When the Sex Pistols exploded onto the London music scene in 1975, few music critics could have foreseen the impending mass movement that their music embodied. A general frustration with Britain’s culture and a backlash against the norms and expectations of the time had been growing steadily throughout the 1970s, but the tipping point of youth anger seemed to come when the band played their first concert at Saint Martin’s in London that November. Although punk in Britain is often linked inexorably to the band’s music, the ideas that form the core of the movement can be seen in the fashion, politics and counterculture of the 1970s. This essay attempts to trace the punk movement, from its origins in the socio-economic turmoil of the 70s, through the fashion that embodied punk’s subversion, to the music that was the soundtrack to a generation of disillusioned young people. This essay will also examine punk’s legacy in music, politics and youth mobilisation. Although few at that first concert in November 1975 would have predicted the scale of impact that punk would have, the movement and the music has shaped so much of what we consider political, and who we see as being part of politics in this country.
No Future: Britain in the 1970s
Britain in the 1970s was a grim picture. The country had faced a series of international and domestic crises, was in significant financial turmoil, and had seen periods of protracted industrial action that left the country at a standstill. The general mood of the decade seemed to be one of discontent (Saunders, 2012).
Against this backdrop of political disillusionment, punk emerged. There seemed to be no genuine political outlet for the anger and frustration of young people. Both the Labour and Conservative parties had failed to hold power, and both seemed far from any true solution to Britain’s political situation. Growing economic and social tensions fed a rejection of the status quo (Worley, 2017). The young people of the 1970s had not been brought up in the so-called ‘golden age’ of post war Britain as their parents had, but into a world of limited opportunities and rising poverty. For older generations, it must have been difficult to understand the anger that, to the youth, seemed perfectly justified.
These growing societal tensions saw young people at the front of political movements for what seemed like the first time. Possibly the most famous of these is Rock Against Racism (RAR). Anti-Fascist movements had existed in the UK since the time of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, but the 1970s saw a sudden resurgence of these movements. The decline of the Empire, coupled with migration from former colonies and growing suspicion of the left, had led to the widespread formation of new far-right fascist groups in Britain, including the National Front. Counter movements, like Rock Against Racism, owed much of their membership to young people (Renton, 2018). The use of music to galvanise young people to a cause could not be ignored.
Following the example of RAR, punk bands sought to capitalise off the lack of political outlet for the youth, using their music to speak to disenfranchised young people about the problems with the British establishment. As Worley (2017) notes, however, it was often difficult to see what the political orientation of punk was. The myriad of bands that made up Britain’s punk scene in the 1970s expressed their political views so loudly, and changed them so often, that it was difficult to cut through the noise to the heart of the matter. Your favourite band might be bashing the welfare state one day, and then declaring itself vehemently anti-Thatcher the next, as was the case with Siouxsie and the Banshees (Ibid, 2017). The only seemingly consistent political view that united the punk movement was its commitment to anti-political views. But this, perhaps, is punk’s biggest contribution to the politics of today. It provided a space for young people, once seen as firmly outside of the political sphere, to express their anger at the British system that was, according to Ruth Adams, riddled with ‘complacent jingoism’ (2019, p. 90). The complacency of the British people needed to be disrupted, and punk provided this disruption, not only through its politics, but also through its image.
Oh So Pretty: Punk’s new look
Although Vivienne Westwood is recognised as one of the founding figures of punk, the scale of her contribution to the punk movement is often overlooked in favour of her partner, Malcolm McLaren. Their boutique on the King’s Road, known as SEX from 1974 until 1976, is commonly spoken of as the hub of McLaren’s punk empire, providing rehearsal space for the Sex Pistols and outfits for the band (Worley, 2017). What is less discussed is how the shop functioned as a creative space for Westwood’s fashion revolution, which was beginning to drastically change the way young people dressed.
If punk was a rejection of the British establishment, punk fashion was a rejection of the established nature of clothing. Punk fashion was destroyed clothing, turned inside out, ripped, defaced, and dirty - a physical manifestation of the destruction of the system pushed by punk bands (Price, 2004). Punk fashion’s distressed image also reflected the poverty and the filth of 1970s Britain, where unemployment was rampant, and striking saw rubbish piled up on the streets. Today we talk about ‘recession chic’, when high fashion becomes consciously more understated in times of economic decline, but punk fashion was the blueprint, embodying the socio-economic distress of Britain in the 70s through clothing.
