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“No future, and England’s dreaming…” – The Sex Pistols, “Anarchy in the UK”
Escapism is both a concept and a desire that has ingrained itself within the human psyche. It must be noted, though, that escapism is simply one half of a cause and effect relationship. It is merely the result of feeling a need to transcend external or internal forces that trouble their lives, to experience and achieve a sense of elsewhere. This notion of actualizing a feeling of elsewhere within oneself is discussed by Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin in his work Rabelais and his World, in which he presents the idea of the “carnival” as an entity or force that provides a temporary escape from an often repressive established entity. Within the “carnival,” all sense of order, privilege, and societally-perpetuated senses of hierarchy are dissolved into a lack of existence. In his text Anarchy in the UK: ‘70s British Punk Rock as Bakhtinian Carnival, Peter Jones harnesses Bakhtin’s notion of the carnival and conceptually applies it to the rise of the punk rock movement in the 1970s. Jones argues that, for the English, punk rock was an escape – or a “carnival” – that came into existence as a response to the harsh and often antiquated societal occurrences that took place in or around this time. In 1970s England, Conservative Party leader Margaret Thatcher had become Prime Minister, conjuring up a wave of social and political contemptment as a result. The decade also marked the year of Queen Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee, which bought nationalism in England to a high – or, if your name was John Lydon, created a feeling of resistance to the government as a result. The national events that faced resistance during the time that punk rock became a cultural fixture in England contain a commonality of a ruling entity dominating a group of people, and societal and anthropological complications arising from this as a result – a historically thematic entity that can be traced back to the British Empire. This essay argues that select social, economic, and political occurrences in imperial Britain had a lasting impact on English society, and this impact has manifested itself through the cultural pushback that was the local punk rock movement in the 20th century.
“We will train our blue-eyed men to be young believers.” – The Clash, “Clampdown”
During Britain’s imperial era, nationalism spiked. The British Empire was one of the most globally dominant forces in part due to its territorial acquisition of colonies and fostering a thriving economy. Behind it all was an elitist ruling class that was, generally speaking, exclusively white and male. In his text The British Empire, author J.D. Whelpley states that this demographic was societally groomed to ascend into positions of power, known as the “governing class.” According to Whelpley, the young men who were byproducts of this system developed an imperialist-like mindset as a result and therefore were complacent to government policies that perpetuated it. This is likely why imperialism – in its traditional historical connotation -prevailed for as long as it did. It was wholly systematic. The grooming of young men into positions of power is ultimately problematic, as it excludes the voices of women, immigrants, and the POC community. Ultimately, though, this was realized. Once the masses claimed their voice, the governing class lost much of its firm grip on public life. However, as Whelpley notes in his text, the politically-based power struggle among the governing class is still in progress. Granted, his text ws published in the year 1925 – but this truth prevailed, and punk rock is both direct evidence and a result of this.
“I want to be an anarchist. I get pissed. Destroy!” – The Sex Pistols, “Anarchy in the UK”
The ideas expressed by Whelpley are mirrored within Kevin C. Dunn’s text, Never Mind the Bollocks: The Punk Rock Politics of Global Communication. Within his work, Dunn argues that punk rock is both a potent and viable source of commentary on the complexities of British society that existed both in the 19th and 20th century – even stating that it aided him in understanding third world resistance to Western imperialism. Punk rock was a direct challenge to political and social order (or, the modern version of the “governing class”), and the resistance it subsequently faced revealed the immense threat that the ruling powers felt by its rise. In essence, punk rock walked up to the status quo, looked it in the eye, and spat in its face.
Later in Never Mind the Bollocks: The Punk Rock Politics of Global Communication, Dunn outlines two approaches to dealing with threat. The first consists of taming “the other” into obedience. Though, as he later writes, a taming of the other “doesn’t alter its ability to disturb social order.” English punk band The Sex Pistols are a prime example of Dunn’s statement. Due to their anti-monarchy stance, The Sex Pistols were perhaps “othered” more than any other English punk band at the time. The media painted them as dangerous rebels whose ideology was societally hazardous – heaven forbid not everyone be pleased with the government. Their debut single “Anarchy in the UK” resulted in the band being yanked from airplay on the BBC (which had quite the impact as it was still very much a monopoly at the time), and creating a societal uproar that was so immense to the point that the band was forced to occasionally perform under a different name. Their music faced censorship on such an extreme scale, but The Sex Pistols weren’t going to let that stop them.
