Punk Bashing Time

Andrew Stevens interviewed me for Creases Like Knives, 16 September 2017:

Punk Bashing Time: An Interview with Andrew Gallix

It was no less than Garry Bushell himself who wrote of ‘dreading well-meaning graduates with crops and tailor-made crombies’ in Sounds when he met with the teenaged members of ‘Skins Against the Nazis’ in 1978. Stevo had a few less hang-ups about meeting a fully-fledged Professor at the Sorbonne in Paris to go over his new book Punk Is Dead (Zero Books), which in part deals with aspects of skinhead’s troubled history among punk.

But then Andrew Gallix, who also edits the eclectic and punked-up webzine 3:AM, was a little more gracious and even-handed than some of the book’s other contributors when it came to recounting his own experiences.

You begin by taking issue with claims in “certain punk memoirs, [that] the streets of London, in 1977, were thronging with skinheads”?

Well, I was thinking specifically of Viv Albertine’s memoir — possibly the best punk memoir ever published and a truly excellent book in its own right. The dates, however, are not always totally accurate, which, to be fair, is hardly surprising given the breakneck speed of change in those days. Besides, it’s a personal memoir not a history book. I’ve just spotted an anecdote that supposedly took place in 1976 although Johnny Rotten is said to be listening to Iggy Pop’s The Idiot — an album that only came out the following year. Either the date is wrong or he was listening to another record.

In a chapter devoted to the Roxy club circa 77, Viv mentions night buses being ‘full of skinheads and drunks’, which is highly unlikely. Sham 69 started getting a strong following at the fag-end of the summer of 1977 — they were on the cover of the August-September issue of Sniffin’ Glue following the release of their first single. There was indeed already a smattering of skinheads in their midst, but it was so small they had no real visibility at the time. Teddy boys, definitely — they were all over the place. As I write in the book, I can’t recall ever seeing a skinhead in the flesh before 1978, save for intriguing pictures of Skrewdriver in the music press.

In 78-79 there were also quite a few punks with skinhead-style crops, so there was a lot of overlapping and ambiguity. The guttersnipe hanging out of the open platform at the back of a double-decker in the ads for ‘Clash City Rockers’ (1978) is clearly meant to be a punky urchin, with ‘CLASH’ stencilled on his trousers, but he also has a very short haircut that makes him look a bit like a skinhead. He’s a good example of this hybrid style that reflected a radicalisation of punk in the face of commercialisation and due to an influx of working-class punters on the scene. Paul Simonon himself sported braces and a proper skinhead crop, complete with a shaved parting, at some point in 78.

One of the ideas I develop in Punk is Dead: Modernity Killed Every Night is that punk was haunted by its lost beginning. If I may quote myself quoting the Cockney Rejects, ‘Punk’s year-zero mentality (like all other attempts to start again from scratch) was haunted by a yearning to return to some original, prelapsarian state — back in the garage, when the cult still had no name, before they killed the fucking thing. Being born again is just that: being born again. Being borne back’. The radicalisation of the movement that led to the skinhead revival is, in my opinion, part of this quest for authenticity. Steve Jones, Paul Cook, Simonon and Weller had all been little skinheads or suedeheads.

I believe there’s another passage in Viv Albertine’s book where she talks about Mick Jones and herself being attacked by a gang of skinheads after a gig on the White Riot tour. I’ve just flicked through the book to check, but alas couldn’t find it. Once more, however, I suspect the date is wrong.

All this is very anal, of course, but I can’t help thinking historical accuracy is important; that the devil is in the (lack of) detail. Maybe it’s because it’s also my own past we’re dealing with here. Yesterday, on Soho Radio, someone was talking about seeing mohicaned punks on the King’s Road in 1977 — another common anachronism which annoys me no end.

But there’s plenty of accounts which claim that skinhead ‘came back’ at the Roxy in 1977?

It’s extremely difficult to say for sure when punk started and ended, but one possible cut-off point is the closure of the original Roxy club in April 1977. I believe Sham only played the real Roxy once, supporting Generation X — that is, Andy Czezowski, Susan Carrington and Barry Jones’ Roxy. I may be wrong, but in any event, they were totally unknown at the time and the whole skinhead thing only really started taking off at the Vortex and at the Roxy Mark 2, when the club reopened under new management, immediately becoming a parody of its previous incarnation.

