The embrace of the city in ruins was a familiar rallying cry of punk music. From Public Image Limited’s evocation of an urban subject murdered in the countryside while “the cassette played poptones,” to the Clash’s raucous calls for “a riot of our own,” to dub-influenced declarations of provincial alienation, to anthemic satires of Cold War apocalypse, to voyeuristic detachment in the face of urban decay, to critiques of inner-city racism, the punks’ city was both a scene of violence and of potential safety. During the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the anarchic growl of punk music confronted sectarian violence, unemployment, and a militarized state of emergency. Punk bands like the Undertones, the Clash, the Sex Pistols, Gang of Four, Public Image Limited, Ian Dury and the Blockheads, and the Fall pitched punk negation and artlessness against the sounds of urban conflict with unpredictable results. This essay argues that pop evanescence emerged as often as punk dissonance. The bands also intervened and vamped it up in the performance spaces of the music industry, including the television shows Top of the Pops and American Bandstand, playing off the alienating restrictions of lip-synching, miming, and media censorship, to full effect. Was this selling out to pop? Or, as this essay argues, did punk bands learn from pop even as pop sought to plunder and profit from punk, playing out, in the process, the internal contradictions of a punk culture confronting the struggles of urban life?
November 27, 2013