In Praise of Theory: the limits of punk

A political-theoretical argument in the shape of a longform review of the Laugharne Literary Weekend 25-27 March 2022.

Luke Wright

Theory can be a creative and beautiful force.  Poet Luke Wright proved this in the space of two poems in the Saturday night aftershow event at the Laugharne weekend.  He explained the literary theory he was about to put in practice before he recited the poems it related to. 

That didn’t lessen their impact – just as a musicologist explaining why a twelve bar blues “works” doesn’t stop it from making you feel something. 

Then, proving the same point another way with some added flash, he recited a piece in praise of pretentiousness. 

Once, he stumbled on a line.  Not badly.  But upstairs at the Fountain Inn is an intimate gig.  I saw, in a flickering fragment of a moment, that bitter anger you see from a real artist fighting for their life against the possibility of failure.  Luckily, he’d done the work, he had theory on his side, and he knew the way home.

Theory is inescapable.  Those who try to get away from it always end up in imprisoned in the patterns of life they’ve failed to question. 

J.M.Keynes put it more pithily, albeit in a way that limits it more than I’d like:

Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. (1)

Making art (possibly even more than making economic decisions) without some kind of self-conscious theoretical framework, is essentially limiting.  It will enable you to steal or knowingly quote, or even ecstatically destroy.  But it won’t help you to overcome.  I’ve started to think of this limitation as the unacknowledged negative legacy of punk, and to see it in a wide variety of spheres. 

Particularly, I felt this theme jumping out at me repeatedly over the course of the Laugharne Weekend, with Luke Wright being the notable exception who cheerily preached for consciously employing theory and structure. 

Mark Thomas

It's not the best possible shot of Mark, but have a look at his website before you sneer at me for using Internet Dairy's picture from flickr, alright?

Mark Thomas is the alternative comedian / activist of the Mark Thomas Comedy Product fame.  He’s not in all (and maybe not in most) respects anti-intellectual.  He started his talk on the history of the Comedy Product, for instance, with a quote from a fellow alternative comedian from the early 80s.  It goes something like this:

People say football is the most proletarian sport. Bollocks. Motor racing is the proper proletarian sport: day out with with your mates, a few beers, and if you're really lucky you see some posh cunt frazzled to a crisp."

No mistaking the revolutionary impulse there, and the confident and self-conscious intellectual and theoretical framework it’s built on.  Albeit it’s difficult to escape some awkwardness at passive consumerist proles pissed up and jeering at people dying at work. 

Neither the Comedy Product nor Mark Thomas himself ever suffered from such disengagement, of course.  They were always in the grand old tradition of Radical muckraking, notwithstanding the nods he gave to the situationists and The Crass in reminiscing about his act.  But where a thoroughgoing mirthful Marxism could have insisted on bringing the Comedy Product inconveniently up-to-date, the years between then and the present were left largely as a period of silence. 

Thomas is one of the few old lefties who still applauds the audience when he closes, and acknowledges his crew.  That’s something to cherish. 


It’s not quite enough for me though.  I want my revolutionary comedians to mean it when they talk about all-night workshops and discussions following the gig, instead of that being an easy but sad gag at the expense of the revolution.  I want the (very able) young tech crew to be introduced and have their favoured struggles and causes put centre stage at the close: because passing the baton is a socialist duty.  I want bitterness and self-reproach and prescient analysis of what is to be done.  All of which is to say that I want theory, instead of a cozy recollection of what happened on a tv show far away. 

I want angry, flawed, heroes who are better than me because of the superhuman efforts they made to follow a route that they are selflessly signposting for me, and who therefore force me to be better. Not decent lefty geezers politely singing ‘no more heroes’ about themselves and their iron commitment to ordinariness, like they have been my whole lifetime. 

Especially, Comrade Thomas, I don’t want you, even in jest, upselling your book because your gas bills due.  Here in Laugharne, of all places, I need to hear you rage at the dying of the pilot light.

Don Letts

Before Mark Thomas, who appeared in person, was Don Letts, who didn’t. 

BBC commitments, apparently. 

Still, the film about Don was interesting enough, and fairly clear-sightedly portrayed him as someone with a gift for being in the right place at the right time, especially when that meant making the place.  Most interesting in the film – and what’s determined the entire trajectory of his careers since then – was his closeness to the major players in the early years of punk.