The atmosphere on the punk scene grew much darker following the ‘summer of hate’, as the NME called it at the time, which had been the movement’s high-water mark. Things started going awry over the autumn and winter, culminating in the Pistols’ acrimonious split in January 1978. These are the bad days when the streets were ‘paved with blood,’ as Paul Weller sang: ‘I’m stranded on the Vortex floor / My head’s been kicked in and blood’s started to pour’.

How old were you when all this was happening? You make reference to boys around your way kitted out in skinhead clobber and the ‘prepubescent, second-generation skinheads in a black-and-white photo spread — doubtless compiled by Garry Bushell — from around 1979’.

Yes, there were little skinheads everywhere! That was in 1979, and I was 14. Skinheads were ubiquitous for a while, and not only in London, of course. Up and down the country. It was absolutely massive, not a fringe thing. Weetabix even had commercials with cartoon skinhead characters: ‘If you know what’s good for you, ok’.

What about in Paris? Who were the ‘once dodgy skinheads’ you mention in your chapter?

I’ve written two chapters somewhat tangentially linked to the Parisian punk scene. One of them is devoted to L.U.V., a fascinating all-girl phantom band; the other focuses on the Bazooka art collective. I wish I could have covered more aspects of French punk. Hopefully in a future book.

The whole skinhead phenomenon was largely lost in translation abroad. What, in an English context, referred back to London working-class culture immediately took on a more sinister, neo-Nazi complexion on the Continent. To be honest, the French skinhead scene had no redeeming features whatsoever. It produced very few bands and they were all beyond crap — initially, Parisian skins followed La Souris Déglinguée, who were not themselves skinheads.

The very first French skins may not have been racist, but they were only interested in fighting. Many of them went on to become drug addicts. The following wave, however, was almost exclusively made up of glue-sniffing fascist nutters. There were also far-left skinheads, calling themselves redskins, whose sole purpose in life was to beat up far-right skinheads. To all intents and purposes, they were the mirror image of their enemies, on whose existence their righteous identity as anti-fascists was entirely predicated.

Those I refer to in that quote are Farid and his gang: la bande à Farid. They were the most interesting on account of being the first and having, paradoxically enough, an Arab leader. As French skinheads, they had a kind of exotic cachet. There hadn’t been any in France the first time round — I understand Australia was the only foreign country to have had an indigenous scene in those days. Most of the members of Farid’s gang hailed from Colombes, a nondescript Parisian suburb. Hanging out in and around Les Halles, they thrived on gratuitous violence, relishing the fear they generated throughout the capital. I remember travelling around Paris, in 1980-81, and wherever we went fellow punks would tell us to watch out because Farid was about. He seemed to be everywhere at the same time!

When the Specials played a gig at the Pavillon Baltard, on 14 March 1980, the French skins were all wearing Onion Johnny black berets to distinguish themselves from their English counterparts. Before the gig, they beat up a mate of mine and stole the white tie I had lent him. During the Specials’ set there was a massive brawl, like in a western, between the French and English skins. You can guess who started the trouble.

Violence is something of a motif throughout the book, for instance both Bob Short and Tony Drayton cite regular skinhead violence against punk squatters (‘gangs of skinheads who would rape and beat at will’). Tony even went so far as to include a manifesto against Oi! and skins in Kill Your Pet Puppy! Did that surprise you?

It didn’t surprise me at all, because violence on the streets was a fact of life back then. If you were a punk, you attracted random abuse and aggression all the time. In 1977, it was teddy boys, football hooligans or outraged members of the general public. I remember seeing blokes stepping off Routemasters on the King’s Road to punch a passing punk, then jumping back on. One of the most famous incidents, of course, was when Rotten was razored by vigilantes. That was part of a widespread anti-punk backlash in the wake of ‘God Save the Queen’. Before that punk violence had been largely symbolic: from the Silver Jubilee onwards, it became literal.

Thereafter, it was usually members of some rival youth cult you had to worry about. The early 80s were very tribal, and there was trouble on all fronts, but skinheads were obviously the worst of the lot. After 1982, almost all the gigs you went to involved some degree of violence at some stage — it just went with the territory. On one occasion, I was walking down Putney Hill with my then girlfriend, when we noticed hordes of skinheads ahead of us on the other side of the road. We were on our way to a gig by anarcho-punk band Conflict — and so were they. Sensibly, we decided to beat a hasty retreat as it would have been a bloodbath. I actually stopped going to gigs for a number of years because it just was not worth the hassle any more.

In all fairness, that adrenalin rush that kicked in as soon as you left home was intoxicating. Boredom may have been a buzzword, but there was never a dull moment: punk really was a revolution of everyday life. After a few years, of course, it started taking its toll.

