Punk: the height of elegance

What is it about punk style that means it simply won't lie down and die? After all, you don't get the teddy boy look reappearing on men's catwalks year after year, or documentaries made about it 25 years after the fact. Ex-punk Alix Sharkey explains why
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Sometime around 1975, like a prophet coming in from the desert, Malcolm McLaren started proclaiming the end of "good taste as we know it". In a glossy fashion mag of the time, he featured in a round-up of new designers. While the others billed and cooed about satin and tat, the Ginger Whinger dismissed the entire industry with four little words. "I hate anything chic," he whined, in that I'm-so-bored nasal drone.

You could hear lipsticks hitting the floor all over Vogue Hice. "What does he mean?" they shrieked. "How can anyone hate... chic?" After all, McLaren's boutique, called Sex, was on the King's Road - hardly the backwater of British street fashion.

But this was Malcolm's genius, an ability to recognise and exploit fashion's fault line in a class-bound mid-Seventies Britain, even while standing firmly on the wrong side of it. His vocalist manqué, Johnny Rotten, drafted in at the last minute to write nasty lyrics and nudge the Sex Pistols' average IQ into double figures, would echo His Master's Voice a couple of years later. In a much-reported shopping trip to Sex - by then rechristened Seditionaries - the Face of Punk gleefully dissed an item of his manager's merchandise with the epithet, "It's vile, I love rubbish."

Nowadays we all love rubbish and say so. Nobody takes much notice any more. Back then, things were very different. Most people simply didn't understand what McLaren and Rotten were on about. The reason we are all so flippant and perverse today is that punk created a new aesthetic, one that freed us from many tired conventions, including the need to dress properly according to our station.

It is often said that McLaren invented punk, but most often by McLaren himself. He blew his own trumpet loudest and proudest in the Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle, revealing his plan for creating "the most notorious filthy disgusting dirtiest rock'n'roll band in the whole bloody world".

But a new documentary film by Julien Temple, director of Swindle, attempts to re-tell the story from the band's point of view, stringing together newsreel, amateur Super Eight and concert footage (some of it, oh irony, cannibalised from Swindle), interlaced with explanatory voiceovers from the four surviving protagonists (Sid Vicious having gone to the great shooting gallery in the sky in February 1979).

What emerges from The Filth and the Fury is... well, nothing particularly new, in fact. Yes, of course they were spectacularly dim - with the exception of Rotten and original bassist, Glenn Matlock, (quickly dispatched by Rotten after the first UK tour). Yes, they would probably have languished in obscurity were it not for an incompetent talk-show host who nudged them into swearing on primetime TV. And yes, their manager regarded them as a circus ringmaster might a troupe of mangy chimpanzees - but then, who wouldn't have?

Yet certain points bear reconsideration. In particular the sheer aural and visual ferocity of British youth culture at that time. The songs, recorded with producer Chris Thomas, still sound scathingly sardonic and hostile a quarter-century later. And while just about every other punk group has since been inducted into rock's AOR-FM pantheon, the Pistols' sound remains unlistenable-to for the casual audience, thanks largely to Rotten's idiot- savant lyrics, which articulated the frustration, anger and boredom of his generation in a stunted meta-language of impotent rage: "I am an antichrist/I am an anarch-iste/Dunno what I want but I know how to get it/I wanna destroy/Passers-by..."

Punk's look extended this degradation of signs, from its butchered hairstyles to its scuffed winklepicker shoes. Garments were tight, torn and spiky, distressed and turned inside out, because punk was all about constriction, perversion, and inverted roles. Bondage and PVC gear, previously associated with weakness, shame and concealment, was ironically recontextualised as the uniform of defiance and dissent. Favoured T-shirts from Sex (designed by McLaren and Vivienne Westwood) included one that showed two Stetson-wearing cowboys facing each other, naked from the waist down, penises touching. Another, popular with punk boys, had a pair of breasts printed over the chest area. But perhaps the best joke of all was the long-sleeved white T-shirt with bondage straps - made of cheesecloth, the ultimate hippy fabric.

"What interests me," said Westwood at the time, "is someone dressed to provoke a confrontation." This became a mission statement for the Sex/Seditionaries collections, which used the vocabulary of containment and impotence to challenge and provoke. Their sardonic humour threw society's polite hypocrisy back in its face, and suckered it into a response. It was a classic masochist mind-game, taunting the Other into a violent reaction in order to establish a relationship. It took some nerve to go out dressed this way.

There is a wonderful picture of Rotten circa 1977, hair cut into a golden crown of greasy orange thorns, its shockwave fringe brutally chopped back to the hairline. He wears a suit jacket turned inside out, its black silk lining on show. Safety-pinned to his sleeve is a red armband with the word "chaos" stencilled in white capitals. More safety pins, lengths of chain and bulldog clips adorn the lapels. His white T-shirt shows an inverted pink crucifix beneath the word "Destroy." Overprinted on this, in palest grey, barely visible, is a swastika. His black leather biker jeans are held up with a heavy black leather belt and adorned with more chains. He is obviously proclaiming himself to be a Cretinous Drug-Addled Queer Satanic Nazi Anarchist Terrorist.

Either that, or he's giving the finger to right-minded people everywhere.

Of course, we can laugh today, but in 1977, the year of the Queen's silver jubilee, you couldn't push any more buttons than this in one go. With hindsight, it's little wonder the singer was attacked by razor-wielding "patriots". What's more surprising is that it didn't happen a daily basis.

In its more parochial, provincial form, punk style saw middle-class and (more interestingly) working-class kids dressing down in order to distinguish themselves from the mindless conformity of the time. It was a celebration, as McLaren said in Swindle, but a low-rent one, open to anybody with the spark of creativity and some time on their hands. Punk style was DIY. Clothes were second-hand, scrounged and borrowed, cut up and resewn, dyed and stencilled with angry words.

Who could have imagined that safety pins and berets and moth-eaten mohair sweaters would come to signify rebellion? Who could have possibly seen that bondage trousers and tartan suits worn with suede brothel creepers might signify a harsh social comment? Only people who didn't have the time or the inclination to think it through, just the urge to do it, and quickly, and throw it in the face of anyone who might react. That's who. Old punks, we salute you.

"To achieve harmony in bad taste," said Jean Genet, "is the height of elegance." And that is what punk style was all about. It had the bad taste to draw attention to an imperfect, unfair and often hypocritical world. And it was all done with lo-tech, dirt-cheap materials, a DIY ethic, a situationistinspired manifesto, and a talent for media manipulation. It was, quite simply, a work of retarded genius.

'The Filth and the Fury' (15) is released at selected cinemas on Friday

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