Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Talkin' 'Bout My Generation

To mention the Pink Floyd's damp squib at the Knebworth Festival in 1975, as I did in a recent post, is inevitably also to conjure up the counter-image of John Lydon hanging around the King's Road later that same year in his ripped and safety-pinned Pink Floyd t-shirt, with the band's eyes scratched out and "I HATE" inscribed above the name. It now seems he may not have really meant it, ma-an, but it was what got him noticed by Malcolm McLaren, and ultimately landed him the gig as Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols. In any history of pop, this is the moment at which the jarring, jangling opening bars of "Anarchy in the UK" will strike up. It's a cliché that will never age, because it perfectly expresses in a few seconds whole paragraphs of poptasmic bombast.

Such transitional moments are never really the simple, clean break the TV histories like to portray, though, are they? For one thing, it's an obvious but frequently ignored fact that the music a youthful "generation" identifies itself with has generally been created by the previous generation. Just to pick a few names at random, John Lydon was born in 1956, Graham Parker in 1950, Joe Strummer in 1952, Elvis Costello in 1954, Adam Ant in 1954, Jordan in 1955, Siouxsie Sioux in 1957. In other words, it would seem my generation created "punk" and New Wave music and styles, for the edification and entertainment of our younger brothers and sisters born in the early to mid-1960s. By the same token, my age-cohort will never, in its bones, venerate the Clash or the Jam the same way it does the Who (Pete Townshend, b. 1945) or the Kinks (Ray Davis, b. 1944). Plus, however fresh that brash, "new" music may have seemed – and attitude is everything to the young – the fact is that by 1975 pop had already begun to eat itself.

I can recall the the first throat-clearings of punk. In fact, I can still remember when, listening to my little transistor radio late at night while working on a master's dissertation at the University of East Anglia in 1976/7, DJ John Peel was still scoffing at noms de punk like Rat Scabies and Sid Vicious. Only later did he become their champion. Had it not been for the infamous TV "interview" with Bill Grundy, I would have seen the Sex Pistols live at UEA on 3rd December 1976! But the university panicked, pathetically, and high-handedly cancelled the gig. However, at the time, being far more interested in Dylan's Blood on the Tracks, Joni Mitchell's Hejira, and jazz fusion pioneers like Weather Report, the loss seemed more annoying than historic. Poorly-executed shrieks of incoherent rage at the unfairness of the world were no longer my thing: damn it, I was studying Roland Barthes and Walter Benjamin, and finally finding my feet as an academic after three wasted undergraduate years. Although it is true I was still reading the NME every week, then in its era-defining heyday with a writing team including Charles Shaar Murray, Nick Kent, Ian Penman, Paul Morley, Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons.

But – and this is a big "but" – although I have had a wide-ranging acquaintance over the years, socially speaking, from the king in his castle to the beggar at his gate, from haughty lawyers to humble buskers, I cannot think of a single person of my "generation" I actually knew who either trailblazed or followed the Way of Punk. I suppose I came close to a few: the older brother of one friend, and the younger sister of another were closely identified with that scene, but it remains a puzzle. So many of us had gone the whole way with various versions and combinations of the standard-issue late-1960s alternative lifestyle: the very long hair, the ragged clothes, the "soft" and not-so-soft drugs, the music, the politics. And sure, plenty of us had eventually recoiled from the excesses of prog and "rock", had cut our hair short, and were enjoying the new sounds coming out of the radio (in my case so much so that I began for the first time noting tracks down in my notebook: see the post Playlist). Certainly, the anti-commercial, DIY ethic of punk played to my politics. But, although that whole safety-pin, spitting, and spiky hair thing looked fun, in a self-dramatising adolescent way, it was definitively "greasy kids' stuff", and it is a mystery to me where the nascent Rotten and Vicious demographic had been hiding itself all that time. Possibly locked in the bathroom since crashing a party where the dodgy brown microdots had been circulating in 1972.

