Close by to where a young 21 year old man named Simon Finestone shared a house with his parents in the little industrial town of West Molesey in suburban London, he saw local Punk band Sham '69 in a hall above the Surveyor pub at the heart of the Molesey Industrial Estate. This was shortly before they shot to fame after singer Jimmy Pursey was arrested on the roof of the Vortex Punk club in central London on the 23rd of September 1977.
Sham’s very name had been derived from the legend Walton and Hersham ’69, scrawled on a wall in Molesey’s sister town of Hersham, referring to the year she topped the premier division of the long defunct Athenian amateur football league.
Finestone already knew Jimmy Pursey by sight, having seen him mime a year or so earlier to Chris Spedding’s “Motorbiking” at the famous Walton Hop, supposedly Britain’s first ever discotheque, which held regular mime competitions for Hop regulars.
Pursey was such a regular, as were Simon and his brother Dean, and one evening they’d even considered taking part in the competition themselves with a friend, having selected “I Can’t Give You Anything” by the Stylistics to mime to. However, at the last minute, they changed their mind, which is just as well, as it would have been a disaster, given they hadn’t even troubled to rehearse.
Unlike the dithering Finestone, Pursey had made it clear to all who witnessed his performances at the Hop that he’d been born to be a star. And sure enough, for a brief period, he was one of Britain’s leading Punk heroes, while his followers, the Sham Army, consisting of skinheads on both the left and the right of the political spectrum, became almost as famous as him. After a notorious riot at the Middlesex Polytechnic in North London, the first frenetic phase of Sham’s performing career came to a close, although they continued to have hits until in 1980, when they disbanded until the inevitable reformation.
But 1977 was Punk’s year zero in the UK, and a far darker one than those immediately preceding it for that very reason.
From its London axis, it spread like a raging plague…even infecting the most genteel suburbs with an extreme and often horrifying sartorial eccentricity, which, fused with a defiant DIY ethic and a brutal back-to-basics brand of hard-driving Rock produced something utterly unique even by the standards of the time.
Simon Finestone was assaulted for the first time by the monstrous varieties of dress adopted by the early Punks while strolling along the Kings Road the morning after a party in January 1977, and it would only be a matter of time before he too hoped to astound others the way they'd done him.
However, for most of ’77, he dressed in a muted form which first took shape as a pair of cream brogue winklepickers, which he went on to supplement with black slip-ons with gold side buckles, mock- crocodile skin shoes with squared off toes, and a pair of black Chelsea boots, all perilously pointed.
Being the rube he was, he thought the style that dominated London's club land was somehow Punk-related, but he was way off the mark. While it was the antithesis of the middle class hippie look that was still widespread throughout the UK, it was deployed for posing, and dancing to the sweetest Soul music, not as a gesture of violent social dissent.
It was partly the realm of the Soul Boys, whose love of black dance music was a legacy of the Mods and Skins that preceded them. They were largely working class hard nuts from various dismal London suburbs, although some were super-elegant trendies with a penchant for college boy fringes, tartan shirts worn over plain white tee-shirts, straight leg jeans, and winklepickers.
Simon knew the former from the massive Global Village disco situated
under the arches in London’s Charing Cross, and the latter from more up-market venues such as the Sombrero and Maunkberrys. But by 2010, all three had effectively vanished from history, with the leading search engines revealing little of their former existence as centres of musical and sartorial fashion.
Towards the end of the year, Simon Finestone felt increasingly drawn to Punk rather than the Soul Boy look, even though it was genuinely dangerous being a Punk in the late '70s, and you lived in constant fear of attack or abuse if you chose to dress like one. After all, Punk's culture of insolence and outrage was extreme even by the standards of previous British youth cults such as the Teds, the Rockers, the Mods, the Greasers, the Skins, the Suedeheads and the Smoothies.
Britain in those days was a country still dominated to some degree by pre-war moral values, which were Victorian in essence, and a cultural war was being fought for the soul of the nation. It could be said therefore that Punks were the avant-garde of the new Britain in a way that would be impossible today. This explains the incredible hostility Punks attracted from some members of the general public.
Around about this time, Simon was often to be found at the Surveyor on a Sunday night with Dean, and mutual friends.
On one occasion, the usual Disco or Pop gave way to a violent Punk Rock anthem which saw the tiny dance space being invaded by deranged pogo-dancers as if they’d been summoned by some malignant deity. On another, a Ted revivalist who favoured flashy fifties-style clothing, tried to start some trouble with him in the toilet, whereupon Vinnie, another Ted who'd befriended him about a year previously when he looked like an extra from a ‘50s High School flick stepped in with the magical words: "He's a mate!"
