When anyone tells you that punk’s not dead, they usually make you wish it was. They’re generally wearing a sleeveless Sham 69 denim jacket they haven’t washed since Rat Scabies gobbed on it at the 100 Club, have a Mohican that’s undergone more structural work than Crossrail to keep it aloft in the face of male pattern baldness and are still pissed off about something NME‘s Charles Shaar Murray wrote about The Clash in 1976.
They’re culturally stagnant throwbacks to one brief incarnation of the punk spirit that was about long before The Pistols and Ramones. It was punk when Dave Davies made his guitar spit fire all over ‘You Really Got Me’, or when Jagger pouted down the camera demanding satisfaction. To staple punk purely to the late ‘70s is as foolish as thinking Pennywise The Clown is all there is to It.
After all, when John Lydon wailed “anger is an energy!”, he was unknowingly predicting Keith Flint.
The UK’s late ’80s rave scene was anonymous by necessity. With the government legislating against illegal raves and music with “repetitive beats” (like they’d never tapped a mace along to ‘Baby Love’ while auctioning chunks of NHS), it paid for the DJs and MCs to be so faceless and un-photofittable that they could slip out of a Barnsley cowshed at 8am unrecognised, simply by gurning along with the throng.
Yet that same DIY, underground, fuck-the-rules punk spirit drove rave too, and the scene played out like a slo-mo Grundy interview. It first reached mainstream public attention with a sly smirk: The Shamen’s Mr C getting a “naughty” word to Number One buried in the hook of ‘Ebeneezer Goode’ as inconspicuously as the Statue Of Liberty on the beach of an ape planet.
Then Keith threw off his Shaun Ryder wig to reveal the Beelzebub’s Flock Of Seagulls do beneath, decked himself out like an undead rodeo bull and hit the charts like a flurry of granny-shocking expletives as the Grundy gallery scramble to cut to ads.
Keith was the first real rave star, the focal figure who cohered and embodied the sprawling techno scene around his ‘Firestarter’ jerks and snarls. And he gave the indie rockers a crossover figure of unhinged and uninhibited ferociousness to relate to in dance music.
He was punk incarnate. A snorting, neck-dislocating man-tornado of undiluted aggression, anger and freedom, the likes of which the world hadn’t seen since Iggy had put away his chest razors. And, as such, he was living, seething proof that punk attitude was to be found at the heart and soul of every new genre explosion since the chamber yobs of 1734 spat down the codpieces of the lute dinosaurs and called Thomas More a “futtocking rotter”.
In essence, Keith was a conduit. He gave rave music a vivid future-punk personality as it rocketed overground – at a time, remember, when the most extrovert dance music statement imaginable was wearing torches on your glasses so you could see where the space bar was.
He paid homage to past decades of counter-culture spirit and allowed all future genres and generations to own the same shit-kicking attitude. It’s thanks to Keith that it’s not just Idles and Fontaines DC that can be punk today, but Stormzy, Grimes and Kanye too.
Punk wasn’t a fire Keith started, but he sure as hell fanned the flame.