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Just Kids

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Last year I helped to revise the OCA’s Understanding Western Art Course and found myself involved in the wonderfully geeky task of trying to reduce the whole of western art to ten broad headings. Of course, trying to suggest ten reasons why western art might have changed over the last 2,000 years was always going to be a subjective exercise. But political, economic, social and technological factors were bound to be in there somewhere. So too were changes in the role, status and training of the artist and the development of materials and processes. It seemed important to try to place the history of art in the context of the history of ideas and of other contemporary art forms. It also seemed useful to highlight the importance of the way in which art is commissioned, distributed and consumed. Finally, I wanted students to think about the role of popular art and the art of other cultures and to engage in the debates about the definition of art and its relation to other discourses.
‘So what’s new?’ you might ask. But at the time it all seemed a long way from my own training in art history. For in the early seventies we were taught that Titian begat Rubens and Rubens begat Velasquez: connoisseurship ruled and changes in art were explained entirely in terms of fluffy and highly personalised references to ‘style.’


While I was editing the course, however, two things kept coming back to me. The first was to ask myself whether the same criteria could be used to explain the changes in art since the year 2000. And, if so, were globalisation, economic and environmental melt-down more important than, say, digitisation, postmodernism and cultural tourism. The second was to wonder whether since art now has less to do with authorship than with collaboration and manipulation it might be more interesting to ask the students themselves what kind of art history course they wanted. After all, given that many successful companies are now obsessed with tailoring their products to their markets, shouldn’t a distance-learning course of all things attempt to capture the ideas and experience of its participants? In the OCA’s case, this seems particularly appropriate since they include people from all over the world who, as mature practitioners, can bring a range of experiences to the table.
A similar train of thought occurred to me when NADFAS – the National Association of Decorative and Fine Art Societies – invited me to give a talk at the Glastonbury Festival. I shall be talking about Patti Smith’s memoir, Just Kids, which describes her relationship with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Not only is she one of the headline acts but, more importantly for me, her album Horses came out just as I was finishing my art history course and wondering if I was going to spend the rest of my life working in an auction house and wearing a striped cravat and cufflinks. What I would like to do is to encourage people to read the memoir along with me and to respond to three short blogs that I will post here and on other sites between the 25 May and the 25 June.
The first will look at the political and economic factors that shaped the New York art scene in the 1970’s and compare it to what was happening in London. The second will examine the social and technological influences that transformed the relationship between artist and fan and ask whether punk was a foretaste of the less passive consumption of culture that has now become ubiquitous as a consequence of social media. The third will relate Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe’s work to that of their contemporaries working in music, poetry, photography, fashion and film. I plan to use twitter in order to build up a dialogue around the sites. There will also be a chance to meet up and discuss it via a periscope twitter feed at Glastonbury.
I know that the OCA always encourages students to respond to postings but I am really hoping that some OCA students might respond before I write my first blog on about the 25 May.
If you would like to take part and to read the book along with me, I have three basic questions to start you off:

  1. What factors helped to shape the punk scene of the 1970’s in London or New York? Indeed do you have any particular memories that you would dare share?
  2. Who do you think were the most important influences on Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe?
  3. What fanzines or other visual material do you think is most relevant to their work?

So, come on then, help me out. Perhaps, I have just spent too long stuck under the headphones recently but I would love to think that some of you might be interested. And if you thought you had a good excuse, please note Just Kids is now available on Kindle.

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Posted by author: Gerald
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17 thoughts on “Just Kids

  • Sounds, I’ll have to get my copy of Horses out. I was more psychedelic and still have the artwork to Gandalf’s Garden. Also Yes albums. I suspect there was more crossover than people think.

    • I agree about the crossover Cathie – one link is John Cale who produced Horses – having previously worked with the decidedly unpunky Kevin Ayers.
      And I think John Cale points to one of the answers to Gerald’s second question – I am sure the Velvet Underground were a major influence on Patti Smith’s work.

