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 don’t know if the alternative culture program Twentieth Century Box was ever shown outside of London but it was essential viewing. Produced by Janet Street-Porter, it gave a very young Danny Baker his first TV gig and was on the air in the early 1980s during a golden age for British youth culture (and had a theme tune by John Foxx). It devoted episodes to the Rockabilly scene, The New Wave of British Heavy Metal and the Blitz Kids, often providing their first coverage on television.
At the time Danny Baker was at the NME where he’d been a champion of soul and dance music before it was trendy so he may have been the instigator behind this terrific episode about the British Jazz-Funk scene as he had just written a cover story about it for the paper.
As Danny says at the start of the program the scene wasn’t covered properly by the music press and even today it remains a mostly unknown story. The histories of Mods, Skins, and Punks have been chronicled down to the last shirt collar detail, but Soul Boys (and girls) have never received the same attention beyond the occasional joke about Essex boys and Escort XR3is with fluffy dice. Northern Soul gets far more respect despite being conservative and reactionary at heart — we don’t want now’t to do with that soft southern funk rubbish. Brit-Funk was a multi-racial, working class scene full of kids creating their own original styles but it was never as cool. Maybe it was too genuinely working class and non-elitist, you didn’t need the right trousers to join in. It really was all about the music which didn’t give music writers much of a hook.
The thing that strikes me the most watching the wonderful club footage in this show (which starts around the 13-minute mark) is how damn happy and joyous the atmosphere is. I’d forgotten all about that, and it brought a little lump to my throat. This was an era of violence between Punks and Teds, Mods and Rockers, and tense rock concerts where you had to be worried about being crushed by a pogoing mob or nutted by some skinhead, so the kids all saying “there’s no trouble” meant a lot more than it seems now.
My musical tastes were too varied to be 100% part of any scene back then (I liked Earth, Wind & Fire and Joy Division) but I often went to the Lyceum Ballroom on Friday and Saturday nights when Steve Walsh, and Greg Edwards were DJ-ing. The place was always packed to the rafters with kids wearing t-shirts emblazoned with the names of their Tribes from different parts of London — Brixton Front Line, Dalston Soul Patrol — all blowing whistles and chanting along with the records.
The highpoint of the evening was usually the massive communal line-dance to the funky Latin groove of “Jingo” by Candido. Other big tunes from this time were the glittery “Casanova” and the anthemic “Love Has Come Around”. All these are the extended 12″ mixes so get ready for some big downloads, and some dancing.
Why didn’t The Photos make it? They seemed to have all the ingredients for pop success: catchy New Wave tunes and a sexy lead singer in Wendy Wu. But they never had any hits and their 1980 debut album was the only one they released. They recorded a Tony Visconti-produced follow-up but for some reason the record company shelved it and the band broke up soon after.
Their label hyped them as “the British Blondie” and gave them a big marketing push which helped get that first album to #4 in the charts. I bought it on the strength of that buzz – and the fine-looking Wendy – but while it was a solid enough record it was no Parallel Lines. No crime in that of course, especially considering that was Blondie’s third album, so I don’t know why The Photos weren’t given a shot with their second.
You could say they needed more time to develop. Hahahahaha.
Billy Idol was never taken seriously by music critics in the late 70s who saw him as a dumb pretty boy whose band made cartoon punk records. This is a pretty silly record but it’s a whole lot of rocking fun, and owes as much musically to Glam Rock as it does punk.
Billy was to have the last laugh a few years later of course.
If you like my “Tribes of Britain” posts then you’ll really like the wonderful blog What We Wore which also chronicles British youth style but also has stories from the people in the photos so it’s far more interesting.
You may think this is just a funny song about some bloke buying a new suit but it’s actually one of the most subversive singles of the 1950s: a devastating critique of materialist desire, capitalism, and how the working classes try to achieve status through their clothing. Really.