Punk

Briefing Margaret Thatcher on punk and pop music (1987)

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(picture from Buzzfeed)

In early 1987, as Red Wedge was underway calling for young people to support the Labour Party, Margaret Thatcher conducted an interview with Smash Hits magazine. The interview was published in March 1987 and featured such exchanges about The Smiths and The Housemartins (who had both been vocal in their criticisms of Thatcher):

Tony Hibbert Smash HitsI do not know if you are aware of groups like the Smiths and the Housemartins …

PM: Yes, I know the Housemartins, yes.

Tony Hibbert Smash Hits: …who are very left-wing groups, not so much in their songs which are about men and women like all pop songs, but in their interviews they are very left-wing and say “We must get Mrs Thatcher out of No 10.”

PM: Do they? I remember when I went down to Limehouse Studios once, there was a pop group who I was told I would not get on with at all well. Well, I was absolutely fascinated because they were rehearsing for television; it is a highly professional business. The cameras have to come in on certain shots, there is a fantastic amount of energy and of course their voices, and I have watched Elton John too who was highly – I am so sad that he is having this difficulty with his throat – highly professional. I think it has become much, much more professional in the technique you use now. You just had echo chambers in our time but now it is much, much more professional. I do not mind. Most young people rebel and then [end p262] gradually they become more realistic and it is very much a part of life rebelling.

When they want to get Mrs Thatcher out of No 10, I have usually not met most of them and it really is lovely to have the chance to talk to them.

Tony Hibbert Smash Hits: It is nice to be mentioned.

PM: Yes, it is nice they know your name isn’t it?

The rest of the interview is fascinating about Thatcher’s attempts to relate to the young people of the day. The Margaret Thatcher Foundation has just released some of her private papers from 1987, including the briefing notes prepared for this interview. The briefing notes have several gems in them, such as stating that the average Smash Hits reader ‘feels closer to Socialist policies than to your Government’s policies’ and that ‘You may not enjoy the interview’.

However the best part of the document is the brief note that Thatcher got on the history of punk. Here it is:

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In the interview she refers to punks in the following way (obviously having taken in something from her briefing notes):

PM: …So good luck to your pop groups. They do very well for us for export – they do a fantastic job and if some of them want to have yellow hair, pink hair, long hair, short hair, blue jeans, yellow jeans, or these days, my goodness me, there are some smart ones. Marvellous. When I go and look at some of the clothes for young people, gosh, they are pricey but really I think that the sort of informal period has gone, you know, people much more want to live by rules.

Tony Hibbert Smash Hits: Well, we have got rid of the hippies and the punks.

PM: I know we have got the punks. The punks spend a lot of time and money on their appearance.

Tony Hibbert Smash HitsOh yes, what I am saying is that we have got the hippies and the punks more or less out of the way and they are looking much smarter these days.

PM: Yes, that is right because it is better, because they like it better that way. One young person said to me the other day. “Oh” she said, aged eighteen, “there are not any rules these days, I wish we had more rules” and you know, some of the rules are coming back. Life is much better when you have rules to live by. I mean it is really like playing football isn’t it? If you did not have any rules by which to play you would not be able to play the game; you have got [end p274] to have rules to live by. Everyone knows where they are. Of course you will have the whistle blown sometimes because not everyone lives by them but life is better when you have some rules to live by and you know what the accepted rules are and that is coming back and that is good. The 1970s I think was not a very good time. Everyone tried to flout the rules and now they are saying “Look, you cannot live unless you have some rules to live by”. Freedom requires some set of rules as well to live by, so all right we have freed it up and you have got to have rules to live by to respect other people’s freedom so if we are remembered that way I think we will have done a reasonable job for young people the world over.

The document can be found here.

