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Sunday, 11 November 2012

Punk 365: that essence rare

It's undeniably compulsive. I spent a couple of hours yesterday slightly obsessively going through Holly George-Warren's Punk 365 photo book

It's one of those chunky brick-books. A sort of modern variant on the coffee-table offerings. But yeah, as I sip my own coffee here and now (a drop of espresso seeing as you ask, not as nice as in Italy, but OK ...) I can only reflect - for the 127th time - that this is a major part of what punk has become. Another product ...

Slap that down on your coffee table 

But then again, punk itself always knew that, was that, played with the idea of being that. It's a form of poetic justice. Like those Sex Pistols badges and cash-in albums after Sid Vicious' death. Capitalism's revenge, the market having the last laugh - it's all part of the story of punk, but it was also part of punk as well and it wasn't always clear what was subversive, playful or cynical. Either then or now.

So, on the one hand it's nice to gaze at pix of Tom Verlaine or Richard Hell strolling along St Mark's Place in New York in 1976 (not least because Hell in particular is amazingly good looking). And you get little bursts of info about the bands and the context along with the photographs. Fine. But at the same time it's a downer. St Mark's Place is more or less a tourist trap now, flogging posters of "classic" punk bands or Nirvana gear. Punk has eaten itself.

Richard Hell, complete with branding 

This doesn't matter in itself, but the merchandised depiction of a "scene" through tourist paraphernalia is all too similar to what's going on with the book. The book (being a book) contains only the faintest traces of the energy of the music (despite all those miraculous images of people like Jimmy Pursey jumping a metre and a half above the stage during a performance) and instead you get a lot of the back-stage "manner". Bands with bottles or cans in their hands. Fags. Attitude. Trying to look surly or - more ridiculously - pouting or doing a Billy Idol lip snarl. It's OK up to a point, but it's also wearing and somehow depressing.

On this blog I've often found myself railing against the impulse to reduce punk to any one thing or set of things. On the one hand Punk 365 is a prime example of reductionism - snap, snap, snap. But to be fair, its sheer volume means there's enough variety to avoid this. Sort of. As I was saying recently about Simon Barker's exhibition of punk photos, there's always something haunting about images of people frozen in time (something the French photographer Jean-Loup Lafont alludes to here), and the book conveys some of this. Not only that, seeing things like Bowery street scenes outside CBGBs is itself interesting (cars - and indeed early 70s hairstyles - straight out of Scorcese's Mean Streets).

I think Richard Hell's two-page intro to Punk 365 gets it about right though. "Punk is an idea, not a band". It doesn't matter how many photos you see of The Ramones or The Clash, these are not going to give you much sense of what punk was - or is. There's no "essence" here. Hell goes through a list of attributes as if to convey the spirit of punk - "honesty, anger, frustration, obnoxiousness" etc - but even as he does so he's basically saying that no list is going to do that. 

When I first opened Punk 356 I thought I'd found that essence rare. ("It's what I looked for / I knew I'd get what I asked for"). Except, I didn't.

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