Pretty Vacant Or Spiky-Haired Situationists?

Empire, Kitty. “Pretty Vacant Or Spiky-Haired Situationists?” The Observer (The New Review section), 19 November 2017, p. 36.

. . . Were the art school games of canny old hippies behind punk? Sometimes, but perhaps more in theory than practice. An essay in Punk Is Dead: Modernity Killed Every Night by fanzine writer Tom Vague retraces McLaren’s appetite for destruction back through the situationists, the lettrists, psychogeography and a tiny late 60s Notting Hill faction called King Mob (a reference to the Gordon Riots of 1780).

Authors Richard Cabut and Andrew Gallix have skin in the game; Cabut is an ex-punk (“In the summer of 1977 I am 17 – perfect”) who became a playwright, while Gallix is at the Sorbonne and edits a free-ranging literary webzine called 3:AM (“whatever it is, we’re against it”). The book’s title (Modernity Killed Every Night) quotes Jacques Vaché, friend to the surrealist André Breton. But Punk Is Dead isn’t end-to-end cultural theory; there’s a lot on clothes. Three strands unfurl — papers, essays and first-person accounts. Cabut and Gallix have included historical documents — such as Penny Rimbaud’s 1977 essay, Banned from the Roxy, newly annotated by the Crass drummer — while Gallix argues that punk started ending when it acquired a name. Jon Savage is here, and Ted Polhemus and Vermorel (again).

As that list attests, punk can be a tiresomely Boy’s Own narrative, to which former Slit Viv Albertine’s 2014 memoir was a potent corrective. With the exception of Judy Nylon’s introduction and the reminiscences of go-go dancer turned drummer Dorothy Max Prior, however, this collection is let down by its dearth of female voices. Perhaps the notion to take away from both books — indeed from punk itself — is the one of endless possibility. As an interview with the punk turned philosopher Simon Critchley attests, punk unleashed ideas. It palpably changed suburban teenage futures, rather than ending them.

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