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The 1975: How punk is evolving.

“Theres so much to see and so much to do, but I somehow still find myself doing nothing at all” – Matt Healy

I’ll admit it, there was a time when I just didn’t get The 1975. I once said the same about My Chemical Romance and come 2005 I would be watching them live and my perspective quickly changing. The 1975 are an English pop-rock band formed in 2002 in Wilmslow, Cheshire. The bands third studio album “I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful yet So Unaware of It”, released in 2016 was the first real push the band experienced and projected them into the global picture. The trajectory into the big time continued with the release of ‘A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships’ in 2018 on Polydor records and 2020 will see the release of ‘Notes on a Conditional Form’. “It was just down the road where we played our first official show as The 1975, at the Leeds Cockpit” Healy announced to the packed Leeds arena earlier this year. Indeed, The 1975 are one of a handful of bands that played their first Leeds show at the Cockpit and have gone on to also headline the Bramham Park, Leeds Festival and its sister Reading in 2019.

The band presents a mix of influences and this eclectic mix has been well documented. Brian Eno compositions, A$AP Rocky Hip-Hop, Horn Laden Jazz, soaring Indie rock with The Pixies / Radiohead-esque anthems and it’s hard to ignore how Healys beat poetry resembles some kind of love letter to The Streets. Healy himself has put on record his passion for artists such as Converge, Glassjaw, Minor Threat, Refused and Gorilla Biscuits to name but a few. Critics frequently turn to Prince, Fleetwood Mac and Talking Heads as points of reference. Watching the band live I recall Blondie, Queens of the Stone Age, Bowie, The Clash, Sigur Ros and Michael Jackson were just a sprinkling of names that ran through my own head – as the group thrashed, grooved and jived through their mammoth set.

Beyond the busy production, no substance is lost within the style. It is the subject matter that remains one of the most endearing aspects of the band. Having spent three years touring nonstop while frontman Matty Healy coped with severe depression, eroding relationships, and drug issues, it is no surprise that these darker topics run in tandem with observational social and political commentary. Yet, both personal experience and contentious themes are effectively molded, packaged and presented in a form that doesn’t alienate anyone in the fanbase. Healy himself recounts one description he heard in that “The 1975 is kind of a Pixar movie where it’s for younger people and it’s exciting and pretty, but there’s so much there for the older generation too…”.

The punk connotations of The 1975 experience has left the most striking impression on me. Punks origins, of course, can be identified as rooted within the economic and social strife of Britain through the mid-1970s. It was a period of the past in which unemployment was high and a lack of jobs impacted upon communities and the younger generations. Artists such as Debbie Harry have explained how the British punk movement in its formative years responded to such social strife in that “everybody was very outwardly driven and politically minded and it was all in the music”. Harry expands on this in that “it was really all about their economy because their economy had turned to shit. A great percentage of people were on the dole, and there really was no future for these kids. People forget what a wreck the place was in the early 70s” (Debbie Harry quoted in Blake, 2008). Punk, in particular became a counter-cultural rallying call as Neoliberal policies inspired an intimidating mix of hatred and contempt, which fanned the flames of the American and British punk scene for years to come.

Punk and hip-hop are often viewed as the only genres to be given the label political and both genres were rooted in place while providing a culture which always seeks to define itself against the mainstream and hegemonic elite. As more of our lives become consumed by the online world, I have often wondered where mainstream punk, or punk as a concept is left. I was reminded of O’Hara (1999) who writes in that one major problem in trying to explain punk – is that it does not fit neatly into a box or category. Of course, post-punk and new wave are viewed as what came next, but where do the ephemeral core principles of Punk, which O’Hara refers to above – progress to in the digital world?

On arriving in the arena quarter of Leeds, the usual buzz and atmosphere of thousands of people descending upon the arena for The 1975 was met by ticket touts, buskers, activists, and the now standard airport style arena security. “Extinction Rebellion” flyers were distributed and news had recently spread of Greta Thunberg’s inclusion on a new track.

The 1975 have become very outspoken on many topics within the music industry itself – stating the need for strong gender-balanced participation in festival line ups going as far as to say the band will now only sign up for festivals offering equal line ups. At the time of their greatest popularity, presenting a message of gender equality and lobbying for a higher proportion of women participating as creative artists on major festival bills both in rock and mainstream pop culture is a striking commitment.

The band are not afraid of controversy. In August 2019 the band protested strict anti-LGBTQ laws in Dubai, as they made their first appearance in the United Arab Emirates. Homosexuality is illegal and punishable by up to 10 years in prison, and comfortable in this knowledge Healy took the decision to kiss a male in front of the tens of thousands in attendance. Shortly after the concert Healy told his twitter followers “I don’t think we’ll be allowed back”.

