Sneakers That Defined England's Punk Scene
Mick Jones of The Clash said punk only lasted 100 days. But the expression had been around since the 16th century. In the Merry Wives of Windsor, William Shakespeare used the word to describe a prostitute.
By the 1900s, the phrase was used to describe young hustlers, criminals, gangsters and homosexuals. In the early 1970s, punk came to embody the explosion of sound, attitude and aesthetics reverberating from New York clubs like CBCG and the Chelsea Hotel. And it didn’t take long for the Brits across the pond to catch on.
Skinheads and politicians in Dr. Martens, Sid Vicious in brothel creepers, Vivienne Westwood and Joe Strummer in Chuck Taylors; people looked to their shoes to express the kind of violent, DIY, anti-establishment politics of punk in England.
If punk rock really did only last 100 days in its purest form, then the philosophy of punk drew on its whole etymological history to tread, kick and stomp across England throughout the 1970s.
'God save the queen, the fascist regime. They made you a moron, potential H-bomb. God save the queen, she ain't no human being. There is no future in England's dreaming. Don't be told what you want, don't be told what you need. There's no future, no future, no future for you.'
The brainchild of a 25-year-old German doctor, the Dr. Martens boot was originally conceived in the Bavarian Alps, when the young Dr. Klaus Maertens suffered an ankle injury skiing. Unable to wear standard-issue army boots, he developed a softer leather material and air-padded soles that utilised the design of car tires. 15 years later, in 1960, the first Dr. Martens landed in England.
Unified by a kind of social alienation and working class solidarity, the skinheads took a shine to the eight-eye leather boot. Dr. Martens offered a utilitarian, anti-fashion build that became a badge of uniformity among its members. For the more radical of their crew, the Dr. Marten also offered the skinheads steel-capped leather authority.
Born in 1965, Gavin Watson grew up on a council estate in Buckingham. At 12, he bought his first pair of Dr. Martens.
'The way we cut off the leather at the front to reveal the steel caps – those boots were seen as weaponry and you felt safe wearing them … you had to christen them by kicking someone with them. It didn’t matter who, and if you got some blood on them that was even better.'
By the 1970s, the UK was undergoing a fledgling punk rock scene, and the Dr. Martens presented an open canvas for DIY customisations alongside the kind of anti-authoritarian virtues bolstered by the Dr. Martens' working class history. English politicians like Tony Benn donned the boot to express solidarity with Britain’s blue-collar workforce, a sentiment that The Clash, The Who, The Specials and The Stranglers all shared.
But the Dr. Martens still carried with it some of the violent vestiges from an existence conceived during the Second World War.
Viv Albertine, one of the first female punk artists to wear Dr. Martens, describes living with Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols: ‘He got me into so many fights, he was the reason I started wearing Dr. Martens’. Later, Mudhoney’s Mark Arm was forced to start wearing Chuck Taylors because ‘it was either those or Doc Martens, and if you wore Doc Martens and jumped into the crowd, you could really hurt someone’.
Another sneaker materialising from World War II, the brothel creeper was originally worn by soldiers posted in North Africa. Built with a crepe sole and suede upper, the creepers gained notoriety in England thanks to ‘mother of punk’ Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren (manager to the Sex Pistols), who stored them at their iconic ‘SEX’ boutique on 430 King’s Road.
Positioned somewhere between a moccasin, huarache and brogue, the creepers were later identified by McLaren as one of punk’s fashion linchpins.
'My pair of George Cox creepers were probably the most important things I ever bought. They made a statement about what everyone else was wearing and thinking. To wear those shoes was a symbolic act.'
The creeper's soft sole and sturdy design was ideal for the kind of energy expounded in a bar or, indeed, on a boat. In 1977, after the Sex Pistols released God Save the Queen, McLaren organised a performance on the River Thames in front of Parliament House (for which he was later arrested).
But the Sex Pistols were also a fan, like many of punk’s frontrunners, of the Converse Chuck 70.
Originally brought into vogue by the Ramones, the Chuck Taylor hit the limelight after the the band’s preferred sneaker, Keds, dropped out of production in the United States. According to drummer Tommy Ramone, Chucks were an arbitrary choice.
'Mostly, we wore Keds. It's basically an urban legend that the Ramones always wore Chuck Taylors. On the cover of the first Ramones album from 1976 we're all wearing a kind of Keds that's almost like a women's shoe. On the cover of Punk magazine No. 3, there's a John Holmstrom illustration of Joey wearing what look like Chuck Taylors. We got caricatured early on wearing them'.
In the UK, the Chuck went from relative obscurity to punk royalty. Although Converse had disappeared from Madison Square Garden (Nike flexed on Converse during the 1970s with ergonomic mouldings, air pumps and diverse designs), The Chuck had taken a firm root within England’s punk scene. Sid Vicious was wearing them at the Chelsea Hotel, Joe Strummer wanted a pair, and fans wanted their beat-ups signed.
Tommy Ramone summed up the attitudes of Chuck Taylor's disciples.
'In the '70s, it was rebellious to wear sneakers outside of the gym. Doing that was anti-establishment. It was punky and snotty to wear sneakers instead of shoes'.
Cheetah Chrome of the Dead Boys later echoed Tommy's sentiments: 'The only running we did in Chucks was from the cops'.
By the 1980s, punk’s hardcore scene had arrived, galvanised by figures like Henry Rollins, who advocated a more utilitarian view towards sneakers and fashion.
‘Getting dressed up means wearing a black t-shirt and some really basic dark pants … fuck clothes. The more time you spend worrying about clothes, the less time you have to grab life by the balls. You ever see a cheetah obsess over scarves and pocket squares? No. You see a cheetah bolt 70 miles an hour to take down a gazelle and shred it to fucking pieces. Be the cheetah.’
Regarded as more subversive and politically volatile, the hardcore scene originally took root in San Francisco and Southern California, before again spreading to the UK. Despite wanting to implement aesthetic distance between 1970s punk and hardcore, 1980s punk nevertheless largely adopted the sneaker characteristics of punk's previous two decades: Dr. Martens, motorcycle boots, creepers and Chuck Taylors were all popular. The important thing was to find a shoe appropriate for the mosh; Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death.
It was the name of the Dead Kennedy's first compilation, an EP which still contains all the kind of prophetic punk sentiments still relevant in 2018.
'I'm the new folk hero of the Ku Klux Klan. My cop friends think that's fine. You can get away with murder if you've got a badge. I fought the law and I won, I fought the law and I won.