Oh Bondage Up Yours!
Issue #6, May 1993
Thus, as soon as the original innovations which signify 'subculture' are translated into commodities and made generally available, they become 'frozen.' Once removed from their private contexts by small entrepreneurs and big fashion interests who produce them on a mass scale, they become codified, made comprehensible, rendered at once public property and profitable merchandise.
— Dick Hebdige, Subculture: The Meaning of Style
1977: While I'm browsing in Rather Ripped Records of Berkeley, the in-store stereo begins playing one of the most powerful pieces of rock and roll I have ever heard. I stand transfixed until the song is over; when it ends, I go up to the counter and ask the clerk, 'What WAS that?' He sneers at me with know-it-all superiority and says, 'The Sex Pistols.'
January 14, 1978: I am at Winterland, the aging ex-home of ice shows, turned into a rock emporium by Bill Graham (and soon to be torn down forever, though the name lives on in the souvenir company that sells rock and roll tee-shirts). The Sex Pistols take the stage for what will turn out to be their last concert ever (so far), and the crowd begins the most awesome display of audience participation I have ever witnessed. The Pistols are used to playing clubs; Winterland holds 5,000. It is the biggest crowd in Sex Pistols history, and Johnny Rotten, at least, hates it. People begin throwing things at the band, not just the usual wadded-up paper cups, but money, toilet paper rolls and dead flowers. Rotten hangs on the mike stand, dodging the missiles, and though I am perhaps halfway back of the old auditorium, I can see the piercing intelligence of his demonic eyes as he badgers the audience and sings our favorites: 'Anarchy for the USA' indeed. He paces the stage, pocketing the most useful debris, asking 'Cameras? Anyone got any cameras?' (and sure enough, what looks like a camera flies through the air and lands at his feet). Greil Marcus described his own reactions to the show in Lipstick Traces:
Walking the aisles of Winterland as the Sex Pistols played, I felt a confidence and a lust that were altogether new. Thirty-two years had not taught me what I learned that night: when you're pushed, push back; when a shove negates your existence, negate the shove. I felt distant from nothing, superior to nothing. I also felt a crazy malevolence, a wish to smash people to the ground, and my eyes went to the ground, where I saw small children (what sort of parents would bring little kids to a place like this, I wondered, thinking of my own at home), and thought of smashing them.
My own reactions were odd variations of those Marcus was experiencing. Surrounded by the largest display of public nihilism I had ever participated in ('real' or 'fake' seemed unimportant at the time), my thoughts kept going back to MY children, not only my two-and-a-half year old son, but the daughter who it turned out was born the very next afternoon. Perhaps it was the thoughts of my daughter-to-be, but in the midst of all that spectacular malevolence, I was happy. To be a part of 5,000 people singing 'NO FUTURE!' in unison seemed somehow both the most negative and most positive statement possible. Camus once pointed out that to refuse suicide is to accept life; in refusing the future we had been offered, we were accepting something more unknown, more frightening, more wonderful.
Winter 1993: Amidst rumors of a Sex Pistols reunion tour, Rhino Records, anthologizer to the Boomer generation, releases a series of volumes called DiY ('Do it Yourself') that encapsulate the punk moment as it appeared on record. I snap up a few of the volumes right away, and find myself one night driving my now-teenaged son's car down the freeway, listening to Anarchy In the UK: UK Punk I. An old favorite comes on, 'Oh Bondage Up Yours!' by X-Ray Spex. This single, and their one great album, Germfree Adolescents, had been very hard to come by in America; I can remember listening to 'Oh Bondage' on the radio many times, but I never actually saw a copy of it, and I never even heard Germfree until a friend made me a copy of his import version. But now, here was that classic song, easy to find in the CD era of endless anthologizing, and I was happy.
Poly Styrene, the lead singer with braces, led off with her wonderful British accent, calmly speaking without accompaniment: 'Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard. But I think ...' and then she upped the stakes, screaming into the void, 'OH BONDAGE, UP YOURS! ONE! TWO! THREE! FOUR!' And the band kicked in, led by Lora Logic's amazing amateurish sax playing, and I drove down the road, bouncing like Wayne and Garth in Wayne's World, alone with my music and my memories, singing along as best I could: 'Nyah nyah nyah nyah chain me to the wall, I wanna be a slave nyah nyah, Oh Bondage! Up Yours! Oh Bondage! No More! Oh Bondage! Up Yours! Oh Bondage! No More!' At that moment, I loved Rhino Records.
It probably isn't a question of whether or not punk rock died that night in Winterland. The Sex Pistols died, maybe; but punk and Sex Pistols were never completely interchangeable terms. Much terrific punk rock music has been made in the fifteen years since the Sex Pistols broke up, not only by Pistols contemporaries like The Clash but by the many children of punk: Husker Du and the Replacements in Minnesota, X in Los Angeles, the Seattle grunge bands of today. No, punk rock didn't necessarily die at Winterland, but what about rock and roll itself, the music which 'defined a generation'? Did the Sex Pistols really bring on the end of rock and roll, as Johnny Rotten, now using his 'real' name of John Lydon, claimed in the post-Pistols years?
