Forty years on from the birth of punk, with much of its most vital imagery now subsumed and co-opted by everyone from Virgin Money (credit cards) to River Island (‘boyfriend’ T-shirts), it can be difficult to gauge the impact that the movement’s visual language had in its early days.
Which is where something like The Mott Collection comes into its own: As an extensive document of British social history and a record of a particular time and place – the UK punk scene during the mid-to-late 1970s – collector Toby Mott’s archive is unrivalled.
So a new Phaidon book that brings together many of the archive’s highlights (originally published across a three-volume ultra-limited edition set from Andrew Roth/PPP Editions last year), is a welcome addition to our understanding of punk’s visual legacy.
As Rick Poynor notes in his introductory essay to Oh So Pretty – Punk in Print 1976-80, the material in the Mott Collection is “raw, messy and seething with life” and essentially a local body of work, with London’s vibrant music scene at its heart.
Yet the accompanying book is not a record of the most recognisable icons of the punk movement; its 7″ record sleeves, King’s Road fashion or photographs of spiked hairstyles and pogoing. Rather, it is concerned with the printed ephemera that bolstered and surrounded the scene: the flyers, ‘zines and gig posters. (As a teenager at the time, Mott kept everything he could lay his hands on and stuck much of it to his bedroom walls.)
While the work of Jamie Reid, Linder Sterling, Malcolm Garrett and Barney Bubbles has emerged as the most familiar (and celebrated) of the movement, much of the printed material in circulation at the time was produced anonymously and by untrained designers.
Any coherent graphic style was one that largely stood in opposition to everything else – yet, initially, it wasn’t really a conscious style at all, more an amateur aesthetic that emerged simply because things were being made using whatever tools their maker had to hand.
Mark Perry, for example, who created the first issue of the Sniffin’ Glue ‘zine in his bedroom in July 1976, relied on what he had around him – a children’s typewriter, a felt-tip pen – and the fact that his girlfriend had access to a photocopier at her work. Techniques, too, were those that required less ‘professional’ skills – tearing, cutting, pasting, copying – all adding to the vast collage that punk presented to the world.
This “raw, immediate aesthetic represents the urgency of this explosive DIY culture,” writes Poynor – and it’s easy to square this with the belief and self-motivation of a scene developing at high-speed.
At the time, as Mott explains, the larger record shop chains – Woolworths, HMV, Our Price and WH Smiths – offered little for the punk fan; it was the local independent shops that carried the singles that the smaller labels put out, not to mention stocking the ‘zines, flyers, badges and stickers that Mott voraciously collected.
“Punk was a moment of social and cultural insubordination when the established ways of forming a band, writing a song, dressing in the street, or laying out a page or a flyer were thrown aside,” writes Poynor. These examples culled from The Mott Collection show the emergence of a dynamic and participatory movement in its purest form.
Oh So Pretty – Punk in Print 1976-80 is published by Phaidon; £19.95. See phaidon.com