Time. It’s treated quite strangely in the world of punk rock. Most people arrive as though they were the first. And they leave out the back door to make way for a younger, more energised generation. Aaron Cometbus, of the Bay Area fanzine Cometbus, nailed it in a retrospective on his first 20 years of zine-making. When it came to cultural self-awareness, he claimed that punks were decidedly evasive. Whether fueled by idealism or nihilism, they were preoccupied in a haze of the ‘spirit of the times’. The view from the blazing vehicle of punk rock is framed by a combination of radical ideas, growing pains and fast guitars. Vision under such speed is surely fuzzy. Beyond the ‘here and now’ getting a cultural perspective to the past (or future) is hard. But the last decade or so has seen a renewed interest from within and without Wellington’s punk community with a call to explore the vestiges of time and uncover the recesses of the city’s nearly forgotten punk past.
Enter Wellington’s own unique and peculiar cultural time-machine – UP THE PUNKS! It travels to depths of 35 years ago and up to the active present, exhibiting the stories and artefacts of a vibrant, living underground community. The ongoing documenting and open source archiving initiative provides an important means of linking together a body of diverse works such as music, arts, literature, activism and various aspects of DIY culture, which would otherwise seem disparate across generations past and present. Youth culture is rarely this prolific and broadly expressed. It is a showcase of spirit – the good, the bad and the downright ugly.
To claw back the history of an obscure society, obsessed with its very obscurity, is not an easy task. Works can be as fleeting as youth itself, leaving little trace, if any at all. But memory will still prevail. People still fondly recall the legendary performance of influential bands which never lasted long enough to produce more than a rough demo and play at some house parties; rants from a younger version of someone-you-know found in a photocopied zine which was subsequently lost to time and a small print run; piles of old screen-printed posters and merch; dusty records and cordially exchanged mixtapes now warped and stretched; abandoned film negatives of rallies and hangouts with cherished friends. Interesting and unexpected things happens when returning to these places.
Punk was always positioned in relation to a wider context, differentiating itself from mainstream society. But over time, as we all know, things change, the mainstream changes too, and so each generational iteration of punk rockers bear traces of that change too. I can’t help but recall the backdrop of a transitional Wellington city in the 1990s, its people waking up from the quiet slumber of economic downturn. People were crawling out of brutalist buildings determined to paint over the grey walls that had only served to compliment the depressive color of the sky.
Whether or not these are actually my own memories, I’m reminded of something geographic, something spatial and material, tangible and almost graspable; squats on the waterfront as Te Papa was still in construction; un-refurbished flats with remnants of 70’s décor; walking home after school via The Freedom Shop, the local anarchist bookstore which was housed in a rustic shed on upper Cuba St before being squeezed out by the Bypass; the hired-out community halls; picking bottles off the street during shows; skinhead encounters in Newlands; skateboarding with mates in the Hutt; the patience required to order records and zines from overseas…
UP THE PUNKS presents a case for continuity between generations otherwise fragmented and disjointed. In doing so it proves, in my mind at least, that the past 35 years wasn’t just an excuse for playing silly buggers after all (although there was a great deal of that too). It’s evidence of a sustained cultural activity. In such a hotbed for ideals put into action, ideas can last a long time, or burn out alongside musical trends, fashion, and haircuts. I’m curious as to how punk – peripheral by nature – has extended and adapted to other aspects of society, or whether (in many cases I imagine) it is left to the embarrassments of youth. It would be interesting to know what happened to those kids as they enter different areas of society, as they develop skill-sets for new contexts and responsibilities. It is contributions from these people that keeps the UP THE PUNKS online archive lively. I can think proudly of punk friends who are now educators, union organisers, lawyers, academics, artists, health care professionals, engineers, innovators, activists, musicians, amazing parents, and just all round good people.
Without continuing to sound like a back-in-the-day-old-timer, it has to be said that a big aspect of the UP THE PUNKS effort is to present Wellington punk culture as a living community, uniquely localised and continuing today in full force. It stands in contrast to the picture painted by a Te Papa exhibition ten years ago that presented punk as a petrified historical nomenclature that only happened elsewhere. The ongoing spirit of participation from enthusiastic new blood will ensure that punk respond to a changing world, ultimately securing the promise of it’s future.
And because of the open sourced, participatory nature of the UP THE PUNKS archive, we now have a means of looking back through the noise of time. With the raw information available to all, the historical narrative of punk in Wellington can be constantly rewritten and contested.
UP THE PUNKS proposes one last important thing; that this living history is also a slice of the city’s history. It’s “the Wellington you didn’t know you didn’t know” as aptly put by John Lake in the Pledgeme fundraising campaign. The minor stories told here reveal the material culture of life in Wellington as told by the people themselves. It is also relevant for the story of independent music in New Zealand. These stories are our history and it’s a history to be shared by all.
A Pledgeme campaign to fund UP THE PUNKS 2012 has just started. Come along and check it out if you like!
UP THE PUNKS 2012 exhibition and celebrations: November 6-10
Exhibition Opening Night: November 6, 2012, 6PM, Thistle Hall
Gettin’ Worse: Punx Still Angry, November 7, San Fran Bathhouse. Check out the new breed with Numbskull, DILFS, Influence and more…
Closing Night Party, November 10, Thistle Hall Upstairs
All ages gig expanding the definition of punk with So So Modern, Rogernomix, All Seeing Hand, Mr Sterile Assembly, Johnny and The Felchers and more…