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Features / Publication

“Punk isn’t about spiky hair… it’s about freedom”: collector Toby Mott on his new book Punk in Print

Toby Mott has an unrivalled collection of punk memorabilia that goes back 40 years. In a new book published by Phaidon called Oh So Pretty: Punk in Print 1976–80, he presents over 450 items from well-known and obscure bands, designers, venues and political groups. While the Mott Collection is now carefully archived, documented and looked after, in 1970s London these posters, badges and zines, formed an integral part of Toby’s punk identity. He grew up in Pimlico, just behind the King’s Road in Chelsea, said to be the epicentre of punk. “I was a punk in every aspect of my life,” says Toby. “Just in the way I looked, my bedroom was covered in posters and flyers and my school books had loads of stencils and slogans scrawled on them. I lived and breathed it.”

For Toby and his friends the advent of punk “was like an explosion in the dull conformity we were used to”. A key moment for Toby was a political shift in the UK in the late 70s. “In 1977, I’d describe London as being like black and white television, you could still describe it as post-war, even though the war had ended 20 years earlier,” he explains. “Then Thatcher was elected in 1979 and it suddenly became colour TV with cappuccino machines and money.”

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Punk in Print: Poster for The Sex Pistols’ single ‘God Save The Queen’, Jamie Reid, May 1977. Image courtesy of The Mott Collection. Artwork by Jamie Reid courtesy John Marchant Gallery. Copyright Sex Pistols Residuals

Spending time at gigs, record shops and hanging out with his friends, this change in the landscape meant punk became a bigger part of Toby’s character as a teenager. “Suddenly there was this ‘can-do’ attitude and this exciting music that had a sort of unskilled approach. Everyone could do something. Also punk didn’t have that distinction between superstars like with Bowie or Led Zeppelin – everyone was on the same level. It wasn’t about worshipping a hero and conceiving a product, it was culture everyone participated in; whether you made the music, or made a fanzine or clothing.”

Toby participated in this DIY culture by “totally immersing myself” in gigs and working on fanzines with a friend, but slowly it was the work of others he started to seek out. “I was interested in the music, but I also studied art so I started collecting all the flyers and posters and stuff.” Though this was the beginning of obsessive collecting, there was still room for some teenage rebellion. While at Pimlico Comprehensive Toby was one of the founding members of the Anarchist Street Army, one of many London-based collectives of young punks at the time. “We were delinquents, we used to bunk off school, get in trouble, that sort of thing. It was a very tightly controlled society at the time, and you would be stopped and searched by the police just for the way you looked.”

The Anarchist Street Army also formed a sort of defence from other subculture groups. “We gravitated towards each other as a form of protection from the skinheads and the soulboys, who would prey upon punks. All areas had these groups of punks and we loved those ideals of anarchy so that became the identity of our group.” Toby says London was violent back then, but in a different way than today in terms of the type of crimes that were committed. “Violence was an everyday feature of life, especially for kids. You were bullied and got chased a lot – but in the ASA we found solace in each other’s company.”

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Punk in Print: Flyer for The Sex Pistols at The Screen on Islington Green, 17 May 1976. Courtesy of The Mott Collection

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Punk in Print: Flyer for 999, Art Attacks, The Flies and Now at The Vortex, 30 August 1977. Courtesy of The Mott Collection

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Punk in Print: Poster for The Slits’ album ‘Cut’, September 1979. Courtesy of The Mott Collection

Despite the terror of being hunted down by “a soulboy and having to run into Burger King”, the era of punk is still looked upon fondly by Toby and many others, due to the independence it gave people and the parallels that can be drawn today. “You look back to 1976 and 1977 and then jump forward to the New York Book Fair or Cultural Traffic and you see the connection between today’s zine culture and people doing stuff online. The draw is the idea that it’s autonomous and you take control by creating something that doesn’t rely on a major publisher or record company – that’s the link and why it’s still so current,” explains Toby. “I think the internet adds to that idea because it’s a gateway that’s open to everyone. There’s also been a resurgence in zine culture, where people want to make tactile things using paper and crude forms of reproduction.”

