Punk Revival : Movement’s Founder, Art Students Celebrate an Era When Ugly Was In

Times Staff Writer

As if once wasn’t enough, the punk movement played a return engagement in Pasadena last week--safety pins, obscenities, cacophony and all.

What’s more, punk and the man credited with instigating it were recognized for their cultural and artistic impact on a society that, for the most part, wanted to be rid of the whole ugly scene.

The weird phenomenon that began in England about 10 years ago was played out in a three-day retrospective that ended Thursday at the Art Center College of Design.

There, amid the pure, clean lines of architectural excellence, where students pay up to $25,000 in tuition for a three-year launching into professional art, anarchy and chaos brought nostalgic feelings to a generation that grew up under that influence.


Once again, the Sex Pistols ravaged “My Way” and “Land of Hope and Glory” while models in darkly ominous leather and tattered garments glared catatonically into space. Mohawk hair, whitened faces, the tawdry, the disheveled and the freaky were revived in scenes of ersatz violence to show how it really was a decade ago.

Heirs to that era, now in their 20s and serious students at the Art Center, bore remnants of punk’s influence. The 100 who participated in the retrospective tended to shave parts of their heads and affect a solemn, ragged, paint-streaked bareness. Born as they were into punk’s traditions, they sketched the scenes that were played out before them, unfazed by deafening blasts of recorded punk rock and the historic importance of their guest star.

He was Malcolm McLaren, whose London shop in the 1970s

was the acknowledged birthplace of punk, and who managed the Sex Pistols, the violent and ill-fated rock group that introduced punk rock. Before that, McLaren said, he went to art school for nine years because “that’s where dispossessed lunatics like me could go and get away with absolute murder. They finally caught on and threw me out.”


Punk’s startling and lingering influences were the subject of this year’s annual summer seminar for Art Center students, provided by a $20,000 grant from Hallmark Cards. Created by Philip Hays, chairman of the Art Center’s illustration department, the seminar had McLaren discussing the history and effects of the punk phenomenon, followed by scenes that were staged to give students historically accurate punk settings to sketch. Also speaking and teaching were illustrators Julian Allen, Marshal Arisman and Jeffrey Smith.

Not Necessary in Manhattan

“If this school were in Manhattan, this wouldn’t be necessary,” Hays said. “This is a saturation of the experience that people in New York lived. The punk era has been dead long enough so now we can go back and look at it. Until this year it was just old stuff.”

“Punk hasn’t gone away, it just changed its address,” said Hays’ assistant, Jon Conrad. “It left its mark on music, fashion, art, design and communication.”

Student Mary Lee Derusha liked the scene because “this puts you on location, it puts you right there where you can capture the time and the experience.”

Another student, Gordon Smedt, said, “We’re learning history, and it tells us a little about why things are the way they are now.”

Ronald McDonald Look

McLaren, who looked like he could have been a forerunner of Ronald McDonald, fit in nicely with his mop of reddish curls, chopped-off breeches and offbeat self-deprecation. His companion was model and actress Lauren Hutton, inconspicuous in a tight black skirt and loose T-shirt.


McLaren traced punk’s roots to the frustrations of England’s masses of unemployed youth in a rigidly class-conscious society in 1970, and said they found a new identity in his iconoclastic store named Sex.

His innovative merchandise included T-shirts that bore obscene words spelled out in chicken bones that he got from a neighboring restaurant, brass swastikas, whips, chains, leather and bicycle tires studded with nailheads. Business boomed.

“Punk was a clear and provocative look,” he said. “You were into destroying things that preceded you. Since you were a child you never had the chance to destroy very much at all, so by the time you got to 18 you were ripe. That’s why punk was a success.

‘Land of Closet Cases’

“In England, we are a land of closet cases,” McLaren explained.

And none of it would have happened if it weren’t for art school, he said. “That was my total education. I learned life and politics through the whole history of art. That was the most non-careerist place where you could hide out and pose as someone who had a point of view that people would pay attention to.

“God save the queen, she ain’t no human bean,” McLaren chanted in an imitation of the iconoclastic genre of Sid Vicious, the Sex Pistols star who symbolized punk. The movement diminished with Vicious’ death by a drug overdose in 1979, after he was charged with the fatal stabbing of his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen.

That ended what McLaren called “the wonderful summers of 1976, ’77 and ’78.”


“Punk rockers began to look like the boy next door. They began to wash,” he said sadly. “People felt terrible about not having a job. Art schools were only for people who wanted to get a job and serve under (British Prime Minister) Margaret Thatcher’s banner. The whole thing was nauseating.”

‘Never Had Guts Here’

Conrad said that by the time punk reached Los Angeles, “It was something else. People weren’t using it because they couldn’t go out in the world and get work. It’s never had guts here. You can still see some traces of it on Melrose Avenue.”

Even worse, McLaren deplored, is today’s music to dance by, heavily influenced by what he called “corporate technology.”

He found consolation in mixing “rap,” a new sound that McLaren said he discovered among the dispossessed in New York, with operatic arias. This resulted in a record album and video entitled “Fans” that gives a new treatment to arias from “Madame Butterfly,” “Carmen” and “Tosca.”

“Now here I am in Hollywood with all these kids who are grown up with punk rock, and suddenly they’re all sitting as vice presidents in charge of development of film corporations.”

In a talk on journalism illustration, the art of interpeting current history in a painting that borders on photographic clarity, illustrator Allen said, “The 1970s were about wounding and healing. The ‘80s are about lunch.”

Illustrating this was his version of the Last Supper with famous contemporary figures, re-entitled “The Last Brunch.”