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.
There were a lot of people in places like London, Leeds, and Los Angeles who did have something to say after all, and found in the music an idiom in which they could say it. “The story,” Marcus writes, “was always the same: the music made a promise that things did not have to be as they seemed, and some brave people set out to keep that promise for themselves.”
Take The Mekons. They started in 1977 at the University of Leeds as strictly a joke, more a students’ collective of almost two dozen pranksters and semi-musicians than a proper group. They vowed that they would never record, allow themselves to be photographed, or give interviews, and then cheerfully did all of it. They brought a couch inscribed with the word “spaceship” on stage with them. They sang absurd songs—their first single, “Never Been In A Riot,” consisted of a couple of chords and a drum roll, sounded like sucking the pulp out of a dead tooth, and was chiefly concerned with mocking The Clash’s risible claim to want a “White Riot.” (The Mekons did actually end up in a riot, fighting off a neo-fascist attack on a gay bar they frequented, which made the joke even better.) Beside this utter incompetence, the Pistols may as well have been Led Zeppelin or King Crimson.
The Clash, the most successful of the original punk bands, had slogans, communiqués, a tune in which they elevated an arrest for shooting pigeons into a cosmic attack on the idea of representative democracy. The Mekons had principles: “that anybody could do it; that we didn’t want to be stars; that there was no set group as such, anybody could get up and join in and instruments would be swapped around; that there’d be no distance between the audience and the band; that we were nobody special,” as guitarist Kevin Lycett once told the writer Simon Reynolds. What was in the hands of a great and yet thoroughly conventional band like The Clash a set of contrived rebel postures was something quite different for The Mekons. They actually meant what they were saying.
For Marcus, intensely focused as he was on music by people who quite deliberately had nothing to say at all, this sort of thing clearly came as true revelation. The old folk and blues acts with which he was obsessed meant nothing they said and probably paid it no attention; their lyrics were dusty inheritances. Their descendants, such as Dylan and The Band, loved dramatic poses and the sound of words. They were performers, assuming transient roles for the benefit of an audience.