|Julie Birchill was/is the hack from hell. I found
her prose highly entertaining when she worked
for the New Musical Express at the height of the
punk boom. She was portrayed as a hip young
gunslinger. 28 years later however she owns up
(in part) as being just another barefaced Liar in
a scene she reviled. The fact she got the job
through more seedier deeds performed for dirty
old NME hacks seems to be as irrelevant as her
one time Ramones fixation.
Memo to NME: I pretended to like punk to get a job
I'VE been many things, but I've never been a phoney. Except the once, that is, right at the beginning of my
brilliant career. Ironically, the thing that was phoney about me is the very thing that those who know nothing
about me have always held up as an example of when I was "real" , before I "sold out". Which is perfect.
Some young girls pretend to be posh, and some pretend to like sex, in order to get where they want to be, or at
least to get to the starting line. When I was 17 I pretended to be a punk, and to like punk music. My motivation
was pretty straightforward; it was the summer of 1976, I was about to leave school and follow my parents into a
lifetime of factory work , moi, who had been up to her ears in Dottie Parker and Oscar Wilde for the past five
years! Like, hello? And then, like a letter to Santa Claus in reverse, the New Musical Express ran an
advertisement on their back page which offered me just what I'd always wanted, the chance to be a writer.
There were 15,000 applicants for that job. Rod Liddle was one of them; Sebastian Faulks was another. And then
there was me; already so totally media literate that, even though I had a typewriter, I wrote my little audition piece
in my girly handwriting, on paper torn from a school exercise book, with a few strategic spelling mistakes. Then I
looked upon it, found it wanting , and shook my cartridge pen vigourously over it a few times. Ink blots settled with
exquisite insouciance; I blinked and swallowed manfully. It was very perfection.
Between popping my sly CV into the postbox and being summoned to the NME for an interview, I caught on that
there was this new sort of music about , if you could call it music! I humphed to myself as indignantly as any old
colonel hearing Gerry & The Pacemakers for the first time. Because for me, as for most of my kind, there was
only one sort of music - black music. That this has been true of British working-class youth for generations, by
the way, yet has had no noticeable effect on their level of racism , which is ever constant if relatively low when
compared with xenophobic hellholes such as France and Germany , says much about the essential uselessness
of youth culture.
This new music didn't sound like anything I'd ever love â€” not Tamla or Philly, not disco or soul, Northern or
otherwise. It sounded to my Isley-caressed ears like some butter-fingered basket cases dropping heavy stuff on
to their feet for three minutes and yelling about it all the while, New Rose by the Damned being a case in point.
Then there were our colonial cousins, cretins to a man, the Ramones, whoever they were. Listening to their
simple-minded bilge barking from the radio, I, who had been raised in a mad Soviet-patriot household to believe
that Americans had a brain weight only two thirds that of Europeans (a filthy racist assumption which seems to
have recently been espoused by many people with neither madness, extreme youth or Soviet patriotism to
excuse them), could only smirk. Were they just the dumbest Yanks ever, or what! (Incidentally, when I did get the
job and met my NME colleagues, I was amazed to discover that they considered the Ramones' rabid
Republicanism to be ironic; they, in their late twenties with university educations, and me, a 17-year-old redneck
girl who had barely scraped through O levels but inevitably saw straight through to the truth. When it later
transpired that the Ramones had meant it all along I couldn't help but smirk smugly and reflect once more that,
yes, education really does make you dumb.)
But despite this, or because of it, ” I sensed that the sort of person who would get That Job would be a person
who seemed to like this unspeakable shite disguised as music, simply for the reason that it was the New Thing
and the NME dare not risk being seen to be left behind by time and trend. So when the summons to see the
Editor came, as I knew it would, I crossed my fingers, girded my loins and said my piece. I'll gloss over what
happened next because, as I said, being a phoney is the only thing that bothers me, and in order to get That Job,
I was as thorough an ocean-going, punk-loving phoney as you're liable to find.
But I certainly paid the price for my glittering prize. Call this music! I moaned inwardly a few weeks later as the
Snivelling Spunks screamed their way yet again through yet another "song" , I'm Gonna Be Sick On You,
possibly. What a tragic farce, my soul screamed as someone was, yes, SICK on my hand as I hauled myself up
the stairwell of the Roxy Club.
What a shower, I reflected bitterly as I wiped the sick off my hand. Only six weeks of punk rock and I'd had
enough to last me a lifetime. The only consolation was, unbelievably, the sexiness and charisma of punks leading
lights. Be it the doomed beauty of John Lydon, the Cleopatra-meets-John-Wayne ooomph of Chrissie Hynde, the
Moddy twitch-sniff-and-sneer of the pallid prole princeling Paul Weller or the stark scowling sex appeal of the
Clash, one poutingly puzzling paradox remained; the music was crap, but the faces were great. The supreme
irony of this being that this was THE time, above all, when, I have heard so many clowns say, "The music was
what mattered, and image was nothing!"
Truth to tell, I was half in love , with all of them. Not that they, the Lord forbid, would ever have cottoned on; in
punk, as in the playground, when you really, really liked someone you were really, really rude to them. But I did
realise quite quickly that the best of them, Lydon, Hynde, Weller, Strummer, had all the gumption and, yes, the
SOUL of the best black music imaginable. They could even dance!
But now Lydon is silent and Joe is dead and there is yet another punk exhibition. Quite frankly, the only valid
punk reaction would be to smash the thing to pieces; instead, the usual galere of well-connected losers will sip
white wine, smile for the cameras and discuss chaos and rebellion. But just as they said of the Sixties that if you
could remember them you weren't there, so if you can remember punk it's unlikely that you'd dream of attending
this sort of sterile peepshow, watching the self-appointed, spiritual-kiddy-fiddler curators of punk wheel out the
still-warm young corpse one more time, nipples all rouged and ready to be bled by the parasites of popular
culture punditry. No, the real punks will be elsewhere, going on gameshows, fighting for animal rights or penning
rabble rousing propaganda for the forthcoming war against theocratic tyranny. No future? On the contrary. If you
knew how to play your cards right, punk was the biggest career opportunity of all. But as a cultural phenomenon,
it means less than zero. Trust those hippies to get it wrong.
(Reprinted from the The Times Friday October 1st 2004)