30 Aug, 2010

Loud Flash: the art of punk | Feature

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

While the Sex Pistols and the Clash wreaked havoc on Britain’s pop scene, their disciples were busy with glue and scissors, channelling punk’s energy and DIY spirit into hundreds of posters, fanzines and sleeve art. Now an exhibition brings back these lost classics of the revolution

In 1977, Toby Mott celebrated his 14th birthday in the Roxy in Covent Garden, London’s now legendary punk club. He remembers “loud pounding darkness, cheap lager, the smell of cigarettes, sweat and piss… a few floors almost empty, like a kind of youth club”.

Back then, he belonged to a gang of kids from Pimlico comprehensive that called themselves the ASA (Anarchist Street Army) and hung out daily in an independent record shop on nearby Wilton Road called Recordsville. There, he started buying seven-inch singles by the punk vanguard: “In the City” by the Jam, “New Rose” by the Damned, “White Riot” by the Clash, “Oh Bondage, Up Yours” by X-Ray Spex. There, too, he discovered the dubious delights of several second-division punk groups that have long since faded into obscurity, the likes of the Boys, the Cortinas, Eater, Headache, Slaughter and the Dogs, the Snivelling Shits…

Mott also started collecting fanzines, flyers and posters. “I’d go around to Recordsville when they were putting up new posters and nab the ones that had just been taken down. I’d go to Rough Trade or Beaufort Market in Chelsea and pick up flyers for gigs. Most of it was produced in such relatively small quantities for these specialist record shops. I knew, even then, that they had a certain value. They helped make you a serious punk.”

Mott, who is now an artist and curator, has been collecting punk ephemera ever since, watching its value grow in the three decades since. An exhibition of his British punk paraphernalia, Loud Flash, opens at the Haunch of Venison gallery in London next month. It will also feature often inflammatory political ephemera from the time, including National Front recruitment posters that show just how much the extreme right, as well as the radical left, utilised punk graphics and imagery in their attempts to attract Britain’s disenfranchised youth. “You could go to certain punk gigs, Sham 69, say, and were just as likely to be handed a National Front leaflet as an Anti-Nazi League one. It was a very aggressive and polarised political time, as well as a cultural one. Those ideas of the extreme were always in the room.”

Mott thinks that punk has been misrepresented since, both by rock historians who have over-intellectualised its meaning and context, and by curators who over-emphasise its artistic links to previous avant-gardes. Ironically, the academic essays that accompany the exhibition fall into the same trap, calling up the Bauhaus, the Futurists, the Situationists, as well as Andy Warhol.

“Punk was what it was,” says Mott. “It doesn’t need all that. Jamie Reid, who created the Sex Pistols’ posters, came from a radical 60s art-school background, and knew the history of disruptive art movements, but mostly it was kids in suburban bedrooms and garages with scissors, paste and photocopiers. The graphics sprang from the same place as the music, the do-it-yourself-and-do-it-now attitude that underpinned punk. It was an incredibly proactive time, the opposite of today’s consumer-led pop culture. Everything was fast, aggressive, disposable, a furious outburst against the boredom of life in 70s Britain.”

Mott’s collection contains several rare Jamie Reid works, including a poster entitled “Never Mind the Bans”, advertising the Sex Pistols’ troubled British tour in 1977, when the group’s notoriety was such that several town councils banned them from performing. There is work, too, by the artist Linder Sterling, who created the iconic artwork for the Buzzcocks’ single “Orgasm Addict”, and posters utilising the images of established music photographers like Pennie Smith and Kate Simon, both of whom helped create the outlaw mythology of the Clash.

What interests Mott most about his own collection, though, are what he calls “the anonymous artefacts” produced in small numbers by fired-up teenagers. To this end, he has included crudely made Xeroxed fanzines like Sniffin’ Glue, Alternative Ulster, Ripped & Torn, London’s Burning and the wonderfully named Chelmsford’s Dead. “In a way, these are artefacts left over from a dead culture,” says Mott, “but they speak more powerfully about what punk was really about, that moment of momentum and self-empowerment. It was not about making a profit or building a fucking brand. It seems odd now that the establishment were so threatened by it, but they were. You can’t imagine a pop group today being a threat to the nation. Back then, we thought we were all about the future, but punk really was the last gasp of postwar radical culture.”

Loud Flash: British Punk on Paper is at Haunch of Venison, London W1, from 24 Sep until 30 Oct

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