Wednesday, 30 November 2016


One of the things which the passing of the Reagan/Thatcher era took from popular culture was the pervasive presence of alternative subcultures in dystopian fiction. Virtually every thriller, sci-fi or horror movie from the onset of punk until the early '90s was soaked in alternative fashion and featured a shifting casts of mohawked outcasts, shadow-dwelling vamps and intimidating punk rockers – from 'Bladerunner's cyberpunk operatics to the street gangs of 'Escape from New York' and the chain-wielding bikers of 'Streets of Fire'; these mutated manifestations of youth culture were either predicted to spraypaint a bleak future with neon pink and studded leather or else describe a present that already was, as every average gritty cop drama of the mid-'80s would feature the protagonist in some seedy new wave club featuring glowering skinheads and spike-collared vixens. And then...nothing. So, what happened?

The first factor in this equation was the explosive effect of punk fashion on all televisual media. Not only was it the first wave of youth culture to have a confrontational and nihilistic attitude towards the boomer generation, it was also so vague as to be universally fascinating and exploitable to Hollywood; so soon the basic elements of punk culture were appearing in films such as 'Taxi Driver' and the first wave of punksploitation movies were spawned. A situation quickly arose where essentially any director who wanted add a sense of 'edge' to their films could simply rip off the fashions at CBGBs or the Blitz.

Apocalyptic and dystopian fictions were also all the rage in the 1980s. The re-heated Cold War rhetoric, economic collapse and crime wave of Reagan's USA fed into a deeply hysterical pessimism that pervaded film and TV during the decade, and dystopia was fashionable once again; and so naturally if you believed modern society (populated by alienated youth/Generation X/street punks and the miscellaneous forms of the '80s idea of juvenile delinquents) was on a slide towards a dark future of pre-apocalyptic ultra-urban techno-misery then it makes perfect sense that such a world would also be populated by the same cultures, mutated into technofied forms (which was of course a factor in the birth of what became cyberpunk). So as this cultural tension gave way to a cultural complacency in the early '90s these tropes became less and less fashionable.

But maybe the key factor was how our collective understanding of cities has changed over the past 30 years. In the gloomy, nocturnal urban spaces of these films the characters were always aware of the different identities of the streets and the collectives and subcultures that inhabited them, a feeling of territory and the understanding of space. The Battery is owned by the Bombers; the Richmond likes rock & roll; the differing gangs of New York carve up the boroughs in 'The Warriors'; and each space has it's own identity. Even punks and goths inhabited their own corners of the city. But today's cities are sterilised, gentrified, commercial and blanded out by adverts and chain stores – no one really believes they will be crawling with street punks in 27 years as much as anyone can believe that today's subcultures are anything more than atomised and interchangeable.

So the challenge must be to reclaim our cities as the diverse homes of urban subcultures, as places for micro-communities to form and resist the creeping rise of rents and malls. Alternative spaces appear to be much more resilient in fiction than in reality, but they can still be built and defended.

And we don't even need our cities to become high-rise prisons in a post-nuclear wasteland to do it.

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