  • In answer to question 1. I’m not sure I saw it at the time, but in retrospect I am now convinced that the 1973 oil shock was one of the foundation stones for punk. The story throughout the 1960s and early 70s was one of things getting increasingly better materially. In this environment the fact that you didn’t have a car and your idol was riding round in a Rolls Royce didn’t matter – things were getting better for all of us.
    From 1973 onwards that wasn’t the case anymore. A fundamental commodity was a lot more expensive and in real terms we were a lot worse off. Governments faced with an unprecedented situation sought to avoid the consequences. Inflation took off, reaching 25% in 1974 and unemployment started to grow. Things weren’t getting better they were getting obviously worse. Pink Floyd could well sing ‘Money, it’s a drag’ but we all knew they had plenty of it.
    I think it is a bit of a myth that punk musicians came from nowhere, many of the them, even the very earliest, were musicians before and seized on punk attitudes as expressing the mood of the moment – for example the Clash were already gigging as the 101’ers. And this is part of the source of another myth, that punk was a working class movement. I think it may have been more inclusive than prog rock, but it helped to have had music lessons at school…

  • I do tend to agree with you Gareth to a great extent’ few ‘movements’ are really working class in origin’ but there was a street level movement, particularly in fashion from the late 60’s that morphed into Punk when taken up by the likes of Westwwod and McClaren via the fashion departments of the art schools and The Worlds End (the Fulham end of The Kings Road).
    In the same way that some Mods morphed into Skinheads at the end of the 60s so some others moved in the direction that would become allied with bondage to produce the sort of clothes seen in some clubs at the beginning of the 70s and the disillusion with both Prog and Folk Rock was why the music probably developed out of what was being done by the Small Faces, Humble Pie and the like.
    There is little doubt that the movers and shakers in Punk music were no more home made than the instigators of Skiffle in the 50s but the great thing about both and what marked them out from the commercial popular music of the time was that it was possible to do it with the minimum of expensive instruments and years of practice…and the back room of many London (I suspect also any other town at the time) proved that point most nights of the week!

  • At the time of U.K. punk there was a lot of iconoclastic posing going on but as Gareth says there was a lot more continuity than was admitted at the time. A major agent of continuity was the spawning ground of the art schools, which used to be a refuge for mavericks who couldn’t find a berth any where else which gave them the freedom to not do any work while dreaming about putting a band together.
    Nowadays in music documentaries the punk old timers are happy to put their hands up to sometimes rather surprising influences from the previous generation that they had claimed to despise.
    Noodling prog rock begat pub rock as a reaction, spawning venues that the bands’ younger siblings could get up and have a thrash at, reviving and celebrating the raw appeal of plugging in and making a loud racket with three chords.
    It didn’t last very long.

  • It will be a pleasure to read again Patti Smith’s book which I really enjoyed the first time, even if I’ll have no memories to share about that time.
    Another fascinating description of the same scene is Richard Hell’s excellent book “I dreamed I was a very clean tramp” + it makes the link with the punk scene in the UK (Richard Hell claims that the UK punk style comes directly from him, imported to the UK by McLaren).
    There is also a book about the Chelsea Hotel by Sherill Tippins which is supposed to be very good, but I have not read it yet; speaking of the influences of Mapplethorpe, Smith, and others, this place has been almost like a ‘school’ for many artists.

  • I was on the periphery of the punk scene and worked with, and wrote (only a couple of times) for Mark Perry (ATV) and Sniffing Glue, and remember that the punk movement, while there was a lot of existing musicians “embracing the cause”, caused a lot of young newcomers to create bands because they could, with varying degrees of success and or skill. Leaving aside the social reasons from the musical viewpoint there was I think a definite element of reaction against the excesses of prog rock (punk was a lot easier) but also bear in mind that, as Clive says, the pub rock movement with the likes of the Feelgoods, Brinsley Shwartz Graham Parker et al was already an anti reaction. What Punk did do was bring a new sort of music very much back to a local and live level for the youth of that time. There was, as I recall, a genuine feeling of rebellion and while this was manipulated by the usual suspects in the capital it did spawn/encourage some genuinely good bands further afield (see the Good Vibrations film about the label of the same name in Belfast).
    So I think there was a strong independent attitude (not necessarily working class – although it was a broad church) both in the music and the associated trappings fashion fanzines posters etc) While there was clearly a managed side to it there was also a feeling that this was a movement outside of the control of the music business although that quickly changed as the major labels saw the earnings potential (and possibly the threat to their existence). As to influences I recall a gig at the roundhouse featuring the Flaming Groovies and the Ramones (as well as the Stranglers) who I think had a major influence on the bands but as commented elsewhere it goes back before that as well, even if it wasn’t admitted at the time.

