Punk, Politics and Youth Culture

Punk, Politics and Youth Culture, 1976-1984

Professor Matthew Worley; Leverhulme

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Punk is generally regarded as a defining moment in British cultural history. In its rhetoric and style, punk appeared to encapsulate the socio-economic and political climate of the late 1970s. It seemed to form a distinct youth culture that in turn provoked a media-driven moral panic and prompted notable cultural change. Most significantly, punk appeared to politicise cultural practice at a significant juncture in British history. Its lyrics and iconography commented on society and politics; its approach challenged the prevailing orthodoxies of the music industry; it spawned a samizdat culture that served as an alternative media source of information and exchange; it questioned social and political hierarchies and notions of personal identity.

To date, however, historical accounts of punk remain largely superficial or partial: the relationship between form, content and context has been noted but rarely examined in depth. Over time, punk has been mythologised and absorbed into the broader narrative of cultural and popular music history; few studies have examined punk beyond its point of emergence in 1976–77. Our Leverhulme project intends to redress this by exploring the ways in which punk’s political and cultural meaning formed, fractured and evolved over the 1970s into the 1980s. The aim is to provide an account of punk and its effects that derives from historical record, and that, as such, provides hard evidence of the cultural and political changes it inspired. Our concern is not with denying that punk afforded a cultural space for voices typically excluded from mainstream culture and politics to be heard, or that it allowed for cultural experimentation that challenged the economic and political norms of Britain’s cultural industry, but that such claims need to be based on more than romanticised wishful thinking.

The project’s principal objectives are:

  • To produce an original history that examines the relationship between punk, politics and youth culture in Britain during the late 1970s and early 1980s

  • To develop an effective research methodology that draws from across academic disciplines to examine archives, images, objects, sounds and material texts as complementary sources of historical evidence

  • To build on the interdisciplinary network of scholars founded by the applicants in 2010 to develop research into related aspects of cultural and political history

To do this, It will re-examine punk in two distinct but overlapping ways: first, in terms of its ‘politics’; secondly, as a form of youth culture.

Politics:

British punk’s emergence as a recognised cultural form and musical genre is often linked to the Sex Pistols. The band’s records, such as ‘Anarchy in the UK’ (1976) and ‘God Save the Queen’ (1977), provoked controversy and helped distinguish punk as an overtly politicised youth culture. Such perception was reinforced by the political signifiers displayed by punks (swastikas, Marx, anarchy symbols) and groups such as The Clash making direct reference to racial tensions, unemployment and their immediate socio-economic environment. Punk bands formed an integral part of Rock Against Racism (RAR), and even as it began to fragment into differing factions, so those informed by punk often retained a political (or critical) focus. If post-punk bands such as the Gang of Four tackled questions of consumption and gender relations, then the skinhead-orientated Oi! scene concentrated on issues of class identity and the ‘politics of the street’. By the early 1980s, the anarchist politics of bands such as Crass advocated an activist approach that rallied recruits to CND and helped initiate the ‘Stop the City’ campaigns that pre-empted the later anti-globalisation movement, while a punk-informed ‘white power’ music scene had developed on the far right of British politics. This narrative of changing and contrasting punk politics requires careful scrutiny and assessment. Our project traces the ‘politicisation’ of punk, both as it was expressed and imagined by the performers, but also by their managers, record companies, music journalists and academics. The role played by Birmingham University’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, we suggest, is an important, if overlooked topic. The CCCS may not simply have theorised and documented punk; it may have shaped it. To this end, our project will ask:

  • What forms did punk’s politics take; what were its primary concerns?

  • How and by whom was punk’s meaning constructed and interpreted politically?

  • How was the challenge of punk understood and responded to by establishment forces – government, local councils, mainstream and music media, music industry?

  • What was the relationship between punk and organised political groups?

Youth Culture:

Punk presented itself primarily as a youth culture. Its principal means of expression was through style, popular music and the music media; its main adherents were aged in their teens and early 20s; it drew from – and critiqued – previous forms of popular youth culture and the cultural industry of which it was part. To an extent, therefore, punk can be viewed as another in the line of youth ‘subcultures’ that stretched back at least to the 1950s. Yet punk emerged in a distinct socio-economic context. If post-war youth cultures had developed in tandem with economic growth, then punk flowered in a period of economic downturn. Consequently, punk may be seen less as a culture of aspiration and more as a culture of revolt. One of its defining characteristics was its explicit challenge to prevailing cultural and social mores. Of course, the extent to which those involved in punk engaged with or developed such a critical approach varied and is open to question. But punk’s impact extended beyond music to inform fashion, the visual arts and social spaces such as clubs, shops and squats. For many involved in punk, it provided a cultural form that invited creative innovation, facilitated room for social or political commentary, and offered the basis for an alternative lifestyle beyond the perceived mainstream. Our project will therefore ask:

  • Was punk a cultural response to external socio-economic and political forces prevailing in Britain between 1976 and 1984, or a product of internal cultural and music industry forces?

  •  Did punk enable the construction or redefinition of class, gender and personal identities; did it inform aspirations and opportunities?

  • Did punk offer young people a forum for dissent or expression denied them in other spheres; did it facilitate cultural networks and, if so, how did these work?

  • What was the relationship between punk as a nationally-recognised youth culture and regional variations thereof?

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