After all, by the late 70s we were young adults in our twenties. The good parts of the previous "alternative" lifestyle were far too good to be thrown away in a mere fit of fashion-consciousness (unlike those split-knee loon pants or crushed velvet flares*). The wholefoods, the communitarian impulse, the ecological awareness, the rejection of patriarchal norms, the commitment to various versions of a radical left politics: all of these were things that needed defending into the future against a resurgent conservatism in British politics, not trashing in a spirit of No Future nihilism. We had developed a new definition of  what "grown up" meant, and were keen to try it out in a grown-up world that included jobs and babies, as well as compromising things like mortgages, pensions, and ageing parents.

What this most likely illustrates is what a silly idea a closely-defined youthful "generation" has become, at least when determined by musical tastes. Clearly, the break between generations before and after World War 2 was very real, if always shaded and nuanced. The difference between pre-War parents growing up in anxious, insecure poverty, maybe sharing one outside toilet with many neighbours, and their post-War children growing up in newly-built, self-contained council houses with rights to free medical care, schooling and social security was absolute, and led to mutual incomprehension. And I suppose there's something in the distinction between those of us who somehow managed to get along without the internet and mobile phones, and today's "digital natives". But the differences between growing up listening to the Beatles on a Dansette, Oasis on an iPod, and whatever it is the kids today are digging on Spotify, are simply so much more relative. To dwell on them as amounting to important generational signifiers really is the "narcissism of small differences".

But there is another obvious but frequently ignored fact, however, which is that at any given time multiple "generations" co-exist and, um, interbreed. If we take some other birth dates – let's say, Ian Dury (1942), Debbie Harry (1945), or Patti Smith (1946) – the idea of an identifiable punk or New Wave founding "generation" starts to wobble. Pink Floyd didn't die of shame when faced with the scorn of Johnny Rotten: far from it. Tastes and styles persist and have influence long after their official Best Before dates, and operate on far slower and stronger rhythms than the short-lived trends of pop music and youthful fashion.

Ironically, what better illustration of this can there be than the tendency of pop culture to evolve combinations of lifestyle, fashion, and music that are so compelling that they break free of their time of origin? Think of teds, bikers, mods, metal, goths, hippies, punks: all fossilised style-packages from past decades which nonetheless continue to attract new waves of adherents. Indeed, some loyal souls will have found themselves a lifelong commitment, as if they had taken an unbreakable oath, and will wear their tribal leathers and denims, thinning quiffs and ponytails defiantly into old age. Which is either steadfast, silly, or sad, depending, I suggest, on what you see (or think you see, or wish you saw) when you look in the mirror.

Fashion tribes meeting at a festival

* Fashion note: I never, ever wore flares. Partly because when you're 5' 6" you look ridiculous, but also because I thought they looked ridiculous, full stop. In fact, I rarely wore "fashion" clothes at all: my tailors were Oxfam and the army surplus stores. That's me on the right in the bottom photograph.


Zouk Delors said...

I really like the middle one. The style reminds me of illustrations in books I used to read as a kid. I hope that doesn't mean people with more sophisticated tastes will think it's not up to your usual standard. Has that wasp got teeth?

I'm pretty sure I remember you wearing that outfit in the third one.

Mike C. said...


I like it too -- it incorporates two linocuts I did way back in the 70s, one a sort of wasp-meets-alien critter, the other a more conventional waspy thing (I know! How long has this thing been going on?). As you say, it's got something of that simple three-colour printing of the 50s about it.

As for the get up, that was back in my eskimo tradin' days...


Martyn Cornell said...

My favourite "generation gulf" fact is that Hugh Cornwell of the Stranglers is just four months younger than Richard Thompson – and, indeed, they played in a band together at William Ellis school in Highgate.

Mike C. said...


That is fairly surprising, though I suppose RT was very young when he started out. I see from Wikipedia that the band was called Emil and the Detectives -- very nice!