Punk: Rage & Revolution
Our review of the triumphant exhibition telling the full story of Northampton's Punk era for the first time
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By Sarah Ward
The new exhibition at Northampton Museum and Art Gallery thrusts you back to Northampton in the late 1970s and depicts it through the scratched lens of Punk.
It conjures up that extraordinary era and all its blood, snot and beers, yet while Sid Vicious and the Sex Pistols feature, they are not front and centre, instead the standouts are the home-grown bands and the DIY culture which saw fashion, art and music blend to create an energetic scene for young people disaffected with what had gone before.
The atmosphere of that time is recreated through the exhibition of some never before collated objects, loaned to the museum by those who lived it.
From band t-shirts printed by local shop Rags (which would bus teenagers to gigs); fanzines created by local sixth formers from Northampton School for Boys; a letter from the Royal & Derngate suggesting band Reset to Innocence were not welcome; to clothing worn on the backs of band members, there is a cache of objects from the time on display that set the mood perfectly.
The town’s iconic music shop Spin A Disc is majestically recreated along with the inside of a 70s pub venue showing a map of the gigs where the newly-born bands such as The Shoplifters, The Submerged Tenth and Great British Hope, played in a short period from the final years of the 70s to the advent of the 80s.
Forefront is the musical genesis of that period in Northampton, through punk, post punk and onto Gothic Rock culminating with the town’s arguably most successful band Bauhaus, whose members had cut their teeth in earlier Punk incarnations.
As an experience, the exhibition makes you feel like you wish you’d been there. It is a triumph.
It is the first exhibition by the museum’s history curator Jill Birrell, who took on the job after the project was already up and running, but has spent the past 13 months bringing it to life.
It was conceived as a joint venture with Leicester museum, (which held its exhibition earlier this summer and has passed on some of the objects) with each venue having its own take on the seminal period.
Jill says at the outset she did not know what would come forward: “We started with oral history interviews and it developed quite organically as everyone you spoke to passed you on to somebody else. From the people who were interviewed we also asked, ‘Do you have any objects you would like us to display?’”.
That question brought forward a whole heap of objects - Jill says one of her favourites is a homemade green guitar made by The Aliens member Laurence Harper - which have helped recreate just what Northampton and its emerging youth culture felt like at the time.
“Punk really inspired a lot of people in Northampton, as it did up and down the country. I think it is reflective of a lot of market towns and kids who thought they lived in the middle of nowhere with nothing going on. So they made it happen. They made their own creativity. Punk gave people a licence to do what they wanted and they did really good things.
“What really came across was the music beforehand seemed very unattainable. It was very polished and everyone was very perfect on TV and you could perhaps not aspire to be that person, but when Punk came along they thought, ‘I could do that, anyone could do that, that looks like me, I’m going to go out and create a band’.
“Everyone has been really engaged and that is really what has made it. I think it is interesting because it is something that is not immediately Google-able. A lot of the bands did not make it big and actually that’s what I think is nice about talking about to them, because it is everyone’s normal everyday experience.
“They did not make it big, or get a recording contract so you can’t read about them on wikipedia and we could not have made it without their engagement.
“It is kids who were really inspired by Punk on TV, radio and the magazines - they formed their own bands and then it passed eventually and they grew up and settled down and had jobs and went on with their lives.”
But for some, what was sparked off at that time in Northampton, went on to become a life-long career in the music industry.
Alex Novak, was in formative band the Isaws and today still performs in his acclaimed band Venus Fly Trap, alongside DJig, promoting and running his record store Spiral Archive on one of Northampton’s cobbled streets. This year along with friends he has written a book documenting the era A-Z of NN Punk & New Wave, (which is on sale among other places in the museum’s shop).
Remembering the time, he says:
“It motivated people to start bands, open shops, start fanzines, it was quite a big catalyst. There was a scene, but I think it was quite fragmented, to have something happen so quickly, with so many people. I was at Northampton art school - there at the same time as the people from Bauhaus and there were a lot of other people - who started bands.
“It was a great catalyst for people to get involved and not necessarily people who had any musical ability before. Most of the people who formed bands probably didn't have any musical background. There were all different backgrounds, I don’t think that was important, it was just getting on and doing stuff. It was a very DIY approach.”
Graham Bentley was the first manager of Bauhaus, helping them in their early days and then went to work for them on the road. He was instrumental in creating new venues for the bands to play, most notably The Paddocks in Harpole, which formally had been a dinner and dance venue. His coup of getting Radio 1 DJ John Peel to play a number of times at the venue, helped bring the town and its bands to a wider audience.
“Their [The Paddocks] PA system had been sold and someone had stitched them up, so we went and fixed it (because we were electrician type people) and so they said, if you want to use the stuff we will just charge you £5.
“So I thought we’d have two bands from Northampton and two bands from Coventry and Birmingham and as it got closer to the gig I thought, ‘Are we going to be able to get people out at Harpole from Northampton?’, so we need something else and I thought “Oh John Peel”. I’d been a fan of his for ages. I phoned him up and he said ‘Oh yeah, I’d do that’.
“His actual fee was something like £200 and he said at the end of it ‘I have had a really good time, just give me £50 and split it with the rest of the band’. So all of the bands got paid more than they had ever been paid in their lives.”
Punk: Rage & Revolution is only temporary and will be on show until the start of March 2024. Then the objects will likely return to the roof spaces and garages of their owners.
It was the scandal of the sale of the Egyptian statue Sekhemka that paid for the renovation of the gallery on Guildhall Road and while it made many apoplectic at the time and resulted in the former Northampton Museum losing its museum accreditation (it has regained it since) the fact that it has rarely been mentioned since, it testament to what this new venue has become.
With permanent exhibitions of the town’s shoe heritage the temporary and touring exhibitions it has staged so far have triumphed. Later this month there will be an exhibition of Sex Pistols artist Jamie Reid’s artwork and keeping the Punk theme, a touring exhibition of Vivienne Westwood’s fashion is also planned.
It is a venue worthy of a big city and one which Northampton should be beyond proud. If you do one cultural thing this month, make it this exhibition.
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