    • This is great. I particularly liked your assertion that ‘What Punk did do was bring a new sort of music very much back to a local and live level for the youth of that time’. Do you have any photos, lyrics or other stuff that you might post?

  • The spirit of punk possibly existed throughout all of those previous times. Richard Berry and The Kingsmen (1963) is an indicator of an attitude of raw unpolished rebellion, as are The Velvet Underground (1964 to 1968), in America; The Kinks, The Who and Small Faces represented that spirit here. The subject mainly about everyday existence for the young, angst, romance and drugs and a reflection of reality rather than an idealised Shangri-La of what had become the mainstream. Punk emerged into the world of the commodifiers in the mid-1970s as a reaction to the ‘Super Groups’ with tracks of music lasting hours on end to a quick raw and raunchy spirit of the ‘new’ youth. John Cooper Clark is a common factor and possibly an influence to the Lyrics of the Sex Pistols, The Clash, Elvis Costello and Joy Division.

  • 1. Hatred of Middle Class hippies. I remember breaking into a Pink Floyd concert in the Fairfield Halls about a year after Sid left (68 / 69?). There were hundreds of future Jeremy Clarkson fans adoring a pub band who had developed pretensions. I realised the 60s had gone and class warfare was real. We wanted to lose control and then take control. Joe Strummer admitted he was inspired by the seeing Dr Feelgood’s basic R&B. And we should remember that the Sex Pistols and most of the Clash were South London Soul Boys before they saw their opportunity. So the raw impact of hearing the Stax horn section like bony marony in the Streatham Locarno before the fights started was not be lost on us. Mod music was about energy and sex, not about reverentially admiring a guitar solo. It was the need to get back to knocking ’em dead, in 2 min. 59 that drove punk. But as soon as the likes of Branson started hyping them up the charts the power had gone.
    2. Janis Joplin. Wasn’t Patti obsessed with her? When you consider their background, I like to think that they were as angered by the middle-classness of early 70s ‘culture’ and students as I was.
    3. Fanzines? Surely as soon as someone publishes a fanzine about a genre the Thrill has Gone.
    But. Yes. I will read ‘Just Kids’ for Life Writing homework. And I’ll listen to Horses one more.
    (But what a lot of great other comments. Well done you old students.)

    • “Mod music was about energy and sex, not about reverentially admiring a guitar solo.” maybe but I wonder how much the difference was really between speed/alcohol and grass/LSD?

  • Having now read the first section of Just Kids I am reminded of how Patti Smith was first and foremost an aspiring bohemian rather than aspiring punk.
    Three influences she cites are Bob Dylan, Rimbaud and Ed van der Elsken’s Love on the Left Bank.
    I remember listening to Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks endlessly when in the sixth form and wondering at the lines:
    Situations have ended sad
    Relationships have all been bad
    Mine’ve been like Verlaine’s and Rimbaud

    Within a year I was listening to Horses with the equally puzzling lines:
    Life is full of pain, I’m cruisin’ through my brain
    And I fill my nose with snow and go Rimbaud,
    Go Rimbaud, go Rimbaud,
    And go Johnny go, and do the watusi, oh do the watusi

    This prompted me to investigate who Rimbaud (Thank you local library) In retrospect I can see the attraction to my seventeen-year-old self of poems like Les Assis with its rage against aged mediocrity. I only encountered Love on the Left Bank much later but the work is entirely consistent with the dream – one had to get out of the small town to the big city and live life…

    • “Blood on the Tracks” was a constant here as well, but soon competed with that another paean to displacement, existentialism and lost relationships “New Boots and Panties” and I had a Cortina!

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