City Slickers- Punk and the Urban Environment

by | 25 Jul, 2021 | Punk Rock Philosophy | 0 comments

In the City…..Psychogeography and the influence of our surroundings

 I grew up in a densely populated city and so graffiti is something that I am used to seeing about the place. When I was a teenager,  someone had commissioned an ‘under the sea’ themed mural at the end of a particular road. It covered a hefty portion of a shop’s outside wall. Every time I walked past it, I expected to see that someone had defaced it. Sprayed their initials somewhere. Scrawled them and their crush’s initials either side of a heart followed by the declaration ‘4 eva’. Or maybe just crudely attempt to give one of the fish a cock and balls. But no one did. I asked my dad once why he thought people just left it alone when most other walls in the city had been damaged? His theory was, that people could see how much effort had gone into it and were reluctant to ruin something that was bringing joy- that maybe they felt joy when they looked at it. Maybe the graffiti elsewhere was simply highlighting those areas that had been run down and neglected. Perhaps that was my first (unknowing) exposure to the concept of psychogeography.

Psychogeography is a concept that originates with the Lettrist International- a collective or artists and thinkers based in Paris in the 1950s. In a broad sense, psychogeography is an exploration of urban environments and how they impact the individual- as Situationist (yes them again- I have a specific post about the Situationists where you can find out more about them) thinker Guy Debord explained, it is the  “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals”. There were many other facets, theories and activities associated with psychogeography but for the purposes of this Punk Rock Philosophy, we will be taking the Debord question- do our physical surroundings and environments influence our feelings, our mental health, our general health, how we relate to the world? Can the buildings and physical composition of our cities and towns make us angry, depressed, hopeless, fearful? And therefore, can it invoke the opposite?

 For a lot of thinkers such as Guy Debord, the functional nature of a lot of our modern world’s architecture stifled creativity and exploration. Cities are laid out in a certain way to encourage a restricted sense of movement- entries, exits, directions and flows that people (sometimes subconsciously) adhere to and therefore have a uniform experience of a certain place. The Situationists and those interested in psychogeography would encourage people to take atypical routes through their cities- going against the flow, doubling back on themselves, ‘drifting’ and see if that makes a difference to how they feel about the streets they have probably walked a thousand times. Would it evoke different emotions or perspectives than were previously offered? To achieve this, many would cut up maps of a certain city and stick them back together again in an ad-hoc fashion and attempt to navigate the streets with them, decisively taking unconventional routes.

The idea that the landscape around us can evoke certain feeling is an old one, explored in poetry and literature for hundreds of years. The romanticism of rural, country landscapes that can elicit feelings of freedom, joy and a connection to nature are often in contrast with urban, built up areas being typically used to convey feelings of danger, alienation, and dystopia. It is commonplace for people to suggest escaping the city in order to improve mood- getting away from the high-rise buildings and the pollution and the crowds to a more serene and tranquil place in order to feel physically, mentally, and spiritually better.

The physical makeup of our environments- i.e., the buildings, roads, and structures- are one part of that which influences us. But it is not just what is in the landscape, but how well it is looked after. We see this as a big theme in punk songs that explore the nature of ‘place’- areas that are rundown and neglected with closing businesses, lack of community spaces and encroaching concrete and steel are indicative of something more fundamental about resident’s place in society.

We can see this theme- of the aesthetic and accessibility of where you live impacting your life- throughout punk. In The Clash documentary Westway to the World, Mick Jones talks about the tower block he resided in as a child and Tony Parsons observes that to be stood on a balcony of a tower block and looking over an unforgiving grey expanse can illicit big anxieties around the future for individuals, their communities, and their country:

“Tower blocks, urban alienation, disaffected youth and all that….that all came from somewhere real.”

London Calling may be The Clash’s most well-known song that references the capital, but it is in London’s Burning that Strummer sings about the urban landscape he negotiates:

Now I’m in the subway and I’m looking for the flat
This one leads to this block; this one leads to that
The wind howls through the empty block lookin’ for a home
I run through the empty stone ‘cause I’m all alone

The verses tell a familiar story of the frustrations of walking and driving through a built-up city, with the chorus of the song suggesting that the surroundings in London are invoking boredom in those who live in it.

The Specials megahit Ghost Town draws on similar themes. The song laments the loss of cultural (particularly musical) spaces and the decline of a once thriving community. Although the themes of the song can be extrapolated to be about general economic strife and lack of investment, the lyrics directly address the landscape. The empty, quiet town representing a wider calculated negligence:

This place (town) is coming like a ghost town
No job to be found in this country
Can’t go on no more
The people getting angry

 Stiff Little Fingers in their song Alternative Ulster, also felt that the way the city looked and felt said something about the prospects for those living in it:

Take a look where you’re livin’
You got the army on the street
And the R-U-C dog of repression
Is barking at your feet
Is this the kind of place you want to live?
Is this where you want to be?
Is this the only life we’re gonna have?

Jake Burns described the song as “written in the classic punk mode of having nothing to do,” describing the main frustration of Belfast youth of the time as “the sheer tedium of having nowhere to go and nothing to do when you got there.”

For SLF and The Specials, it isn’t just the lack of facilities, amenities and culture that are invoking anger, it is what that represents. Walking through an abandoned city centre is a constant, physical reminder of a wider societal issue that impacts the individual and their family- lack of money, investment, opportunities, care, attention, and aspiration.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that these same places, with the same problems, can’t also simultaneously invoke a sense of affection, protection, and nostalgia. In the Sham 69 song Hersham Boys, Jimmy Pursey holds a sense of pride for growing up in an area that others may look down on:

Country slag with the Bow Bell voice
So close to the city we ain’t got much choice

Council estates or tower blocks
Wherever you live you get the knocks

 One thing psychogeography doesn’t necessarily explore is how the inhabitants of a particular area will also impact our emotional response to where we live. Stiff Little Fingers touched on it with their reference to the army presence on the streets, Black Flag are more explicit in their song Police Story:

They hate us
We hate them
We can’t win, no way

Walk down the street
I flip them off
They hit me across the head
With a billy club

Black Flag went beyond the architectural aesthetic and looked at how the city scape looks to the young when its very streets are tainted by fear of the Police patrolling it. The environment then becomes threatening, hiding dangers.

The Circle Jerks seem pretty unimpressed by the inhabitants of Beverly Hills in their song of the same name:

Beverly Hills,
Century city
Everything’s so nice and pretty
All the people look the same
Don’t they know they’re so damn lame

 One of the often-cited drawbacks of living in a built-up urban area is that cities tend to have a reputation for being hotbeds of crime. Confronting dangers of theft and violence gives the details of the metropolitan areas a seedier feel. This is very skilfully demonstrated in The Jam classic Down In the Tube Station at Midnight which combines acute observations on the protagonist’s surroundings: “glazed dirty steps” covered in “toffee wrappers and the morning’s papers” with the unfolding story of a brutal attack in the London Underground. Whilst that sort of assault would be shocking in any location, the song may not have had the same vibe if Weller sang about it taking place in a village tearoom.

But to finish, there are more positive songs about location and surroundings. The Bouncing Souls song Sounds of the City delivers the message that wherever you live, the familiarity of the place you call home and the shared history with the other inhabitants can provide much needed comfort in dark times:

The sounds of the city,
Somehow they comfort me

In this pain I’m not alone,
In this city that is my home

I think this is borne out in a lot of people’s lives- however imperfect our homes are, the fact that they are our home is significant and we will often hold affection for them and their foibles. But punk has been in a particular position to interpret what our surroundings represent about our lives, our governments, and our futures and both critique and romanticise cities from across the world.

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