I often think I was young at the wrong time. It should have been the 1970s. Especially the latter half, when punk rock was exploding onto the scene. Now and then I get to indulge my imaginary nostalgia for the era I never lived in. Thursday night was one of those times!
I felt a little like I was stepping back in time as I walked into a deserted, grimy subway under the grey Westway on a wintry London night. I was in the neighbourhood for a photo exhibition in honour of former Clash frontman, Joe Strummer (below), who died ten years ago this December. The subway led to a clearing and in the middle was an unusual box-shaped room. It probably used to be a ticket office or something, but is now an underground art space called The Subway Gallery. (The space also displayed former Clash member, Mick Jones’ Rock n Roll Library earlier this year.)
It was warmly lit up inside, couch on one end, beer bottles on ice and juices from Waitrose on the ready along with plastic cups, for the exhibition of photos that appear in a beautifully produced heavy weight paperback book by Julian Yewdall called Permanent Record. In true Do-It-Yourself, punk-style, the photos aren’t presented in shiny, fancy picture frames but torn out of a copy of the book itself and stuck on the walls of the gallery with sellotape! Respect.
We are so used to digital photography, but Yewdall used ‘push development’ for much of what he shot in the 1970s. This is an old school method which increases the sensitivity of the film giving photos higher contrast, increased grain and lower resolution and can be used to artistic effect. His closeness to people like Joe adds a level of intimacy to the photos, too. Yewdall says: “I knew these people, that’s how I came to get all their pictures. I was in the right place at the right time. I could also take the more informal photos. It was about documenting what happened for authenticity.”
The 160 unpublished and published shots also feature images of other events of the time including the 1970s squatting movement, demonstrations, the Notting Hill riots and other emerging musicians such as female punk band The Slits. Yewdall told me: “I had all this film of events that had taken place at that time, so I thought it would be good to integrate all that [into the book].” Alongside one photo of The Slits, was a hilarious quote from the late John Peel, saying: “They were mesmerising. Their inability to play coupled with their determination to play, the conflict between these things was magnificent.” Many punk bands couldn’t play their instruments well, but that was one of the main things about punk – anyone could give it a shot.
Guests included all sorts of interesting folks, young and old. Yewdall was on hand – with no pretentious speech or few words – chatting and signing copies while veteran music writer and Joe biographer, Chris Salewicz, also turned up. A 23-year old musician named George brought along his guitar and belted out a few Joe classics for ambience. He said he was totally uninspired by the current music scene and looked back to 1970s punk for something that was missing from modern music.
The night was a mixture of random energies coming together and reminded me that the heart of punk is about that raw inner drive to challenge yourself and what you see around you….and so much of current music is about image, pretense and bad lyrics. Joe Strummer may not be around anymore but I hope events like this continue to inspire younger generations and anyone who wants to get in touch with their timeless punk spirit!
This tribute to one of music’s legends will run between the 30 November and the 22 December, click here for details. Go and check it out if you’re in London!