Punks, Goths, and Mods on TV (1983)

The Riv­et­head pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with fash­ion is inescapably relat­ed to their anx­i­ety over being con­fused for sub­cul­tures they pro­fess to hate: Goths, Punks, Met­al­heads, Death Rock­ers… The fact that so many sub­cul­tures claim black as their col­or of choice con­tributes to the con­fu­sion.

There are two points upon which the­o­rists of post-indus­tri­al British sub­cul­tures gen­er­al­ly agree: 1) No mat­ter the music or the fash­ion, the bound­aries between one sub­cul­ture and anoth­er were rig­or­ous­ly, even vio­lent­ly, enforced (hence the wars between the mods and rock­ers), and; 2) The music and fash­ions of every sub­cul­ture were sub­ject to coop­ta­tion by the machin­ery of cap­i­tal­ism, to be mass pro­duced, pack­aged, and sold as off-the-rack com­mod­i­ty, a phe­nom­e­non that occurred almost as soon as punks, mods, rock­ers, goths, ted­dy boys, skin­heads, New Roman­tics, etc. began appear­ing on tele­vi­sion — as in the post-Grundy Irish TV appear­ance of four young indi­vid­u­als above from 1983.

The inter­view­er intro­duces these punks, goths, and mods by refer­ring first to their employ­ment — or lack of employ­ment — sta­tus, and then to the num­ber of chil­dren in their fam­i­ly. Com­ments drip­ping with class dis­dain sit along­side a char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of var­i­ous sub­cul­tures as “gangs” — the Hell’s Angels thrown in among them just to dri­ve the point home. Of course, there’s more to say about the denizens of ear­ly-80s UK sub­cul­tur­al street cor­ners — more than these four rep­re­sen­ta­tives have to say them­selves. It is com­mu­ni­cat­ed through per­for­mance rather than ver­bal expo­si­tion, through the affil­i­a­tions of cloth­ing, music, and pose — as in the mini-his­tor­i­cal slideshow of late-20th cen­tu­ry British sub­cul­tures below, from the 50s to the 80s.

In 1979, British the­o­rist Dick Heb­di­ge pub­lished what many con­sid­ered the defin­i­tive analy­sis of these work­ing-class scenes, which fre­quent­ly cen­tered around forms of racial and cul­tur­al exchange — as with mods who loved jazz or punks who loved ska and dub reg­gae; or racial and cul­tur­al exclu­sion — as with fas­cist skin­heads and chau­vin­ist ted­dy boys who glo­ri­fied the past, while oth­er sub­cul­tur­al ide­olo­gies looked to the future (or, as the case may be, no future).

Hebdige’s Sub­cul­ture: the Mean­ing of Style begins with a sto­ry about French writer Jean Genet, humil­i­at­ed in prison by homo­pho­bic guards over his pos­ses­sion of a tube of Vase­line:

Like Genet, we are inter­est­ed in sub­cul­ture – in the expres­sive forms and rit­u­als of those sub­or­di­nate groups – the ted­dy boys and mods and rock­ers, the skin­heads and the punks – who are alter­nate­ly dis­missed, denounced and can­on­ized; treat­ed at dif­fer­ent times as threats to pub­lic order and as harm­less buf­foons.

The irony of sub­cul­tures is that they iden­ti­fy with social out­siders, while re-enforc­ing bound­aries that cre­ate exclu­siv­i­ty (cf. the quote at the top, from Heb­di­ge-inspired Sub­cul­tures List). When the nov­el­ty and shock recedes, they become ripe fod­der for com­mer­cial coop­ta­tion, even lux­u­ry brand­ing.

What we usu­al­ly don’t get from tame ret­ro­spec­tives, or from patron­iz­ing mass media of the time, are deviant out­siders like Genet who can­not be reab­sorbed into the sys­tem because their very exis­tence pos­es a threat to the social order as so con­strued. So much of the fash­ion and music of post-war Britain was direct­ly cre­at­ed or inspired by West Indi­an migrants of the Win­drush gen­er­a­tion, for exam­ple. In too many pop­u­lar rep­re­sen­ta­tions of post­war British sub­cul­tures, that essen­tial part of the work­ing class UK sub­cul­ture sto­ry has been entire­ly left out.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

A His­to­ry of Punk from 1976–78: A Free Online Course from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Read­ing

The Sex Pis­tols Make a Scan­dalous Appear­ance on the Bill Grundy Show & Intro­duce Punk Rock to the Star­tled Mass­es (1976)

The His­to­ry of Punk Rock in 300 Tracks: A 13-Hour Playlist Takes You From 1965 to Present

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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