Last week was punk week. During my teens I had many punk nights and dated a once-punk guy. I listened to some punk, not too much, but hard core was not for me, not yet at least. If I think back to the last few years, it appears that this trend of my life has never changed; I can’t ever be separated from punk or a punk for too long. Now I am in London, the birthplace of this genre, which this year is celebrating its 40th birthday. In fact, a whole year of events is devoted to the most rebellious movement and counterculture of the last century. As this trend of my life has in fact got a life of its own, last week it dragged me to two exhibitions, different in taste and organisation, but centred on the history of punk. The first was about official events. The second, was about the unofficial, intimate and personal experiences of someone who has followed punk almost all his life.
During my wanderings into the punk world, I was accompanied by Stefania, a great person and friend of mine who has embraced the punk culture and lifestyle since she was a teen, when she first listened to the Clash and fell completely in love with them. We went to the British Library and during our journey by tube, I asked what punk and being punk means to her. “Punk is a spirit,” she said, “You have to feel it inside, in the heart. Punk is also a revolution against the system. That’s the original germ. Now, it has become a fashion as well, a way to escape conventionality and boredom. So maybe it’s different from ’77, the year punk was “officially” born but I believe that what matters most is what you have inside and the ways you can express it. Punk is a way to do that.”
“And what about the London celebrations of punk’s 40th birthday, even approved and blessed by the Queen?”
“God save the Queen!” She answered laughing. “No, I’m joking. I don’t think the Queen knows about punk. These celebrations help to keep the punk spirit alive, but they also help to destroy it by trying to integrate it into a certain official canon. It’s a real dilemma because these celebrations are open to all the punks in town but they are also standardized for a certain target of people. Punks may express their ‘celebration’ through the act of destroying everything.” We both laugh as our tube journey continues.
The Official Story
At the British Library, Stefania and I discovered a corner devoted to a small free exhibition of memorabilia. At the entrance, the family tree of punk, created by Pete Frame, welcomes curious visitors. It is a sort of billboard representing all the various unions, divisions, and creations of new bands since the birth of punk. The glass cases display original fanzines, t-shirts, pictures from gigs, Malcolm McLaren & Vivienne Westwood’s story and even the letter of resignation from original bass guitarist Glen Matlock, before Sid Vicious, to the rest of the Sex Pistols. The exhibition will be open until the 2nd of October, so there is still plenty of time to visit it.
Walking down the stairs of the library, Stefania had an uncertain expression on her face. On our way back I asked her what she thought about the exhibition. She felt that “the exhibition is for beginners. It is very interesting from a historical point of view. The original photos and pieces are really impressive. But punk is against institutions so… it’s just for curious people.”
The Unofficial Story
Late one afternoon we took a bus to Seven Sisters. We were looking for the original River Studio, a place for each and everyone who is in the underground and alternative side of the river. The Studio is equipped for music rehearsals and recordings. It consists of spaces for artistic workshops, film and video studios, a lovely bar, and a gallery. Here we met Martin Sorrondeguy, a punk performer, filmmaker, and photographer whose outstanding and extraordinary pictures were on exhibition just for one day. His entire collection, spanning over 30 years, is huge and this venue featured just a small sample of street photography, gig spaces, and, portraits. His black and white pictures are alive; some breathe the power of an explosion, others the tenderness of a father with his son, because believe it or not, punk can be sweetness as well. “That’s a real punk exhibition!” Stefania remarked. “It shows great photos taken by a real punk and of real punk scenes. It comes from the heart! And he is a great punk artist.” I couldn’t agree more. Sorrondeguy’s pictures are so intimate that it is extremely clear they come straight from his heart.
Now it’s time to go home, but I have one last question.
“After 40 years, is punk dead or not?”
“No. Absolutely not. Punk is not dead. Punk has transformed itself. But there are many true punk scenes around the world. That’s what keeps the spirit alive!”
Edited by Ivy Joseph