OPINION ARTICLE: ‘PUNK: A SECRET HISTORY’ (MINORITY EMPOWERMENT IN 1970S PUNK)
First published by Pelican Magazine Edition 5 Volume 85 July 2014
I am in a bathroom at a punk show when he shoves me on his way out, sneering through his matted beard: ‘Doin’ your hair, ya little faggot?’ and I’m growing tired of this. With no place in mainstream culture alternative scenes should be our last refuge but growing hostility and violence on the borders makes these spaces dangerous as well, has been – say the older punks around me – for years. A friend asks me why I persist with it, and the answer is the same it’s always been: because punk’s secret history is my last refuge in the past.
Punk, finding its origins in a few short years between 1972 and 1978, is better known today for the American hardcore scene that rose from its ashes, one of hyper-masculinity, violent pits and ear-tearing sound. Even the bands which survived England’s punk exodus are idols of white male heterosexuality: the Clash with their studied sneers and posturing, the Sex Pistols with the blood of a blinded girl and Nancy Spungen on Sid Vicious’ hands. But the origins of punk look different.
“I never knew there was a law against sounding vulnerable,” Pete Shelley, founding member of Manchester’s Buzzcocks and out bisexual, says of the movement in an interview with the Quietus, close to the spirit of punk. Reacting to the 1970s music scene, dominated by Gary Glitter, Rod Stewart and Led Zeppelin, punk squirted its way through the cracks of the New York art scene off the backs of Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground. Transvestite band the New York Dolls staggered easily into this scene, with the Ramones, Television, Detroit black protopunk trio Death and all-female band the Runaways hot on their platform heels. Malcolm McLaren, future manager of the Sex Pistols, was not far behind, managing heroin addicts the New York Dolls for a short time before their inevitable self-destruction. Meanwhile, young punk Lance Loud, already famous for coming out as gay on reality TV in 1973, wrote to Andy Warhol on the regular. Theresa Kereakes, editor of Lobotomy Magazine along with Kid Congo Powers, Pleasant Gehman and Randy De Troit jokes on her website, “In retrospect, is it OK to joke that Lobotomy was run by 2 fags and 2 hags? Nobody’s sexuality mattered to us…” Easily visible in the scene now were figures like Jayne County, Stonewall veteran and transsexual activist, and Elton Motello with their gay punk anthem ‘Jet Boy Jet Girl’. On the dark, closeted periphery the Germs frontman and addict Darby Crash gathered a legion of groupies held in perpetual platonic dependency such as Hellin Killer and Trudie Plunger, as Crash kept his homosexuality secret until after his suicide by heroin overdose in 1980, his grave spat on by his worshipping fans. In England’s Dreaming, Jon Savage’s history of punk rock, Jane Suck, a lesbian music writer daunted by the male aggression of the 70s music industry and turning to speed for recourse, admits: “Once I started injecting I didn’t have to worry about my sexuality. I became asexual, I think many people were, it was an incredibly asexual movement.”
A female punk scene quickly erupted from the stage set by New York. Jade Zebest, LA punk and editor of magazine Generation X, says in an interview with the Bags singer Alice Bag: “I think that the equality of the first female punks was due, in part, to the role that gay men played in early punk… they were not seeing women as sexual objects but as equals… which was unusual in the 1970’s Rock World.” Of course some female punks have remained in the public consciousness: Patti Smith screams over her mad poetry and Joan Jett plays on mainstream radio while Vivienne Westwood continues to parade the catwalks in 2014. But there’s a bigger picture to female punk than they’re given. Dinah Cancer of 45 Grave, Vox Pop and Nervous Gender notes to Bag, “We girls fought hard for our spots. The punk scene has been and still is an All boys scene.” All-female bands like the Bags, the Go-Gos, and the Speed Queens abounded in the US, while in the UK plastic goddess Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex roared out anti-sexism riot ‘Oh Bondage Up Yours!’ and the Slits, grimy adolescent girls, howled ballad to female oppression ‘Typical Girls’ on tour with the Sex Pistols. In Germany Nina Hagen tore through addict opera punk ‘TV Glotzer’. At Vivienne Westwood’s heels were dominatrix model Jordan and actress Helen Wellington-Lloyd, and the Bromley Contingent, the Sex Pistols’ most visible fans named by Caroline Coon, punk journalist for Melody Maker, boasted a female majority, including Siouxie Sioux, Soo Catwoman and Debbie Juvenile. Then there were photographers, hair stylists, writers, compilers; Ann Summa, Valiant Heather Ferguson, Lydia Lunch, Mia Zapata and Cosey Fanni Tutti to list a few.
With the mainstream success of the Sex Pistols, it wasn’t long before punk was demonised as aggressive, violent, perverted, obsessed with chaos, but it was its rebranding as destructive and male that did the most damage – including the swift erasure of any punk who wasn’t actively appealing to the straight male audience the music was marketed towards. So punk is dead. We are not. Something else will come. Until then, it’s our secret history.
SECRET HISTORY PLAYLIST
Personality Crisis – New York Dolls
Jet Boy, Jet Girl – Elton Motello
Survive – The Bags
Rock ‘n’ Roll Victim – Death
Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve) – The Buzzcocks
Oh Bondage Up Yours! – X-Ray Spex
Fuck Off – Jayne County and the Electric Chairs
Muscleboys – The Mumps
Typical Girls – The Slits
Going Down – The Germs
Confession – Nervous Gender
Knives In The Drain – Lydia Lunch
‘Punk: A Secret History’, by Richard ‘Underground’ Moore.