Tuesday 1 August 2023

Review by Tracey Foster of "Punk: Rage and Revolution," Leicester Museums and Art Galleries

The current exhibition at Leicester museums and art galleries explores the brief but electrifying period that encompasses the explosion of the punk scene in the UK, with a particular focus on the key movers with connections to Leicester.

On the cusp of being a teenager in 1977, I can clearly remember the shockwaves that followed the death of Elvis Presley and the furore in the news around the end of Rock and Roll. My weekly dose of culture fix watching Top of the Pops showed how torn the nation was, balanced on a record needle between the worlds of disco, cheesy pop, prog rock and punk. The last was a gut reaction against the rest, a rebellion against the norm, the staid and static. Punk was born out of a resistance to the establishment who had screwed up the prospects for its youth, with high unemployment, nationwide strikes, violence in Northern Ireland and financial crashes. This period was epitomised by power strikes and the darkness that we were plunged into. Stuck at home, freezing by candlelight, the time was right for anarchy in the UK.

This exhibition cleverly plunges us back into those times using audio, video and many newspaper clippings. We are transported back to that period to understand the rage and rebellion that emerged from it. Many artefacts have survived from the period and are displayed in conjunction with dialogue that enhances the narrative and brings us the personal. Local voices have contributed to the displays and loaned their own histories to the sets, reliving the period and effect on the city at that time. 

For me, it took me back to my youth and gave clarity to it. Younger visitors may begin to see connections to today and understand the need to have a voice, to make yourself heard. A lack of technology and interconnectivity did not stop the word from spreading in the 70s. Fanzines and press releases made sure that youth culture connected and prospered. Leicester’s scene is fondly remembered and extolled: pubs like The Hind, Princess Charlotte and the Globe welcomed the punks and well-known bands from The Jam, The Clash, The Dammed played at Leicester venues. Creatives from Leicester went on to be involved in the punk fashion scene in London and become the recorders of the time, photographers, photojournalists and movie makers - highly influential names such as David Parkinson, Stephane Raynor, Helen Robinson and Roger K Burton to name a few. Their part in the movement and lasting influences are given credit and much-needed respect from the city that spawned them.

The one element that personally resonated with me was the highlighting of the female voice. Fearless and provocative, Punk set out to empower women in a time of masculine dominance. Girls deliberately set out to create a narrative around ‘what a woman was,’ a rebellion against the male gaze and objectification of the female form that dominated the media and removed our voice. They created band names to deliberately reclaim the gross disrespect for the female body, such as The Slits, Penetration and the Adverts. The Feminist movement started around the same time, but punks became the face of anarchy, a middle finger to the establishment and conformity.  

The 70s was also a period of race riots and the rise of the national front movement. This exhibition also seeks to make connections to the reggae music and collaborations that formed at that time, black and white finding themselves outcast from society and reacting to racism together. Bands like Aswad, UB40 and Steel Pulse found themselves speaking out about injustice and intolerance, and found unity with punks who identified with their message. Bands who covered work from The Clash to The Police led to a resurgence in the Ska movement and united disenfranchised youth further. 

This exhibition is exhaustive and timely, looking back at a period of unrest and  unrivalled creativity that might spark others to reflect upon our current predicament and react accordingly. We can only hope. Rosie Ann Boxall of Soft Touch Arts says: "What excites me most about the exhibition is the conversations that have taken place between the generations. Hopefully we've created an environment where people feel that they can talk to each other.

The exhibition is on at the New Walk Museum and the Soft Touch Arts Centre until 3rd September. A summer programme of events to celebrate this exhibition is planned across August including a Punk Festival Weekender at the O2 Academy. For more info about this exhibition and any other events please follow the link to the website for further videos, interviews, playlist and catalogue bookstore here.


About the reviewer
Tracey Foster was too young to be a punk but has set store by its reactive stance ever since and would like to think herself a rebel at heart. She started off in a long career as an Art and Design teacher but wanted to refocus her creative energies into writing poetry and prose. After helping others find inspiration in the world around us, she took an MA course in Creative Writing at Leicester University and has not looked back. She finds inspiration in the past and the events that shape us. Previous work has been published by CommaPress, Ayaskala, Alternateroute, Fish Barrel Review, Mausoleum Press, Bus Poetry Magazine, Wayward Literature and The Arts Council and she writes on her own blog site The Small Sublime found here.

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