Vinnie’s intervention may have saved him from a hiding that night, because Teds had a loathing of Punks informed by their essential conservatism. To them, Punks probably seemed to have no respect for anything.
The Teds, or Edwardians as they were initially styled, were widely perceived as folk devils when they’d first emerged in the UK in about 1952, with a look purloined from a small minority of upper class Guards officers who’d adapted the Edwardian fashion in the late 1940s in defiance of post-war austerity. However, in comparison to the later Punks, they were a model of respectability, and that was especially true of the ‘70s, when a brief revival resulted in battles between Teds and Punks taking place on West London’s Kings Road all throughout ‘77. They persisted into the ‘80s, only to all but vanish from the face of the globe with the passing of that last great decade of youthful eccentricity.
It may have been that very night that Vinnie the Ted almost imploringly asked him whether he into "this Punk lark”, as he contemptuously termed it, and Simon assured him he wasn't. He may even have added that he still loved the fifties, which was true to a degree, but that wasn’t the point. The fact is he lied to him to look good in his eyes, which was a pretty low thing to do to a friend.
By the time of the internet revolution, Punk had become just another exhibit of the Rock and Roll museum, itself just another branch of the vast entertainment industry. The culture wars of the late ‘70s had long since been quieted, while rebellion had become more or less fully co-opted by the mainstream.
To give Punk its due, that this situation had come about in the first place could be said to be in part attributable to the utter ferocity of its first serious assault on the mainstream. This being the British Punk uprising of the late seventies, which openly targeted a society still desperately clinging to the final vestiges of its Judaeo-Christian moral fabric. While it was rejected by the vast majority of British people, indeed the West in general, its influence went on to be little short of cataclysmic.
Declared dead by about ‘79, it returned to the underground, where it set about fertilising one rebel movement after the other throughout the ‘80s. Post-Punk, No Wave, Anarcho-Punk, Industrial and Goth all benefited from its ethos, until finally in the early ‘90s, the Alternative Rock revolution brought it fully back into the mainstream, where it’s existed ever since. Spearheaded by acts as diverse as Alice in Chains, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Smashing Pumpkins and above all, Nirvana, this movement could be said to have been Rock’s final desperate outburst of sedition before it finally took its place alongside Classical, Jazz, Folk, World and so on, as just another music genre, where once it had been little short of a religion of youth.
While the sheer intensity of Nirvana’s later music continues to startle and even terrify some two decades after it was first recorded, it’s nonetheless been shorn of its iconoclastic power, being available for anyone of any age to access via the simple click of a computer mouse. The same is true of the most famous Punk band of them all, the Sex Pistols, whose one-time bass player Sid Vicious has emerged as Punk’s most visible icon, and the quintessence of Punk nihilism.
Is this development in some respects a fulfilment of Nietzsche’s philosophy of the transvaluation of all values?
There are those cultural commentators who would insist that this is indeed the case, and that far from being a positive move towards universal tolerance, it’s a tragedy beyond compare, although rather than Nietzsche, it’s the Book of Isaiah they might feel moved to quote from:
“Woe to those who call evil good and good evil.”
But there was a time that such a revaluation met with enormous resistance, and the British public’s outraged reaction to Punk in ’77 was a perfect example of this. As for the Teds, goodness knows they were no angels, but to them there as something uniquely rotten at heart of Punk, and the classic Rock and Roll they loved, uniquely pure compared to the scabrous rantings of Punk.
Finestone was lucky to have gotten away so lightly that night…but it didn’t put him off sinking further into the lifestyle, where he remained until 1979, when, after briefly flirting with both the Mod and Rockabilly revivals, he embraced the New Romantic scene, which exerted such a powerful influence on eighties music and fashion. In time - and inevitably - he drifted away from youthful fads and fashions forever, reaching the advanced age of 55 in 2010, and so becoming quite old, as members of the generation that invented youth were never supposed to be.
Punks were still a force to be reckoned with, although less as Punks per se than as Goths and followers of the Emo movement, both overwhelmingly popular among the youth of America. However, it was Punk’s essential desolation that lingered, rather than its rage or rebellion, the fall-out, perhaps, of more than fifty years of Rock and roll hedonism.
Teddy Boys, on the other hand, were more or less completely extinct, which led Simon Finestone to wonder whatever happened to Vinnie the Ted, who’d saved his hide that night with those three magical words he never forget:
“E’s a mate…”
And he still felt ashamed for lying to him.