There’s a 19 piece predominantly female ukulele vocal band, The Pukes, hammering out spirited covers of classic punk songs on the stage. Above their heads a huge slide show featuring, at this moment, a display of punk badges, the most prominent of which is one that reads “I fuck goats.”
This is the Tate Modern. As part of the Merge Festival, Russ Bestley and Alex Ogg’s cathedral tome The Art of Punk is being previewed, by way of an illustrated talk about the ethos of putting together a book that highlights what the authors perceive to be the visual story of punk (record sleeves, fanzines, flyers, badges and other ephemera) along with a detailed and scrupulously researched text. This is boosted by the contributions of international punk specialists like Josef Loderer and a vast amount of material and interviews provided by the designers, photographers and artists influencing, creating or influenced by punk over the decades. The Pukes have come along to close the evening (which they do twice, as there’s also a great after-party in a nearby pub). Punk has arrived at the Tate Modern. And about bloody time.
A week later and the book is out, and the authors are getting a heap of interview requests from all over the globe. In the meantime there’s been a second bigger launch for the book at the London College of Communication. Bestley and a few helpers have decorated the whole building with Art of Punk related visuals: a wall of flyers, an exhibition of framed prints, slideshow installations, blow-ups and stencils. The evening starts with the UK premiere of Shaun Jefford’s film, Beijing Punk. It’s 5 o’clock on a Thursday and all the seats are gone. An even larger panel discussion follows, at which Jill Mumford, Malcolm Garrett, Bill Smith and others recount how some of the classic punk and post-punk record sleeves of the 70s and 80s were put together, as an accompanying slideshow is projected on the wall behind them.
Flashing past my eyes are entire life-changing memories and I’m back in the zone between being a poor council house pre-teen too young to go out to gigs, and an anxious and resolutely rebellious A level student. These years are so special to me. My mid-teens were spent riding up and down the tube at night going to gigs: the Marquee, the Hope and Anchor, the Electric Ballroom, the Hammersmith Palais, the Moonlight Rooms. Even sustained by the graft of a typically mundane Saturday job in Wood Green Shopping City (from where we had to be escorted to the tube during the riots) every other tube ride to the gigs was by necessity a bunked fare. The risks were always worth it. I edited my own fanzine (photocopied on the sneak by my dad in his lunch hour) and I interviewed several of my teenage heroes. Lots of my friends were living the same lives.
Whatever is generally claimed about your own generation’s teenage years always seeming to have had the best music (and how every teenage generation ever has thought this) I remember buying Sounds and flipping straight to the gig listings where, back then, you could typically see… Monday: The Stranglers, Tuesday: Siouxsie and the Banshees, Wednesday: The Clash, Thursday: Dexy’s Midnight Runners, Friday: The Jam. I grew up thinking that level of creativity in the city was normal. An illusion I’ve subsequently chosen to live by.
I was really looking forward to the arrival of The Art of Punk. Obviously the text, which has opened up a whole world of what has happened in punk worldwide since the early 80s to me, was guaranteed to be a thrilling ride. What I wasn’t prepared for was the extent of the visual beauty of the spreads. The authors and contributors (along with their super-talented designer Paul Palmer-Edwards) have created an object which, once opened, seems to spring up like a pop-up book, if only metaphorically, because every spread has been so thoughtfully composed and agonised over, and it really shows. The German edition (published simultaneously with the UK and US editions) is called Design und Punk which in a way more literally reflects what’s been brought together to create this book.
HELEN: I want to start with something that’s bothered me since the mid-eighties, namely how the word design got co-opted by an elitist (i.e. capitalist) Thatcherite mainstream media, including the so-called leftist broadsheets. Almost overnight this “designer” (as adjective) concept entered the lexicon. “Designer clothes” then came to signify expensive exclusive as opposed to say Oxfam shop exclusive. Nasty stuff, particularly as it was being marketed at people who could barely afford these items. Can you comment on this and on how design as a concept in the kind of work someone like Gee Vaucher creates is equally or more valid and why. I.e. one definition being pro-commerce, the other anti.