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Jedermann Sein Eigner Fussball: The mixture of Dada, Communism & ‘Zines’ in Weimar Berlin

I am in the (hopefully) final stages of putting together my monograph and have been lacklustre in posting much on this blog lately. In the meantime, I was looking through my old harddrive, looking for notes that I wrote for my PhD, and came across this I wrote for my zine back in 2003. I have always wanted to write about the pre-history of zines (as well as the connections between communism and Dada in Weimar Germany), but have never got round to it, so here’s a little something from my formative years…

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In recent discussions on the history and characteristics of zines, there has been some debate on the development of the zine before the punk explosion of 1976-77. At a forum with other zine creators recently [in 2002], a notion was expressed that a history of zines before the 1970s was impracticable due to its splintered and unconnected predecessors. Although there is no simple chain of causality, a history of zines as merely ‘one damned thing after another’ with no correlation is unacceptable. Max Dvorak’s words on the development of art history are particularly poignant, that a history of zines is not the tracing of a single unbroken line of development, but rather a complex development, punctuated with stages of new conditions that provide new shoots from which new developments unfold.

Most histories of zines begin with the science-fiction fanzines that began in the 1930s, but leave many gaps between them and the punk zines of Sniffin’ Glue and Ripped & Torn. Fred Wright’s This Document Will Self-Destruct in 30 Seconds goes beyond this simplistic history and disregards the notion of total autonomous zine development, outlining the various zine predecessors such as beat poetry chapbooks, revolutionary war broadsides, Russian Samizdat and the publications of Expressionism, Dada, Surrealism, Futurism, Lettrism and Situationism. Keeping in mind that the photocopier was only patented in 1959, the zine that exists today is aesthetically and constructively different than earlier publications, but as Fred Wright states:

Many zine publishers have claimed affinity with these older publications, and apparently, like a whisper down the corridors of history, these works, just by the fact that they once existed, serve as both inspiration and influence to many of today’s zines.

One of the most influential of these early publications was the ‘journal’ by the Berlin Dadaists, Jedermann Sein Eigner Fussball or ‘Everyman His Own Football’. It is worthy to note this publication, for its timing, its iconoclastic appearance and its influence, direct or indirect.

In January 1917, Richard Huelsenbeck arrived from Zurich in Berlin, having been part of Dada’s Cabaret Voltaire. While the people of Zurich ‘sat in the restaurants with well-filled wallets and rosy cheeks’, Berlin was experiencing the collapse of social order under the pressure of the First World War. The German economy was collapsing with the Imperial Army of Wilhelm II failing to sustain the war effort and prevent the waves of hunger among its citizens. For Huelsenbeck, Berlin was a ‘city of tightened stomachers, of mounting, thundering hunger, where hidden rage was transformed into a boundless money lust, and men’s minds were concentrating more and more on questions of naked existence’.

In the last months of the war, Huelsenbeck met with several others forming the ‘Club Dada’. The others that were associated with Huelsenbeck included Raoul Hausmann, Walter Mehring, Franz Jung, Johannes Baader, Hannah Höch, George Grosz and the Herzfelde brothers, Wieland and Johann. (In protest of the war, Johann anglicised his name, becoming John Heartfield) Wieland Herzfelde had produced a wartime journal entitled Neue Jugend, which was heavily influenced by the Expressionists. Herzfelde founded a small publishing house, Malik Verlag, which produced Neue Jugend. Herzfelde believed that art was a powerful medium for portrayal of radical political ideas, although many doubted the political effectiveness of Herzfelde’s publications.

During the war years, many ‘humour’ journals printed in Germany had proliferated and became important means of spreading political ideas. The satirical nature of such liberal and socialist journals as Simplicissimus, Ulk (‘Joke’) and Der Wahre Jacob (‘The True Jacob’) had been changed by the First World War and strongly supported the war effort. In the months after the War, these traditional journals adopted a largely conservative position toward the political events. With the increasing disorder following Germany’s defeat in November 1918, an array of right-wing ‘humour’ journals started to appear, starting with Phosphor, Rote Hand (‘Red Hand’) and Satyr.

By early 1919, Germany was in political and economic crises. The Kaiser had abdicated following the Imperial Army’s defeat with the Social Democrats forming Germany’s first democratic government, the Weimar Republic. A series of Communist uprisings followed and groups of delisted soldiers, the Freikorps, were used by the government to quash the revolutionaries. In January 1919, the Spartakists (members of the German Communist Party or KPD) started revolting in Berlin. Friedrich Ebert, leader of the Social Democrats, employed Gustav Noske as Minister of Defence, who used the violent and nationalistic Freikorps to crush the Communists. The Spartakist leaders, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, were murdered by Freikorps officers on January 15, 1919.

