1970s, eventually plummeting during the Thatcher years.

Thatcher proved to be disconnected from the reality of working class Britain. Those who already had very little, lost the ability to even maintain the low culture class structure that they had learned to survive on since WWII, was reacted to as a plus for Thatcher. Thatcher appeared to hold a ‘what they haven’t got, they won’t miss’ perception of working class Britain, and it was often described as the ‘sick man of Europe’. Post war Europe began to flourish economically during the 1970s and 1980s, Britain did not.

Much of the anarchistic Punk by British bands and their fans were the results of direct observations and interactions with Thatchers England and the Windsor’s:

“The House of Windsor came into being in 1917, when the name was adopted as the British Royal Family’s official name by a proclamation of King George V, replacing the historic name of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. It remains the family name of the current Royal Family”.

Thatcher cut social welfare programs, reduced trade union power and privatised many industries, adding to the desperation, distress and anger of the working families of Britain. Not only did the politicians disaffect its youth, so did the popularised Rock culture, primarily the Rolling Stones, whose music appeared to offend the very ear drums of those who were forced to accept their music as a popular cultural reflection of themselves.

The Saints

Around the same time as the British youth’ disaffection, a Punk subculture was taking root in Australia with the band, ‘The Saints’. The Saints were a Brisbane band formed under the rule, or dictatorship of Joh Bjelke-Petersen. It too began as an explosion of negativity, a reaction to extreme actions by the government and police force of the 1960s, 70s and 80s in Brisbane. ‘The Punk subculture was hoped to present a ‘united social front in rhetoric and attitude, to become a force for agitation, and change’. In Brisbane, Bjelke-Petersen ensured agitation and change by any measure open to him; by enacting the restriction of civil liberties, and ensuring the growth of police powers (1976-1980). The Saints and their fans were hounded by Bjelke-Petersen’ police squads, and any person found attending their concerts, or the concerts of Punk bands following in their wake, were beaten and locked up by the police. Bjelke-Petersen hated the Punk era, and yet unwittingly, his actions helped create it in Australia.

The 1980s British film; ‘Rude Boy,’ follows a young man’s journey of self discovery during his friendship, then roadie interactions with the Punk band, The Clash. Rude Boy, played by Ray Gange, participates in discussions about politics and anarchy in an effort to discover his inner truth. Gange adopts each ideology as it is explained to him by various Punks from the differing subcultures to try them out, to see if they fit with his concept of who he might be. The film begins with Gange working in a sex shop, and hints at the Sex Pistol’ connection to the shop owned by Vivienne Westwood.:Rude Boy – The Clash

Vivienne Westwood is today known as ‘Dame Vivienne Isabel Westwood.’ Dame Vivienne Isabel Westwood.

Gange holds deep and in-depth political and sociological conversations with Punk band members that he met whilst working with The Clash. Gange revealed an intelligence amongst the working class youth of Britain, an adult awareness of the political ramifications of politics, rather than the popular cultural image sold by conservatisms to the world as; uneducated rabble out to destroy the world, in rubber, plastic and make up no less.

The ‘Me’ Decade

British Punk exploded on the scene due to class based political bottle necking, which created a low cultural political reaction that resulted in an explosion of negatives and is reminiscent of Tom Wolfe’ ‘The “Me” Decade’.

Almost all countries experienced the beginnings of the ‘Me’ generation and it was generally disseminated through a soft sell approach. Wolfe’s observation of the 1970s ‘Me’ generation was related as though it was the first time it had occurred. Yet almost every generation of young adults have participated in a ‘Me’ Generation decade, at least. Soul and Blues had been revealing injustices of the nation states effect upon their life experiences:

Although a conversation concerning ‘African diaspora politics’, Bakari’ description of the nation state and the individual is a universal truth: “The urban experience that resists attempts to domesticate the ‘primitive’ as a substitute for an acknowledgement through praxis, of the complexity of national identity and the contradictions of the ‘nation state’ as the acceptable paradigm of modernity”.

