Sid after a hamster, Vicious because he wasn’t

Jenny Turner

  • England’s dreaming: The Sex Pistols and Punk Rock by Jon Savage
    Faber, 602 pp, £17.50, October 1991, ISBN 0 571 13975 2

Looked at with any sympathy at all, late Seventies punk rock in Britain was an astonishing thing. Punk rockers looked ugly, partly because, being ill-favoured, gangly and for the most part poor-white geeks, they were to the manner born, and partly because they wanted to. They sounded ugly, partly because not many could play their instruments very well, partly because they were out of their heads most of the time, but mostly because they wanted to. The words, the images, the gestures were ugly, but often gripping. The behaviour – gobbing, pogoing, self-immolation and fighting onstage, drink, drugs, throwing up in public – was stupid and horrible. But the kids just lapped it up. Some of them followed their heroes into speed habits, drink habits, cynicism, burn out and an early grave. But an awful lot more seemed to find this stuff inspiring. I’m not going to try to explain why: you either sense it or you don’t. So many writers have already hoist their prose to look ridiculous on the petard of the Sex Pistols and punk rock in general, there’s no need for another to join them.

If punk really was that interesting, however, it is incumbent on people to write about it, as culture, as history, as expression, as social critique. And it’s incumbent upon them to write about it for good, simple historical-materialist reasons as well. Not everybody can earn their money by shouting about Anarchy, Fascism and Boredom. Someone has to do the mopping-up and mediation instead. But as culture, as history, as expression, as social critique, punk is a big chunk to take a bite at. Everything about it was significant and/or trivial, depending on how you look at it. It really would take a system as big as Hegel’s to get a grip on the billions of bits that punk sparked off, from cider-swilling crusties to the music of John Zorn. But the result of all that labour would be an impenetrable slab of print, entirely out of kilter with the spirit and point of the exercise.

Punk rock has been dealt with in print in three main ways. Early artefacts like Fred and Judy Vermorel’s Sex Pistols (1978), a snapshot album with trashy, knowing captions and Tony Parsons and Julie Burchill’s The boy looked at Johnny (also 1978), a book of scurrilous mythologies adapted from Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon, are elegantly tacky and anti-intellectual exercises in mimetic form. Greil Marcus’s much-admired and equally mocked Lipstick Traces (1989), on the other hand, is a massively prolix and pretentious voyage round Dada and Situationism and every revolt against history since history began, all sparked off – or so Marcus professes – by the grain of Johnny Rotten’s voice. There’s a hopelessly Dionysian attempt to get at the fundamental excitement of the experience by FREE-ASSOCIATING at SPEED w/copious use of the SLASH – or dash, or ellipsis ... all signifying CUTUP – and the CAPITAL/SHIFT-KEY in the ranting, often gorgeous manner of New York protopunk Lester Bangs. And in Britain’s native tradition of laughably dour youth sociology, there are books like Dick Hebdidge’s Subculture and Dave Laing’s One-Chord Wonders, which worthily organise and educate the chaotic punk threat until it sits up nice and neat as a Cultural Studies textbook.

Jon Savage’s monumental tome, 15 years in the writing and in which the author’s parents and grandmother get thanked for ‘living through this with me – twice’, attempts to do all these things at once. Unsurprisingly, England’s dreaming is at its best when at its least ambitious, as a well-researched fan-biog of the Sex Pistols. A tale of genius and stupidity, poverty and riches, of working-class lads and their sinister, studenty manager, of Britain and America, drugs and self-destruction and a Big, Bad Blond, the Sex Pistols Story is pure rock’n’roll, right up there with Marilyn Monroe and John And Yoko. Malcolm McLaren, a pranky, arty small businessman, spots a boy in his shop wearing a Pink Floyd T-shirt with the words I HATE scrawled on it. The band get thrown off their first label, EMI, after a chain of embarrassing publicity starts with a Pistol saying ‘fuck’ on tea-time TV. Their second single, ‘God save the Queen’, gets pulled by A&M after Sid Vicious (‘Sid’ after Johnny Rotten’s hamster, ‘Vicious’ because he wasn’t) has a go at a mate of the Old Grey Whistle Test’s host, Whispering Bob Harris, in a London nightclub. Re-released by Virgin, ‘God save’ becomes Britain’s biggest selling single in Jubilee Week. The next single, ‘Pretty Vacant’ (pronounced Pretty Vay-CUNT-ah!), is deemed inoffensive enough to get the Pistols onto Top of the Pops ... And so it goes, and so it goes.

