“Once we were part of punk,” Gallix writes. “Now punk is part of us.”
Last October marked the 40th anniversary of Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, an epochal release that, depending on whom one asks, served as either the first wave of punk’s loudest clarion call or its epitaph. But even without such historical conveniences, the spirit of 1977 was clearly alive and well in 2017. A moribund global economy, a Transatlantic slide into authoritarian nativism and a general sense of apocalyptic doom; the prospect of “no future” hadn’t seemed so apt, or so grimly appealing, in decades.
Perhaps that’s why this anthology, Punk Is Dead, published on the eve of Never Mind the Bollocks’ 40th, feels so relevant. Punk may be, as co-editor Andrew Gallix admits, “probably the most analyzed youth cult ever,” but its resonances with the contemporary zeitgeist make it ripe for such analysis—even if, he is also quick to add, it continues to resist tidy theses. Gallix, the founder of literary webzine 3:AM, and his fellow editor, music journalist turned playwright Richard Cabut, are wise enough not to attempt any grand summations. Instead, they curate and contribute to an eclectic, dialectic collection of 28 short essays, juxtaposing historical testimonies from the eye of punk’s hurricane with more critically distanced analyses of its aftermath.
The result admirably captures punk’s fractured, anarchic early spirit—if also, inevitably, some of its clannishness and opacity to newcomers. Those without a primer in punk’s critical canon, particularly Greil Marcus’ Lipstick Traces and Jon Savage’s England’s Dreaming, may find themselves lost in the weeds. For the initiated, however, there’s plenty to dig into: a historical analysis by Barney Hoskyns of the connections between punk and its less-appreciated forebear, glam rock; a reprinting of Crass drummer Penny Rimbaud’s 1977 essay “Banned from the Roxy,” newly annotated by the author; an etymology tracing the evolution of the word “punk” by the aforementioned Savage. Most of these readings have been published before, but like any good anthology, the whole of Punk Is Dead gives new meaning to its parts. Its overall effect is collagelike: representing punk as essentially heterogeneous, a mishmash of musical, sartorial and subcultural styles brought briefly into collision and, for a glorious instant, seemingly poised to turn the late 20th century on its head.
As its title implies, the ultimate failure of this revolution in the head is the closest thing the book has to a running theme. Virtually every contributor avers that punk, in its most exciting form, was over before it ostensibly began. As Gallix writes in his essay “The Boy Looked at Euridyce,” the movement died “as soon as it ceased being a cult with no name… Punk—in its initial, pre-linguistic incarnation… was the potentiality of punk.” By enshrining these six months or so of ferment, before the cult became a commodity, Punk Is Dead embraces what is, on its surface, a decidedly un-punk emotion: nostalgia. But this is not the ineffectual, ideologically empty nostalgia of events like 2016’s “Punk London” celebration, presided over by the city’s then-mayor, Conservative politician and chief Brexit cheerleader Boris Johnson. Cabut, Gallix and the other contributors use their critically productive nostalgia to correct decades’ worth of the former variety: to prevent punk from being, as Judy Nylon puts it in her foreword, “reduced to a coffee-table book of white English boys spitting.” At its best—such as scholar David Wilkinson’s excellent essay on “the undeniable queerness of early punk”—Punk Is Dead excavates the fascinating counter-narratives more conventional histories leave unexplored.
The nostalgia of Punk Is Dead is also, of course, a nostalgia for a time when our contemporary dystopia, so similar to 1977’s, seemed vanquishable by culture: a time, Cabut writes, “before the PoMos et al. sneered (like punks!) at any supposed dissimilarities between the Real and the Spectacle… before the gist of meaning and truth became but a haze… before attention to a ‘new kind of superficiality’ and depthlessness, buzzing with numbing codes and signs, assumed theoretical urgency.” It’s impossible to read Punk Is Dead without realizing on some level that the likes of punk will never happen again: The contemporary cultural landscape is at once too diffuse and too adept at absorbing insurgent trends and attitudes; the current youth cultures are both too diverse and, frankly, not naïve enough to view mere aesthetic affront as a viable revolutionary tool. It’s almost quaint to read about Siouxsie Sioux’s affectless appropriation of the swastika in the wake of rallies by punk-age white nationalists who, to quote Rotten et al., “mean it, man.” But if reading these essays in early 2018 brings any solace, it’s the knowledge that punk has retained its vitality as an ideal, even if it has long since failed as a movement. “Once we were part of punk,” Gallix writes. “Now punk is part of us.”