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Was the Punk movement in Britain merely a working class response to the advent of Thatcherism and free-market ideas?
I'm in love with Margaret Thatcher; that is what the Notsensibles ironically sang, or let us say yelled, in 1979 (I'm in love with Margaret Thatcher). "Maggie, Maggie you cunt!" added violently the Exploited in 1985 ("Maggie", Horror Epics). The corpus of songs written on, or rather against, Margaret Thatcher is quite extensive, not only during the Punk years, which is not surprising since she was the only British Prime Minister in the 20th century to win three consecutive terms-May 1979, June 1983 and June 1987. At the time of her resignation in November 1990, she was Britain's longest continuously serving Prime Minister since 1827. During the eleven years she spent at number 10, the change of style she imposed on British politics and economy was tremendous to the extent that to some commentators "there was no turning back" (Jones et al. 666) and it would be a euphemism to say that nobody remained unconcerned about Mrs Thatcher's revolution.
No wonder then, that between the Punks wearing their leather jackets, "smoking sixty cigarettes a day and staying up all night on speed" (Savage 133), and the dressed up to the nine woman from Grantham, who was an Oxford educated Conservative and a Methodist, the clash was inevitable. That is the reason why it is chiefly interesting to ask the following question: "Was the Punk movement in Britain merely a working class response to the advent of Thatcherism and free-market ideas?" In other words, is it possible to relate to a major shift in politics one of the most famous, aggressive, contradictory, and yet ephemeral phenomenon of British popular culture?
If such a question might appear quite obvious given the contemporaneousness between the emergence of the Punk culture-or subculture-and Thatcher's rise to power, it will nevertheless require a balanced answer. Indeed, one of the key elements of our analysis will be, first, to take a closer look at the sociopolitical context in order to break the stereotypes. We will then be led to wonder whether the message conveyed by the Punks was rather concerned with a certain type of society at large. Finally, we will observe that the artificiality of Punk music and its merchandising definitely challenges the so-called proletarian revolt against a new political and economic order.
There is nothing easier but to systematically oppose Thatcherism and the British Punk movement since they approximately emerged at the same time. Margaret Thatcher had become leader of the Conservative Party in 1975 and had begun formulating her own brand of Tory policy while the following single from the Sex Pistols-probably the most famous and influential Punk band in Britain-was released in November 1976: "Anarchy in the UK" (Savage 563). Nevertheless, that would be forgetting that most of the social strain had been accumulated under the Callaghan-Labour-government:
By July 1975, England was in recession. The unemployment figures for that month were the worst since the Second World War . . . . Not only had output shrunk, but public spending had risen to 45 per cent of the national income, and was threatening to unbalance the whole economy. (Savage 108)
Dave Laing, in One Chord Wonders, analysed "the subject-matter of the lyrics on the debut albums of the first five punk groups to achieve prominence in 1976-7" (27) and very interestingly concluded that "the overwhelming number . . . of 'social and political' comment lyrics came from the first Clash album [The Clash]" (29). That proves that social (economic, political, etc.) preoccupations were already there before Margaret Thatcher's first premiership, before a truly Thatcherite government was ever established. Therefore, the idea according to which the Punk movement would be a mere response to Thatcherism is being challenged quite importantly here.
We have used the word "Thatcherism" several times already, but what does it really mean? An attempt to define what that could be might prove very useful to our analysis. According to Overbeck:
Thatcherism is a reasonably coherent and comprehensive concept of control for the restoration of bourgeois rule and bourgeois hegemony in the new circumstances of the 1980s . . . The central elements in the Thatcherite concept are the reorientation of Britain's foreign policy and the redefinition of its place in the world; its attack on the position of the trade unions and the Labour Party (Thatcher aims to eliminate 'socialism' as a serious political force); the restructuration of the role of the state in the economy; and finally a reordering of the balance of power between different fractions of capital in Britain. (in Jessop et al. 3)
That long definition seems to establish Thatcherism as a political theory, an ideology, such as Marxism for instance. Nevertheless, "most modern commentators share the . . . view that Thatcherism does not represent a coherent ideology" (Evans 2). Indeed, as Peter Riddell reminds us: "the [first] Thatcher administration has not followed a pure free-market or monetarist programme, though strands of both have clearly been important" (6). He suggests another definition: "Thatcherism is essentially an instinct, a series of moral values and an approach to leadership rather than an ideology" (7). We have to leave there the definitional considerations for it would be too long to go through all of them-full books have been written on the matter-but it was interesting to point those out because since some specialists argue that there is no such thing as Thatcherism, we could have a hard time trying to prove that the Punk movement in Britain merely was (or was not) a working class response to it.
