To punks, image was as important as music. The Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious was a poor bassist but an excellent icon: He lived fast, died young and left a cool-looking corpse.
A new London exhibition devoted to the visual imagery of the Sex Pistols bristles with the aggressive, improvised spirit of the movement. What it reveals more than anything else is the movement’s influence on marketing.
The ransom-note lettering, provocative nudity and anarchic slogans pioneered by the Pistols during their brief 1970s career have all suffused modern advertising. It’s hard to remember how shocking they once seemed.
“We live in a culture where we’ve assimilated this. We understand it now,” said Paul Stolper, an art dealer who co-curated the show with editor Andrew Wilson, drawing on their extensive collection of Pistols posters, clothing and other memorabilia.
He gestured at one of the band’s most arresting posters -- a picture of a sullen, naked boy smoking a cigarette. “That was shocking,” he said. So were images of naked cowboys, bare breasts, swastikas and inverted crucifixes, all used to create the band’s image as musical and social rebels.
Early posters proclaimed the Pistols as “London’s most notorious band.” It was a deliberately self-fulfilling prophecy.
“The first phase of punk styling ... was probably the last time in social history that clothing would provoke hatred,” noted art journalist Michael Bracewell in the catalog that accompanies the exhibition.
Nonetheless, punk quickly entered the mainstream. “As early as 1976 punk had been picked up on the radar of trend analysis,” Bracewell wrote.
Running at the Hospital -- a gallery, recording studio and members’ club co-owned by former Eurythmics guitarist Dave Stewart -- “Punk: A True and Dirty Tale” focuses on the work of designer Vivienne Westwood and graphic artist Jamie Reid. Westwood, co-owner of Sex, the King’s Road shop where London’s early punks gathered, outfitted the band in custom-made garments accessorized with rips, straps, clips and safety pins.
The influence of those early garments -- tartan trousers, string jumpers, muslin shirts -- can be seen in Westwood’s later work for catwalks and boutiques around the world.
The fashions are arranged around the walls of the airy, whitewashed gallery alongside Reid’s posters, leaflets and press releases. There are tartan bondage trousers, shirts mixing pornographic images and revolutionary slogans and a muslin shirt stenciled with the legend “only anarchists are pretty.”
Punk, says Stolper, was more than a musical movement. It was “a phenomenal convergence of music, fashion and design.”
Stolper, 39, concedes that he and Wilson are “not massive fans” of the Pistols’ music but were drawn to their visual vocabulary.
“It turned graphic design upside down,” he said. “You couldn’t have had any of the style magazines that started in about 1980 without punk. It allowed you to get away with anything -- the whole do-it-yourself ethic.”