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.

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