CULTURE: Andrew Cowen's big world of Rock - Revolutionary nostalgia.
Is it just me or does it really feel like punk never happened? Twenty five years on, all but the most stubborn stains on rock's upholstery have been scrubbed away. Rather than being a nation cowering in fear of anarchy, we're a country with an unhealthy obsession with Kylie's honker.
A press release for the latest Yes compilation actually has the audacity to refer to punk as 'rock's new dark ages' as if the Sex Pistols, Clash and thousands of other bands were just an irritation; a blot on the glorious landscape of prog.
The punk ethos has been diluted and recycled to such an extent that the nearest we get to three chord mayhem is Busted. In America, the flame burns a little brighter with the likes of Rancid, Blink 182 and Good Charlotte turning rebellion into money. However, it's music for middle-class mummy's boy and a far cry from the snot and bile of 1977.
As a great player of the 'I was a punk before you were a punk' game, it was with great pleasure that I finally crossed swords with Mark Perry, punk's great original cheerleader and the founder of seminal Sniffin' Glue fanzine.
It's difficult to over-estimate the importance of Mark P in punk's fundament. A bank clerk with a passion for music, his world was turned upside down when he came across the Ramones and the early stirrings of UK punk.
Opinionated, chock-full of integrity and self-deprecating wit, Perry has remained in the music industry, albeit on the fringes, for these past 25 years and - important this - has never sold out.
Moving from writing about punk to making his own three chord manifestos was an easy move for Perry. His band, Alternative TV, were as crucial as other post-punk icons such as The Fall and Magazine. Unwilling to be shackled by punk's rules, ATV progressed quickly from stereotypical buzzsaw merchants to a dark, experimental and very British-sounding outfit. Naturally, certain sections of the punk community hated it, but Perry himself quickly tired of hidebound and blinkered punk rockers. Punk was a product of its time. The catalyst was the dire state of the music industry in the mid-1970s, social factors in grey Britain and a support network of small venues and curious punters.
'It couldn't happen now,' sates Perry. 'The nature of our media means that we get to hear about something too quickly. MTV and the internet makes stars before they get the chance to fully form. Everything's handed to us on a plate. In punk we had to go out and find stuff for ourselves, now we are saturated by media.
'I was idealistic in those days. The turning point for me was in September 1976 and the Punk Test at the 100 Club in London. The bands to watch then were the likes of the Kursal Flyers, the Damned and Roogalator.'
The pub rock scene fed directly into punk as bands on the circuit cranked up the amps, speeded up the songs and injected a raw energy conspicuously absent at the time.
'Punk really started for me with the Clash's White Riot tour. That's when it started to go overground. It lasted from July 76 to the summer of 77, which coincided with the publication of Sniffin' Glue.'
Sniffin' Glue was the first fanzine and kick-started a publishing revolution as vital as punk itself. Containing real street wisdom, it was the only way to soak up the true punk vibe and was required reading for anyone on this exhilarating ride.
Disillusion with the scene prompted Perry to fold the magazine. By September 1977 the Clash were NME cover stars and the acolyte's work was done. Big business started to tame the bands which had once railed so hard against the establishment and Perry was ready for new challenges.
His first task was setting up Step Forward records, an early indie label responsible for the first singles by The Fall. Broader than punk, Step Forward became a champion of the so-called post punk sound, an endearing mix of shambolic playing and politics.
Alternative TV were also rapidly becoming a force to be reckoned with. Says Perry: 'I was pretty naive before I started the fanzine. I just wanted to get the message out. Through Sniffin' Glue I spent time on the road with bands and soaked up the punk spirit. When it stopped I found myself in a good position to take advantage of my reputation. That's not to say I'm an opportunist. It wasn't planned. It had to happen I suppose.'
Early demos, ironically, were cut for EMI - one of the main targets for punk's bile, but the company backed off when they heard the material. When the band finally did get to release records, the wait was worth it. Early singles contained the spirit of punk but it was albums such as The Image Has Cracked and Vibing Up the Senile Man that revealed the big picture. Influences from Frank Zappa, dub reggae, rock and the avant garde created a style that was perfect for the times.
ATV found themselves sharing bills with more traditional punkers and the hostility from fans of the Exploited and GBH really got Perry's back up. In his opinion, punk had moved quickly from something revolutionary to the ultra-conservative status quo. From something that briefly threatened to change the world it had become just another anachronistic youth cult.
Perry knocked it on the head for a bit. 'I felt betrayed when they all had a go at me,' he confesses. 'It became a bad scene. I was touring with the Pop Group [early avant garde agit-punk funkers] in early 79 and at a gig in Derby half the audience were punks and half were skinheads. A battle started and that was the end of it for me.'
Perry's belief in the power of rock'n'roll lay dormant for a while but the emergence of a new American scene fired him up again. Sonic Youth and Nirvana showed that music could be fiery and crucial without all the tribal baggage. Fugazi and Black Flag were the flag-bearers for a new US punk ethic that was every bit as crucial as our own.
Many of these bands name-checked Perry as their inspiration, both in his writing and his music and ATV were suddenly relevant again. Perry is still playing with ATV and finds plenty of work here and in Europe.
A punk revival of sorts to tie in with the events of 25 years ago has seen him playing festivals rather than clubs but Perry's not content to rest on his laurels. He's still writing songs and says he's always improving at his craft.
One thing he's certain about is that the music scene now is in a far worse state than it was in 1976, the year punk broke. 'Looking back now it's obvious we didn't know how good we had it. There was the Who and Little Feat. I can't imagine what it must be like now to be 18 or 19 with a good idea. It's such a feeding frenzy and bands are chewed up and discarded. It's all completely overblown but the band has no choice but to go along with it.'
With websites now the new fanzines and MP3 sharing the new distribution, perhaps the spirit of punk still survives in a new way. But for those of us there the first time, Perry's polemic and passion is still the benchmark.
Mark Perry with Harry Murlowski, a friend and the photographer responsible for many of the photos in Sniffin' Glue
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|Publication:||The Birmingham Post (England)|
|Date:||Aug 7, 2003|
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