So I look up to the sky
And I wonder what it’ll be like in days gone by
As I sit and bathe in the wave of nostalgia
For an age yet to come.
So wrote Shelley – that is Peter Campbell McNeish, not Percy Bysshe – in his 1978 song Nostalgia.
As opposed to, nostalgia not being what it used to be.
Recently looking for a birthday card for my niece on online greetings card website Moonpig I came upon this one – Nevermind the Wrinkles Dad You Still Rock. Nevermind the indignities and infirmities of your great age Dad we know that you were once cool, you tell us often enough anyway, it might as well imply.
The album it was spoofing if you do not know was English punk rock album Never Mind The Bollocks…Here’s The Sex Pistols from 1977. Such is the march of time it could have been aimed at Granddads too.
What should we call this? Mainstreaming? Wait long enough and no matter how shocking or ‘out there’ something once was, given enough time it eventually becomes part of the conventional furniture, the very weave of the social fabric
The album title courted controversy itself, (nevermind the contents, twelve songs spitting filth and fury) being prosecuted for indecent display of the word ‘bollocks’ – yes just the word itself! – the prosecution was not successful, the publicity in their favour was. Now we have TV cooking programs with far less quaint names like The F Word and none of us save some self-important hack from a conservative rag masquerading as a newspaper with more time than sense at their disposal would bat an eyelid about it.
Notable too that though the title was the subject of a court case, the name of the band, the Sex Pistols, did not meet the same level of controversy. But we like innuendo in Britain – nudge-nudge wink-wink – we will imply something within an inch of its life but we won’t actually call the spade a spade unless we really must as where is the fun in being explicit! This was still the time of the Carry On films though we were at the fag-end by this time with Carry On Dick and Carry On Behind hardly leaving much to the titillated imagination.
A couple of the songs on the album did court controversy namely God Save The Queen and Anarchy in the UK. Perhaps other songs like Bodies (about abortion but it was so lacking in nuance and coherence it was not clear whether they were pro-choice or pro-life or perhaps both) and Holidays in the Sun caused scandal too but I was too young and even more innocent than my age implied to know let alone care. I was barely a teenager and the only music I knew before punk came into my life was by Abba, the Wombles and I can barely write it G-a-r-y G-l-i-t-t-e-r – he asked us if we wanted to be in his gang and where he would be leader – shudders! – who would have thought that a forty-something man in a shiny golden lame all-in-one-suit seeking out the teenage market was something for those said teens to be wary of! – until one day a fellow school-boy coolly announced from his dormitory bed a new group he had heard called the Sex Pistols. You see I was a boarder at an all-boys Grammar school, cloistered as we thus were in a simmering pubescence of imminently threatening destabilizing testosterone and which thirteen year old boys shared our bedroom term-time with seven other boys.
He went on that they had a song called Problems. How did it go we asked. Blah blah, blah blah – he replied. No literally that’s what he replied! (Actually what was being intoned was not like Ke$ha (the spiritual grand-daughter of Joey Ramone) clearly enunciating, if with bubblegum drawl, Blah Blah Blah, but in another grand tradition of misheard song-lyrics Johnny Rotten drawling out the word Problem hyphenating Prob-lem as if he were saying Blah Blah – like seeing a face in a curtain pattern if you listen hard enough you will hear it too. If you dare to listen. Or even care to listen.
But anyway I was piously aghast and resolute that I would not be giving up Abba for this. They had songs you could sing along to with seriously profound and profoundly serious words like Fernando
There was something in the air that night
The stars were bright, Fernando
They were shining there for you and me
For liberty, Fernando
But call it peer pressure, call it the drip-drip exposure of punk songs every waking non-rote-studying minute, I soon succumbed to the Sex Pistols and the Clash and the Buzzcocks ad punkinitum – what sounds for young barely formed minds! – we were already rebels without a cause most of us, this was legitimizing this wordless feeling in song, gloriously noisy nasty song.
Whilst God Save The Queen and Anarchy in the UK could and did seriously irk and trouble the British establishment to our young and easily impressed minds Problems just as well hit home as intoning ‘blah blah’ was reveling in its own dumbness and was thus irresistible and we knew it would be if not shocking then at least as irritating as hell to our parents, teachers and any other adults in eye and ear shot nevermind the far more significant but distant nameless and faceless adults of the aforesaid British Establishment. There was coherent rage in punk but the incoherent rage would do us just as well.
