delve into incredible punk archive in a new free exhibition

From John Peel’s personal copy of 'Teenage Kicks' to Westwood’s original tits T-shirt (plus 'Sniffin’ Glue' fanzines), the British Library has a more exciting collection than you might think.

by Charlotte Gush
12 May 2016, 8:55pm

As Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren's son Joe Corré plans to burn his $7 million collection of original punk artifacts in protest of the corporatization of the anarchic musical and social scene — a circus whirring into overdrive on the 40th anniversary of its explosive emergence — the British Library has delved into its impressive archive of the period to demonstrate the value of publicly-owned punk history. "What we're doing is what we should be doing: sharing what we've got," curator Andy Lineham told i-D at the archive's launch. "We've been archiving sounds, audio-visual, magazines, and fanzines for years and years, with the idea that people can come and use them as a resource, learn from them, see them in something like this [exhibition]. That's what we are, what we do."

Tits T-shirt, Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, from the Colin Fallows Archive

Far from just a few stuffy old books, Punk 1976 - 78 at the British Library has an astonishing range of exhibits, from John Peel's personal copy of the Undertones' Teenage Kicks — reflecting his importance as one of the few radio DJs who would play punk, transmitting it to all corners of the country; to original designs from Westwood and McLaren's shop SEX — including the famous tits T-shirt, and the gay cowboys vest that got one wearer prosecuted for indecency; the leather jacket of Rat Scabies from The Damned; a wall of one hundred 7inch singles, including many DIY releases (just a handful of the library's 6,000 strong punk collection); hilariously inflammatory newspaper front pages; Su Catwoman's tour zine; issues of Sniffin' Glue and other provincial fanzines; gig posters and ticket stubs; live audio; video of the Sex Pistols' scandalous teatime TV appearance; and an excerpt of Women in Punk by filmmaker Helen Reddington and Gina Birch of the Raincoats.

With the value of such an archive so apparent, is curator Andy Lineham shocked at Corré's planned funeral pyre? "No, not particularly. I don't think it's an interesting thing to do. People have done similar things before — KLF burned a million quid 20 years ago or something like that," he explains, adding, "Obviously it's a shame that people won't be able to see those things in the future, if he does it". But is it punk though? "No, I don't think it's big or clever." Was punk? "I think it was. A lot of positive things came out of it, particularly in terms of shifting people's attitude and almost creating the independent record label industry. Big and clever in my book. I think you can protest against the commodification [of punk] without destroying things."

With a strong presence of women in punk — from Patti Smith and Poly Styrene, to the Slits and SEX shop assistant Jordan — an exploration of the Jah Punk reggae mash-up of Don Letts' influence, and the pioneering event Rock Against Racism, the exhibition explores the radical social advances precipitated by punk, and the persistent power of youth movements to make the world a more interesting and accepting place. It's good to be reminded in these depressing days of austerity, that it is possible to make something from nothing, with no money and no experience, and make a cultural impact that could eventually become so mainstream that it is echoed in the archives of the establishment in another 40 years time.

A series of events will run throughout the summer focusing on the people and themes of the exhibition, with highlights including Manchester band Buzzcocks: In Their Own Words (June 8), Stories from She Punks with Gina Birch and Helen Reddington, Tessa Pollit of the Slits and more (June 10), author and Slits guitarist Viv Albertine in conversation with Jon Savage (July 14), and Punk Reggae Party: The Story of Rock Against Racism (September 9).

Punk 1976 - 78 is free and opens tomorrow, Friday, May, 13 - October 2, 2016 at the British Library.


Text Charlotte Gush
Photography Tony Antoniou courtesy British Library

Vivienne Westwood
Sex pistols
Malcolm McLaren
British Library