For a movement supposedly rooted in a distrust of nostalgia, and movements, come to think of it, punk rock sure seems determined to celebrate its own silver jubilee. Yes, it's 25 years since the Sex Pistols cost a reckless and probably well-oiled Bill Grundy his job after the television interviewer challenged them to "say something outrageous" and they took him at his F-word. The Pistols weren't the first to say "fuck" on television, but back in 1976 they were certainly the youngest. So expect plenty of present possibilities for the fat old punk in your life over the next few months.
Leading the way is a truly heavyweight (literally – it'll collapse your coffee table) tome entitled simply Punk. It's a terrible, terrible book, despite the many attractive photos. The last truly national music scene to emerge from the capital is reduced to a set of predictable received opinions. Punk apparently started around 1966 in Andy Warhol's Factory, which was a hotbed of queeny old speedfreaks, and the Velvet Underground. The Sixties Detroit scene of the Stooges and MC5 is discussed only in terms of its influence on NYC, while the several thousand garage bands of the time aren't even mentioned. And Richard Hell's greatest line, "I belong to the blank generation", is misinterpreted yet again.
The whole mess is linked together with comments from minor figures of the era , some of them reiterating their conversations with Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain for their vastly superior Please Kill Me. There's no sign of Malcolm McLaren. But there are some great clunkers such as repeated use of the phrase "movers and shakers" and a description of the clientele of McLaren's Kings Road shop Sex as "pure Warhol – a strange mixture of gay, lesbian, straight, dominant and exhibitionist characters". Come on. That sounds like the staff room of every school in the land.
The author biographies give the game away. Chris Sullivan, former boss of the very Eighties Wag Club might have been attracted to the scene early on but he's currently employed as a "style expert" on BBC digital (aka The Great Unwatched). His collaborator, ex-ad man Stephen Colegrave admits to having produced Britflop movie Bring Me The Head Of Mavis Davis, something everyone else involved might leave off their CVs.
But enough baiting. Everyone has their own version of punk, and for Sullivan it meant trousers, and sometimes shirts. Music, graphics, fanzines, independent record companies (i.e punk's lasting cultural achievements, which later reverberated through the acid house scene) are all ignored in favour of conversations with pie-eating Ants guitarist Marco Pirroni about classy (and costly) Vivienne Westwood designs Marco hasn't been able to fit into for, well, 25 years. The cliché goes that if you can remember the Sixties you weren't there. This pair don't just remember punk, they remember every stitch of clothing they were wearing too.
All this might seem academic – literally, as interpretations of punk have sustained cultural studies departments for years now – but to not even mention the roles of Jamie Reid, creator of the Pistols revolutionary artwork, or John Peel, for most of the nation the only access to the music, is not so much an oversight as a glaring omission. Reid's playful Suburban Press, which produced stickers with slogans such as "Keep Warm This Winter – Make Trouble", was as much a precursor of the punk look we grew to know and love as the New York Dolls (hardly as underground as people now believe – their first album reputedly sold half a million copies in the States).
What was punk anyway? In the USA the early New York scene never really spread beyond the Hudson River, while California's version was a very different beast, almost a direct spin-off from glam, until later mutating into hardcore. Not until Nirvana's breakthrough did punk catch the nation's imagination, as captured in the video 1991:The Year Punk Broke. Bizarrely, the grunge wave they led swept away Hollywood hair bands such as Guns n' Roses, who were, of course, musically influenced by, yes, the Sex Pistols.
So stripping punk down to a confined west London scene which became tainted by mass popularity seems to ignore the obvious fact that in Britain circa 1976/7 many young people actively wanted something to happen, and so it did. Club scenes are fantastically unquantifiable which makes them ideal signifiers for anyone attempting to romanticise their own personal history. Yet who doesn't have a good time in their late teens, even if only in retrospect? A photo caption in Punk describes a lad wearing a jacket with the immortal words "DESTROY CORBY" painted on the back as a "cardboard cut-out punk". Not in Corby he wasn't, mates.
The authors' sole qualifications seem to be the fact that they were present at some of the events, yet no one requires this of historians, or writers of historical fictions. Why should popular cultural history be written by people with a personal stake anyway? After all, punk rock happened so long ago it's ancient history for today's pop fans. Yet it deserves better than mere dismissal as nothing more than a fashion scene with no long-term ramifications. Now that new styles are assimilated so fast that Monday's street looks are on CD-UK by Saturday morning, it's hard to imagine a time when a haircut or piercing could make you unemployable, or a target of violence. But it happened.
You're better off with Westway To The World, the extended DVD history of the one punk-era band everyone can agree on, the Clash. If punk opened up endless possibilities, they certainly reached for them all. Rap to rockabilly to reggae – all sound is here. Of British rock bands, only one, Primal Scream, bless 'em, have even approached their range since, a strangely depressing fact. As for their trousers, despite Joe Strummer's oft quoted, though unintelligible remark "like trousers, like brain" (Narrow? Thick? Pleated?), in the same 1976 interview he admitted to never having visited McLaren's boutique. Long may they resist reforming.
'Punk' is published by Cassell, £35. 'Westway to the World' is out now on SMVReuse content