As far as the working class is concerned, when one reads the lyrics of "Maggie", a song by the Exploited we have already alluded to in our introduction, it is true that it clearly refers to its financial difficulties:
Twenty five quid to live on, seven days a week to survive! Five and twenty pictures of the queen! You won't see the starvation in her eyes! Twenty five quid to dish out and you're already ten in debt, so with fifteen singles left over the landlord gets the rest!
Maggie, Maggie you cunt! Maggie, Maggie you cunt! Maggie, Maggie you cunt! Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, Maggie you fucking cunt!
Twenty five reasons for trouble! Three million mouths to feed! They're destroying your mind and body while they increase their own needs. Twenty five quid of insult! Two meals soon kills your health! They want to see you suffer! They want to see you dead! (Horror Epics)
Indeed, "despite the end of the recession in 1982, unemployment continued to rise [and] reached a peak of 3.2 millions in 1985 and the cost of unemployment benefit . . . on those in work continued to increase" (Evans 29). One of the government counter-measures was to "ma[ke] it less easy to qualify for unemployment benefits" (op. cit.). But, nevertheless, if we take a look at the structure of the popular vote in the 1979 and 1983 general elections we observe that the working class-a shrinking category-vote swung from the left to the right. This is a phenomenon called "dealignment", which Peter Dorey defines as such: "the changing allegiance and electoral behaviour, particularly with regard to identification with, and regular support for, a political party" (154). The reasons for "dealignment" are numerous and we cannot go through all of them here but let us just say that, among other things, the crisis had brought on a great uncertainty about the future and that Labour was not trusted anymore to solve social issues. Furthermore, Mrs Thatcher's law and order policy was appealing to people living in poor and unsecure areas. As a result, "Labour . . . witnessed its working-class support fall to 50 per cent in 1979 (and to 42 percent in 1983)" (Dorey 155).
Finally, British punk bands political orientation was ambiguous: "La semaine où « God Save the Queen » sortit, les Sex Pistols furent simultanément accusés d'être communistes, anarchistes et même d'appartenir au National Front" (Chastagner 80). Thus, it was hard to see who they were fighting for-but themselves. Moreover, as Laing points out:
"Right to work" by Chelsea was one of the best known of the early punk songs. Its title echoed the slogan of a left-wing campaign against the rising jobless totals of the mid-1970s. But though the song is a protest about 'standing around just waiting for a career', its diagnosis of the cause of unemployment was impeccably right-wing: the lyric blames the power of the trade unions. (31)
Bearing in mind all those considerations, we should now wonder whether the Punk movement in Britain was a reaction against a certain type of society as a whole rather than just a working class response to Thatcherism and free-market ideas-for that view proved being too restricted and often even wrong. The Punks were born in a society which had left them very little hope for the future-in "God Save the Queen" (Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols) the terms "There's no future for you" and "No Future" are repeated many times and were even taken as a leitmotif to describe the punk generation later on-and they reacted violently against a social system which had deprived them of their very essence. To exist, their only chance was then to incorporate the conventional symbols of that society and to throw them back at people in the most absurd and incomprehensible manner-thus foreshadowing post-modernism: "quelle que soit la réussite [des] différentes sous-cultures à exprimer le désarroi de groupes sociaux, générationnels ou ethniques et leur identité collective, c'est bien leur fonction de résistance symbolique qui est soulignée" (Le Guern 46). Otherwise, who could understand the significance of a safety-pin used as a jaw piercing for instance, or the blurred political messages conveyed by the successive punk bands-from Stalinism to Nazism?
