The British Library has a brief pop-up exhibition running at the moment marking the 40th anniversary of the explosion of punk in the UK in 1976, and wandering around it made me realise how much punk was an expression of the political and economic crisis of the 1970s.

Greil Marcus quotes Bernard Rhodes, one of punk’s animateurs, in his book Lipstick Traces, a utopian history of music inspired by the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the UK“:

I was listening to the radio in 1975, and there was some expert blabbing on about how if things go on as they are there’ll be 800,000 people unemployed by 1979, while another guy was saying if that happened there’d be chaos, there’ll be actual — anarchy in the streets. That was the root of punk.

In fact, unemployment reached a million by July 1977, at the height of the punk moment.

Obviously, there was something cultural going on as well. The Sex Pistols’ manager Malcolm Maclaren, had been running his King’s Road clothers shop with Vivienne Westwood for several years before the oil shock. Popular music was becoming both bloated and sclerotic. The Ramones’ first record also upped the speed of the music, as Tony James of the proto-punk band London SS recalls in in an interview in the exhibition. But it’s hard to believe that the music would have broken through, or perhaps broken out, without the crisis.

“You’re going to wake up one morning”: a manifesto on a T-shirt, 1974.

DIY culture

There are lots of good things in the exhibition. It captures well the DIY culture of punk, and of course there’s a display showing the single most famous page ever published in a ‘zine: “This is a chord. This is another. This is a third. Now form a band“.

Nor does it lose sight of the rise of fascism and racism in the UK during the 1970s, and the role of punk and reggae bands in trying to counter it. The Clash and Steel Pulse shared bills together, and Rock against Racism largely grew out of these musical alliances.

Sniffin’ Glue’s punk manual

Waves of anger

But the spectre of the Sex Pistols hangs over the show, pulling everything else towards it like a cultural black hole, and it is still a curiosity to me as to how they came to act as the lightning conductor for that whole wave of anger.

By October 1977, as Greil Marcus reminds us,

“the Sex Pistols had been banned across the UK. Waving the bloody shirt of public decency, even public safety, city officials canceled their shows; chain stores refused to stock their records… Patriotic workers refused to handle “God Save The Queen”… The press contrived a moral panic to sell papers, but the panic seemed real soon enough: the Sex Pistols were denounced in Pariament as a threat to the British way of life.”

And much more.

Indeed, the exhibition includes a cover of Investors’ Chronicle from late 1977 which nominated the band as “Young Businessmen of the Year” for their success in extracting £115,000 from various record companies in exchange for cancelling their record contracts.

Sure, the Sex Pistols’ manager Malcolm Maclaren was astute, or lucky; sure, the performance by the band and their friends in the Bill Grundy interview was inspired. The sound remains impressive, even after 40 years of familiarity, and the show reveals that this wasn’t an accident. One audio exhibit has the demo of “Anarchy in the UK”, which the band rejected, and you can hear why. The sound on the demo is simply too clean.

A blank sarcastic facade

In his classic history of punk, England’s Dreaming, Jon Savage tries to answer this question, of why the Sex Pistols, by suggesting that John Lydon (Johnny Rotten) had a gift for channelling the emotions running high in British society at the time.

[T]he Sex Pistols offered optimism disguised as cynicism, and unleashed powerful emotions from behind a blank sarcastic facade.

You didn’t have to understand this to react emotionally to the record [“God Save The Queen”]. What was extraordinary about John Lydon was the power he wielded for about two years to conjure up the demons of the time. It is a power which he could never analyse… “I hit the nail on the head sometimes. If anything, that’s when instinct takes over: you can’t work out those moments.”

Greil Marcus, similarly, talks about the Sex Pistols and the idea of the ‘negation’ in Lipstick Traces.

Johnny Rotten had never learned the language of protest, in which one seeks a redress of grievances, and speaks to power in the supplicative voice, legitimating power by the act of speaking: that was not what it was about. In “[Pretty Vacant](” the Sex Pistols claimed the right not to work, and the right to ignore all the values that went with it: perseverance, ambition, piety, frugality, honesty, and hope.

‘We’re into chaos’

But maybe there’s a deeper explanation.

Rene Girard writes about communities needing scapegoats to maintain their cohesion, and they need them more in times of stress. Punk provided that scapegoat as the ’70s crisis stretched British society to breaking point, and the Sex Pistols acted out the role, to perfection.

In an interview on Radio 1’s Newsbeat, for example, Rotten and (I think) Steve Jones complain about the state of Britain. “What are you going to do about?”, asks the interviewer. The answer: “Make it worse.”

Or again, in an early live review in the NME by Neil Spencer, an unidentified member of the band says, “We’re not into music. We’re into chaos.”

Looking at it like this, punk, which is usually positioned in opposition to the peace-and-love of the ’60s, is better read as another assault on the conformity of post-war Britain, not so much through the music but through the culture and diversity that went with it. Looking back 40 years, we know now who won that culture war: body metal, tattoos, ripped clothing are unremarkable.

As scapegoats go, the punks seems pretty benign now, as you walk around the exhibition, although it didn’t feel like that at the time. Punks were attacked on the streets for being different, and Rotten was the victim of a knife attack.

Of course, the next act in the ’70s crisis was the election of Margaret Thatcher. The legacy of her scapegoating is altogether less benign.

The exhibition at the British Library runs to 1st October 2016, and is free.

Apparently I shouldn’t have taken the photos above. They’re published here under a Creative Commons licence.