Let´s celebrate the 40th Anniversary of Punk!
Posted by Bo Ellegaard on November 23, 2020 0 Comments
In the mid-70s a change had to come in the music business. It had become more "a business" than "music" with bands caring more for a steady career.
Record companies, music rights lawyers, band managers and concert promoters now "took care" of the music business. A recording contract with the big international record companies could prove fatal either to the band´s creativity or their financial situation.
Making a record became an expensive production that needed a big turnover to pay for itself. Rights to the songs especially if they became succesful were a commodity you would sell and buy. Band managers charged a (for them personally) healthy percentage of the band´s income.
The concerts themselves got bigger and bigger- stadiums were more the rule than the exception when popular bands toured. Often the tour was just an extension of sales strategies of how to sell the latest album. The performance was often flawed by bad sound and/or the unability to actually see who was on stage!!
All this must be taken in consideration when looking back 40 years on what the state of the music business was back then.
This was before the CD and streaming services of course. You would listen to music in the radio then go to the record store to buy either a vinyl album or a musicasette (a recorded cassette tape). Very few had bought an expensive video recorder where you eventually could buy live concerts with only the biggest bands in the industry. On a rare occasion you could record one of the few rock concerts televised in (Danish) television. I believe the Brits were lucky to have the BBC. In Germany it was Bremen´s Beat Club early on and later the Rockpalats series of concerts.
The freakbeat and garage bands of the 1960´ies and (later named) proto punk bands like New York´s Velvet Underground, Detroit´s MC 5 and The Stooges (and a lot of other lesser known bands) pointed in a different direction than the so-called supergroups. They were not very capable on their instruments but had instead energy and determination to claim a place for themselves on the music scene with their more simple approach.
In the New York area new bands emerged all the time and around l971-74 interesting bands like The Ramones, Television and New York Dolls appeared- the latter to record first. It took a British entrepreneur Malcolm McLaren to manage the New York Dolls and secure them a name outside of New York- in fact as far as Manchester. (...just ask a young boy named Patrick Stephen Morrissey!!) and indeed for posterity via their two albums "New York Dolls"(1973) and "Too Much Too Soon"(1974).
Meanwhile in England a circuit of pubs in order to help the sales of beer on slow evenings opened the doors to a lower division of musicians so to speak. In the pubs´ function rooms in the back when not occupied by weddings, silver anniversaries etc. you often found a decent stage an ok room for the audience and of course enough beer to keep everyone happy.
The music that came out of the pubs were simply called "pub rock" and the bands enjoyed together with their audience a much more intimate experience of playing live music in these surroundings. If one of these pub rock bands got lucky a record deal with a minor record company was within reach. I´ll try to avoid namedropping but have to mention the bands Brinsley Schwarz(with Nick Lowe) and an American band who were hot on the British pub rock circuit namely Eggs Over Easy. These bands toured the pub circuit and didn´t become a big success. Dire Straits did precisely the same but became a world known act almost instantly from the early 1980´s and on...
Out of this scene also grew a more agressive, political and social aware movement when around late 1975 early 1976 a few bands and their supporters began dressing differently in leather jackets with studs, tartan skirts, safety pins through both clothes and earlobes. Some sporting a Mohican hairdo. In fact anything to make a shock effect on the parent generation. A Swastica arm band could also be used to shock older people. Badges were pinned on the jackets to show others who your heroes were...and who were they?
I´ll try to stay away from namedropping again when possible. You can google yourself for more names and info.
A band called The Damned was the first of this new breed of punk rock bands to record. The 7" "New Rose" was the first record to hit the shops in 1976. It was issued on the Stiff record label- a small company set up (famously on a 400 GBP loan from the late and great Lee Brilleaux of Dr. Feelgood fame) to sign some of this new exciting music. The Damned got signed by Stiff Records and issued a couple of albums here ("Damned, Damned, Damned" known for its cover of the band smeared in whipped cream) before moving on to other record deals.
But entrepreneurs are always ready to have a go when the fashion changes...and Malcolm McLaren were no upstart in the music business as we read above. Back from USA and a moderate success with The New York Dolls he had set up a fashion clothes shop firstly called "Let It Rock" then the more daring "Too Fast To Live, Too Young To Die" and finally the shocking name "Sex" as early as 1974 with Vivienne Westwood selling her clothes and shoes design.
Malcolm McLaren had sensed this change on the music scene in New York before moving back to London and now this was also happening here. So among the customers in "Sex" he picked a bunch of young, eh well....punks to get them to form a punk band with him as their manager. They only needed a singer to complete the line up and one John Lydon with his Pink Floyd t-shirt over written by hand with "I hate" was auditioned along with the shop´s jukebox´s repertoire and chosen for the slot as lead singer now re-named Johnny Rotten in the band to become "Sex Pistols". A suitably shocking name for a band McLaren thought.
On this background Sex Pistols have later arguably been called just another boy band created by the music industry.
What you can´t argue with is the impact and sheer importance for the punk rock movement (and indeed the whole music business from now on) Sex Pistols would have.
And this despite a time span of only two and a half years with four singles, one proper studio album and later (in 1980) the movie "The Great Rock ´n´ Roll Swindle" (with McLaren mocking the whole punk rock movement stating that he was just in it for the money). (Then small independant company) Virgin Records famously secured a recording contract with the band after Sex Pistols had been sacked two times by major companies.
Scandalous often cancelled concerts around Britain and abroad Sex Pistols showed a way to hundreds of unacademic musicians who just wanted to play rock music in a band. It is documented and shown later in the movie "24 Hour Party People"(2002), that the Mancunian audience of around 50 in june, 1976 all went to form bands afterwards (google: june 04, 1976: Four Dozen People Witness "The Gig That Changed The World" for more info!).
Also scandalous was the boat cruise on the Thames while playing "God Save The Queen" (continuing with the line "She´s No Human Being"!) while the Royal Silver Jubilee was celebrated in 1978 resulted in a river police raid! The 7" single charted at the number two slot but outsold number one in the official charts. A case of backwards payola you could say!
Then things went sour: bassist Glen Matlock(who wrote the Pistols´ original musik) was sacked/or left and (friend of the band) Sid Vicious (who couldn´t play) took the bass playing duties. Then John Lydon left due to a falling out with McLaren over money.
They carried on for a few months. McLaren then had the crazy idea for the band to go to Brazil to record "No One Is Innocent" with exiled bank robber Ronnie Biggs. A new shocker for the Brits who had almost forgotten the train robbery in 1963 from which Biggs had escaped and was now an exile in a country that didn´t had an extradition agreement with England...
Then Sid Vicious was accused of murdering his girlfriend and shortly after overdosed on heroin and died at 21.
As you can see and indeed hear in their music Sex Pistols was a band who practised what they preached so to speak. They lived fast and died/stopped young leaving us with only a few songs compared to other bands of the day.
With this blog post I hope to have turned some new listeners on to this exciting genre that led on to many other good things: New Wave, post punk, the indie movement- meaning all the independant record companies that gave their life blood for this, The Smiths(!), some of the metal subgenres and later grunge.
If I have reached my goal please do go on and investigate on your own! It´s all out there: google, youtube....begin with "punk"!!
PS I stated that John Lydon left Sex Pistols but he in fact formed one of the first bands to be called "post punk" namely Public Image Ltd. (PIL)
This band exists to this day albeit with a few years in hiatus and is still as fresh sounding as ever with Lydon´s idiosyncratic voice as strong as it ever was!!