Hilary Menos looks back at the poets who embodied the spirit of punk in the 1970s and 80s and asks where is the punk spirit today?
August Bank Holiday 1979, Marsh Farm Festival, Luton. The headline band is UK Decay. I am fourteen and my friend Alison is fifteen, and we have walked three miles across town to get here. I’d like to think that we looked the part – Alison in her yellow and maroon tartan trousers and blue fringe, me in my charity shop trench coat with the London Calling album cover painted on the back in white Dylon fabric paint – but London Calling wasn’t released until December 1979 and Alison assures me that, at that time, we still looked fairly normal.
Inside, however, we are all punk, or so we fancy. We listen to The Ramones, The Sex Pistols and, of course, The Clash, and we are in a band ourselves, though we can’t sing or play and we don’t own any instruments. Punk has put a rocket up the pop charts and divided the youth of Luton into mods, punks and metal heads, and on this August Bank Holiday most of them are converging on the Marsh Farm Estate to see UK Decay and their support band Pneumania, soon to be described as “two of the worst bands in the world” by Charles Shaar Murray and Danny Baker in the NME, a kind of inverse accolade which will drive sales of their jointly recorded Split Single, released by Plastic Records in 1979, into a second pressing.
The festival field is filling up. Groups of punks loll in front of the stage swigging from cans of beer, kids kick balls around, a few families picnic on the grass. Over by the car park the MadCaps sweat in their greasy leathers, roll cigarettes and inspect each other’s bikes. Pneumania’s spike haired singer Gaynor Griffiths, aka Sno White, struts around the stage, shrieking and punching the air over some raucous guitar playing and a spatter of drums. The band have more enthusiasm than skill, but that’s what punk is all about and we are pleased to be there, settling down with our illicit two cans of Kestrel apiece and some squashed cheese and Branston Pickle sandwiches.
We listen to The Ramones, The Sex Pistols and, of course, The Clash, and we are in a band ourselves, though we can’t sing or play and we don’t own any instruments
At the end of Pneumania’s set, while the bands mess around with gear, some lanky guy in drainpipe jeans, a Dennis the Menace t-shirt and Dr. Marten boots takes the mic and announces that he will read us his poem. He starts to shout something about Thatcher and Reagan and Greenham Common. It’s fast and furious, it rhymes, kind of, and scans – well, in parts. I’ve never heard anything like it before and it’s strangely compelling. He finishes with a flourish and a thank you, and stomps off stage. The four members of UK Decay come on to a hail of beer cans and thrash out a short set starting with ‘Car Crash’ and ending with ‘For My Country’, but I‘m still thinking about the punk poet. His name is Nick the Poet, and he is my introduction to ‘ranting poetry’.
I never see Nick the Poet again, but the following year Attila the Stockbroker plays the Cock, opposite Luton Tech. He clutches a beer bottle and shouts his poems through the mic. “I don’t talk to pop stars / and they don’t talk to me / it’s a mutual arrangement / – the way we like to be”. Alison and I both buy the Cherry Red album Pillows and Prayers, an eclectic compilation of 17 acts which sold for 99p and shifted 120,000 copies in the UK alone, and I listen to The Monochrome Set and Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt and Eyeless in Gaza but most of all I listened to track 14, Attila’s poem about being threatened by youths in burger bars, ‘A Bang and a Wimpey’: “Pre-pubescent pugilists, terror tots, South London’s finest / knee-high nihilists planning nursery crimes […] primary school but primed to kill or maim or terrorise / size you up and slice you through with Peter Sutcliffe eyes”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=om24vFEStvw.
