In the mid-70s, punk was an antidote to the cultural vacuum of popular music and the unpalatable remainders of 60s counterculture. For cultural critic Johan Kugelberg, celebrated journalist Jon Savage and renowned “cyberpunk” author William Gibson – who at that time were young outsiders in Sweden, London and Canada respectively – punk infused everything they did, from playing in bands and creating zines to writing books. Punk spawned an entirely new way of looking at the world, and its ideas still echo through popular culture today, while newer cultural forms come and go in an instant in the blogosphere.
This conversation between Kugelberg, Gibson and Savage is extracted from Punk: An Aesthetic, a new book edited by Kugelberg and Savage that compiles over 500 incredible images of punk art and ephemera, including fanzines, posters, artwork and previously unpublished photographs of punk legends, with accompanying essays about the subculture’s revolutionary aesthetic and impact.
Jon Savage: William, where were you in 1975?
William Gibson: In Vancouver. I moved to Vancouver with my wife in ’72 and was a student until ’77, kind of hanging around the university. During that period I was very poor and couldn’t afford to go anywhere, except very occasionally to Seattle, which had a more interesting music culture. So poverty kept me in a pocket, and that was where I saw punk from. I treated myself to a trip back east to Toronto, where I lived when I first moved to Canada in ’77. I went to visit my old hippie buddies and they were living in a new downtown, post-hippie part of town. I heard this drumming coming from across the street, and I said, ‘Wow, is there music over there?’, and they said, ‘They’re fucking punks.’ I said, ‘What are punks?’, and they said, ‘It’s just bullshit. They’ve got short hair and skinny ties, you know, it’s just bullshit.’ So at some point in the next couple of days I wandered over, and what I wandered into was the first big punk gig in Toronto’s history, a week of music in a basement called Crash ’n’ Burn. I had no idea that anything else was going on anywhere in the world, but over the course of my week in Toronto, I kept going back to Crash ’n’ Burn, just thinking, ‘Wow, there’s something symbiotic going on here.’ Somehow an axis had formed between Toronto and Los Angeles, so they had these LA bands that had come up to play in Toronto. But I had no idea that what I was seeing was part of a global scene, part of something bigger. When I came back from Toronto I was vaguely thinking that my hair was too long and that I probably should lose the bellbottoms, but that it wouldn’t be a good idea to too obviously imitate those kids – but I actually liked the way they looked. It seemed like a refreshing response to the hideous disco rot that had taken over. I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll freshen up a bit,’ then someone landed from London, a guy back on a visit. I ran into him in a neighbour’s living room, and he had an enormous pile of London punk zines and all of the Sex Pistols stuff that was on vinyl so far. He was a serious, serious art-school boy and he knew what was hot. So suddenly we were sitting around playing these records, and I borrowed the fanzines and read them all, and, ‘Oh God, there’s something going on here that’s actually connected to what I saw in that basement in Toronto!’ So from then on it totally had my attention. Something was happening and it actually appeared as though it had not yet been commodified. So the first thing I did was take a clock to this commodification, set a timer. How long will it take for this to get to the mall, the Woolworths version – how long will it take?
Johan Kugelberg: I’d say that the reason it took so long for it to get from where it was to the mall was that the American record business and the media perceived themselves as having been there, done that, because of CBGB punk in ’75 and ’76. That was perceived by the industry as an economic failure, because the Ramones and Patti Smith and so forth didn’t really sell records.
Jon Savage: But Joey Ramone, let’s face it, was never going to be a heartthrob. I mean, God love him, but he wasn’t. And you know, that’s part of the deal. I saw punk as a global event, and I never liked this parochialism, whether it be London parochialism, in which obviously I was living, or New York parochialism. It just seemed boring.
