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Exhibition Review: Urbis 'Punk'

In 1977 I was a punk rocker. I saw the Boomtown Rats, Buzzcocks, the poet John Cooper Clarke, the Clash, the Damned, Joy Division, Siouxsie Sioux, early U2, the Virgin Prunes and many others. I hung out at the Ranch next to Foo Foo's Palace off Piccadilly, walked through shadowy Hulme to Tony Wilson's Russell Club, and ventured into north Manchester for the last night of the Electric Circus. I went to many gigs in Dublin, and played at a few too.

If you don't know what punk is, read the definition on www.dictionary.com, then come back.

I didn't remain a punk for very long. After about six months I threw my lapel badges and safety pins in a drawer, and began to listen to non-punk music again. I'd had enough of the petty attitudes, the narrow-mindedness and the limited horizons of the music, much of which I blotted out of my mind, along with memories of obscure gigs, bands and venues.

And that's what's so fascinating about the Urbis Punk exhibition. For those of us who lived through the punk era, this exhibition is an opportunity to rediscover things we'd forgotten all about, and find out one or two new things too. In a video documentary in the Manchester section, much of the talk is about trying to remember who was or wasn't at that fateful Sex Pistols gig at the Free Trade Hall in 1976 (I wasn't). And I never knew that a progressive rock band played before the Sex Pistols.

If only we could have realised that in 30 years time people would be fascinated with this weird and throw-away guerilla pop movement. It was difficult enough imagining what it would be like to be 25, let alone still alive in the next millennium. If only we had noted things down, hung onto those EPs, preserved stuff for the future - and one of my great regrets in life: if only I'd been into photography then, I'd have a prime collection now.

That's what Urbis punk exhibition does three decades after the event, it pins down the throw-away, documents the undocumented and makes permanent the ephemeral. Some of the material is a little bit shocking, as the notice at the entrance states, but then it was meant to be. Punk didn't bring down the status quo or usher in an age of anarchy, but it brought a lot of people together, and breathed fire into music after years of stagnation. Its echoes are still with us today.

At the launch party the majority of the people probably weren't even born when I was trudging home from the Russell Club, but the spirit of punk lives on, as the performances by Gold Blade and John Cooper Clarke prove.

Punk is an important part of history, and a key stage in the development of popular music in Manchester. The transmutation of punk from sweaty clubs to plush futuristic museum is weird but inevitable and necessary. The torn T shirts and photocopied fanzines once thrown in the bin or flushed down the toilet are now prime exhibition pieces displayed under glass and superbly lit by concealed spotlights. This exhibition gives punk the recognition it deserves and is well worth the £3 entrance fee.

The exhibition 'Punk Sex Seditionaries and the Sex Pistols' is on at Urbis Manchester from 26 May to 7 August 2005. More info on the Urbis website www.urbis.org.uk.

Written by Aidan O'Rourke
Posted/Updated 2005-05-25

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