How A Clockwork Orange set the scene for punk

In the early 1970s, A Clockwork Orange offered a vision of anarchy in the UK that got under the skin of British teenagers who’d been shut out of the hippie dream. Did Stanley Kubrick predict punk?

A Clockwork Orange (1971)Warner Bros Pictures

In the week that A Clockwork Orange first lurched into UK cinemas in January 1972, the song dominating the top of the charts was The New Seekers’ ‘I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing’, an ode to multicultural peace and harmony that had begun life as a jingle for the Coca Cola company. Sold off the back of the drink’s famous ‘hilltop’ commercial, the song was the era-perfect synthesis of hippie idealism, MOR square culture and corporatised good vibrations.

There is singing in A Clockwork Orange too – a rendition of the joyous title song to the MGM musical Singin’ in the Rain (1952) – but it occurs as Malcolm McDowell’s Alex DeLarge and his gang of droogs brutally assault a couple whose home they’ve invaded. As an act of cultural desecration, of one generation pissing over another’s sacred cow, the moment is gobsmacking. Nearly half a century on, this ironic recontextualisation remains one of the most disturbing things about this most disturbing of films.

It’s one of the few embellishments in this largely faithful adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novel. In an interview for Sight & Sound magazine at the time, director Stanley Kubrick said: “This was one of the more important ideas which arose during rehearsal … We spent three days trying to work out just what was going to happen and somehow it all seemed a bit inadequate. Then suddenly the idea popped into my head – I don’t know where it came from or what triggered it off.”

Stanley Kubrick directing A Clockwork Orange (1971)Warner Bros Pictures

Kubrick had form for perverse retoolings of fondly remembered songs, having soundtracked nuclear apocalypse to the strains of wartime morale-booster Vera Lynn in his black comedy Dr. Strangelove (1964). But to choreograph a vicious beating to a Gene Kelly song-and-dance number was even more iconoclastic – what James Naremore calls “a leering assault on a great Hollywood film”. It could also be seen as a bellwether for something new and destructive in the cultural ether: the urge to rip it up and start again.

In science-fiction terms, A Clockwork Orange was the scuzzier flipside to Kubrick’s milestone release of four years previously, the infinity-traversing space-travel epic 2001: A Space Odyssey, which arrived in cinemas – post-Summer of Love, pre-moon landings – in May 1968. Notwithstanding 2001’s grave warnings about unchecked technological progress – HAL, too, has been taught to sing, but that doesn’t curb the supercomputer’s own vicious side – the film landed at an optimistic moment in the human race’s sense of its place in the universe. Its dazzling intergalactic visuals, notably in the psychedelic Stargate sequence, made it mandatory viewing for the longhairs and acidheads of the hippie era. Kubrick had provided the flower children of the 60s with the ultimate trip.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)Warner Bros Pictures

If A Clockwork Orange was its B-side, it was the kind in which dark messages were said to be inscribed in the grooves. Transmitted into Edward Heath’s Britain, where that January’s unemployment figures were the highest for two decades, it was a message that was swiftly picked up on by a British audience too young, too poor or too angry to have had their heads turned by the hippie scene, and who were on exactly the right wavelength to receive it.

In contrast to 2001’s sleek, white, futuristic spaces, A Clockwork Orange offered them a vision of a no-future future that looked suggestively like the no-future present: brutalist housing estates, self-serving politicians and tribal gangs of marauding youths jacked up on stimulants. “If you were a teenager in Britain in 1972,” wrote erstwhile music journalist Tony Parsons in a 1995 memoir about Kubrick’s film, “then A Clockwork Orange got under the skin in a way that no other film did before or has done since. Because it was more than a movie. It was a validation of a way of life.”

Burgess had caught the scent of anarchy in the UK as early as the late 1950s. He’d returned from living abroad to find a national media fixated on juvenile delinquency. Youth culture was on the rise, and the arrival of American rock’n’roll had inspired the wave of British rebels known as Teddy Boys – a term coined by the Daily Express to refer to this new tribe’s dandified ‘New Edwardian’ get-up. The dangerous side of this new subculture was infamously confirmed during the 1958 Notting Hill race riots, when gangs of Teds, during escalating tensions toward immigrant black communities, attacked the homes of local West Indian residents.