RUSS: I know exactly what you mean! However, the use of the “designer” adjective is a little more fluid and flexible in relation to different fields of what we might call design. Within graphic design – the specialism that I am involved in, and which covers the vast majority of items featured in The Art of Punk (posters, record covers, flyers, fanzines, badges, group/label identities etc) – this pejorative inference is far less evident than it is in fashion, interiors, furniture or some areas of product design.
Design has always been a term related to the applied arts. Everything created and manufactured to have a function has been designed… so the use of the word “designer” as an adjective is a complete redundancy – it is an “elevated” use of the term to imply “designed by a high-profile ‘name’ designer”, rather than put together anonymously by an unknown or largely invisible (in public/celebrity terms) person or team of people, as most design actually is in practice. We don’t expect to see “designer” newspaper layouts, or “designer” road signage or “designer” packaging in supermarkets – but it has all been designed.
The history of Modernist design, which evolved in Europe after the devastation of the First World War, was always based on functionality and the ideals of accessibility and social emancipation – products where “form follows function”, where aesthetic decoration came second to the creation of things that serve their purpose as well as they possibly can. Any sense of aesthetic perfection was in the way that an object fitted perfectly to its use – to the point that it might be almost “invisible” to the user. Within graphic design, a longstanding tradition of designers not signing their work ensued, and it still resonates today.
This more recent model of the “designer” as name brand is a creation of the media fascination with celebrity – it’s “cool” to own a product designed by a famous name designer, and it elevates the object closer to the level and status of “art”. This contentious issue is one of the reasons I had some difficulty with the title of the book, The Art of Punk, and I prefer the German translation Design und Punk – it seems much clearer to me where the latter sits in relation to the work featured, and it draws it back from some contentious positions whereby the material featured in the book is supposedly a piece of “art” (though that also opens up a conundrum with post-Pop Art mass manufacture and the Postmodern celebration of personal tastes).
As for the anti-commerce debate, and the work of people like Gee Vaucher, there are a few other difficulties to consider. Gee is a fantastic visual artist and illustrator – her original gouache images are stunning and incredibly detailed, and in many ways fall into the long tradition of critical art practice engaged with politics. However, the reproduction (printing) in large quantities of her work in the context of a record cover shifts the work into a different space – it is a form of packaging (it protects a fragile vinyl record) and a form of branding and identity (it projects a message to a buyer). I have absolutely no problem with that – but I think we need to consider the difference between art created as a one-off object that reflects the artist’s personal vision or point of view, and 100,000 reproduced copies of that original that wrap around a record or function on a poster to promote an event. I guess one of the redeeming features of Gee’s work and many others in the field of punk graphics is its criticality, and the way that it offers up countercultural messages – a questioning of commerce, whilst at the same time fulfilling some commercial objectives.
ALEX: What Russ said.
HELEN: You included the work of Shepard Fairey in the book. Is this because his early campaigns such as the Andre the Giant has a posse were clearly inspired by earlier Punk imagery and, importantly, methods of dissemination? Therefore, is what in today’s parlance is known as ‘going viral’ really just a techo extension of DIY marketing and distribution?
RUSS: I think Shepard was always heavily influenced by punk – we included a couple of his screenprinted posters in the book that were based on some classic Sex Pistols images (the two buses from Jamie Reid and/or Point Blank! and an image of Sid Vicious from a Dennis Morris photograph), and he has produced many others over the years (including a number of Ramones portraits).
The Andre the Giant campaign drew on punk’s “visual language” and as you say disseminated the message through a physically “viral” campaign of stickering and flyposting (it’s so much easier for kids to do “viral” stuff on the internet nowadays, isn’t it?!). Those methods and visual languages also pre-date punk anyway – they are part of the same continuum of protest graphics that dates back to the 1920s and draws heavily on (specifically) European political dissent.
My main concern with more recent “viral” campaigns, particularly those online, is that they sometimes lose sense of the content and message – and the “politics” – in favour of either self-promotion or bland non-committal statements asserting liberal and über-politically correct opinions that pretty much no one could disagree with (No War, Peace, Freedom, All People Are Nice So We Should All Be Nice To One Another or whatever) – it’s like the Nick Clegg Lib Dem version of political subversion! I sometimes wish they would say something contentious for the sake of it – even if I disagree strongly, at least I’d have a visceral or emotional response to their message rather than simple boredom.
