Tuesday, January 24, 2006

If nothing gets challenged, nothing gets changed

"The best book about punk rock and pop culture ever". Thus reads the NME critic's appraisal on the cover of Jon Savage's 'England's Dreaming: Sex Pistols And Punk Rock'. Perhaps it's just an idiosyncratic tendency of mine, a function of my cynicism, that leads me immediately to view such pronouncements with suspicion and spend my time hunting out and dwelling upon perceived faults. Anyway, more of that later.

The book begins not with Malcolm McLaren's puppet-masterly bringing together of the volatile foursome, but with a history of 430 King’s Road (what would become Sex, the shop run by McLaren and Vivienne Westwood at the geographical centre of The Sex Pistols' story) and with a discussion of McLaren’s interest in New York Dolls and the Situationist politics that arose out of the 1968 student uprisings in Paris and the subsequent writings of theorists like Guy Debord.

It's evidently fundamental to Savage's understanding of pop culture that it affects and is affected by the wider artistic, social and historical context - the band themselves are explicitly seen as a "social phenomenon". Not only is this material essential to the narration of a movement that gathered pace gradually and then peaked suddenly before a sharp decline; it also underlines the fact that McLaren and, to a lesser extent, Westwood were a huge influence on the band, and so any history of the band should properly begin with their history.

When the four central protagonists - Steve Jones, Paul Cook, Glen Matlock and lastly John Lydon - are brought together centre-stage, Savage makes clear that they were never the most cohesive and compatible of units; "The Sex Pistols began in a miasma of antagonism, misunderstanding and mutual suspicion".

Nevertheless, Savage depicts the summer of 1976 as punk's golden age, when the movement was full of youthful vigour and hostile idealism, before the nihilism, cynicism and violence took over.

One thing that came as something of a surprise was the fact that McLaren always envisaged his charges signing to a major label, being fascinated about the possibility of destroying a decaying industry and society from the inside. Wherever the punk ethos of DIY and abhorrence of selling out came from, it wasn't The Sex Pistols.

By December 1976, trouble had been brewing for some time, not least because the confused symbolism - and the "ironic" flirtation with Nazi imagery in particular - was becoming increasingly dangerous : "A song like 'White Riot' could be taken a different way: not as an admiring shout of solidarity in sympathy with the blacks of Notting Hill Gate, but as a racist rallying cry".

And then came Bill Grundy and the 'Today' show. Savage is particularly adept at pointing up the programme as a watershed moment that changed everything, not only for the band themselves but also for the movement of which they were at the vanguard: "The Grundy scandal made The Sex Pistols, but it also killed them. They were now frozen in time, leaders of a movement which had been wrested out of their control". Notoriety was their fate. From then on, it was all downhill - and spectacularly so.

Their behaviour became ever more cartoonish and farcical, no day exemplifying this better than that on which, having left EMI in the wake of the Grundy episode, they signed to A&M in front of Buckingham Palace. There was a horrendously drunken press conference, followed by in-band fisticuffs in the back of a limousine, and, at A&M's offices, Sid Vicious breaking a toilet and then bathing his bleeding foot in it. A few days later, during a nightclub fracas, associates of the band threatened to kill Bob Harris of 'The Old Grey Whistle Test' - and they were promptly dumped by A&M.

Savage underlines the significance of 'God Save The Queen', and the way its release was timed to coincide with the Jubilee celebrations: "The Sex Pistols appeared with all the force of a hand-grenade tossed into an arrangement of gladioli. 'God Save The Queen' was the only serious anti-Jubilee protest, the only rallying call for those who didn't agree with the Jubilee because they didn't like the Queen, either because like John Lydon, they were Irish, or, much more to the point, because they resented being steamrollered by such sickening hype, by a view of England which had not the remotest bearing on their everyday experience". The Sex Pistols famously played a gig on a boat on the Thames which ended in arrests, but - as Savage makes clear - even on an evening which should have been a triumph the writing was already on the wall: no future.

Punk's messy decline is depicted in all its gory detail, as people and events span out of control and the lines were suddenly drawn, the whole debacle ending with Sid Vicious's death. The Sex Pistols were essentially finished by February 1978, even though McLaren kept the idea of them alive for the purposes of 'The Great Rock 'N' Roll Swindle'.

Thatcherism arrived in 1979, and though it didn't mean Britain changed overnight, it did (for Savage at least) mark the end of the road for punk: "Punk was beaten, but it had also won. If it had been the project of The Sex Pistols to destroy the music industry, then they had failed; but as they gave it new life, they allowed a myriad of new forms to become possible. When punk entered the music and media industries, its vision of freedom was eventually swamped by New Right power politics and the accompanying value systems, but its original, gleeful negation remains a beacon. Histroy is made by those who say 'No' and punk's utopian heresies remain its gift to the world".

And so to the book's faults - two of which I think are major, and another which is also significant if understandable.

Firstly, given the intense and ferocious nature of punk music, there is an extraordinary lack of raw passion evident in what Savage writes. Knowledge, yes; fascination, yes; enthusiasm, perhaps; but outright passion? No. In fact, I'd go so far as to say it's rather bloodless and dispassionate. This might be assumed to be the deliberate strategy of someone wanting to give an objective overview of the band, movement and period; but not only is it very often markedly subjective, the diary entries which start to crop up are also as coolly detached, despite being recorded in the heat of the moment.

Secondly, as former Melody Maker journalist Jonh Ingham observes in a comment glossed over by Savage, "'You couldn't intellectualise the band. You couldn't analyse it'". That is precisely what 'England's Dreaming' does. Savage marshalls an impressive range of philosophers, theorists and historians in seeking to make sense of the phenomenon and the period. At times, such as the reference to Bakunin's 1842 statement from 'Reaction In Germany' that "The passion for destruction is also a creative passion", this is illuminating - but at others it comes across as pretentious intellectualising. To what extent could The Sex Pistols be said to have genuinely and consciously aligned themselves with the history of English anarchist thinking and revolutionary practice, as Savage intimates that they did? One gets the feeling that he's continually talking over the heads of his characters, as it were. Punk's impact came from its fiercely primal quality - and that's something that I think's all too often lost in the midst of Savage's analysis.

Thirdly, it's an inevitable consequence of the focus on The Sex Pistols that their cultural importance is always in danger of being overstated. London was very much the focus of the movement for Savage, and consequently other provincial scenes (Manchester aside) are almost completely ignored. Savage might (rightly) complain in his preface that "The Union Jack-strewn Britpop ... did not reflect Britain's multicultural reality but highlighted, almost exclusively, white rock groups from the South East" - but then he himself does much the same with punk. The British focus also means that punk emerges from the pages as very much an English phenomenon; America is by and large ignored, the role of the likes of Andy Warhol and The Velvet Underground hardly even alluded to. Natural, given that the lines had to be drawn somewhere - but the well-documented obsession of The Sex Pistols and others with American predecessors like the New York Dolls and particularly The Stooges subtly detracts from the pioneering status Savage claims for the Brits.

But 'England's Dreaming' is nevertheless a fantastic documentation of one of the most fascinatingly short-lived and self-destructive musical movements since pop music "began", meticulously researched, well written and packed with the accounts and testimonies of those who, like Savage, were there to witness it all first-hand. Highly recommended for anyone with an interest in "alternative" music and pop culture, not least because, thirty years on, the story remains the same: "how do you avoid becoming part of what you’re protesting against?

Perhaps the highest praise? It made me want to buy lots of records.

Next up on this front has to be Simon Reynolds's 'Rip It Up And Start Again', I think...


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