Flogging a Dead Clothes Horse

Gallix, Andrew. “Flogging a Dead Clothes Horse.” Interview by Thom Cuell. Minor Literature[s], 14 September 2018:

Punk is Dead: Modernity Killed Every Night is a wide-ranging collection of writing on punk, taking in memoir and theory, and examining the subject as a social movement, musical genre, artistic project, philosophy and political statement. Here, co-editor Andrew Gallix discusses the project, alongside his own experiences of Punk, and its impact on his later career.

In your own intro, you talk about punk being, of all youth movements, the most resistant to academic analysis (although, god knows, plenty of academics have tried to analyse it). Why is this? And what can we learn from the sheer number of books which have attempted to make this analysis?

Punk was a product of the failure of the counterculture and the advent of the tax-exile rock dinosaurs, who had become too remote — socially, musically and culturally — from their audience. So the whole issue of ‘selling out’ was high on the agenda, right from the start. Take Mark Perry, who decreed that punk died on the day The Clash signed to a major label (CBS) in January 1977. In the book, I argue that all the splinter groups that sprang from the original scene — Oi!, Two-Tone, the mod revival, the New Romantics, goth, anarcho-punk, etc. — were essentially attempts to recapture punk’s original spirit, untainted by compromise and commercialism.

No other youth cult had ever been so conscious of itself as a youth cult, and of its place in rock history. Sure, punk was a new beginning — Year Zero, and all that — but it was also a summation of the subcultures which had preceded it, and one of the traits it inherited was that quintessentially adolescent contrarian streak best expressed by Alan Sillitoe’s rebel without a cause, Arthur Seaton, in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958): “Whatever people say I am, that’s what I’m not”. Punk’s juxtaposition of contradictory signifiers — the swastika, say, and the hammer and sickle — was, in part, a means of ensuring that the straight adult world would not get it. Not that that was very likely, of course: the mainstream media did not have a clue what was going on. We forget just how wide the generation gap was in those days. The rush hour, in London, was a sea of men in pinstripe suits and bowler hats. Today, many of those people would have hipster beards and tattoos. (One of the unfortunate, unintended consequences of punk is that it largely killed off the generation gap — at least in pop cultural terms.)

There are, of course, other factors. Punk’s (frequently feigned) anti-intellectualism, which would lead some fanzine writers to add spelling mistakes to their articles, or the (at the time largely subterranean) influence of Situationism, which was obsessed with “recuperation”.

When they were not by insiders (Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons’ The Boy Looked at Johnny: The Obituary of Rock and Roll, 1978) or fellow-travellers (Caroline Coon’s 1988: The New Wave Punk Rock Explosion, 1977), early punk books were either mainly collections of photographs (Val Hennessy’s In the Gutter, 1978; Isabelle Anscombe’s Not Another Punk Book, 1978) or compendia of fanzine extracts (Julie Davis’s Punk, 1977). Punk, I think, succeeded in making any external discourse sound naff and illegitimate. Even Dick Hebdige’s Subculture: The Meaning of Style (1979) felt artificial, a bit earnest and fuddy-duddy: the work of a student. You have to wait until the late 80s / early 90s — when the original punk movement was effectively dead — to see the first thoughtful analyses appear (Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces in 1989 and Jon Savage’s England’s Dreaming in 1991).

What can we infer from the large number of books devoted to this subject? How incredibly rich such a short-lived movement was. There is a school of thought that sees punk as a simulacrum of Situationism, with the latter being the real McCoy. I beg to differ. I think punk’s strength was due to the fact that most of its practitioners had no idea where the references came from, so that ideas or gestures derived from Symbolism, Dada, Futurism, Surrealism or Situationism were embodied — lived out. Once the movement had died, all that background material needed to be unravelled, which is why of making many punk books there is no end.

Then there’s the fact that punk has never been out-punked — it has become a byword for ultimate rebellion. My contention is that it was also the last real avant-garde artistic movement of the 20th century.

Tell us a little about your own experiences of punk, and how that has impacted on your approach to culture.

I often say that punk had the same cultural impact on me as Surrealism or May 68 on earlier generations. I was 11 in 1976, when I first got into punk, so for me it’s also bound up with childhood memories, and growing up. It offered me a haven at a time when I was deeply unhappy. All of a sudden, I realised that there were others like me out there. It informs everything I do in some way or other.

