Period dramas have a common fault: they are confined in their period. Set and costume designers study the trends of the era in which the drama is set; they then decorate their rooms and their characters wholly in those contemporary styles. The problem is that styles co-exist. Many people in the 1970s, for example, wore fashions from the 1950s and 1960s. Many homes of the period had modern gadgets, but they also had heirlooms, second-hand furniture and antiques. The same is true of any era. They are amalgams.
And what is true of the past is also true of the present. This struck me on a recent holiday to Corfu. We stayed at the house of some friends while they were away. My three year old daughter was kindly donated the room of their 15 year old son. If you see children’s rooms on television or in films they usually only have the most up-to-date toys. Those toys are strictly from that child’s age group. This rarely happens in real life. The boy’s bedroom in Corfu was a case in point. It had some things that you would expect from a child of 15: a computer, some computer games, To Kill a Mockingbird on the bookshelf. It also had books by the brilliant Dr Seuss, a pirate ship, and Star Wars’ Lego.
It is not just the case that you are too lazy to clear out your old toys when you are that age. You also have a strange amalgam of tastes. This same holiday provided me with reminders of my younger self. Our host had many of the punk and post-punk records that I grew up with. As usual, it was more exciting to play familiar records from someone else’s record collection than to play them from my own. Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures was one of them. I have it at home, but hadn’t listened to it for a while. Seeing it in Corfu reminded me what a great record it is.
I put it on and it took me back. My maturity was all over the place when I first heard it. I was twelve. I already knew enough about the pain of the world to feel the depth in ‘New Dawn Fades’ (‘a loaded gone won’t set you free . . . so they say’). I was also daft, and so I joined in when my friends-and-relations laughed at the opening phrase to ‘I Remember Nothing’ (Ian Curtis’s long cry of ‘weeee’ made us think of urine).
We were the right age for punk. Jon Savage has claimed that punk fans were divided between the ‘arties’ and ‘social realists’. This may have been true for older teenagers. From an adolescent’s perspective the music was instead balanced between enlightenment and childishness. Punk was the sound of a generation who thought that they were smarter than their parents (and they were often right about this too). It was also the sound of silliness.
It was possible to like both elements. I enjoyed the Damned as much as I admired Crass. I had records by GBH and by the Gang of Four. While some bands were strictly po-faced, others were comedians. There were also groups who slipped between the adult and the immature. The Sex Pistols most obviously. Their songs ranged from the profound depths of ‘Holidays in the Sun’ (Greil Marcus once commented: ‘no one has yet seen all the way to the bottom of “Holidays in the Sun,” and probably no one ever will’) to the (very) low humour of ‘Friggin’ in the Riggin’’ and ‘Belsen was Gas’. They could even swerve between the two in a single song: what should a 12-year-old make of ‘Bodies’? What should a 50-year-old make of it?
There may be little difference. What is true of punk is true of much other popular music. It is adolescent in the most interesting sense, being both sophisticated and moronic. One reason why it has so much impact when you are young is because you believe the music harnesses eternal truths. One reason why it still hits you when you are old is because your teenage spirit never quite dries up.