In 2010, I was asked by Lumberton Trading Co / 4th Dimension’s, Richo Johnson to respond to a query to be published in Exit Wounds. To the best of my knowledge the magazine has never appeared.
What did this period of music (late ’70s into the early ’80s) mean to you at the time?
With the benefit of hindsight, how do you feel about the period between the late 1970s and early 1980s?
I was too young to be hit directly by punk. I would have been 10 or 11 when the Sex Pistols came about. They existed somewhere on the fringes of consciousness. I remember sitting on my skateboard contemplating their name – just the words “sex” and “pistols”, and had the strange sensation that it would be embarrassing to hear the name spoken in my parents company. You know? Like when you were watching a film on TV with your parents and a sex scene would come on and leave you silent and awkward and embarrassed. It had that same quality of the forbidden, something that you didn’t want to share, or have it known that it excited you. “Sex” and “Pistols” it was, literally, Rude, and Violent.
The first “punk” song I was ever exposed to was The Stranglers No More Heroes, which the older brother of a friend had bought, and sneaked home within the pages of an issue of What Car magazine!
We had to make sure that all mothers were out of range before putting it on the Bush Stereo.
Again, as with the Sex Pistols, there was a thrilling frisson of violence insinuated in the activity. The name The Stranglers, the mention of ice picks, and so forth.
The sheer bravado expression of negativity was, and continues to be curiously affirmative. No Future, indeed! The strongest emblem, for me, of the whole period is that throwaway scene of the Pistols on tour in the UK. A head-on shot of a tour bus driving fast into the driving rain with the single word emblazoned on the bus’s destination card; NOWHERE.
It was all, however, appropriated by the dim thugs at school. One day they were coming in wearing herringbone high waist trousers, and sporting feather cut centre partings, the next day their Harrington jackets were inside out and their hair was pushed up with soap. Whatever would annoy the teachers and frighten the younger kids, really. The few among them who actually bought records seemed cruelly and immediately limited to a narrow range of acts that had them penned out for extinction from an early date – Peter and the Test Tube Babies, Exploited, Anti Nowhere League, and so forth, a downward spiral hammered out on the e-bridge!
I was beginning to buy music at this time, but really, my tastes and interests were all over the place. One day I went on a single buying spree and came back with The Buzzcocks Promises, Blondie’s Sunday Girl and Patrick Hernandes Born to Be Alive. I recall, also, Village People, Darts and Boomtown Rats purchases – but cannot immediately identify which one I should be more ashamed of – I suspect the Rats given everything that followed!
It must have been 1979 into 1980 that the real slide started. Certainly after 1980 there is, in my memory, the sense of freefall as the significance and importance of music and, often, its direct and profound influence on personal identity itself took grip.
This, of course, starts to hint at the revised version of your original question. This is with the benefit of hindsight. At this exact period of time, just when the UK was careering into a strange new ruinous period of conservatism, music was thrown open, production technology was developing rapidly, as were the number of indie labels. Venues were numerous, there were lots of bands, fanzines, whatever. Against this backdrop I literally descended into adolescence. I was not friendless by any means, but really there were only a few, and school held absolutely no interest whatsoever. I was more interested in heading out of the village by means of an old disused railway path that headed out towards the Pentland Hills.
Again, with hindsight all the signs would appear to point towards my being an isolated, lonely, uninspired and uninspiring figure. A weakling within an emerging political society that would ultimately seek to stamp out such weaklings.
The factor contributing to survival for such a seemingly fragile creature was undoubtedly music. Looking back, the support and encouragement provided just by the shape of the industry at that point was quite astonishing. It was a time that did seem to support, or console, the outsider. In fact, it became quite a positive tick in your favour as an artist if you could comprehensively secure this outsidership, this sense of the rare and elite. I could have been a lonely soul. In many respects I think I was a lonely soul, but the cultural environment that I subscribed to accommodated that, possibly even celebrated it. The sense of isolation in so many of the beautiful records at the time seems to recognise and accept a rarefied, clean, well lit loneliness, to paraphrase Hemingway. It is no surprise that 17 Seconds was such a significant album. With lyrics drawn from Kafka, and scenes of being alone in houses and in forests, the blurred images on the sleeve pointing to an unfixed identity in an intangible world, and that clean, crisp understated production. The emblematic “At Night” – lyrically, pretty much a steal from Kafka – speaking directly to this little listener; sunk deep in the night, alone, while the other (read the whole world) sleeps in a safe bed. The lonely soul is placed on a pedestal, marked out as a guardian of despair. Why? Well, “someone has to be there”
There was what seemed like a real choice of reading – Sounds, NME, Melody Maker, Smash Hits, Flexi Pop. John Peel was on 4 nights a week. There were record shops all over town, and these acted as meeting points. Virgin was a dive with dark green sticky carpets and peeling dark brown walls that shared its space with a jeans shop. Staff would get to smoke at the till points and the music would be screaming out. Folk would hang out there all afternoon among the vinyl, the badges, the posters, the photocopied fanzines, the back issues of Sounds, NME, and Melody Maker. The smell of Boots hairspray and patchouli oil was thick and sweet and cloyingly sexy.
