Punk rock’s 40th anniversary (and other rock revolutions) brings a variety of exhibits and events that salute punk rock in London but do they contradict punk’s anarchistic philosophy?
TEXT & PHOTOS BY MICHAEL BERICK
Back in November, Joe Corré, the son of Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren and fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, made of very public burning in London of punk rock memorabilia that was estimated to be $6.25 million? Do you remember hearing about this? Corré’s gesture was prompted by his disgust over the citywide Punk London celebration and his actions resulted in many debates over whether Punk London was just a capitalistic marketing ploy or a sincere salute to this important cultural movement. (The complete name is Punk.London: 40 Years of Subversive Culture. Note the “dot” between “punk” and “London,” incidentally.)
These questions were in my head when I visited London at the end of December, and the answer that I came up with is “yes.” Punk London represents both an establishment commercialization of the anti-establishment punk rock movement along with providing useful reminders and insights about what it was all about.
Although Punk London’s main events were in 2016, some are lingering into the new year. Since one of Corré’s complaints was how punk rock has become a brand like McDonald’s, it seems fitting that London’s Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising (www.museumofbrands.com) has a small (basically three display cases) exhibit, “The Graphic of Punk” (closing Jan. 29). Displaying a collection of ads, posters, magazines and comics, the exhibit shows that the punk rock didn’t shy away from publicity or commercialism. McLaren started the Sex Pistols in part to promote his clothing store so it could be argued that punk rock, particularly in the way McLaren used the media to the Sex Pistols famous/infamous, was branded from the very beginning.
Along with an eclectic array of vintage memorabilia, this exhibit also highlights the influential graphic artwork created by Jamie Reid. Described as an art student and anarchist, Reid is credited with coming up with the cut-out letter, random note-style artwork that became one of punk rock’s iconic looks.
The Museum of London’s (www.museumoflondon.org.uk) just closed “Punks” exhibit also was a small – basically a hallway that connected one gallery to another – but it presented a rather unique perspective on the city’s early punk rock scene. Rather than focusing on bands or their memorabilia, it looked at the people who were the punk teens of the ‘70s, and who they are now. It was quite fascinating to read the impact the music had on these kids’ lives, like the anecdotes about the girl who gave musicians haircuts in a club’s women’s bathroom or the boy’s whose 999 design wound up as the band’s logo on one of their albums, as well as seeing how they are now. It was a type of small-scale, but powerful, exhibit that would be nice to see more of in museums.
Going from tasteful museums to something actually tasteful, London’s W Hotel (www.wlondon.co.uk) is serving up an imaginative variation of afternoon tea. Although it might be antithetical to what “punk” was all about, its “Anarch-Tea” does upend English traditions in its own way, as well as offering some wonderfully tasty confections to enjoy.
The cordial W staff will set you up at a cozy table and bring you tea (or, since you’re by the hotel bar, you can order something alcoholic too), and they then deliver the special Anarch-Tea treats. You will get five desserts, along with four “Gang of Four” finger sandwiches, all served as on a tiered cake stand cleverly made from old vinyl albums. It is best to go on an empty stomach because the pastries are a scrumptious indulgence.
The most traditional item is the jam-filled scone called, naturally, “The Jam.” There is also “The God Save The Queen,” which is a checkerboard cake topped with a sugar crown, and “The Mohawk,” a skull-shaped raspberry mousse sporting a bright blue (and edible) Mohawk. The two other sweets also feature colorful edible accessories. “Shut Up – The Strangers” is a frozen raspberry parfait resembling a big pair of red lips that are “sealed” with a (yes, edible) zipper. Hard-core choco-philes, meanwhile, will love the “Going Round In Circles – Alternative TV,” a dark chocolate roulade dotted with silver “studs.”
If you have visited London, you know that walking tours are a prime tourist activity. Not surprisingly, there are several music-related walks, with the Beatles being a popular subject. London Walk (www.walks.com) has several Beatles tours as well as the broader themed “Rock ‘N’ Roll London Walk,” which hits sites related to the Who and Pink Floyd, the Clash and Oasis. You can even do a punk-focused walk. “The Original Soho Punk Rock Tour” (www.flipsidelondontours.com) is a much-praised two-hour jaunt around the legendary Soho neighborhood, where clubs like the Marquee and Roxy clubs once stood and other place important to groups like The Jam and Sex Pistols.
The question of when commemorating rock history shifts from being presented as a cultural movement into something that is more of a commercial product also rears its head at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (www.vam.ac.uk/). The esteemed museum is presenting an exhibit entitled “You Say Want A Revolution: Records and Rebels 1966-1970 (through Feb. 26) that is yet another look at the glorious times known as the Sixties. (Below photo and the photo at the top of the page from the V&A exhibit.)
The large, ambitious exhibit covers a lot of ground, examining not just music but also touching on fashion, film, literature, politics and other social movements. It is a lot to try to condense into one show, and perhaps too much. Some important issues – like gay rights, women’s liberation and radical politics – are given rather cursory looks. There is a heavy emphasis on the Beatles and The Rolling Stones, whose histories are pretty well known already. A room about rock festivals is dominated by a big screen showing clips from the Woodstock film, which people can watch while laying on artificial grass (and making it awkward for others to look at the room’s displays).
Not surprisingly, the emphasis also is on the English side of the story. So instead of talking about Rolling Stone Magazine, you get learn about the underground magazine Oz and its serious, yet sometimes comical, obscenity trial. Similarly, instead of focusing on Andy Warhol’s pop art crowd, the exhibit spotlights Swinging London’s pop art and fashion, which allows you to find out about Michelangelo Antonioni’s great film Blow Up and the tragically short career of pop artists Pauline Boty.
By the end of the massive, and massively informative, exhibit, you may be understandably exhausted, but try not to breeze through its final gallery. Besides some fun looks at Sixties’ consumerism and a too brief look at architecture and design, it also addresses the two main World Expos from this time-period, Montreal in 1967 and Tokyo in 1970. It’s illuminating to read about hopeful utopian spirit behind these projects, which often get ignored in the typical nostalgic retrospectives. Similarly, there is a flag display, which may seem like a head-scratcher until you read that over 50 new countries were established between 1955-70. Flags were designed to stand as a visual symbol of these new nation’s existence and a statement about the era’s revolutionary times, just as you could say the “Revolution 9” or “God Save The Queen” were.
(Below: the Nashville Room wall poster, w/punters, natch.