The past is another country – they play different songs there …

Ah, Jubilee time. Fireworks, flags a-flutter, and BBC TV series about that other fond memory of 1977: punk. (That jubilee coincided with my seventeeth birthday: specific memories are hazy, but bunting, sausage rolls and pogo-dancing were involved.) Our old acquaintance – in the Auld Lang Syne rather than the sedan chair sense – Peter Cook has already made the connection, understandably given his own Punk Rock People Management micro-book (and series at HRZone). So excuse me a little while I wax briefly nostalgic about what all that stuff about Mohican haircuts, bondage trousers and ‘No Feelings’ was all about at the time. (And I’ll try not to wax poetic about doing so with a Melody Gardot CD and a book about gardening at my right elbow. Everything gets old – even, pace Andrew Marr, bloggers.)

As the BBC’s Punk Britannia series helps to explain to those younger than me, the ‘explosion’ of Punk had a longer fuse than casual observers might have noticed. As a musical phenomenon, it had rather long roots – including the American garage bands chronicled on the Nuggets CD series, the New York bar band scene earlier in the 1970s, and British mod bands of the 1960s. “Here’s three chords, now start a band” is not only a popular misquote, but a misquote of a fanzine published long after a long, long fuse had finally connected with the powder-keg. Whatever it might have been, it was no epicentre of musical originality: even the Sex Pistols played cover versions. Versions shorn of musical finesse and infused with a splenetic vigour that was a deliberate assault on ear-drums attuned to the prevailing musical forms of the time, but cover versions none the less. (Were I so minded, there’d be a very bad taste joke about extra-ordinary renditions to be had …)

Musically, punk was no tabula rasa. It was more a case of hitting the metaphorical ‘Refresh’ button, and a response to a musical landscape that had become bloated and more concerned with presentation and technique than with (emotional) content. I suspect Peter Cook and I aren’t the only ones to see a metaphor looming large there …

But punk was more than simply a musical thing. We’ve written before about Malcom McLaren, but his mixing of (secondhand) Situationist sloganeering with Vivienne Westwood’s confrontational approach to tailoring was another important element in the mix. Although the mainstream media noticed punk in 1977 after a notorious moment with Bill Grundy on tea-time TV, its stirrings had begun a few years earlier. At the level of what we might stretch a little and christen ‘philosophy’, punk was closer to a ‘ground zero’ approach than it would turn out to be musically.

The roots of the thinking – and the associated visual/fashion elements – were longer than the musical ones. As well as Situationism’s sense of playfulness, there was something that was easy (and conveniently provocative) to label as nihilistic, but was perhaps equally about a form of integrity and about doing away with anything artificial or unneeded. This took a number of forms, but the era’s significantly higher involvement of women might be seen as one example – people’s gender was no longer a reason to exclude them. (For a first hand account of this, read an interesting interview with Gina Birch, now a filmmaker but then a member of The Raincoats) Not quite a throwing away of the rules, but definitely a ‘scorched earth’ review of the rulebook. And a doing away with anything that was simply tired and had outlived whatever purpose it might have initially (believed itself to have) served.

A strong sense of DIY was another central plank. Often interpreted as primitivism, it’s debatable whether that was the intent or just the outcome. Emphasise integrity of intent over technique, and you might well get something that reads as primitivism if that’s not what the creator was aiming for. There are two other readings of the DIY component of the era that might resonate more with current thinking: DIY as empowerment, and as ‘you can do this, you don’t have to wait to be told how’.

But is this badging of punk just that – applying some iconic garnish – or is there more to it? Looking at some of the writing around HR and the experience of work – think of Will Hutton’s Them and Us, HRFishbowl’s recent The Future of Work: A Manifesto (see our comments), HR Unconferences – there are some whiffs of a need for change in the air. Like so many things, ‘punk’ was born partly of its era – the mid-to-late 1970s, as the post-war consensus crumbled, the economy showed stress lines and the political environment grew divisive. While the current socio-economic environment has been compared to many previous eras, the parallels with the late 1970s are there to be drawn, not least in a vague sense of something new struggling to be born and of old answers coming up against new questions.

(For those who watched and enjoyed Dominic Sandbrook’s recent BBC series The 70s, I suggest a trip to Amazon to buy Jon Savage’s England’s Dreaming, which follows the trajectory of punk against the social backdrop of its time. Even if you prefer Emerson Lake and Palmer or Cheryl Cole, it’s a good read.)

But I have two nagging doubts with the punk parallel. The first harks back to that Situationist strand in ‘punk philosophy’. If labelling ideas as ‘punk’ is a soft form of what the Situationist International would have called détournement (see Wikipedia’s pocket definition), that the labellers need to be equally alert to its philosophical flip-side: recuperation (pocket definition here). To explain in the language of 21st century HR rather than 20th century sociology, those suggesting radical reform to existing practises must take on board the likely resistance and response of those with a vested interest in ‘business as usual’.

If your primary concern is ‘business as usual’, calls to question and rethink every aspect of what you’re doing are most likely to strike you as anywhere between impertinent and irrelevant. This is perhaps another way of expressing what’s become known as The Shirkey Principle: “Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution”. You might not think they are the solution, but they might not think they are the problem. The balance to be struck is between influencing the change you want to see and compromising it.

My other nagging doubt is simply a lesson from history. In the cultural wars of the late 1970s, ‘punk’ was clearly on one side. And it lost. It left a rich and vibrant legacy and a few great tunes, but the world did not change its axis. I’m pretty sure Peter Cook is primarily interested in using striking analogies to get us to think intelligently and sharply about what we’re doing – something that, even from my middle-aged perspective, I suspect John Lydon would approve of.

If that’s the case then I’m right behind him and ready to plug (in) and play. But I reserve the right to be picky about the choice of flag.

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