A Clockwork Orange (1971)Warner Bros Pictures

Such incidents created an air of moral panic around teen gangs that would play into Burgess’s most famous novel, his rampaging droogs in turn foreshadowing a ramping up in youth violence as the 60s wore on. The Sussex coast, where Burgess lived, hosted infamous clashes between mods and rockers in 1964, while by the early 70s skinheads were becoming an ever more frightening presence on the streets. A tribe that had started out as a working-class reaction to bourgeois hippie culture was becoming increasingly infiltrated by far-right politics and racism.

I asked Jon Savage, author of Sex Pistols chronicle England’s Dreaming, what he remembers about the time when Kubrick’s film adaptation first appeared. He tells a story about how – as a young wannabe hippie – he’d gone to see a James Taylor and Carole King concert in Newcastle in 1971 (“terribly nice, terribly polite”). On the way back to the train station, he witnessed a gang of skinheads throw somebody through a plate glass window, and the contrast was eye-opening. “The 70s were very violent; people tend to have forgotten that,” Savage says. “The gloss of the swinging 60s had disappeared, and everything was sliding downhill.”

Kubrick’s film goaded the gangs by appropriating aspects of their mode of dress. The droogs wore the clothes of the present, torqued for the future. Bovver boots and braces were longstanding ruffian favourites, but debut costume designer Milena Canonero provocatively teamed these street fashions with incongruities such as cod pieces and canes. Images in the Stanley Kubrick Archive reveal the many different hats that the creative team trialled: cowboy hats, peasant hats, military hats. But the droogs didn’t work until they tried bowler hats. Suddenly, the symbol of the City gent was made startling and dangerous, and waves of Clockwork-copyist suedeheads quickly followed suit.

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

David Bowie was also taking fashion tips. Before even seeing the film itself, he’d been eyeing up Kubrick’s promotional materials, snatching ideas for the look of his Ziggy Stardust persona, which he launched onstage that same January. A Clockwork Orange remained a vital Bowie reference point through Aladdin Sane and the dystopian imagery of Diamond Dogs, even up until his final album, Blackstar, in 2016, which contains a track with lyrics in Burgess’s Nadsat slang. “He was trying to unlock a look and a mood that he thought would connect with a young audience,” Savage tells me. “He’d been through the 60s, he was smart enough to realise that the 60s were over, that the 1970s demanded a new kind of pop culture and a new kind of pop music.”

“You have to try and kill your elders,” Bowie himself told Mojo magazine in 2002. “We had to develop a completely new vocabulary, as indeed is done generation after generation. The idea was taking the recent past and re-structuring it in a way we felt we had authorship of. My key ‘in’ was things like Clockwork Orange: that was our world, not the bloody hippy thing. It all made sense to me. The idea of taking a present situation and doing a futuristic forecast, and dressing it to suit: it was a uniform for an army that didn’t exist.”

Even before Bowie, the iconography of A Clockwork Orange had been sloshing around in the arteries of the rock underground. In 1965, Andy Warhol directed a loose early adaptation of Burgess’s novel, retitled Vinyl, starring Edie Sedgwick and with an uncleared soundtrack featuring The Kinks and The Rolling Stones. The following year, Vinyl would be seen projected as backdrop images during two stage shows by Warhol’s house band, The Velvet Underground, symbolically fusing Clockwork with a primordial moment for proto-punk and the whole trajectory of New York noise-making that led to the Ramones, Suicide and Richard Hell.

In the UK, Mick Jagger was attached to an unrealised, pre-Kubrick adaptation, making an early connection between Burgess’s text and the snarlier side of 60s British rock, while Bowie was far from the only artist of the glam rock era with a fondness for droogs. London’s Heavy Metal Kids, a glam band with a nasty, pre-punk swagger, took their name from William Burroughs’ novel Nova Express and their thuggish bearing from Kubrick’s film. They’d never make it big, but future members of the Sex Pistols, The Clash and The Damned all attended their gigs and were taking notes in attitude.

Such was the importance of A Clockwork Orange to that mid-70s, pre-punk moment that a compilation of some of the era’s harder-edged rock released in early 2019 was titled All the Young Droogs. But the influence didn’t wane with the arrival of punk. For the Pistols’ part, John Lydon claimed Alex as a role model, while drummer Paul Cook said he’d only read two books in his life: a biography of the Kray twins and you know what. Their manager, Malcolm McLaren, told Uncut magazine he asked Kubrick to direct a Sex Pistols film, but the director responded that he’d “already made that movie and it was called A Clockwork Orange”.

