Most of the writing on punk holds that it was, ultimately, a glimpse at an uncompromising future that never actually arrived. Unlike Bangs and Christgau, though, who loved punk for what it wasn’t—soft, slow, tentative—Marcus saw it for what it actually was. For him it was a sensibility, and not a theory, one that more than anything was about a vague sense that the world was not as it should be. And this is likely why he was one of the few to notice that the Winterland show was not the end of anything at all.
Punk—call it loud, fast rock and roll played in the mid- to late-1970s by the first generation to whom Bob Dylan and The Beatles were hoary old relics—was a lot of things. It was the inevitable result of some of the stranger musical experiments of the 1960s and the invention of cheap recording technology; it was an inchoate reaction to the same anxieties that would soon put Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in office; it was the perfect cultural expression of eternal adolescent alienation; it was a fad. For a few months in 1976 and 1977, the papers and the television carried ominous warnings about feral youths listening to incomprehensible ranters who dyed their hair green and wanted to overthrow the government and set everything on fire. The Sex Pistols, who denounced the Queen as not even being human, were banned from the British airwaves; rock critics briefly exulted and then forgot about the whole thing.
Marcus shows no real concern with those few brief months in 1977 when punk was capital-I Important and every broadcast in England led with a picture of some young unfortunate with a safety pin through his face. Nor does he have anything much to say about the parallel scene in downtown New York, where, he notes, “most punks seemed to be auditioning for careers as something else.” He has little interest, in fact, in most of the canonical punk rock with which I was obsessed at age fourteen, when I cajoled my mother into buying this book for me, and with which any number of fourteen-year-olds are probably just as obsessed right now: Television, Minor Threat, Hüsker Dü, and the Minutemen aren’t mentioned at all, and the Ramones once, in a passing reference to their tiresome shtick.
What does interest him is a lot of strange music of which I’d never heard. Much of it I wouldn’t discover for many years, partly because many of the records were, quaint as it seems today, physically unavailable in the United States at a price I could pay, and partly because the heterodoxy of what he was describing was just intimidating: it was music I’d never heard anyone else speak up for, which seemed to come from a world at a right angle to the one I knew. Most of what he recommended was quite brilliant. These were (mainly) English groups with such fantastical names as Essential Logic (“imagine Alice forced to get a band together and play for the Red Queen a modest, perfectly intentional demolition of the ability to take anything at face value”), Delta 5 (they “accept the inevitability of love but maintain their suspicions”), Gang of Four (“leisure as oppression, identity as product”), and The Mekons (“collective self-realization through playful art against a backdrop of social strife”).
Where the acts that I was listening to were generally working minor variations on a single theme of loud solipsism, these groups were imagining, and creating, a small and temporary utopia in short bursts, the place the singer Poly Styrene described when she sang about x-rays penetrating through a latex breeze. If I’d had the ear for them, I would have heard a way out of the charmless narcissism that had me holed up in my bedroom with Minor Threat blaring through my headphones. I didn’t, but then few people did. Marcus was one of them.
More alienated and politically astute than his fellow critics, Marcus was never put out by punk’s revolutionary posturing, and so never fixed on hair dye, safety pins, and moral panic as being anything worth much thought. He took anarchism and bad fashion as given, and kept listening after the scabrous youth of London were done with their fourteen minutes. What he heard showed that the conventional line on the music was totally wrong. The safety-pinned kids may have failed to do whatever it was they were supposed to do—overthrow the British monarchy? kill bad radio forever?—but it was exactly at this point that punk became interesting.