It just so happened that The Sex Pistols happened to release their debut album in 1977- the year of Queen Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee. Therefore, this was a time where English patriotism spiked. Art manifested as a result of the Jubilee. Musician Neil Innes performed a song simply titled “Queen Elizabeth,” and The Sex Pistols also gave a nod to the monarch in their track “God Save the Queen.” However, unlike Innes, The Sex Pistols’ lyrics were free of adoration. With lyrics such as “God save the Queen/She ain’t no human being” and “Our figurehead is not what she seems,” the play on the national anthem was performed on a boat on the Thames River during the Jubilee – thus perpetuating further backlash against the outspoken punks. As Dunn stated, the modernized version of the “governing class” tried to tame and quell The Sex Pistols, but that in no way ceased their popularity or influence. Now, exactly forty years after their first and only album was released, The Sex Pistols are still considered to be among the most culturally and historically influential figures in rock and roll.
The case study of The Sex Pistols is colored with themes of imperialism. Akin to the nineteenth century British Empire, there was an overwhelming sense of nationalism within the year 1977. However, nationalism is only a sensation that is experienced only as a result of pride. One must feel as if their nation is serving them well in order to take pride within it. In the nineteenth century Britain was at the forefront of the industrial era, bringing about wage labor and capitalism as well. As a result, Britain was able to financially flourish, and this heavy heap of wealth was crucial in perpetuating feelings of national pride. The systems of finance that were established at the time prevailed, which was especially notable in 1970s Britain as there was an emergence of a large working class. The plight of the working class under ruling and governing forces was amplified during these years, in part as a result of economic changes enacted by then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (which will be explored in detail later within this essay) to which the “Queen” was largely perceived as being complacent to. As a result, this struggle – the precise struggle that Whelpley details – accounts for a large portion of the lyrical content in punk rock songs that came to fruition at the time. For example, Sex Pistols frontman John “Johnny Rotten” Lydon stated that “God Save the Queen” was written as a result of his belief that the Queen “had precious little to do with her so-called subjects.”
Through excessive amounts of censorship, The Sex Pistols allowed one clear message to prevail: a large portion of what was considered to be “the average people” felt neglected and disgruntled with their government, and they were going to say something about it. Though the social and political platform of the band was faced with efforts of domestication, the power of punk ultimately transcended its opposition.
“Maggie Thatcher’s patching up her makeup in the broken glass…” – Poison Girls, “Another Hero”
Punk rock’s rise was, in part, largely catalyzed by Margaret Thatcher’s ascension into power. Thatcher, a Tory, began her political career after being elected into parliament in 1961. Nine years later, after gaining the title of Minister for Education, Thatcher generated public discontentment after ruthlessly pushing to cut funding for education – which was quite ironic given her title. A method in which she worked to cut spending was by ending a program that gave schoolchildren free milk. This, of course, was only one small component of the myriad of occurrences that cumulated in her earning her nickname of “The Iron Lady.” In his work Punk Rock, Thatcher, and the Elsewhere of Northern Ireland: Rethinking the Politics of Popular Music, Robert Martinez argues that it is no coincidence that the rise of punk rock aligned with Thatcher’s acquisition of political power. Thatcher became the Conservative Party leader in 1975, and then claimed the title as England’s first female Prime Minister in 1979 – a position she held until 1990. During this era, Thatcher made businesses that were previously controlled by the government private, opened British markets, and dismantled unions. The socio economic shift that Thatcher’s regime brought about resulted a total spillover of societal tension and hostility, most notably a sizeable spike in unemployment as well as race riots in Brixton and Southall.
Thatcher also did not separate her religious upbringing from her political career – something that didn’t necessarily sit well with the entirety of the British population In Brain Cogan’s text “Do They Owe Us a Living? Of Course They Do!” Crass, Throbbing Gristle, and Anarchy and Radicalism in Early English Punk Rock, he describes the plethora of controversy that surrounded the first album of English punk band Crass – controversy that existed due to its criticism of Thatcher. The track “Reality Asylum” served as a critique of organized religion (something that Thatcher strongly stood in favor of), and, as a result, the band was faced with abuse from the police. The most notable, direct anti-Thatcher track from the album is “How Does it Feel?”, which attacked the role of advocacy she played in the Falklands War. It is, of course, worth noting that punk rock artists were not alone in using their art to critique and speak out against Thatcher. Ska band The English Beat chastised The Iron Lady in “Stand Down Margaret,” Elvis Costello followed suit with his song “Tramp the Dirt Down,” and English musician Morrissey dreamed of Thatcher’s death in his poignantly titled track, “Margaret on the Guillotine.” As Martinez argued in his work, the plethora of anti-Thatcher music that arose from her years as England’s Prime Minister did more that merely critique the government, it revealed the strong presence of a cultural ‘elsewhere’ in Britain. Similar to Britain’s imperial era, the standardized norm during Thatcher’s regime was largely defined by the experiences of white males who were relatively wealthy, educated, and followed some branch of Christianity. Therefore, punk rock in England gave those that did not fall into this category a classification as “others.”