Celebrating this idea of making and the accessibility that brings, is one the driving forces behind Punk in Print and the ongoing preservation of the Mott Collection. “What I wanted to do with this book is for it not to just be another piece of product that’s part of this 40 year celebration but to actually be a good document, which reflects the art and creativity of punk back then,” Toby says. “Hopefully it will motivate people to engage today, not to make stuff that looks like that but remind people that it’s not all about going to design school or buying a Macbook 5 or whatever. Back then it was about paper and glue, it wasn’t about skill, but rather drive and pure creativity, so that’s what I want people to take from this book.”

The book is an edited version of a two volume book created by Andrew Ross called The Complete Mott Collection, which had a small print run and was very expensive. “The director of Phaidon saw that book, so we decided to do a different version, which would be more affordable,” says the collector. The materials have been edited down by genre to create a comprehensive insight into Toby’s collection featuring paraphernalia for bands including the Clash, the Damned, X-Ray Spex, the Ramones and the Jam. But it’s the anonymity of many of the designs that excites him: “The stuff I’ve collected is by unknown hands, meaning everyone and anyone could be a part of this culture and just add to it. There were a few stars like Jamie Reid and Linda Sterling, but on the whole, most of it’s still anonymous.”

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Punk in Print: Concert poster for Generation X, 1977. Courtesy of The Mott Collection

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Punk in Print: Poster for Siouxsie and the Banshees at Eric’s, Liverpool, 14 May 1977. Courtesy of The Mott Collection

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Punk in Print: Sideburns #1, Tony Moon, January 1977. Courtesy of The Mott Collection

Being presented in book form doesn’t take away the rawness of these simply created materials, and even the paper mirrors the designs of the originals. “Back then this stuff wasn’t made to be preserved and kept, and the book we’ve made reflects that as the stock is almost like newsprint.” It’s decisions like this that remind the reader of the origins of this ephemera, which is epitomised in one of Toby’s favourite pieces in the book. “There’s an illustration from a fanzine called Sideburn #1, which was a drawing made by Tony Moon just to fill the space. It’s a drawing of three guitar chords and it says, ‘now form a band’. That fanzine is extremely rare, but the drawing is often quoted by lots of musicians as the impetus to do something, and it’s seen as a key message of punk,” says Toby. “You didn’t need to have been to music school or be particularly proficient or skilled. It was much more about the energy and drive to do something. It’s a rallying call to the troops.”

By looking back at punk we’re reminded of the true creativity it bore, but Toby is careful to distinguish between this inspiration from the nostalgia and imitations that also occur. “I think when big brands interact with punk, they kind of just take a superficial approach with safety pins and daubing, and the kind of negative aspects in a way. Whereas I see it as the kind of creative force and a liberating philosophy. It’s easy to think it’s just about spiky hair, but that’s not how I see it – it’s about freedom.”

Toby adds: “I think we look back because we can see it’s authentic and authenticity always rings true, especially in a world that’s dominated by brand awareness or commercialisation of music and culture. You can see that punk was free of that, it was raw, authentic culture, that took itself out of the gutter. I think people are always wistful about things like that.”

Oh So Pretty: Punk in Print 1976–80 is published by Phaidon and available now.

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Punk in Print: Poster For Blondie’s 12-Inch singles ‘Denis’, ‘Contact in Red Square’ and ‘Kung Fu Girls’, February 1978. Courtesy of The Mott Collection

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Punk in Print: Poster for Buzzcocks’ single ‘Orgasm Addict’, Linder Sterling, Malcolm Garrett, November 1977. Courtesy of The Mott Collection

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Punk in Print: Bored Stiff #1, C. Terry et al., Tyneside Free Press, July 1977. Courtesy of The Mott Collection

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Punk in Print: Poster for X-Ray Spex’s single, ‘Oh Bondage, Up Yours!’, October 1977. Courtesy of The Mott Collection

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Punk in Print: Cover