Russ Bestley has established a reputation as one of the great historians of popular music. His specific area is punk, post-punk and DIY music. The 2015 book, The Art of Punk which he co-authored with Alex Ogg is one of the best books ever written about popular music. It includes many of the most original and interesting examples of punk art along with text that places these in context.
In addition, Russ is the editor of the Journal of Punk and Post-Punk which features material from fans, academics and musicians. It captures the key, and often over-looked, aspects of punk and post-punk.
You are best probably known as lecturer/curator/author on punk and DIY, what motivates you to continue your work celebrating and unpacking the history of punk?
My work broadly spans two subjects – graphic design (particularly visual research methods) and punk (its history, especially UK punk between 1976-84, and the art and design of punk artefacts and ephemera – record sleeves, posters, flyers, fanzines etc). I was a teenage punk fan (which I can see is the question coming up, so I’ll say more about that later), before going on to get more actively involved in the scene for many years until I eventually ended up in a dead-end job driving a forklift truck in a warehouse. I was made redundant at the end of the 1980s (thank god) and decided to go back to college to study art and design as a ‘mature student’. That led to a chance meeting with a tutor who was around the same age as me and who had been involved in the local punk scene for as long as I had, though we had never spoken. He inspired me to study graphic design, and we ended up working together for over 20 years, researching design approaches and practice and collaborating with other designers and activists around the world.
One thing that impacted hugely on me when I began studying again was that tutors identified me as a ‘punk’ and suggested I read some academic books explaining the subculture, such as Dick Hebdige’s Subculture: The Meaning of Style. The problem for me was that, while it’s an interesting book, it fails to acknowledge the experiences of myself and thousands of others like me – beyond categorising those of us out in the ‘provinces’ as clumsy imitators of the avant-garde cultural elite in the Kings Road in 1976. The ‘hicks from the sticks’, you might say. I guess that triggered a response in me that led to twenty-odd years (and counting) of ‘academic research’. I wanted to provide a counter-narrative, to tell a broader and more inclusive story that acknowledges the wide variety of experiences of punks across the UK (initially) and then more widely. My PhD, Hitsville UK: Punk and Graphic Design in the Faraway Towns, 1976-84, focussed on the design of UK punk seven-inch single sleeves, along with the notion of the punk diaspora – the evolution of different punk styles (musical, visual, stylistic, ideological) across the UK, in part as a reflection of local identities and in part as a reaction to the stereotyping or commodification of ‘punk’ by the media and the music industry.
So, I guess what ‘motivates’ me is still that desire to research and narrate the bigger stories. I also think the central purpose and benefit of ‘Higher Education’ lies in the idea of criticality – critical reflection and critical thinking. In simple terms, that means viewing information or communication with a sense of objectivity (or even healthy scepticism), weighing up evidence, checking facts and sources, identifying rhetorical bias. That, for me, chimes pretty well with my experience of ‘punk’ – questioning authority, holding truth to power.
Were you a fan in the first place?
I was a teenage punk fan, then I played in punk bands, worked as a roadie/humper/sound and lighting technician for live gigs, and spent several years working in a record shop. I was fifteen in 1977, which was a pretty good age to be inspired by the punk explosion, at least in a kind of ‘received’ way… by which I mean, I became a passionate fan of ‘punk’ from reading about it in the music press, hearing punk bands on the radio, buying records when I could get them. That was easier said than done at that time – I grew up in Tunbridge Wells, a small town in the middle of Kent, and our main local record outlets were Boots the chemist (for chart records) and the Rediffusion television rental shop (a box of singles on the counter next to the general electrical goods). My Mum and Dad read the Daily Mail and The News of the World, which were a great inspiration to me: lots of shock-horror stories recounting how disgusting this new craze was, which my parents and grandparents were outraged by – what other attraction do you need as a rebellious teenager? Access to gigs at that time was difficult – I remember saving up from my part time job (cleaning operating theatres in the local hospital) and buying tickets for a gig by Siouxsie & the Banshees with support from The Cure in Lewisham… my Mum found the tickets and destroyed them. She had read in the paper that these punks were all mixed up with Nazis, and was worried that I was going off the rails.
How did you get into music?