Johan Kugelberg: That’s not how history works. Strands of a similar thought will occur simultaneously in different geographic locales. More and more, I think the serious aesthetic worth of this whole punk mess was to be found in the continuous trickle-downs. The people who would be in the middle of nowhere and see a Devo video, or media coverage of the Sex Pistols tour, or the regurgitated media uproar over the Sex Pistols on Grundy (the Today TV show, hosted by Bill Grundy) – and then start their own thing based on the visceral excitement they felt. The number of first- and second-generation American punk bands that I’ve spoken to who tell me that the news coverage of the Pistols’ tour was like ravioli for piranhas to them... They would scrutinise the news and be like, ‘What’s the band name on that t-shirt? Can we find records by them?’ I remember that as well, growing up in the absolute boonies of Sweden. I would get a phone call that somebody in a town two hours away had seen somebody in a Ramones t-shirt, and then we would fantasise about that person in the Ramones t-shirt and wonder, ‘Maybe they have records we’d never heard. Maybe they can play an instrument and we can form a band with them.’ So much of this became a matter of code and code recognition.
William Gibson: When I found punk it was like a piece of the True Cross or something. It was like an echo of the thing that had called me forth from a small-town bedroom in Dumbfuck, southwest Virginia, and wound up with me living in another country and having all sorts of interesting experiences and adventures – the fire had gone out under the pan, the grease had congealed and it was just the worst thing in the world. The period from 1971 to 1977 was just ghastly.
Johan Kugelberg: Did that ghastliness commence with Woodstock?
William Gibson: No...I think the ghastliness was a result, if I can still use this sort of language, of what happens when straight people start taking drugs. It was the democratization of LSD.
Jon Savage: Yeah. Now of course the ubiquitous problem in the West is that everybody takes drugs, and when we were younger it was only the elite who took drugs.
William Gibson: It was the initial democratisation of psychedelics that put out the fire under the pan and resulted in all of this. It was a terrible, terrible closing and a terrible, terrible music.
Jon Savage: It’s what happened to the Grateful Dead. I went to see them in early 1972 and I thought it was going to be Anthem of the Sun or Aoxomoxoa, that I’d be transported to all parts extraterrestrial. And it was just boring country-rock, denim shirts, cocaine. I was mortified. That was it. Straight into glam rock for me, David Bowie.
Johan Kugelberg: How quickly did the flesh become myth, as far as Woodstock goes?
William Gibson: It was overnight. After the whole weekend I was marvelling at this – how much it sucked. It was a miracle that more people didn’t die. I left early because I knew that when the crowd moved it was going to be a disaster. And I left feeling like I knew what a civil-war battle felt like, all those gunshots. I was covered with mud, and not in a sexy way. I got back to Washington DC, where I was living at the time, and I saw a few people all covered with mud as I was coming into my street, and we all looked at one another and said, ‘Wow, what a piece of shit that was!’ Then I woke up in the morning, went down to buy a pack of cigarettes at the corner store, and there were all these headlines, ‘Woodstock Nation’. All of the same guys who I’d seen the night before were going, ‘Best thing, man, that was the best thing,’ and that was a really epiphanic moment for me.
Johan Kugelberg: Instant commodification. I would argue that if there’s one identifiable, seriously societally important legacy of the hippie, it’s that there are now vegetarian restaurants and health-food coops all over the world. The punk equivalent of this is the DIY impulse, which I think came out of punk – for somebody who’s 14 years old today, no matter where that person is in the world and what he or she is doing, they can say, ‘All right, I’m going to start a band. I’m going to start a website. I’m going to do a fanzine, I’m going to make a movie, I’m going to do a blog.’ That impulse is now something natural and a given part of youth – I think that is the heritage of punk.
William Gibson: You know, some people have argued that the breadth of Pantone’s colour catalogue is the legacy of psychedelics. But yes, the legacy of punk is self-starter culture, and self-starter culture is alive and well in Williamsburg and in Vancouver and wherever else, completely transferred to the next generation, and they take it absolutely for granted and have no idea where it came from.
Johan Kugelberg: But that’s cool. That’s why it can be commodified and pure at the same time – regenerating youth can take it absolutely for granted without questioning any of these impulses at all. It’s a permanent societal shift.
William Gibson: But do we think that anything like that can happen again? I’m sadly generally of the opinion that we won’t get a chance again.
Jon Savage: I’m a romantic so I believe that it is possible.