Unlike many other musical and style movements though, punk only had early years.  By the time I started secondary school in the early 1980s it was already over.  Ahead of me in the lunch queue on my first day was a lad wearing a patch on his leather saying “punk’s not dead”.  I saw him again, but never the jacket or the patch.  I know that’s mere anecdote, but the movers and shakers of the London punk scene that gave Letts his big breaks were already a new establishment, whilst still looking street and anti-establishment.  Sure, there were inbetween steps and dramatic exceptions, but Letts was not one of them.  Nor was he ever an ‘icon’, as the Netflix blurb for the film now claims, or a ‘legendary rebel’ as the poster grandiosely shouts.  Rather, he was an interesting though essentially marginal figure at the birth of punk.  And he leveraged those connections to become part of the new anti-establishment Establishment.

By the time the kid ahead of me in the queue was ditching his punk patch, Letts was the go-to maker for fast, fun and funky videos.  Not videos that changed the game, but ones that played the game.  No sixteen hour animation setups under glass here, like Nic Parks’ astonishing Sledgehammer video for that old hippy Peter Gabriel; no spectacularly imagined ultra-close shots of a guitarists’ hand sliding perfectly along a fretboard, or digital representations of working-class robots, as came from those archetypal antipunks in Dire Straits.  There was not even the sullen menace, grit and anger the punk movement should have expected from its first DJ-videomaker. 

That was left, eventually, to a hip-hop movement that returned ‘punk’ to pure insult.

Similarly, the film exaggerates the importance (and quality) of Big Audio Dynamite and  Letts’ role with them. The Clash’s songwriters’ post-punk careers were basically a washout, and their punk-inspired patience with incompetence explains it.  The films hints gently at the point, with Letts recognising that Jones “was the musician of the band”, but still seeks to place them as a significant cultural influence, citing Letts’ use of samples from radio and film as an original contribution that’s shaped music ever since.

But, sometimes, a path just stops. 

The Wu-Tang Clan‘s sampling of films didn’t need English punks for inspiration – it just needed a sampler.  They loved martial arts movies, and had a sampler, so they used what was there.  Unlike punk, however, and just like the historical cultures of music hall, vaudeville, jazz, rock n’ roll, country, manouche, opera, hilife and dabke, hiphop as a culture values intellect and work pressed into its service. 

That’s why hiphop is a living and vibrant culture, and punk is dead.

Letts’ foundational claim – that he helped cross-fertilise the cultures of punk and reggae – is a true and interesting one.  It’s an achievement.  And the courage and intelligence of his personal and necessary battle against racism in the 1970s was intimately connected with that achievement. 

But the rhythms and politics of reggae were always going to cross to the generation coming of age in the late 1970s, for musical and historical reasons.  Good musicians always steal from the music around them. So once Culture had a hit with ‘Two Sevens Clash’, it was a matter of (not much) time before that drum rhythm powered a non-reggae song: Elvis Costello’s frank enough to admit that’s what ‘Watching the Detectives’ is built on.  Bob Marley was already an established rock star by then.  And capitalist record companies and black and white youth alike leaned easily into the anti-establishment and danceable musics that some prescient and theoretically informed Marxists used to power Rock Against Racism. 

The revolution was already here.

But the children of the punk revolution failed to commit to the idea that they’d found something better than the past.  So they were effortlessly swept away by a resurgent popsynth naffness with no such qualms.  Indeed, by clearing away the old hippies and the rockers with their greasy hair and inconvenient virtuosity, the punks were perfect stormtroopers for a shiny new conservatism. 

It was Johnny Rotten who gave birth to A-Ha and Kylie Minogue, and it’s time we admitted it. 

The ‘eclecticism’ of which Letts is now so proud is symbolic of a New Establishment that’s comfortable with ‘anything goes’ as a philosophical maxim, and which is made of dead punks as much as living rebellion.

Pete Brown

Pete Brown’s written a book about Clubland, or the workingmen’s club in Great Britain.

From this talk, it seems like he made enough intelligently-directed effort that you should buy it when it appears in June.  I certainly will.

The way that the working class creates its own culture deserves – other things being equal – to be treated with respect.  It was great to see Brown doing just that.  He demonstrated, vividly, and with the use of a host of  checkable facts, that the venues constructed by working-class people for their own entertainment were not cheap, cheapskate, or incompetently run. 

