Toppling statues and comedians – the new Punk Rock?

toppling statues

In the second half of the 1970s, Punk Rock exploded into our teenage lives as Boomers. It lifted two unpatriotic fingers up at the Queen’s 1977 Silver Jubilee celebrations. Pilloried pop stars way beyond their sell-by date as “dinosaurs”. And stuck the boot into a whole generation of comedians who had traded on racist or lame humour.

So, is the current toppling of statues and comedians just another Punk Rock explosion?

History repeats itself, first time as tragedy and second time as farce. So wrote Karl Marx. Watching the current purge of comedians from YouTube and Netflix reminds me of the death knell that Punk sounded for many cultural icons in the 70s. Punk Rock was an aggressive cultural laxative that flushed out a lot of rottenness by making it look pathetic. Its influence swept across music, the arts, comedy and fashion.

Punk Rock pillories old pop stars

On the music scene, we had one famous pop star who had drunkenly endorsed the racist politician Enoch Powell at a gig. Look it up on Google. I’m not getting sued. Others had played gigs in apartheid-ruled South Africa. While plenty more popsters had just become complacent and very rich with it.

Punk declared Year Zero in music. And I remember going down to Small Wonder Records in Walthamstow and begging the owner to give me a pittance for my early 70s prog rock, triple-sleeve LPs so I could buy some punk albums. You almost had to deny having ever listened to certain bands. And I remember the lead singer of Yes – replete with kaftan and flares – asking on the front cover of Melody Maker why he was hated so much.

Punk Rock gave birth to alternative comedy

The new punk purge today is claiming the scalps of some comedians, over doing “blackface” for example. It all seems terribly unreasonable to those comics who’re now seeing their shows coming off Netflix and YouTube. But some of these laughter mongers began their career by slaying the comic talent of the 1970s.

Out of the Punk ethos sprang the alternative comedy scene in the early 80s and soon TV shows like The Two Ronnies were looking very out of date. On reflection, I’ve got nothing against The Two Ronnies but their dominance of TV comedy made them a target to topple. What was offensive were shows like The Comedians on ITV, which aired in the early 70s.

I remember sitting at home as a kid watching The Comedians and feeling very uncomfortable as the anti-Irish gags got told. My Dad is Irish. I learned from the “talent” on this weekly show that I was genetically stupid and prone to doing dumb things.

At my first secondary school, I was called “Paddy” so much that I ended up on the school register with that name. Much to the horror of my father at a parent-teacher evening when my form tutor said: “Paddy’s school report was quite good this term”.

Toppling statues and comedians = Punk Rock for millennials?

When history repeats, it does so differently. Context and language changes. In the 70s, Punk Rock was a roar against the stagnation of the mid-70s. The post-war economic boom had ground to a halt. Britain was in visible decline. Pop had lost its vitality and become turgid and pretentious. And if millennials think us Boomers are backward – the older generation in 1976 was antediluvian!

Punk Rock was about causing maximum offence – to shock the bourgeoisie (as the French say). Whereas today’s movement is about not being offended by ‘problematic’ content. Although the end result is surprisingly similar.

Since 2008, many Boomers have wondered when the new Punk Rock would arise. Well, here it is. It may not be taking an agreeable form for older folk but then Punk Rock horrified the establishment in the 70s. Today’s movement is the spirit of 1968 and Punk Roll plus more besides rolled into one.

Ironically, even though we Boomers are often the target of millennial hatred – their actions smack of our revolts forty and fifty years ago. So, don’t judge them harshly.

Appearing on BBC Question Time in 1980

1980 television

In 1979, the BBC launched a new political discussion show called Question Time – presented by Sir Robin Day. Somehow, a friend of mine got tickets to be in the audience and so, aged 16, we went along to the studio. Robin Day was elsewhere that day and the programme was hosted by the veteran Canadian broadcaster Bob McKenzie.

At that time, I’d started to get involved in left-wing politics and had developed a curious and unconvincing cockney accent – ditching the cut-glass posh voice my mother had instilled in me. I also still had the Irish Republican convictions that my Irish Republican grandmother had indoctrinated me with from an early age. I later became a lot more nuanced on that issue.

During the show, I stuck my hand up and got to make a point about the vote being taken away from Irish citizens living in the United Kingdom. This was a typical piece of Margaret Thatcher spite aimed at Irish people.

Me on Question Time in 1980

The British Nationality Act (passed in 1981) was being discussed in parliament and she was clearly keen on trimming the rights of Irish citizens in the United Kingdom. Subsequent analysis has suggested she thought they all voted Labour and so needed to be disenfranchised. Being half-Irish – I was not impressed.

Anyway, with my newly found cockney accent, I made my contribution and was roundly put down by Bob McKenzie. Should mention that the poor man died a year later. I hope the stress caused by my angry teenage words didn’t contribute to his demise!