Tales that should never be forgotten, such as Abel Meeropol’s 1930’s: Strange Fruit, popularised by Billie Holiday in 1939. However, unlike the British Punk subculture, earlier Subcultural movements were echoed due to the effects of demoralisation and depression. They were quietly vocalised by their authors and segregation continued by popular cultural disseminators.

Billie Holiday was right when she sang:

‘I’ve got a right to sing the blues,

I’ve got a right to moan and cry

I’ve got a right to sit and sigh

Down along the river…’

America

1970s America was in turmoil with the Vietnam War defeat. There were domestic protests against American troops being sent off to fight in Vietnam, and ‘socialist revolutionaries from Vietnam, Angola to Nicaragua were saluting equality, in principle’. Punk was on the rise in America, but it was British Punk, especially the Sex Pistols that saw American Punk music move into a more political dimension during the late 1970s. Subcultural music and poetry, clothing and behavioural trends have always accompanied cultural and political injustices. Each generation relates to these things in ways relevant to their own teenage protestations.

Since the 1950s, teenagers have been an explosion of negatives relative to the perspective of horrified observers. Pop music was constructed and formed to grease the hands of the money men. Rock sold itself as angry young, generally pretty men and women, yet they all sold the same thing using a perceived rebelliousness. They sold what they were directed to sell by the recording studios, whether it was clothes, make up, style, music or talk of a revolution. It was all about consumerism. Consumerism had moved from ‘things’ to human beings. British Punk could be bought, but not contained.

The Sex Pistols

It was the sale of an illusion of power, and Malcolm McLaren latched on to this concept when he created one of the first British ‘Boy Bands,’ to commercialise Westwood’s Shop: Sex at Worlds End, to which was renamed after the formation of the Sex Pistols to the ‘Sex Shop’. McLaren and Westwood thrived on chaos, and chaos is what they created and sold. The main promoter of the Sex Pistols, Westwood creatively fashioned and stylised the band whilst her partner, Malcolm McLaren became their Manager. Punk changed and challenged the embedded social norms.

For the most part it had no controllers, even those bands presumed to have been constructs by ruthless investors and managers, like McLaren and Westwood, who fared far better than those bands that McLaren managed, such as the New York Dolls:

“With the Dolls, McLaren began developing his skill for turning shock into invaluable publicity. Although he made it work for the Pistols just a year later, all of his strategies backfired for the Dolls.”

Westwood has built a fashion empire on the back of the Punk revolution, one that thrives on explosions of negatives even today. To utilise this untapped consumer resource, McLaren placed the Sex Pistols into situations that provided maximum chaos, especially on their American tour, their final tour as a band.

McLaren ensured the Sex Pistol gigs were all played at American Southern, Country and Western venues. At almost every gig, the band were beaten and bloodied by an audience who had no frame of reference concerning the Sex Pistols music, or the reality of their daily English lives. This is the tour that saw Johnny Rotten (John Lydon) sit on stage during a set and sing: ‘it’s no fun anymore!’ Rotten and Sid Vicious left the band after the San Francisco gig. McLaren ‘took Paul Cook and Steve Jones to South America to record with Ronnie Biggs, the escaped Great Train Robber,’ in an effort to continue his capitalisation on chaos. The Sex Pistols were relating truths about their country and lives, McLaren, infatuated with the Situationists movement, used the pain of England’s youth to further his ideals by ensuring that the Sex Pistols inserted Situationists phrases into their music.

“An obscure French Situationists international movement, which advocated provocative, even absurd actions both as political statement and performance art. The movement was founded in the 1950s and gained its greatest attention during political upheavals in France in 1968 before dissolving.”

McLaren sought out negatives to explode.

