Last week I went to the opening of an exhibition called ‘Someday All the Adults Will Die!’ Punk Graphics 1971 – 1984. The show is in the free project space of a huge Arts centre on the river in London, which has been written about in this column before when I worked there selling ice creams.
Whenever punk gets historicised externally or otherwise, oner person gets to make those choices of what’s in or out, where the centre of gravity is in a story, condensing a messy rhizome into a one-objective-truth statement of affairs, which we all know punk rock never could conform to. You sort of brace yourself for what will be left out, everyone’s a know-better-Nancy when it comes to this stuff. To be a punk in twennytwelv and go check out a gallery show that ostensibly takes punk and art as its two axes (or, you could argue, money and history) is to be painfully aware of these issues already, to divorce yourself from the things you do now and at best be ready to nod approvingly with an insiders gaze at what is always only one polished retelling of an unwieldy wire-bundle of stories, one that you know cant be ossified due to still being alive. Oh, and drink some free beer.
So, to the Hayward gallery. In a bizarre serendipity of which I doubt curator Johan Kugelberg (or co-curator Jon Savage) would have been aware, this was not the first time this space had played host to thee DIY punk rock, as I’d been asked to put a gig on there by an adventurous curator in the same space a few years back. They missed a trick not getting bands to play the opening, especially as the private view attendees read list a list of old punks par excellence (even Spizz from Spizzenergi was there in his trademark Spizzenergi head to toe leathers!) Before the opening itself, there was a panel discussion for which we got tickets because my buddiest pal Heather has cooler interests than me and really wanted to see Sci-fi/cyberpunk royalty granddad William Gibson in the flesh. It was a pretty interesting line-up even before adding him into the equation. In one chair, Tony Drayton of Ripped and Torn fanzine, affable and enthusiastic after all these years, and next to him Mr. John Holmstrom of Punk magazine. Added into this mix was the person I was most intrigued to hear speak: a detached but caustically funny Gee Vaucher. All of this was chaired by Kugelberg. Some of you may be familiar with the name, he runs a gallery space in NYC – I only vaguely knew of him to have been one of the alleged minds behind KBD 1-4.
The talk was curious to say the least There was a lot of tension in the room, firstly the transatlantic divide (JK is Swedish but lives in NY) with many different takes on what (and why) punk was and the dimensions of its remains. This manifested itself with the speakers staring into that gulf between the low-key, bedroom anti-abilities of records and zines made by kids that were often hand-drawn and not even duplicated, but where the method was the meaning and the medium the message, which was, according the Gee, the case with the majority of folks that Crass encountered, and on the other side, a world away, the newsstand professionalism of art schoolers like Holstrom, who snarkily posited at one point that Mark P should haved hired a graphic designer (?!) to improve his zine’s aesthetic before, when torn down by Gee for missing the point entirely, defending himself by accusing her of being an art graduate ‘just like him’. Dragging thing back down to ‘who’s more authentic?’ argument, funny to observe even at this level. The whole discussion was steered (or domineered, depending on how forgiving you are) by Kugelberg. Clearly the panellists had been chosen for the disparate aspects of punk history that their work represented, rather than the full spectrum of whatever opinion they might bring to the table. Thus, they tended to speak only when answering extremely leading questions that were usually long, didactic statements with a ‘No?’ tagged on the end, more a lecture from one dude with four old people sat in. Needless to say this didn’t lead to very fruitful discussion. Frankly it all got pretty awkward pretty quickly, as Gee Vaucher’s soft but insistent voice was interrupted for the fourth time, and she was corrected on the dates that she made a particularly painting or record cover (by a man who would have been eleven years old and living in Sweden on the date in question.) Any insights that did come about as a result of a prompt from Kugelberg were quickly collapsed into his preferred narrative, which was as stop-starty as the faulty powerpoint projections behind them.
