Anarchy in the UK: The Rise of Punk
The most notorious British subculture was punk. Punk emerged in the late 70s in response to the economic recession of the period. Revolving around groups like The Sex Pistols and The Clash, punk was defiantly working class, anarchic and aggressive. One of the Pistols’ first hits was called Anarchy in the UK.
Roger Sabin’s definition is helpful:
Thus at a very basic level, we can say that punk was/is a subculture best characterised as being part youth rebellion, part artistic statement. It had its high point from 1976 to 1979, and was most visible in Britain and America. It had its primary manifestation in music - and specifically in the disaffected rock and roll of bands like the Sex Pistols and the Clash. Philosophically, it had no 'set agenda' like the hippy movement that preceded it, but nevertheless stood for identifiable attitudes, among them: an emphasis on negationism (rather than nihilism); a consciousness of class-based politics (with a stress on 'working-class credibility'); and a belief in spontaneity and 'doing it yourself’. (Sabin, p3)
Punk had a DIY ethos. Punks cut their own hair and augmented their bodies with piercings. They reacted against the monarchy and traditional notions of Britishness. Punk was nihilistic and anti-establishment. The Sex Pistols created a parody of the British national anthem God Save the Queen. They ripped it apart by using an aggressive musical style and turned it into a protest about modern Britain.
Style as homology
Dick Hebdige’s book Subculture offers a semiological reading of punk – examining its visual signs and tropes. For example, he interprets the safety pins and bin-liners that made up the punk armoury as signs of material poverty made to stand for the ‘spiritual paucity’ of everyday life. This in turn was a condemnation of capitalism. Dave Laing in One Chord Wonders (1985) provides more of a sociology of punk. For example he shows that many punk musicians actually came from middle-class families (43%) and that there was a strong influence of art school students.
The look was a bricolage of discarded symbols: swastikas, bin liners and safety pins. Hebdige argued that the punk subculture was characterised by chaos, but that it was nevertheless ‘thoroughly ordered’. It was a logical system by which objects and images were appropriated and made to mean the same thing.
How can we resolve this paradox – a chaotic style that follows clear rules? Hebdige uses a concept devised by the French sociologist, Levi-Strauss – homology. This is the ‘symbolic fit between the values and lifestyles of a group’ and the objects it uses to manifest itself. Objects are appropriated – taken out of their original context and made to express the values of the group. Hall argues they are ‘objects in which they could see their central values held and reflected.’
Hebdige argues that subcultures are positioned in resistance to mainstream society. He writes:
The punk sub culture, like every other youth culture, was constituted in a series of spectacular transformations of a whole range of commodities, values, common-sense attitudes, etc. It was through these adapted forms that certain sections of predominantly working-class youth were able to restate their opposition to dominant values and institutions.
Gelder, Ken (2007) Subcultures: Cultural Histories and Social Practice. London: Routledge.
Hall, Stuart (1993) Resistance Through Rituals: Youth Subcultures in Post-War Britain. London: Routledge.
Hebdige, Dick (1979) Subculture: The Meaning of Style. London: Routledge.
McKay, George (1996) Senseless Acts of Beauty: Cultures of Resistance since the Sixties. London: Verso.