Photo: Sex Pistols in the Paradiso Club, Amsterdam, 1977. Koen Suyk; Nationaal Archief, Den Haag, Rijksfotoarchief: Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Fotopersbureau (ANEFO), CC BY-SA
Year zero for British punk was 1976 – but there had long been anarchy in the USA
Any talk of a “year zero” in any field should be eyed suspiciously: after all, nothing comes from a vacuum. However, such a labelling for the year 1976 has been commonly made in relation to so-called “punk rock”. Just how suspicious of the label do we need to be, then?
Let’s start by challenging the idea of 1976 as punk’s year zero. Take the Sex Pistols as the most dominant example (the punk band, in the eyes of many people).
Actually, the Pistols' first gig takes place on November 6, 1975 (pre-year zero, then) and is peppered with covers of short, fast, fiery songs from the sixties by the Who, the Small Faces, the Monkees and so forth. The Pistols’ own material is diatonic – simple – in harmonic terms and rhythmically unchallenging; their lyrics are interesting enough, certainly, but are not the most provocative lyrics ever set to post-Elvis rock music.
Born on the Bowery?
What about the fabled CBGB venue on Manhattan’s lower east side? Again, things are well underway by 1975; indeed, key players from the Patti Smith Group, Television, Ramones and so forth are already familiar faces at CBGB by 1974. The Dictators’ “Go Girl Crazy!” is issued in 1975 but much of it sounds uncannily like the stuff which started pouring out of the UK from 1977 onwards.
Punk doesn’t come out of nowhere in 1976, then. The most widely name-checked precursors are the Velvet Underground, the Stooges, New York Dolls, MC5, perhaps the Kinks. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find people referring to the raw, “garage” rock of the Sonics, the Kingsmen and, to give some more obscure examples, the Swamp Rats check out: “No Friend of Mine”) or the Monacles (especially “I Can’t Win”).
Then there’s so-called Krautrock: Neu!’s “After Eight” from 1975, for example, is remarkably close to the overall sound and feel of the UK punk rock which would proliferate around two years later. Meanwhile, punk archivists have uncovered innumerable obscurities in recent years, such as Hollywood Brats’ “Sick On You” from 1973, which are uncannily close to the sound which would predominate in the UK and beyond a few years later.
Dr Feelgood, the Hammersmith Gorillas, Eddie and the Hot Rods – the list of pre-Pistols “proto punk” bands is in fact far too large to cope with for present purposes. In brief, there are countless examples of punk-sounding songs and bands which existed in the years prior to 1976.
‘That’ night in Manchester
Isn’t all this only part of the story, though? Let’s think about the fabled Manchester Free Trade Hall gig of April 1976. The Sex Pistols have drawn some attention from the weekly national music press (NME et al) but are not much established beyond a tiny milieu in London. The likes of the Clash and the Damned are yet to play their first gigs. Those bands, like countless others, will be energised into action by the Sex Pistols: unless we are prepared to discount the proclamations of the actual bands in question, the evidence in this regard is incontrovertible.
In attendance at the Free Trade Hall are individuals who will go on to form Joy Division/New Order, the Smiths, the Fall, Factory records, the Buzzcocks – groups (and a record label) which will gain worldwide fame and epoch-defining status in the coming years and decades.
If 1976 in general and the Manchester Free Trade Hall gig in particular were just random points on a lengthy continuum, we wouldn’t speak of “pre-punk” and “post-punk” in the way that we do. If the Sex Pistols et al hadn’t brought such a “shock of the new” to 1976, the vernacular claims to individual transformation wouldn’t be so overwhelmingly common. Punk happened; you only have to listen to people talking about it to realise that.
This doesn’t mean that there were no precedents for the “class of ’76” – we have seen above that there certainly were. But none of these quite matches the impact of the Sex Pistols and most don’t come anywhere near. Take The Monks: thanks to the internet, this band have become an “obvious” reference point for those who want to note the pre-Pistols existence of snotty lyrics, aggressive music and, in short, a certain aesthetic of negativity. The thing is, though, even though the Sex Pistols may not have sold all that many records relatively speaking, their sales nevertheless dwarf those of a band like the Monks, as does their cultural impact.
Nihilism doesn’t come from nowhere
The Sex Pistols and the Manchester Free Trade Hall gig of 1976 are important, then – not as a year zero as such (as Derrida taught us, there is no “originary trace” – everything follows on from something – always) but as a particular and significant moment in time.
So the punk moment, some 40 years ago, was not a perfect or absolute singularity. It was, however, a clarion call: a felt-possibility – something that gave the feeling there was a chance to begin again with radical novelty. This new sense may not have brought as much of a nuisance to the powers-that-be as is often claimed. Nevertheless, it was – and is – worth something. So value it carefully.