Throughout 2016, via a series of exhibitions, performances, films and gigs, Punk.London is celebrating the 40th anniversary of the birth of the movement that changed everything — politics, art, fashion, culture and music. The Forumist talked to graphic-design innovator Neville Brody about why London was, and still is, the best place to experience its spirit
“Growing up in London during the whole punk thing gave people like myself opportunities to come up with ideas and to try out things that probably wouldn’t have been possible anywhere else,” says Neville Brody.
Perhaps best know for his seminal work during the 1980s as art director for UK magazines The Face and Arena, Brody began his graphic design course at London College of Printing in 1976. He talks of the spirit of experimentation and energy that came from the punk movement during his early years as a graphic designer, and how that energy influenced the work that he and his peers were doing.
“There were so many ‘bedroom’ record labels that popped up, and someone would always ask if I could do an album cover or a poster or something,” says Brody. “There was space to do things and to question the way things were done through the design work. At that time, it felt more like we were inventors than designers. London was the best place for that.” Through his contact with small, new, independent record labels, he designed record covers for many of the bands that defined that moment in time, including Cabaret Voltaire, 23 Skidoo and Throbbing Gristle.
While much was happening creatively in London during this period, Brody also looked to the bande dessinée comic book culture of Paris for inspiration. “There was this group in Paris called Bazooka, and they were a big influence on my work, along with dadaism,” he says. Bazooka was a group of seven core members, all graphic artists studying at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Instead of forming a band, as many art students did at the time, Bazooka instead played with visual-art codes and deconstructed graphic design to provoke audiences and start political dialogues through their work.
Finding ways to question the status quo, and to rebel against it, still intrigues Brody today. “I have always tried to challenge myself and disrupt, rethink and change. Trotsky had the idea of permanent revolution, and for me I don’t want to settle down, because the minute you do, the work becomes a formula. I like the idea that nothing is ever finished,” he says.
He doesn’t agree with those who say the attitude that created punk is dead. “But it doesn’t represent the same danger it once did,” he says. “The massive explosion from that time, in music and politics, was something quite different – Beyoncé at the Super Bowl isn’t quite the same thing, is it? At the time, people really felt threatened by the disobedience. Many saw the punk movement as the work of the devil or a black hole appearing in society. Groups of people tried to shut it down. What movement has that power today? What groups can claim to engage in truly subversive political action?”
Brody believes that London is an incredible place for young art, and that the music scene still has plenty to offer. “There’s a real energy in the city,” he says. “Though, there is new energy coming from different places, and the most recent big bang of punk influence is continuing.
I do wonder what’s next – perhaps Mexico might be happening, or Guangzhou, or Lagos, Accra, Beirut or somewhere in India.”
Of course, one significant change in the past 40 years is the internet. He sees it offering access to “so many more places, making it possible to see everything”. For him, this means that, culturally, there is a more level playing field. “But the downside of the internet is that local complexities are replaced by global consensus. That’s why punk is so vibrant and
still relevant. Individual expression meant that anything was possible. Anything was possible, and the fact was, we really could do anything. We didn’t reinvent the wheel. We invented new wheels.”
Words by Tsemaye Opubor
1 Punks attracting attention from tourists at Trafalgar Square, London, 1980. ©Chris Parker & PYMCA
2 Unknown, London ©Janette Beckman & PYMCA
3 Punks hanging out on the Kings Road, London, 1983. ©Ted Polhemus & PYMCA
4 A punk with a mohican, Kilburn National, London, 1989. ©Adam Friedman & PYMCA
5 Blondie’s Debbie Harry performing at The Roundhouse, London, 1977. ©Philip Grey & PYMCA
6 Siouxsie and the Banshees at the 100 Club, 1978 © Derek RidgersCourtesy The Photographers’ Gallery