Jon Savage: How punk bridged the class divide

Today’s society can learn from the protest movement fronted by Malcolm McLaren

That Malcolm McLaren's death has made such an impact should not come as a surprise, as it reinforces the privileged place that punk had and still has on our national consciousness.

Anyone under 40 or so will have grown up with this as a fact, but for those who were there at the time, there will always be a slight sense of wonder: how did a minority cult have such a powerful impact?

Today, punk is an acknowledged part of 20th-century cultural history – a youth-cult template, to be sourced and sampled. You can see its traces throughout the media – along with all the other images from the peak years of mass culture. It is in history: its influence is so diverse as to seem almost meaningless. And then the deaths happen, and all the feelings are brought up all over again.

Even in their wildest dreams, none of the young participants and witnesses of punk shows in 1976 and 1977 would have thought that these wild, chaotic events would be the subject of history. It felt important – the only thing happening within a moribund, decaying society – but that was not a view that swayed the general public, which regarded it with incomprehension, if not hostility.

Punk gets all the plaudits now, but if you look at the charts for 1977, it was dwarfed by disco, europop and records by 1960s hangovers. In strictly demographic terms, it was in a minority. Punk was scary, and it demanded commitment: many of the people involved made hard choices within the cultural context of the time. You ran the risk of being attacked and alienated from your peers.

One of the great things about punk, however, was the extraordinary people that you met and the energy that those meetings unleashed. Time was compressed. There was an urgency – the burning imperative to do whatever it is you felt you had to do and to make it public. This was inspirational to a generation of musicians, writers, designers and artists.

Britain is a class-ridden society, but punk provided an arena where the classes could meet on something like equal terms. In the heat of the moment, it wasn't where you came from, but what could you bring to the table. This of course did not remove the deep and ingrained inequity, but it gave a voice and a face to many writers and musicians to whom that opportunity is often denied.

It wasn't all roses. There was a nasty side to punk that came out in the violence at shows, in the wearing of the swastika. When it became obvious that that was a very bad idea during the time that the National Front was making political headway, Johnny Rotten took great care to speak out against the NF, and his comments helped to spark the pop culture front against fascism, the Anti-Nazi League.

Unlike the teen music of the early to mid-1970s – nothing wrong with that, by the way – punk was determinedly in the world: dealing in social issues, talking about politics. The Sex Pistols' first record was called "Anarchy in the UK", and the lyric was loaded with acronyms: the MPLA, the UDA, the IRA – who were in the middle of what was an intensive mainland campaign.

Punk's momentum reached its peak in June 1977, when the Sex Pistols' ferocious "God Save the Queen" reached the top of the charts – despite a full array of radio/TV bannings and music industry pressure. It is now extraordinary to think that a young pop group – all under 22 – and a single record could have such a lasting national and international impact.

But there's no point in pretending: it is now well over 30 years ago and the world is completely different. Punk's furious insistence on praxis and creation – without any thought of building a career or satisfying a focus group – now seems wilfully naive. Most importantly, it was the product of a scarcity that now almost seems inconceivable, almost 19th century.

Britain in 1977 still felt like a country struggling to shake off the Second World War: in central London, where I lived and worked, there were still hundreds of bombsites, whole areas that were derelict with nothing but corrugated iron and the wild, sweet-smelling buddleia. Born in the 1950s, the punk generation were the children of people who had fought and suffered in the 1940s. Since then, there have been more than three decades of increased, if not highly selective, prosperity. The media in particular has expanded in an almost exponential curve: a development predicted by the situationist theorists (like Guy Debord and Raoul Vaneigem) who provided a strong, if shadowed, influence on punk. Today there is so much youth media it could seem like a paradise.

But as the economic cycle has swung from boom to bust, punk presents itself as a spirited response to crisis. It's not that it will "come back": it never will, and it never should. But it offered an alternative way of looking at the world – a last echo of 1960s radicalism – that remains inspiring, not as a style but as an irreducible historical fact.

It is very tempting to draw the parallels between the late 1970s and today, as recession returns with its morbid symptoms: developing political polarisation, street violence, industrial unrest and severe youth unemployment. But things are never the same, even if the economic cycles and the patterns of history appear to repeat themselves.

Britain in the 21st century is a much more controlled society, with rising levels of surveillance. In contrast, the wildness of punk seems like a product of an unintended freedom. The "flowers in the dustbin" – as John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, so memorably called the forgotten teens whose plight he embodied – have not gone away. How the youth of today will react to the crisis of 2010 is a matter of national importance.

Jon Savage's books include England's Dreaming: The Sex Pistols and Punk Rock, published by Faber