The Pitchfork 500 Goes Punk – Sex Pistols to Wire

When I was a kid, punks were scary. Not quite as scary as the skinheads that followed them, but the whole mohican and Doc Martens thing was pretty threatening to a seven year old. Even now, the sight of a proper skinhead in Docs:

This Is England

Still scares me a teeny little bit. But listening to Sex Pistols now, it’s almost hard to see why. There’s nothing particularly scary about them; in fact, it’s almost poetic: “When there’s no future\How can there be sin?\We’re the flowers in the dustbin”. Scrub that – “There is no future\In England’s dreaming” – it’s poetry.

God Save The Queen

But at the time, of course, it was a massive shock. No song had quite shocked the nation before. The media were up in arms. And there wouldn’t be anything quite like it until “Relax” by Frankie Goes To Hollywood some years later. We all know now how Malcolm McLaren shamelessly and ruthlessly played the media for ultimate sales value, but you know what? Good. Great Britain in the mid-70’s was a fucking miserable place and we needed the excitement. Whilst Sex Pistols were never exactly groundbreaking – musically they did nothing that wasn’t done 10 years earlier by Iggy and the Stooges and MC5 – they understood how to get a message across. And the message was, we’re in it for the money, and you can do this yourselves.

And so people did. One of those bands was The Clash, led by a diplomat’s son, Joe Strummer. Now there’s always been something about The Clash that didn’t sit right with me. They always seemed contrived, trying too hard (the reggae? Yeesh), and I always thought there was an aura of middle-class kids being working class heroes about them. Listening to (White Man In) Hammersmith Palais doesn’t change this one tiny bit. And it’s my blog, so I can say what I like.

Rock the Casbah’s alright though.

So Sex Pistols were chancers, copying dirty American rock and roll, and The Clash were posh kids playing at being poor. Who were the Buzzcocks then? I’d say they were the first band to really take the punk ethic and make genuinely great records. And Ever Fallen In Love is, alongside “Teenage Kicks” (coming later in the list), truly the best pop-punk tune ever. It takes the punk sensibility of playing the E-shape (ok, Em shape), moving it up and down the neck of a cheap guitar, and mixing it with a pure pop nous of the best anything The Beatles came up with (and I really am not a fan of The Beatles either). Pete Shelley sings of a love that should have stayed unrequited, making him “feel I’m dirt”, with the realisation that “we won’t be together much longer”. Now, I’m still unsure of Pitchfork’s reading of it that it’s about a homosexual or feminist relationship, but given that it was written not long after he’d broken up with his fiancee and before he came out as bisexual, there could well be something in that.* It’s one of the first truly emotional songs of the punk era, and it’s rawness and hurt shine through today. Like a cut that won’t heal and has gone all pus-y. What a lovely image, eh?

How could you tell?

How could you tell?

The next three songs in the list, Vic Godard and the Subway Set’s “Parallel Lines”, X-Ray Spex’s “Oh Bondage! Up Yours!” and The Adverts “One Chord Wonders”, are in some ways stereotypical punk songs, low on musical skill but big on attitude and passion. And the sax in “Bondage” livens it up no end. You can’t beat a good bit of sax.

And onto the last song for today. Wire are a bit of a funny one to me. I’m a huge fan of their quite unpopular “A Bell Is A Cup…” period. Or rather, when I say “quite unpopular” I mean “No-one ever talks about it any more, rather like that strange uncle who used to let his nieces sit on his knee and wear lederhosen and is now detailed at Her Majesty’s Pleasure and is on special lists”. Maybe I’m getting it all wrong, but no-one ever mentions that album. Hey, maybe it’s next on the “What Shall We Revive Next?” list and at some point in 2010 everyone will release records sounding just like it. I’ll do a post about it soon, as I’ve been listening to Silk Skin Paws a bit lately. Anyway, back to Ex Lion Tamer.

You can tell that Wire were a cut apart from the rest even with this early effort (unlike Joy Division’s early punk efforts as Warsaw, which were just a bit crap). Just listen to the lyrics: “Next week will solve your problemsBut now, fish fingers all in a line”. Er, what? Yes, a big touch of the old Art School with this lot, but still quite special**. So why, I hear you ask yourself, do I like Wire for being a bit posh and still being punks, but not The Clash? Well, I guess it’s because with Wire, they never tried being anything other than their deeply strange selves, whereas The Clash always wanted to make you believe they were someone else. It’s a verisimilitude issue, I reckon.

I knew I could get that in there somewhere.

And where the fucking hell is Ian Dury??? Damn Americans. Can’t trust them with anything.

Anyway, next it’s D-I-S-C-O.

*Yes, I do realise that if I spent a bit more time researching this I’d probably find a quote from Pete saying “Ever Fallen In Love” is about his first homosexual relationship. Look, this isn’t the Encyclopedia Britannica.

**Special, as in good, as opposed to special, sits at the back of the special bus licking the window

Ever Fallen In Love by The Buzzcocks

Ex Lion Tamer by Wire

The whole list is available