Of course, what we called "a kind of society as a whole" also includes music and we should not forget that the Punk movement was also a response to the rock establishment:
Rock's neo-elite no longer spoke to this new generation . . . and rock superstars were overindulged rich men who lived in foreign countries to avoid paying taxes that helped to service the working class. As a form of protest against the rock establishment, punkers adopted the attitude of rebellion and dressed themselves in the leathers of the original teen rebels of the American fifties, a sharp commentary on the twisted values of establishment rock. (Eliot 188)
As Chastagner pointed out: "Le mouvement punk redonnait la musique aux sans-grade, aux malhabiles, aux frustes. Pas besoin d'apprentissage, d'initiation, n'importe qui pouvait monter sur scène et jouer" (81). The "One Chord" generation was born and their music was vilified by many. Analysing how punk rock was described in the daily and weekly newspapers, Dave Laing noticed a great variety of words pertaining to the following semantic fields: "mental illness", "physical illness", "unpleasant effects", and "violence" (100). One could think of such an opposition as being the main cause of the short-lived punk experience but it actually was reinvigorating; according to Philip H. Ennis: "punk concentrates all the passion once carried by mature rock into an explicit repudiation of adult life" (366). Therefore, punk rock could both be seen as a political, social, and artistic movement (independent and nurtured on new trends, such as International Situationism), and as the renaissance of rock'n'roll in its true form, i.e. before the latter became a product of the consumer society. Rock & Roll was once loathed-Franck Sinatra declared: "Rock 'n' Roll is the most brutal, ugly, desperate, vicious form of expression it has been my misfortune to hear" (in Burnett 29)-and produced by independent labels; it is this existence on the fringe of society that also gave to punk music its apparent authenticity:
If BBC radio 1 had been willing to give immediate heavy rotation treatment to, say, the Sex Pistols' 'God Save the Queen' the day it was released, then the disc would probably never have been conceived. Popular culture, if it is to be progressive, must embody an element of opposition to the establishment, provocatively questioning the status quo. (Bennet 167)
It is definitely not surprising then, that in the case of the Sex Pistols it was "their arrival at commercial stardom [that] marked the end of their social relevance" (Eliot 188). But we will look into that more extensively later on.
For now, we would like to shed light on some of the Punk movement's intrinsic contradictions. We have just alluded to independent labels in the previous paragraph. It is relevant to observe here, that "many of the anti-Thatcher records were released on independent labels-arguably themselves models of Thatcherite entrepreneurial flair" (Heard BBC News). Moreover, we must remember that "Mrs Thatcher asserted the primacy of the individual" (Savage 110) and that she valued very much self-reliance, obviously derived from Samuel Smiles' notion of "self-help" described in the late 19th century (Self-Help). We cannot help thinking that those values were not totally incompatible with the kind of selfish attitudes that had emerged during the events of 1968 and which extensively developed in the 1970s along with the Punk movement-one of the Sex Pistols' first singles, released in 1976 along with "Anarchy in the UK", was titled "I Wanna Be Me" (Savage 563). To Muggleton: "subcultures are manifestations of self-expression, individual autonomy and cultural diversity" (167).
After those reflections on punk music's relationship with society and culture, we are now obviously led to question the credibility of the Punk movement. We have gathered some obvious clues so far, but what will put another nail in the coffin of Punk music is its artificiality. Indeed, it developed mainly under the influence of Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, whose preoccupations were very often far from the working class':
La naissance du mouvement punk doit beaucoup à Malcolm McLaren, « créateur » des Sex Pistols. Il n'y a rien de spontané, rien de la révolte brute des opprimés, aucune rébellion des damnés de la terre dans le travail de McLaren. C'est un intellectuel, ancien étudiant des Beaux-Arts et nourri des écrits situationnistes. Fasciné par mai 68, il essaya, avec sa compagne de l'époque, Vivienne Westwood, de faire violence au corps social britannique en se servant de la mode. Ils ouvrirent une boutique de vêtements sur King's Road, à Londres. . . . Le succès n'arrivant pas assez vite, McLaren eut l'idée de se servir d'un groupe de rock comme vitrine pour ses vêtements et porte-parole de ses théories. . . . On se rend bien vite compte que la naissance des Sex Pistols et le mouvement punk qui en a découlé n'est pas une réaction spontanée aux conditions sociales de l'époque. Il y a au départ . . . une stratégie bien éloignée de la révolution prolétarienne. . . . La rhétorique « classe ouvrière » est surtout un argument publicitaire. (Chastagner 77-78)
The first Sex Pistols' concerts took place in Art Schools, it was not a music born in the streets-unlike what is very often said-and it could then be seen as a form of art which message was primarily dedicated to an enlightened university educated elite, and delivered with a fake working class accent. Dave Laing stresses that Lydon's pronunciation was very artificial, notably in the song "Anarchy in the UK" in which the unnatural rhyming of the last syllable of "Anti-Christ" with "Anarchist" "shifts the attention away from the message to the rhyme-scheme and could momentarily set up an ambivalent signal about the 'sincerity' of the whole enterprise" (58). The artificiality was also found in the names. Johnny Lydon was rechristened Johnny Rotten-the legend says that it was because of his very bad dental hygiene-and John Simon Ritchie's stage name was Sid Vicious.
