Tag Archives: Joy Division

Cripping subculture: punk rock and disability

‘the first step that put me on the road to Rotten’—John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten), talking about his childhood meningitis and hospitalisation

Sex Pistols 1977 ticketGiving a talk about this topic at MediaCityUK, University of Salford this week, part of our regular programme of research seminars. It’s a bit of a dry run for my keynote at the KISMIF conference in Portugal in July (see poster below). I’ve broken my old rule about not writing about punk rock (again)… It’s to do with a piece I’m writing for the Oxford Handbook of Popular Music and Disability. Here’s the abstract. The paper is on Wednesday 21 May, 3 pm, MediaCityUK. Do come if you’re in my area. (Every punk/Manc blog shd hv a Fall ref.) I probably won’t do all of below, might even just focus on the new reading of Johnny Rotten as crip, as suggested above in epigraph.

This essay is focused on (post)subculture and disability, and specifically on the popular musical subculture of punk rock. It considers the extent to which punk rock in the 1970s and after opened up a space in music for disabled performers and audience members. There are two main areas of discussion. First, questions of subculture and counterculture are explored, in terms of both cultural studies theory and of disability. How far has subculture and postsubculture theory included or even acknowledged the presence of disability? How can subcultural concerns such as clothes, style, fashion, media representations, enhance our understanding of the social significance of popular music for disabled people? Second is a focus on the original British punk scene of the late 1970s and three major artists, varyingly disabled, from it. These are Ian Dury, Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols, and Ian Curtis of Joy Division. The essay concludes with a view of punk’s ‘cultural legacy’ in the disability arts movement, including the performance of Dury’s 1981 controversial protest single ‘Spasticus Autisticus’ at the 2012 Paralympics Games in London.

Ooh, this bit’s good, here’s an extracted para, gives a flavour:

Punk and punk-era band names have been characterised by a connotation or description of violence or aggression, sex and fetish, social turmoil and irruption, but also of the body, and in particular the disabled or disfigured body. So: the Blockheads, Deviants, Epileptics, Subhumans, Vital Disorders (UK), Disability Sickness, another Subhumans (both Canada), the Autistics (an early name of Talking Heads), Cripples, Disability, Screamers, Voidoids, Weirdos (USA), and many others. This mildly controversial and contumacious juvenilia signals an identification of misfit, clearly, on the part of band members, but also it contributes to the subcultural terrain of the scene in which both direct and indirect referencing of disability has been widely accepted. Such naming becomes self-fulfilling as a public signifier of music offered: I venture to suggest that a band called, say, the Fuckwit Mutants (I made them up, but would not mind seeing a short set) is unlikely to be playing disco, blues or country tunes. As for punk audiences, their anti-dancing style of the pogo (basically, jumping up and down, on or off the spot), while physically demanding, was a further display of a kind of incompetence, an inelegant if thoroughly energetic solo reaction of body to music. When dancing to slower pieces, or to punk’s own musical (br)other, reggae, one saw, one made, frequent ‘twitches of the head and hands or more extravagant lurches’ (Hebdige 1979, 109). (Indeed, could we say that what I have elsewhere written of as the alla zoppa stepfulness (McKay 2013, 197, n. 9) of reggae spoke powerfully to the cripness of punk? Does that offer another way of understanding the close relationship between the two?) The unhygienic and in wider society unacceptable leakiness of the gesture of ‘gobbing’ (spitting) at bands onstage enhanced and lubricated punk’s bodily excess.


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Number One-itis and Lead Singer Syndrome: how popular music kills its own

With the 20th anniversary of the death by suicide of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, I’ve been thinking about pop and rock’s capacity to self-harm, to disable its own. I write about what I’ve called this ‘destructive economy’ in Shakin’ All Over: Popular Music and Disability. Here’s an extract from chapter 5.


Melody Maker kurt-and-richey-cover-april-8th-1995… It is apparent that there are [music] industry-specific conditions, which tend to target certain kinds of pop workers: singers—frontmen and women—appear most vulnerable. Why the singers? Perhaps because there is arguably a closer relation between their instrument, which is the voice, and the body; perhaps because they are the focus in the band of fans’ attention, and feel the adulation and pressure more; perhaps because the singer is often also the lyricist, who writes the band’s subjective and expressive text….

Pop stardom is an illness that can seriously, even fatally, threaten health and undermine ability; to do well in this career is frequently to be or to get a bit or a lot fucked up. Its workers employ medical terminology to express the condition. His then manager described the unattractive transformation of Ian Dury, following the chart-topping success of the single ‘Hit me with your rhythm stick’ in 1979, as the result of him suffering ‘a very bad attack of number one-itis’. Shortly afterwards Dury himself wrote a song called ‘Delusions of grandeur’ in which he sang of the egotistical pleasures and symptoms of the career—‘I’m a dedicated follower of my own success … I’ve got megalomania’—as well as of the insecurities—‘Oh, look at me, just another pathetic pop star’. When a band member congratulated him on the astute self-confessional lyric Dury, extraordinarily, vehemently denied the song was about him, arguing that it drew on what he had observed in others. He did though himself say, of the industry’s traditional trajectory to success and beyond (usually back), ‘after people make it, a malaise sets in’.

Deborah Curtis notes that, round the same time (the punk scene had inscribed within it a self-referential narrative about its own relationship with the industry, a symptom of its political unease with its own commercial imperatives), as Joy Division became more successful in late 1970s Britain, her husband and that band’s frontman ‘Ian [Curtis] contracted what was known as LSS (Lead Singer Syndrome)’. Number one-itis and LSS are the medical metaphors that describe the industry’s sheer damagability, which may be focused most on, but is not restricted to, those who make it.

The pop and rock industry has a notable capacity to facilitate the ruination of its workers; it’s a high-risk, hi-vis workplace culture where one is never quite safe. And, extraordinarily, it seems where there is never quite enough trust to go round. This feature is a neglected area of research in popular music studies. Consider the kings of the scene, the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Elvis Presley (died 1977), and the King of Pop, Michael Jackson (died 2009), whose own controversial physicians prescribed the fragile men in their care huge amounts of drugs in the periods leading up to their deaths. Dr Feelbad. Pop’s unsettling medicine is a repeat prescription, a systemic regicide for the subjects to follow….

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