The leading songwriters of Punk were considered the voices of their generation but there were times you couldn’t figure out what they were singing because the records didn’t come with lyrics and the production values weren’t exactly models of pristine clarity. You would think that if you wanted to start a revolution it would help if the kids could understand the manifesto, right?
This was especially vexing with The Clash because of Joe Strummer’s phlegmy, mouthful-of-marbles delivery. I don’t know if The Westway Wonders considered lyric sheets to be bourgeois indulgences or CBS wouldn’t shell out for inner sleeves, but they didn’t include one with an album until London Calling which made the publication of The Clash Songbook in 1978 such a big deal — we could finally understand what Joe was barking about on “White Riot” and “Complete Control”.
It included the words and chords of every song on their debut album plus all the singles and b-sides to date, and we studied it like it was the Bible or Rosetta Stone. To us, Strummer/Jones were way better than some poncey “poet” like Bob Dylan and I remember loving how snappy, sharp, and even jokey a lot of the lyrics were.
In retrospect it might not seem very fan-friendly to make them shell out £3.50 (in 1978 money) for a book of lyrics they could have got free with the records — especially for a value-for-money band like The Clash — but it was a nicely-done project and worth buying. According to the book’s designer Pearce Marchbank (best known for his design of Time Out) the band supplied all the images and even created the type which makes me imagine Mick and Joe staying up all night with a stencil kit and a Dymo Labelmaker.
Nowadays you could just look the words up online but that’s kind of boring when you can get this terrific print artifact for a reasonable price at the usual places since it was reissued a few years ago. Volume Two designed by artist Derek Boshier is excellent too.
The career of Punk ingenue Honey Bane reads like the script of a torrid teen exploitation movie. Growing up as a “problem child” with an unstable home life, she formed her first band Fatal Microbes in 1978 when she was only 14. They broke up after making just the one single (the minor Post-Punk classic “Violence Grows”) and after that Honey was put in a juvenile treatment centre for alcohol and behavioral problems. She ran away from there and spent a year as a fugitive from Social Services during which she fell in with anarcho-punk collective Crass and recorded an EP with them. Now the ripe old age of 16, Honey released her terrific first solo single “Guilty” on her own label, and then came under the managerial wing of Sham 69’s Jimmy Pursey who got her signed to EMI and attempted to turn her into a pop star.
Sporting a Toyah Wilcox-ish look and a more bouncy, New-Wave sound, her first Pursey-produced single “Turn Me On, Turn Me Off” was a hit in 1981 — I bought it and had a crush on her — but none of the follow-ups did well. Annoyed by EMI’s attempts to push her in an even more pop direction, she quit her contract with them and went into acting. But despite a part in the 1982 film Scrubbers (sort of a female version of Scum) and a Trebor Mints commercial (!), that career fizzled and a few years later she was posing nude in girlie mags to make a living.
If this story was a movie, the final scene would be a desperate suicide by drug overdose, her music dreams crushed and reduced to the sleazy business of taking her clothes off for money. But Holly is still around, back to making music, and last year she released a compilation of singles and b-sides going back to her Fatal Microbes days called It’s A Baneful Life which is mostly excellent stuff, especially when you consider she wrote and recorded a lot of it at an age when the rest of us were only worrying about homework and school discos.
These days the look and sound of Punk is so unthreatening it’s used in television commercials and kids with blue hair don’t even turn heads, but it was once considered a serious threat to the morals of England’s youth. Of course that’s why we liked it, anything that could get up the noses of grown ups had to be a good thing.
This 1977 episode of the BBC current affairs program Brass Tacks is a wonderful time capsule of that era. I remember seeing this at the time it was broadcast as we’d watch anything about Punk. It features some great footage of Punk kids in Manchester, a very young Pete Shelley, John Peel, and an hysterical parade of uptight councilors and clergy. Not surprisingly, Peel (who starts talking around the 34-minute mark) is about the only adult in the room who knows anything about it and doesn’t come across as a reactionary twerp.
I originally intended to post this clip last week before my ISP put up a roadblock so here it is again. Tom Robinson performing the title track of his classic debut album (in New Jersey of all places) and doing a Maggie Thatcher impersonation — this was only two months after she first became Prime Minister.