The space Savage’s book gives to the Pistols’ own voices humanises the myth. In particular, it humanises the sad, shaming story of the band’s spectacular internal crash into acrimony, exhaustion, and – for poor old Sid and his even sadder girlfriend Nancy – death. ‘It was a sick scene,’ as Jah Wobble, a Pistols camp follower, later to become a bass-player in his own right, puts it:

You know that Dennis Potter play where the grown-ups are playing kids, Blue Remembered Hills? It was like that. When you put emotional cripples together, you get something very powerful. It can be good or bad, and it can be directed either way. It had to burn out, it was the same energy of a four-year-old asserting itself on the world, when it throws a tantrum. It wasn’t going anywhere else.

England’s dreaming doesn’t contain the whole Sex Pistols story: Johnny Rotten, now John Lydon, a much respected avant-noise musician and marine biology student resident in LA, is busy writing his own version, to be published some time next year. And even as biography England’s dreaming sets out to tell much more than the story of the Sex Pistols. Bravely but quixotically, the book also attempts to present a full-scale history of the musicians, designers, writers, entrepreneurs and assorted misfits who started moving in their own directions after the Sex Pistols showed the way. Debbie Juvenile, Richard Hell, Howard Devoto, Poly Styrene, Stiv Bator, Lucy Toothpaste, Mark P, Joe Strummer, Steve Severin, Siouxsie Sioux, Tom Verlaine, Jordan, Sue Catwoman, Berlin: names to conjure with. And names which hang round the neck of stories less mythical perhaps but in their own ways all as interesting and sui generis as that of Sid after a hamster, Vicious because he wasn’t, himself. With all Savage’s words taken out, England’s dreaming would make a great oral history book. With Savage’s words left in, it runs into problems of organisation. The form of the book demands that other punk activity be seen as parasitical on that of the Pistols. But Savage knows as well as everybody else that an awful lot of it wasn’t. The Slits may have started out as very young, rather posh, utterly unmusical Sex Pistols groupie-girls, but they had long, unspikey hair and unpunklike girly little frocks; their music was no garage-thrash drone but a vertiginously spare and reggae-like space filled with words from women conceived of as creatures of flesh and mud. Brilliant, pioneering, and nothing like the Pistols or anybody else – at all. The Bromley Contingent, the poseur gang from which Siouxsie and the Banshees would come, were into movies like Cabaret and A Clockwork Orange, and wore fetish clothes straight from the hardcore gay and S&M scenes. A completely ‘other music from a different kitchen’ that. Poly Styrene filled her head with the riot of day-glo and plastic kitchenwear you can still see every Saturday at Brixton Market; the Buzzcocks never dressed up at all. Even the Clash, popularly mocked for being too handsome, too well-educated and too fond of radical-chic posturing to cut much lasting mustard, produced sweet, plaintive little tunes struggling out from under thick guitars and tone-deaf, untrainable voices, expressive in their very texture of something very fine indeed.

The Sex Pistols had the grand, negating sweep that set the world on fire. But it was the other combos who gave voice to the frustrations and joys of everyday boring bit-of-a-struggle life, to such things as wanking, humdrum, plastic bags, Burton’s suits, stacking shelves, suburban relapse, fast cars, school toilets, vile evil, making tea at the BBC, a tramp lying dead in the road. Because this sort of imagery has since been so overworked by precious urban folksters and shambling indie-bands, it is hard to see now what an exciting shift this made for in the vocabulary of white Seventies pop. If the current media punk rock revival does nothing else, it is likely to send old and new fans alike off to listen to the early work of people like Buzzcocks, ATV and Subway Sect. Savage, like most I-was-there-in-London-’76 media punk pundits, is a bit of a Sex Pistols snob, which gives him a poor ear for the territorial and musical nuances of Britain-wide independent music. But now that his book has appeared, somebody else is sure to pick up on this strand for him.

The third main strand to England’s dreaming, and probably the one closest to Savage’s heart, is a secret history of the London underground (no, not the trains and tunnels) since the Sixties. The objective is to show that punk, far from existing in a rock’n’roll vacuum, is in fact part of a world-historical continuum of interesting art guerrillas united against boredom culture in all its manifestations. Readers of Greil Marcus’s book will by now be groaning and yawning in anticipation, particularly if they read Lipstick Traces right through to the acknowledgments at the end where Savage is listed as a ‘co-conspirator’. Art-guerrilladom in the punk rock context can mean only one thing: the dreaded S-word, the most overmined and tedious vein of cultural history to have been dug away at in the last decade.

Savage on Situationism is admirably brief and to the point. ‘For a gnomic, gnostic critique dreamed up by a handful of Left Bank café prophets to reappear a quarter-century later, to make the charts, and then to come to life as a whole new set of demands on contemporary culture – this is almost transcendently odd.’ That was Greil Marcus’s line on the Situationist input to the Sex Pistols, a conceit of amazing mysticism and faux-naivety even for him. As Savage shows, there was nothing odd about the process at all. Situationist tracts were getting translated into English from the early Sixties and by 1966 London had a pro-situ magazine of its very own, called Heatwave, put together for ‘all the city’s dissident, bored and aggressive elements, beatniks, pleiners, nozems, teddy boys, blousons noirs, gammler, raggare, stiljagi, mangupi, mods, students, artists, rockers, delinquents, anarchists, ban-the-bombers, misfits, those who don’t want a career, who lead irregular lives’. At Christmas 1968 Malcolm McLaren, then an art student, was invading Selfridges in Oxford Street as a hanger-on to the English pro-situ group King Mob, proclaiming ‘Christmas: it was meant to be great but it’s horrible. Let’s smash the great deception. Light up Oxford St, dance around the fire.’

Situationism – a critique of culture as commodity, a strategy involving wit, irony and play – is not as difficult or obscure a business as its self-proclaimed experts would like to pretend. The only reason there isn’t more of it about is that in practice it involves a great deal of organisation to make any half-way interesting situation happen. And it is when dealing with the amount and sort of organisation that you have to get involved with if you want to make any interesting kind of culture happen at all that England’s dreaming gets into its stride. There are many ways of exploring secret underground histories. You can get mysterious and metaphorical, exploring possibilities and correspondences and something like an archaeology of the hints of spirit that seem to drift round certain street corners and hang in selected doorways, as Walter Benjamin did in his great Paris works and as imitated by Marcus in his book. And Savage, right enough, is man enough to have a bash:

It is the early Seventies. All the participants of what will be called punk are alive, but few of them know each other. They will come together during 1976 and 1977 in a network of relationships as complicated as the rabbit-warren London slums of Dickens’s novels. The other beginnings of punk – the musical texts, vanguard manifestoes, pulp fictions – already exist, but first we need the location, the vacant space where, like the buddleia on the still-plentiful bombsites, these flowers can bloom.

Sometimes this sort of psychogeographic cityscape stuff works well. But more often it is a drag. It usually is a drag when written about London, because it has been done so many times before. Indeed, pompous vaguenesses about London’s bombsites and feral children is something of a commonplace in post-punk English artworks, in the cinema of Derek Jarman and in the writing of Martin Amis to name just two examples. But thankfully Savage has not the patience for too much metaphor, and quickly hardens the imagery up.

That space is a small, oddly-shaped shop at 430 King’s Road, at World’s End ... There is no inside toilet. It stands at a commanding position at the end of a row of similar, slightly larger shops; directly east is the local Conservative Association ... The corner on which it stands is the first major deviation in the King’s Road.