Again, in your introduction, punk seems almost intangible — it’s hard to say when it coalesced, and when it began to shift into something more regimented. What approximate timespan do you set for the punk movement you discuss in your book, and events you use to pinpoint those moments?

Punk’s influence remains huge, and there are, of course, punk bands all over the world. Forming a punk band is almost a rite of passage for American teenagers. I know that some young people resent the title of my book. However, I’m not saying that you can’t be a punk today — my point is simply that the original British punk scene was very much a product of its socio-economic, political and artistic context. Walking around London with red hair in 1977 and in 2018 are two completely different experiences. The glory days were obviously 76-77 — how long you make it last beyond that is a question of opinion. The first punks are usually those for whom it ended earliest — with the 100 Club festival, say, the Bill Grundy affair or the Silver Jubilee. In a way, the whole history of punk, at least through 1981, has been one of newcomers denying that the phenomenon was dead, and reviving it. It’s interesting how the primal energy of tracks like “New Rose” or “White Riot” seems to be replicated in dozens of debut singles. As soon as a band can no longer sustain that level of energy or has become too sophisticated musically, the baton is passed on to the latest gang in town.

For me, it lasted 10 years. By 1986, I had to draw the conclusion that it was over and that I had very little in common with those who still described themselves as punks.

Punk is Dead blends theoretical work with personal recollections from fans and musicians and contemporary texts from fanzines and the music press — what effect were you hoping to create by bringing these three approaches to punk together?

To give a more nuanced idea of what punk was really like when it was still in the process of becoming. Once it had become what it was, it was dead. If a kid discovers Never Mind the Bollocks today, he or she will not have the same experience as someone who bought every single when it came out, lived through all the controversies, remembers when Boots and Smith’s wouldn’t even mention “God Save the Queen” in their charts, couldn’t see the band live, waited for what seemed like an eternity for the album to come out…

In Clinton Heylin’s Punk in the Year Zero (2016), attendees at early punk gigs talk about the visual presentation of the bands and their fans as much as, if not more than, the music they heard — presenting the Sex Pistols as a performance art group almost as much as a musical one. Is it this semiotic richness which sets punk aside from other movements, and gives it its unique character?

As you suggest, the performance art was produced by the band in conjunction with the audience. Breaking down the fourth wall was such an important part of the phenomenon. Punk was an artwork you could inhabit — it came close to abolishing the distinction between art and life, which had been the dream of all the avant-garde movements of the 20th century. It really was a revolution of everyday life.

You, and many of the contributors to Punk is Dead, are concerned with punk as a Gesamtkunstwerk, or all-embracing art form. Is that something you put down to the influence of Svengali-like figures such as Malcolm McLaren, or a broader impact of the culture which punk grew out of?

Both. McLaren was eager to create a scene around the Pistols that was partly modelled on Warhol’s Factory. In hindsight, it’s obvious that it wasn’t just about the bands, but also about the clothes, the fanzines, graphic design, the politics, the indie record labels. You’ve got to see the whole picture. That’s the artwork.

In your essays ‘Sexy Eiffel Towers’, and ‘Unheard Melodies’, you argue that some of the greatest punk bands never made any music at all, whether that is the punk-art interventions of Bazooka Productions, or the largely conceptual band L.U.V. If the music of punk is almost able to take a back seat to other aspects, which strand of punk has ultimately produced the greatest legacy?

That’s a tough question. All I can say is that many, if not most, of the early converts — Devoto and Shelley (Buzzcocks), T.V. Smith (The Adverts), Pauline Murray (Penetration) et al. — had read Neil Spencer’s first live review of the Pistols. They fell in love with the Romantic notion of a band that was into chaos rather than music. The same could be said about the CBGB scene: the future British punks were reading about bands like Television without really knowing what they sounded like. They had to dream their music into existence. The importance of the British music press in all this still hasn’t been adequately documented.

What was the most surprising thing about working on this anthology? Did you find yourself reconsidering any of your views on punk, or discovering anything you’d overlooked?

It reinforced my intuition that rock music lost its ‘telos’ after punk. Punk was a new departure, but also a summation of rock history and perhaps its end point. Everything that has happened since has been a kind of coda or postscript to that rock narrative that started in the mid-50s.

I was shocked by how exploitative and two-faced some ageing punks turned out to be. The kind of privileged popinjays who hide their lack of substance behind a puerile obsession with style, kidding themselves that they’re artists or anarchists while living off their inherited wealth. At times, working on this book felt like flogging a dead clothes horse.