I guess like many/most kids I had a passing interest in pop music from a fairly early age. That would have been the very commercial end of Glam Rock I think – T Rex, The Sweet, Slade, Suzi Quatro, that kind of stuff – Top of the Pops, basically. I don’t think I was quite old enough to understand (or discover) the supposedly ‘cool’ bands that influenced early punk – Bowie, Roxy Music, Velvet Underground, Stooges, New York Dolls – I guess I discovered most of that stuff once I was already into punk (77-78) and was being told how important they were. My twin brother and his mates at school got into the regular teenage boy ‘proper’ Rock bands – Led Zeppelin, Genesis, Yes, ELO, Deep Purple, that kind of stuff, but it didn’t appeal much to me. I did like Queen – I guess a halfway house back then between the ‘serious’ Rock acts and the Glam Rock pop stars. Early in 1977 – around January or February – I heard the Stranglers on the radio. The song was London Lady – the flip side to their debut single Grip – and I was hooked. I had read about this ‘punk’ thing in the papers over the previous six months or so, but hadn’t had any opportunity to actually hear it. From there on, I began to seek out channels where I could hear more – Stuart Henry’s Street Heat show on Radio Luxembourg, and a little later on John Peel on Radio One. Punk records were also starting to have a commercial impact – meaning I could find them in Boots or Rediffusion – and even in my Mum’s Freemans catalogue, which began selling chart albums alongside the knitwear and household appliances.
Any particularly memorable gigs?
Lots. Once I escaped my Mum’s clutches enough to get to London or Brighton – the nearest big towns/cities where bands played regularly – I got to see the Stranglers (many times), the Ramones, Siouxsie & the Banshees, The Clash, The Damned and quite a few of the bigger punk bands at their commercial peak. I missed out on the Sex Pistols the first time around, which I regretted, but equally as my tastes were maturing and new, smaller punk and post-punk bands were beginning to make their mark, there were lots of opportunities to be there at the start of something new and unique. Early gigs by Killing Joke stand out to me – an incredible experience, an amazing band – 1980-82 was a great time to see them at their creative peak. They are still an incredible live band, I have been following them around for 37 years now. The Stranglers were brilliant back then too – powerful, tight, musical and with a real charisma. The Clash at the Electric Ballroom, Camden, February 1980 – the power kept shutting down as the sound was tripping the decibel meter in the venue, but the gig was a total riot.
Any favourite records?
Again, lots. Hard to pin that question down – I have a pretty big record collection, and a lot of records mean something to me on different levels. Some are just musically or lyrically awe-inspiring, some remind me of people, places and events, some are just slightly ridiculous but manage to make me smile. Still, here’s a few, in no particular order:
Adverts – Crossing the Red Sea (1978)
Alternative TV – How Much Longer (1977), Life (1978)
Rezillos – Can’t Stand the Rezillos (1978)
Killing Joke – Killing Joke (1980), Whats THIS For (1981)
Killing Joke – Nervous System (1979), Wardance (1980)
The Stranglers – Rattus Norvegicus (1977), No More Heroes (1977), Black & White (1978), The Raven (1979)
Flys – Bunch of Five (1977)
Mekons – Where Were You? (1978), The English Dancing Master (1982)
Plastic Bertrand – Ça Plane Pour Moi (1977)
Lurkers – I Don’t Need to Tell Her (1978)
Magazine – Shot By Both Sides (1978)
Wire – Pink Flag (1977)
Stiff Little Fingers – Inflammable Material (1978)
UK Subs – Another Kind of Blues (1978)
Penetration – Moving Targets (1978)
Undertones – Get Over You (1979)
The Wall – New Way (1979)
Zounds – Can’t Cheat Karma (1980), Demystification (1981)
Buzzcocks – Spiral Scratch (1977)
Zounds – The Curse of Zounds (1982)
Gang of Four – Entertainment! (1979)
Dead Kennedys Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables (1981)
Various Artists Streets (1977), The Roxy London WC2 (1977), They Shall Not Pass (1983)
Undertones The Undertones (1979)
Ramones Ramones (1976), Leave Home (1977), Rocket To Russia (1977)
Psychedelic Furs The Psychedelic Furs (1980)
Only Ones Remains (1984)
Hüsker Dü New Day Rising (1985)
The Fall Live At The Witch Trials (1978), Grotesque (1979)
Dr Feelgood Down By The Jetty (1974), Malpractice (1975), Stupidity (1976)
But then there are literally hundreds of others. I’d add classic early singles by Satans Rats, Suburban Studs, Radiators From Space, the Jerks, Blunt Instrument, Nipple Erectors, Desperate Bicycles, Puncture, the Carpettes, the Depressions and loads more as personal ‘favourites’, plus a few later singles by the likes of the Partisans, Demob and Charge, or later still Hüsker Dü, Mega City Four, more Killing Joke, more Mekons etc etc.
