Never mind the merchandising...

Once they were the scourge of the Establishment; now, the punk heroes of the Seventies are gracing give-away CDs in The Mail on Sunday. Jonathan Brown mourns their surrender
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The Independent Online

t may be 30 years since the Sex Pistols first gobbed in the face of the UK music scene, but nothing, it seems, is sacred. For just as the young upstarts hijacked the Queen's Jubilee for their own nefarious purposes, the Establishment stands accused of ruining punk's birthday party by turning it into a marketing jamboree to flog everything from newspapers and knickers to estate agents'.

Fans of The Stranglers might be excused for feeling themselves most hard done by. For the band, who once scandalised Fleet Street and earned the attention of Scotland Yard by hiring strippers to perform at an open air gig in London's Battersea Park, found themselves offered as a giveaway CD on the front of The Mail on Sunday. There, on the "10-track collectors' album", was the jagged anthem "No More Heroes", the controversial "Golden Brown" - long regarded as a paean to the pleasures of heroin use - and the leering, even sexist sing-along "Peaches".

But Associated Newspapers is far from alone in recognising that someone who came of age in the late 1970s is now likely to be a forty-something with a fat wallet and a CD player in their Volvo estate - although that's not to say that everyone is pleased to be seen like that. "It's enough to make me give up being an ex-punk and become an ex-New Romantic," bemoans one blogger, railing against the creeping tide of commercialism sweeping over his cherished movement.

The novelist Will Self pillories the estate agent Foxtons, whose staff drive liveried Mini Coopers emblazoned with adapted punk slogans such as "London Calling" and "Never Mind the Bollocks" in order to draw attention to themselves as they cruise the mean streets of Clapham, Hampstead and the Home Counties. "Can I be alone in finding [them] absurd and laughable?," he asks. "For those of us old enough to remember the fervid anti-capitalism of the late 1970s this is another nail driven into the coffin of our idealism. We all accept that pop has eaten itself, but it now seems that even punk has been the victim of conspicuous consumption."

Foxtons is adamant in its defence. "Punk is sharp, it is fashionable and it is challenging. It transcends modern culture and remains a statement for radical and innovative thinking - qualities that sit well with the Foxtons brand," the company says.

But the fleet of flashy motors roaming London's more sought-after districts is just the tip of the iceberg. The distinctly upscale Selfridges this year staged a festival called FuturePunk - "a 21st-century interpretation of the attitude that has dominated youth culture and influenced fashion for three decades."

The irony was not lost on the film-maker Julien Temple, who was hosting a film screening of his The Filth and the Fury documentary about the Sex Pistols at the Oxford Street store. He told the London listings magazine Time Out: "Any self-respecting punk would have lobbed a brick through a Selfridges window 30 years ago."

Today, though, the sons and daughters - even grandchildren - of the original punks were pogoing to the sounds of The Slits among the Givenchy and Chloë.

Of course, fashion always went hand in hand with the music, and British punk was as much about Vivienne Westwood's bondage trousers as it was about forming your own band. But when the upmarket underwear chain Agent Provocateur launches its own "Knickers to Punk" range - a T-shirt and mohair brief combo with oversized gold eyelets and hanging chains, enhanced by a selection of "filthy phrases", surely it has gone too far.

And what of Medicom's Kubrick Sex Pistols set - a collection of 60mm plastic figurines of the notorious four-piece produced under license for Bravado Merchandising and costing $35?

According to Malcolm McLaren, who on Friday began a new three-part series for the BBC World Service entitled Close Up: The Real Story of Punk, the seeds of the movement were sown at a particular moment in time. "Punks were provocative, uncompromising kids who wanted the world to wake up," he recalls. "They were a generation sick of being ignored, fed up with the post-war complacency, hypocrisy, emptiness and poverty all around them. Weary of doing what their parents wanted them to. Tired of being isolated, bored feeling disenfranchised all the time." Heady stuff - and surely at odds with the cosy world of Sunday newspapers and designer lingerie?

The artist Caroline Coon is more sanguine: "The vanguard gets absorbed into the mainstream in history again and again but this does nothing to devalue the original. When images become mainstream they are able to inspire a new generation of radicals and they are able to go back to the source," she says.

As the alleged inspiration for The Stranglers track "London Lady", she is sceptical about the band's status as true punk icons. "The Stranglers fit in well with the Mail. They were the cuckoos in the punk nest - brilliant musicians, but really rather reactionary, misogynistic and probably racist," she says.

From the day the Daily Mirror splashed the Sex Pistols' appearance on Bill Grundy's Today programme on its front page, newspapers have lapped punk up. Indeed, a classic Daily Mail article from 1978 debunks the Stranglers' bad boy image. "Hugh Cornwell spits at the audience, swears at girls in the front row and wears clothes a tramp wouldn't be seen dead in," it storms. But the paper then reveals him as a "highly educated, middle class 28-year-old," who likes nothing better than "reading Punch, sipping wine and discussing Aztec architecture".

According to Coon the hype was just part of the fun - it is the music that will be the true legacy. "The culture that grew up around punk and its images were essentially superficial. If the music had not been so good they would never have endured," she says.

It was a thought no doubt shared by Mail on Sunday readers as they settled back to listen to their new CD.