On Punk

Like the eyes of the Mona Lisa, it seems to have followed me everywhere, all my adult life. It started on the faces of a couple of musicians in the mid-70s, but now graces the features of fashion models, Californian surfers, career girls with attitude, and middle-aged television personalities.

It's the 'punk stare'. A sneery twisted mouth, a doggish flash of snarling (though impeccable) teeth, stretched sarcastic eyes, oh-so hostile and blank.

I see it on the face of the editor of the NME as he denounces the Mercury Prize, I see it on the face of tubby best-selling hooligan novelist Irvine Welsh, I see it ('after' but not 'before') in mediocre TV fashion shows, where a girl born in 1980 rather perplexedly lets smug 'fashion experts' restyle her, with the aid of horrible high street pink leopardskin prints, as a 'punkette'.

I've yet to see it on the face of a mainstream politician, but it can only be a matter of time. And when that happens the punk sneer, now merely tedious and irritating, will become truly oppressive.

Mickey Mouse Has Grown Up A Cow

Punk once meant something. In the mid-70s it was the kick up the butt complacent bands like Yes needed. As a cultural revolution, it's been wildly successful.

But like a snotty-nosed Dickensian urchin, Punk has grown into an ugly middle- aged brat. It has been spoiled by its own success. I heard Yes' Tales From Topographic Oceans for the first time this week, and it sounded to me like exactly the sort of kick today's 'punk' media arbiters need up their bloated, smug, immoveable arses. How has such a major reversal happened?

Irreverence: The New Piety

It is Britain's curse that its major cultural contribution of the last 25 years has been punk rock. The ideology of punk, while refreshing in the mid-70s, has now become an unassailable orthodoxy, the religion of the generation currently in control of the British media.

These punk brahmins promote their products with diluted Jamie Reid imagery, pose (without much irony or distance) as Sid Vicious in their 'young British art', and make oddly reverent documentaries about icons of irreverence like The Clash.

Reverent about punk, the old turks are dismissive of everything else. Their mindless, undiscriminating irreverence has become the new piety.

What sadder sight could there be than a forty- something cultural mandarin with a shaved head pogoing around his office, thinking he still has the spunky nihilism of the Pistols back in the day? The generation of '76 is ten times more smug, irritating and complacent than the generation of '68 it replaced.

Westway, Westwood And The Windsors: The Resistible Rise

I can already see the Conservative Party sweeping to power circa 2005 with a manifesto based on 'punk' platitudes:

No Future for Europe!
Laissez Faire Capitalist Anarchy in The UK!
No More Heroes, No More State Subsidy Of The Arts!
Sex Is Just Two Minutes Of Squelching Noises, So Let's Restrict It To Procreation!
Bondage, Spanking And Fetishes For MPs Only!
Boredom, boredom!
Bank Generation!

In retrospect we can see punk rock's no future nihilism as one of the factors contributing to the triumph of Margaret Thatcher in 1979. If you refuse to believe in -- and therefore to start building -- a positive future, you prepare the way for a politics of fear, which usually means authoritarian leaders.

Punk was simply the sexy face of Britain's innate conservatism, its fear of the future.

While seeming to attack the royal family, punk ended up, like much satire, energising it.

Vivienne Westwood's parodies of aristocratic style were meant to be subversive, revealing the fetishism inherent in riding gear and Saville Row tailoring. But British politicians and aristocrats and their apparel were already so blatantly fetishistic that it wasn't much of an insight to point this out.

Westwood creations have ended up appealing to the same Japanese and Americans who visit Buckingham Palace when they come to London. These tourists, refreshingly free of the spite and sarcasm of Punk's founding fathers, lap up the lot without irony. Westwood, Windsor, it's all the same.

When Westwood appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair in the 80s disguised as Margaret Thatcher it was unclear whether the gesture was mockery or tribute. Less ambiguous was the moment when Julie Burchill, NME's 'hip young gunslinger' of punk, embraced Thatcher. Following the sinking of the Belgrano, Burchill started speaking of her with the same breathless admiration she had previously reserved for John Lydon and Siouxie Sioux.

Here in Britain we can still save ourselves from the dull power of those who think that punk is still a fresh and liberating philosophy. The victory of shaven-headed, sneery, gobbing Tory 'punk' William Hague in 2005 is not inevitable. But avoiding it will involve creative effort, renuncuation, denunciation and depunkification.

Nonesuch Must Be Built!

We must build a new art, fashion and style revolution which turns punk values upside down. This movement must put London on the international cultural map. There must be Newsweek and Time covers, major interest in Japan, architects commissioned in the new cities of China, stylists headhunted by the major Paris fashion houses. But these designers and musicians, composers, architects and writers must avoid all the tedious memes of punk -- irreverence, anarchy, sneery aggression, words like 'blank' and 'void' and 'anarchy' and 'destroy'. Any reversion to these weary themes will instantly negate the whole movement, and make the rest of the world say, 'Oh, it's just the British trying to sell us punk rock again'.

We must stress everything which is the opposite of punk ideology:

* Sensuality
* Cosmopolitanism
* Optimism about the future
* Flamboyance, Intellectualism
* Aspiration, Refinement
* Reverence
* Appreciation of art and creativity
* Friendliness
* Classicism
* Sophistication
* Co-operation
* Elaborate decoration
* Slow tempos
* Insincerity
* Hope for the future
* Indifference to royalty
* Diversity, pluralism and an encouragement of difference
* Coloured fabrics, not black leather
* Soft curves, not spikes

We need big names, big guns to beat the stubbornly persistent punk meme. I suggest we replace the grey, warlike, saxon style of punk with a forgotten but surprisingly persistent British meme: Italianness. As the cultural centre of London shifts eastwards, and global warming makes the city feel more Mediterranean, we must switch from carpets to tiles, from pubs to outdoor cafes.

We can beat Lydon with Shakespeare. We can beat the Thanatos of punk with the Eros of an Italian-inspired British renaissance. Shakespeare's plays, completely British, were mostly situated in the beautiful walled city states of north Italy. Punk situated its dramas in the council estates of Dagenham, the tower blocks of Bolton.

We must abandon the London of Derek Jarman's 'Jubilee', and instead try to recreate the city in the image of his 'Caravaggio' and 'The Tempest'. We must rebuild London Bridge in its Florentine aspect, milling with people and houses and market stalls. Covent Garden should look even more Italian than it already does, Englishmen should kiss each other on the street as they did in the 18th Century, they should visit the opera and make sexual assignments for money on the heath. They should be bisexual, not asexual.

There should be international trade, decoration, mannerism, complication and intelligence again. Coffee house wits and Grub Street poets must flourish. The City Of London should be restored to a technologically-enhanced version of the Roman town Londinium. Henry VIII's magnificent Tudor palace Nonesuch should be reconstructed from the few drawings that remain.

Since it needs a name, I suggest we call this new movement, which will dominate the flavour of British culture for the next 25 years, Nonesuch.

Out with Punk, out with nihilism! Let's build Nonesuch!


Momus, London, October 1999
nick @momus.demon.co.uk


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