MODERNITY KILLED EVERY NIGHT
MEET RICHARD CABUT
More than forty years since it all kicked off, we attribute different definitions to the word ‘PUNK’. Whether you believe it to be an inexplicable spirit that nonconformists channel in impeaching or inventing, or in a more literal sense a DIY music genre from ’76 to ’78; some rejoice and some resent the utterance of the word. It has proven to be a fascinating subject to reflect on- whether you were alive or not when it struck, whether you like or dislike the music or central characters, or if you believe it died 40 years ago or has been evolving ever since. To imagine a time- and such a short time at that- where so much permutation took place and power bent to the hands of a generation of young people is captivating. It defined what it meant to be a young person, and defined what it meant to be your own person. Consequently, it is the subject of in-numerous stories and in-numerous essays, all from differing perspectives. Whether it be a brutally intimate dear-diary confessional or a methodical thesis on the ideologies and behaviour of the time- themes of originality, authenticity, verity and contrasting perspectives often wage amongst them. And that is exactly why a book like ‘Punk is Dead: Modernity Killed Every Night’ is a welcomed overture. Instead of trying to fit the discordant discourse on the movement into one neat package labeled ‘PUNK’ like so many have before, editors Richard Cabut and Andrew Gallix have understood that Punk is a different truth to everybody, and it never has and never will be a singular, agreeable narrative. From being both participants and observers from it’s burgeoning wake, they have seen it ripen and/or rot. So what better way to chronicle the chaos and to ward off nostalgia than to collect and curate an array of aspects in all manner of mediums to project the story. You will find the not-so-scholarly but daring disclosures of individuals who had intimate involvement in the scene; weightier dissertations from punk-cum-philosophers; and articles from 1977 now annotated by the author with the benefit of forty years. All 28 contributions do their part in covering as much of the length and breadth of Punk that the ever-mutating subject will allow. Of course, it helps that the lineup of contributors reads like an all-star cast of Punk authors.
In order to understand why someone would want to take on the enormous undertaking that is documenting Punk- or what they can of it- we met up with it’s co-Editor, Playwright, Punk and ex-Bass Player of Brigandage, Richard Cabut.
CAN YOU DESCRIBE WHAT PUNK MEANS TO YOU?
Punk fuelled my dreams of escape. I lived in small town, working/lower-middle class suburbia. Dunstable, Bedfordshire. Thirty miles from the capital. There, kids left school and went on the track, the production line, at the local factory, Vauxhall Motors. If you got some qualifications you could join the civil service. I didn’t want either.
Instead, I was in love with punk rock. I was in love with picking up momentum and hurling myself forward somewhere. Anywhere. Rip up the pieces and see where they land.
Have you ever seen the old TV show Bewitched? In one episode, the character Endora, a witch, says of humans, ‘they all look the same to me, noses to the grindstone shoulders to the wheel, feet planted firmly on the ground, no wonder they can’t fly!’ She adds: ‘It’s fine for them but not for us. We are quicksilver, a fleeting shadow, a distant sound that has no boundaries through which we can’t pass. We are found in music, in a flash of colour, we live in the wind and in a sparkle of star…’
Which is kind of how I thought of punk.
It inspired me to create. I wrote my first fanzine, Corrugated Boredom (which later became Kick), pondering pretentiously on Dada and Surrealism, and penned bad poetry. I also bashed away on an old four-string acoustic guitar and wrote crappy, clichéd songs. I remember one: ‘Blades for flowers/drainpipes for jeans/hippies are dead/And they’ll never return/ 67 reversed has destroyed that dream’. Yeah. I went on to write for the NME (under the pen name Richard North) and various other publications. These days I write books and plays.
THE TITLE OF YOUR BOOK IS ‘PUNK IS DEAD. MODERNITY KILLED EVERY NIGHT’. IS PUNK DEAD? WHAT’S THE STORY BEHIND THAT TITLE?
The original title was simply Modernity Killed Every Night. That slogan was, at one time, going to be used by Malcolm McLaren as the name of his and Vivienne Westwood’s Kings Road shop which, instead, became Sex and then Seditionaries. The phrase originates with a chap called Jacques Vaché, a dissolute poet who died of an opium overdose just after WW1. Vaché was a big influence on the Surrealists, who influenced the Situationists, who in turn influenced McLaren. Modernity is a complex artistic and philosophical idea, but McLaren understood it to describe the then current cultural context. So, the term Modernity Killed Every Night refers to and underlines McLaren’s resistance to whatever was happening at the time – the boring rock bands, the flared trousers, the dull politics. He wanted to establish an exciting oppositional stance – a punk rock stance.