ALEX: Shepard’s work to me broadly belongs within a punk design tradition if we accept his observation that its function is to “question everything”, and aesthetically, specifically in terms of appropriation. But alongside most of that generation of street artists, hip-hop is obviously a huge influence. But its application is interesting, in that the guerilla marketing approach has been extended to high-profile corporate clients. And there’s been criticism of him for ‘profiting’ from political and social campaigns and I always thought his defence of that chimed with statements by people like Steve Albini, in that corporate work is undertaken in order to fund ‘more important’ projects. A kind of subsidy rationale.
As for the viral question, and whether that’s an extension of punk DIY principles, I’d challenge the assumption. The DIY punk ethos that I understand was more restive, more personal-investment dependent; far more than a click-button response on Facebook as a means of registering dissent. We all use social media but I worry that there’s too much ‘grazing’ going on rather than actual engagement.
HELEN: I was glad to see Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis included too. Would you like to comment on the impact of her work?
ALEX: I contacted Marjane because I’d seen that image (the one used in the book; with her as a young girl being accosted by veiled cronies with the legend ‘Punk Is Not Ded’ on a jacket she’s wearing outside her hijab) and was immediately drawn to it. And that’s how I found my way to her work, which is a bit arse about face, but somehow quite fitting. I am no expert on graphic novels, but I really like the way the book and film work narratively; it’s a very charming but gritty story. And to me the imagery is so strong and so perfect as kind of the pay-off image at the end of the book where we talk about the far-reaching impact of punk (even if she does actually love heavy metal as much as punk – don’t tell anyone).
HELEN: One of the things you pick up on is the respect shown to earlier rebel code by reference or homage, as in Banksy’s London Calling reference to Pennie Smith’s Paul Simonon photograph on the original album cover – itself a reference (via the typography) to Elvis Presley’s debut album. And the references in a lot of 70s punk design that clearly lead back to Situationism. Can you say a bit about this?
ALEX: I think it’s neat that we didn’t use the actual London Calling cover in there – a wonderful piece of artwork but so over-exposed – but something that both draws on that heritage and adds to it. I love the thought of layers of meaning being added to the culture. Russ and I are sometimes a little sniffy about the overstatement of situationist influence on punk design. It’s there. But it isn’t nearly as prevalent – nor its impact as linear – as some have suggested. There are all sorts of socio-economic reasons that shaped the art and design that was produced, which are at least as important. I’ll let Russ take you from there...
HELEN: I'm thinking specifically that when I discovered Guy Debord and détournement (subsequent to my own punk experience) I could see a clear pathway in the two approaches. Ditto obviously Gysin and Burroughs' work...
RUSS: Appropriation and what the Situationists termed détournement are hugely important tools within the punk graphic design arena. The appropriation of visual elements, codes or devices might be a form of homage, as you say (the Ray Lowry London Calling/Elvis Presley connection, or perhaps more subtly Malcolm Garrett’s stylistic nod to the Bauhaus with the square, circle and triangle elements of the first three Buzzcocks album covers), but détournement – the use of those symbols as a basis for attacking, undermining or parodying their authority – is probably more influential.
Obviously, Jamie Reid had a central hand in this – his work for the Sex Pistols drew directly from earlier material he had worked on at Suburban Press, and in turn was heavily influenced by Situationist theory – if not practice. In fact, many of the Situationists abandoned forms of art or design practice during the 1960s as they saw it as secondary to the pursuit of revolution, so while the theories are interesting – particularly ideas of the spectacle, détournement, the derive and psychogeography, they seldom led to any concrete or physical manifestations. It took people like Reid to turn those ideas into some incredible forms of visual practice, and the influence on punk design is unmistakable. Jamie Reid’s God Save The Queen posters, record sleeve and wider campaign material is an obvious and immediate example of graphic détournement – using the iconic Cecil Beaton portrait of the Queen during Silver Jubilee year and inverting its power through some simple interventions (a safety pin on one version, torn strips with ransom note lettering on another, hand-scrawled text and swastikas on a third…), it offers a satirical as well as an agitational message.