Johan Kugelberg: I would take that romanticism further. I would say that because of the cultural fragmentation we see now on the web and the screen – the hyperfragmentation of events and imagery and ideas and music and whatever else – the pace with which it happens is such that we’re actually incapable of recognising it. The members of any given microtribe now can’t recognise the next microtribe, but it is happening.
Jon Savage: But you’re talking about microtribes. You’re not talking about macrotribes. Punk is a macrotribe.
Johan Kugelberg: The last macrotribe.
William Gibson: Historically, countercultures have grown in backwaters; they’ve taken some time to grow. In my lifetime I’ve seen the commodification machine increase exponentially in its efficiency and rapacity and speed to the point that it seems to me, watching it through the internet, that now it harvests veal!
Jon Savage: Unborn foetuses.
William Gibson: You never get a fully grown cow. It’s so hungry and needs more all the time.
Johan Kugelberg: That also has to do with geographical distance. There isn’t any distance now between a grassroots idea in Shoreditch and a boardroom for an ad agency on Madison Avenue.
Jon Savage: I think what’s important about punk is the idea that it was for a brief period very futuristic. That’s something that everybody forgets. Everybody thinks of it in terms of being social realism of the present day, as if it’s all about dole queues and so forth. But it was superfuturistic.
Johan Kugelberg: Expression of personal prejudice is certainly baked into the aesthetic of punk too. Because the expression of personal prejudice was one of the few strengths one had as the only punk in one’s high school in 1979. It was very important to say ‘fuck you’ to those who sucked, even if it was often under one’s breath.
Jon Savage: I got into punk when I was 22, because I heard the Ramones album. I was just kind of at the upper age range of all the people who got involved in British punk, and I lost all my friends. They didn’t get it. Absolutely didn’t get it. And literally, within a period of a few months, I’d lost all my old friends and I got a whole lot of new ones. So it was pretty radical in that respect, it was a definite commitment. It felt, at the end of 1976, early 1977, like there were two or three bands, and all the rest of popular culture was dead except for these two or three groups and a few reggae artists. But right there in front of you, in London, which had been the centre of the swinging 1960s, there was nothing except those three bands. That felt very lonely but also incredibly powerful, to have that focus and that apparent scarcity – illusory scarcity.
William Gibson: Yeah, I can see that. That works really well. I saw that shopping bag full of punk zines from London and what I was getting was stuff from a different London. This material suggests another planet. And part of the stretch that was required to get it was to incorporate that these people are living in London and they feel that nothing’s happening. And somehow that was empowering, because nothing’s happening here either.
Johan Kugelberg: That’s also how people who were in on the early CBGB scene speak of CBGB and Max’s Kansas City and what opportunities there were for self-expression in live music in Manhattan. And then when you talk to people from Japan or Australia or Sweden or France, you see that those same kinds of oases in the desert existed all over the world almost simultaneously, without people being able to email each other or Twitter about it.
Jon Savage: They showed a whole stash of Top of the Pops broadcasts from 1976 recently and I watched a few of them. I’d forgotten how terrible pop music was. In Britain it wasn’t the post-hippie stuff, it was this horrible mixture of inane middleaged radio DJs bossing everything on Radio One. Novelty records and light, fluffy pop. I remember that spring and summer and there were three records that actually made me homicidal. ‘Save Your Kisses For Me’ by the Brotherhood of Man. ‘Fernando’ by Abba. That record blighted my life for two months. And ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart’ by Kiki Dee and Elton John. And that to me was the nadir. Obviously you don’t go to Top of the Pops thinking you’re going to get the source of life itself, but usually there’d be somebody good on. But then there was nothing.
William Gibson: There’s no way for most people today to get a handle on just how horrible it was.
PUNK: AN AESTHETIC is published by Rizzoli on September 13. SOMEDAY ALL THE ADULTS WILL DIE: PUNK GRAPHICS 1971–1984, an accompanying exhibition, is at the Hayward Gallery, London, from September 14 to November 4. All images from PUNK: AN AESTHETIC
This piece apperad in the September issue of Dazed & Confused