As a teenager in a dying seaside town on the east coast of Scotland, punk rock was like a bat signal of a more exciting world. The center of this world was London, a city where even boredom was romantic. Somewhere between London’s Burning in 1977 and London Calling in 1979, The Clash sketched out a vision of the fragile and boring capital, feverish and anxious, violent, exotic, alive and terribly out of reach. London’s Burning, the song of boredom, was a nighttime blur in which flashing headlights dissected the Westway’s sodium glow. London Calling was a post-apocalyptic call to arms, a roll call of biblical disasters that buzzed with possibility. A new ice age, food shortages, a nuclear error! It all seemed ideal compared to the real boredom of being a teenager revising for exams on the fringes of what would later become Scotland’s golf coast.
Even if I had never visited them, I knew everything about London places. The Marquee had been immortalized on an EP by Eddie and the Hot Rods. The Roxy had spawned a punk LP with contributions from Wire, The Adverts, X-Ray Spex and Buzzcocks. Even now I can’t walk past the Screen On The Green in Islington without thinking of the Sex Pistols show that took place there. The same goes for the 100 Club on Oxford Street, the location of an even more stellar lineup on a Monday night in September 1976. It was at the 100 Club that the Pistols were backed by The Clash, Siouxsie Sioux (doing The Lord’s Prayer with Sid Vicious on drums), and the early days of Subway Sect, whose vocalist Vic Godard became the obscure genius of punk, a great songwriter who mostly passed himself off as a (very good) postman.
All of this new-wave trash resurfaced in my memory when I was writing Alternatives to Valium: How Punk Rock Saved a Shy Boy’s Life, a book halfway between a zine and a memoir. There is a bit of hyperbole in this title, but the importance of punk is not overstated. Right now, of course, the thing that’s recognized as punk is quite different from the thing as it unfolded in real time. In the punk era, no one looked like the death zombies that prowl Camden Lock, posing for tourist snaps. Outside of London – maybe even in London itself – punk didn’t mean wearing a Vivienne Westwood-designed wardrobe. These things weren’t available beyond King’s Road, and in most of the UK wearing a Destroy t-shirt with a swastika on it was liable to be misinterpreted.
What did it mean, to live elsewhere, to think of London? Over the years I have asked many notable people of a certain age. For dancer Michael Clark – a shy misfit from Aberdeenshire – it made his move to London an urgent necessity. For Bristol resident Daniel Day-Lewis, the appearance of punks in homemade clothes on the bus was a revelation. For Tilda Swinton, a refugee in a girls’ school alongside the future queen of hearts, Diana Spencer, punk does not permeate the walls. Music was banned and as she left, Swinton was furious to find out what she had missed. “Who cared about the boys?” she said. “It was the music. The music.”
For me, punk meant making a fanzine, forming a band, thinking about going out of town, being someone else. It’s hard to imagine in a time when social media encourages everyone to be their own brand, but a big part of punk’s analog appeal was how it gave people the freedom to try things out. As Tony Moon’s famous diagram says in the London fanzine Sideburns: “This is a Chord, This is Another, This is a Third, Now Form a Band”.
Alternatives to Valium: How Punk Rock Saved a Shy Boy’s Life by Alastair McKay is published by Polygon, £12.99 @AHMcKay