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ethos sprang the alternative comedy scene in the early 80s and soon TV shows like The Two Ronnies were looking very out of date.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.

SKAN – School Kids against the Nazis (1970s)

SKAN – School Kids against the Nazis – were briefly active in our secondary school handing out leaflets. This was the most famous leaflet of the lot. It showed a load of our favourite pop stars and told us they would be deported if the extreme Right got into power – because they had non-British backgrounds.

This sort of stuff was quite effective and it obviously made an impact on me because I held on to the leaflet in my scrapbook. Still think it’s a very visually compelling argument today.

The Anti-Nazi League carnival of 1978

Anti Nazi League 1978

It’s still a day I look back on as mystical and magical. On the 30 April 1978, I went on the Anti-Nazi League march from Trafalgar Square to Victoria Park in the east end of London – and there, your humble scribed aged 15 at the time, saw The Clash and several other legendary bands play. What a time to be alive!

Though I should remove my rose-tinted spectacles at this stage of the blog post. Because it was also a time of racist attacks – especially on Asian people – unbridled bigotry in the tabloid press and the National Front (the main extreme Right party) doing well in local elections.

We had a handful of wannabe Hitlers at our school but they were rather pathetic suburban poseurs. But more worrying, the skinhead scene had been infiltrated by extreme Right groups and there had been some high profile murders.

So, a group of us went on the tube down to Charing Cross to join the demo in Trafalgar Square and a VERY long march to the Mile End district of London. Not sure you’d get anybody to march that kind of distance these days! But all that roller skating and cycling round on Chopper bikes meant we were always up for some exercise – especially in a good cause.

I actually got separated that day from the group and ended up marching on my own. There were so many people that it was useless trying to find my mates again. I have a small confession to make and that is I didn’t pay too much attention to The Clash on stage in Victoria Park and much preferred the Tom Robinson Band. I’ve been kicking myself ever since.

Tony McMahon remembers the Anti-Nazi League carnival in 1978