My standard purchase was usually supplemented by a 10 pack of TDK AD90 cassettes. I would burst the packet open and give half of the cassettes to those staff members I had managed to strike up a rapport with. They, in turn, had rapport with local bootleggers (usually the distribution company reps!) who would supply desk recordings of gigs and band demos; very early Adam and the Ants, the Banshees and The Cure were the usual fayre – and these cassettes were as treasured – if not more so than the official releases that I would gobble up with equal relish. What made the bootlegs so significant was the comparative rarity of their availability, the insight, the fact that they seemed, somehow, to draw you closer to the individuals making the music. The records were the canon, the cassettes were the apocrypha.
The culture became so big, so broad, that you could reach far into every musical horizon and still return with something strangely beautiful, compellingly relevant, utterly original: Wire, Flying Lizards, The Fall, Raincoats, The Cure, The Banshees, Killing Joke, Magazine, PIL, Tuxedomoon, Alternative TV, the Nightingales, Josef K, Joy Division (my mind is foggy with where I should be cutting off the timeline of this investigation). Few of them were taken close to heart and pursued with such dedication as, say, The Cure, or the Banshees, but there was room for them all, and it all seemed relevant and gave a broader perspective.
There is a great part of me that looks back and honestly wonders whether the music itself was so very important. After all, I was entering into adolescence in politically troubled waters, in a small suburb, and had – for better or worse – a disposition sensitive enough to suggest that, one way or the other, I would have been drawn to the arts. It all seemed very important, and with all the memory prosthetics available in the web 2.0 age the nostalgia surge is, of course, very easy to invoke… but that period in ones life is always going to be special. It is arguable that any sense of real revelation and revolution was actually internal. Yes, music was important, but could it not have been whatever music in whatever time, rather than that music at that particular time?
One becomes so emotionally attached, however, that it makes it nearly impossible to determine one way or the other. My heart of hearts however does tell me that there was something unique about the sensibilities of the time. The dress, the influences, the curious alignment of existential angst, melancholia, glamour, Romance, dirty urban sleaze, and suburban clinical cleanliness, the surrounding social and political climate – one of my warmest memories is taking part in a student protest. We barricaded the doors of an entire campus and lived in absolute isolation for a week. I didn’t know so many folk, but the links were made through musical taste and gig history. A group of us were holed up in the media studies department, so we had instruments and video players. We watched films through the day and played guitars all night. Someone sat me down and very patiently taught me how to play all the tracks on Lou Reed’s Berlin. There were girls (who deprived of any alternative from the outside world were attentive to my charms), alcohol and a library. It was the worst thing that ever happened when the National Student Union signed a deal with the government and brought the protest to an end. I never wanted to come out. Still don’t!
One of the major impacts, however, was the way in which a more targeted introduction to older, equally significant work was introduced. It was through music and musicians, not school, not family, not the local library, that I got my introduction to Kafka, Baudelaire, Burroughs, Schiele, Bacon, Eliot… the list, of course, goes on and on… but somewhere along the line was the introduction on one hand to Brian Eno and, on the other, The Velvet Underground. Once you’ve got that lineage, that tradition highlighted, it both elevates the quality and direction of the influence felt by all that was coming out in the early eighties and, somehow, undermines its relevance in terms of the supposed revolution at its core. It wasn’t revolutionary. It was all part of an ongoing tradition.
I never really bought into The Stooges, or the MC5 or the New York Dolls… but learning of the Velvet Underground via the bands in the early 80s that cited them as an influence… THAT was ground zero for me.
It is something that irritates me about revisionists – they tend to frame all that wnet before as little more than the foundation stones for the main event. Bowie (Heroes was released in ’77!), Roxy Music, the Velvet Underground, The Stooges, the list goes on. All significant artists reduced to being, as I say, inspiration for “the big event”. More true to say that punk was perhaps a foundation for the much more interesting and diverse post punk period which was altogether more reflective, exploratory, confrontational, romantic… you get the picture.
If I was feeling flippant I might flag up that Pierre Schaeffer, Henri Pousseur and Gordon Mumma – as well as counbtless others – were releasing “noise” music in the 1940s, 1950s and the 1960s; the Velvet Underground, themselves emerging from an existing avant-garde tradition, hit hard in the late sixties; Metal Machine Music; all the thrash rock tradition bubbling up in the States right through the early Seventies, so on and so forth. Really, what was the big shock of punk? It certainly wasn’t musical. It was possibly, as I inferred earlier, a revolution of the interior. It is harder to name the individual influences that would trigger that interior revolution in a generation. A hateful reaction to Emerson, Lake and Palmer? Come on, there is more to it than that. Safety pins, torn up shirts and soapy hair? Fine, but hardly a cultural watershed. The rise of the interactive fan that is now the bedrock of our present engagement with music and musicians? Well, that’s interesting don’t you think? Fanzines, cassette labels, wave of encouragement to learn 2 chords and start a band? The sudden plethora of small town journalists in home made periodicals leading to the rise of self referential journalism and cultural commentary – punk invented itself in the rise of new commentators rather than artists – now, you’re talking! This is getting interesting!