Lady Barton St Mary brought my attention to a post on her Faceache page, asking participants to name ‘their most influential song’, with various contributions. Mine is very easy. The song starts with an eight note riff in A that defines my generation. Let me take you back, back, into the deepest darkest depths of time…
It was 1976 and I was at school studying for my ‘O’ levels, which meant spending hours in my bedroom revising. By revising, I mean sitting at an old writing bureau making up stories, drawing cartoons and listening to music.
The music I listened to varied from my sister’s old 45s from the 1960s (Herman’s Hermits, The Beatles, The Shadows) to my limited record collection – Mike Oldfield, Pink Floyd, Paul McCartney and Wings, Deep Purple. There was the occasional chart single that I would record onto cassette tape on a Sunday afternoon from the radio, diligently hovering my finger over the ‘record’ and ‘stop’ button to avoid the DJ (Alan Freeman or Tom Brown) talking at the beginning or end of the song. Millions of people of my age had cassette tapes with tracks that either started or ended with Tony Blackburn’s chirpy tones ruining the ambience of your favourite artist.
A couple of weeks before my 16th birthday, Eggy Howe sidled up to me during a maths lesson. He explained that his brother had a friend who worked at HMV in Oxford Street and that they planned to take a trip ‘up west’ to see some new music at a club. Despite it being a school night, for some reason my dad was quite happy for me to travel the 12 miles on the tube into Oxford Street with Eggy and his brother, who was 20 and a police cadet at Hendon College. Hendon cadets were always nicknamed ‘Piglet’, but politeness and fear drove me to make the sensible decision not to try it out on Eggy’s brother Steve. Dad’s philosophy was that I couldn’t come to any harm travelling with a police cadet, followed by a half joking comment about how disappointed Eggy’s dad must be about having a copper in the family. Since this was the 1970s, the decade of recreational violence, I can now understand dad’s logic.
The ‘club’ was a rather disappointing one. I’d expected a West End club to be full of men and women in evening dress sipping martinis. This one contained some of the weirdest characters I’d ever seen. They made the local art college students look like bank managers. The event was called a ‘Punk Rock Festival.’ Completely intimidated, the bands that appeared were either a) not a band, b) not musicians or c) a complete noisy mess. There was one pretty girl who took my eye called Susie, but she seemed to have very little idea about what she was doing on stage. I later found out she spelled her name Siouxsie.
Overall, the evening was noisy, disorganised and very ‘arty’. However, there was something about the atmosphere I enjoyed. A lot of the audience were what I would come to identify with the majority of punks: dressed in a shockingly unconventional way but extremely well spoken.
A week later, I was flicking through the Style pages of The Sunday Times. My dad always insisted on buying it for my education, which was a thoughtful thing to do. Of course, I was scanning the pages for any photographs of ladies in a state of undress when I came across a small feature about a fashionable party in Chelsea, where a band called ‘The Sex Pistols’ had played. I hadn’t forgotten the name, but most of the noise they’d made at the concert. I doubted they’d ever amount to much.
Then in December they appeared on a tea time current affairs TV show called The Today Programme on ITV. This particular programme was presented by a rather pompous curmudgeonly man called Bill Grundy. He obviously took an instant dislike to his guests, who’d been called in at the last minute to replace the originally invited musical guests, Queen. Mr Grundy invited them to swear. Steve Jones obliged him, profusely.
Suddenly, punk was a big thing. The new enemy of the state.
I was, of course, delighted. To see old Bill being roundly put in his place but some dirty upstart was entertainment at its highest!
The newspapers and middle aged people in tweedy suits and comb overs came on to complain about ‘the youth of today’. What fun!
It wasn’t until the following year that I actually got to hear the band. Never Mind The Bollocks was an exciting, uproarious album. To me and my mates, it was all a bit of fun; The News of the World thought it was the end of the world, a threat to modern society, something to be banned and eradicated.
I took to sticking up my hair with soap. My mum complained bitterly about me wearing trousers with rips in them, put back together with safety pins, saying it looked as if she didn’t look after me.
My brother in law came in to the living room when I was playing ‘Bodies’ on his hi fi system. Always one for convention, he strode across the room, wrenched the vinyl disc from the machine and threw it like a Frisbee against the wall.
I’d never felt so alive.
Punk died out pretty quickly. After all the fun of The Pistols being banned and at number one with ‘God Save The Queen’ in Silver Jubilee week, as the year passed and ‘new wave’ bands started appearing, the punk revolution was over. Not that there ever was a revolution, just a generation of kids listening to music made by their peers and not something they were told to listen to. The over reaction of the authorities and the media, who always like to be in control, made it such a jolly wheeze.
I was of course still listening to Pink Floyd and Paul McCartney, The Moody Blues, Led Zeppelin, Camel and Van der Graaf Generator. Iron Maiden, Rush and Saxon were around the corner, leading me into my heavy metal phase.
By the end of the 70s, punk had become a commercialised product, tamed and domesticated.
But it did make me realise that you don’t have to follow the herd, that people in authority often get it wrong. The punk in me is still there, even if my hair is greying and I worry about pensions and mortgages and my children’s future.
But whenever I hear ‘Pretty Vacant’, the hairs on the back of my head stand up on end. Generations before had Sinatra, Elvis, The Beatles, The Stones. We had The Pistols.
Those first few bars, then Johnny Rotten telling me there’s no point in asking, you’ll get no reply. Still exciting, stimulating – maybe another revolution is due!
Meantime, let’s all watch X Factor.
What is your most influential song? Become a Rural Space Cadet and tell me!