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Shakespeare has some new neighbours. The British Library’s exhibition on Big Willy has just been joined by a small, free show about punk music and culture in Britain. It’s hard to say who’s had the greater influence on how we live now.
Part of the Punk London anniversary series, ‘Punk 1976-78’ ticks off the usual influences (French Situationism, the New York scene, reggae) and devotes lots of space to the Pistols, The Clash and Buzzcocks. There’s also a look-in for cult bands such as Television Personalities, and displays dedicated to women in punk and the anti-racist movement.
Not much in this collection of records, zines, flyers and films subverts the well-established punk narrative, but plenty of items strike a chord, including footage of Bill Grundy perving on a teenage Siouxsie Sioux on TV, the Sex Pistols contract signed by Sid Vicious under his real name of John Beverley, and Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s confrontational manifesto T-shirt (‘You’re gonna wake up one morning…’). Flyers for punk gigs in Covent Garden and Soho are a reminder that central London has become a cultural desert in the last 40 years.
But most of all, you get a sense of just how exciting and inspiring punk was before heroin and disillusionment killed it off. ‘I want people to go out and start something,’ says Johnny Rotten in one newspaper article, ‘or else I’m just wasting my time.’ In the age of Soundcloud, Tumblr and social media, with artists in every field Doing It Themselves, punk’s still not dead.