Around 1985, and still with the same girlfriend, I came face to face with another large gang of menacing-looking skinheads, this time in Brighton. The only way to avoid them would have been to turn round and flee, but I feared they would come running after us, so we walked on petrified. As we got closer I noticed that some of them were holding hands. Nobody had told me that the skinhead look had been subsumed into gay subculture.


Indeed, I noticed David Wilkinson levered in a mention of Nicky Crane’s double life in his chapter on ambivalence of queer in punk. Richard Cabut, who co-edited the book, suggests in his ‘Punk Positive’ chapter’s many dismissals of ‘glue-swamped’ Oi! by ‘lobots’ that by the early 80s skinhead (as one of three ‘tribes’) had become ‘mindlessness wrapped in a dull, grey, lazy uniform of bitterness’. You yourself give the Cockney Rejects more credit, though, i.e. splinter groups capturing original unity.

Yes, I liked Sham 69 and then some of the early Oi bands — Cockney Rejects in particular. The first Oi compilation was really great. The musical boundaries were actually very porous in spite of all the tribalism: mods would listen to punk bands, for instance, and vice-versa. By 1980-81 I was more into the Ants and the anarcho side of things, but I was interested in everything that came in the wake of the initial punk explosion. As I said earlier, the skinhead revival was essentially a response to punk’s commercialisation, as was the mod revival. If I may quote another extract from the book:

Every splinter group that joined the ranks of the punk diaspora (Oi!, the mod revival, 2-Tone, no wave, cold wave, post-punk, goth, early new romanticism, anarcho-punk, positive punk, psychobilly, hardcore etc.) was a renewed attempt to recapture an original unity, which the emergence of these very splinter groups made impossible. As Paul Gorman put it in a recent documentary, ‘People began to play with, and tease out, the strands which were therein, and it was so rich, and so full of content, that one strand could lead to a whole movement.’ When Garry Bushell claims that the Rejects were ‘the reality of punk mythology’ — which is precisely what Mark Perry had previously said apropos of Sham 69 — he is referring to a very restrictive, lumpen version of punk that excludes most of the early bands bar the Clash. (Even within the Clash, only Joe ‘Citizen Smith’ Strummer ever really subscribed to this view.) Many Blitz Kids felt that it was their scene — which was not only contemporaneous with Oi! but also its inverted mirror image — that captured the true spirit of the early movement. Each new wave of bands sought out this point of origin: punk prior to its negation by language, when it was still in the process of becoming. The moment when memory’s exile would come to an end and literally take place.

Finally, is punk really dead? And did modernity kill every night?

The original title we wanted was Modernity Killed Every Night, but the publisher probably found it a little obscure, so I suggested a series of alternatives. Eventually we settled on Punk is Dead, with the original as subtitle.

Punk is Dead works on several levels. It’s a reference to the early Crass song, which is fitting as Penny Rimbaud has contributed a piece to the book, and an oblique response to the Exploited’s ‘Punk’s Not Dead’ — which, of course, was a response to Crass in the first place. I remember Jordan, around 1980-81, pointing out that the ‘Punk’s Not Dead’ slogan was an admission of defeat. I believe this was in The Face magazine.

In fact, when punk was alive and kicking, no one used the word ‘punk’ apart from journalists who had to call it something. Using it was very uncool. In the book I argue that ‘punk died (or at least that something started dying or was lost) as soon as it ceased being a cult with no name — or with several possible names, which comes to the same thing’:

Punk — in its initial, pre-linguistic incarnation, when the blank in ‘Blank Generation’ had not yet been filled in by that ‘bloody word’ [Jonh Ingham] — was the potentiality of punk. It escaped definition, could never be pinned down, as it was constantly in the process of becoming. Punk was a movement towards itself, made up of people who disliked movements and kept pulling in opposite directions.

So the whole question of onomastics is an important one, in my view. It is related to the controversial issue of punk’s birth and death. Borges claimed that writers create their own precursors. In the same way, there is a punk spirit that people now recognise in individuals or movements that predate (and indeed postdate) punk. In this book, we wanted to highlight the socio-historical specificity of the British punk scene of the late 70s and early 80s. Punk’s influence is everywhere today, but for a whole variety of reasons it’s not the same thing as the real thing.