In response to the rise of counter-revolutionary publications appearing in Berlin, Herzfelde urged the KPD to employ pictures and drawings by the Dadaists in their official publications, but was told in response that the party press was not a humour magazine. A few days after the Spartakist murders, Herzfelde discussed the publication of a ‘new periodical of a literary, artistic and political character, brought out at irregular intervals, cheap… [with a] newspaper-style make-up’, intended to ‘sling mud at everything the Germans have so far held dear’. On February 15, a week after the First National Assembly of the new German Republic, Jedermann Sein Eigner Fussball was published, Malik Verlag’s first post-war production.

Jedermann Sein Eigner Fussball was only four pages long and only a single issue was produced, but it was the most concise collection of work by the Berlin Dadaists. John Heartfield designed the journal and created two photomontages for the cover. Photomontage was first developed by the Berlin Dadaists, although there is dispute over its invention. Hausmann and Höch claimed that photomontage was the pictorial extension of the static, simultaneous and phonetic poetry of Zurich Dada, developed on holiday on the Baltic Sea. On the other hand, Grosz and Heartfield claimed that in May 1916, they ‘pasted a mishmash of advertisements… cut up at will in such a way as to say, in pictures, what would have been banned by the censors if we had said it in words’. Hausmann’s photomontages were often random and aesthetically ‘wild and explosive’, while Heartfield’s works were classically composed, laden with revolutionary political expression. Both styles have been widely influential and the photomontages are distinctly recognisable as works of the Berlin Dadaists. As Hans Richter wrote, ‘they have been imitated and copied by thousands who have pocketed the financial rewards always denied to Hausmann and Heartfield, the creative artists’.

The cover parodied the layout of the conservative journals. In conjunction with the title, a sarcastic interpretation of the statesmen’s promise of ‘a chicken in every pot’, photo-monteur Heartfield spliced a picture of his brother Wieland in formal wear with a football, tilting his hat to the saying ‘everyman his own football’. The main photomontage depicted a fan, a vanity item popular in the 19th century, with portraits of the ruling elite. Alongside the Ebert-Scheidemann group, who controlled the Reichstag, the montage included Karl Kautsky, one of the founders of German social democracy (who V.I. Lenin had called a ‘renegade’ and ‘bourgeois reformist’) and General Ludendorff, leader of the Supreme Command of the Imperial Army and future participant in the Nazi putsch of 1923, as well as other military leaders. A caption above it read: ‘Open Competition! Who’s the prettiest??’, while below: ‘German Manly Beauty #1’. This ‘beauty competition’ for the ‘gifted beer bellies’ was in reference to the opening of the First National Assembly of the Weimar Republic that had opened only a week beforehand. The cover was the beginning of Heartfield’s use of photomontages in a coherent aesthetic, departing from the random structures of earlier montages. As Wieland stated, ‘In it he began for the first time to use photography consciously in the service of political agitation’.

As members of the German Communist Party since December 31, 1918, Herzfelde, Heartfield and Grosz used Jedermann Sein Eigner Fussball to attack their political and social enemies. The journal’s leading article, by Herzfelde, concerned the ‘socialisation of party funds’ and the choice that the Weimar Republic had to make, between the bourgeois Social Democrats and the Communists.

However, it was Grosz’s cartoons, along with Heartfield’s photomontages, that stood out as violently political as well Dadaistically absurd. Under the title ‘Der Kirchenstaat Deutschland’ (‘The Church State of Germany’), Grosz depicted the Pope controlling puppets of Chief Minister Erzburger and Chief Press officer Viktor Naumann, instructing them on the evils of Bolshevism. In Grosz’s illustration, the Pope’s portrayal of the Bolshevist as a destructive ogre lead workers to be devoured by the jaws of Church officials. Grosz’s cartoons also appeared in an article, ‘Die Latrine’, which depicted a toilet with the dictum ‘A German symbol’ underneath. The article sarcastically asked whether An die Laterne, a paper produced by a government propaganda agency, needed a cartoonist, offering Grosz’s illustration in jest. Surrounding the illustration were statements ridiculing the Social Democrats, the utopian Rat Geistiger Arbeiter (Council of Intellectual Workers) and Max Pechstein, the ‘people’s fine artist’. It was shrewd inversion of the accusation by the conservative press that the ‘Die Sensationspresse’ (‘The sensational press’) was siphoning a toilet’s contents into press articles. For the Dadaists, An der Laterne, a government paper, was the publication to be consigned ‘an die Latrine’.