The notion of otherness in Britain is explored within Laura Tabili composition A Homogenous Society? Britain’s internal ‘others’, 1800 – Present. In the text, Tabili states that the term “other” can only be understood in its full breadth if it is known what or whom the “other” is being compared to. In essence, it comes down to one asking themselves from what the “other” stands apart from. The “other” is identical to the “elsewhere” that Martinez states that the uprising of anti-Thatcher songs revealed. Based on his statement and the content of the song, one can deduce that the standardized norm was, as previously mentioned, still the type of elite, imperialist-minded male that Whelpley wrote about. Applying Tabili’s logic, understanding this is crucial to fully comprehending what has made punk rock classifiable as a cultural “other” in Britain. Punk rock expressed the views of those who did not trust, feel served by, and/or were not complacent to the British government. It expressed the views of those who didn’t want to risk losing British lives in the Falklands War, the members of the working class who felt neglected and aggravated as they struggled to get by while Queen Elizabeth sat in her palace – and then being forced to endure the pomp and circumstance surrounding her “Jubilee.” Imperialism is rooted in one dominant force exuding power and force over another entity. Though the term is often associated with the deep past, it took on a contemporary context during Thatcher’s arguably tyrannical years as Prime Minister as she exuded the often uncivil ordinances of her regime over the English people. However, as displayed through the protest music that was created during this time, one’s status of “otherness” can be used as a starting ground to gradually elevate and amplify their voices into power. British punk rock gave a voice to women, to atheists, to youth, to the cheated, to the scared, to the brave. In British society, punk rock took “otherness” and gave it more than just a broad, blanketed term. It was given a voice, it was given an identity. Punk rock allowed people to find out who those “others” were, and what they had to say.
“Let fury have the hour, anger can be power – do you know that you can use it?” – The Clash, “Clampdown”
In his text A Cohesive Shambles: The Clash’s “London Calling” and the Normalization of Punk, Matthew Gelbart details the polarizing stance of music as a historical entity rather than merely an art form. Particularly, he writes heavily regarding if bands such as The Clash and The Sex Pistols left behind “more history than music” or vice versa. However, Gelbart makes a mistake in classifying music and history as wholly separate, unrelated entities. There is no need for there to be an intellectual debate over this matter because music is an integral aspect of history. This is especially the case with punk rock, where the social and political commentary embedded in the lyrics says just as much about an era as an academic text ever could – maybe even more. Punk rock songs unraveled the difficulties facing daily life, and that in itself is political.
After all, rock ‘n’ roll is a form of resistance. It is a purely authentic form of resistance. While nineteenth century imperialism had citizens from colonized nations as the controlled entity, the tables dramatically turned by the twentieth century and this time the controlled entity was British people themselves. Of course, this excludes elite white men and all who were in positions of wealth and or/power at this time. The turbulent political and social climate that existed in England from 1970-1990 resulted in a whopping percentage of the population becoming “othered,” mainly because their society and their government were no longer serving them in the way they should. This frustration fueled the punk rock uprising, not only giving the “others” a platform from which to speak but doing so via guitars, microphones, and radio airplay (if the content managed to circumvent banning, of course).
What British punk rock revealed, though, is the prevalence of imperialism as it existed in the country in the nineteenth century. The British Empire introduced industrialization, wage labor, and capitalization – all systems and entities that, in some way, disgruntled the working class in the 1970s. It presented the image of Britain as a dominant and elite ruling power, and it was this same image that musicians spoke out against around 100 years later. It marginalized certain demographics of the population that did not fit what was considered to be the “norm,” and what was considered to be this norm hadn’t evolved remotely. Each of these themes of imperialism not only prevailed into recent history, but ignited a cultural pushback on a large scale. For the first time, though, this pushback was accompanied by snarling vocals, fuzzy guitars, and manic drumming. This pushback was punk rock, and the genre is an inherently historical tool in exploring and comprehending political, social, societal, and economic issues facing the British people in contemporary times, recent history, and within the era of the British Empire’s dominance.
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