Punk history seems to have coalesced around a standard narrative. What are some of the misconceptions about punk? Are any of the ‘great punk stories’ still untold?
Yes, unfortunately I think punk history has coalesced into a standard narrative, as I guess all things do over time. The great shame there is that a lot of the nuance or contradiction, and a lot of what might be called outliers or exceptions to the ‘rule’ get airbrushed out in the process. So punk becomes a ‘London’ thing that involved a small number of highly privileged and/or lucky people who happened to be in the ‘right’ place at the ‘right’ time to get their fifteen minutes of fame or to witness events that could give them some sense of subcultural credibility for years to come. Meanwhile, the vast bulk of punk fans, participants, contributors or whatever you want to call them were not part of that ‘elite’… Their story (our story) often gets lost in the process. To an extent I guess you could say ‘so what?’ – but I think it is important for any kind of ‘history’ of popular culture to try to reflect the diversity (and contradictions) of a period in time, not to stereotype a narrow definition as written by the ‘winners’.
Misconceptions. Where do I start? Firstly, that punk was some kind of coherent or consistent voice of protest – against authority, against capitalism, against racism or sexism, somehow in tune with what might be termed ‘progressive’ politics in more recent terms. Secondly, that there was a close connection between black and white youth cultures (notably reggae and punk) anywhere more widely than the often well-publicised pockets of activity in West London and a couple of other major cities in the UK. Thirdly (to extend point one), that there is a core philosophy or ideology of ‘punk’ – a myth that has been propagated by some very vocal and influential voices in the US, for instance, and it certainly has had an effect, particularly on younger punk participants who have ‘received’ that set of guiding rules unquestioningly. In some ways that ‘effect’ comes from well outside the punk sphere anyway, as a central part of the ‘progressive’ narrative within contemporary media, advertising and education – the liberal orthodoxy. I’m not necessarily arguing against those principles, but I do find the way that some have become ‘naturally’ embedded within ‘punk’ a little troubling.
Untold stories? Well, I have been calling for some time for historians and academics to look at the role of the music industry and commercial operators in relation to (particularly early) punk – promoters, agents, venue managers, technicians, roadies, marketing and promotions departments, designers, journalists, sound engineers, producers, entrepreneurs… I’d love to see the accounts books, the tour itineries, minutes of meetings with A&R departments. It often feels as though the ‘Year Zero’ rhetoric still stands in relation to this aspect of the industry at least. Obviously the histories of punk movements further afield than the UK and US are rich and varied, and deserve to be recounted – there is some great work going on there, both within academia and through dedicated fans and writers around the world. I guess the more difficult (though in my view more appealing and more rewarding) aspect here is for a writer to try to draw the bigger narrative, to fit it all together. Certainly I have found that with my own work on punk in the wider regions of the UK: many fans (and some writers) focus on a kind of catalogue approach – listing groups alphabetically and assiduously documenting band members, recordings, significant events etc – but they seldom try to draw back and review the bigger picture or draw any conclusions about regional similarities, differences or shared experiences.
What is the motivation behind the journal Punk & Post-Punk?
The journal was launched in 2012 following a conference on Post-Punk at Leeds University. The aim was (and remains) to encourage the academic study of punk and post-punk from a wide variety of perspectives and disciplines, and to publish articles that offer new contributions to knowledge. To date, we have published eighteen issues of the journal (it comes out three times per year), and we have covered a wide range of historical and contemporary punk scenes, critical contexts and related ideas – from the impact of post-punk on Japanese underground cinema to the use of laughter as a device within Cuban punk recordings. The last issue was guest edited by Jim Donaghey and is a whole issue dedicated to punk in Indonesia, for instance, and the next issue will take a critical approach to punk and ‘DIY’, historically and contemporaneously. We try to offer a fresh perspective on the subject and to bring in new ideas and approaches that help to expand our knowledge.
What are you working on at the moment?