On February 17, 1919, the six man strong editorial team proceeded with a char-a-branc and funeral band through the streets of Berlin, bearing bundles of Jedermann Sein Eigner Fussball. The procession resembled the numerous funeral processions in Berlin in the months after the War, following the route to ‘the dreary east side’ that Karl Liebknecht’s funeral had taken a month earlier. In east Berlin, the Dadaists sold most of the 7,600 copies printed as, in the words of Walter Mehring:

Our Dadaist procession was greeted with delight as spontaneous as the ‘on y danse’ of the Paris mob in front of the Bastille. And ‘every man his own football’ entered the Berlin language as an express ion of contempt for authority and humbug.

The Dadaists were arrested on their way home from serenading the government offices in Wilhelmstrasse.

On March 3, 1919, a general strike called by the Communists led to heavy fighting between workers and the Freikorps troops, employed by Noske to crush the strike, which lasted until March 13. On March 7, Wieland Herzfelde was arrested for the publication of Jedermann Sein Eigner Fussball, charged with seeking to bring the Armed Forces into contempt and distributing indecent publications. Walter Mehring’s poem, ‘Der Coitus im Dreimäderlhaus’, referring to metaphorical ‘coitus’ of the Weimar Republic was one the offending articles from the journal cited. Mehring’s poem, which he suggested as the new national anthem, was, as he himself described, ‘a really distressing, obscene piece of anti-militarism for which there was no excuse even as a product of Dadaism’.

The other article which contributed to the charges against Herzfelde was ‘Against the White Terror’, which condemned the actions of the Bavarian Soldier’s Councils in its war against the Munich Communists. It warned the revolutionaries of the newly formed Bavarian Soviet: ‘The revolution is in danger! Revolutionary soldiers of Bavaria! Close ranks around your flag and for the fight against the White Terror of Berlin!’

Herzfelde remained in prison during the two weeks of fighting and was released on March 20. In the following months, the same Dadaists behind Jedermann Sein Eigner Fussball published Der Pleite (‘Bankruptcy’). The second issue was entitled ‘Schutzhaft’ (‘Protective custody’), an account by Herzfelde of his time in prison. It was a sober and informative report of the conditions for political prisoners during the Freikorps terror, relating his experiences of witnessing the mistreatment and even murder of other political prisoners at the hands of the Freikorps. The intervention of Harry Graf Kessler, an Anglo-German diplomat who helped finance Malik Verlag, may well have prevented further imprisonment for Wieland Herzfelde.

Although it was only a single four-page journal, Jedermann Sein Eigner Fussball was an influential publication. It marks the beginning of photomontage as a aesthetic for the printed medium and as revolutionary as any words that could be written. As Greil Marcus wrote, ‘punk-as-dada did not even mean this much… the history-in-nutshell parallels always need to explain something new, or explain it away’. Although a direct line can not be drawn between Dada and the punk explosion, one just has to look at the first UK punk fanzine Sniffin’ Glue to see the revolutionary and anarchic fervour of the Berlin Dadas embodied in its pages. While the Talking Heads were setting a Hugo ball sound poem to music or other punks were looking at Kurt Schwitters’ Merz collages, the aesthetics and political content of Jedermann Sein Eigner Fussball was the most apparent in the ‘image’ of punk and more importantly, the punk fanzine. While Herzfelde had had to raise funds for a small publishing house to produce his independent publication, the readiness of the photocopier helped the creators of Sniffin’ Glue and Ripped & Torn to achieve the same goal as the Berlin Dadaists – to create something outside the media empires that was provocative and uncensored, an independent work untouched by the sensibilities of the money-makers and the status quo. The ethos that still drives many zine makers today.

