Why Punk Happened #6 Mental Distress

The modern world is a cause of stress and unhappiness for many young people. Hormonal changes, pressure from social media, schools, or parents – and even a 2020 global pandemic can lead to teenage moodiness and much more. Mental health is firmly on the agenda now and our understanding of neurological difference is a work in progress. But let’s go back to 1977.

Now we are encouraged to talk about our mental health – Photo 42nd Street Manchester

Punk arrived just in time to allow kids to express themselves, let off steam and shout out about how angry and bored they were with mass unemployment, and poor prospects in a declining economy. I wasn’t that angry, really –  just annoyed about having to conform and do boring stuff.

But for some youngsters, punk aggression, getting off your head and the lure of freedom was a channel for much more serious anguish coming from traumatic experiences in their lives. Neurological and mental health conditions such as bipolar, autistic spectrum, tourettes or ADHD were not commonly known about. Punk was probably the first teen cult for losers and weirdos.

johnny rotten, sex pistols, and sid vicious image

The kind of tormented behaviour that would get you into serious trouble at any late 1970’s school was suddenly admirable and cool. Your appearance could show all-too plainly that someone had damaged you or that you really didn’t care. These days if you are sullen, prone to outbursts, impulsive and seeking addictive pursuits the educational psychologists, school counsellors and safeguarding teams will be there for you. But back then it just showed that you were a proper punk and that helped you to get by.

Viv Albertine of The Slits echoes this in a 2018  Observer interview:

“..many of the people who were drawn to (punk) were also struggling with personality disorders, with the fallout of things that had gone wrong at home. I now think everyone in punk was on some sort of spectrum, actually…… I think my family were mentally unhealthy and that made me more of an outsider. I was, for better or worse, brought up to be raw and passionate and demonstrative, which does not fit in English society very well, but it fitted in punk. I fitted in, then. I’ve tried to fit in in various ways ever since, getting married and all that, but I got squashed.”         

 Viv Albertine

Cocteau Twin, Liz Frazer, was thrown out of her Scottish home at 16 for being a punk. At the time she wasn’t able to clearly remember or define her childhood as emotionally and sexually abusive. But getting tattoos inspired by Siouxsie, and the Sex Pistols was a way of dealing with a family who wouldn’t acknowledge that incest and controlling, abusive behaviour existed.

Cocteau Twins: Elizabeth Robin, 14th April 1983. Photo © Martin Whitehead.  | Cocteau twins, Music bands, Post punk
Liz Fraser and Robin Guthrie Photo by Martin Whitehead

“By the time you’re old enough to make choices, if you believe through being told so often by your caretakers that you’re not worth a shit [and] you don’t deserve a choice, then you won’t even challenge that. And when you’re old enough to make choices on your own, you won’t know how.” Liz Frazer

Liz Fraser’s escape into musical success with Cocteau Twins may have looked ideal but for a traumatised, intensely private person, a life of sex, drugs and rock n roll, living and working with your lover … and then ex-lover just piled on the anguish until it was no longer possible to go on. The band broke up in 1997 and then eight year later – after Liz Fraser’s therapy and Robin Guthrie’s rehab, more live dates were planned. However a month before, Liz Fraser pulled out of what would have been a 55 date world tour. Some wounds just don’t heal.

2 thoughts on “Why Punk Happened #6 Mental Distress

  1. There’s got to be some truth to this concept, most of my punk friends had at least some loose screws, which just makes them more lovable to me!

    1. I think modern life is very stressful. Making music, listening to music, going to gigs is very good for most people. It’s hard to sum up without sounding glib but I think after food and water it’s one of the basics for a happy life. The 70’s were for me very stressful. Thinking back if I hadn’t got into music I wouldn’t like to think what I’d be like now…..not as happy…..not as strong….I reckon.

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