There was, overall, a gut-wrenchingly familiar collector tunnel vision on display, that sort of ‘true-fan’ tendency to retell certain stories frothingly as though you were there, when really just because you might own the artefact (because you are super rich but that’s another story for another marriage to another Unilever heiress…) it’s not your personal history, and a little reverence for the panellists perspectives would have been really well-placed, as ‘un-punk’ as that might sound. You know, like someone meeting Ian Mackaye and jumping right in there with Minor Threat pressing info questions, then telling him he’s wrong anyway, or cutting him off mid-sentence during an anecdote, as Kugelberg did with Gee when she was talking about the Crass/Poison Girls art, so that Kugelberg could tell us the exact circumstances of this being the first punk record he bought, etc. All this is even less endearing to watch when someone’s job title is also Historian, with an apparent focus on ephemeral subcultures, which might, one would suggest, involve prizing first hand testimony and the lack of objective truth when it comes these stories, rather than painting one picture of what ‘punk art’ is or was, so god knows what it would be like to have moments from your own life told back to you without even the smallest hint that you might just remember better. When Gee asserted that she ‘applauded the effort but would never have chosen’ what Kugelberg and Savage had chosen to represent punk art, he was left momentarily and satisfying agog
Another discovery that was super interesting, which I had never heard of was a budget airline, of all things, that was credited with much of the easy exchange of both ideas and records across the Atlantic, and arguably, the explosive birth of punk. I did a little more research into this afterwards. It turns out an enterprising business man named Freddy Laker launched the world’s first daily transatlantic, low-fare scheduled service between London and New York, charging a then incredibly low one-way fare of £32.50 in winter and £37.50 in summer (roughly a third of the other carriers prices) all the way back in 1972, using converted old war planes. However, a naturally sceptical UK Aviation authorities batted Freddy’s idea back and forth for almost five years, such was its potency/market-busting potential (or rather state busting, as British Airways was still nationalised at that point.) This was before an intervention by President Jimmy Carter himself allowed for a one year experimental reciprocal agreement for the Skytrain project, on the fateful date (for punk, anyway) for 13 June 1977.
There were nevertheless some really cool points brought out of all this tension, though, perhaps moreso than if everyone had been intoning as sycophantically about their involvement in as the chair was about his by-definition passive collector/historian status. William Gibson recalled the exact moment of listening to Nico and the Velvet Underground for the first time and the clear certainty this was the future of music. Tony Drayton remembering the moment, after talking zines for a bit, that Mark P told him to go and do better if he thought he could, a sneering challenge if ever there was one. Holstrom’s remembrances regards Punk magazine were interesting on a number of levels. The alternative names like Teenage News (great zine name!) or Electronic Comic, for a start, as well as learning more about the fumettis that featured in it. It is easy to forget the level of coverage and widespread attention that this initial flashpoint of punk rock had around this time, brief as it was, whether it was framed as media explosion, folk devil or fashion craze, or all three. And all this before you even addressed the significance of self-publishing, art or any of the actual music.
There’s the competitive social network and high level of attention focused on punk in NY, the same thing that resulted in Punk magazine being on newsstands and having such a high circulation, and of records pressed into the thousands and the spinning urban media saturation of a city like new York. And then there’s the gigs in community centres and dole and strikes and animal rights and Dial house and grey old fucking England. They are opposite ends of a spectrum and yet fall strangely under the same umbrella now that punk histories have been squeezed and historicised into one world, one meaning. Rolling around in their stories and yet their spirit gets punks off in different ways from effectively the same high simultaneously (doing something just for you and your friends, secretly hoping others like it) borne of the same industrious and irreverent ‘Fuck you.’
The whole talk left me smirking, with a strong sensation that calling the exhibition Record Collectors are pretentious assholes would have been closer to the truth. When it came to the Q and A, someone, probably an academic, asked a good question about what to do about the historicisation of punk, something that would have been interesting to hear Gibson’s take on, however JK jumped in to talk about ephemeral nature of hip hop in the context of the first archive he did, and the need to preserve countercultural ‘remains’ using an example of civil war pamphlets being held at The Bodleian, a library at ultra-exclusive Oxford University which he gallingly referred to as ‘open access.’ Interestingly, Holstrom has sold his archive to Yale and JK said his stuff is also going straight to Yale, although presumably not the INSANE record collection of which the exhibition was largely made up of.
At the end of the talk came the real bummer, which was a cursory slide of the Aceh punks and watching a preeminent punk historian repeat that fucked up old narrative-lie about how punk ‘started in west’ and has spread as far as these curious brown teens, and how lucky we should feel to be free to, presumably, pay six figure sums for seven inch records. This is fucking LAY-ZEE and dumb coming from a historian who in the same breath and with the same rationale brought up the Pussy Riot case, as if you wouldn’t get arrested or probably shot for playing a gig in a Church in some parts of the USA. In a bizarre end to proceedings, panellists plugged their books and, in exchange for contributing to the (obviously cool and well-meaning but still a little “….” after that ‘be thankful for democracy’ blurb) collection for Pussy Riot, attendees were offered sheets of paper that Johan had sprayed stencils onto using the OG Crass stencils….
When we left the talk and arrived in the exhibition space itself I was so ready to smirk my way through that too, but of course the records and art on display won me over, as possibly did five free beers and some friendly faces, and I was immediately spellbound / marginally impressed. Cynicism aside it was super cool to see records (or rather record sleeves) in the flesh that I will never own, all in perfect condition: T.H.E Rutto to Chronic Sick, The mirrors to Pleemobielz, Pink Dirt to Kaka de luxe, along with OG Screamers artwork sketches and Danny and the Dressmakers tapes. But hey, only as cool as hearing of a fraught gallery assistant trying to ‘fix’ the sound system as ten minutes of screeching feedback played out in the white-walled projector listening room. Music for true degenerates.