It’s tempting to take the Zhou Enlai approach and say ‘too soon to tell’, but — what do you see as the lasting influence of punk?

Its influence is so all-pervasive that you no longer notice it. It’s important to remember that punk, at the time, was very much a minority interest. Almost everybody hated it. Now, all the influential people in the arts and media acknowledge its significance. It’s an extraordinary reversal of fortune.

Finally, Joe Strummer apparently threatened to beat Greil Marcus up for titling his anthology of punk writing In The Fascist Bathroom. Do you expect any similar responses from punk legends to anything in your book?

No, they’d be afraid of getting creases in their clothes.

In the book I describe Strummer as the Citizen Smith of punk — which he was, although that doesn’t mean he wasn’t very sincere and talented. I met him on two occasions. The last time he bought me a pint. Can’t say fairer than that.

 

Poetic Fragments of Recollection

Volpert, Megan. “Punk is Dead is Very Alive.” Popmatters, 16 April 2018

… If you want to learn a tremendous quantity of information about punk that has been obscured by a lack of reputable first-hand accounts, look no further than Punk Is Dead: Modernity Killed Every Night. It’s a collection of weird histories and poetic fragments of recollection strung together by two editors: Richard Cabut, who was 17 in the summer of 1977, and Andrew Gallix, who is best known as chief of 3:AM Magazine. The focal point of the book is London in late 1976, during the 15-minutes where pretty much everybody agrees that “punk” was a genuinely existing thing. …

Golden Age

Kraus, Chris. “Howl – Punk: the Twentieth Century’s Last Avant-Garde.” Times Literary Supplement, 12 January 2018 , p. 33

Composed of essays, interviews, memoirs and manifestos by veterans of London’s punk scene, Richard Cabut and Andrew Gallix’s Punk is Dead is a nostalgic, intelligent homage to the brief, hazy era of “pure” London punk, before it was named, over-described and turned into another sub­cultural phenomenon. This golden age lasted somewhere between four and eighteen months, depending on who’s recollecting, although most agree that by 1978, it was over. Since punk began as a rebellion against boredom, the dead space of commercial music production and the empty hedonism born of the hippie era’s “great sexual revolution”, it was only a matter of time until it, too, would become corrupted. A yearning for its own prelapsarian state was built into punk’s ethos. As the punk musician-turned-philosopher Simon Critchley tells Gallix, “Because of the acute awareness of the fact that punk . . . would become a creature of the very music industry whose codes it subverted, we knew that it was going to be shortlived. And that was fine”. To Critchley, punk was most of all, lucid: a Protestant reformation without God: “We wanted to see reality for what it was in all its ugliness . . . and tear away the decadence and fallenness of the culture industry that surrounded us”.

. . . “Bands are necessarily approximations of the dreams that conjured them up”, Gallix writes in his essay “Unheard Melodies”. Punk is Dead shows the transmission of culture as a kind of lucid group dreaming. The accounts of its contributors capture the role that coincidence plays in history. Ideas can rarely be traced back to one person; they accrete and recur. . . .

Gallix is eloquent in his defence of nostalgia against the cult of an amnesiac future. Punk might be not only the last great subculture in the rock and roll mode, but the most analysed and documented. Nevertheless, art and cultural histories are always reductive, and, as he writes, “the past is subtly rewritten, every nuance gradually airbrushed out of the picture”. . . .

It Was Bound to Go Wrong

Walton, Stuart. “It Was Bound to Go Wrong.” Review 31, 24 January 2018:

… On the other hand, co-editor Andrew Gallix’s essay on the rootless Anglo-Swiss provocateur Arthur Cravan, a gifted self-mythologist who was ‘just too bad to be true’, is a pertinent contribution.

The same author’s ‘Unheard Melodies’, on bands who never got to record anything and, in some pristine cases, never even performed live, existing only as hypothetical propositions, but were nonetheless profoundly influential as such, is a fascinating study of cultural subversion all on its own.

