Punk Lyrics 2015-16

These are paintings, usually on metal foil, experimenting with approaches to visual representations of lyrics from UK and US punk songs of the late 1970s, a period of sustained countercultural activity and one with which I had an active engagement as a musician and spectator. They look for an alignment of painted form and punk sound and draw directly from the typography of punk record sleeve designs. The late 70s was a period of innovative record sleeve design that rapidly evolved in pace with radical sonic and lyric changes taking place in punk and post-punk music. Very few 7” singles were released without a picture sleeve whose text and image attempted to convey properties of the bands’ milieus and their music. Artists like Linder, Nicola Tyson and Nick de Ville designed or photographed record sleeves for punk bands, while other remarkable treatments were devised by band members themselves and by their supporters. Musical ideas proliferated in the few years of this intensely inventive environment. Bands played as if they had nothing to lose, which in the precarious economic climate of the UK and New York’s Lower East Side at that time, was indeed the case. This devil-may-care attitude generated an extraordinary revolution in the sonic textures and lyrical treatments in music that has not occurred since.

It would be misleading to conclude that this music was all about noise and aggressive sentiment. Inveterate notions of quality and competence were displaced by the permission to make a kind of music that was stripped down to its elemental components and for lyrical content that testified to raw, basic, and often vulnerable, experience. Conventional musical abilities were considered a disadvantage over direct and untaught approaches to song structure and performance. Under these conditions of relentless renewal there emerged a greater tolerance for difference and an interest in expressions of emotional vulnerability and the admittance—even the embrace—of personal failure. This upending of musical restrictions also enabled women to perform in musical roles defined not by sexuality but by equal empowerment as creative musicians and lyricists. Conventional designates of masculinity were discredited as typifying an earlier decadent rock and roll, in the wake of which new gender roles were tentatively developed and an extraordinarily wide range of lyrical content emerged in these songs which rarely had any sexual or romantic content.

Other kinds of political engagement fueled some of the music, especially in the context of the Anti-Nazi League concerts in which I participated as a coordinator in Edinburgh. The resurgence of the right-wing National Front political party in the UK in the late 70s provoked an unprecedented alliance of musicians protesting against racial prejudice. These musicians’ actions and music hastened the demise of anti-immigrant violence and increased awareness of shared class and economic interests that superseded differences of race.