For Westwood, this was just the beginning. Her punk style moved quickly from ‘do it yourself’ to staple pieces of high fashion, the bondage and corsetry of SEX making its way into her runway shows. What started with punk became a globally recognised movement against the accepted rules of high fashion. Elements of punk style pioneered by Westwood remain part of youth fashion today, with distressed clothing, underwear as outerwear and the iconic black Dr Martens boot as popular with young people now as they have ever been. Through dressing the punk movement, Vivienne Westwood enabled young people to express themselves politically through their clothing, a practice that is fundamental to modern youth culture.
Full of Sound and Fury: The soundtrack of punk
In Westwood’s clothing, punk claimed its image: now it needed a sound. Enter: Steve Jones, Paul Cook, John Lydon, and John Simon Ritchie. The Sex Pistols’ music is synonymous with punk in Britain, with Johnny Rotten’s tuneless vocals singing the discontent of a generation. The responses to this new brand of musical activism varied wildly. Religious groups, politicians, and concerned parents turned out in force when the band toured, protesting what they saw as a bunch of delinquents who were corrupting their children. The press jumped on this image, painting the band’s music as the bringer of anarchy and disorder. A so-called ‘moral panic’ was sweeping the country, fuelled by inflammatory lyrics such as ‘I am an Antichrist, I am an anarchist, ’ and ‘I kick you in the head, you got nothing to say’ (Gildart, 2015).
This opposition from the establishment only increased the popularity of the music with young people. Anything described by the Daily Mail as the ‘sickest, seediest step in a rock world that thought it had seen it all’ was surely something worth listening to (Ibid, 2015). For young people, the obscene lyrics and wall of sound that was punk music embodied their frustration and anger, and wasn’t half bad to shout along to as well.
While the Sex Pistols were certainly the frontrunners of punk sound in Britain, new bands were emerging who didn’t shy away from politically charged, provocative lyrics. The Clash frequently wrote about politics, economic hardships, institutional corruption and racism (Gall, 2022). The Slits, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and The Prefects honed the art of an unrehearsed, improvised concert performance (Worley, 2017). Punk had gone so far from mainstream rock that a fair few bands boasted musicians who could barely play the instruments they had been given. Bands such as Poison Girls shunned the traditionally gendered presentation of rock, and love songs were consigned to the gutter in favour of confrontational, angry lyrics that related the harsh realities of being a teenager in the 70s (Ibid, 2017).
This particular combination of lyrics and sound made punk music the unique phenomenon that it was. It was a distinctively authentic, almost amateur genre, far removed from the artifice and conventions of rock music. Punk was social commentary in a way that music had never been before, never shying away from the filth and the fury of the time, confrontational because it had to be for the establishment to sit up and take notice. In this way, punk was inherently a political movement, and one whose impacts can still be felt today.
Whether it be in the circumstances relating to its emergence- the socio-economic turmoil of the 1970s- or the music that defined it, punk has always been fundamentally political. It provided an arena for the previously disenfranchised youth of Britain to air their grievances, amplifying the anger and the frustration of a generation until it could not be ignored. Punk gave young people the permission to subvert the expectations of their parents’ generation, whether this was through music or dress, and never sought to play down the harsh realities of 1970s Britain. Its legacy is one of freedom and sedition, and a culture where questioning the politics of the establishment is a fundamental part of being a young person. As Johnny Rotten put it, in a statement that was as terrifying to the British establishment at the time as it was exciting to the young people listening, ‘We’re the future, your future.’
Adams, R. (2019). ‘’Are You Going Backwards Or Are You Going Forwards?’ England Past and England Future in 1970s Punk’ in Coulter, C. (ed) Working For The Clampdown- The Clash, the Dawn of Neoliberalism and the Political Promise of Punk. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Gall, G. (2022). The Punk Rock Politics of Joe Strummer. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Gildart, K. (2015). ‘’The Antithesis of Humankind’ Exploring Responses to the Sex Pistols’ Anarchy Tour 1976’, Cultural and Social History, 10(1), pp. 129-149.
Price, S. (2004). Vivienne Westwood (born 1941) and the Postmodern Legacy of Punk Style. Available at: https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/vivw/hd_vivw.htm (Accessed: 27th April 2023).
Renton, D. (2018). Never Again: Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League 1976-1982. Boca Raton, FL: Routledge.
Saunders, R. (2012). ‘‘Crisis? What crisis?’ Thatcherism and the seventies’ in Jackson, B. and Saunders, R. (eds) Making Thatcher's Britain. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Worley, M. (2017). No Future: Punk, Politics and British Youth Culture, 1976–1984. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.