I’ve never really felt I’ve been able to get this across effectively to anyone who either ‘wasn’t there’ or who only picked up on what the papers urged them to at the time. I remember once, soon after I’d left school in the Summer of ‘79, I was talking to a friend I met at college and it turned out that her neighbour had been my former Geography teacher, Mrs T. Apparently a conversation about me had taken place – I’d made quite a name for myself at school being the only girl there with an overtly punk image (which got me into a lot of difficulty, but that’s another story). Mrs T told my friend she had been surprised when I had become a ‘punk rocker’ (a term which only people who didn’t get it would use!) because I was too (in her words) "nice”... always the quiet one, a nerdy, shy student... it didn’t fit with the media’s portrayal of punks as gobbing, spitting, fighting yobs.
I never knew any gobbing, spitting, fighting yobs who were into punk. Not one. Any bristling aggression against the world, against injustice, right-wing politics and persecution - all valid targets - was channelled into music. We were harassed and insulted by many non-punks, though. Shouted at from across the street, barred from pubs and shops before we’d even opened our mouths, chased, even beaten up for our choice of clothes and hairstyle. All this abuse came from non-punks – and often the straightest of people. Funny, that. What was it they found so threatening, so offensive, about a few kids in fluffy mohair jumpers, bleached hair and badges?
One of my “Oh YES, that’s exactly it!” moments during the programme came when Chris articulated how inaccurate that thuggish tabloid caricature was and that punk had been much more about inclusiveness. Right from the start my own experience illustrated this too – punk felt like a place where us ‘outsiders’ could be on the inside, on our own terms. The scene at my local music venue was a perfect example; a friendly gaggle of local teenage punks alongside a motley crew of others who just fitted in for not fitting in elsewhere. And they genuinely liked the music. C with his shoulder-length hair and Afghan coat, L with his thick-lensed glasses and total lack of sartorial style, a good few years older than the rest of us and like a kindly uncle, plus his biker mate W. N, who booked all the bands, a little bloke in little round specs and a big hippy greatcoat. At one time there was J, a lovely black guy who put flour in his hair to give it a bright white streak, as well as ex-public school boy/geeky punk E. As Chris said in this interview in the NME , “Punk was never unkind. It was about fairness and equality.”
The documentary drew attention to the causes with which punk associated itself, such as Rock Against Racism, and how the release of the Tom Robinson Band’s single ‘Glad To Be Gay’ early in 1978 was a ground-breaking moment that could only have happened at that special point in time, proof of punk’s whole ethos of defiance and standing up for the right to be different.
In my view punk was a brief, once-only event, and from its early, genuinely rebellious and more creative/artistic origins, aspects of it inevitably evolved in ways that weren’t always so positive (e.g. the Oi! movement) – then, as so often happens, things became more watered down and appropriated. But other good things happened because of it. Now too we have a whole new crop of bands clearly influenced by it (e.g. Idles, Slaves, Savages, Fontaines DC, etc.) and the state of contemporary music is all the better for them. I guess we still call them punk but it's intrinsically different just through no longer being a new nor shocking phenomenon. Still, if we go right back to what drew us to punk's initial incarnation all those years ago, it does make sense that its spirit should live on forever. For me that doesn’t mean trying to dress like you did when you were 15, nor even playing your old Adverts records all that often, it’s about maintaining faith in who you are, caring about equality and staying true to what you believe in, however non-conformist that may be in the eyes of the mainstream.
I won’t give too much more away about the programme in case you haven’t seen it and want to catch it on BBC iPlayer (here), but it was interesting to see some old faces and to be reminded of how well a lot of people have come out of it (even though our teachers may have told us we wouldn’t!) Many are still motivated to bring about some positive change in any small way they can. I came away feeling quite uplifted and even more pleased to have this history in common with Chris, whom I’ve long been inspired by and admired for all things nature-connected anyway. And he does have a fantastic record collection!
We’re not so bad, eh, us old punks?!
Chris Packham's all-time favourite punk song is 'Shout Above The Noise' by Penetration,
but this is the Penetration song that truly spoke to me...