Punk is alive in the mouths of the scowling aged
Article by Michael Mary Murphy
The London Olympic Opening Ceremonies featured the sounds of the Clash, the Jam and heaven forfend, the Sex Pistols. The hockey games were preceded by the sounds of ‘London Calling’. With its lyrics of nuclear destruction, famine and a visit by the apocalypse to the city, it was an odd choice to inspire feats of athleticism.
There was a time when the authorities in Britain wanted nothing more than for punk to go away. Now it does go away. But only to Blackpool for a long weekend. This most English of cities hosts the annual Rebellion Festival with a peaceful invasion by thousands of punk fans. The assorted attendees are full-time, part-time, and one-time punks. The host city even manufactures a celebratory confectionary assault on good teeth – a stick of rock with the words Punk Rock imprinted in it.
Elements of the gathering resemble the out-patient department of any urban hospital. The punks are not the healthiest subculture. There was even one apparent ‘Lourdes moment’ when a less-than-young punk body-surfed over the crowd. As he was held aloft prostrate by dozens of hands he twirled his walking stick with the dexterity of a drum majorette. Yes, the punks are back. And this year they were fatter, older and balder. For all that, there is an extraordinary sense of community: a community that embraces diverse factions, styles, ages and nationalities. And this year, the Irish were out in force. Judging from the line-up, Ireland has an impressive ratio of punk bands per capita.
Autumn 2012 is a fine time to reflect on thirty five (or six) years of punk in Ireland. The Blackpool Festival gives a tidy, non-scientific, data-set to gauge the health, or should that be the disease, of the movement. Granted not everyone wants to play here. Before I started attending it seemed like a punk elephant’s graveyard. A collection of has-beens playing the songs of their youth. Songs by youth about youth. It seemed like a waste of time. Now I find it inspiring seeing performers play music they love to people who love hearing it. Who cares if these people have seen better days? At least they have days. And they are making the most of them.
Neil McCormack recently controversially wrote that “there were really no out-and-out angry punk rock groups on the emerging Irish scene”. Surely the Threat and the Pretty would be outraged at this affront to their rage? And what of the Outcasts? Being described as not angry would surely make them, well, angrier. They were Dennis the Menace without Dennis. They would be expected to triumph in any international contest of ‘out-and-out angry punk rock’.
One of the enduring moments from Blackpool was Dublin’s Paranoid Visions performance of ‘Strange Girl’. The song is a haunting reminder of Ann Lovett, the schoolgirl who died giving birth in a grotto in Longford. As the words about this tragedy were sung, a punk stood in front of the stage to adjust the most punk of accoutrements, his bum-flap. He squirmed as he adjusted his wardrobe malfunction so that the image of Sid and Nancy was restored to its rightful place over his derriere. So is punk about style or substance? Clearly that has not yet been decided. Does the anger have a point? Or is his all a revolt of style?
The aforementioned Outcasts still pack a wallop. They exemplify one of the great punk paradoxes – being deadly serious and savagely funny, simultaneously. A song dedicated to the singer’s wife seems out of step with the Outcasts of old. Has romance finally caught up with them? Have they mellowed with the years? No. The song they perform as a matrimonial tribute is ‘You’re A Disease’. No sell-out here.
Their songs were bloody Tarantino scripts sliced into lean cuts of rock music. No fat. Just pulp, sinew and muscle. Unlike other contemporaries they weren’t just angry; they were also tuneful. So their songs stand up surprisingly well. ‘Love You For Never’ and ‘The Cops Are Coming’ still retain a punch and a kick or two. ‘Programme Love’ and ‘Winter’ prove they had more arrows for their bow than the average punk quiver. Their Killing Joke-type pop smarts placed them ahead of the early eighties punk pack.
Like Stiff Little Fingers they put the ‘Troubles’ into popular culture. In Blackpool, scowling Greg Cowan, the band’s frontman, introduces the song ‘Gangland Warfare’ about “another Belfast Saturday night” as being about gangs. It’s about ‘the Bloods and the Crips’ he quips before admitting he is only joking. It is about the ‘Taigs and the Prods’ he announces. It is funny to think how songs from 1983 have had their meanings changed by the forces of history. It’s even funnier to think how Northern Ireland had been broadcast by the Outcasts and Stiff Little Fingers before U2 started the promotional campaign for their War album in February ’83. The ‘out-and-out angry punk rock’ bands paved the way.