Attila the Stockbroker, aka John Baine, was initially inspired by his father, from whom he says he inherited a love of rhyme and a sense of rhythm, and also by Hilaire Belloc’s comic poetry. Baine got involved in music as a bass player in various bands in the 1970s. He loved the rebelliousness and the DIY ethos of punk subculture, but soon worked out that his strength was words, rather than bass playing, so he started jumping up on stages in between bands to shout his poems. In ‘My Poetic Licence’ he introduces himself, and his politics:
Yo! I’m the MC of ranting rebel poetry
I know my history and my identity
I’m independent, a red cottage industry
DIY from here to eternity
Now let me tell you what’s been going on –
I take my inspiration from centuries long gone
Oral tradition of sedition, that’s my position
No court jester with a tame disposition …
And yes, once or twice I’ve had to fight –
but when a fascist hits a poet, the poet’s doing something right! https://www.musixmatch.com/lyrics/Attila-the-Stockbroker/My-Poetic-License-Live
While Nick the Poet and Attila the Stockbroker were ranting in pubs and at punk gigs in the South East, in a front room in Bradford two more punk poets were developing their skills. Julianne Mumford was the daughter of an “ex military, ex Territorial SAS”https://www.joolzdenby.co.uk/post/episode-1 with advanced self-defence skills and no fear. At 19 she married Kenneth Denby, a ‘prospect’ in the biker gang Satan’s Slaves. In her twenties she divorced Denby, took a job as a bouncer at the Queen’s Hall in Bradford, and discovered punk.
Her interest in poetry started when she went to a poetry reading at her local library. The poetry she heard meant nothing to her. “Poetry was … smug, self satisfied, snobbish, and happy in its ivory tower”https://www.joolzdenby.co.uk/post/episode-11 she says. “It was all middle class people writing about their divorces and vacations in Tuscany.” She wanted to write “poetry that had meaning for people like us”.
Initially Denby worked in collaboration with the underground cult band New Model Army and in particular with the NMA singer Justin Sullivan, who also performed solo as Slade the Leveller, a reference to the seventeenth century political movement. She was the first manager of the band, designing posters, album covers and merchandise, and regularly gigged with them. She began to build a reputation as a touring performance poet, performing alongside punk bands and other punk poets. At the outset, she said, “I didn’t really do the same kind of poetry that they were doing but they didn’t have any girls so I got roped into it”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vMZxI9Lbq_M.
The poet doing the roping was Seething Wells. On her blog Denby describes him as a “living powerhouse of scathing mental energy and furious polemic. Bullet-headed and rubbery with ire, his wild ideas and crazed humour were like a jolt of speed every time he opened his mouth.”
“Why write about ‘cosmic experiences’ when you can write about your own predicament – being on the dole and having no money spare, ever”
Steven Wells (aka Seething Wells aka Susan Williams aka Swells) was born in Swindon in 1960 but moved to Bradford when he was young. He got involved with the radical socialist Leeds art-punk band The Mekons, moved to Leeds and began performing as a ranting poet and comedian. He performed as a support act to various northern English punk bands, such as The Fall and Gang of Four, along with Attila The Stockbroker and fellow ranting poets Mark Miwurdz and Porky The Poet, better known now as Phil Jupitus. He was an angry skinhead with an Anti-Nazi League tattoo and if poetry was a fight, he never used a razor when he could bring out a sledgehammer. The Yorkshire Post described him as “about as subtle as a nail bomb exploding in a crowded room”https://standupandspit.wordpress.com/2014/03/13/seething-wells/. He vented his spleen on “sexists, toffs, vegetarians, homophobes, fascists and Tetley Bittermen” (Tetley’s was a beer brewed in Yorkshire and the Tetley Bittermen were the “typical Yorkshiremen” portrayed in their ads).
John Baine said, “He wrote to me, enclosing his fanzine Molotov Comics, saying he was doing the same in Bradford, and so were some friends of his including Joolz and Slade the Leveller, from a then unknown band, New Model Army. He called it “ranting poetry” and from the moment I heard the phrase, so did I.”https://www.3ammagazine.com/3am/seething-wells-a-tribute/
Wells said: “It’s about getting poetry back to basics – simplifying it and making it more direct. Why write about ‘cosmic experiences’ when you can write about your own predicament – being on the dole and having no money spare, ever.”https://standupandspit.wordpress.com/2014/12/20/ranting-in-street-sounds/
Drizzling rain, heavy fog
Being swamped by the Drug Squad
A police dog sniffs-out vitamin pills
These build your muscles
“What’re these Punk? D’you take drugs?”
The constable snarls
The dog looks puzzled
I’m quite fond of puppy dogs
It’s pigs that should be muzzled.