However, like Alex I am deeply suspicious of making any concrete or more formal connections between punk graphics and earlier art movements. Sure, some of the early punk pioneers had heard of the Situationists (Reid and McLaren had flirted with the British equivalent King Mob), and some had an art school background and had (to an extent) learned about earlier radical art movements – though the extent to which a nineteen year old can become ‘expert’ on Dadaism or Futurism through a Foundation course in Art and Design is debatable. I’m really fascinated by other punk graphic production which is far less loaded, far less ‘knowing’ and in turn more raw and expressive – I’m sure a lot of producers of second generation punk graphic material simply copied the graphic styles and methods of the earlier designers without any knowledge or reference to its ‘original’ source.
From my own perspective, to be honest I’d never heard of the Situationists, Guy Debord, Raoul Vaneigem and the rest before I went back to Art College as a mature student who had been involved in punk for many years by that point. I’m sure there are thousands more like me who were – and in many cases still are – ignorant of this guiding hand of subversive intellectuals who shape the way that we think and act. I’m being ironic there, by the way!
HELEN: Everyone who’s picked up your book so far has noted the detailed inclusion of international punk movements and their visual expression. This is what makes your book stand out from other punk-oriented collections. Can you say a bit about the research?
ALEX: We had a stupid amount of fun with that. I knew a fair amount about international punk from my youth as a tape trader, but the process of discovery was fascinating. We had a great tour guide in Josef Loderer, who introduced us to a whole array of artists, musicians and experts who in turn contributed to a chapter that felt like a book in itself at one point. Punk histories can be very UK-US centric, and we did want to address that. I hope that it encourages people to dig a little deeper when they read it and understand there is a hidden history of great music and mischief-making that’s just as rich as that we saw take place in London or New York or San Francisco. And often those activities were undertaken where the risks to personal wellbeing were potentially far more severe. The Pussy Riot trial has awakened a lot of people to the fact that punk remains codified as an instrument of rebellion (and we’re addressing some of the complexities around their role in the next edition of Punk & Post-Punk, which I and Russ work on). The fact that mainstream reporting of punk has practically disappeared, or been reduced to retro/nostalgia features where it is represented at all, doesn’t mean that punk has lost relevance to kids in just about every continent who have been seduced by its possibilities – from saying no to tidying your bedroom to mounting full-scale attacks on the establishment.
HELEN: As with literature, design has had its obscenity trials. Do you want to say a bit about the Giger Landscape XX and Jello Biafra’s using it on Frankenchrist, and why the message was perceived by some as important, and by others as dangerous? Is this the Allen Ginsberg's Howl of the visual art world?
ALEX: It was vital to use to get Landscape XX in there if at all possible. It’s a defining moment not just for punk but for culture generally. It makes me laugh. It’s funny, and sharp. And disturbing. Apparently one of the creator’s original ideas was to signify his own fear of global over-population. Within the context of the DKs’ use, I’ve always seen it as “everyone’s fucking everyone else”. So I like the way its use has been reconfigured for a different audience. It absolutely pre-dates punk, but is now a vital part of punk’s iconography. Most punk fans would probably know about the resulting PMRC-Tipper-Gore-stickering-Oprah farrago. All terribly amusing, even if the repercussions for those involved in the resultant police and legal actions were deeply unpleasant (and unconstitutional...). The comparison to Howl is valid; similar arguments were coined on either side. And similarly they went after not just the artist, but distributors, in a really insidious manner.
HELEN: Can you talk about any examples of where a band's image has been manipulated by a label's mis-management or simple lack of comprehension?
ALEX: There are probably loads. I know that we’re coming on to Crass, and we have some commentary in there from Penny R about establishing a ‘brand’. But that brand did not universally sit comfortably with some of the bands, who just wanted to get a record out. I love some of the international stuff here too; like the band who had to use one of a handful of ‘generic’ sleeves (small boy playing acoustic guitar) in order to sneak a single out in Eastern Europe. Or the Japanese compilation album that absolutely xeroxes the Crass template but changes ‘Anarchy & Peace’ to ‘Anarchy & Violence’. In terms of major labels, Peter Gravelle is good value when he reasons part of the photographer’s job in those days was to ‘hide the ugly one’ in the cover photo. I think, though, that the major labels generally were quite imaginative in their responses. At the LCC panel, it was clear that the majority of graphic artists involved in major label punk in the UK in the late 70s were actually big fans of the music and artists, even if they refused to buy into the ethos wholesale. There was a sympathetic tension there, I think. And most of that artwork stands up really well.
