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9 May 2022

From the NS archive: New punks await last wave

23 April 1982: For some reason, all new punk concerts feel damp.

By Mary Harron

A few years prior to the publication of this 1982 article, its author Mary Harron thought punk was a dying movement. Since then new groups had emerged out of the scene. “New punk” aligned itself with the “conservatives” in rock – heavy metal fans, teddy boys and skinheads – who didn’t follow shifting trends, but rather committed themselves to one look and stuck with it. They were less intelligent, and less courageous, than other rock fans, Harron wrote. Mohicans abounded in this new movement, but the new style had nothing to do with the “brutality chic” or “S&M chic” of scenes past; “It’s just ugly,” Harron decreed. What’s more, she didn’t find any of the new bands at all exciting onstage.

In the past the “underground” was always avant-garde. It implied secret knowledge of something so shocking, so advanced and so cool that the rest of the world simply hadn’t caught up. These days the press is so sensitive to every tremor of a new theory and every shift in fashion in rock music, the only underground movements now are the ones that don’t make good copy.

One of these is the new punk. Three years ago if there were punks in the audience they seemed to be the last survivors of a dying movement, if it wasn’t already dead. They came out in force at any concerts by the old guard of ’76 – the Clash, the Damned – and for Siouxsie and the Banshees and Adam Ant before he turned teen idol. Then new groups appeared who would go on to form hardcore punk, gothic punk, apocalyptic punk. It became obvious that the punks were getting younger and younger, and that both the style and its meaning had changed.

The media ignored it because punk was old news, and because this new offshoot looked lost, grubby and confused. The clarity, the antagonism and the lunatic momentum that had created the punk revolution had gone. When some of the new bands launched a “Punk’s Not Dead” tour it seemed to have no message apart from “we exist” and no motive apart from a sullen determination to hang on.

By hanging on, the new punks placed themselves with the conservatives in rock: heavy metal fans, teddy boys, skinheads. Rock conservatives don’t follow shifting trends, are hostile to fashion in music and dress. They are more committed, less adventurous and generally less intelligent – certainly less able to handle new ideas – than other rock fans. It takes courage to resist fashion, particularly for teenagers, so they herd together and close ranks. They become obsessed with detail: a style that was thrown together haphazardly in a spirit of challenge and rebellion becomes fixed. At its most extreme, among the teddy boys, the music and the clothes stop evolving all together, and become a shield of resentment against a world that changed too quickly, and passed them by.

The new punk style is an outcast style and it shares some of the skinheads’ masochism, as in the self-mutilation of tattoos and the self-destruction of sniffing glue. The punk’s Mohican haircut, like the skinhead crop, helps make unemployment guaranteed. But there is none of the skinhead’s twitchy aggression, and the new punks are far more likely to join the CND than the British Movement. A skinhead concert leaves you feeling suicidal; a new punk concert leaves you feeling wrung out, vaguely depressed and confused.

The new punk style, unlike the old, has nothing to do with brutality chic or S&M chic or poverty chic or any kind of chic. It’s just ugly. It has attracted no designers, appeared at no fashionable parties, has not been adopted by debutantes or – until recently – espoused by the NME.

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Any form of rock music that survives without fashion depends on a solid grass-roots network. When Killing Joke (apocalyptic punk veering into gothic) played Hammersmith Palais recently, they were heralded by the kind of circus you expect with a number one group like the Jam: touts selling tickets at the Tube station and all along the road, and T-shirts and badges hawked outside the theatre.

For some reason, all new punk concerts feel damp: something to do with the combination of sweat, spilled beer and collapsed bodies lying in the fag ends and broken plastic glasses on the floor. But a Killing Joke concert feels like being under water. The music helps, being a rather skilful mass of shifting layers of sound – heavy on feedback, heavy on bass – played at a volume that crosses the pain threshold. Total immersion, leading to an ecstatic sensation of non-being, if not deafness.

At Hammersmith I was sitting on a half-demolished bench, watching the Mohicans swim by, when I noticed a boy slumped on the ground in front of me. On the back of his ripped leather jacket he had painted this sad little verse:

I don’t know where I’m going
I don’t know where I’ve been
I don’t know what I’m doing
But I know it’s done me in.

The first punks thought it was worth fighting: they talked about no future, but still acted as if there was a possible victorious one. Unemployment has obviously robbed the new generation of its self-respect. Feeling rejected, they have created a rejects’ style and therefore an identity, and made a temporary home.

But the anxiety goes far beyond job prospects. The old punk images of concrete and broken glass, tower blocks and dole queues have been replaced by a relentlessly gloomy vision of the future. This movement is more to do with emotional needs than ideas, so interviews with the bands are incoherent. The Australian punk band the Birthday Party are an exception – not because they have anything to say, but because their cheerfully obnoxious attitude (not giving a fuck) is a throwback to ’76: “I don’t expect to get anywhere, in fact I expect to have to climb to get home.” Of course, they’re not very optimistic either.

Killing Joke represent a more disturbing trend, or rather a return to something we thought we’d never have to live through again. Shortly after that concert at Hammersmith the lead singer, Jaz Coleman, disappeared in Brighton. Reading reports in the NME, we learned that Jaz was a fervent believer in the occult, a devotee of Aleister Crowley, and had warned the group that “the lure of other things”, such as black magic, would take him away from them.

No word came from Jaz; his fellow musicians thought he might be in Iceland – a nexus of planetary ley-lines – and asked him to come back and look after his cats. The following week Jaz turned up in Reykjavik, staying with an Icelandic group called Peyr. His new friends were interested in the occult, in psychic control of audiences, and were building an underwater recording studio where they planned to await the coming of the Last Wave, after which the New Age would come.

This kind of hippy muck ties in with some other recent echoes of the Sixties. Bauhaus write lyrics that would have made the Incredible String Band hide their heads in shame:

Ancient earth work, fort and barrow
Discreetly hide their secret abodes
The most fearful hide deep inside
And venture not there upon Yuletide.

Meanwhile, Poly Styrene and Lora Logic, formerly of X-Ray Spex, have been frequenting the Krishna temple; Kirk Brandon of Theatre of Hate thinks a new age will come about through a spontaneous change in world consciousness.

This has very little to do with the return of psychedelia and a lot to do with how human nature responds to unbearable panic. The more anxious we are, the more credulous we become, and it is natural to start believing in other worlds when we are so close to losing this one.

This does not excuse the stupidity and ugliness of dabbling in the occult, or the return to sloppy mysticism. The saddest thing is how lethargic these concerts are, in spite of the on-stage sound and fury. One exception is Theatre of Hate, where there are signs that something is stirring; a sharper, more hopeful spirit that could lead to something, if only a new batch of members for CND. But none of the new punk groups is very convincing on stage. For years, I dismissed these groups for their easy melodrama, their useless pessimism, their adolescent angst. How dreary, it seemed, to make depression into a cult. But how callous not to realise that the depression was real, and that fear of the future would hit hardest at the very young.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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