Friday, April 01, 2016

No future - but plenty of history

Handed the opportunity to present an arts programme on a subject of his choice, it was hardly surprising that Thurston Moore - a veteran of the New York punk/no wave scene now resident in London - chose to focus on British punk, which (it was claimed, somewhat spuriously) is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.

If there was a fault with his Artsnight, it was that it was too short and perhaps tried to pack in too much, featuring everyone from the increasingly grizzled Pete Shelley of Buzzcocks (on the DIY ethic of setting up your own label) to Julien Temple (on his contrasting celluloid representations of the Sex Pistols).

Talking to Tony Drayton, founder of punk fanzine Ripped And Torn, Moore underlined the pretty extraordinary fact that a type of music once openly derided on BBC radio by DJs like Simon Bates is now deemed worthy of tribute in the form of a serious BBC2 show.

The undoubted highlight of the programme was Moore's reaction when Celeste Bell, daughter of the late Poly Styrene, played him a bootleg recording of one of X-Ray Spex's shows during their fortnight-long residency at CBGBs in 1978, on which it was possible to hear the young Moore, in attendance as a fan, duetting with her mother for the chorus to 'Oh Bondage! Up Yours!' - Moore reckoning it was the first time he sang into a mic in public. My eternal gratitude to Poly for helping to him along the path he took.

Moore's first interviewee was Chrissie Hynde, with whom he discussed punk's sexual politics and broadly egalitarian bent. These are also central themes in Zillah Minx's She's A Punk Rocker UK. The documentary film may be blighted by irritating visual effects, a lack of structure (a punk gesture, perhaps, but a narrator would have given it a greater sense of direction and focus), a concentration on fashion at the expense of the actual music and the implicit championing of several sub-par bands (including, perhaps inevitably, Minx's own Rubella Ballet). Nevertheless, it offers valuable insights into the lives of women on the front line of the movement.

Minx's interviewees (including Poly Styrene) discuss everything from anarchism and anti-racist politics, individuality and community (the ironic situation of hundreds of people all feeling somehow "different"), being treated as equals with men, dressing so provocatively as to provoke abuse in the street and getting spat on on stage, resisting societal pressures to conform to conventional norms of attractiveness and behaviour, and the freedom of self-expression that punk entailed. If the documentary was to be reduced to a soundbite, it would come courtesy of Michelle Brigandage: "If you're forced by society to be on the margin, you're a victim. If you choose to be on the margin, then you're the victor".

Arguably the most astute observation, however, belongs to Julie Burchill, who notes the irony that punk was supposedly all about there being no future but in fact gave futures to a whole host of people, many of them women.

(Thanks to Tony for the documentary link.)

No comments: