It is a Situationist gift that, within spitting distance of the Kings Road, Nick Knight's new PUNK exhibit is situated in a swanky street in the heartland of well-heeled Belgravia. Just up the road Christian Louboutin offers the ladies-who-rarely-lunch sparkly studded court shoes and elegant mesh stiletto booties. Knight's SHOWstudio gallery cum shop is located in one of the affluent areas most imposing classical fronted buildings, which is a far cry from the ramshackle urban landscape captured in Uninhabited London by Jon Savage, a photograph featuring in the show that perfectly sets the backdrop for Knight's curation of punky images and memorabilia.
Mr Knight, looking as sharp as ever in one of his signature single-breasted suits, talked me through the display, obviously delighted to have brought together this selection of iconic images for his own personal homage to punk (he previously acted as creative consultant for the Chaos To Couture show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York). "It's so great to see them as large prints instead of in the pages of the NME," he said. And indeed it is. These photographs literally lit the blue touch paper that became the punk revolution as teenagers up and down the land wilfully ripped them from the music papers and pinned them to their bedroom walls to gaze upon with a mixture of awe and amazement. Who doesn't know these photographs? Siouxsie Sioux gyrating in rubber stocking, peek-a-boo bra and Swastika armband (Ray Stevenson), Jordan posing outside 430 Kings Road under the giant pink vinyl SEX sign (Sheila Rock), the Sex Pistols (original Glen Matlock version) clowning around in a spray of Carlsberg (Peter Vernon), The Clash performing at the RCA in paint splattered duds (Jonh Ingham) and Sid Vicious striking a goofy Charles Atlas pose (Dennis Morris). Another brilliant shot by Stevenson from the Screen on the Green Punk Festival features Siouxsie, Steve Severin and Debbie Juvenile sprawling in the cinema seats. At its genesis the audience were as much the show as the bands. Two of the most redolent photographs (Ku Khanh and Steve Johnston) feature punk fans wearing speedily assembled homemade outfits that include graffiti covered boiler suits, a jacket pierced with pins and chains, leg-warmers, fishnets, fox-fur and skinny tie. "In this photograph they're wearing a dog collar and lead and in that photograph they're wearing a dog collar and lead," noted Knight. "Yet there wasn't a dog collar or lead anywhere to be seen at the Met."
Knight has already purchased a Bob Gruen print of a blood smeared Vicious performing as the Sex Pistols self-destructed in Dallas, 1978. "And I'll probably get that one [Soo Catwoman] and the one of Siouxsie," he added.
Alongside the fancy pants prints there is wonderfully evocative memorabilia embedded in the era. Several black and white Polaroids by Jim French of virile cowpokes (Longhorns) roughhousing in leather chaps and Stetsons are the perfect foreplay to the money shot: an archival pigment print (price on request) of the infamous flirting cowboys illustration that was appropriated and reworked by Westwood and McLaren for their iconic Two Cowboys T-shirt. Another gem is a copy of the Anarchy In The UK magazine (original price 20pence), really a large format newspaper featuring the Stevenson shot of Soo Catwoman (the limited edition print hangs nearby, available to purchase for £900). Vivienne Westwood recently told me that she thought this photograph, "ought to have been on the cover of Vogue." A double-page feature inside collages together several photographs of Sex Pistols drummer, under the headline 'The Luscious Paul Cook'. 'What kind of girls do you like?' the magazine asks. 'One's that don't care what people think of them,' answers Cook. One of my favourite artefacts is the promotional flyer cum poster, decorated with obligatory musical notes, for 430 Kings Road in its Let It Rock manifestation. TEDDY BOYS FOR EVER it proclaims, listing the merchandise on offer:
Pedal pushers (girls) 22"-30" - £2.50
Girls Gene Vincent zip collar T-shirts - £1.50
Stilletto poynt ankle boots [sic] - £12.50
Cheesecutters - butchers stripe - £1.25, leopard - £1.50
Alongside is a shorty elasticated black leather tie appliqued with saucy playing cards. Nearby, appropriately positioned on a top-shelf, is a VENUS T-shirt appliqued with studs and chains and the like. It is queer to think that, at the time, such items were deemed pornographic and a threat to bedrock society. Today one might easily find a version in Top Shop, River Island or (God save us) Primark. A washed- out T-shirt featuring a screen print of the police charge at the Notting Hill riots (as featured on the back of the debut Clash album), roughly stencilled with the band's name is another poignant item.
This concisely curated exhibit in the beautifully compact SHOWstudio gallery is, as they say, a must for any original punk fans of a certain age and anyone wanting to experience the age that helped shape the modern world. I mean it, maaan!
PUNK, SHOWstudio, 19 Motcomb Street, SW1 runs until 15 November 2013 www.showstudio.com