The weekend’s jubilee celebrations have been accompanied by a wave of punk nostalgia as people draw comparisons with the jubilee in 1977. Chris Dillow, who is a similar age to me and grew up in the neighbouring city, reckons the young folk of today are nowhere near as rebellious as we were.
Watching Punk Brittania reminded me of a now-lost world – one in which young people’s anger shocked their elders. Punk was more rebellious and more disquieting to the establishment than anything we see today.
He offers six possible explanations for this, all of which probably contain an element of truth.
That said, though, it is easy to exaggerate the political and revolutionary nature of youth movements in the 1970s. John Lydon sneered at the hippies for being more about students smoking dope and getting laid than any sort of revolution. As things turned out, though, punk wasn’t much different. Most people were just out to enjoy themselves. They might have circled As on the underpass but for most kids it was just another thing to scrawl. In the early days of punk it was swastikas, then it was anarchy and left-wing symbols, then, a couple of years later, everyone was wearing union jacks for the mod revival. None of it was political; it was just the next thing to paint on your jacket.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s we seemed to spend more time fighting each other than trying to smash the system. Gangs of teenagers, mostly but not exclusively male, fought each other at rock concerts, seaside resorts and football matches. (Even the crap teams had their own hardcore hooligan firms.) If you were so inclined, there were lots of different ways to get involved in mass brawls. Even the ostensibly political battles were often just an excuse for a good scrap. Sure, some of those at the National Front and Anti Nazi League punch-ups were committed to their political causes but for many, which side they ended up on often depended as much on who they knew and where they were from as what they believed.
Bank holidays often saw large-scale violence breaking out in a number of different places. Over one Easter weekend at the end of the Seventies, I remember football fans clashing at a number of local derbies, mods and rockers brawling at seaside towns and rival biker gangs attacking each other with assorted weapons in the New Forest. Wherever large number of young people gathered, trouble seemed to follow.
As The Clash sang:
The sport of today is exciting
The in crowd are into infighting
When some punk sees some rock-olla
It’s rock and roll all over
In every street and every station
Kids fight like different nations
And it’s brawn against brain
And it’s knife against chain
But it’s all young blood
Flowing down the drain.
And The Specials:
All you punks and all you teds
National Front and natty dreads
Mods, rockers, hippies and skinheads
Keep on fighting till you’re dead.
David Hepworth asked in The Word a few years ago, “What happened to violence at gigs?” There used to be quite a lot of it. Nowadays it is rare.
Where I do agree with Chris is that today’s youngsters live in a more fragmented and atomised world than we did. That’s not their fault; it’s just the way things have gone. We attached ourselves to large, menacing youth cults and hung around with each other in tens or even hundreds. Today, crowds of teenagers tend to be smaller. But that’s not surprising. The 1970s was an era of collectivism and mass culture. It therefore produced mass youth movements.
While looking for something else, I came across this footage of skinheads at Stamford Bridge at the end of the 60s. Have a look. There are hundreds of them!
You don’t see this many teenagers running together anywhere these days, let alone at football matches. It is rare, now, to see large gangs of young people. They don’t flock together in large groups like they did in the 1970s.
And yet, despite the decline in mass violence, the overall crime and violent crime rates are about the same now as they were in 1980. All that violence that used to take place at seaside towns, football matches and punk gigs has dispersed. So, while the headline-making youth clashes have ceased, nasty things are more likely to happen in a park close to where you live. This is one reason why the fear of crime has gone up while the fear of general disorder has receded. More people hear of violence happening close to their homes but no-one seriously thinks that the social order is close to collapse.
Youth culture seemed frightening in the 1970s because it brought large groups of unruly youngsters together and that quite often led to mass violence and disorder. There was no more violence than there is today but it looked more threatening because it involved lots of people and was concentrated in a few places. That’s what spooked politicians and got retired army officers talking about forming militias.
Are today’s youngsters any less rebellious than we were in the late 70s and early 80s? Perhaps but, then again, I’m not altogether sure that we were really that rebellious anyway. We did a lot of things that shook people up but that’s because our easily identifiable youth tribes made it look as though we were hell-bent on a single cause. Most of the time, though, we were just doing what teenagers have always done; seeing how far we could push things without getting into serious trouble. Nowadays, youngsters do these things in smaller and less easily discernible groups. They don’t, therefore, carry that implicit threat of mass disorder and social breakdown. And neither, really, did we; it’s just that, at times, we might have looked as though we did.