excerpt from London’s Burning: True Adventures on the Frontlines of Punk 1976-1977 by Dave Thompson
Remembering the response to Patti Smith on the Old Grey Whistle Test, May 1976. A lot of people hated it…. an awful lot of people. But now read on.
Across the board, the people who got it really got it. Watching with all the controlled cynicism that hallmarked the best of his writing for the New Musical Express, journalist Mick Farren was astonished to find his jaw on the floor. Almost a decade earlier, Farren led his own group, the Deviants, to heights of rebellion untapped since the heyday of Luddism. Smith’s performance assured him that those ideals still existed.
“I thought she was doing for angry wanna-be girl singers what Bob Dylan had done for me a decade earlier,” he explained to me. “She was proving that passion, not dulcet pipes and perfect pitch, is what makes a rock singer.” A month later, Farren would write the single most important manifesto of the year, a New Musical Express feature titled “The Titanic Sails At Dawn.” In his mind, if not on paper, Smith’s Whistle Test performance was one of the foundations that he built upon.
“The Titanic Sails At Dawn” was a beautifully opinionated distillation of all that Farren had seen happening on the UK live circuit over the past six months, and all that he envisioned might occur in the months to follow. It would be absurd to describe it as the catalyst for all that was swirling around the London underground at that time. But for a lot of Farren’s readers, the absurdity was about to become reality. Forget Year Zero, this was Page Zero.
Away from the pubs and clubs and the sticky end of the Old Grey Whistle Test, British rock had just enjoyed some of its most super-showbiz-storied events of all time.
I saw David Bowie headlining one of his umpteen nights at Wembley, an ant cavorting on a brightly lit stage that looked a hell of a lot better in the photographs than it did from Row ZZ.
I had tickets to see the Who headlining the Charlton Athletic football ground, introducing England to the age of the sports arena concert at a time when even the best appointed soccer stadiums had as much acoustic beauty as a bucketful of sick. And I could have seen the Rolling Stones block-booking the vast emptiness of Earl’s Court, an aircraft hanger wannabe designed for motor shows and boat exhibitions, before being carelessly hijacked for entertainment purposes. The first time a major rock gig was staged there, Bowie (again) in 1973, the audience rioted because the sound was so bad. I doubted whether it had improved since then.
Three bands, three sets of concerts, and three lots of ticket receipts that dwarfed several countries’ national debt. It was all a very long way from whatever and wherever rock’n’roll claimed to have started, and a far cry from anything it had threatened in its youth. This ain’t rock’n’roll, as Bowie could be paraphrased, this is mass consumption.
“There can be no question,” Farren was now musing, “that a lot of today’s rock is isolated from the broad mass of its audience. From the superstars with champagne and coke parties, all the way down to your humble servant spending more time with his friends, his writing and his cat than he does cruising the street, all are cut off….”
Yet the answer to that conundrum was already at hand. “The best, most healthy kind of rock and roll is produced by and for the same generation. Putting the Beatles back together isn’t going to be the salvation of rock and roll. Four kids playing to their contemporaries in a dirty cellar club might. And that, gentle reader, is where you come in.”
In isolated pockets across the country, people watched Smith’s performance with the same sense of personal commitment that Farren was calling upon, and a conviction that bordered upon disbelief. “Hey Joe” was a rebel yell, defiance and daring in the face of both the law (the song’s lyric concerns a killer on the run) and received musical history. Public and critics alike were united. You just don’t fuck with Hendrix. Patti Smith wanted to know why; and, now that she came to mention it, so did a lot of other people.
A few months later, recalling the day that the future Sex Pistols met Johnny Rotten for the first time, the most popular description painted him sloping down the King’s Road in a Pink Floyd T-shirt, across which he had scrawled the words “I HATE” in shaky ballpoint pen.
It was, even Rotten’s detractors would subsequently agree, an unequivocal statement, and one that would have endless repercussions. Just weeks off the release of Wish You Were Here, itself the landmark successor to the multi-zillion selling Dark Side Of The Moon, Pink Floyd had arrived at the kind of level where nothing could hurt them, certainly not a few slashes of ink on a teenager’s shirt.
But the repetition of the story did make people think and, as it continued to do the anecdotal rounds, so dawned the realization that a lot of other people hated Pink Floyd as well.
Not musically, perhaps, and maybe not personally. But what they had come to represent, that was a different matter. A corporate money-making machine, calculated purveyors of bottled emotion and cynical repression, a brand name no more or less pernicious than any high street retailer or soft drink peddler. Yeah, that was very easy to hate and, when you pursued the thought to its logical conclusion, and wrote off the past as just so many boring old farts, that too made an awful lot of sense.
