Unruly portraits of punks at Blackpool’s Rebellion Festival 2023

Unruly portraits of punks at Blackpool’s Rebellion Festival 2023
Photographer Spencer Murphy explores punk’s enduring role in British culture and why we need its rebellious ethos more than ever right now.

Punk is not dead. It’s still kicking and screaming – and might just be more relevant than it has been for years. If you’re searching for the beating heart of punk, look no further than Rebellion Festival. Gracing Blackpool’s Winter Gardens each year, it’s grown to become the largest independent punk festival in the UK.

Intrigued by whispers of a punk revival, photographer Spencer Murphy joined the revellers at this year’s festival. “I went on a journey to discover if the punk ethos still has a heartbeat or if it’s an ageing relic – just an echo of a bygone era,” Spencer explains of his project Where’s Punk When You Need It. “I was interested to explore if punk music as a culture can still have a collective voice against the establishment of our time.”

Indeed, the confused and conflicted isles of today must feel a lot like the Britain of half a century ago that birthed punk from a climate of urban angst and post-war decline. In between sets from legends like Bad Manners, Steel Pulse and U.K. Subs, Spencer spoke with the people he photographed to learn what punk means to them.

Harper

“I’ve been into punk for 33 years now, so I just consider it how I live,” explains Kaz, a long-time Rebellion attendee, who came along with her kids Harper and Sorcha. “It's not that I identify myself as punk as such because I'm just me.”

Kaz’s happiest moment at Rebellion was seeing her young’uns make it down to the front barrier for Scottish punk rockers The Exploited’s set. Seeing Harper’s red mohawk from the mic, lead singer Wattie Buchan invited him on stage – although Harper was too shy to take him up on the offer, in the end. For Kaz, the most valuable thing about punk is that it’s one big, supportive family.

“Punk will always be relevant because it makes a stand against things that deprive people of choices and rights,” she explains. “It gives others a voice through music and also fashion to be able to express themselves. A lot of people are struggling financially or emotionally in the UK at the moment with how bad things are and punk has a strong family feel which offers a strong support network to others who might be struggling.”

For Spencer, photographs are about trying to look beyond the aesthetics and reveal a deeper truth. “I always hope to make something a little more intimate and poetic that goes beneath the surface,” he explains. “So those occasions when I stuck it out and my patience paid off probably stand out the most.” The more Spencer shot, observed and spoke, the more it became clear that punk is a band-aid for the bleak and conflicted times the UK finds itself in these days. But within punk, there’s an energy that burns for something brighter and more inclusive.

Jessie
Cam

“It may not be like it was back in the Seventies and Eighties but I feel like there is a parallel between punk now and when it first rose up in popularity,” explains Jessie, who has been documenting the punk scene in Birmingham. “Protests have been taking place demanding that everyone is equal and living a life they don’t feel threatened in. We’re seeing a repeat of Seventies inflation and how the government is still not helping us economically – making us increasingly angry. Idles’ ‘Mother’ is a great example of a song that talks about these problems within today’s punk music. It shows what a mother has to do to fight this ‘fucked-up’ system that will repeatedly ‘fuck her over.’”

So, is punk still relevant today? “I don’t have a conclusion for you yet but I think so,” Spencer reflects. “I hope it can be a voice that rises above and transcends the music. I’m still investigating though and it’ll take more time for me to answer my own question.” But for attendees at Rebellion, there’s little doubt – punk is still an avenue to channel the anger felt on the streets of the UK. Anger is the first step: anger inspires action and action can bring about change.

“Punk is lifestyle to live by and a belief system, not just something to label myself as,” reflects Cam, hanging outside the pub with his girlfriend. “Punk is definitely gaining more traction again recently, in new ways. Watching the way politicians and the government handle things, clamping down more on our ways of life and being ignorant to the working class, minorities and those less fortunate, there’s a lot of similarities [with punk’s birth era] and people have the right to be angry about it.”

Follow Spencer on Instagram.

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