But where did these ranting poets find their inspiration? You have to go back a decade or so before punk arrived to find the man who is generally seen as the first punk poet. Part-poet part-comedian, John Cooper Clarke says he went to a ‘Salford slum school’ with its own coroner, and where they wrote essays titled ‘What I Want to Be if I Grow Up’.
In the 1960s, inspired in part by Pam Ayres, which was the only poetry on the telly, Clarke started taking his surreal, wry poetry out into working men’s clubs, folk clubs and variety hall venues. Bernard Manning gave him his first break. He read alongside ventriloquists and strippers until punk came along and he found his natural home, filling in between bands, warming up before bands and later supporting the Sex Pistols, the Buzzcocks, Joy Division, the Smiths, the Fall, Siouxsie and the Banshees and Magazine, among others. From the heckling at punk gigs – and there was a lot of heckling – he learnt to work the crowd. He heard how the Ramones joked about the speed and brevity of their gigs so he sped up and began to deliver poems at breakneck speed. Poems like ‘You never see a nipple in the Daily Express’.
I’ve seen the poison letters of the horrible hacks
About the yellow peril and the reds and the blacks
And the TUC and its treacherous acts
Kremlin money – All right Jack
I’ve seen how democracy is under duress
But I’ve never seen a nipple in the Daily Express
This paper’s boring mindless mean
Full of pornography the kind that’s clean
Where William Hickey meets Michael Caine
Again and again and again and again
I’ve seen millionaires on the DHSS
But I’ve never seen a nipple in the Daily Express
(from ‘You never see a nipple in the Daily Express’)https://johncooperclarke.com/poems/you-never-see-a-nipple-in-the-daily-express
It was the Beat poets of New York in the ’50s which really shaped Clarke’s self-image. “It was very difficult to get books by Jack Kerouac back then,” he remembers. “I found out about them via Mad Magazine, where there was a spoof on Beatniks in ’57. I finally got one, Big Sur, and thought, ‘Yeah, this is sensational.’” https://www.huckmag.com/art-and-culture/music-2/john-cooper-clarke-new-york-was-all-about-narcotics-that-was-attractive-to-me/
Classic John Cooper Clarke poems include the magnificently dystopian ‘Evidently Chickentown’, with the unforgettable line “You’re fucking lost and fucking found, stuck in fucking Chickentown”, although the recorded version, which closed an episode of The Sopranos, had “bloody” instead of “fucking”. ‘I Wanna Be Yours’ was reworked and recorded by the Arctic Monkeys: “I wanna be your vacuum cleaner / Breathin’ in your dust / I wanna be your Ford Cortina / I will never rust // If you like your coffee hot / Let me be your coffee pot / You call the shots, babe / I just wanna be yours.”
Beasley Street may be tailored towards the past, but its atmospheric despair still chimes with us today
Best of all, in my book, is ‘Beasley Street’ which draws on the poverty he experienced growing up in Salford under a Thatcher government. Beasley Street may be tailored to fit a past decade, but its atmospheric despair still chimes with us today.
The kingdom of the blind
A one-eyed man is king
Beauty problems are redefined
The doorbells do not ring
A lightbulb bursts like a blister
The only form of heat
Here a fellow sells his sister
Down the river on Beasley Street
People turn to poison
Quick as lager turns to piss
Sweethearts are physically sick
Every time they kiss.
It’s a sociologist’s paradise
Each day repeats
On easy, cheesy, greasy, queasy
Beastly Beasley Street
(from Beasley Street)
Protesting, political, working-class, humorous yet also deadly serious, the ‘ranting’ poetry of the 80s was the vibrant precursor of today’s spoken word poetry. But there’s another thread to this. Punk was inextricably bound to reggae. Both were music of youth rebellion and social action, and they were introduced to each other by Don Letts at the Roxy in Covent Garden – the first UK venue to cater exclusively to punk – where Letts worked as the house DJ. The Roxy is where Joe Strummer discovered reggae and it led to the Clash covering Junior Murvin’s ‘Police and Thieves’ in 1977 and then to ‘White Man In Hammersmith Palais’, released in 1978, a scathing attack on UK race relations over a punk reggae rhythm. The Clash’s landmark album London Calling was full of reggae riffs and inspiration. The Ruts’ third single for Virgin, ‘Jah War’, released at the end of October 1979, was a furious punk dub about police brutality. Don Letts also introduced Bob Marley to punk. Marley became inspired by the passion and rebellion of the punks and wrote ‘Punky Reggae Party’ in response.
