The Spaces of Punk Rebellion: From London to Ljubljana
If it is true that every genre of music has its own set of unique signifiers, then by extension, so must the performance spaces each genre inhabits. Orchestral performances can be expected to take place in elegant, albeit musty, red-carpeted performance halls. Country music is synonymous with the dark-wooded, whiskey soaked honky-tonks in which many artists get their humble start. And then there’s the classic archetype of the punk space: dimly lit, cramped with graffiti and sweaty bodies, reeking like a giant, overturned portapotty. The 1970’s British punk explosion took off in pubs and clubs like these, where a new generation of bored anarchists sought like minded audiences to spread their message of rebellion to. But the punk movement was not specific to Great Britain alone. Scenes sprung up in its wake around the world, including in Communist Yugoslavia. And while club spaces and S&M shops housed this new subculture in London, Ljubljana’s youth took directly to the streets, providing a remarkable case study in how Yugoslavian youth fashioned punk in its own distinct image. In the Slovenian capital’s Johnny Rotten Square, the concept of a punk space took on a new meaning.
In 1975 London, The Sex Pistols, then known as The Strand, were auditioning lead singers. A charismatic performer by the stage name of Johnny Rotten won the role, and the band took off playing shows around the United Kingdom. Their club gigs became infamous for the near-riots the Pistols goaded fans into. “I bet you don’t hate us as much as we hate you,” Rotten told the crowd at one early performance (Lang, 24). The cramped spaces of the United Kingdom’s clubs played host to the anarchy The Pistols cultivated. Their sloppy three-chord guitar and provocative lyrics sent audiences into frenzy. Recalls fan Simon Wright of a two-night stand at the 100 Club, “I was glad I didn’t go the second night, when Sid Vicious threw a beer glass at one of the pillars and it shattered, blinding a girl. The first night, like all the early punk gigs I went to, was noisy and physical, but good-humoured. The spitting and the gobbing and the pogo-ing came later” (Wright, “That’s me in the picture”). As arrests, altercations, and televised spats amounted, so did the legend surrounding the group. A number of new bands formed, a result of The Sex Pistols’ considerable influence. The Pistols clearly reveled in their status as social menaces, and the rest of the world could not look away. Including Ljubljana.
Pankrti, a Slovenian band heavily influenced by the United Kingdom punk scene, played a crucial role in spreading the punk sound to the youth of Yugoslavia. Their “wild music with fierce lyrics” pushed the limits of acceptability, and teenagers “sick of the established lifestyle, which had very little variety,” (T.J., “Pankrti’s Dolgcajt: A Quarter Century Later”) responded by enthusiastically flooding urban centers for shows. “In contrast to the grown-up members of Pankrti, however, they did not perceive punk simply as an artistic expression. Rather, they adopted it as their lifestyle” (Mulej, pg. 192). While the U.K.’s punk rebellion happened in pubs and on talk show stages, the youth of Slovenia aired their disillusioned in the streets. One such punk space in Ljubljana became known affectionately as Johnny Rotten Square. Youths swarmed in from the suburbs during the early 1980s, dressed in the tight leather and ripped clothes that became emblematic of punk culture. They covered the area in graffiti, sometimes ironically adopting the symbols of their Communist government. It was not long before Slovenian newspapers began publishing anti-punk propaganda, utilizing amongst other things, the image of a spray painted swastika found in Johnny Rotten Square. “The purpose of the so-called ‘Nazi punk affair’ was to tarnish the thriving punk scene in the Slovene capital with the label of Nazism in order to provoke widespread public condemnation and violent reactions. It partly succeeded, as for a while the streets indeed became quite unsafe for those dressed in punk attire” (Mulej, pg.195). However, youths charged with the graffiti were eventually found not-guilty for a lack of evidence, and the punk movement became even more solidified against the old guard, with some thought leaders even coming to their defense.
Johnny Rotten Square was a space where teenagers of all classes and backgrounds could fashion their own culture. And while political ideology sometimes intertwined with their rebellion, it was not the defining factor. Instead, the teenagers of Slovenia merely took the British punk scene a step further, fashioning it into a genuine lifestyle. Decades later, sociologists are still trying to glean the significance of the punk movement, and whether or not it represented anything other than bored kids looking for something to do. In London, that might have been the case. The Sex Pistols seemed more interested in chaos than anything else, which is still admirable in its own right. But the teenagers in Slovenia were not merely bouncing around in clubs, but remaking public spaces in their own image. They sought a place to explore their burgeoning individuality, and when it was not there, they created it.
Laing, David, pg. 24. One Chord Wonders: Power and Meaning in Punk Rock. PM Press, 1985.
Wright, Simon. "That’s me in the picture: Simon Wright remembers seeing the Sex Pistols at the 100 Club in September 1976." The Guardian. 14 November 2014 <https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/nov/14/thats-me-in-picture-sex-pistols-100-club-1976>.
T.J.. "Pankrti's Dolgcajt: A Quarter Century Later." The Slovenia Times. 19 May 2006 <http://www.sloveniatimes.com/pankrti%E2%80%99s-dolgcajt-a-quarter-century-later>.
Mulej, Oskar, pg. 192, 195. "A Place Called Johnny Rotten Square: The Ljubljana Punk Scene and the Subversion of Socialist Yugoslavia." A European Youth Revolt. 2016