The space being discussed is the shop that was to become Sex, where Vivienne Westwood invented the Destroy T-shirt, where Malcolm McLaren conspired with his cronies and first met Johnny Rotten. Sex went on to become Seditionaries, and is still World’s End, the shop with the backward-running clock outside it and the crooked Queen of British fashion inside it. Under McLaren and Westwood it had previously been a leather shop called Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die and a Ted emporium called Let it Rock. Before McLaren moved in, 430 had been Trevor Miles’s legendary fun-fur emporium, Mr Freedom, and before that a yachting-shop, a greasy spoon and a pawnbroker’s.

Leave one piece of rubbish on a street-corner and in a few days you’ll have half a tip there. Culture gathers for no more mysterious a reason, but it needs low rents, short leases, slack licensing-laws, in order to be able to gather at all. Savage’s book is good on this sort of nitty-gritty, on the importance of bookshops and record marts and squats, places where people can get together and see new things and talk without spending a lot of money. Why is it that Manhattanite bohemia coalesces around the Lower East Side? Because it is still just about possible to live there on the cheap. Why was the Manchester scene so big during the Eighties? Because it is easier to make metropolitan music if your brain is not entirely taken up with thinking about London housing prices and the concomitant pressure to succeed, conventionally, lucratively and fast.

Simple, material questions like this are by far the most interesting thing to come out of Savage’s book. But, unfortunately, the media circus that accompanied it is not interested in exploring them any further. It’s still just about possible to squat in London, if not for much longer. It’s still possible to get hold of books, papers, records produced by people with little money but a lot to say: there are magazines like Vague, an excellent private enterprise mocked up to look like Vogue in which Savage himself published early drafts of his book. A history has yet to be written that takes account of what Britain’s young unemployed did during the Eighties with the Enterprise Allowance Scheme. Another could be written about frustrated suburban teenagers, and how, unable to migrate to the cities because of changes in the Income Support law, they reversed punk’s urban bent by getting into countryside raves. And yet another about the thousands who left home anyway, to use the energy they might have spent on music on begging and sleeping rough.

At least three demanding research projects in one, England’s dreaming is more impressive in intention than in execution. You have to work hard to get at the good bits from a poorly-planned, hastily-erected urban sprawl. The book is surprisingly badly written, full of ill thought-out and tiresome Horrible England, Rotten England, Pusillanimous England, Fuck England bits. There are many glib and patronising sociology-pop banalities: ‘Pop is one of the very few areas in English society where members of different classes can mix on anything like equal terms. Its history is full of interactions between middle-class, often Jewish, often homosexual entrepreneurs and working-class male performers. If sex is not involved another kind of fantasy is.’ Oh, really? And Savage’s desultory attempt to give punk a historical context comes straight off the OPEC/three-day week/strike/skinhead Long Decline of the Seventies sausage machine.

The problem at bottom is that Savage is just too much of a consumer, and so sees records, images, facts, theories and figures of speech all as wonderful things to pick up from the shelf and sling into his already bulging trolley. History, politics, culture and expression don’t come in special packets which one then mixes up, but mix themselves everywhere and all the time with quietly explosive results.

It would be good to see Savage pushing further into his secret history researches, so proving that punk, in its non-media sense, can be traced a fair bit further. Oh no, you may now be wailing: not even more of this earnest and worthy stuff! Well, it really depends on how you like your culture, as a neat, smart collection of objets for the mantelpiece or as living chaos. If it’s the former, you’ll already have your copy of the Modern Review in which Julie Burchill thoroughly and funnily trounces Savage for his enthusiastic excesses, and for choosing to be called Jon Savage in the first place. And you’ll no doubt think that Burchill’s Ambition is the cleverest possible response to contemporary media culture – as in a way it is. But if you prefer a wider sort of ambition articulated through the litter of an altogether scruffier kitchen, then you’ll just need to find the patience to let Savage make his point.