While punk attempted to capture the sense of chaos and disenfranchisement of the late 1970s and early 1980s through music and ranting poetry, reggae – in the form of Linton Kwesi Johnson – found another. Johnson didn’t sing, or DJ, the pioneering Jamaican rapping style that was a precursor to hip-hop. On record, Johnson simply spoke his verses over a deep, heavy rhythmic backing, a style that became known as dub poetry.
Linton Kwesi Johnson was born in Jamaica and raised in London, and he bridged the gap between reggae poetry and punk poetry, infusing his music with politics and an urge for freedom rooted in his experience as a black man living in Brixton. He wrote in a unique marriage of Caribbean Creole and black urban patois. Amid reggae’s rising popularity and riding on a punk-reggae “anti-establishment” coalition, he opened for punk groups such as Johnny Rotten’s Public Image Limited – successor to the Sex Pistols. Linton Kwesi Johnson paved the way for dub poets such as Oku Onuora, known as the “father of Jamaican dub poetry”, and Benjamin Zephaniah, self-described “Poet, writer, lyricist, musician and naughty boy”.
Zephaniah’s blog notes, “In the early Eighties when Punks and Rastas were on the streets protesting about SUS Laws, high unemployment, homelessness and the National Front, Zephaniah’s poetry could be heard on the demonstrations, at youth gatherings, outside police stations, and on the dance floor … His mission was to take poetry everywhere, he hated the dead image that academia and the establishment had given poetry and proclaimed that he was out to popularise poetry by reaching people who did not read books, those that were keen on books could now witness a book coming to life on the stage. This poetry was political, musical, radical, relevant and on TV.”
Apples & Snakes was set up by a group of poets in 1982 to promote and encourage performance poetry, and worked with many of the ranting poets, including Attila the Stockbroker, Joolz Denby and Seething Wells, as well as other poets and musicians with a political message such as Billy Bragg. It has been crucial in the development of many of the high profile poets and spoken word artists working today including John Agard, Jean “Binta” Breeze, Malika Booker, Lemn Sissay, Kae Tempest and more.
Punk had a have-a-go, anyone-can-do-it, DIY attitude. It represented release, freedom, rebellion, fury and frustration with the establishment; it was dirty, funny, feral, anti-capitalist, counter-culture, anti-Thatcher, left wing, socialist, anarchist, political and all about the music. Much has changed since the 1970s and 80s – in particular computers and new technology make it easy to create music and poetry that sound and look professional, so the scrappy, hand-made element of punk is rarely found – but there are still poets whose work is fiercely political, who have developed their work with music firmly in mind, and who push hard against the structures of the establishment. Who embodies the have-a-go, political spirit of punk today?
Punk had a have-a-go, anyone-can-do-it, DIY attitude. It represented release, freedom, rebellion, fury and frustration with the establishment; it was dirty, funny, feral, anti-capitalist, counter-culture, anti-Thatcher, left wing, socialist, anarchist, political and all about the music
In terms of music, how about Sleaford Mods, who are vocalist Jason Williamson and, since 2012, musician Andrew Fearn. They are, according to The Independent “the post-punk poets of the underclass.”https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/news/sleaford-mods-boris-johnson-david-gandy-and-russell-brand-all-come-under-attack-in-postpunk-duo-s-new-album-key-markets-10343003.html The music is hard to categorise – post-punk, electro-punk, alternative/indie, minimalist. But the spirit is definitely punk – they sing about unemployment, modern working life, celebrities and pop culture, capitalism and society in general, and swear a lot. One fan, Steven Lovatt, says, “Jason Williamson has brought punk poetry to the masses over the last ten years”.