More importantly than mere musical achievements Stiff Little Fingers proved that a career in punk could be a long and productive one. They enjoyed chart success with decent songs straddling the treacherous divide between rock and pop. ‘At The Edge’ with its tale of teenage suppression and generational conflict inspired a rousing sing-a-long from the assembled gathering. Most of them appeared to be of the age where their thoughts most be impinged upon by their own teenagers! It was unconceivable at the time that a band from Ireland singing about human drama and the situation in Northern Ireland would be performing those songs thirty odd years later.
Liz is Evil, Setting Off Sirens and Chewing On Tinfoil who all performed at the festival prove that Irish bands can still contribute tenaciously to the global legacy of punk. North and South, and even with the brilliant buoyancy of ska in the case of Chewing On Tinfoil, they prove that punk and Ireland is still a potent combination. Over the weekend another domestic act, The Statics demonstrate the evolutionary guile of the punk sub-culture. Their blistering set echoed the instrumental sections of Fugazi. They sustained their vocal-less attack for an entire set of crunching, stretching, musical liberation.
Any gathering of the Irish abroad, even if it is just for a weekend at the seaside, should consider Irish emigration. This great scar of Irish history is visible in Blackpool. Dowdy pubs bleat blarney ballads from doorways. ‘The Fields of Athenry’ seeps from tatty, tacky bric-a-brac stalls. And a number of the second-generation Irish were evident over the course of the four-day festival. Foremost was the man who was both the king and court jester of early punk. His set was one of the best I have seen in two decades. John Lydon, with his band PiL, headlined the grandly titled Empress Ballroom. Their set is underpinned with a slow-burning incandescent rage. A fury that has still not had its hour.
Even as his music is far removed from the sheds that were Irish ballrooms, his thoughts tonight seemed to challenge Empire. Their song ‘Religion’ scared me when I first heard it. To be honest, it still does. It is a peculiarly Hibernian diatribe with its reference to the Irish Post, the emigrant’s link with a land they left behind. A land that left them behind in many cases. It is an ungodly song of defiance, an assault on authority. And on this particular Saturday night Lydon dedicates it to Pussy Riot whose spirit of defiance brings the imminent prospect of incarceration in Putin’s Russia. A song from the London-Irish community repurposed to express solidarity with the underdogs in the capitalist post-communist country.
Another of the London-Irish community, Leeson O’Keefe from the boisterous and stirring band Neck gives the punks a history lesson. Proclaiming how the London-Irish community kept the vigour and spirit in Irish traditional session music. Over the weekend they perform acoustically and electrically, most memorably with a punk-up version of ‘Spancil Hill’. The auld lads in Clare would probably hate it. And Neck seem happy about that.
Patrik Fitzgerald was another second-generation Irishman who made a significant contribution to punk. His song ‘Safety Stuck in My Heart’ was also one of the best titles of the era. He was inevitably labelled a ‘punk poet’, a job description that failed to capture the depth and range of his work. His songs told tales of everyday life with a slightly detached despondency. A real bloke with real problems expressing them with disarming honesty. And yet what he did was far from ordinary. He took to those early London punk stages, where punk had found its voice, but not yet its soul. And he did the most challenging, confrontational thing a singer could do in that era. In a time where shock, noise, theatrics and volume ruled the day, he took an acoustic guitar to accompany him on incisive songs that lamented machismo, casual violence and an uncaring society. Now that was rebellion!
Meanwhile…the Olympic movement is not the only cultural monolith to put an arm around punk. Another month, another book about U2. This time a collection from a North Carolina conference in their honour. Naturally, a significant component documents the band’s Christianity. That may explain why Ireland has never produced another band as successful. No other Christian rock band has emerged with the support of a well-financed international record label. Another chapter deduces that Bono’s stated world view coincides with very orthodox conservative principles. Take it with whatever pinch you deem appropriate but it is undeniable that some people take such things very seriously.
While this might appear to challenge the clichéd idea of rock and roll as opposing conservative and/or Christian perspectives, this viewpoint is not shared by all the contributors. One of the book’s highlights comes from an ex-Hot Press staffer. Neil McCormick, U2’s biographer quoted somewhat dubiously above, who writes on the cultural factors that could explain the group’s long career. One of his arguments is that the band only blossomed when a new style of music hit Dublin: “U2 was saved by punk. The musicians were the right age to buy into the whole ethos, to get carried away with the spirit of revolution”.
McCormick depicts that innovative spirit of punk as a rejection of the showband phenomenon. That sounds about right, as does his assertion that Dublin punk was unlike English or New York punk. It is not clear whether U2 are remotely punk but interesting to see their biographer position them unapologetically as emergent punk. It says a lot about both U2 and punk: how punk has mutated, evolved and been shaped simultaneously by the most commercial and the most anti-commercial processes.