Punk is Dead was added by the publisher, against my wishes, for marketing purposes. But in the end the term has served to prompt important questions about culture as a complicated, evolving dynamic.
Is punk dead?
Well, it’s such a great story – and great stories last forever in the form of myths – urban or otherwise.
As a playwright and scriptwriter, amongst other things, I know that there are only a handful of basic plots and themes that underlie all the best narratives e.g. Quest, Escape, Metamorphosis, Coming of Age, Revolt, Adventure, Good v Evil. Punk contains most if not all of these.
WERE YOU A REGULAR AT SEX / SEDITIONARIES? WHAT WAS YOUR EXPERIENCE THERE?
I used to make the regular, lengthy trek up the King’s Road from Sloane Square, dodging Teds and other assorted maniacs – including, on one occasion in 1977, some kind of mutant red neck, who parked his van and chased me up the road shouting his red neck hunting cry. Scary and weird. Although, not as scary as the Ted in Dunstable who pursued me through the streets for what seemed like miles and miles. He just would not stop. Every time I turned around there he was, running a few yards behind, with a murderous glint in his eye – like some sort of Edwardian Terminator. No gyms were necessary during the punk years – fitness was a by-product of survival. Meanwhile, I recently talked to Jordan who, of course, worked in Seditionaries, and features on the front cover of Punk is Dead, about the experience of going to the shop. I confessed that my first visit made me nervous – that, in fact, I paused for self-reflection before entering: am I punk rock enough? Am I cool enough? Do I have enough revolutionary spirit? I expected Jordan to tell me that I was being silly and that I worried for nothing. Instead, she said I was absolutely right to feel apprehensive, that they only wanted to sell to people who had the right attitude, and to those who wanted the clothes for the right reasons. Which is why the place was always more than just a simple clothes shop.
DID ANY OF THE ESSAYS SURPRISE YOU?
Most of them! I was jolted by their capacity to surprise, to take us unawares. I think many of the pieces are full of unflinching sincerity written as though no one were looking. With a reckless gait, a big grin and a healthy contempt.
CAN YOU GIVE US AN EXAMPLE?
Well, Neal Brown’s Smiler piece, for instance, is almost like a heavy punk rock beatnik poem – naked and confessional. A conscious attempt, perhaps, to make a cultural breakthrough by talking in public how we talk in private. Dorothy Max Prior, in her piece, ponders, with a smile and much stylish swagger, on sex and punk in the 70s. Max’s private, and sometimes very public, acts – she worked as a punk stripper amongst other things – connect with the larger social sphere. David Wilkinson does the same with his piece Same Sex Punk. Jon Savage is a punk rock National Treasure; Paul Gorman writes with a sense of taste and aesthetics, but at a level beyond aesthetics; Tony Drayton demystifies punk life in the early 80s; Jonh Ingham’s Patti Smith 1976 tour report is a flash of filigree – a brilliant journey into the mad heart of a 70s tour; Bob Short’s piece is driven, unkempt and disordered – as was sometimes punk itself during the period he writes about. I could go on.
HAVE YOU MET ANYONE UNEXPECTEDLY FROM THE PUNK SCENE IN RECENT YEARS?
I see people from the punk scene all the time, at book launches, art events, parties, gatherings. I think people from that scene are interested in being involved, being creative, interacting, participating, contributing – rather than just simply sitting around watching Coronation Street – or, at least, rather than watching Corrie all the time. There’s a lot of energy around.
IS THERE ANYONE YOU DON’T SEE MUCH OF BUT WOULD LIKE TO?
Well, these people aren’t returning my calls: Malcolm McLaren, Johnny Thunders (I once spent some time in a toilet cubicle with Johnny – although not for those reasons), Ari Up, Bryan Gregory, Jeffrey Lee Pierce, Steve New. RIP all.
WHO WAS, IN YOUR MIND, THE ‘PUNKIEST’ PERSON OR BAND THAT YOU HAVE COME ACROSS?
Interesting question. I think we can sometimes recognize a person’s inherent quality in, perhaps, a gesture, an expression, or a posture. And you don’t have to look too far. I reckon we can see in people what’s termed the ‘sufficiency of individuality’ that is the grandeur, not of (punk) royalty or the (punk) elite, but of ordinary people (punks), epic, unique and unforgettable.
