A Guide to Punk Rock“There was nobody saying you can’t do that, you’re a girl. So God bless punk!”

As heard on Today with Claire Byrne

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Punk Rock evolved as a backlash against the ‘free love and peace’ mantra of the hippy movement, as Cait O’Riordan explained to Philip Boucher-Hayes, sitting in for Claire Byrne on the Today programme. The former bass player with The Pogues shared her knowledge and her personal stories about the musical and social phenomenon that was punk rock. It’s part of Today with Claire Byrne’s series of introductions to music you may not know, or as Philip Boucher-Hayes put it, “music you might otherwise avoid”. 

Speakers across the country were cranked up to 11 as listeners settled in for twenty minutes  of chats and clips from the origins of punk rock. After a quick blast of Anarchy in the UK to to set the mood, Cait launched into the history lesson. For her, it all began with Iggy Pop with his band The Stooges, she says: 

“I always look at Iggy Pop because he is the thread that runs right through it and he’s still going strong. He’s never changed. But back in ’69, he had a band called The Stooges in Detroit and He made a record that for me, it has the defining element of punk rock, in that it sounds dangerous. There’s a threat in it. You’re listening to it and you do not feel comfortable.” 

Philip plays a blast of Iggy Pop’s ‘I Wanna be your Dog’, Cait says that Iggy and many of the artists that followed were rebelling against the hippy movement of the 60’s. Philip wanted to hear more about the motivation for this backlash and Cait’s reaction was visceral. She’s firmly in the Iggy camp when it comes to the Hippies, she says: 

“Ugh! Eeuw! Doesn’t it just make you want to puke? All that ‘peace and love’ stuff? It’s so fake!” 

As well as being phony, hippy ideals haven’t aged well, Cait says. She says that in spite of the slogans, not everyone was treated equally by the movement: 

“I think it depends on how your brain is wired up. There are some people who are very down one end of the passive-aggressive scale and they just went, ‘Oh yeah, let’s all just hold hands and free love.’ Great if you were a bloke. Not so great if you were a woman.” 

Punk continued to evolve on the streets and in the clubs of New York, Cait says. In the early 70’s, it was a city on the edge: 

“A few years after punk started, New York was declared bankrupt. It was not New York as we think of it. So it was a very dangerous place to be.” 

The band The New York Dolls created a gender-blurring street look with make-up, slashed clothing and body piercings that spread quickly. Cait says it was a more dangerous, edgier version of the glam rock look favoured by bands like Slade in the UK: 

“In New York, if you were a junkie and you dressed up in women’s clothes and you were carrying an knife and a chain, that’s a whole different kind of threat.” 

British designer and manager Malcolm McLaren saw the potential of the look and the sound of The New York Dolls on a visit to the US. Cait says McLaren was perfectly placed, along with his then partner Vivienne Westwood, to spread the subculture to the UK and capitalise on it: 

“He saw these guys, managed them for a while and said, ‘I’m gonna do something with this. I’m gonna take this individual street style, I’m gonna take it back to London and make it fashion.’”  

Cait says punk was a friendlier scene for female musicians than many other genres. While Siouxie Sioux  was hammering out her 20-minute version of The Lord’s Prayer in the same London clubs as The Sex Pistols, Cait says Joni Mitchell’s art was seen as secondary to her sex-object status and she was described in a demeaning way in the mainstream music press:  

“This was very much the rock ethos. This is the same time as Joni Mitchell was getting the girlfriend of the year award from Rolling Stone magazine. They called it ‘Old Lady of the Year’. For Joni Mitchell!” 

With artists Siouxie Sioux, Viv Albertine of The Slits and Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex and many more finding their place in the subculture, Cait says the history of punk bears out what she felt at the time, and how she feels about it now: 

“There was nobody saying you can’t do that, you’re a girl. So God bless punk!” 

If you want to hear more about the CBGB’s Club in New York and Cáit’s take on The Ramones and her experiences with The Pogues you can listen back to the full interview here.  

Ruth Kennedy 

© The Listener 2021

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