Anarchy, Attitude and Outrage: When Punk was Young and Dangerous

Alex Levac—Camera Press/Redux
Alex Levac—Camera Press/Redux
Israeli photographer Alex Levac documented the punk scene in London in the 70s. "I plunged into a completely different culture and Punk was its most bizarre phenomenon," he says. "I was shocked when I first saw those teenagers roaming the streets of London, girls with only sexy lingerie to their bodies and boys wearing Nazi uniforms. Those who sported these clothes now did not do it because they read Mein Kampf. They did it as all teenagers do—to revolt against their parents who were born in the forties during the war with Germany."

London, 1977.

In the beginning, punk happened on the streets — a rebellious embodiment of disillusioned British youth, expressed through style and music. Where once its images were reproduced in stapled fanzines, four decades on a new exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art carries punk into more rarefied surroundings. TIME looks back, through the work of three photographers — Alex Levac, Steve Johnston and Ray Stevenson — to the early days of Punk, by reproducing their gritty images in the photocopied aesthetic of the era. Below, Jon Savage writes about the movement as the introduction to the new publication PUNK: Chaos to Couture.

The many arguments that have since clustered around punk authorship and, indeed, authenticity only serve to
 cloak the fact that it was an impulse that crystallized into an
 idea and a manifesto in various cities throughout the
 Western world during the early 1970s. A word trace on ‘punk’ 
will take you through gay prison slang and 1950s juvenile 
delinquency to the 1960s garage rock ideal espoused with
 increasing frequency after the 1972 release of Lenny Kaye’s 
groundbreaking compilation Nuggets.

The 1960s were over. It was time for a truly 1970s rock 
music. But what could that be? In Paris, New York,
 Cleveland, San Francisco, Detroit, Los Angeles and London, young fans,
 writers and activists began to grope toward a definition of a 
new rock age. Their enemy was the spectacle, which had, by the early
 1970s,
 successfully incorporated youth rebellion into its armory of repression.
They
 railed against the tyranny of soft rock, the hegemony of the mellow.
 The forward, unitary motion of 1960s pop modernism was 
gone and in its place came an eclectic, restless, uprooted
 culture. The past was up for grabs: not just the
 history of postwar pop music — already thirty years old — but a gnostic 
tradition
 of outcasts and visionaries that began as far back as the late eighteenth century with the Romantics. 
Anything, as long as it was youthful and sharp-edged, as 
long as it helped the new aesthetic, the aim of which was to hone 
everything 
down to a fine point. 

New York was well ahead of the pack: it was both big enough to 
foster an independent rock scene and open to ideas from Europe. Andy 
Warhol and 
Lou Reed were always at odds with the prevailing late 1960s
 counter-cultural
 rhetoric, and their influence hung heavy: in November 1970, the week  that 
the Velvet Underground’s Loaded was
 released, the performance art/rock group Suicide printed a flyer for a 
small show 
on West Broadway that read ‘Punk Music.’

Ray Hamilton—Camera Press/Redux

Ray Hamilton—Camera Press/Redux

The punk movement spread from the UK into the USA. This starry-eyed and safety-pinned girl was pictured in California, 1977.

The city’s biggest hope in the early 1970s was the New York 
Dolls, fashion-obsessed brats from Queens and Staten
 Island. Pop culture mavens and Anglophiles, they adopted 
a wardrobe that fused the wilder excesses of hippie, the
 androgyny of the drag queens, who were omnipresent at Max’s Kansas 
City and in the Warhol entourage, and the glamor of rock and roll: “It
 was more like ’50s gold 
lamé,” said New York Dolls member Sylvain.

Sylvain remembered the look: “I was sick and tired of wearing bell-bottoms. . . . then
 there was the whole thing with Beyond the Valley of the Dolls,
 and our relationship with drugs, and that fact that we were
 flamboyant. If you wore a little makeup, influenced in any
way by the best of the late ’60s, The Doors and the Rolling Stones, you 
had to
 have sex appeal. Before we started, me and 
[original drummer] Billy [Murcia] used to put on makeup just to go down
 to the supermarket. Getting dressed up to go 
shopping, it was fun to do that. That’s where we were, and
 that’s what it was.”

Punk began with a feeling of frustration and rage and 
turned it into an idea that could be acted upon. Employing
 deconstruction and self-starter empowerment — the
 DIY ethic — it liberated a generation to create its own
 culture. In this, it returned, for a brief while, rock music back
 to its original teenage inspiration and function, which was 
to be critical, rebellious, unpalatable, to tell an
existential truth otherwise denied in the culture, and to envision
 what the future could be.


Jon Savage is a renowned music journalist best known for his history of the Sex Pistols and punk music, England’s Dreaming. The excerpt above is republished from the exhibition catalog, Punk: Chaos to Couture, Copyright The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

PUNK: Chaos to Couture is on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York from May 9 – August 14, 2013.


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