Review: Punk 1976-1978 at the British Library

May 18, 2016
  • Rating: ★★★★☆
British Library

British punk, with its DIY attitude and rejection of establishment values, seems like an unlikely subject for an exhibition at the British Library.

In fact, the musical and cultural phenomenon, which crashed into the public consciousness in 1976, was a wake-up call for authors and academics, who had previously given the British music scene far less attention than its New York equivalent, which was celebrated for its links to beat poetry and pop art.

Today, you could fill this small exhibition space 10 times over with books that attempt to decode and chronicle this unprecedented, anarchic era in popular culture, although it wouldn’t be very pretty. The British Library instead focuses on more organic, visually arresting pieces: the pillow-case t-shirts produced by Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, which they sold at their Soho anti-fashion shop Sex; the leather jacket worn by The Damned drummer Rat Scabies, eventually returned to its designer Lewis Leathers along with a letter detailing its history; Glen Matlock’s resignation letter from the Sex Pistols (paving the way for the arrival of Sid Vicious), the only known document with the signature of all five original band members.

There’s a fascinating series of cuttings documenting the fear and panic punk caused within the establishment – a Daily Mirror front page decried the “spitting, swearing, savage pop-music of rebellious youth… sweeping teenage Britain”, while an internal memo at Capitol records demanded any acts “similar to” the Sex Pistols be run past senior management.

Best of all is the collection of home-made zines created by fans who felt the mainstream press weren’t covering their music, led by Sniffin’ Glue, a title co-produced by a young Danny Baker. These pulpy magazines combined hand-drawn headlines, photocopied images and type-written pages. Some are presented in incongruous leather-bound volumes, a reminder of the British Library’s all-encompassing archiving process (somewhere in the bowels of the building, in one of those leather-bound books, lies the one and only edition of a magazine I produced after university, which somehow made it onto the radar of the British Library; it’s no future exhibition piece).

The written documents are broken up with snippets of audio recordings, record sleeves, gig tickets and other punk-themed ephemera. The final section resembles a record store playing songs by the bands mentioned in the exhibition through tinny speakers; hearing God Save the Queen breaking the contemplative silence of this austere institution is worth a visit alone.