It’s October 1977. Some young punks are being interviewed about the closure of the Electric Circus nightclub in Manchester. We see a gaggle of teenagers wearing cheap plastic sunglasses and safety pins in their ears; girls with thick black eyeliner; one lad with a bike chain round his neck. They explain their commitment to the cause:
‘I wanted to do something for me. Look at me now. I’m nothing.’
‘That’s what punk is.’
That was indeed the essence of punk. It was a short-lived musical movement that punctured the pomposity at the heart of the ‘70s British rock scene. It demolished the distance between performers and their audience. It gave music back to ordinary young people. Punk was speed, anger and urgency. It was Joe Strummer’s revolutionary zeal, Siouxsie’s swagger and John Lydon’s sneer. It was New Rose, Germfree Adolescent, Alternative Ulster. It was ‘a voice crying in the wilderness.’
I was only 12 when punk arrived, unannounced and unkempt, and shocked Britain out of its concrete slumber. And within a few short years ‘the filth and the fury’ was gone. But the movement cast a long shadow over British youth culture. It re-set the clock, and 1976 became a kind of Year Zero after which everything would be different.
I recently attended a small exhibition at the British Library celebrating forty years since the birth of punk in Britain. (Some have observed that you can’t get anything less punk than an exhibition at the British Library, but it was interesting nonetheless. It runs until 2 October.) The exhibition begins by highlighting the intellectual roots of the movement. Punk emerged from a rich brew of rebellious street fashion, avant-garde American rock and art school anarchism. A modish punk t-shirt of the time quoted a French Situationist slogan:
‘Be reasonable, demand the impossible.’
But punk also had its own more populist libertarian spirit. Punk musicians taught themselves to play, wrote their own songs, performed on their own terms; they worked with independent record companies, producers and managers, designed their own artwork. Punk is often represented as an entirely destructive force, but it was also constructive, empowering and enabling. It was about doing it yourself; doing it for yourself.
I was thrilled to find at the exhibition an original copy of a call-to-arms that appeared in a small London fanzine, Sideburns, in 1977. Over the years I’d seen many reproductions of this graphic, but had not come across an original.
‘This is a chord (A). This is another (E). This is a third (G). Now form a band.’
I remember at the time thinking what an exciting exhortation this was. Hitherto we’d imagined rock’n’roll as an arcane pursuit for the gifted elite; for those with a head start and a healthy bank balance. Music was an industry, rock was a career, an album was a concept. But punk reduced pop to its fundamentals, demystified it and encouraged everyone to have a go.
There was some debate at the time as to whether punk’s spirit of self-sufficiency and enterprise was in some respects Thatcherite. But this rebellious libertarian instinct was part of a long tradition amongst the oppressed and the disadvantaged, the bored and the unfulfilled. In 1969 James Brown sang:
‘I don’t want nobody
To give me nothing.
Open up the door,
I’ll get it myself.’
Of course in business we may recognise this as the entrepreneurial urge: the instinct to cast off corporate shackles and company conventions; to break off, break out and break away; to make one’s own mark on the world. The entrepreneurial spirit is rare, bold and admirable. We should treasure, protect and encourage it.
Moreover, in the Age of Technology it seems more possible than ever to ‘open up the door and get it yourself.’ As the world becomes more connected, there are infinite opportunities for both fusion and fission; for corporate aggregation and, at the same time, independent disengagement. So there’s never been a better time to go your own way. Have code - will travel. It’s exhilarating. It's punk entrepreneurism.
I should say that, whilst I have always admired the entrepreneurial spirit in others, I’m not sure I ever had it myself. I didn’t call up my mates in the late ‘70s to start a band. And I didn’t email my colleagues in the late ‘90s to start an agency. I was a company guy, a ‘salaryman.’ And there’s no shame in that. Leaders need followers. Entrepreneurs need executors.
Perhaps, ultimately, that’s what punk taught us: everyone can, but not everyone does.
‘When you look in the mirror do you see yourself?
Do you see yourself
On the TV screen?
Do you see yourself
In the magazine?
When you see yourself
Does it make you scream?
Identity is the crisis.
Can’t you see?