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Dirty Water- the Birth of Punk Attitude

Out Demons Out by Edgar Broughton Band- included in Dirty Water Volume Two.

Dirty Water- The Birth of Punk Attitude 1 & 2 – selected by Kris Needs.
Available from Year Zero /Future Noise Music.
Volume One.
Volume Two.

Note: I started writing this review ages ago, but found it a bit of a challenge to my ideas about what punk was/is. I thought I knew my history of punk – until I discovered Dirty Water.

First up – major thank you to Mick Baxter for sending me these. Second up, thanks to Kris Needs for assembling such a boundary/ mind expanding collection of tunes. There are 72 tracks altogether, ranging from Woody Guthrie to Sun Ra, from Gene Vincent to Tapper Zukie…and about a thousand points in between. Or maybe even an infinite number, like a mathematical paradox in which no matter how many extra tracks are added, the Yero Zero of punk can never quite be reached.

Listening through the whole 72 tracks as I have just done, one minute you are swooping down on a wave of sound which is punk as fuck and the next you are whooshing off into some other musical universe. But then as Kris defines/ describes it ‘Punk was an attitude born of either struggle or limited means, which could exist in anything from rooftop doo wop crooners, circuit abusing alchemists or bands picking up guitars and recording themselves with little idea of tradition in their chosen musical genre.’

One way of listening to this sonic assemblage is to hear it as a range of possible/ potential ‘punk’ styles, any one set of which could have become actualised as punk in Year Zero. From the perspective of Year Thirty Six, we know what punk really sounds like so certain tracks jump out as being ancestral to punk. But right up until Year Zero itself this would have been impossible. Only after Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm Mclaren had commodified/fetishised the punk attitude was it possible to do so. Once punk became a product, a saleable commodity, then distinctions between what was and was not punk could be made.

In February 1977, the front cover of International Times (launched in 1966) announced ’Punk is Dead’. By June 1977, Kris Needs was having conversations with various (well known) punks ‘who all bemoaned, in their individual ways, the predictable cliché mentality sweeping a movement supposed to be injecting freshness and destroying old orders. By that summer, punk was increasingly dominated by an ever-swelling army sporting the requisite leather and studs uniforms behaving how they’d read about the Sex Pistols doing in the tabloids, seemingly destined to go the way of the teddy boys….’

One way of visualising this is to imagine an upside down funnel. The broad end of the funnel represents the various potential forms of punk as illustrated by the ‘Dirty Water’ tracks, the narrow end the actuality of punk in 1977. Then imagine a right-way up funnel to represent the post-77 explosion of diversity as creative experimentation began pushing against the boundaries of actualised punk. Mark Perry’s movement through punk as potential, punk as actuality and then on to the possibilities of post-punk illustrate this movement through the phase-spaces of punk.

And then? It all falls apart and what seemed so solid melts into air. In his book ‘England’s Dreamimg’, Jon Savage exhaustively documented the origins of punk as Year Zero. It is a weighty, compelling and compulsive text which seems to explain everything and has the creative tensions of the relationship between Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm Mclaren at its heart. By giving birth to the Sex Pistols, Westwood and Mclaren gave birth to punk through ‘Sex’ (their shop) and stamped their DNA all over it. It is a still powerful myth- but is it history?

The more I listen to ‘Dirty Waters’, the more it begins to wash away the encrusted mythology of punk to reveal the outlines of a more confusing and complex history of punk. This is simultaneously disconcerting and exhilarating. Jon Savage and many others who have written about the origins of punk in the UK focus on the economic crises of the mid-seventies – the shocks caused by the oil price rise which followed the 1973 Arab-Israel war and the conflict between Ted Heath’s Tory government and trades unions/ miners – which led to the 3 day week and power cuts over the winter of 1973/4. Which was then followed by two general elections in 1974 and a minority Labour government which experienced a financial crisis in 1975 when the UK had to be bailed out by the International Monetary Fund.

This creates the impression that punk was in some way a response to these immediate crises- which get mixed up in hindsight with the 1978/9 ‘winter of discontent’ when dead bodies piled up in mounds in the streets. [Allegedly]. This ‘broken Britain’ narrative leads on to the election of Margaret Thatcher in May 1979 and a political/ economic/ social lurch to the right which has lasted down to the present. Punk then becomes a signifier for major social change.

But if the origins of the punk attitude extend further back in time than 1974/5 this narrative loses some of its immediacy. As revised by Kris Needs, punk becomes less unique and its boundaries become blurred. What starts to emerge is punk as part of a long tradition of popular resistance/ opposition to the dominant/ruling structures of society. The music has its origins in the anti-establishment ballads of folk song and the fanzines in the similar broadsheets of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Dig beneath the surface of any historical era and you will find evidence of radical countercultures and of upsurges in political activity which lead to riots and occasionally even civil wars and revolutions.

In the particular case of punk, the deeper historical dimension can be traced back to Malcolm Mclaren and Jamie Reid’s 1970 attempt to document the history of Oxford Street via an unfinished film. ‘The film ends with a grand parade of London stores. In the middle of this spectacle is a scene straight from Situationist demonology: Smoke seen coming from a building, a restaurant is on fire. Procession stops’. The Gordon Riots of June 1780 are also included. Mclaren and Reid’s account begins ‘ The middle class started it against the Catholics. Then hundreds of shop keepers, carpenters, servants, soldiers and sailors rushed into the streets. There were only a few Catholic houses to smash. So they started to smash all the rich houses. The middle classes did nor want anything to do with this. The rioters then burned down all five London prisons. They wanted to knock down everything that stopped them having fun and made them unhappy. They wanted to set all the mad people free and free the lions from the Tower of London’. [ From Jon Savage, England’s Dreaming, 1991, page 41]

The Gordon Riots were just that. No revolution followed them. But nine years later on the 14 July 1789 in Paris a similar explosion of unrest led to the storming of the Bastille prison and the French Revolution. 1793 became Year One of the new French revolutionary calendar and thus the historical origin of punk’s ‘Year Zero’. If the events of May 1968 in Paris/ France had (as the Situationists hoped) led to a new revolution, this would have been another Year Zero. The mythology and rhetoric of the Situationists, if not their critical analysis of modern capitalism, was recycled into punk as a vaguely anarchic sensibility. As punk music mutated into post-punk in 1979/80, the anarchic aspects of punk attitude gave rise to anarcho-punk a few years later. The evolution can be traced through the pages of Ripped and Torn and its successor, Kill Your Pet Puppy.

The last issue of KYPP, No. 6, was published in 1983 and described a (fictionalised) journey to Stonehenge Free Festival. Musically and culturally, this journey marked the re-convergence of punk with the pre/post punk counterculture, with the broader narrative of punk as an attitude which Kris Needs has so effectively presented in the two volumes of ‘Dirty Water’.


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