Punk Rock Mocks Itself
Johnny Rotten and Fred Armisen's Ian Rubbish

Johnny Rotten and Fred Armisen’s Ian Rubbish. Photos: Getty Images and ianrubbish.co.uk

Every Wednesday, Douglas Wolk explores the people, places and coincidences that tie disparate musicians together.

Saturday Night Live pulled off a little conceptual coup a couple of weeks ago: a dead-on parody of punk documentaries that riffed on the mutual loathing of the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the punk rock scene. The “history of punk” sketch arrives at a moment of what seems like genuine nostalgia for the birth of punk: a fashion exhibit at the Met called “Chaos to Couture,” the publication of Richard Hell‘s memoir I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp, and the forthcoming CBGB biopic starring Alan Rickman and Malin Akerman.

If you’re a young, idealistic punk, it’s probably easy to get your dander up at a cultural moment that was about rebellion being mocked and historicized and turned into fashion. But punk has had one foot in fashion from the beginning — the Sex Pistols were named after SEX, the boutique their manager Malcolm McLaren ran with Vivienne Westwood. Punk mocked itself as soon as it existed: the Ramones‘ first album is, among other things, a pointed goof on how dumb the Ramones-as-characters were. And punk started historicizing itself before most of the world even realized it existed.

The “historical footage” in the middle of the SNL skit is actually a restaging of a famous punk moment: the Sex Pistols‘ appearance on the British TV show Today in 1976, in which their interview by host Bill Grundy went memorably awry. (That’s a very young Siouxsie Sioux, later of Siouxsie and the Banshees, getting hit on by Grundy.)

By 1978, that interview had become legendary enough that the punk scene court jesters Television Personalities called their second record “Where’s Bill Grundy Now?” (In fact, the Sex Pistols incident had basically crashed Grundy’s career; Today was cancelled several months later, and he had a much lower profile on TV thereafter.)

In 1981, Dave Goodman, who had produced a few Sex Pistols demos, recorded the ingenious pisstake “The Friendly Hopefuls Salute the Punks of ’76″– a “Stars on 45″-style disco medley of punk favorites from that era, including the Buzzcocks‘ “Boredom,” Eater’s “Outside View,” the Damned‘s “New Rose,” the Jam’s “In the City,” the Clash‘s “Career Opportunities” and the Sex Pistols’ “Liar.” Best of all is its introduction — a delicious mockery of sappy nostalgia for a moment that had happened five years earlier.

The Sex Pistols had actually beaten Goodman to the “disco medley” gag: The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, released in 1979, includes a track called “Black Arabs” that’s a full-on disco version of a handful of Pistols songs. (It appeared in this scene from the Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle movie, released the following year.)

Malcolm McLaren‘s surprisingly excellent 1983 debut solo album Duck Rock included “Punk It Up,” a song about the awesomeness of the Pistols. The cue that he’s not particularly taking it seriously is that it’s a mbaqanga song (the video below was shot in South Africa), with McLaren‘s tuneless growl the arrangement’s only nod to punk.

Oh, and as far as Fred Armisen’s routine about having a crush on the Iron Lady? First-generation punks actually got to the joke first: the very silly band the Notsensibles released “I’m in Love with Margaret Thatcher” as their second single in 1978. Hint: they don’t seem to have meant it literally. The song resurfaced in the wake of Thatcher’s death a few weeks ago, climbing to #35 on the British charts. (Also relevant: the piece that appeared here last year about British punk reactions to Thatcher’s role in the Falklands War.)

The slyest posthumous punk putdown of Thatcher, though, belongs to Chumbawamba — best known as the band who had a hit with “Tubthumping” in 1997, although they’d been around since they were an anarchist punk band in 1982. Several days after Thatcher’s death, they released the In Memoriam Margaret Thatcher EP. That’s not too surprising on its own. But Chumbawamba broke up last year; they actually recorded the EP in 2005, and made it available via mail-order, to be delivered when Thatcher died. “If we must show a little reverence and decorum at this time, then so be it,” they wrote on their website. “Our deepest sympathies go out to the families of all Margaret Thatcher’s victims.”

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