RUSS: Manipulated? Sometimes changes in direction were just seen as a good idea at the time, and in retrospect just the opposite. I’m thinking of the cover photo for the UK Subs Keep On Running single, for instance – when the group were given a clothes allowance and decided to dress up a bit in the early 80’s Glam Rock/New Romantic style that was becoming fashionable in some ‘rock’ circles. This change of image was vilified by fans, and the group took years to live it down. Similarly, the Anti Nowhere League reinvented themselves as a cross between Mad Max and Norwegian pop darlings A-Ha for their third album in a failed attempt to shift toward the mainstream rock market – when all anyone going to see them wanted (and still want) was to hear So Fucking What? and I Hate People. It flopped, they split, and eventually when they did reform they went straight back to the studded jockstraps and offensive lyrics that everyone wanted in the first place.
HELEN: Let's talk a bit about the music, firstly from your own subjective viewpoints. I know like me you were just that bit too young to be out at gigs in the early punk days but you would have been listening to and maybe buying music already. Did you have early punk heroes, and if so who and why?
ALEX: There’s always that debate about ‘heroes’ within punk and I took all that stuff about knocking people off pedestals and the stupidity of hierarchies pretty literally. So no heroes for me, though plenty of people I admire. I first became aware of punk, like so many, through tabloid headlines. Then I found out that they swore on records, which was an incredibly beguiling concept. I guess I was a quietly quite angry fellow in my own way and the records I heard seemed to reciprocate. Then it became clear that you could actually participate in this and I got very involved in fanzine and tape-trading culture. It was incredibly exciting to get packages of cassettes from New York or Holland or Finland with all this strange music. I was pretty much utterly isolated apart from that – there wasn’t a punk rock community as such where I lived. But that suited me.
RUSS: I wasn’t that much too young – I didn’t get to see the Sex Pistols, or go to the Roxy (might have been ok for the suburban fifteen year olds whose daddy dropped them off and picked them up in the Jag, but no good for us out in the sticks and whose parents didn’t own a car anyway), but I went to some of the bigger gigs once punk took off and became more embedded within the touring circuit (the Stranglers, the Clash, the Banshees, the Ramones at some of the bigger London venues and on more provincial tours). I was attracted to many of the same things as Alex – the media reporting fuelled my interest and I started moving further and wider to get hold of records and see the groups I was hearing about. As for heroes, I don’t necessarily agree with Alex – despite the punk rhetoric, I have to say the Stranglers were early heroes of mine, and I’ve always had a strong sense of admiration for Lydon, Sensible and Strummer, among others.
HELEN: Where did your musical tastes stand when compared to your parents'? Are either of you from a politically conscious, or a musical family? In other words did you already have a broad knowledge of earlier 'protest' music?
ALEX: I come from a lovely, supportive working class family, but one in which there was no tradition of education or what they now call social mobility whatsoever. My dad is still driving a truck aged 78. He still reads the Sun, partly, I suspect, to wind me up. My mum has always been a housewife. There were no books in our house, but we seemed to have a television for each room. The household line on music was country (compulsory, seemingly, for lorry drivers at the time) but at the saccharine end of the scale – though even now I can’t be too grudging about Jim Reeves. The only other music was Scottish traditional tunes, as my parents are originally from Aberdeen. That was it. I was very much the black sheep in not wanting to follow my elder brother into the trade or my little brother into the steelworks, but they were always very, very supportive of me. Also, they’re very funny people – they have a natural warmth and are great oral storytellers.
RUSS: Ha ha! No, my parents weren’t into music at all – mum would have Radio Two playing when she cooked Sunday dinner – easy listening classics of the early ‘70s. Dad had a couple of Country and Western cassettes, but I don’t really remember him listening to them much. As for political consciousness, no that didn’t really figure either – mum was proudly working class = Labour, dad was from a more aspirational family background (his father was a shop manager, and he went to college), but they were largely apolitical.
HELEN: You've both been in bands, I believe?
