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Punk 1976-78

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September 2016

2016 is the 40th anniversary of Punk Rock and the British Library has a modern collection of punk and new-wave memorabilia on show.

Andy and the clashBy his own admission curators are always trying to draw attention to their collections. So, an exhibition celebrating punk’s 40th anniversary is Andy Linehan's opportunity to show that the British Library collects modern material as well as Shakespeare, Alice in Wonderland and the Magna Carta, all recent exhibitions.

The British Library Sound Archive is amongst the most wide ranging in the world and mirrors what the written word archive does. Its ambition to get hold of a copy of everything published in the UK relies on donations from record companies. Andy explained in the sunlit piazza overlooked by Paolozzi’s four metre high bronze statue of Isaac Newton measuring time inspired by a William Blake engraving how the exhibition came about.

“We utilised our own collection of records, fanzines, music press, flyers and personal documents, he said. "But some of the material, for example the letter from EMI Records sacking Glen Matlock, the original bass player with the Sex Pistols, we borrowed from England’s Dreaming author Jon Savage’s punk archives stored in Liverpool John Moore’s University.”

How easy was it to organise and who has seen it?

“It’s a complete mix of material and that’s one of the nice things about it. People of an age reminiscing about their youth and younger people discovering something completely new.  Yesterday someone walked through with a couple of kids aged around 6 years old and one put on the headphones to listen to the Pistols and started reacting to the music, so the idea that kids can get something out of it is brilliant. We got lots of press interest in Japan, France, and America, so tourists put us on their ‘to see’ list."

thewall of singles

“One of things people notice is the wall of 100 singles. It’s a real sharing experience, chatting about what records they had and listening to any of the tunes coming on the ambient systems. People can interact with our choice of 45’s, although these are not the definitive punk singles by any means, but more a random selection from those years.”

Size was a dilemma for Andy. If the main exhibition area of the British Library was used, he would have had to charge an entry fee. Instead, the exhibition was conceived to fit into the first floor space that he describes as 'bijou'. “I prefer small. It’s like the tip of the iceberg to encourage people to come and discover their own history.”


What’s your favourite punk band?

“Ask me tomorrow and it would be the Clash or the Adverts, but today its the Buzzcocks. Punk is great pop music. To me, the three minute pop song is a thing of beauty. One would think that with a finite number of notes that there would be a finite number of songs, but people keep on coming up with variations.  When I first started curating, it was post punk - hip hop was starting and I remember the new thing was the compact disc, mini discs after digital audio cassettes. And the music was changing too: rave, grunge, Brit pop, grime, dub-step. amusical revolution inserting evolution into music.”  


Who else is involved?

A series of talks taking place in the British Library conference centre is giving the perpetrators of punk an opportunity to say something. Signifying Nothing? The Creative Revolution of Punk featured Glen Matlock deconstructing his experience of the Sex Pistols, Pauline Murray, lead singer of Penetration discussing the feminist version of punk and bassist Jah Wobble sharing his, John Rotten and Sid Vicious’s teenage escapades as students at Kingsway College, (a college I also attended).Ted Polhemus, anthropologist and author, Jon Savage writer, broadcaster and iconic punkess Jordan examined the effect that punk produced on individuals, communities and cultures against a backdrop of Sheila Rock’s seminal photographs, suggesting punk was 100% provocation.

A platform celebrating punk would not be complete without its leading protagonist and singer John Lydon (aka Rotten). The tickets for his talk sold out in a flash at £30 each, the most expensive of the event. Lydon was forthright about his love of libraries, saying that without libraries he would not have learned what he learned spending time out of school because of a childhood illness. His belief that libraries are central to life and to society in UK is an admission that thrilled Andy, because Lydon didn’t have to say that, but he did. 


Why is punk still relevant ?

Punk Picture

According to Andy, the interesting thing about punk is how people evolve from it. “Some people still adhere to the lifestyle and what they perceive as its principles - the whole punk is not dead argument. On the other hand, many people move on and stop wearing their punk outfits and thinking that was a fun point of my life, interesting, but I moved on.”

The British Library Punk 1976-78 is a life affirming celebration of punk aimed at people enjoying an interaction with the library’s  collection. In today’s backward looking society this major 20th century youth movement continues to appeal not just because of its catalogue of great music, but its irreverence, challenging of the status quo, and questioning the values of consumerist society.


Punk 76-78 runs until 2nd October 2016 at the British Library. Free entry.

Photos of Andy Linehan at the Punk exhibition (c) Sam Burcher 2016