In the world of poetry, Outspoken Press, establishes by Anthony Anaxagorou in 2015, has something of the punk about it. It was set up with the aim of providing a platform for compelling writing from voices that are under-represented in mainstream publishing. The Press has published 25 titles to date by authors including Raymond Antrobus, Sabrina Mahfouz, Joelle Taylor, Harry Josephine Giles, Richard Georges and Fran Lock. Anaxagorou himself has a reputation for being a bit of a maverick – he was even awarded the 2015 Groucho Maverick Award for his poetry and fiction – and his guest editors Joelle Taylor (2021) and and Wayne-Holloway Smith (2022-23) are both deeply political and fiercely independent.
Burning Eye Books is “Never knowingly mainstream”. It’s small independent publisher which specialising in spoken word artists. Editors Bridget Hart & Clive Birnie aim to publish emerging and established artists who might be rejected from other, more traditional poetry publishers. “We look for the bold, the fearless and the strange” and they publish a big list, including Casey Bailey, the Birmingham Poet Laureate 2020-2022, Joelle Taylor, Lucy English, and Johnny Fluffypunk – “A multiple slam champion who hates competition in the arts almost as much as hypocrisy” (though it is probably fair to say he’s as fluffy as he is punk). Hart and Birnie say, ”We live in a world where you have to stand up for what you stand for and we stand for dignity and equality for all”.
Nymphs and Thugs, based in Leeds, was established in 2015 by Matt Abbott and bills itself as the UK’s leading spoken word record label. As well as digital albums, Nymphs and Thugs has released CDs, vinyl, zines, and various merchandise. They also produce national spoken word tours and ‘LIVEwire’ events around the UK and have recently launched the Disarm Hate x Poetry Project. Stars of the label are Toria Garbutt, Luke Wright (from Aisle 16), and Salena Godden.
Godden first discovered ranting poetry from doing gigs in 1990s London with poets Tim Wells, Scottish poet Jock Scot, and John Cooper Clarke, and went on to make a name for herself on the performance poetry circuit as a punk poet. Punk crowds liked her boozy, dirty and honest take on her life. “I’d warm them up: it was mucky poems for punks,” she recallshttp://www.thecnj.com/review/2008/112708/books112708_01.html. Her poem ‘I Will Not Vote For Mrs May’ is a blistering punk version of her earlier poem ‘Citizen Of Nowhere’ and opens, “I will not vote for Mrs May / This hard and xenophobic way”. Her poem ‘It Isn’t Punk To Seek Permission’ featured on BBC Radio 4’s Best of 2018 and is published in Pessimism is for Lightweights: 13 Pieces of Courage and Resistance, published by Rough Trade, a collection of poems written “for the women’s march, for women’s empowerment and amplification, poems that salute people fighting for justice, poems on sexism and racism, class discrimination, period poverty and homelessness, immigration and identity”.
Give us a go on your sun and watch how we’d share it
Give us a paddle in your sunlight, a splash of shiny-shiny
One hour of the sun that is fixed on you and your privilege
For look how strong we are and how tall we can already stand
Without your sun, without your gold and
Without your permission.
(from ‘It Isn’t Punk to Seek Permission’)
Also on the Nymphs and Thugs label is Kirsty Taylor. Taylor has a considerable dose of punk spirit. A fiercely proud Bradfordian, she “blends hip-hop influences with a contemporary take on kitchen sink realism”. The characters in her poetry are from council estates and shopping precincts and box bedrooms; her film poem ‘Go Safe’ addresses the issues of homeless and vulnerable young people. Her poem for Bradford, written for Bradford BID in 2020, was made into a spoken word poetry film; it details and champions the real working lives of Bradford people. In this, and in the way she integrates politics and music into her poetry, Taylor comes closest to being a worthy – if considerably more melodic – successor to the creator of ‘Beasley Street’. This is from ‘Go Safe’:
Go Safe / big lad / with them Aldi bags weighted / with everything you own […] Your whole life is lived / on bread lines / last crust and crumbs of houses / no gardens, just sheds / just shells of a home / bagged up estate playgrounds / is all you’ve ever known […] Go Safe.
Attila The Stockbroker – 35 years a punk poet – a mini documentary directed by Farouq Suleiman
Kirsty Taylor – Go Safe film-poem. Words by Kirsty Taylor, music by SOULS, photograph by John Bolloten