Moreover, McLaren's will to sign his group with a major company is another proof of punk music's ambiguity: it seemingly struggled to fit in the very system it was claiming to reject, to destroy. We witnessed to a love-hate relationship with the music industry, particularly with the very famous EMI episode: "The Pistols received a $100,000 advance upon signing, only to be released two days later after a wave of protests from shareholders. . . ." (Eliot 188). The band changed record companies several times before finally becoming one of Virgin's best selling artists-even though the relationship with Virgin was very tense too. It is also interesting to point out that "God Save the Queen" was originally titled "No Future" but that the name was changed into a more commercially effective one to coincide with Elizabeth II's jubilee and, according to Eliot, "[the song] shot to number two, and the group disbanded. Success killed the message; a familiar rock scenario" (189).
As early as the summer of 1977, cracks started to appear within the punk movement; "it looked like things were being made safe again, opposition was being channelled and recuperated, rebellion commodified" (McKay 73). A new vanguard known as the post-punks denounced the business punk music had become, even giving a new lease of life to the formerly declining record companies while the punk message had always been-at least, politically speaking-to clearly dismantle the establishment. But as Laing observes: "Whether or not punk rock was dead after 1978 [i.e. after the Pistols' fragmentation], the punks themselves were not. . . . By 1981 the performances of bands such as The Exploited had all [the characteristics of punk music]" (109). He continues, referring to Crass who "attacked punk bands who had 'sold out'" (113). Crass is very interesting to look into since they were seen by anarchist thinkers to be "the only band carrying the political-musical line forward. . . ." (McKay 77) and because one of their bêtes noires was, of course, Margaret Thatcher. Their opposition to the Iron Lady's Falklands war was very strong and gave birth to no less than two songs: "Sheep Farming in the Falklands", which was "one of the best-selling punk records of 1983. . . ." (Laing 113), and "How Does It Feel (To Be the Mother of a Thousand Dead)?" (McKay 81).
Crass found themselves largely alone on the punk scene in . . . criticizing the actions of the British government. . . . [Nevertheless, they still managed] to avoid recuperation [and] to maintain political and artistic autonomy in the music industry of all places. That is such an achievement. If punk was a discourse of authenticity, . . . Crass must be placed at the centre of [it]. (McKay 81-82)
However, we do think that their "do it yourself, DIY" attitude-described by McKay as a "strategy of bricolage" (78)-seems to echo Thatcher's thought in an uncanny fashion: "recovery can only come through the work of individuals. . . . And the worst thing a Government can do is to try to smother it completely with a sort collective alternative" (Speech to Conservative Rally in Cardiff). Some individualistic values were shared-we already observed that before with the Sex Pistols-both by the Punks and Margaret Thatcher, therefore it remains impossible to clearly oppose them.
To conclude, we shall remember that we attempted to demonstrate that, for various reasons, the British Punk movement was not a mere working class response to Thatcherism and free-market ideas. Firstly, punk social protests started before the emergence of Thatcherism-if such a political doctrine can even be considered to exist at all. Plus, both the lack of clarity in the punk political message and the working class' disillusionment for left-wing ideals led us to think that the issue was far more complex. That is the reason why we then tried to briefly analyse the implications of the Punks' criticism of society, notably as a strong symbolic force, and as a vehement opposition to the establishment in general. However, we finally realized that the artificiality of the Punk movement, along with its intrinsic ambiguities pervading our analysis, prevented us to define it as being truly anti-Thatcherite, proletarian, or opposed to free-market economy.
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