As part of a the first Poetry & Lyrics Festival (10-11 June), Steve Lamacq is hosting an event examining the poetry of punk entitled Tenderness & Rage at Kings Place in London on the final night (11). To preview the discussion the DJ examines the more poetic side of anarchy in a guest column.
No matter where you stand on the subject of the punk rock movement of the 1970s, it’s hard to disagree that it unlocked the gates to a new wave of wordsmiths; armed, not only with a new vocabulary but a far broader lyrical brief than what we’d been used to.
There had been protest songs before but not like these (Anarchy In The UK, Big A Little A); there had been love songs before but not like these (Ever Fallen In Love, Barbed Wire Love); there had even been songs about sex and the futility of war and of being a misfit or an outcast, but they weren’t like the ruthless new takes on these subjects, that the punks spat out in moments of sudden speed-fuelled inspiration.
Gone were the easy-going rhythms of the preceding years, with their easy-going narratives and easy-going rhymes. Punk celebrated a new type of writing; a new type of poetry. Take the Merriam-Webster definition of the poet’s work: “writing that formulates a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience in language chosen to create a specific emotional response through meaning, sound and rhythm.”
In layman punk rock terms, that translated as a piece of writing which didn’t just hope for a reaction, but wanted to provoke one. The emotional response was central to punk, whether it was anger or understanding; frustration or celebration.
The punk poets went to work without boundaries. Breaking taboos as they went, John Lydon was almost Shakespearean in his ‘warts and all’ depiction of royalty, while Penny Rimbaud of the anarcho collective Crass was Auden-esque at times, his work cutting, informed and realistically bleak.
There were others of course, too many to mention. But Poly Styrene’s introduction to X-Ray Spex’s single Oh Bondage Up Yours (“Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard/ but I say Oh bondage up yours”) is a blistering piece of poetry. And much of The Adverts’ debut album Crossing The Red Sea benefits from singer TV Smith’s brilliantly descriptive powers, embracing the landscape around him and the adolescent feelings within.
As a test, try removing the music and reading the lyrics alone, and you’ll find that songs like Bombsite Boy (Leapfrog over fences/Little time less senses”) have a depth of feeling all of their own, even when they’re removed from the chaotic rush of the music. Should a job ever become available as Britain’s first Punk Laureate, then he’s top of my list. Steve Lamacq @BBClamacqshow
For on the festival and details of Tenderness & Rage head to Poetinthecity.co.uk.