John Heartfield

John Heartfield

Works used:

Dawn Ades Photomontage (Thames & Hudson, UK, 1976)

Stephen C Foster & Rudolf E Kuenzli (eds) Dada Spectrum: The Dialectics of Revolt (Coda Press, USA, 1979)

Douglas Kahn John Heartfield: Art and Mass Media (Tanam Press, USA, 1985)

Greil Marcus Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century (Harvard University Press, USA, 1990)

Joanne Moser (ed.) Dada Artifacts (University of Iowa Museum of Art, USA, 1978)

Hans Richter Dada: Art and Anti-Art (Thames & Hudson, UK, 1997)

Robert Short Dada & Surrealism (Chartwell Books, USA, 1980)

‘Political Journals and Art 1910-1940’ Art Journal 52/1 (Spring 1993)

Jedermann Sein Eigner Fussball 1 (Feb 1919)

‘Editorial’ Past & Present 1/1 (Feb 1952)

Fred Wright The History and Characteristics of Zines (http://www.zinebook.com/resource/wright1.html)

New article: Thatcherism and The Young Ones

TYO Agora

This is just a short post to let everybody know that my new article on depictions of Thatcherite Britain in The Young Ones has been published in Agora. A version of the paper can be found here. If you can’t access it properly, send me an email and I’ll ping one your way.

As usual, feedback, critiques and praise is welcome.

‘Homosexuality and punk rock’: Conflicting social attitudes in the 1970s Young Communist League

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Several authors, such as Mike Waite and Geoff Andrews, have argued that the Young Communist League was an important incubator for ideas of reform within the Communist Party of Great Britain in the 1970s, with YCL members of the late 1960s and early 1970s being fundamental to the Gramscian/Eurocommunist ideas proposed ion the mid-1970s, predominantly concerning the redrafting of The British Road to Socialism in 1976-77. Even though, as I have written here, that the YCL was haemorrhaging members throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s, the YCL still was at the forefront of embracing these reforms and promoting the notion of the ‘broad democratic alliance’. For example, it was the YCL that pushed for a recognition of gay rights by the Communist Party, which caused much consternation within the Party and debated across the pages of Comment in 1976.

However while the YCL was generally at the forefront of progressive reform within the Communist Party, it was not a homogenous organisation and there were some sections of the League which rejected the direction that the Party was moving in – even some of the YCL left to form the youth wing of the New Communist Party in 1977-78 (and some of those returned to the CPGB under the guise of The Leninist faction in the early 1980s). Looking through the archives of the CPGB (as our university currently has a trial subscription to the online version), I found an example of this resistance from YCLers in a 1978 letter (CP/CENT/EC/16/04).

In late April 1978, the Haringey YCL branch wrote to the Executive Committee of the CPGB complaining about the direction of the YCL and the topics raised in the League’s paper Challenge. Steve Munby had taken over editorship of the paper in December 1978 and as Graham Stevenson has written, ‘In a conscious way, Challenge now took on the new youth cult of punk music and culture.’ This coincided with the rise of Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League, which, as I have discussed here, featured heavily under Munby’s editorship.

But the Haringey branch complained that the YCL priorities of ‘campaigning on the issues of youth unemployment and racialism’ were ‘not being reflected in the pages of Challenge.’ The branch raised particular criticism of the two last two issues since Munby had become editor, complaining:

Issue no. 51 is almost completely devoted to punk rock and homosexuality. 6 out of 8 pages, or approximately 75% of the paper is devoted to these topics.

Issue no. 52 has 3 out of 8 pages on punk rock. Issue no. 52 also uses the slang term “Commie” frequently ( a term we are more used to hearing from the NF and the Tories, than members of the YCL).

Obscene cartoons and foul language have also become a feature of these editions of Challenge.

The branch expressed that it was their fear that if the paper continued ‘to give an inordinate amount of space to homosexuality and punk rock’ then the YCL would be ‘held in contempt’ by the CPGB and the wider labour movement, despite the CPGB EC endorsing a platform of gay rights only a year and half earlier. The Haringey branch stated that these topics were ‘not the major concerns facing the [labour] movement’ and were being highlighted at the expense of the ‘real issues confronting young people’, which the branch felt was ‘outrageous’.