Healy has hinted towards the bands new found empowerment and the artistic license such prominence has afforded them in that “we knew that […] we could do whatever we wanted and write whatever record we wanted [discussing Love it if we Made it]“, and consequently decided to make a song similar to Princes “Sign ‘O’ the Times” inspired by the political events and social commentary from 2016 to 2018… I love being played on the radio next to Ariana Grande, but my lyrics being the way they are is because I could do that in punk music”. Healy extrapolated on this topic “We could have been a punk band. We could have been one of these bands, but I wanna actually be punk, but you can’t actually be punk in punk anymore, I wanna be punk”. Punk is something which made the explicit aim of trying to destroy such boxes. As O’Hara notes “punk cannot be pigeonholed into some spiky-haired male [sic] wearing a leather jacket with a thousand metal spikes listening to music really loud”. Surely, punk and / or subculture merely responds to what is put in front of it be it the online world riddled with pop-culture, politics and influencers or the isolation of the 1980s Pacific North West.

“And hey, would you

Like to look outside sometimes? (No)

I’m just with my friends online”

Love Me – The 1975

As music scenes are less rooted in place, music has an increasing tendency to revolve around digital communication, infrastructure, and distribution and through this, essentially digital scenes emerge (Bennett 2002). One must ponder where punk goes in such a world and how punk and such countercultural art will manifest itself.

For the 2019 tour The 1975 announced that the band would not be manufacturing any new merchandise following the release of the album, ‘Notes On A Conditional Form’ because the band had recognized that it was “not sustainable”. Instead, the band utilised earlier tour merch and invited fans to bring their old music t-shirts (from any band) to the merchandise stalls to get them reprinted with ‘Notes On A Conditional Form’ designs. The 1975s move was praised by many, including punk icon Frank Carter who wrote: “This is genius. Well played. Time to get in the loft and dig out my old ones”.

I have often been fascinated by the role of material culture, iconography and art in Punk. There is something striking about other artists t shirts, old t shirts been pasted over like an old poster on a wall, being superseded, disposable or lost to time. Merchandise is materially integral in how people identify with a group, a fanbase. Of course, marketing is a key part of any band’s decision making, especially in the online world. However, I could not help but re-visit points put forward by scholars such as Hebdige (1979) in considering how through punk, the meanings attached to commodities are intentionally distorted and personalized another discussion for another day, but an interesting point none-the-less.

A fascinating band, to some. Not to others, and that’s part of the fun of music. As the band themselves noted at their recent Leeds Arena show, many dislike them, and as with many great punk bands, they appear perfectly happy with that. In fact, they embrace this confrontational trait so much so, that they utilize some of the commentary they receive within the digital back drop of their show. Healy’s presence on social media is also an interesting musical gateway for his core fan base. Those who gravitate towards more youthful pop-culture are frequently introduced to his eclectic tastes and fondness of Job For a Cowboy, Refused, My Bloody Valentine, Converge and such.

But ultimately, they are a band that are having fun and living a dream simply making music that they like. A desire to challenge the status quo, to embrace and utilise societal frustration and challenge the increasingly hopeless norm. In art such as The 1975 music takes its required leap forward into the digital age while continuing to formulate a confrontational and tactical assault on culture. And, it is in considering culture that Healy himself has said, “culture is politics” and his actions speak just as loud as his words.

The 1975 live at The O2, London. Credit: Jenn Five/NME (Trendell 2020)

Thanks for reading,
Will

  • O’Hara C. (1999). The Philosophy of Punk: More Than Noise! AK
  • Bennett, A. and Hodkinson, P. (2012). Ageing and youth cultures: Music, style and identity. Oxford: Berg.
  • Bennett, A. (2015). ‘Popular music and the “problem of heritage”’. In S. Cohen, R. Knifton, M. Leonard, and L. Roberts (Eds) Sites of popular music heritage: Memories, Histories, Places. London: Routledge, pp. 15-27
  • Bennett, A. and Hodkinson, P. (2012). Ageing and youth cultures: Music, style and identity. Oxford: Berg.
  • Bennett, A. (2002). ‘Music, media and urban mythscapes: A study of the Canterbury Sound’. Media, Culture & Society 24(1). 87-100.Trendell Andrew (2020), The 1975 live in London: their epic residency at The O2 – in dazzling photos. https://www.nme.com/photos/music-photos/the-1975-the-o2-london-photos-review-setlist-2613370

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