This year marks 40 years since the Sex Pistols released Anarchy in the UK’, regarded by many to be the greatest and most iconic, encapsulating punk song ever written. So, we must ask: is punk even possible today in 2017? Joe Corre, son of Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McClaren and fashion designer Vivienne Westwood certainly seems to think so.
In an attention-seeking and explosively-defiant stunt at the end of last year, Corre, a 48-year-old businessman, set sail on the Thames aboard a floating bonfire of vintage punk memorabilia. The extremely rare haul of items, including clothes worn by the Sex Pistols on tour, is estimated to have been worth a startling, and now burnt to a crisp, £5 million. The already wealthy Corre, described as spoilt and reckless at the scene by gaping onlookers, claims that his stunt was in protest of “Punk being castrated by the corporate sector and the state”, referring to the way in which punk has tragically become a nostalgic brand to display on band t-shirts and read about in museums.
He appears to have a point; times have vastly changed since the punk glory days of the late ’70s, when politics and music went hand in hand. Music was volatile and exhilarating, a tool for voicing the minds and anger of young people and the working class. It was the scrapping underdog at the table of the mainstream. Nowadays, if an artist was to speak out politically, through lyrics or interviews, they might be in danger of upsetting their record label. Bands seem to be terrified of controversy, because speaking your mind is corporately frowned upon. You’re expected to quietly come up with the music while the record company handle all press releases and publicity. A conveyer belt of press-trained dancing monkeys regurgitating the same monotonous, meaningless songs with nothing to say is the depressing result year after year. The closest we’ve come to real punk behaviour this year was the brief outcry from several bands that were horrified to discover their music had been used for Donald Trump to walk on and off stage to. Not exactly career defining or life changing though, is it.
Of course, there are some who have in the immortal words of Public Enemy tried to ‘fight the power’, but in doing that they risk being completely unmarketable. Ultimately in this era where money in the music business comes from radio play and big festival slots rather than album sales, its crucial to have the media backing you rather than being too terrified of what you’ll do or say next to promote or book you. So we see a vicious cycle in motion, as even the bands who do have something different, political and socially relevant to say, get the punk spirit sucked out of them by the corporate machine. Or alternatively, they refuse to compromise and therefore struggle to make themselves heard without the critical support from the media to put them out there for the masses. You can’t really win.
Slaves, the two-piece garage rock duo, have been widely proclaimed the saviour of punk by many, the start of a revival of raw energetic politicised guitar music back in the charts again, just like the Sex Pistols four decades before them. However, even they’ve been called out by punk purists as posh boys from Kent wearing wannabe punk clothing who have no real message or meaning. They may sound like the real deal on record, but have they got the substance and mentality to merit the title of a genuinely vital punk band? The jury is still very much out on that.
Elsewhere it’s been suggested that Fat White Family are the closest thing to a genuine punk band today. They’re an eccentric bunch of defiant, head-shaven renegades that have been described by many as having the best live show in the world. They wear their beliefs on their sleeves, and they wear very little during their manic gigs, with lead singer Lias Kaci Saoudi regularly performing fully naked. This added to the carnage caused by their hardcore fan base at shows, and the bizarre sound of their indie sludge anthems, makes for a truly memorable experience. They campaigned radically and admirably against the gentrification of South London, and when offered a major label deal with Sony, The Fat White’s instead chose to self-release their records, stating that mainstream major label music has “the politics of rampant capitalist fundamentalism”. In a musical landscape where Bob Geldof and Lily Allen are about as political as artists seem to get, Fat White Family are surely the closest to genuine punk around now.
Perhaps punk is not dead – maybe we just call it grime now.
In terms of punk in the musical sense, the incredible revival of grime music in the last two or three years is potentially the new punk for this generation. Artists such as Skepta, Wiley, JME and Kano have taken a vastly underground scene to the mainstream and stormed the gates, with Skepta last year thoroughly deservedly winning the prestigious Mercury Music Prize. No other genre has come close to voicing the concerns and lives of so many young people in Britain for decades, and it has a real punk, anti-establishment rebellious spirit entrenched deep within its music. The struggle with police and the government shutting down gigs at clubs particularly in London recently has only fuelled the fire and spirit of artists and fans involved in the ever-growing nationwide scene. So perhaps punk is not dead – maybe we just call it grime now.
Words by Ed Budds