Except, in May 1976, not too many people had even heard of Johnny Rotten, and fewer still cared what he wore. Right now, the Sex Pistols were best known as the unschooled yobbos that started fights with their audience, and whose manager ran a bondage store in Chelsea called Sex. Hence the name, the Sex Pistols. A little edgier than, say, the Woolworths Pistols, but it was difficult not to draw a similar conclusion from the smattering of press that the band had received so far. A mouthy marketing gimmick that compensated for its lack of musical ability by grabbing headlines with its fists.
The Patti Smith Group, on the other hand, had already proven all that they needed to. Birthed on a New York scene that (viewed from London and even more so from Bournemouth) was all the more exquisite for its total inaccessibility, the Group was raised on the immaculate premise of what would have happened if Baudelaire had joined the Beatles, been schooled on the same stage that gave us Lou Reed; and graduated with Honors aboard an album produced by his fellow former Velvet, John Cale.
What’s more, the desecration of “Hey Joe” was only the first shot in the rebellion that Smith was so joyously leading. Flip over her latest single, itself a complete revision of that hoary old Them chestnut “Gloria,” and what did you find? The Who’s “My Generation,” taken at a faster pace than its makers could ever have dreamed of, and underpinned not by the increasingly disreputable dream of dying before they got too old (it was way too late for that!), but by a boisterous scream of defiant intent. I don’t need that fucking shit! Hope I die because of it! Or, as Smith breathed into the microphone onstage a few nights later, “I don’t fuck much with the past. But I fuck plenty with the future.”
Britain in 1976 was obsessed with the past. It was a monolith that dominated every walk of life, and permeated every corner of culture. It was decades since the country had ruled over half the planet, but the golden days of Empire lived on whenever a politician opened his mouth to speak. It was decades again since the Second World War, but victory, too, was being rammed down our throats every day, by the men who fought battles for the freedoms we now took for granted (and relived them at every opportunity they were given), and the women who did their bit on the home front all war long, and who either couldn’t, or wouldn’t, comprehend that it was time to move on.
Occasional flurries of legislation tried to push the country into the modern era. A Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution was set up to halt the ecological devastation that had been taking place unhindered since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution; a Race Relations Act intended to promote equal opportunities for black and white; a Sex Discrimination Act to ensure that women received the same treatment in the workplace as men. All were long overdue, and all were pushed through by a Government determined to prove that it was in touch with the outside world.
But laws are only as effective as the people who are enforcing them and, if those people don’t want to be bothered, then they won’t be. No matter that the country had an ostensibly socialist government. Still it was governed by the same cultural mores that had been in place since the Victorian age, unwritten laws that insisted that a woman’s place was in the home, that children were to be seen and not heard, that the only good black (or homosexual or Pakistani or Jew or whatever) is a dead one. And those were the laws that remained in force, among the High Court Judges who let rapists go free because the victim’s lifestyle shed reasonable doubt on her character; among the social services who consigned needy kids to Children’s Homes staffed by abusers and paedophiles; among the police who went out rounding up immigrants, simply to keep the arrest statistics up.
So the polluters kept on polluting, the racists kept on rioting, the sexists kept on snorting and, though there’d be the occasional show trial to prove the law had teeth, that’s all it ever was. A show, because the miscreants would all be let off in the end. It sounds so over-earnest (and impossibly teenage dramatic) today, but I’d wake up some mornings and feel like Winston Smith, hero of George Orwell’s 1984, looking around at a world of unrelenting grayness and conformity and asking surely there must be something more to life than this? Winston Smith was tortured and ultimately executed for his discontent. But we were expected to grin and bear it. It was what the British people did.
Stoic acceptance only goes so far, though. There had to be some kind of alternative to living in the same rundown housing as your parents grew up in, to working the same dismal job as your grandfather worked in, and to eating the same flavorless food every dull featureless day. But when you turned on the radio, what did you get? The same music that you’d been hearing every day for years without end. And that was “Honey” and before that “Windy,” and right after the news read by a middle-aged man in a cardigan, “Spooky.”
Then you heard Patti Smith and you knew there was an alternative, there was some relief. Listening to her was like watching palaces fall and old documents burn, cities collapsing in great clouds of rubble, and an entire way of life being put to the sword. But it was not murder, it was a mercy killing and, once the dust had settled, they would be rebuilt and replaced, by something new, something better, by something that we created, the youth of the day, the kids on the street, the brats who didn’t want to clamber aboard Mick Farren’s Titanic. “Hey Joe” was the demolition crew. We were the builders who would move in once it was finished.