ALEX: I think I played three gigs as second bass player in a group called That Noble Porpoise (taken from the line in the original Batman film) and a couple of gigs in a college band called The Men Who Couldn’t Play. That was it. I was terrible. If I’d been any good, I would have been a musician. I wasn’t, so I decided to write about it. You don’t have to tune a keyboard.
RUSS: I played in a couple of terrible bands as a teenager – got a Kay bass from my Mum’s Freemans catalogue, hired the biggest amps we could find in a local music shop for a gig at the local youth club and made a racket. When I moved to Portsmouth in 1981 I formed a band called the Doldrums – our basic premise was to play various local benefit gigs and hippy festivals and be as loud and obnoxious as possible, then refuse to get off stage until the plug was pulled or we got into a fist fight with the organisers. We played a few Class War benefit gigs, Bash The Rich, that sort of thing.
In 1987 I then started Watch You Drown with a couple of local brothers, Paul and Kev Luce – a three piece post punk/hardcore/indie band influenced by Husker Du, Wire, the Stranglers and Killing Joke and named after an Only Ones song. We did ok – toured a lot, released a couple of records on our own label through Southern Studios, got some tour support slots with Mega City Four and gigged with the likes of the Senseless Things, Levellers, Citizen Fish and a load of late 80s hardcore outfits. I guess our one claim to critical fame was being reviewed in the NME for our debut EP which said we should be put into a sack full of kittens and thrown in a river…
HELEN: The Stranglers have become a totem of this book's birth, not least by providing an inadvertently hilarious visual backdrop to the Tate Modern Q and A following your talk there...and as an eternal fan I'll use that as an excuse to bring them up yet again. Do you want to talk about any of their work in particular, and why it mattered to you?
RUSS: I think like many provincial kids in the mid/late ‘70s, I was heavily influenced by firstly what I was hearing about this new ‘punk’ thing, but more importantly by the groups that I had an opportunity to actually hear, see on television or at gigs… people tend to forget how inaccessible the Pistols, Damned and Clash camps were early on (in late ‘76/early ’77) – the Stranglers were the first UK punk band to make it into a wider (perhaps more ‘mainstream’) arena. Their debut single came out right at the start of 1977 and made the charts and the radio, then they appeared on Top of the Pops, and the debut album Rattus Norvegicus made the Top Ten in April (along with the much played Peaches in May). Remember, this was all at the time that the Sex Pistols hadn’t even released their second single and the Clash had only just managed to get their debut record out.
Irrespective of that mainstream accessibility, however, I do have to say that the Stranglers’ music was incredibly important – to me, as a fan, and to many others at the time. I think it was in some ways ‘musical’ enough to gain wider acceptance by rock/music fans and critics (I think Martin Rushent played a huge part there as producer), but at the same time very contemporary and pretty edgy for its time. The first three albums, in particular, hold a real resonance for me – it’s amazing how on the one hand the group have been subsequently dismissed by historians and critics while at the same time songs like Grip, No More Heroes, Hanging Around, Five Minutes and Nice ‘n’ Sleazy have achieved fundamental status as hugely important songs within UK punk.
ALEX: Like Russ, I have an abiding love of the Stranglers. My favourite band growing up, and I did actually name my first born after Hugh Cornwell... even Russ can’t equal that.
HELEN: Alex, the American hardcore scene still continues to this day. What have been the most striking moments over the years in this movement, for you, and why?
ALEX: I got interested in American hardcore (the term is a problematic one, in that the way the movement developed during the mid-80s alienated a lot of the more creative US punks and has latterly become associated with more ‘macho’ exponents like Agnostic Front or Cro-Mags) was originally through the New York Thrash compilation. That features in the book and was sent to me by my wonderful American pen-pal. Hearing Bad Brains for the first time – so unlike anything I had encountered. I also had an immediate and abiding love of Dead Kennedys, who are the subject of my next book. I am of the opinion that the wit, invention and musicality that bands like DKs, Black Flag, TSOL, Social Distortion and so many others exhibited in the early 80s left UK punk looking stagnant (with important exceptions).
