The Blank Generation – my punk experience

Late 1976. I had left university with an English degree. I was married. I owned my house. I was working in a wiring factory, waiting to hear if I’d got funding to do a masters, studying vernacular architecture in West Yorkshire.

Late 1977. I was living with my Dutch boyfriend, Jan, former roadie to Alberto y Los Trios Paranoias. I was dyeing his hair black over the shared bathroom sink, and sewing his jeans to his skinny long legs, Ramones style. I was living in a flat on Northen Grove, West Didsbury, famous for being the residential road where a disgruntled cannabis dealer had once planted a home made bomb under the drug squad’s Jag.

I was treasurer for On the 8th Day,whole food shop and café on Oxford Rd, once the centre of idealistic hippiedom in Manchester and now a serious part of the workers’ co-operative movement. How did this happen? Some of it was down to punk. At 22 in 1976 I felt a little too old, and possibly a little too conventionally pretty (though I wouldn’t have been able to articulate that back then) to fully embrace the punk movement, but it still had an impact.

How did we learn about it? There was no internet. TV, radio and the music press were limited in their scope when it came to reporting new influences in music, lifestyle and fashion. Viral was cold sores and chicken pox. Some friends were in the music business, some independent record shops shared what was coming, some journalists had ears to the ground and John Peel did his bit. Word of mouth. I was aware of Blondie, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Patti Smith, Television and, of course, the Velvet Underground and Iggy Pop.

Manchester grew its own – Magazine, Buzzcocks, Fast Breeder, Ed Banger and the Nosebleeds. I’ve already written about how bored I felt, how middle-aged and past it, with the mainstream music scene that was becoming so bland and corporate. I still loved soul, and Little Feat, and Captain Beefheart, but the rest was all just a bit too much about singing in tune. There had to be more. I was back at 8th Day. My husband had been made an offer he couldn’t refuse, as were many unemployed graduates – poacher turned gamekeeper – and was working for the Department of Employment at the local Labour Exchange.

One of the co-op members had just inherited some money. He also had a new baby. He had cut his hair short, bought a bright green Citroen 2CV and a stylish leather jacket. We heard that the Sex Pistols were playing Wigan Casino that night. We followed the road to Wigan, but the Sex Pistols didn’t – it was just an ugly rumour. However, Ed Banger and the Nosebleeds were on and we experienced a punk gig. On leaving Wigan casino, the Northern Soul crowd were waiting to go in for their customary all nighter. There was a police presence. When our friend opened the boot of his new car, we were all pounced on by uniformed officers, arrested, searched and taken down to the station.

Unfortunately, my husband’s boss had given him a small piece of cannabis the day before, as she was ‘giving up’, and this was discovered in his jeans pocket. He was charged and prosecuted. He had to resign from the civil service before he was fired.I can only assume that because we didn’t look like typical punks or Northern Soul fans, the police assumed we were drug dealers. We were all straddling several worlds at this point – from hippy ideals to left wing socialist politics. We were educated but not interested in conventional professions. We were rebels in our own time, but these days were different. The time was ripe for shock tactics and the rejection of the status quo.

Pretty went out the window and in came pretty vacant. 1977 was the year the year of the Silver Jubilee, of desperate unemployment and a lack of connection ( deliberate and accidental) from the government of the day. The working class was unemployed and unemployable. Rock against Racism took a stand against the fear and ignorance of attitudes towards the new wave of refugees finding their way to the UK.

Echoes of the present time. Punk’s attitude was – if we can’t be free we’ll make bondage a fashion statement. If you think we are rubbish we’ll wear bin bags as dresses. Ripped and torn clothing, held together with safety pins, laddered tights, shaved heads, sugar water and food dye mohicans. Let’s make fashion out of necessity, take it to the limit one more time. Razor blades as earrings. The symbolism is amazing, and it gave fashion a whole new vocabulary. This wasn’t simply a political movement, it was about taste, bad taste, and it was rotten. And that was amazing. I was more observer than participant, but it changed my attitudes.

Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren recognised this as a piece of performance art, to be managed and manipulated through the media. It was soon absorbed and adapted by the mainstream. Katherine Hamnett and Zandra Rhodes took on the aesthetic – even Versace‘s safety pin dress for Liz Hurley referenced it. Never Mind the Buzzcocks is a jolly family music quiz. I have just been informed that there is a perfume called Anarchy in the UK. I’d like to think it’s a joke but I have a horrible feeling it isn’t. What price Smells Like Teen Spirit next.

Words: Nicky Crewe

You can read more of Nicky’s brilliant stories full of reminiscences at her very own blog, Historic Gig Guide.

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