I AGREE. I THINK ERROL BROWN IS ONE OF THE BIGGEST BUT UNDERRATED PUNKS OF ALL TIME.
DO YOU REMEMBER THE MOMENT YOU FIRST SAW, FELT OR HEARD PUNK IN THE 70’S?
It was in an NME piece by Neil Tennant (later of the Pet Shop Boys) describing the Sex Pistols Nashville pub aggro of 23 April 1976. Vivienne Westwood, Sid Vicious, and Malcolm McLaren were involved in a fracas with some punter stage front. Wow, I thought, a band that beats up their own audience! I saw Doctor Feelgood play in the same year – mid-set Captain Sensible crept up behind singer Lee Brilleaux and gave him a mighty two-handed shove into the audience. What a wag.
WHAT WAS LIFE LIKE FOR YOU IN 80’S WHEN PUNK OUTWARDLY FIZZLED OUT?
I liked the punk scene in the early 80s. I liked it in the mid Seventies, too. The late 70s, though, were like the third Monday in January, officially recognized by the medical profession as the day on which more UK citizens wake up depressed than any other. The reality of another grinding year kicks in, the horror of the Christmas credit card bill bites, and the misery of another rain dashed day dawns. It was like that. But the early 80s were another punk Spring. Punk at that time became a way of life for an increasingly large and motivated group of people. We were making scenes that took people away from the confines of school and work. Instead of just listening to records in isolation and going to the odd gig, people were living real lives with purpose and punk aplomb.
HOW DID PUNK CHANGE YOU?
There are things called epiphanic moments. No, really, there are. Points of significance in an individual’s life which have a heightened meaning. One can even sense the flow of the tides of destiny during such manifestations. Punk was one such moment for me.
The 1970s were characterised by orthodoxy and conventionality. The impulse was to fit in with your peers – in my case, either the boot boys on the terraces and on the disco floor, or the ‘intellectuals’ and chin strokers who had the latest Led Zep LP under their arms. If you didn’t join these sets you were a weirdo, or worse – and you could get a kicking on a regular basis. But when punk happened, these arbiters of the teenage world suddenly meant little or nothing, and that drive to fit in was replaced by the lust for life beyond the parameters of disco, football, job, marriage, retirement, death. Punk, for the outsiders, mapped routes to an alternative, more adventurous future by connecting the most peculiar things, being different, style, pleasure, survival, diverse forms of art and/or politics, a revolutionary instinct and, of course, music. It all added up to: change.
IS THERE SOMETHING YOU HAVE CHANGED YOUR MIND ABOUT?
I very much subscribe to the idea of constant becoming, rather than being somewhat stuck in our identity in a fixed and static universe. But, having said that, I’m always a little uncomfortable and dismayed when people such as Johnny Rotten turn around and say, for example, that they think highly of the Queen now.
CAN YOU DESCRIBE YOUR BAND BRIGANDAGE IN THREE WORDS?
Pretty Funny Things!
WOULD THERE EVER BE A REUNION FOR THE BAND?
I played bass in Brigandage for a few years in the mid-80s. They were exciting and productive years – I helped to make some great handouts and posters, a ‘bestselling’ cassette-only release, FYM, complete with magazine, and an LP, Pretty Funny Thing. Our last gig can be seen on YouTube in its entirety. But I have no desire to do it all again.
I’m not much interested in reunion culture – as far as I’m concerned, it’s largely impossible to recreate the conditions that made a band valuable in the first place – 30 or 40 years ago – you can’t faithfully take something from 1976 or 1983 and transpose it to 2018 because in every way the context has changed.
WILL YOU EVER GET BORED OF SPEAKING ABOUT PUNK?
I don’t think so, there’s too much depth involved in punk for it to become dull. It was never merely a youth cult – more of a life adventure, engaged with emotionally and intellectually. It was and remains a stimulus that prompted people to create, paraphrasing McLaren, environments in which we could and can truthfully run wild.
HOW WOULD YOUR CLASSMATES HAVE DESCRIBED YOU WHEN YOU WERE AT SCHOOL?
A weirdo, or worse.
WHAT DID YOUR PARENTS WANT YOU TO BE?
My parents were Polish refugees, who came to England after WWII. What they wanted for me was something, anything, that was safe, seemingly permanent, and ultimately very, very boring – a job on the production line, or in the civil service. Exactly what my teachers wanted for me, too.
WHAT BOOK CHANGED YOUR LIFE?