The Situationists and Social Norms

There had been cultural jamming events around the world before Punk arrived on the scene, such as the 1950s movement of the Situationists. The Situationists wanted a revolution against capitalism, so that all people could have the opportunity to be creative. The film industry attempted to impress upon the growing restlessness of the people how they should direct their irreverence’s through markets such as media, fashion and music. British Punk encapsulated all three dissemination outlets in a way that was unexpected, and uncontrollable, by those whose job it was to direct social norms through these mediums. The working class of Britain had been ground into dust by their politicians, and the Sex Pistols mirrored its effects in all its gory truths. Their music was not plumped up and prettied to insinuate truth; it was merely truth in all its raw beauty. Those who vehemently repelled Punk were those who did not like the truth spoken aloud, such as politicians. Bernard Brooke Partridge, a member of the Greater London Council infamous comment concerning Punk:

‘My personal view on punk rock is that it’s nauseating, disgusting, degrading, ghastly, sleazy, prurient, voyeuristic and generally nauseating.  I think that just about covers it as far as I’m concerned. I think most of these groups would be vastly improved by sudden death. The  worst  of  the  punk  rock groups  I  suppose  currently  are  the  Sex  Pistols;  they  are  unbelievably nauseating. They are the antithesis of humankind.  I would like to see somebody dig a very, very large, exceedingly deep hole and drop the whole bloody lot down it. You know, I think the whole world would be vastly improved by their total and utter non-existence’.

1970s Britain saw the rise of class based political parties. Inflation and unemployment sky rocketed, and those unable to find work were faulted. Punk began as a revolt against injustices not of their making, and provided sanctuary and acceptance for those youth disaffected by the political and parental climate of the times. Youth were being denied employment because there were no jobs, and they were often accused of being lazy by parental units for not acquiring jobs. A bottle neck effect was created and the pressure was being placed solely on the backs of young adults by many parents and their political ‘representatives’. There was an ‘emphasis on negationism rather than nihilism (a consciousness of class-based politics) with stress on ‘working-class credibility’ and a belief in spontaneity; doing it yourself’. Britain however, was suffering from stagflation.

Stagflation is a condition of slow economic growth and relatively high unemployment, and it was creating a fear amongst the youth culture of being the first generation to be worse off than their parents. There was mass crisis of confidence suffered by the working class, and their youth were searching for their place in such a society, however, self is fluidic and Gange reflected this fluidity through his search for who he truly was, in Rude Boy.

Organic Intellectuals

Antonio Gramsci argued that ‘capitalist system’s use of cultural institutions to indoctrinate society in favour of elite interests, and thus the role culture needed to play was promoting the working class’s struggle to transform capitalist societies’. Punk is, as Gramsci would say, a collective of ‘organic intellectuals’. An organic intellectual is ‘leadership that emerges from the protest community and appeals to a knowledge and culture, based in the protest community, and not necessarily shaped by schooling or formal training in the traditional sense’. Organic intellectualism ensured that the actuation of creativity and emotion came pouring out to form new Subcultural outlets, created entirely of the people and by the people.

Conclusion

Hate them or not, the Sex Pistols were brutally honest. Punk music regaled the dirty truths of 1970-80s England, Australia and America. British Punk was more anarchistic than other styles, with some subcultures of the subculture exuding violence; this was a reaction to the political climate, especially through the Thatcher years. The Saints are recognised in Australia as the first Punk band, because the Saints formed in a negative explosion during the Bjelke-Petersen years (Joh Bjelke-Petersen (1968-87), Margaret Thatcher (1979-90)). Rude Boy revealed that Punk was not a collective of uneducated youth rebelling; in fact 1970s youth understood all too well the injustices inflicted upon them, both politically and socially. With their voices throttled, the only way for many 1970s youth to relate the destruction of their young lives, was through song. They began to wear their identity, and if in doubt, the subculture Punk, painted their pain on their faces for all to see. Punk is not merely a result of an explosion of negatives; it ‘is’ an explosion of negatives.

Written by Karen Eastland