The branch further claimed that Party members who had read the paper had been ‘appalled and disgusted by its contents’ and the reaction by the public had been ‘scorn and ridicule’. The letter concluded with a call for the EC to discuss the paper at its next meeting. The letter also noted that its content had been passed unanimously by the branch.

The archives also contain the reply sent by the EC to the Haringey YCL branch. The CPGB’s Assistant Secretary Reuben Falber replied:

It is the view of the Executive Committee that you should raise this matter with the Executive Committee of the YCL, who are responsible for the production of Challenge.

Unfortunately the papers of the YCL have not been digitised, so I haven’t been able to find whether the issue was taken up with the YCL’s EC. However it is most probable that the YCL EC would have rejected this proposal from the Haringey branch. A report by the YCL’s London District Secretary Nina Temple (who was later the CPGB’s last General Secretary) to the League’s 1979 Congress and the CPGB’s Political Committee celebrated that Challenge had ‘tuned into punk and reggae, unemployment and anti-racism, far ahead of the rest of the left and popular press’ – although this is highly disputable, with RAR/ANL taking the initiative and leaving the YCL behind with regards to these issues (CP/CENT/PC/15/01). Gay rights were also seen as integral to the ‘broad democratic alliance’ and the struggle for socialism. The YCL programme Our Future presented at the 1979 YCL Congress made a statement about ‘unity’, which included:

Gay people contribute to the fight on opposition to sexual straitjacketing and a demand for freedom of expression in our personal relationships.

The schism between the ‘Euros’ and the ‘tankies’ in the CPGB in the 1980s has often been characterised as a generational schism, with those who entered the Party in the late 1960s onwards coming up against the ‘old guard’ who had survived the crises of 1956. But documents such as this letter from the Haringey YCL branch remind us that the divisions in the Party were much more complicated.

 

 

The Conversation (UK) On Rik Mayall, The Young Ones and Thatcher

I just thought I’d mention that The Conversation (UK) has published a short piece by myself on The Young Ones as Mayall’s ground-breaking achievement and what the show reveals about Britain under Thatcher in the 1980s. You can read it here.

Mayall

In tribute to Rik Mayall: The Young Ones, Thatcherism and the People’s Poet

It is very saddening news to hear of the sudden death of Rik Mayall at the age of 56. As Rick, the lefty sociology student in The Young Ones, Mayall helped create one of the greatest contemporary portrayals of life in Thatcherite Britain, while indulging in surreal and off-the-wall comedy. The longevity of The Young Ones is a topic that I have written about at length. In a paper under consideration for publication at the moment, I wrote:

The Young Ones can be viewed historically and gives us insight into how Thatcherism and the 1980s was experienced by sections of British society. The show can be read as a text that portrays popular opinions about Thatcher’s Britain and satirises contemporary issues… However this does not mean that The Young Ones is an accurate reflection of the times per se – the show is obviously an over-the-top and surreal portrayal of student life in Thatcherite Britain. We, as historians and students of history, don’t watch The Young Ones to observe an authentic depiction of life under Thatcherism as it actually was, but because we can see certain themes and concepts (important for understanding Thatcherism and 1980s Britain) depicted in the television show. The show works as an excellent demonstration of the zeitgeist of Britain under Margaret Thatcher, but at the same time, it is factually inaccurate and stakes no claim to historical authenticity… 

Janine Utell has written that The Young Ones ‘challenge[d] the hegemony of Thatcherism’, using laughter to highlight the ‘profound ruptures and transformations in society’ under Margaret Thatcher’s Prime Ministership.. Characters that espoused left-wing positions had been in British television comedies before, but had often been the focus of ridicule. Robert Lindsay’s character of Wolfie in the late 1970s sitcom Citizen Smith was a stereotypical Marxist attempting to start a socialist revolution in suburban London via the Tooting Popular Front… On the other hand, The Young Ones were obviously critical of Thatcher and capitalism in the 1980s and sympathetic to the ideas of the left, but also willing to poke fun at the left for its sanctimonious tendencies.

