Punks always wanted to pen the obituary of rock 'n' roll loud and live, they were going to be the complete antidote to the long-haired stadium rock of the early 1970s.
They arrived with a bang of energy in the heatwave summer of 1976, when the music industry's biggest news was Rick Wakeman's decision to rejoin Yes. Punk turned into an end-of-the-decade orgy, but by the early 1980s it had devolved into little more than a haircut and a postcard image to sell to tourists. Now, 15 years after the Sex Pistols officially launched punk rock at London's 100 Club, the mass media are rushing to reopen Pandora's box.
Jon Savage is the guru of the revival. His book England's Dreaming Sex Pistols and Punk Rock is published on October 21. To coincide with the launch, Channel 4 is staging a punk weekend, complete with Savage's selection of clips from the Granada pop show So It Goes, a documentary on Czechoslovakian punk and a screening of Julien Temple's 1980 film, The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle. Savage is also busy advising Arena on its punk party for BBC2 in November.
But nobody is innocent. The success earlier this year of the Levis 501s campaign, which used The Clash's Should I Stay Or Should I Go, prompted a re-release for the album The Story of the Clash Volume One. On the back of the success of The Jam's Greatest Hits (which reached number two in the album charts in July) and The Stranglers' Greatest Hits 1977-1990 (released late last year, reaching number five), The Story of the Clash went to number one. In June, Virgin released the punk compilation Fun, Filth and Fury, and last monh Sony Music pu together The Sound of the Suburbs, which has since become one of the most successful compilation albums ever pressed by the company.
According to Clive Farrell, manager (research and television concept) of Sony Music, the decision to launch Sound of the Suburbs came from a gut instinct that punk music was alive and well on the radio. "It was an outstanding period for the 7in single, after all equally as great as 1963-1966." The album (which boasts it sums up a generation) is a hosed-down compilation from the polite end of punk. But that's no accident. "We wanted to avoid the grimy, safety-pin image," says Farrell. "Punk can become a caricature of itself. We wanted to emphasise the pop element of it."
Old punks seem very happy to have their pop element emphasised. Most didn't die they just went to perform in Osaka and Los Angeles. According to Poly Styrene, lead singer of punk originals X-Ray Spex, "Punk's quite potent on the west coast of America. There's a hard-core scene, and more recently a straight-edged thing all these clean-cut vegetarian kids that are not into taking drugs but the music's really fast and positive. Berlin, Russia, Japan there's a demand for it everywhere."
And now London, it seems. On September 14, X-Ray Spex perform in a punk nostalgia night at the Brixton Academy, supported by Sham 69, 999, Chelsea, the UK Subs and The Lurkers. X-Ray Spex broke up after Poly Styrene ("It's my consumer name") saw a flying saucer and had a nervous breakdown. But the band decided to gig again after their promoter saw kids at raves wearing shirts with the X-Ray Spex logo hand-painted on the back.
Given the list of punk bands still available to a booker, a nostalgia night could easily have outplayed its welcome. Stiff Little Fingers and The Exploited are still playing the circuit. The Damned have reformed to tour the US and Japan. The Buzzcocks have signed a new record deal and this summer staged a sell-out UK tour at medium-sized venues. And Generation X are contemplating a return to the stage with Billy Idol at the helm, to coincide with a double album in October.
"The Filth and The Fury" was the headline splattered across the Daily Mirror in the wake of the obscene language used by the Sex Pistols in a Bill Grundy television interview in 1976. "Who Are These Punks?" bellowed the tabloids. But now the hoodlums are 15 years older. And it's ironic to see back catalogues (including anarcho-punk band Crass and their album Penis Envy) now available on compact disc. For real rebellion, today's teens buy misanthropic hardcore bands such as Napalm Death or Bolt Thrower. Buy punk, and your mother would not only like it, she'd probably already have bought it first time round on a yellow vinyl pressing.
Who is to say the punk dinosaurs couldn't rock out again? According to Savage, "There's a great misconception that people have about popular culture that it has to be authentic. Popular culture is a mixture of the authentic and the artificial, and it's the making of the artificial authentic that is to say, real as experienced by a lot of people, and connecting with people's real desires.
"I don't have any problems with the fact that something can begin as a fake and become rea. In many degrees, punk was artificial and patched together, but it became real."
Access is one punk totem that will prove vital to a revival."Here are three chords," said Sideburns fanzine in 1976. "Now go and form a band." Anyone can do it. As yet, it doesn't seem anyone's interested in doing it. There's no new Ed Banger and The Nosebleeds, Splodgenessabounds (famous for Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps Please) or GBH (with the guitarist who claimed to have the highest Mohican in the Midlands). But if demand leads, then supply will follow. The best that music journalists can do at the moment is latch on to the posturing of Manic Street Preachers.
The Preachers regularly destroy their equipment at the end of a recent tour they ran up a debt of Pounds 26,000 due to smashed instruments. They wear eyeliner and write slogans on their bodies (Culture Slut and Riot State are popular) in lipstick. The group's graphics remind anyone over 25 of James Reid's work for the Sex Pistols.
But don't call the Preachers derivative. When a journalist from the New Musical Express hinted at the band's lack of authenticity, their guitarist, Richie Edwards, carved "4 Real" into his left forearm with a razor blade. The Preachers learnt the art of publicity from punk, and they're now thinking of using photographs of the 17 stitches as promotional shots for the band in the US. For the moment, the Preachers might be auto-destructing in a vacuum but, with enough of a recession to justify "No Future" T-shirts and a few good punk retrospectives on television, they'll soon have company.