Over Before It Began

Hoskins, Zachary. Review of Punk is Dead: Modernity Killed Every Night, edited by Richard Cabut and Andrew Gallix. Spectrum Culture, 9 January 2018

. . . Punk may be, as co-editor Andrew Gallix admits, “probably the most analyzed youth cult ever,” but its resonances with the contemporary zeitgeist make it ripe for such analysis — even if, he is also quick to add, it continues to resist tidy theses. Gallix, the founder of literary webzine 3:AM, and his fellow editor, music journalist turned playwright Richard Cabut, are wise enough not to attempt any grand summations. Instead, they curate and contribute to an eclectic, dialectic collection of 28 short essays, juxtaposing historical testimonies from the eye of punk’s hurricane with more critically distanced analyses of its aftermath.

As its title implies, the ultimate failure of this revolution in the head is the closest thing the book has to a running theme. Virtually every contributor avers that punk, in its most exciting form, was over before it ostensibly began. As Gallix writes in his essay “The Boy Looked at Euridyce,” the movement died “as soon as it ceased being a cult with no name… Punk — in its initial, pre-linguistic incarnation… was the potentiality of punk.” By enshrining these six months or so of ferment, before the cult became a commodity, Punk Is Dead embraces what is, on its surface, a decidedly un-punk emotion: nostalgia. But this is not the ineffectual, ideologically empty nostalgia of events like 2016’s “Punk London” celebration, presided over by the city’s then-mayor, Conservative politician and chief Brexit cheerleader Boris Johnson. Cabut, Gallix and the other contributors use their critically productive nostalgia to correct decades’ worth of the former variety: to prevent punk from being, as Judy Nylon puts it in her foreword, “reduced to a coffee-table book of white English boys spitting.”

. . . It’s impossible to read Punk Is Dead without realizing on some level that the likes of punk will never happen again: The contemporary cultural landscape is at once too diffuse and too adept at absorbing insurgent trends and attitudes; the current youth cultures are both too diverse and, frankly, not naïve enough to view mere aesthetic affront as a viable revolutionary tool. It’s almost quaint to read about Siouxsie Sioux’s affectless appropriation of the swastika in the wake of rallies by punk-age white nationalists who, to quote Rotten et al., “mean it, man.” But if reading these essays in early 2018 brings any solace, it’s the knowledge that punk has retained its vitality as an ideal, even if it has long since failed as a movement. “Once we were part of punk,” Gallix writes. “Now punk is part of us.”

The Last Great Youth Subculture

Edwards, Dickon. Review of Punk is Dead: Modernity Killed Every Night, edited by Richard Cabut and Andrew Gallix. The Wire, January 2018, p. 90

. . . The only concern is that these later echoes might encourage a misconception of the original scene to spit its hard little noun across the cultural radar, the one Andrew Gallix calls in this book “the last great youth subculture”.

In his introduction Gallix admits that punk is not only “probably the most analysed youth culture ever”, but that it’s also one of the most resistant to analysis, a problem that his book “has not quite solved”. Indeed, any attempt at a definitive examination of a movement risks a killing, like an animal categorised through vivisection. Accordingly, he and Richard Cabut have instead chosen the theme of punk as a transformative force, a becoming, not just in terms of the music and the culture around it, but in terms of the humans involved, fans included. Cabut and Gallix are just about old enough to be first-hand witnesses to punk: among these pieces are their own memoirs of the time. Accordingly, the book is as much testimony as it is criticism. . . .

Punk’s Formative Prelapsarian Moment

Coulter, Colin. Review of Punk is Dead: Modernity Killed Every Night, edited by Richard Cabut and Andrew Gallix. The Irish Times, 6 January 2018

[…] Among the books that have emerged to mark the moment is Punk is Dead: Modernity Killed Every Night, an anthology of no fewer than 28 essays and interviews collated by the author and musician Richard Cabut and the academic and founder of 3:AM Magazine Andrew Gallix. Despite its funereal title, the editors of the collection make it clear that they are here not to bury punk but rather to praise it. In their bifurcated introduction, Cabut and Gallix retrace their own steps to a time in which they evidently remain heavily invested personally. The specific purpose of the book is to celebrate that original evanescent wellspring of creativity when punk emerged as a “stylish boho response to the modern world of inertia and consumption” and retained the “innocence characteristic of childhood” of a movement yet to be frozen by being named or sullied by exposure to popular vitriol and acclaim alike.

In their framing of this uneven but valuable collection of paeans to punk’s formative prelapsarian moment, the editors claim that there exists at present a widespread prohibition against nostalgia. Cabut and Gallix cast their book as an attempt to break this embargo, specifically to make the case that “punk’s cultural importance should . . . be officially recognised in museums and galleries.” . . .