I caught Punk at the British Library a few days before it closed earlier this month after attending a meeting there. The display was small enough to view in half an hour. Along with listening points which allowed you to hear singles from the era, presumably from the National Sound Archive, and a few books from their collection (a volume of Patti Smith poetry, the Vermorels’ early account) there were fanzines, posters, items of clothing and screens showing looped footage of some of the bands and the infamous Bill Grundy interview. I was particularly pleased to see, right in the centre of the exhibition, a large mounted photograph of personal favourites Subway Sect; standing to the left, in a crew neck jumper and untucked white shirt with the top button done up, is Rob Symmons, their guitarist, who is now a public librarian in Hammersmith.
Although I was too young to really be aware of it at the time, punk cast a huge shadow over my formative musical years in the nineteen eighties. Reading the NME was to be constantly reminded that I had been unfortunate enough to be born too late to take part in the momentous revolution that had recently occurred; one which, moreover, my generation could never hope to repeat. Inevitably I became fascinated by the period. I would spend hours poring, rather furtively, over a book called The Sex Pistols File which was a sort of collage of photos and newspaper cuttings. The legend of the Pistols’ birth, notoriety and demise thus became ingrained in my mind, and remains for me the greatest pop music story of all.
Even then, the mythologising of punk was fully under way. But in that pre-internet age, there was also a scarcity of information about it and its history was still inchoate. It was years before I saw footage of the Grundy exchange, even though I knew by heart every word that was uttered, learned as if they were lines from a play at school.
In 2016 it is, of course, completely different. That generation of teenagers are now in positions of power, in politics, the media, the culture industry and, not least, universities. Punk was thoroughly absorbed into the mainstream years ago. And since the publication of Jon Savage’s great ‘England’s Dreaming’, its story has been told over and over again. Inevitably, each time a little more of the magic dissipates. What was once unhealthily fresh is now clean old hat, said Howard Devoto on leaving the Buzzcocks in February 1977. I wonder what Devoto (who himself became a picture librarian) makes of all this now.
I certainly felt a slight boredom as I peered at the relics tastefully arranged in glass cabinets. But there is still some residual excitement. I was pleased, for example, to learn that a new member of staff at our library, Adrian Janes, had been in a punk band. They were called The Outsiders and, although less celebrated their peers, they were there in the middle of it all, playing the Roxy and the Vortex. At the earliest opportunity I took Adrian for a coffee and bombarded him with questions. He did not disappoint me. He modestly described, for example, the time they supported Siouxsie and the Banshees and he lent them his drum kit; when it was returned, he found the snare had been rendered virtually unusable by the ferocity of Kenny Morris’ drumming. He also recalled with evident pleasure the occasion when Iggy Pop jumped up on stage to join them as they covered a Stooges song.
Adrian (who is also a writer) is very comfortable with the idea of a punk exhibition in our national library and sees it as both a recognition of the movement that he was a part of, and a validation of his own band, who have been largely written out of the official histories. He is delighted that people are interested in the music he made when he was younger.
As for me, I’m not so sure. Just as the endless retelling of the story diminishes it, I’m also not convinced it can quite stand the weight it is now given. One of the exhibits, an early Pistols lyric sheet, features childish doodles of band names of the sort we all once inscribed on the covers of our school exercise books. It is a reminder that most of those involved were just kids. That is not to say that punk wasn’t a genuine cultural revolution; rather, it derived its very beauty and power from its youthfulness. But that is also why overly reverent analysis of it, such as that which goes on in our universities, always utterly misses the point. So, in the same way, does the British Library exhibition.
But perhaps, in saying this, it is me who is guilty of taking it all too seriously. In a current CILIP advert, Mary Beard (with whom I have disagreed with on another matter) states that “libraries are places where exciting, radical and sometimes dangerous ideas are born”. While this may be true, in that libraries are a place of discovery, it is also the case that they contain many books about events and ideas that have had their day and remain only of historical interest; or, in other words, are dead. In this sense, punk has found its natural home in the library. It will remain there for people to unearth in the future but, like rock music more generally, the moment of its cultural relevance has long since passed.
Like me, Adrian is a father. He has two teenage sons who, he admits ruefully, are more concerned with basketball and rap music than his youthful musical exploits. My own, younger son also has zero interest in the records I grew up with. I believe that is as it should be and, in fact, I would be very happy if none of them go on to listen to a single note of punk rock. Punk is in the library now. The dangerous ideas will be born somewhere else.