London Did You Know? No.3 – Punks
It’s often thought that Punk was a working class movement railing against the monarchy and the powers-that-be, but nothing could really be farther from the truth. There’s a lot of confusion about the movement; that it came from Detroit, or from the Rolling Stones, that it was a reaction to the disastrous Heath government and the approaching Thatcher years, that it was caused by ‘social alienation in Los Angeles'(!), but while it certainly had precursors in performers like Lou Reed, it was, like many other movements, rooted in a classic middle class desire to make money from mischief.
Far more based around clothes and attitude than actual music, punk was largely set in motion in London by a series of photographs taken in the King’s Road outside Vivienne Westwood’s streetwear shop BOY. The shop was owned by the talented fashion designer and her future husband Malcom McLaren – they were creating costumes for films like ‘Mahler’, and McLaren often quoted his grandmother saying ‘To be bad is good… to be good is simply boring.’ But McLaren’s background was resolutely middle class and factory-owning, while the former schoolteacher Westwood was perhaps a little disingenuous in describing herself as working class. (She is now a Dame and something of a national treasure. She lives in an 18th century house that belonged to the mother of Captain Cook.)
Like the beatniks before them, many of the early punks were middle-class dropouts seeking to be noticed, and this (very) small movement was helped by two elements – outrage in the gutter press, particularly the Daily Mail, and support from genuinely working class kids who would charge tourists £5 to have their photographs taken. How did they come to choose mohawks as the archetypal punk fashion look?
Well, one explanation comes from 1712, when a gang of marauding posh boys caused trouble in London. It was said they were rebelling against the status quo, which was putting pressure on them to conform to a moral code. They were called the Mohocks, and had modelled themselves on the visiting Iroquois chiefs who had recently dined with royalty in London. Native Americans had yet to be romanticised as ‘noble savages’ and were thought to be childlike and uncivilised. The Mohocks capitalised on this fear, attacking pedestrians at night and causing panic. Although rewards were posted nobody ever claimed them, because the Mohocks were rich and well-connected, and their friends didn’t need the reward money.
The gang was supposedly later revived as Mohawks in 1771, although this is disputed. It would be interesting to know if Westwood (whose historical knowledge is clear from many of her extraordinary designs) had knowingly tapped into this fashion for rebellion.