Punk’s sacred clowns

In his classic Subculture: The meaning of style (London: Methuen, 1979) Dick Hebdige addressed the first wave of 1970s punk rock aesthetics in Britain, discussing the contours of a movement that was somewhere between a pop fad and a larger political crisis. By violating a set of social codes in their distinctive ways, said Hebdige, punks had the effect of “presenting themselves…as villainous clowns…treated at different times as threats to public order (or) as harmless buffoons.”

Other contemporaneous observers expressed their perceptions in somewhat similar language. In one of her early dispatches on punk, the British rock journalist Caroline Coon described Captain Sensible of The Damned (above) as having “a front as benevolently mad as a village idiot’s” and the Sex PistolsJohnny Rotten as “a disgraced Angel Gabriel”. Elsewhere, Tom Carson suggested that we view The Ramones in light of “the attractiveness of the comic loser” who is “the closest thing we have to the idea of the holy fool.”

These ideas are certainly undeveloped, but they are not haphazard. They indicate brief, intuitive flashes by the authors that their subjects of concern bear a resemblance to what one could call the sacred clown—an umbrella term for a cast of cultural archetypes marked by marginalia, shame, and destitution, paradoxically expressing sanctification and profanity, stupidity and sagacity, and menace and mirth.

This according to “Reading early punk as secularized sacred clowning” by Lane Van Ham (Journal of popular culture XLII/2 [April 2009] pp. 318–338).

Above and below, Captain Sensible in action.

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