If you’re a listener to popular music, then you could be forgiven for thinking that the charts are currently bland, a little watered-down and maybe a little bit dull. Certainly, the current crop of emerging boy bands doesn’t seem to have much of an appeal beyond the young teenage girl demographic, and what’s left lacks a certain “edge.”
To all intents and purposes, we’re due a bit of a revolution, and by looking to the past we can see that revolutions happen quite regularly, usually when the “norm” has run its course, and often it can be quite explosive.
Take the Punk era.
During the 50s and 60s, music was, like today, becoming bland and mainstream. Although we’re talking about the time of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, production values were such that the emotion of music was being designed into it, rather than coming from the heart.
You could argue that musicians were maybe too good at the musicality of it, but they lacked what got them in front of audiences in the first place; the raw emotion of playing music that appealed to a crowd was lost on them.
And so a reset was required, and it came in the form of Punk Rock.
Punk as a subculture was not just about music, there was a lot more to it than that, and art was arguably the most powerful force for change.
Books like George Orwell’s 1984 gave people something to be worried about. It spoke to them, and it gave them a distrust of government and a reason to rebel.
Two films then arrived which broke the mould and redefined cinema at the time. John Waters’ Pink Flamingos pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable in film (and probably went beyond that boundry), and Stanley Kubrick’s “Clockwork Orange” was blamed for inciting copycat violence.
The revolution had started, and it needed a theme tune.
During the 60s and 70s, the youth of Britain had little to be happy about. Unemployment was high, and many couldn’t see a bright future. It was a bleak time, in stark contrast to the films of the day depicting sunny days, roll-neck jumpers and open-top sports cars.
Music, of course, had become very establishment. The charts were full of the Beatles and artists like Cliff Richard who, although popular, didn’t speak to a youth that was growing angry.
Then, the garage rock scene that started in the USA came to Britain, and there was a revolution.
It was now possible to learn a few chords and riff them over an angry vocal that spoke to people. In many ways, this was a precursor to rap, in that it was what was being said that took centre stage, not how good the guitarist was.
Punk Rock, as we know it, was born.
And when we think about punk, we invariably picture the Sex Pistols.
In the mid 1970s, the Sex Pistols took their music to the establishment and promptly kicked the applecart over, upsetting many.
Music changed forever, but it left a legacy.
Concerts became notorious for violence and drug taking. Bands would be known more for trashing the place than actually playing music. And then there came the drugs.
One of the most iconic moments in history, when it all seemed to have gone too far was when, in 1979, Sid Vicious died of a heroin overdose. He had recently been arrested for the alleged murder of his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen.
The classic image of a “punk rocker” was now a disaffected youth with piercings and wild hair, often in a Mohican style. And of course, there were the drugs.
Many on the scene would argue that drugs weren’t as prevalent as reported. It was obviously a problem for many, but there were always sub-cultures, and while some would adopt the fashion and the music, the more “hard core” and nihilistic types were fewer in number, but they would also be self-destructive. Of course the media likes a story, and so they went with that one.
And of course, drugs were harder to get, especially heroin and methamphetamines, so alternatives were sought.
And this brings us, eventually, to “Syd Sniffing Glue”.
This new addition to the Robert Lenkiewicz collection is one we’ve sought after for some time.
It forms part of Project 17 – Observations on Local Education, and it’s a revealing piece.
It shows a typical punk, doing what many at the time thought all punks did, sniff glue. It’s actually unresolved, but rather than detract from the painting, it actually gives a lot more balance and insight into how Lenkiewicz worked and exposes much of his style.
The central message of the piece is there. The way the young boy looks out from the painting is telling. It shows someone who is both defiant and in despair.
To those who think the punk movement was destructive, it reinforces that view. It speaks to their prejudices, showing them that the era and the music was a terrible time in history, ruining the lives of many.
But, punk was more than that. Punk was the reset button which gave way to a revolution in music, art and politics.
The youth were already in trouble, and to those who see beyond the symptoms, it shows a young boy who was simply crying out for help.
And this is the skill of Lenkiewicz.
His brush was never just there to paint, it told a story, and this picture tells many stories. The emotion pours out of the painting, and you can’t stare at it for long without getting a lump in the throat.
We’re thrilled that this is now part of the Smithson Collection.