Lots of different projects, as usual. One core theme I have been exploring over the past two or three years has been the relationship between punk and humour – by which I don’t just mean ‘comedy punk’ records by the Toy Dolls or whatever, but the more complex interaction between punk and ‘comedy’ (mainstream comedians trying to make jokes about punk, usually unsuccessfully, or punk comic performers employing humour for entertainment) and punk and humour (including the use of satire, irony, sarcasm and black humour as a provocative tool). I’ve written a few articles and book chapters on the subject – most recently for a book on ‘Critical Comedy’ where I outlined the particular use of humour by Killing Joke and Dead Kennedys as a counterpoint to the more overt or obvious comedy of the Pork Dukes or Chaotic Dischord.
I’m still working far too many hours on the journal, and on various design tasks. In the summer I produced a small exhibition on the theme of Punk in the Provinces, to accompany a Punk Weekend event as part of Whitley Bay Film Festival in North East England. Alongside my own graphic display of punk DIY and regional/local records, I produced a large wall print based on pages from Pauline Murray’s scrapbooks of press cuttings from the early days of her band, Penetration. Pauline also has her original hand-made clothes from the mid 1970s, so we displayed them on mannequins alongside photographs of her wearing the same outfits at the Roxy and Reading Festival, and on the cover of NME and Record Mirror. I also designed and wrote a free newspaper entitled Punk in the Provinces: It Was Easy, It Was Cheap, Go and Do It! that was given away at the event. Around the same time I finished designing the third volume in the Tales From the Punkside series of books edited by Greg Bull and Mike Dines, entitled And All Around Was Darkness. I’m just finishing another book chapter on punk and humour, then I will be designing a new book, The Global Punk Reader, edited by Alastair Gordon, Paula Guerra and Mike Dines. Looking ahead, we have a Punk & Post-Punk special issue on the theme of Punk and DIY coming early in 2018, and I am hoping to develop a full book on the theme of Punk Humour.
One theme of your work is that is wasn’t all about London/New York….what has fascinated you about the regional/provincial/global scenes? Anything particularly interesting that you have discovered/learned?
As I said earlier, I guess I’ve always been interested in the regional/provincial scenes in part because of my own history – growing up in Tunbridge Wells (which did in itself eventually produce one punk band that achieved something, the Anti Nowhere League – and more recently Slaves), then moving to Portsmouth in 1980 and getting involved in the punk scene there. I played in one awful band at school in TW, then another band called Doldrums in Portsmouth in the early 80s, whose only notable contribution was to play very loudly and cause as much annoyance as possible in order to get thrown off stage when we played live. I eventually formed a post-punk/hardcore group in 1987 called Watch You Drown. We gigged quite widely in the late 80s and early 90s, and connected with DIY punk scenes in Southampton, along the South Coast to Exeter, across the North from Preston to Bradford, around North Wales and up to Liverpool. We also toured Northern France and traded records and tapes with other bands and labels across Europe and the US – and at that time also the Eastern Bloc, where you couldn’t send any money but could exchange records and fanzines etc. We had a long hiatus when the drummer moved up to Sheffield in the 1990s, but we have been back together again for a few years and we are back recording and gigging, which I really enjoy. So I guess it was quite natural for me to extend my interest in these ‘faraway towns’ when I went back to college and began writing about punk – as a counterpoint to the well-trodden narratives.
You have the eye of a trained artist when it comes to the visual culture of punk… any single/album covers that you find particularly inspiring?
Well, I’m a big fan of Jamie Reid’s work, obviously – to me, the two buses (Boredom/Nowhere) encapsulate everything there is to know about ‘punk’ design. I also love Mike Coles’ work for Killing Joke and the Malicious Damage label – the stark simplicity and bluntness of the KJ Wardance single sleeve and the debut album – and obviously Winston Smith’s work for Dead Kennedys and Gee Vaucher’s stunning illustrations for Crass. I didn’t really understand some of Malcolm Garrett’s work for Buzzcocks at the time, but now I see there is a real intelligence and wit behind the sleeves for What Do I Get? and I Don’t Mind. The early Vibrators singles had great covers, alongside George ‘God’ Snow’s single sleeves for 999 and Barney Bubbles’ work for Stiff and Radar Records. But then I also like a lot of low key and obscure punk sleeves – Terri Hooley’s instant graphics for the debut Victim single, the childish simplicity of the first Toy Dolls EP, Alternative TV’s How Much Longer sleeve, Mekons’ Never Been in a Riot sleeve by Bob Last, Spizzoil’s 6,000 Crazy… Like my favourite records above, it’s hard to pick a shortlist!