And it was Punk’s way or the highway of course. Year Zero – any music made before 1975 was suddenly redundant and had nothing to say to us. I could no longer like Abba. Liking both SOS and London’s Burning – unthinkable! Well at least unsharable.
What is interesting to me now about this was how ‘the year above us’ (as our one year senior peers were dismissively referred too) were completely unmoved by punk. We were pretty much as spotty and indistinguishable a group of seething teenage boyhood as each other to any passing adult stranger and for that matter most of our teachers. Yet they were not going to be swayed from the Seventies Rock music of the time – some of them may have been to the heavier side with Black Sabbath and Deep Purple others the more gentler faux-cerebral musings and noodlings of Prog Rock in the guises of Yes and ELP – this they chided us was proper music where band members could not just play their instruments but aspired to play them very well and for the most part did. We on the other hand admired groups where bandmembers could barely hold their instruments let alone make music from them and could care less either (best summed up in One Chord Wonders by The Adverts) – did they not understand it was all about attitude not technical competence. Our condemning sneering scorn for them was only matched by their deep derision for us. The tribalism of teenagerhood. We were right and they were wrong and that’s all there was to it.
But like breakaway religions there were tribes within our tribes too. Whether you really got punk really depended on whether you preferred the Sex Pistols or the Clash – the former courted controversy purely for the sake of it, they did not really believe it, they were just manager Malcolm McClaren’s art-stooges whereas the Clash were political and had a serious world-changing agenda, or so the wannabe Clash City Rockers would have it. And to the Pistol Heads, Clash fans were just a few birthdays away from becoming card-carrying member of the Labour Party – pub-rock aspirants at best.
Though what really mattered was not the bands lyrics and rhetoric but who had the best tunes, the most glorious racket…
The ‘year above us’ were not the only ones in the school baffled by us. So too of course were our teachers. They hoped it was just a phase and that we would grow out of it. Well the more measured calmer ones did anyway. There were the few who feared not just for us but the future of our once great country and the very pillars of civilization itself – that just made us feel even more (self) important of course.
Punk itself did pretty much implode by 1978 – there was its politer well-mannered cousin New Wave who was interested in alien concepts like melodies and careers. Or another uglier idiot cousin who went by the name of Oi and who I think you can guess the rest.
But though Punk as a genre had expired its best-by date by 1978 we teenage grammar school punks were not so easily vanquished of it. It had got into our bloodstream after-all, and a hormonal surging one at that. I said that I was a boarder but most in my year were not – about a third of us were and it was us third that the were the most resolute – we lived, ate and slept punk, and we did so together, encouraging or egging each other on to greater acts of punkishness – the rest of our class alas had given up on Punk for Pink Floyd or at best 10CC.
The initial self-indulgence of our teachers toward us was now giving way to some serious concern towards us, or at least to our professional futures. In particular our careers adviser was very troubled.
Our careers adviser was also our Geography Teacher and in retrospect it is not really clear how qualified he was to offer such specific counsel for our young futures.
The future he had settled on for me if I applied myself to my studies with greater dedication than hitherto was that of a merchant banker. All these years later I am still none the clearer as to what a merchant banker is, what it is they do with their working hours! Except now it might be a euphemism – we are back to the Carry On up the Sex Pistols again!
In the questionnaire where I was asked for my interests I had put simply ‘Punk’! It was who I was. End of! My careers adviser commented that I might need to widen my interests. He himself offered that unlike most of his colleagues he did know a bit about punk and could discuss it with me for at least five minutes but did not think it would be enough to satisfy prospective employers that I was long-term career-material.
We both agreed to paraphrase another Rotten lyric that I had ‘No Future’. But as I was still fifteen I had as little interest in my future as I had in my past. I was all present. All present and incorrect.
And so back to the future and this Nevermind the Wrinkles birthday card for Dads, for your old increasingly dysfunctional dad. This is what memories do to events, they soften the edges, obscure the lines, make a gentle mocking joke of our yester-passions, fears and cares.
And don’t get me wrong. I get nostalgia. The longer we live the more good times and experiences we have to look back with pleasure on if also the more painful times to coax us back to the present.
As we get older indeed we have ever more past and ever less future, until one day we will be all past and no future. Literally. And on that intimations-of-oblivion note I can only leave you with this.
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rage at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.