We were brilliant, as we always knew.

But he’s overreaching a bit, even in the book’s subtitle.  Nothing in this talk really showed that the “working men’s club shaped Britain” more than the other way round.  The clubs were always an essentially limited expression of what working class people were allowed to do in the world that they had built. 

Nor is there much hope in his battle to demonstrate contemporary relevance and a potentially  meaningful future for the clubs.

Sometimes (and this bears repeating and explicating ad nauseum, as I’ll now do) a path just stops. 

Failing to understand this leads to absurdity.  Our intellectuals spend too many of their theoretical nights drunkenly careering down blind alleys, cutting themselves on barbed wire and stumbling across building sites in high heels. 

Symptomatic of this is Brown’s brave,  silly, and doomed attempt in the discussion to make Karaoke follow from workingmens’ club traditions by invoking the old “free n’ easy” tradition.  This is fetishising ordinariness and too much for comfort.  The “free ‘n easy” of the nineteenth and twentieth century British working men’s clubs (referred to as a living tradition in the middle eight of that great, conscious anthem of working-class pride, The Lambeth Walk) does not connect with karaoke. 



That why, when we talk about “Karaoke”, we use a fucking Japanese word.

Karaoke is, by absolute definition, singing songs other people wrote, to music other people made, with lyrics other people wrote, amplified on equipment other people built.  If it characterises working-class culture then that is a demonstration of the total alienation of the working-class from itself: it is shameful and we should be ashamed of it.  It is our musicality stolen and deployed against us, whilst we applaud the “effort” its thieves have gone to.  Even whilst the lyrics are being displayed on a giant screen in front of them. 

Hopefully, Brown’s not made as much out of this in the written text as he did in the talk.  In a talk that’s basically a sales pitch for a book, with an audience of non-specialists, there’s an inevitable tendency to exaggerate contemporary relevance – whether it exists or not.  My hope is that, being the rigorous writer he appears, he doesn’t fall into that trap in his actual writing. 

My worry, however, is that he and his publisher have sought to maximise sales (and minimise negative coverage) by the usual British bourgeoise strategy.  Which is to say, defining the working-class by beer and anti-intellectualism.

I’ll let you know once it comes out.

Jeremy Deller

For very cultured people, Deller’s famous for a wide variety of projects.  I just knew his work for ‘that Orgreave video’, and ‘those I Love Joyriders stickers for police cars’.  So perhaps I’m not the ideal audience for a retrospective interview. 

Still, he did talk a bit about the Orgreave video, which was nice. 

As well as talking about the astoundingly unremarkable cover he’d made for the latest edition of New Statesman, at the invitation of ‘guest editor’ Michael Sheen.

Michael Sheen is the famous clever left-wing Welsh bloke of the current moment.  Wales is absolutely covered with articulate, intelligent and entertaining lefties, but intellect is strictly rationed in the UK media’s universe, and is automatically presumed to be incompatible with thoroughgoing egalitarianism for anyone except actors and singers and other artsy types who can be easily dismissed by politicians (Charlotte Church is the famous clever left-wing Welsh woman, since you ask.  So it’s no great surprise to see her also on the bill here). 

Being the professional famous left-wing Welsh bloke means that Sheen’s guest editorship of a New Statesman special on British identity in the twenty-first century was utterly unimaginative.  It’s as if he didn’t know anything about the broader academic debates on British identity, couldn’t make room for Adam Price alongside Nicola Sturgeon, hadn’t heard of the Northern Independence Party, really believed Tony Blair needs the oxygen of publicity, and thought an outline sketch of Britain in tie-dye vomit was a bloody great cover.

Tie-dye vomit is what I mean by ‘unremarkable’, btw. 

Feel free to verify my assessment here, as well as to see what Deller says about it.  In person, he said almost exactly the same thing: it was important “to be positive, at an incredibly dark moment in European history”. 

But being positive is overrated.  When the house is on fire, you don’t throw a party, even if it’s starless frozen midnight outside. You get out of the house. 

The house, in this case, is the UK.

It would be unrealistic to expect Deller to create a cover illustrating this idea though.  Admitting the fractures within the “United Kingdom”, except as things to be eliminated by appeals to mutual respect and ‘unity’, runs directly counter to his beliefs.  That’s why he signed this letter urging Scots to vote “no” in the independence referendum of 2014. 

