I was never a full-throttle punk but how I loved the scene’s brief chaos

Notes from a Pathetically Uncommitted Punk

At the end of the 1970s, something happened that was bloody marvellous. A music scene which up to that point had been infested with Glitter, glitter and mediocrity was gobbed at full in the face by a group of upstarts who made a cacophanous noise, refused to behave themselves and turned the idea of ladylike on its head

Most people agree that punk started in 1976. I was 19 years old and paddling around in the posh town of Tunbridge Wells, working for Dr Barnardo’s, going to nightclubs that played interminable disco hits and secretly listening to singers like Bob Dylan and Neil Young in my sad little bedsit, which I eventually managed to burn down. (Not deliberately, I hasten to add, but with the help of a fair bit of alcohol.)

And then, along with a handful of other arsey upstarts, the Sex Pistols appeared. My brother went to see them on Hastings Pier, a glorious swamp of a venue that had hitherto hosted the Rolling Stones and the Kinks, among others. Well, he didn’t go to see them, he went to see a band called Budgie, a hairy heavy metal band from Cardiff. Surely you remember their hit, “Crash Course in Brain Surgery”? No, me neither.

Pogo no-go

My brother tells me he and his mates were in the bar plannning to sink a few barley wines while the support band were on, when somebody came into the bar and shouted “Come and see this lot – they’re so crap, they’re brilliant!” He said there was something about them but still maintains Budgie had the edge.

Much to my chagrin, I never saw the Sex Pistols. I arrived at Brunel University in the autumn of 1978 to find, subsequently, that the Pistols had played their last British gig at Brunel three months before. And I have to confess that my attachment to punk was on the fringes, to say the very least. I picked the bits of it I liked, so I wore tartan trousers but no safety pin through my ear. Being allergic to nickel made that too much of an unpalatable prospect. And rather than get covered in a shower of phlegm and beer, I stayed away from big punk events. As for pogoing . . . that was a bit too much like exercise for me.

I did make an exception for the Clash at the Brixton Academy and the atmosphere was incredible – so loud, so exciting and completely unforgettable. In a strange footnote, I was doing a benefit at the Hammersmith Odeon recently, with Tim Minchin and Paul Weller among others, and Mick Jones turned up at the stage door while I was having a fag outside. It was pouring with rain and he lent me his hat, leaving me outside in it while he went in to say hello to people. I tried to work out ways I could nick it without seeming like a weirdo and decided I couldn’t, so I meekly returned it. Hardly the act of a hardened punk.

I tried to see the Damned at the Clarendon in Hammersmith in the early 1980s, a venue that no longer exists, because it’s got a shopping centre on top of it. Several friends and I arrived there to discover it was sold out. We were all a bit pissed off. “Smash It Up” has always been one of my favourite punk anthems, which we always used to play in our flat on a Friday night to prepare us for the onslaught in the Brunel student bar.

We decided to have a drink in the Clarendon anyway and while we were sitting in the corner moaning, I noticed a door near us with some steps leading up to the venue. We decided to chance our arms and went up only to find ourselves face to face with the Damned themselves, who were mid-soundcheck. Somebody bold asked if we could stay and, it being punk, we were welcomed in. We didn’t even have to sleep with them.

Party on, nurse

Punk had its casualties. I moved on to become a nurse in a south London psychiatric emergency clinic and was surprised to see, one evening, one of the very big names in punk brought in suffering from amphetamine psychosis. The nurse’s version of the Hippocratic Oath prevents me from revealing the identity of the person in question, I’m afraid. 

Punk allowed women to stop looking feminine. Oh, the relief. I could never wear a dress without a lump of curry or similar flying through the air and landing, within seconds, on my clothes. To be able to, nay encouraged to, look like you’d just slept in your clothes for three nights was fashion heaven for me.

In the end, punk inevitably burned itself out and acted as a bridge across which the New Romantics could sashay in their chiffon and glossy hair. It had been like a brief, sulphurous flare in a sky crowded with disappointingly dull and lukewarm stars. I didn’t dive headfirst into the sea of chaos, yet I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Crisis