In 1974 Malcolm McLaren contemplated using ‘Modernity Killed Every Night’ as the name of his boutique. In the end he opted for SEX, but the slogan was sprayed on one of the walls inside the shop. It came from a letter Jacques Vaché sent to André Breton during the First World War:

Despite his bovine-sounding name, Vaché (1895-1919) was a dandified anglophile, who enjoyed walking the streets dressed as a loose woman or a Napoleonic soldier. Choosing to be an actor rather than a puppet, he subverted army life, by — as he put it — deserting within himself. There, in that Switzerland of the mind, he would pretend that his superiors were under his orders, or that he was fighting for the other side. It was gun in hand, sporting an English pilot’s uniform, and threatening to shoot at random, that Vaché interrupted the premiere of Guillaume Apollinaire’s The Breasts of Tirésias (1917) on account of its arty-farty production. Apollinaire had coined the word ‘surrealist’ to describe his play, but it was Vaché’s radical brand of criticism that embodied the true spirit of the forthcoming movement. A couple of years later, he died of an opium overdose, which may have been an accident, but is commonly regarded as a defiant parting shot to everyone and everything — the ultimate artistic statement. For André Breton — who befriended him during the war and always claimed that he was the true originator of Surrealism — Vaché was poetry incarnate. After listing his early literary influences — Rimbaud, Jarry, Apollinaire, Nouveau, Lautréamont — he added, ‘but it is Jacques Vaché to whom I owe the most.’ His stroke of genius, Breton maintained, was ‘to have produced nothing.’

 

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A Writing Against Itself

Andrew Gallix, “Go Forth (Vol. 4)” by Nicolle Elizabeth, The Believer Logger 14 November 2012

Andrew Gallix is editor-in-chief of 3:AM Magazine, which the Guardian credits as technically the first literary blog ever. He writes fiction and criticism, edits books, and teaches at the Sorbonne, and I love him.

NICOLLE ELIZABETH: What is 3:AM, and how did it start?

ANDREW GALLIX: 3:AM is one of the oldest literary webzines out there, as it was launched in April 2000. We were among the first to make use of the international dimension of the web: the founder was American, our first webmaster was Canadian, and the rest of the team was located in Britain, France, Ireland and the US. We were the first, or one of the first, to launch a literary blog (if by that you mean a compendium of literary news links). We innovated by placing fiction in a wider cultural (artistic, in particular musical) context. We also pioneered the revival of live literary events in London, mixing music, art, and spoken word.

NE: This is a collective thing?

AG: Very much so. The whole point of 3:AM was to foster a community of literary loners; to create a space where we can be alone together.

NE: Print ever or no?

AG: Two anthologies of 3:AM short stories (edited by Andrew Stevens) have been published, but the magazine itself is online-only. I think we were also pioneers from that point of view: we realized that online publications were the way forward. They cost virtually nothing, which means that only literary/artistic criteria apply, instead of financial considerations. There are no space constraints (a piece can be as long or as short as it needs to be). You can reach so many more readers than if you publish a story in a small literary journal. Christiana Spens has just launched 3:AM Press, which releases both ebooks and limited print editions, showing our attachment to both formats.

NE: Main concerns ethically?

AG: There is no party line, although we are rather contrarian, hence our tagline (a nod to Groucho Marx, the Ramones, and Adorno): “Whatever it is, we’re against it.” It sounds rather pedantic, I know, but what I consider to be real literature is always, at some level, a writing against itself.

NE: Main concerns aesthetically?

AG: Once again, 3:AM is a very broad anti-church. Personally, I think we should publish fiction that has the inevitability of death.

NE: What advice do you have for those who wish to start a magazine?

AG: Don’t give up the day job.

NE: Anything else you’d like to tell us here?

AG: Sure, but only things which cannot be told.

Petit Guignol

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Here is my story which appears in 3:AM London, New York, Paris edited by Andrew Stevens and published by Social Disease in February 2008.

Petit Guignol

I was feeling homesick for the event while it was happening
– Douglas Coupland, Generation X

Daintily, a faun-like figure stole across the cluttered room, pirouetting over the bottles and ashtrays that littered the splattered floorboards. She was the first to notice, having been awakened by a muffled squishy sound as of manifold foreskins peeled back in unison.
Fanny sat up and fumbled for her cigarettes which she dimly recalled leaving beside a dog-eared magazine. She pouted outrageously, mimicking Asia Argento on the glossy cover, but feeling (if truth be told) more like Ségolène Royal gone feral. Not that anyone could see her, nor she anyone. Except when she sparked up and caught a glimpse of the other partygoers who had crashed on the rugs. The expensive Persian rugs with their expansive mindfuck designs: it was all coming back now.