Deller’s positivity about Britain is not a temporary thing relating to this current historical “moment”.  That’s a convenient lie.  His British unionism, in fact, fits perfectly with membership of the anti-establishment Establishment.

Through this lens, much of the rest of the interview makes more sense than it did to me at the time.

He talked about his film from 2019, “Putin’s Happy”.  It’s not (as you might think from the title) about a party at the Kremlin.  It’s hard to see, from the film itself, exactly why Vladimir Putin is of any relevance to it at all.  There’s a couple of embedded links to Russia Today programmes designed to appeal to those of a right-wing or far right persuasion.  And, unless you’re thick enough to automatically assume that suspicion of mainstream media always equals stupidity and credulity, that’s it.  [You can see the film here, on the account of the commisioning organisation, though you’ll have to fill in a form to join Vimeo first.  It’s also been stuck on youtube here). 

It’s largely a film about Brexiteers, foregrounding a few of the right-wing extremists he despises.  He noted in the interview, in a surprised tone, that “many of them were very anti-Semitic” (My exact thought at the time was “fuck me sideways with a swastika Jeremy Sherlock, who would have expected members of the far-right to be anti-semitic?”  I see no reason to revise this). 

His method of establishing it though, is questionable.  It seems to have been looking at the people with the nuttiest placards, then asking them what they believed. 

In fact, running around with cameras asking people what they thought, and then – like a snotty Europhile teacher – marking them as ignorant conspiracists with videographic red pen when Deller doesn’t like what they think, is the only social scientific technique on display in the whole video. 

But hey, why bother with all that methodological jazz anyway?

After all, there’s a whole anti-theoretical theory free in the old punk toolkit that tells you just to get on with it.  Make what you want.  Be shocking.  Tell it like it is.  Fuck those hypocritical complacent old lefties and their college departments, theories, brown corduroys, references and history books. 

It’s a convenient theory to subscribe to when you’re charging breathlessly round with a camera frantically ignoring at least two centuries of twists and turns in the making and breaking and remaking and rebreaking of the European states system.

Prince Metternich, prime architect of the highly conservative Congress of Vienna that shaped Europe after 1815, by Thomas Lawrence. Disappointingly, Metternich was not interviewed by Jeremy Deller

Had Deller taken the time and effort to engage with that broad span of history, he might well have been forced to question his instinctive championing of the European ideas, or to explicitly admit they’ve encompassed some anti-democratic tendencies on occasion.  But these are unavoidable, even in Deller’s highly partial portrayal of the divisions in front of his cameras. We see this at the opening of the film, in which some classical musicians who think they’re going to lose out on touring salaries turn up in Parliament Square to play in support of Europe. 

Astoundingly, alongside ‘Ode to Joy’, they talk about how they thought ‘God Save the Queen’ (the proto-fascist bootlicker dirge, not the searing piece of punk genius) was an appropriate piece for the occasion.  In the same few sentences they invoke ‘unity’ as justifying EU membership, just like Deller and his fellow signatories did in their letter advocating a ‘no’ vote in Indyref 2014. 

Later, another pro-European complains that the winners of the Brexit vote have not accepted “the rights” of the 48% who voted the other way.  The Brexiteers, apparently, were never really offered “what they thought they were offered”.  It’s very mildly put and sounds quite clever.  In a legalistic, “sounds like he knows whis stuff even though it’s incomprehensible” kind of way. 

It is, therefore, the most dangerous kind of bollocks. 

Deller doesn’t offer a fact-checked in-video textbox pointing out that the Brexit referendum really was an indicative referendum on British withdrawal from the European Union.  Or that referenda, by their nature, offer no consolation prizes. He can expose conspiracy theories associated with those he disapproves of, it appears, but not egregious historical and logical errors from the mild-mannered and stupid prophets of ‘unity’.

The latter part of the interview is spent on a couple of Deller’s American adventures.  These are interesting enough, especially if you’re into bats.  Richard Head, the interviewer and Laugharne festival organiser, segues to them by suggesting that you might be surprised by a “left-winger” not being anti-American.

This is half a century out of date, and Richard Head is not old enough to justify the error.   Since punk took pop culture and briefly turned it back against the establishment, lefties rarely act like we should be automatically suspicious of America’s cultural influence.  It appears, after all, to be capable of feeding rebellion.