Many of us who believed in the notion that rock and roll represented liberation welcomed punk with open arms in the late 70s. Our music had gotten too cautious, too worried about the bottom line; punk rock was for us a return to the rebellious roots of rock and roll, filtered through Iggy and the Dolls and stamped with intentional ugliness. Many of our contemporaries took one listen to the Sex Pistols, or the Ramones or Flipper or whichever band first interrupted their contemplations, and decided in a seeming instant that it was time to grow up. They changed the buttons on their car radio from 'underground' stations to oldies, classic rock, and Tom Petty; they might tolerate the so-called New Wave, but they weren't about to listen to a group called the Dead Kennedys. Those of us who embraced punk adopted the sneer of the Rather Ripped clerk: we had seen the future of rock and roll, and it was playing on college radio, not KFOG. In distancing ourselves from the oldies fans, we thought we were placing ourselves in the forefront of the elder statesperson wing of the New Rock and Roll. We perhaps never noticed that punk wasn't the beginning of a new era, but the end of an old one.
For an era must have passed before it becomes grist for the nostalgia mill. And nostalgia is partly what I was experiencing as I sang along with Poly Styrene: 'This is what it used to be like' fueled my joy just as much as did Lora Logic's saxophone. The incongruities involved in listening to 'Oh Bondage' on my son's car stereo were unimportant as long as the song was playing. In 1977 'Oh Bondage! Up Yours!' was a call to end the bondage; in 1993, it was a call to remember a time when our bondage was different than it is now. The cultural force of 'Oh Bondage!' in 1977 was empowering; the stagnation of the mid-70s, economic, artistic, psychic and social, was confronted with a NO so emphatic it became an affirmation, an insistence that things did not have to remain as they were. But in 1993, 'Oh Bondage!' in part represents a trip back to the good old days. We love Rhino Records, because we get one last chance to stare down bondage, but as long as we are dealing with remembered bondage, we are powerless. Only by using Poly Styrene's cry as a weapon against our current, ongoing, bondage, can we be true to the spirit of 1977.
If we accept 'Oh Bondage Up Yours!' solely on the terms of the Rhino reissue, as a formerly-rare artifact now offered to CD owners who want to complete their collections, then we are acquiescing in the process described by Dick Hebdige at the top of this essay: subcultural innovation becomes 'codified, made comprehensible, rendered at once public property and profitable merchandise.' Hebdige is not the only cultural studies scholar who believes there is a potential for dissent within the complex processes in which commodities and consumers interact, but if such against-the-grain reading of texts is difficult even at the moment when subcultural innovation first presents itself, how much harder is it when it must be performed in an atmosphere of nostalgia, which is ultimately only memories served up to us by others for their own purposes? Rhino Records is not interested in reproducing the social and artistic milieu that spawns an X- Ray Spex; they are only interested in creating a nostalgia for that milieu, for the purpose of selling albums.
Of course, record companies have always been interested in selling albums; this was no different in 1977. But the tensions of 1977, in the period between the initial subcultural innovation and its inevitable commodification, lay partly in the desire of the exploiters to encourage a continuation of the then-current social malaise (which would create more artifacts to be exploited) and partly in the desire of the innovators to resist exploitation. With the later onset of nostalgia, our memories are exploited, the innovators are long busy elsewhere, and the tensions have disappeared. Those who 'remember when' have their memories stripped of the tension that provided a foundation for thought and action; those who are hearing this music for the first time are hearing it stripped of the social context that was equally important in making this music 'matter.' In both cases it is possible to make X-Ray Spex matter once again, this essay itself being one attempt to get beyond cheap nostalgia. But the disappearance of the social context makes listening to X-Ray Spex in 1993 a personal, individual experience; contrast my singing alone in a car with the communal nihilism of the last Sex Pistols concert.
Once there was a punk moment, when 'We mean it, maaaaan!' was not ironic, when you could, for a second or a minute or a lifetime, throw off bondage. This moment was quickly codified; the pathetic Sid Vicious, not the more dangerous Johnny Rotten, became the primary icon of the early punks, and New Wave (hello, Talking Heads) was the recording industry's money-making response to Punk (goodbye, X-Ray Spex). It is possible, even likely, that those who once heard a great and awful roar in 1977 are willing to settle for a Rhino reissue in 1993. But such a nostalgic settlement does not connect us with our past, but instead denies it.
Steven Rubio is a graduate student in English at UC Berkeley and a frequent contributor to Bad Subjects. You can reach him through Email at the following Internet address: firstname.lastname@example.org.