Sunday, August 7, 2016

40 Year Itch : The Fourth Generation of Rockers

Sex Pistols : No Fun

On August 7, 1976 Melody Maker put the Sex Pistols on their cover under the headline "Punk Rock: Crucial or Phoney?" The article is by Caroline Coon

 JOHNNY ROTTEN looks bored. The emphasis is on the word "looks" rather than, as Johnny would have you believe, the word "bored". His clothes, held together by safety pins, fall around his slack body in calculated disarray. His face is an undernourished grey. Not a muscle moves. His lips echo the downward slope of his wiry, coat-hanger shoulders. Only his eyes register the faintest trace of life.

Johnny works very hard at looking bored. Leaning against a bar; at a sound check; after a gig; making an entrance to a party; onstage; when he's with women. No, actually, then he's inclined to look quite interested.

 Why is Johnny bored? Well; that's the story.

This malevolent third-generation child of rock 'n' roll is the Sex Pistols' lead singer. The band play exciting, hard, basic punk rock. But more than that, Johnny is the elected generalissimo of a new cultural movement scything through the grassroots disenchantment with the present state of mainstream rock. You need look no further than the letters pages of any Melody Maker to see that fans no longer silently accept the disdain with which their heroes, the rock giants, treat them.

They feel deserted. Millionaire rock stars are no longer part of the brotherly rock fraternity that helped create them in the first place. Rock was meant to be a joyous celebration; the inability to see the stars or to play the music of those you can see is making a whole generation of rock fans feel depressingly inadequate.

 Enter Johnny Rotten. Not content to feel frustrated, bored and betrayed, he and the Sex Pistols – Glen Matlock (bass), Paul Cook (drums), and Steve Jones (guitar) – have decided to ignore what they believe to be the elitist pretensions of their heroes, who no longer play the music they want to hear. The Pistols are playing the music they want to hear. They are the tip of an iceberg.

 Since January, when the Sex Pistols played their first gig, there has been a slow but steady increase in the number of musicians who feel the same way – bands like the Clash, the Jam, Buzzcocks, the Damned, the Suburban Bolts and Slaughter and the Dogs. The music they play is loud, raucous and beyond considerations of taste and finesse. As Mick Jones of the Clash says: "It's wonderfully vital."

These bands' punk music and stance is so outrageous that, like the Rolling Stones in the good old days, they have trouble getting gigs. But they play regularly at the 100 Club, which is rapidly becoming the venue at which these bands cut their teeth.

The musicians and their audience reflect each other's street-cheap, ripped-apart, pinned-together style of dress. Their attitude is classic punk: icy-cool with a permanent sneer. The kids are arrogant, aggressive, rebellious. The last thing any of these bands make their audience feel is inadequate. Once again there is the feeling, the exhilarating buzz, that it's possible to be and play like the bands onstage.

 It's no coincidence that the week the Stones were at Earls Court, the Sex Pistols were playing to their ever-increasing following at London's 100 Club. The Pistols are the personification of the emerging British punk rock scene, a positive reaction to the complex equipment, technological sophistication and jaded alienation which has formed a barrier between fans and stars.

Punk rock sounds simple and callow. lt's meant to. The equipment is minimal, usually cheap. It's played faster than the speed of light. If the musicians play a ballad, it's the fastest ballad on earth. The chords are basic, numbers rarely last longer than three minutes, in keeping with the clipped, biting cynicism of the lyrics. There are no solos. No indulgent improvisations.

 It's a fallacy to believe that punk rockers like the Sex Pistols can't play dynamic music. They power through sets. They are never less than hard, rough and edgy. They are the quintessence of a raging, primal rock-scream.

 The atmosphere among the punky bands on the circuit at the moment is positively cut-throat. Not only are they vying with each other but they all secretly aspire to take Johnny Rotten down a peg or two. They use him as a pivot against which they can assess their own credibility.

 It's the BSP/ASP Syndrome. The Before or After Sex Pistols debate which wrangles thus: "We saw Johnny Rotten and he CHANGED our attitude to music" (the Clash, Buzzcocks) or "We played like this AGES before the Sex Pistols" (Slaughter and the Dogs) or "We are MILES better than the Sex Pistols" (the Damned). They are very aware that they are part of a new movement and each one wants to feel that he played a part in starting it.

All doubts that the British punk scene was well under way was blitzed two weeks ago in Manchester, when the Sex Pistols headlined a triple third-generation punk rock concert before an ecstatic, capacity audience.

Participation is the operative word. The audiences are reveling in the idea that any one of them could get up on stage and do just as well, if not better, than the bands already up there. Which is, after all, what rock and roll is all about.

When, for months, you’ve been feeling that it would take ten years to play as well as Hendrix, Clapton, Richard (insert favourite rock star's name), there’s nothing more gratifying than the thought, 'Jesus, I could a band together and blow this lot off the stage'.

The growing punk rock audiences are seething with angry young dreamers who want to put the boot in and play music, regardless. And the more people feel that "I can do that too", the more there is a rush on to that stage, the more cheap instruments are bought, fingered and flayed in front rooms, the more likely it is there will be the rock revival we've all been crying out for.

There's every chance (although it's early days yet) that out of the gloriously raucous, uninhibited melée of British Punk Rock – which even at its worst is more vital than must of the music perfected by the Platinum Disc Brigade – will emerge the musicians to inspire a fourth generation of rockers.

 The arrogant, aggressive, rebellious stance that characterizes the musicians who have played the most vital rock and roll has always been glamorised. In the '50s it was the rebel without a cause exemplified by Elvis and Gene Vincent, the Marlon Brando and James Dean of rock. In the '60s it was the Rock'n'Roll Gypsy Outlaw image of Mick Jagger, Keith Richard and Jimi Hendrix. In the 70s the word "rebel" has been superseded by the word "punk". Although initially derogatory, it now contains all the glamorous connotations once implied by the overused word "rebel".

Punk rock was initially coined, about six years ago, to describe the American rock bands of 1965-68 who sprung up as a result of hearing the Yardbirds, Who, Them, Stones. Ability was not as important as mad enthusiasm, but the bands usually dissipated all their talent in one or two splendid singles which rarely transcended local hit status. Some of the songs, however, like 'Wooly Bully', '96 Tears', 'Psychotic Reaction', 'Pushin' Too Hard', have become rock classics.

In Britain, as "punk rock" has been increasingly used to categorise the livid, exciting energy of bands like the Sex Pistols, there has been an attempt to redefine the term. There's an age difference too. New York punks are mostly in their mid-twenties. The members of the new British punk bands squirm if they have to tell you that they are over 18. Johnny Rotten's favourite sneer is "You’re Too Old." He's 20.

 The British punk rock garb is developing independently, too. It's an ingenious hodgepodge of jumble sale cast-offs, safety-pinned around one of the choice, risqué T-shirts especially made for the Kings Road shop, Sex.

 Selling an intriguing line of arcane '50s cruise-ware, fantasy glamour ware and the odd rubber suit, this unique boutique is owned by Malcolm McLaren, ex-manager of the New York Dolls, now the Sex Pistols' manager.

His shop has a mysterious atmosphere which made it the ideal meeting place for a loose crowd of truant, disaffected teenagers. Three of them were aspiring musicians who, last October, persuaded McLaren to take them on. They wanted to play rock'n'roll. They weren't to know what they were about to start and even now no one is sure where it will lead. All Steve, Glenn and Paul needed, then, was a lead singer.

A few weeks later Johnny Rotten strayed into the same murky interior. He was first spotted leaning over the jukebox, looking bored.

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