The Young Ones doesn’t show us Britain in the 1980s as it really was, but it is a depiction of how the 1980s were experienced. The references to phenomena such as unemployment, police racism, popular capitalism, student activism, sexism and class stratification in the show are taken from the real life experience of living in Britain under Thatcher and depicted as icons/symbols that could be popularly recognised, but satirised to an unreal level. The Young Ones captures the zeitgeist of Britain in the early 1980s under Thatcherism by making reference to many symbols of the era, but the context in which these symbols are represented is often contorted and push to the bounds of the absurd. The juxtaposition of the political and social commentary with surrealism and cartoon slapstick makes the show enjoyable to watch, while telling us much about the recent past – this is why historians should rewatch The Young Ones.

Other alternative comedy television shows broadcast around the same time as The Young Ones, such as Not the Nine O’ Clock News, Spitting Image and OTT, were predominantly made up of topical sketches and stand-up performances and could be immediate in their satirical take on the politics of the day. However The Young Ones had to weave its satire into the broader narrative of the episode and accordingly its parody of aspects of Thatcherite Britain had to have broader resonance that were not so instantaneous. Arguably the longevity of the show’s satire and the significance of its comedic targets makes The Young Ones much more valuable for historians of Britain in the 1980s than other television shows that have not had the same durability.

This paper is based on a bunch of blog posts I wrote after the death of Margaret Thatcher in 2013. You can read the series, titled ‘What can The Young Ones teach us about Thatcherism?’, here:

Part One: Introduction

Part Two: ‘Race’ and the police in the 1980s

Part Three: Unemployment

Part Four: Neo-liberalism, market populism and crony capitalism

Part Five: Activism and the left

Part Six: Women and sexism

Part Seven: Higher education and class

And here’s Rick with the final word:

June 4, 1976: Sex Pistols play Manchester for the very first time…

In the history of British popular culture, June 4, 1976 is a significant date. The Sex Pistols played at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall to a small room of people. It is one of their first gigs outside London. Like the saying about the first Velvet Underground LP, nearly everyone in the audience that night went on to have a cultural impact on Britain (and beyond). Here is a collection of what several people have written about that gig.

From Tony Wilson, 24 Hour Party People: What the Sleeve Notes Never Tell You (London: Channel 4 Books, 2002) pp. 23-24:

4 June, 1976. Lesser Free Trade Hall. People dotted around. Desultory. Strange.

A thin, handsome mekon appeared on the small proscenium stage. ‘Hi, we’re the Buzzcocks but we’re not ready yer, so we’re not playing tonight, but this is the Sex Pistols.’

A band emerged. Who knows what the drummer, bass player and guitarist looked like. The guy who took centre stage took the mike, took your mind. A swagger to make John Wayne look a pussy. A sneer so dismissive of everyone and everything, of God and civilization, in just one pair of twisted lips. And then they started playing…

They stared, open-mouthed, transported to a place where you didn’t need to pogo (it wasn’t invented till three months later). That place was real life; that place was the clearing in the undergrowth where meaning and elucidation live, that place where the music came from and the place it would take you back to.

But they knew nothing, these forty-odd strangers, gathered by chance and chat, they just knew their world would never be the same again. A past obliterated and No Future.

From Peter Hook, Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division (London: Simon & Schuster, 2012) pp. 35-37:

Reading the small ads in the MEN was how I found that the Pistols were playing the Lesser Free Trade Hall, 50p a ticket…

So that was it anyway, the group of us who went and saw the Sex Pistols at Lesser Free Trade Hall. A night that turned out to be the most important of my life – or one of them at least – but that started out just like any other…

There to greet us was Malcolm McLaren, dressed head to toe in black leather – leather jacket, leather trousers and leather boots – with a shock of bright-orange hair, a manic grin and the air of a circus ringmaster; though there was hardly anyone else around… Look at the photographs of the gig and you can see that everybody in the audience was dressed the same way, like a Top of the Pops audience. There were no punks yet. So Malcolm – he looked like an alien to us…

The Sex Pistols’ gear was set up and then, without further ceremony, they come on: Johnny Rotten, Glen Matlock, Steve Jones and Paul Cook. Steve Jones was wearing a boiler suit and the rest of them looked like they’d vandalized an Oxfam shop. Rotten had on this torn-open yellow sweater and he glared out into the audience like he wanted to kill each and every one of us, one at a time, before the band struck up into something that might have been ‘Did You No Wrong’ but you couldn’t tell because it was so loud and distorted…

We just stood there, stock still, watching the Pistols. Absolutely, utterly, gobsmacked.

