PKM talks to British artist, designer, and Punk historian Toby Mott about the early days of punk in London, his book, Oh So Pretty: Punk in Print 1976-80, featuring his collection of UK punk rock ephemera, and his recent contributions to the Punk Lust exhibit.
Sometimes, as a longtime follower of all things punk, it can become awkward when your beloved soundtrack to a drunken, decimating youth is filtered down and presented as settled, “important” history. Nevertheless, the mountain of punk history books, gallery expositions, and filmed documentaries exist because punk has ended up pretty important, and rightly so. But still, there’s that twinge every once in a while, where the fun can be sapped a bit when all that sweaty cut’n’paste action is framed and placed on a white wall.
Hence the ephemera collection, Oh So Pretty: Punk in Print 1976-80 (Phaidon Press) arrives as refreshing as a mid-mosh bar break. Instead of the sometimes vague reach for historical context, Toby Mott is first and foremost an ultra-fan who just started grabbing fliers on the way out of shows as a wayward teen in 1970s England – and kept it all. His collection remains focused around that era, the center folds and corner tears still there. And his recollections throughout the book are peppered with stories of the shows and the bands like only such a fan can express – extra interesting, considering he eventually went on from punk kid fandom to helm a globally successful fashion brand.
Can he help it that his version of the teenager’s bedroom wall now constitutes MoMA-worthy inspection? Or at least the Museum of Sex, who recently founded their amazing “Punk Lust” show on a thumbs-up from Mott to use many of his original pieces. We asked him about “Punk Lust,” living in the two big punk hubs, working in hip hop, and more.
PKM: Do you remember the first punk show you saw; and if so, can you tell me anything about it?
Toby Mott: Yes. It was in 1977 at the Marquee Club on Wardour St, London. It was the Tom Robinson Band, which at the time would have been part of what was known as pub rock. I later became a follower of the London punk band Adam and the Ants.
PKM: You mention you started getting into punk around 1977. Already “punk” was a term you say was “another label to reject,” and that you used “new wave” instead, which in the U.S. was quickly derided as a marketing term to make punk more palatable as mainstream radio wasn’t playing it.
Toby Mott: Punk was a tabloid newspaper term used in an exploitative way when talking about this new youth phenomena. Those of us who were punks did not embrace the label.
PKM: You mentioned actually going to record companies/offices/ for freebies – got a story there?
Toby Mott: We would visit the record company offices in the center of London. The receptionist would give us badges and posters. Once when visiting the offices of Polydor, Jimmy Pursey from Sham 69 threw badges down at us from the office window.
PKM: Crashing the Nicky Horne show – can you tell more details/memories about that?
Toby Mott: When the Roxy club was threatened with closure, us punks marched through London, led by Jock McDonald, a punk impresario. The march reached the Capital Radio offices at the top of Tottenham Court Road where we tried to invade the studio. To get our point across live on air. Nicky Horne, the DJ, came out of the studio to interview us.
PKM: Tell me more about being an extra on the Sex Pistols flick, Great Rock & Roll Swindle.
Great Rock & Roll Swindle trailer:
Toby Mott: The Great Rock and Roll Swindle used lots of punk extras. I was in a particular scene shot at the Rainbow Theatre with a roller skating jazz funk band. My memories were of dancing around and generally causing trouble.
PKM: How do you feel women were treated overall in the UK punk scene back in the early days?
Toby Mott: My memories are that of having two sisters, who were also punks, and we were all on an equal footing.
PKM: Tell me some of the bands that immediately grabbed you, that have stayed favorites. And maybe a few from way back that didn’t last long, but you thought were great and should be remembered/mentioned?
Toby Mott: The best bands of the time are still recognized as such. The Pistols, The Clash. But one of my favorites are ATV (Alternative TV); and then there are many bands who had perfect one-hit singles like The Boys – “First Time Out,” The Wasps, “Sick of 77.”
PKM: Your description of Adam Ant makes me think that early on, in the live setting, he was probably way more intense than any of his albums. Would that be right?
Toby Mott: Adam Ant’s early punk identity has been lost in memory because of his success as a pop star in the ‘80s. His punk identity was exciting and dangerous.
PKM: Tell me more about Soho Records.
Toby Mott: Soho Records was a record store in a market in Soho. It was one of the few places that sold independent releases and zines. There were many independent record stores that sold Rock and Roll records for the Teddy Boy revival. Ironically many of these stores also sold punk records.
PKM: What was your favorite zine in the first few years of collecting, and why?
Toby Mott: My favorite zine is still Sniffin’ Glue, as it got the whole thing started.
PKM: Do you have a memory or story of a moment when you thought, “Oh, the mainstream squares are jumping on punk like it’s a trend?”
Toby Mott: I remember clearly leaving a UK Subs gig before the end, as I became disenchanted with punk and it had developed into a cliché of itself.
PKM: When did you move to America, why, and did you like living here?
Toby Mott: I moved to New York City in the mid ‘80s. Amongst other things I worked as a bicycle courier and designed music videos and record sleeves for the New York hip hop culture, whilst working as an art director for MTV. I worked on Public Enemy’s “Shut ‘em Down” and Tribe Called Quest’s “Kick It,” and was art director of “Club MTV,” shot at The Palladium on 14th street, amongst many.
I designed De La Soul’s Three Feet High & Rising album sleeve and various sleeves for Information Society. I saw many live hip hop shows at downtown clubs like Payday and The Tunnel. Seeing Rob Base & DJ EZ Rock perform “It Takes Two” in 1988 is memorable, it’s one of the greatest records of all time.
PKM: When did you move back to London, and why?
Toby Mott: I moved back to London in 1997. It was a golden age. Tony Blair was elected Prime Minister, and it was raining money. Back in London I set up the fashion brand Toby Pimlico, now trading as TobyShop.com. It was a global success.
PKM: You make a point that the sort of classic cut ‘n’ paste punk graphics haven’t dated for you.
Toby Mott: When looking at fliers from the ‘70s, the immediacy of their design is as forceful as the day it was created. But I find fliers of today that mirror this are a poor parody.
PKM: Was there a moment or realization when you went from being a fan who just picked up punk junk along the way in life, to noticing that maybe this stuff you’ve accumulated was suddenly historic and collectible?
Toby Mott: In 2010, I was invited to show my collection at an art museum in Spain – “Loud Flash: British Punk on Paper,” The Mott Collection at MUSAC, Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Castilla y León. And during the process of archiving it, it became apparent how important this material was.
PKM: Can you explain the basic process of how you sifted through everything for Oh So Pretty?
Toby Mott: For the book we edited from my archive of posters, fliers, political material, and punk exploitation. We tried to tell a visual story using material from distinct sources.
PKM: How did you get involved with the Museum of Sex and the “Punk Lust” show? Have you seen it, and what did you think of it?
Toby Mott: As with most things it started with a conversation over a period of months, and it developed into what is on show today. I think it looks amazing.
PKM: Do you still have that first Dansette record player you mentioned that started it all?
Toby Mott: I’ve upgraded to a Technics 1200 deck with a Naim Audio amp and pre amp, Micomega CD player, and a Technics m260 cassette player with Linn speakers.