The Insane, Incendiary ‘Punk London’ Debate: Five Things We Learned

The Punk London debate at the Museum Of London descended into anarchic chaos; here's what we managed to salvage from the rubble.

In dapper suits and bowlers, sci-fi face paint, 23rd Century saris and Roman legionnaire’s helmets they came. The Original Punks, in all their disparate tribes, sniffing and sneering up to the Museum Of London on Friday night (Nov 18) for the Punks exhibition of film and memorabilia, launched with a debate on whether London is still imbued with the rebel spirit of ’76. A debate that quickly starts to make Pistols Vs Grundy look like Claudia Winkleman on The One Show. Here’s what we learned from the whole, sorry shambles…

London is “a theme park for chain stores and corporations”

A hyperspeed cinematic tour of punk landmarks screened in the exhibition drives home the cultural whitewashing of central London – Soho punk clubs like The Vortex, The Marquee and The Roxy are now all luxury flats and strip clubs, while the Kings Road punk hangouts are fluffy high-end fashion boutiques and sandwich shops today. In his opening volley of the debate Joe Corré, the son of punk empresario Malcolm McLaren and punk’s premier designer Vivienne Westwood, who intends to burn his £5 million collection of punk memorabilia in protest of Punk London’s 40th anniversary event, sums up the city: “London has been turned into a fucking theme park for chain stores, corporations and people who don’t pay their fucking taxes. What they need in that theme park is lots of jolly stuff to make tourists feel like it’s somewhere to be. We’ve got beefeaters, we’ve got royal guards, we’ve got punk rockers and you can have selfies with all of them, it’s all nicely tamed and put into a box… It’s a lie, so the only thing to do is to burn the fucking lot of it and start again.”

The punk spirit is eternal

Both former Buzzcocks manager Richard Boon and punk icon Jordan talk of punk’s “trickster spirit” of anti-establishment protest and counter-culture individualism stretching back through history, and The Guardian’s Kate Hutchinson and current DIY scene writer and musician Jen Calleja identify punk’s anger and attitude in the government’s attempted suppression of the grime scene and in a global modern punk movement that’s far more diverse and inclusive than the ’70s breed. Not that Joe buys into any of it. “Punk is over,” he says, “punk is dead, punk is MacDonalds, punk is credit cards at 19% APR, punk is a word that doesn’t mean anything anymore. It’s destroyed. It’s vacuous, it’s meaningless, it’s a marketing ploy that’s used to sell you stuff you don’t need. The attractiveness of punk in the 1970s was that it was dangerous, it could cause a change. There’s nothing dangerous about punk today… all it’s become is another kind of conformity and another uniform… Punk London is sponsored by Boris Johnson. You’re sitting here getting paid to talk about and perpetuate this idea that punk rock is still vital, still important, it’s still gonna change something, and it isn’t. What this is is a museum culture sponsored by a fucking mayor or London who belonged to the fucking Bullingdon Club.”

Punks are still angry

Although no-one makes use of the open microphone set up to allow the audience to interrupt the debate, it takes about seven minutes for the chair, NYU ‘punk professor’ Vivien Goldman, to lose control to belligerent snarking from Corré and bickering rants from the crowd. Corré’s plan to burn his stash of punk junk has sections of the crowd up in arms at the flagrant destruction of “artworks”. Someone berates the panel at length for their lack of diversity. Someone claims the only real punk in London is Julian Assange. Ex-Adam & The Ants guitarist Marco Pirroni makes a point of walking out of the debate for no clear reason, right across the front of the stage. “I didn’t know it’d be this exciting,” says one younger attendee.

New punk is insane

That is if you consider Mark Wyn, who plays a bizarre 20-minute set after the debate, to be in the punk tradition. Like a topless karaoke version of Steve Coogan’s stand-up geek Duncan Thickett, he strips half naked and dances around to Bowie’s ‘John, I’m Only Dancing’ and Iggy Pop’s ‘I’m Bored’ in a plastic tiara while rambling on about his mate’s crap slippers, his underpants, Nick Cave, his fee for the gig (£350) and sausages, occasionally stopping to text somebody. The climax of his show finds him pushed across the room on a portion of his movable stage to “do one at the back of the crowd” like Coldplay. While he’s there, some punks nick his tiara.

Punk is definitely dead

Or at least the ’70s incarnation. It died tonight, in the Museum Of London. If we learned one thing about the scene from the debate it’s that the original punks no longer have any interest in fighting the system, tearing down the establishment or supporting punk’s continuing ideology. They only want to argue between themselves about what punk was, who’s really punk, who’s burning what t-shirt and who can be the most obnoxious, self-important tit in the room (winner: Joe “this is such bollocks” Corré). They grumble over, heckle and faux-snore at any panelist under 30 and female; the old punk prejudices remain deeply embedded. Rotten’s anarchy in the UK proves itself nothing but aimless in-fighting; if the London punk spirit lives on in the vitriol of grime, the political diatribes of Vant or the outlandish individualism of Dalston and Peckham we need a new name for it. These pricks don’t deserve the credit.