As for striking moments – I had to observe all this from across the pond, so my perceptions are rooted in key records. They were hard to get hold of and expensive, so some of my favourites are ones that I did manage to acquire are thus incredibly subjective choices. I didn’t have the opportunity to hear some of the better stuff till later. But I still play DKs, Bad Brains, Circle Jerks, TSOL, Channel 3, Misfits, Husker Du and Black Flag all the time. They are still great records. I’m not as knowledgeable about contemporary hardcore but I do like Rise Against and Fucked Up. When it all got a bit too macho and headbanging I ducked out for a while and got into hip-hop, which at that time (late 80s) was far more creative. But a love of original hardcore would then naturally lead you in parallel to stuff like Big Black, which had the same kind of intensity.
HELEN: The Crass message has always been an important one to me. Especially, on the one side, the artwork and political collage of Gee Vaucher, and then the very honest lifestyle that was created around Dial House and several decades of DIY in action. The DIY movement’s seeds have obviously been around forever although the 1970s Punk movement saw a massive resurgence of interest, consciousness and practice.
ALEX: Crass’s message was always far more important to me than their music, about which I was ambivalent (though I loved specific anarcho bands like Conflict and Flux). I think the wisdom of that message – when allied to huge amounts of personal investment and resilience– is untainted by the passing of time. It remains a model worth emulating and I can certainly detect a resurgence of interest in genuinely independent activity across the arts. You can also look at Alternative Tentacles and Dischord as examples of labels that have prospered in a similar manner. My own dealings with publishing houses have shown me that there is little they can add to a project, but a whole heap they can take away, including large portions of your soul. My last book was on independent labels and it was fascinating to see how corrupting outside influence can be on an entity’s internal dynamic and rationale. Engagement with outside agencies is almost inevitable, but it is not impossible to achieve on your own terms.
RUSS: I’m a little critical of the rhetoric about DIY in many areas of our lives, and within the punk movement – the Crass model was an inspiring attempt, alongside many others, to wrestle the means of production away from more insidious forms of corporate interference, but those groups and labels still needed to rely on external agencies with either greater means or access to technologies in order to actually mass manufacture and distribute their work. Developments in new technologies are perhaps changing that dynamic to a greater or lesser extent – though just because something exists in cyberspace doesn’t necessarily mean that anyone sees or hears it, and we face the increasing misery of too much choice and data saturation.
However, with the capacity of social networks, blogs and online media to tap into wider virtual communities (I hate that word!), the potential to build models of practice based upon the early DIY’ers is increasing if anything. I’ve bought albums recently through social media sponsorship sites, whereby buyers of the product invest in its production in advance, and once enough funding is raised the record, book or whatever is pressed or printed and sent out to those buyers. It’s largely based on mutual trust, but it’s an exciting option away from more mainstream business models. One of the biggest challenges for the early punk DIY labels was distribution – and then getting their product seen by potentially interested buyers. The internet can potentially provide some of those things outside of geographical constraints. When the DIY punk boom took off, around 1978-79, one of the key factors in its survival was the establishment of an interested audience who would buy new DIY records almost on sight – producers and labels could be pretty sure they could sell a thousand or a couple of thousand copies, so they could be confident in investing to that level. Now projects can be marketed in advance, they can be held until investments reach a certain level before being released for production. This also offers us some potentially interesting avenues for publishing. As Alex has already said, unsympathetic publishers can make book projects extremely hard work and can cause a great deal of distress to authors with a personal, emotional and economic investment in the book.
With The Art of Punk, Alex and I took on far more than would normally be expected of an author – particularly in regard to structuring and organising the book content, but also in picture research and securing content, pre-artwork scanning and production, and overall editing of the final book. We did so because we had an investment in getting this book ‘right’ and reflecting as best we could the wider punk community – many of whom know us personally and gave an extraordinary amount of their own time and energy to the project for free. At the end of the day, it felt very much like a DIY project – certainly we had some autonomy in regard to the book content and structure because we were/are far more expert in the content than the publisher and/or project managers. The major difference was that we weren’t in control of the financial side of the project, which is a real shame as it is becoming very commercially successful by the look of things and we don’t get any financial benefit from that popularity!
The Art of Punk by Russ Bestley and Alex Ogg is published by Omnibus Press
Interview by Helen Donlon