Frédéric Beigbeder in hot pursuit of a statuesque demi-mondaine modelling a lampshade hat. That fucking twat, with his sweater knotted around his neck, whose inanities were still audible above Naast. Astrid surrounded by livid creatures of indeterminate gender lapping up the dark glamour of a voluptuous breakaway Zutiste. Patrick Eudeline reclining on a Moroccan pouffe drinking champagne from a shiny boot of leather. An amazon (with a blonde beehive and the blank expression of a blow-up doll) fellating an oversize banana in some dark (dank?) corner. Gérard Genette doing the twist to Klaxons: rather tentatively at first, then letting rip. Some obscure artist (with an impressive pompadour and an unresolved mother fixation) showing off his collection of potato prints to a bemused Chloé Delaume. A boy who looked like a girl almost kissing a girl who looked like a boy before recoiling in sheer horror. Nick Kent, ashen-faced, claiming to have seen the ghost of Alain Pacadis. Astrid astride an up-and-coming neo-Post-Structuralist who kept neighing and bucking bronco-fashion. Jean-Luc Godard describing his new film project as Blake Edwards meets Russ Meyer. Florian Zeller in hot pursuit of a statuesque demi-mondaine modelling a lampshade hat…

…At some point, there had been a blackout. Matches were struck, candles were lit, she could remember that distinctly.
Probing eyes, disembodied, unblinking and bloodshot, trained on her, boring through. Bleeding gashes in the cloak of night.
Writhing couples, vertical, horizontal or higgledy-piggledy, their serpentine hips suddenly illuminated like quattrocento manuscripts. A torch flashed into the deepest recess.
Astrid, bent over a Formica table — Jackie O hairdo in disarray, retro ski pants concertinaed around her ankles — emitting unmistakably teutonic grunts while a rolly-polly Pataphysician with a twirly moustache bobbed up and down behind her in slo-mo.
Wall-to-wall hip young gunslingers, every one a baby Johnny Thunders.
Pointillist ponces in pointy shoes atomised under the strobe light: lithe, lank youths, all floppy fringes and flailing arms, moonstomping to Plastiscines like there was no tomorrow, although tomorrow was today.

Today was tomorrow when Fanny’s angelic features were bathed in gold, her halo melting like fondue cheese, and sparkling fruit carved in dewdrops dangled lasciviously from chandeliers like overripe testes.
How could she ever forget what it was like?

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He had pounced out of nowhere and pinned her by the arms to the soft furnishings, his breath as fresh as a lungful of menthol, his greedy fingers foraging deep and she had put up a feeble show of resistance like a heroine in some cheap novel and the only time he ever smiled was when he slapped her and it only made her wetter still and she was confused because her mum was a feminist and Gülcher were on the stereo and she closed her eyes as soul surrendered to body and the world melted all around.

“You can only take so much beauty,” he said blowing a plume of smoke at the plaster putti on the ceiling, “before you hit the bottle”. Up close, he looked even more like Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless. Same fragile strength. Same studied abandon. A panther in a tonic suit. A pugilist cherub after a few rounds.

Later on that night, Fanny pictured him whizzing by at the speed of light on his shiny Lambretta, pork-pie hat cockily at half-cock, skinny tie flailing the air, high on hormones, bent on being. He was just wind in her hair now. A dot in the distance, merging with the background, at one with the cosmos. Pure life force. …Just wind in her hair. …She closed her eyes, but the world did not melt like it had the first time.
How could she ever forget what it was like? What it was like would never be forgotten — of that she was sure — but what it was like was not what it was.

Yet her heart still pounded to yesterday’s pogobeat. Someone said: Nobody has ever been this young, whereupon Astrid and her fawning retinue had repaired to a dodgy sheesha bar near La Flèche d’Or. In the metro, they mingled with the vanguard of the rush hour. Overground, daylight competed with sodium. Several other revellers had woken up to the dinky farting sound of the faun darting around. As their eyes adjusted to the semi-obscurity, it transpired that he had been dipped, stark naked, in silver greasepaint. It also dawned on them that he was stealing everything his slender frame could carry. They all looked on, entranced, as if he were a cross between Vaslav Nijinsky and Arsène Lupin. A smattering of applause accompanied his final exit while tears rolled down Fanny’s eyes. In that instant, she sensed she had lost something she had never found.

Andrew Gallix is editor of 3:AM Magazine, created the first literary weblog and launched the Offbeat Generation movement.