But we should. 

Historians (and intelligent Americans) are well aware of this. 

The US tried to ruin the UK’s economy by insisting on convertibility in 1947, only backing down because collapse could have sparked another 1929.  Undeterred, US insistence on British support in the Korean War ended our free National Health Service within three years of its birth.  As if that wasn’t enough, they killed the successful and popular native British film industry by insisting on an open door policy for Hollywood.  That’s just a fraction of what they did, publicly, to one UK government.  If you don’t know what they did to everybody else, all the rest of the time America’s existed, you’ve got some nasty surprises coming.

But, as an artist, anti-Americanism doesn’t pay.  American money, and its payment to pet ‘left-wingers’, has been deliberately deployed as a weapon in the global culture wars since at least the foundation of the “Congress for Cultural Freedom” in the early Cold War era.  It has long since ceased to be polite – or politic – to say this.  As an artist, your job is on the line. 

Amongst the multitude of negative effects that have flowed from this over the last three-quarters of a century, a minor irony sticks out for our purposes here. 

You could now be excused for thinking that America produced the punk movement.  People on this side of the Atlantic have been too diffident about rubbishing the silly attempt to manufacture an ancestral lineage out of The Ramones and CBGB’s.  So absent was the respect for rigorous history (with its built-in requirement of theory) in the real punk movement that there has been no riposte at all to this fresh cultural colonialism (For a classic example, see the Encyclopedia Brittanica’s entry on punk here).  America is even stealing our rebellion, and claiming authorship.  And an artist known for politically confrontational work, like Deller, doesn’t now feel obliged to point out that America is still a problem, even when it seems necessary to go there to make your dollar.

Still, though, the bats were cool. 

As we walked out of Laugharne Millennium Hall, they were there outside, skimming like stones, on the upsidedown sea of the blueblack sky.

Hollie McNish

… writes really entertaining poetry, and reads it very well. 

A great deal of it is enthusiastic relating of sex (or fingering) from a female perspective, which you could look at as edgily feminist.  That’s certainly the likely reading when juxtaposed with angry pieces dealing intelligently and aptly with the hypocrisy of a society that condemns young women as slags when they like sex and as frigid when they don’t want it.

There is a “but” here though.  Hollie pauses between poems near the close to mention a friend asking her why she writes so much more about sex than about politics.

It’s a good point, and for me it was a momentary shame it just figured as an introduction to another (highly accomplished) poem about fingering.

I applauded just as much as everybody else.  Afterwards though, I found myself wondering if I would have done the same for a man detailing – however wittily and evocatively – the wonders of masturbation. 

Call me sexist if you like, but I suspect I wouldn’t.

This was as much as I was going to say, until I saw this letter on her website. 

Whilst it’s a good, and entirely correct, political letter, what we’d hope for from a poet addressing an issue so near to her artistic heart, would be an effective and high-profile political poem.  I hope McNish – if she hasn’t already done so – finds the time and inspiration and the theoretical power to make AQA’s idiocy the subject of lasting poetry, rather than an easily-ignored protest letter on a blogsite.

Irvine Welsh

This may surprise you.  But I personally liked Pete Brown, Hollie McNish, Mark Thomas , Jeremy Deller and Don Letts (in roughly that order) from what I saw of them at Laugharne.  My arguments with them are ones I’d happily have in person, and I really enjoyed seeing them.

Irvine Welsh, on t’other hand, just wasn’t that interesting.  If you expected a glimpse into the tortured mind that produced Trainspotting and Marabou Stork Nightmares and Filth, you’re too late.  The era and the addiction that produced the diaries that produced the writer has gone.

The determined ordinariness (or is it just the survival instinct?) of this old punk means he’s slotted nicely into a role as global scriptwriting citizen of the new corporate world, typing tv dramas with titles like Crime: Miami.  This series, I gather, is about crime in Miami.  My suspicion is that it’s as safe and conventional as a film called Trainspotting would be if it was actually about … trainspotting.

From being a Scots writer of the highest order, he’s become just another ‘creative’.

There is a nod to old anti-Establishment codes in the relative frequency of the word “fuck” during this interview; but that’s the fucking size of it.


  1. John Maynard Keynes The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money etc etc … Find it online here.  The quote is in the final paragraph, but the rest of it is worth a read too, if you haven’t already.