In 1978, I bought a couple of books from the shop Atlantis in Museum Street, London – Magick in Theory and Practice by Aleister Crowley and the I Ching (Richard Wilhelm translation). The woman who flogged them to me said that if I was ever stuck on a desert island on my own, these two books would be all I’d need.
IS IT TRUE THAT THERE WAS A CONNECTION BETWEEN THE PUNK MOVEMENT AND THE REPRINTING OF CROWLEY’S WORK?
I wouldn’t be surprised. Crowley’s magical system includes, amongst other things, an emphasis on finding one’s true identity, invoking concepts such as free will and enlightenment. Perfect for the more thoughtful teenage punk rocker who, amongst the pogoing, was probably interested in all of the above on some level. Punks also liked the idea of Crowley because he was the Bad Boy of his age, dubbed by the press as ‘The Wickedest Man in the World’. As a troublemaker, boho artist, poet, sexual adventurer, he was in touch with the more interesting parts of punk consciousness.
WHAT WAS THE FIRST PIECE OF MUSIC THAT MOVED YOU?
The very first record I bought was the Rolling Stones’ 1966 hits album High Tide Green Grass. In my parents’ house it was all Elvis, Beatles and Polish folk songs – but it was the Stones that watered the green shoots of my pop imagination with something that was striking – almost like a physical sensation – in its insouciance and insubordination. Meanwhile, Judy Teen by Cockney Rebel, along with Sparks, and Bowie a little earlier, provoked me to confront the arrangements of school and parents, ‘til then seemingly inescapable and inextricable.
WHAT WAS THE LAST PIECE OF MUSIC THAT MOVED YOU?
I listen to music all the time. I buy CDs and vinyl. But mostly I listen to Mixcloud while I’m writing – pretty much all day every day. It’s a different way of taking music in – more anonymous, fleeting, ambient. So today, although I couldn’t tell you the artists or song titles, I’ve been moved by heaps of rockabilly, Sixties garage, dub, post punk, swamp rock.
WHAT DO YOU COLLECT?
Collecting is all about memory, a doorway to a personal past. I collect books, clothes, music. But every few years, I press the reset button. For instance, many years ago, I sold all my Seditionaries and Worlds End clothes to the infamous Punk Pistol (who flogged £80,000 worth of Seditionaries clothes to Damien Hirst that were later dismissed by Malcolm McLaren as fakes). Unfortunately, it was before the comparatively recent boom in interest, so I didn’t get that much money. It was the same situation with my collection of punk posters, fanzines and memorabilia which, if I had had kept hold of it all, would see me comfortably through my dotage.
WHAT WAS YOUR OPINION ON THE INFAMOUS JOE CORRÉ BONFIRE?
To an extent, I sympathise with Corré. He’s intelligent, spunky and seems to care. He also comes from a position of knowledge of and love for punk rock rather than just gormless antipathy – and he’s right about the fingers-down-the-throat, mawkish and sentimental rehashing found in some of Punk London’s anniversary output. But more generally, the basis of his opposition is flawed: after all, punk was commodified from the very beginning – something that Corre’s father, Malcolm McLaren, mythologized and celebrated. Corré’s bonfire on the river, from what I saw on YouTube, was an embarrassing damp squib – reserved, distant and polite: wet. Instead, Corré should have somehow recreated the fantastic opening of the Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, conjured the licentious and drunken London Mob and created a little bit of unpredictable bloody mayhem.
WHAT DO YOU DO WHEN YOU’RE IN NEED OF INSPIRATION?
Go for a run, or have a shower – both release dopamine, good for a flow of ideas.
ARE THERE ANY BANDS TODAY THAT IMPRESS YOU?
Fallen Leaves (‘punk rock for gentlemen’) are great live, I saw Colter Wall last summer in London, Lesley Winer and Jay Glass Dubs’ collaboration YMFEES is pretty cool.
WHAT DOES 2018 LOOK LIKE FOR YOU?
Quite busy. I’m writing a three-act play about bullying called Now I Wanna Be Your Dog. I’m just about to start on a film script collaboration with a well know punk musician, adapting his book – a captivating drama with elements such as racism, childhood trauma, redemption and, yes, punk rock. My novella Dark Entries, about addictions of various sorts, should be published this year if all goes well. If there’s time, I have planned a fictionalised collection of reflections on life the 80s. Mostly, I’m relaxing into the deterioration, spilling the coffee, digging the scene, celebrating escape – and raising a glass, half full, to the power of passion bestowed on all of us, the wretched and the blessed, the numbed and dumbed. Cheers to all.