Punk 1976-78, a British Library exhibition

The starting point for the Punk 1976-78 exhibition is a bit of social history via newspaper cuttings to explain the backdrop behind the cultural explosion that was punk. The headlines chosen do give an accurate impression of the times. They remind us of those heady days of; industrial unrest, riots, rock royalty Eric Clapton drunkenly giving his support for Enoch Powell, the rise of the National Front, immigrants getting the blame. 

But while it’s necessary to explain the backdrop the exhibition isn’t about that. What it is about is the positive attitude that punk brought. Its DIY approach to music, the “be the change you want to be” attitude, the strength in numbers (thinking of the Anti-Nazi League here), the shot in the arm that it brought to the arts particularly fashion and graphic design (hats doffed to Jamie Reid), and why not be a film director (hello Don Letts) and if the media is not your message then why not write, print and distribute your own message (Mark Perry’s ‘Sniffin’ Glue’ first among many). The big artists of the era were the Ramones and the Sex Pistols and they, along with the Clash, do occupy quite a bit of space in the exhibition but certainly not at the expense of other artists including the women of punk who are very well represented. 

In addition to the newspaper headlines, a timeline and an excellent Pete Frame punk family tree also set the scene. The family tree is about the ‘New Wave Nine’ and is incredibly interesting but didn’t help me answer the question ‘who created punk?’. The answer for me is either the Ramones or the Sex Pistols but sifting through the evidence of the exhibition it is probably both of them simultaneously on opposite sides of the Atlantic.

Lets look at the evidence provided in the exhibition. In 1976 the Ramones released their eponymously titled first album to perhaps less than rave reviews and it stalled at 111 in the Billboard charts. The Sex Pistols didn’t get to release their album until 1977 but it debuted at number one in the UK charts. The Sex Pistols were beaten to the punch but were they following in the wake of the Ramones? The story of the Sex Pistols chaotic start to their recording career is well documented in the exhibition.

Mike Thorne, born in Sunderland and educated in Oxford, is a producer, arranger, engineer, composer, musician and was A & R man for EMI long enough to sign the Sex Pistols. The Sex Pistols signed for EMI in October 1976 and the EMI pressing plants began production of ‘Anarchy in the UK’ releasing it on 26 November. That Bill Grundy thing happened on 1 December leading to EMI dropping the Sex Pistols and withdrawing the record. After a short stay with A&M, who it is said pressed 25,000 copies of ‘God Save the Queen’ only to destroy all of them, Richard Branson signed the Sex Pistols to Virgin. 

The Sex Pistols eventually got their music out to the wider public with ‘Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols’, an album lyrically full of snarling wit held together by colossal playing from Paul Cook on drums and Steve Jones on guitar. Who played bass is a mystery but it was probably Steve Jones all along. 

The Sex Pistols sold incredibly well which was either despite of or because of the obscenity trial that dogged the release and distribution of the album, it was not stocked by many large chain record stores. 

So the delay in getting an album out had nothing to do with one band following the other and musically the Ramones and the Sex Pistols are very different. The Ramones with a song like ‘I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend’ and their cover of Chris Montez’s ‘Lets Dance’ sound at times like a pop group from the 60s. While the Sex Pistols never let up from being themselves, okay maybe a nod to Iggy and the Stooges and early Small Faces both of whom they covered but still uncompromisingly themselves.

Women in punk are well represented with a good deal of the exhibition including a filmed interview (Stories from the She Punks) devoted to them. A larger than life size image of Poly Styrene seems to dominate one wall and the Slits and Patti Smith have a presence too. It was perhaps the women of punk that were more innovative than the boys of punk. X-Ray Spex released four singles over 12 months between 1977 and 1978 and all of the tracks including the B sides are still relevant today. The Slits were formed by 1976 but didn’t get their album ‘Cut’ released until 1979 but everything about their absolutely classic album defies description and what a cover image. Patti Smith of course beat everyone to the punch by releasing her John Cale produced album ‘Horses’ to almost universal critical acclaim in December 1975.

Anything to dislike about the exhibition? Not really but there is one frustrating thing. The existence of one of the most important parts of the punk era, the fanzine, is well represented. All the big ones are there including ‘Sniffin’ Glue’ and my favourite ‘White Stuff’, it was largely about Patti Smith. But they are quite rightly locked behind glass meaning you can’t pick them up and browse through them. I wish it had been possible to duplicate them somehow to allow the visiting public to browse and re-read the heady days of punk.

Anything to really like about the exhibition? Well apart from the brilliant photography which blown up life size almost makes you swoon, it is how the exhibition realises it’s not just the music but everything around it that makes punk what it is. The times we lived in yes but more importantly things like; the design genius of say a Jamie Reid, the fans doing it for themselves with a fanzine, the incredible and just so right photography from many including Robert Mapplethorpe and Roberta Bayley and of course last but not least the peace, love and understanding of a generation that rocked against racism and won.

Punk 1976-78 a British Library exhibition is at Sunderland Museum until 26 February 2017.

About Stella MacQueen

Sheila and Stella sitting in a tree... K.I.S.S.I.N.G.
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