A new exhibition due to open in May at the British Library (BL) will celebrate the 40th anniversary of Punk in the United Kingdom, the truly unique and often controversial musical phenomenon of the 1970s which has increasingly become a big topic of interest for social historians and also scholars of British culture.
Punk Rock, often known simply as ‘Punk’, emerged in the USA in the early 1970s, and soon spread to other parts of the world, especially to countries such as France, West Germany, Sweden and Australia. It also arguably exerted a major influence in Britain.
Starting with the impact of the Sex Pistols in 1976, the exhibition will explore Punk’s early days in London and reveal how its influence spread across British music, fashion, print and graphic styles on a nationwide basis. According to the BL, the special exhibition will show-case a range of fanzines, flyers, recordings and LP record sleeves from the BL’s collections, alongside some rare Punk material from Liverpool John Moores University.
For historians of Britain in the 1970s, the new exhibition promises to celebrate and scrutinize the enduring influence of Punk as a radical, artistic and political movement.
Indeed, some historians of the period have argued that Britain during this volatile decade experienced its own version of ‘culture wars’, whereby both the extreme right (such as the National Front and the British Movement) and the extreme left (such as the various Marxist and anarchist groups of the time) all tried to reach out to rebellious working-class Punk youths, seeking to appropriate the ‘energy’ of Punk for political purposes.
Punk music was certainly seen by the media in the 1970s as having quite dangerous anti-establishment lyrics, while Christian campaign groups, such as Mary Whitehouse’s Nationwide Festival of Light, also took a very dim view of Punk. In fact, a kind of moral panic was created about the alleged ‘decadence’ of British Punk teenagers. However, this kind of critique merely encouraged many Punk rockers in their conviction that they were heralding a new revolution in music and in youth culture generally, defying ‘tradition’ and the older generation.
In hindsight, the extent to which Punk groups such as the Sex Pistols, the Clash, and the Damned genuinely did signal a new direction in Britain’s culture during the 1970s is a fascinating question, and is ripe for further historical research.
Exhibition details: ‘Punk 1976-78’ will be a free exhibition, and will run from 13th May, 2016 to 2nd October, 2016.
How to get there: The BL is located in Euston Road, London, and can easily be reached via King’s Cross or Euston underground stations.