Ipswich punks The Adicts were also known for their droog-derived image, London’s Cock Sparrer got in on the act with their 1982 song ‘Droogs Don’t Run’, the Ramones referenced Kubrick’s film in the artwork for their album Too Tough to Die, and as late as 1985 The Fall were closing their masterpiece This Nation’s Saving Grace with a track called ‘To Nk Roachment: Yarbles’. ‘Yarbles’ being Nadsat for bollocks.

All the young droogs: ‘Suffragette City’ by David Bowie; Shock Troops by Cock Sparrer, featuring the song ‘Droogs Don’t Run’; This Nation’s Saving Grace by The Fall; Never Mind the Bollocks by the Sex Pistols

In light of this status as a kind of proto-punk lodestar, it’s telling that what’s missing from Kubrick’s quintessential youth film is any rock music – “Being the adventures of a young man whose principal interests are rape, ultra-violence and Beethoven”, as the poster tagline put it.

Like the use of Nadsat in lieu of any sell-by-dated street lingo, it’s the dependence on (synthesised) classical music throughout that has helped prevent A Clockwork Orange from becoming anchored to any particular youth moment or movement, making it available as an enduring coordinate for glam rock, punk, post-punk, synthpop, Britpop (from Trainspotting to Blur’s ‘The Universal’ video) and onwards. Imagine Alex declaring “gorgeousness and gorgeousity made flesh” of the music of Rod Stewart, The Who, The Moody Blues or any of the other major rock artists of the early 70s and you’ll realise how quickly A Clockwork Orange would have become a museum piece like many other of-their-time youth films. (In fact, Kubrick did approach Pink Floyd about using sections of their epic track ‘Atom Heart Mother’, which – had Roger Waters not turned him down – may well have ended up toxifying the film for Floyd-hating punk hardliners altogether).

Are we pushing too hard if we see the prominence of Beethoven in A Clockwork Orange as a punky anti-rock gesture in itself – a suggestion that the future has no place for guitar heroes, or a counter-strike to one of rock’n’roll’s own rallying cries: ‘Roll Over Beethoven’? Probably. Take a look around the wares of the futuristic record shop Alex visits: The Beatles, The Incredible String Band and, yes, the Atom Heart Mother LP hardly suggest a future when hippie rock is dead. Scan the shelves closely and even The New Seekers might be in there somewhere.

A Clockwork Orange (1971)Warner Bros Pictures

In fact, Burgess’s choice of “Ludwig van” serves a more profound subtext – one that in its own way sets the scene for many punk artists’ later transgressive fascination with the fascist past. By the mid 20th century, the grand Romantic musical tradition had become contested ground, as the cultural sphere grappled with the Nazis’ adoration of composers such as Beethoven and Brahms, whose music Hitler exulted in as proof of German cultural supremacy. After the war, as The New Yorker’s music critic Alex Ross has noted (unintentionally evoking Clockwork’s own reconditioning sequences, which include Nazi footage): “No music was more suspect than the Führer’s favorite late-Romantic strains of Wagner, Bruckner, and Strauss, a few bars of which are enough to give Holocaust survivors flashbacks of horror.”

The only way forward for serious music in the postwar years was seen to be the total rejection of middle Cs and orchestral harmony in favour of abstraction, atonality and electronics – a realigning of the classical orthodoxy that led to the emergence of avant-gardists like Stockhausen, Berio and Ligeti. Long before punk attempted a similar purge of rock’s excesses, this was music’s original reset, its first year zero.

A Clockwork Orange (1971)Warner Bros Pictures

All of this cultural wrestling is in the background of Alex’s passion for “the glorious Ninth” – the notion that barbarity and a love of art are not mutually exclusive; that one human being bears a bottomless potential for both. Alex says it best in Burgess’s novel, while rubbishing an article about ‘youth today’: “Great Music, it said, and Great Poetry would like quieten Modern Youth down and make Modern Youth more Civilized. Civilized my syphilised yarbles.”

Such punky sneers were part of what made Alex so alluring to a generation who weren’t for quieting, and when Kubrick’s film entered cinemas that January, it helped draw the curtain down on the all-you-need-is-love years, scorching the earth ready for punk’s nihilistic revolution. On the airwaves, The New Seekers offered utopian hope in a world singing together, but A Clockwork Orange gave a bleaker appraisal: in the future, as in the past, harmonics were no guarantee of harmony whatsoever. Like the Nazis, Alex revels in fine music, and viddy what he’s capable of.

  • With thanks to Jon Savage
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