Memories of a punk frocker

Being of the punk (f)rock vintage, it would be remiss of us not to mention the documentary series Punk Britannia which has just been broadcast in three parts on BBC4. (Catch it if you can on youtube).

Timed to coincide with the Queen’s diamond jubilee, it conjured up 35 year old memories of the silver jubilee and the birth of punk for those of us old enough to have lived through it (and remembered at least some of it, though perhaps not in the right order!), and provided an insight into the era for those too young to remember it at all. The parallels between then and now – post-boom enforced austerity and lack of opportunities for young people - cannot have escaped the notice of either generation as the series unfolded.

We have covered the 70s in previous Frockery Talk posts, mainly because it was ‘our’ generation and we retain a rose tinted fondness for both the music and clothes of the times. We do still remember the 60s, but we were a bit too young to have been conscious of the social upheaval or to have fully embraced the youth culture - no doubt  much to our parents’ relief - although our school skirts were getting ever shorter and we were unconsciously enjoying the benefits of the post-war boom and the prevailing sense of optimism.

All that was to change in the 70s with crippling public sector strikes, the three day week and the ongoing Troubles in Northern Ireland, but one benefit we still consider ourselves fortunate to have enjoyed is access to a university education based on ability alone, as opposed to ability to pay. That some of our contemporaries later decided to pull the financial plug on the opportunity from which they themselves had benefited must surely count as one of the most despicable acts of political hypocrisy, but we digress.

Back in the early 70s, we were in our final years of schooling and eagerly tuning into Top of the Pops every Thursday night. Friday’s double French lesson inevitably played second fiddle to discussion of Marc Bolan’s latest release or Queen’s inaugural performance of Seven Seas of Rye, which was one of those especially memorable moments. As we have previously blogged, we bought clothes from local boutiques and LPs from local record shops, with occasional visits to cities like Dundee and Aberdeen for concerts. Oh how we loved David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust tour!

During the 70s there seemed to be something for everyone when it came to music, but the emergence of so called ‘pub rockers’ Dr Feelgood and Eddie and the Hot Rods as predecessors of punk is indelibly etched on our memories as their fast paced music and electric energy radiated far beyond their Essex roots and the London pub circuit. To this day, we love them and still watch Wilko and the Hot Rods live whenever the opportunity presents.

Then came the Sex Pistols, for whom causing offence and moral outrage was second nature. Nurtured by Malcolm McLaren, they weren't just stuck down the pub, either, but were highly visible, swearing on national television and declaring war on the establishment.  The silver jubilee of 1977 felt the burn as the Pistols’ single God Save the Queen raced up the charts, placing the BBC in a veritable quandary until Rod Stewart rather too conveniently bagged the No 1 spot and appearance on Top of the Pops. We still liked Rod, even if we were loath to admit it as discerning students with a penchant for all things ‘new wave’, from the 'raw' punk of the Clash and the Damned up to an including Elvis Costello and John Otway. Another of our favourite 70s performers. Otway is still going strong as he approaches his 60th birthday with two hits under his string belt, albeit 25 years apart, and having eventually mastered more than three chords.

The first wave of punk seemed to rise quickly, peak, then falter and fragment when Johnny Rotten departed the Sex Pistols in 1978, but the music scene had been suitably shaken and stirred, and a whole new generation of alternative talent would stamp their own identity and radicality on the post punk era. When Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979, there was still plenty to protest about and no shortage of protestation, not just from musicians, poets and creative types, but from young people like ourselves and our peers for whom real jobs and opportunities had become scarcer than hen’s teeth. But that’s another story for another day.

Punk Britannia brought back many memories for us, but history tends to have a habit of repeating itself. Just think jubilee jollies against a backdrop of compulsory austerity for the masses imposed by out of touch politicians who first made sure they pulled the ladder up behind them and theirs. Where’s Johnny Rotten when you need him most?