From Mick Middles & Lindsay Reader, Torn Apart: The Life of Ian Curtis (London: Omnibus Press, 2009) p. 35:

In the summer of 1976, Terry [Mason] convinced Barney [Bernard Sumner] and Hooky [Peter Hook] to go along with him to the Sex Pistols gigs at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall.. Although some believe that the importance of the Lesser Free Trade Hall Pistols gigs have been somewhat overstated, they were almost certainly a trigger for the musical ambitions of many in attendance.

Pete Shelley and Howard Devoto famously shelled pout the necessary £32 to hire the hall on FRiday June 4, 1976, and, to more poignant effect, on Tuesday July 20 where they would make their debut appearance as Buzzcocks. The first gig… saw Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren, clad in black rubber, accosting pedestrians on Peter Street like some downbeat and desperate spiritual street hawker. Even when he succeeded, many of the wary Pistols gig goers were immediately swamped by the music of the support band, a progressive rock act called Solstice.

From James Nice, Shadowplayers: The Rise and Fall of Factory Records (London: Aurum Press, 2010) pp. 8-10:

Situated upstairs from the much larger Free Trade Hall, the venue was small, seated and salubrious, yet sufficiently unorthodox, and city central. The Sex Pistols date was set for 4 June 1976…

Lacking a regular bassist and a drummer, Buzzcocks were unable to perform at the Lesser Free Trade Hall on 4 June, and instead drafted ina local heavy rock group called Solstice to open for the visiting Pistols. Most present number the audience at around forty, although Devoto maintains the figure was closer to 100… Future musicians present in the room included Mark E. Smith (of The Fall), Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook (Joy Division) and Steven Morrissey (The Smiths), then a New York Dolls obsessive, who afterwards sent an ambivalent ‘epistle’ to NME describing ‘discordant music’ by ‘bumptious Pistols in jumble sale attire.’ Others included Steve Diggle, soon to join Buzzcocks on bass, fanzine editor Paul Morley, photographer Kevin Cummins, Eddie Garrity (better known as Ed Banger) and Alan Hempsall, a progressive rock fan later to form Crispy Ambulance.

From Morrissey, Autobiography (London: Penguin Classics, 2013) p. 115:

Back on Manchester’s inscrutable streets I find a tatty leaflet stuck on a Peter Street lamppost telling me that the Sex Pistols will play the Lesser Free Trade Hall. They are not the saviors of culture, but the destruction of it – which suits me quite perfectly…

Morrissey also wrote a ‘review’ of the gig as a letter to NME (reproduced on the Passions Just Like Mine website):

Review by Steven Morrissey of a Sex Pistols concert: “I pen this epistle after witnessing the infamous Sex Pistols in concert at the Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall. The bumptious Pistols in jumble sale attire had those few that attended dancing in the aisles despite their discordant music and barely audible lyrics. The Pistols boast having no inspiration from the New York / Manhattan rock scene, yet their set includes, “I’m Not Your Stepping Stone”, a number believed to be done almost to perfection by the Heartbreakers on any sleazy New York night and the Pistols’ vocalist / exhibitionist Johnny Rotten’s attitude and self-asserted ‘love us or leave us’ approach can be compared to both Iggy Pop and David JoHansen in their heyday. The Sex Pistols are very New York and it’s nice to see that the British have produced a band capable of producing atmosphere created by The New York Dolls and their many imitators, even though it may be too late. I’d love to see the Pistols make it. Maybe they will be able to afford some clothes which don’t look as though they’ve been slept in.”

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Here is Paul Morley’s recollection of the same gig (via The Guardian). The Huffington Post also did a piece on the same gig here.

People might also be interested in this paper written by cultural studies scholar Sean Albeiz on the popular memory of this gig, and my article on how the Manchester music scene (including this gig) has been portrayed in film.