2. Expression, Reclamation & The Rise Of Violence
Whereas the Sex Pistols represented the sensational aspects of the ‘movement,’ which had been planned by Malcolm McLaren, The Clash helped create a more just Punk ideology. In an early interview with Janet Street-Porter, the band said they write about things that are going on: their friends on the dole, schools creating factory workers and race troubles across the country. The Clash represented a DIY ethic and promoted the idea that if you have a passion for something, you can do it.
While these ideals remain attractive, they are contradicted in the very genesis of the Punk movement.
DIY ethic, the promotion of self-autonomy in achieving one’s goals, was already out the window with the inception of the Sex Pistols. After spending some time in New York and unofficially managing the proto-Punk band, The New York Dolls, Malcolm McLaren returned to the UK and began working on a money-making scheme. Originally based in a shop called ’SEX’ on London’s King’s Road, McLaren noticed the evolving fashion of local art students.
Adorned with self-modified clothes, drainpipe jeans, and facial piercings, McLaren realised that the intent of this dress was an act of self-expression desired to shock other people. Merging the simplistic sound from American bands such as The New York Dolls and The Ramones with this provocative fashion sense, he could create something sensational and difficult to ignore. Already associated with local band The Strand, McLaren (along with his business partner, Bernie Rhodes,) made alterations to the lineup and introduced John Lydon as the frontman on account of his image of green hair and a handmade ‘I hate Pink Floyd’ t-shirt.
Wanting to target younger audiences, McLaren rechristened the group as the Sex Pistols. The band began gigging across London and soon had a strong following due to their ‘anti-fashion’ image, inability to play well, and their irreverent antics on stage.
Soon after the initial surge of interest, the band had been featured in popular music magazines and toured across the UK and parts of Europe. Within a year, the band had secured a record deal with the mainstream British record label, EMI. Upon the release of their debut single, an increasing amount of news outlets began focusing on this new band and their unorthodox attitude.
Appearing on Bill Grundy’s ‘Today’ programme, Sex Pistols’ guitarist, Steve Jones, caused outrage by (rightfully) calling the host a ‘!*$% rotter’ after Grundy had made an advance at Siouxie (from the band, Siouxie and The Banshees). While the resulting attack on the Punk scene by the media was meant to create public outrage in hopes of getting parents to prohibit their children from attending Punk gigs, the infamy made the Pistols more attractive to their target audience. McLaren’s desire to make it big had worked.
For the far less sensationalised Clash, they quickly began having difficulties with being involved in the Punk scene. After encouraging energetic dancing from their audiences, violence began to be a regular issue at their gigs. Spearheaded by the Sex Pistols’ public image, The Clash came under attack from the press for inciting acts of public unrest and vandalism. Caroline Coons, a former writer for Melody Maker, commented that due to the narrative of the press, new punks believed they had to be violent to be included in the movement, which further aided the negative publicity.
At the time, Joe Strummer commented that Punk was meant to be ‘provocation without ignorance.’ However, due to the onus on causing controversy, many young punks began wearing Nazi armbands. This led to a surge in focus from Far-Right political parties on the new subculture. At first, intended to be tolerant, Punk now had a sect of National Front supporters, and new bands such as Skrewdriver became poster boys for a fascist Punk movement.
The Clash’s ideology of Punk being about DIY and fighting against the system came into question upon their record deal with CBS Records in 1977. Signing for a hefty sum of £100,000 (estimated at around £750,000 by today’s standards), The Clash were now working for the authority they had challenged.