Punk: A Collection (1975-1985)

Toby Mott & Susanna Greeves

The Punk phenomenon exploded on London in 1976 in a burst of furious energy that, like a one-minute song, was soon spent. For a brief moment, though, it was able to provoke an already embattled establishment into confusion, moral panic, and futile resistance, and to sweep away what passed for youth culture in a great levelling that allowed anyone to express themselves through their bodies, their clothes, through music and art. More than a musical genre, punk was a political and cultural phenomenon – the last true global youth movement – which found music, the language of youth and rebellion, as its primary mode of expression. By the mid-seventies Britain was a nation in seemingly terminal decline, gripped by recession, menaced by the IRA, debilitated by unemployment: London was an ugly and menacing landscape pocked with no-places, bombsites and abandoned building sites, streets shuttered with corrugated iron, and blighted tower blocks. The summer of love was truly over. Punks made the dead city their playground and, like Lords of Misrule, set all values on their heads, celebrating insult, violence, outrage and amateurism in a destructive purge of the bankrupt culture. In less than two years the movement had consumed itself: bands that didn't self-destruct found commercial success, anathema to true punk. The society that had at first recoiled was quick to recover and absorb the rebels, turning snarling punks into teen magazine pin-ups: deconstructed, commodified, punk was smothered in the warm embrace of commercial culture, while its more creative elements quietly evolved in new directions. But despite the nihilistic message 'No Future', this brief, spontaneous, subversive outpouring of dark creativity continues to inspire artists and musicians today.

This is the story told in a unique collection of several hundred posters, flyers and other ephemera assembled by artist and ex-punk Toby Mott. With the passion of a true fan and an artist's eye for an image, he has gathered the evidence of the short life and premature, messy end of British Punk. It is a compelling portrait of a particular moment in British popular culture, at the bitter end of the post-war period. More than any movement before or since, punk was the poster: excluded from TV and daytime radio, struggling to be heard in the mainstream press, posters provided the most effective — and almost free — means of reaching the public. The legends are here, alongside the many more soon relegated to obscurity: The Clash, the Sex Pistols, The Damned, Adverts, Buzzcocks, X Ray Spex, Slits, Stiff Little Fingers. With an art-school graduate in the line-up of so many bands, or among their hangers-on, having a killer logo might come before the first release, and artists often showed an unprecedented understanding and control of their aesthetic even after signing to labels. But punk's other origins among working class youth are also represented, in the authentic menace and swagger of bands like Cock Sparrer and Sham 69. As well as iconic images by artists such as Jamie Reid (for the Sex Pistols) and Linder Sterling (for the Buzzcocks), the collection encompasses flyers and gig posters, crudely cut and pasted by anonymous hands, on which a scrawled 'live at the Poly' or a printed injunction against pogo dancing do almost more to summon the gobbing ghosts of the age. A small trove of other material gives us the flavour of the world on which this sound and fury was unleashed: Jubilee memorabilia such as provoked the Sex Pistols' 'God Save the Queen'; tourism and transport advertising which now looks charmingly innocent. A poisonous collection of leaflets and flyers from the National Front and British National Party, and copies of Class War, supply further context of a nation of unrest, torn by extremism, while posters for protest gigs record punk's later entanglement with politics of both the right and left.

Punk created an instantly recognisable visual aesthetic, as stripped-down, raw and strident as the music. A glance at the reverse of the Sex Pistols' 'God Save the Queen' poster in the collection, which shows the plastic disco confection Boney M, is a reminder of quite how revolutionary it was. Photos were bleached out and high-contrast, shot with flash in dark clubs and further degraded by cheap black and white copying, relieved only by shafts of shrieking neon. Portraits were shot on rough city streets, graffiti crawling over walls and posters, clothes and faces; they were snapped like mug shots and printed in grainy monochrome over blocks of colour, for the imperfect, edgy glamour of a Warhol screenprint. A rhythmic repetition of images, analogous to a pounding beat, is also learned from Warhol, the single most pervasive influence from the world of art. Ripped and torn graphics, like scars or sutures, enacted violent divisions and forced conjunctions in the images, but also anticipated the poster's future as a tattered object in the urban landscape. As in music, a DIY ethic prevailed and amateurism was no obstacle, since flyers and fanzines like _Sniffin' Glue _could be produced by anyone with a pile of newsprint, scissors, glue and access to a photocopier – just anyone who could score a bass could be in one of literally thousands of new bands. Collage required little skill and, by jamming together discordant elements, was a shortcut to shock or to the black humour that was also part of punk. It also allowed punk posters to sample images from Surrealism, Futurism, B-Movies and the American underworld, and in the hands of an artist like Linder Sterling became a powerful tool consciously referencing Dadaists such as Hannah Hoch and John Heartfield.

Dada, the anti-art art movement, declared that art could be made out of anything. Punk, the anti-rock rock movement, declared that anyone could make music — or art. 'Anti-art was the start' yelped Poly Styrene of the X-Ray Specs. Like Dada, punk was wont to disown any ancestry, portraying itself as a ground zero, but the two movements share a desire to outrage convention with acts of antisocial behaviour, as well as a tone which Greir Marcus describes as 'near absolute loathing of one's time and place, the note held until disgust turns to glee'. In the more recent past, the concepts and aesthetic of the Situationist International exerted an important influence on the emerging punk scene, and indeed punk's ambush on society from within the forms of popular music can in itself be seen as a model of Situationist 'détournement'. In a movement which brought together art-school graduates and working class youth, there were those with a self-conscious awareness of punk's place in the history of the avant-garde (certainly including Sex Pistols designer Jamie Reid and manager Malcolm MacLaren) — and many more without. But it is still valid to invoke the delinquent spirits of Dada, Lettrisme, and the Situationist International (as Marcus has done in his seminal cultural history) without assuming a familiarity with Tristan Tzara or Guy Debord on the part of every pogo-ing punk: a generation's visceral revulsion at the hollowness and fakery of mass culture may still be read as punk's re-animation of the Frankfurt School critique, though they might not know Adorno from Adam Ant. Beyond its fascination as a historical document, the material also invites these leaps through history between corresponding moments of cultural rebellion: from Jamie Reid's iconic safety-pinned Queen to Duchamp's Mona Lisa, from Johnny Rotten howling at the Roxy to Hugo Ball chanting at the Cabaret Voltaire.

Ephemeral and throwaway as each of these objects were, collected together they tell, in uniquely immediate and visual terms, a part of the history of Britain, the history of ideas, and the history of art. Punk has always exerted a fascination, but perhaps never stronger than at this moment. It is not just that a generation of ex-punks among us is reaching an age of nostalgia, nor that in the grip of a new economic crisis, facing an uncertain future, we may identify with the grim climate of those far-off days. The legacy of punk has permeated modern culture and society, and its visual vocabulary infuses much contemporary art. The punk spirit resonates in particular with the anti-elitist, DIY ethos of today's young, blogging artists and musicians. There is a prodigious appetite not just for the neutered tourist-pleasing punk of the pink Mohican, or for the sordid Sid and Nancy mythologies, but for an anarchic spirit of authenticity and amateurism, the volatile and ambiguous celebration of negativity, creativity, violence and protest that was Punk.

(c) Susanna Greeves