What does an exhibition in Leicester have to do with the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea, you might ask?
When the exhibition is called ‘Punk: Rage & Revolution,’ the answer is: rather a lot, really. After all, punk, as we know it, can be seen to have been birthed by the combined genius and vision of Vivienne Westwood and Malcom McLaren, and the various incarnations of their shop at 430 King’s Road, Chelsea – Let it Rock, Too Fast to Live Too Young to Die, SEX, Seditionaries and, finally, in 1979, World’s End – the name under which it still operates today. Their innovative designs helped to define a burgeoning subculture, gave a creative voice and identity to the movement – and, of course, spawned the Sex Pistols.
The shop, with its clothing designed to make political statements that flew in the face of the status quo, attracted disaffected youth with its rebellious spirit. Walking down the Kings Road now, with its global fashion labels, chic boutiques and upscale eateries frequented by well-heeled residents, it’s hard to imagine that the Westwood and McLaren’s clientele used to be escorted by police from the Sloane Square station to the shop.
As co-curator and musical and social history author Shaun Knapp puts it, ‘punk has been distilled, in the minds of many, to the wearing of bin bags, dog collars and safety pins.’ Yet it was never just about clothes, spitting, aggression, or obscenities. It was about youth questioning the world they found themselves in: a world that featured political extremism, high unemployment, segregation, strike action, and an energy crisis. For the young, the future looked bleak: punk was one the ways in which they could express their dismay about their prospects, and their anger with the powermongers making decisions on their behalf.
Punk: Rage & Revolution explains all of this in fascinating detail, as well as exploring how the punk scene translated into Leicester and the surrounding areas. It describes how, with Chelsea prices beyond the means of most midlands locals, creativity surged, with garments – many of them second hand – customised and given new life. It’s interspersed with recollections from local punks and the perceptions of young people today, as well as music memorabilia ranging from concert tickets and posters to footage – all against a soundtrack of iconic punk records.
Vivienne Westwood, photographed by Leicester photographer David Parkinson
Perhaps Leicester had its big moment in the sun in the years between 2012 and 2016, with the twin shocks of, firstly, the discovery of Richard III’s bones and, secondly, the Premier League win but, as Dr Emma Parker of The University of Leicester says, “People tend to think that Leicester is a boring provincial backwater, but this exhibition shows that Leicester made a really important contribution to punk. Not everything happens in London and Leicester was actually the site of incredible punk creativity.”
It’s worth a day trip to the city before the exhibition ends on the 3rd September; if you can manage a few more days away, then head up on the weekend of 18th – 20th August, when the accompanying Punk Festival Weekender will take place, featuring talks, bands, exhibitions and films.
Entry to the exhibition is free; tickets for festival events vary.
All photos have been taken from the Punk: Rage & Revolution exhibition catalogue.