Badges filled the spot that lay somewhere between buying a record or a music magazine, both of which required a certain budget, and buying nothing at all. When funds were limited to saved up dinner coinage, youth culture had to be cheap. Badges were perfect, they were Punk at pocket money prices, and were the best means to feel a part of something or to display your cool taste in music, either from a perch on your school blazer or pencil case (weekdays), or latest jumble sale find (weekends).
Most of the early UK Punk badges started life at Better Badges on the Portobello Road, West London. Founder Joly MacFie started producing badges in 1976, and his products soon became an important part of the punk and post punk scene.
A good badge was how a band went viral back in ’77.
From setting up his first badge stall at the Roundhouse in 1976 “next to the incense and Rizla stall – by September I had displaced them entirely”.
By 1977, Better Badges even had their own Chart in the NME alongside those of record sales.
Better produced badges either from orders from the bands themselves, or by using their own in-house artwork. Instead of a royalty system, Better just gave bands a flat donation of badges for their own use. By 1979, and financed by the ever increasing appetite for badges and associated materials, Joly purchased printing equipment and started to also produce fanzines such as Jamming, i-D and Toxic Grafity, as well as booklets meant to accompany records, as they did for The Raincoats and the Young Marble Giants.
Joly has referred to badges as “not merchandise, they were a medium”.
One of Joly’s in house badge cutters was none other than Neneh Cherry.
In an interview with The Guardian in 2016, Joly revisited some of his early badges and the stories behind them.
Patti Smith, July 1977: ‘The best-selling subject in the early days was Patti Smith. In fact, it was her Roundhouse show, 17 May 1976, that was the real kick-starter. I missed that, but when she returned to play Hammersmith Odeon in October, I was set up and well stocked. Later I met with Patti and her manager Jane Friedman, and the badge sales helped out with their bill at the Portobello Hotel. This 45mm version is the second version made to sell at the second Mont de Marsan Festival’
The Clash, August 1976: ‘My personal calligraphy, kind of a bizarro take on Haight-Ashbury. Deliberately ugly. Bernie Rhodes hated it with a vengeance, and eventually licensed us the Sebastian Conran “Police” design on the condition I dropped the old one. I also coughed up petrol money to get the band’s gear to Europe’
The Slits, October 1978: ‘The Acklam was just around the corner from Better Badges HQ at 286 Portobello Road, so bands would often get some last-minute badges. We had a particularly strong bond with the Slits and [lead singer] Ari’s roommate Neneh Cherry worked as a cutter. They were the only band we ever sent a badge stall out on the road with’
Sex Pistols, March 1977: ‘After initially lifting the “anarchy” design I gained a good working relationship with Glitterbest (Malcolm McLaren’s management company) – i.e. I paid them off with badges. The second ‘official’ badge was ‘I’m a Lazy Sod’, submitted by a fan to my DIY service. Then Jamie [Reid] brought in the God Save the Queen art and Virgin later ordered a ton. The problem was, the ladies at Universal Button of Bethnal Green, royalists to the core, refused to touch it. We had to make a great deal ourselves. The rest were sent up to Kidderminster, where workers had less scruples’
When even badges were out of the budget, or if you got bored with a badge or the band somehow fell out favour, or even if you found a badge for a charity or brand, then it was always an option to very carefully disassemble. Take off the pin (careful now), pop the pin holder out and carefully peel the inner paper and plastic covering off the metal base. Using a safety pin (obviously) separate the printed paper and the plastic covering and re-purpose the badge with a new customised and personal design. Reassemble. All good DIY.
Can’t find or afford the right badge? Then just make one! And that’s your homework for tonight, results to @punkgirldiaries on twitter please!