Vicious and His Circle: Taking Aim at the Sex Pistols
Voice Literary Supplement, March, 1992
On the level of gossip, where most rock hagiographies tend to begin and end, the Sex Pistols’ bio contains no more death and decadence than a hundred other tales of fame and misfortune. The Beatles, the Beach Boys, even Geraldo Rivera all have more skeletons in their closets. “What you can never get in your book,” prophesies John Lydon to Jon Savage in England’s Dreaming, “is the utter, total boredom of being in a band.” But by placing their story in the context of the time — and even more significantly, by filtering its unprecedented theoretical drainage — Savage transforms the Pistols’ tale into an intellectual epic (and at 600 pages in length, including discography, it had better be). Especially when stacked up against other recent takes on the same scene, one by a journalist and another by a band member, England’s Dreaming is a no-nonsense rendering of punk’s overdetermined glory.
The whole project, however, is grounded in Savage’s personal enthusiasm, as one of several diary entries makes clear: “30.10.76: I go to see my first proper punk group. I know what it’s going to be like: I’ve been waiting for years, and this year most of all: something to match the explosions in my head. The group are called the Clash … One song: a genuine cry, a child screaming in fear: ‘Waa waa wanna waa waa.’ Within ten seconds I’m transfixed, within thirty, changed forever.”
Formed by guitarist Steve Jones, fronted by a shamanic singer with rotten teeth, and named by manager/provocateur Malcolm McLaren, the Sex Pistols (“Why didn’t they just call themselves the Penises?” wonders an analyst of my acquaintance) produced records that were clarion calls to anarchy and transformed concerts, interviews, and meetings with their record companies into incendiary, tabloid-titillating events. During a two-year carnival of chaos, from 1976 to their breakup in 1978 as toothless victims of the apparatus they attempted to undermine from within, they ceaselessly disrupted business as usual on tired, stodgy Planet Rock. Less rock band than art project, “the group embodied an attitude into which McLaren fed a new set of references: late-sixties radical politics, sexual fetish material, pop history and the burgeoning discipline of youth sociology,” explains Savage, high claims he actually justifies without lapsing into either mindless boosterism or I-was-there-and-you-weren’t smugness.
Savage constantly returns to the primal fitting room scene, however, reminding us that punk rock can never be dissociated from its mondo-bondo dress code. “Never forget,” McLaren says to Savage early on in England’s Dreaming, “that clothes are the things in England that make your heart heat!” He omits the transitional artifice an introduction or preface might provide and instead tosses the reader into the middle of swinging England, onto the stoop of 430 King’s Road. There Vivienne Westwood and McLaren, “Couturiers Situationnistes,” launched a mordantly entertaining and highly influential fashion movement generating countless safety-pinned cheeks, strategically torn T-shirts, besloganed jackets, and spikey haircuts tinted various colors unknown to nature. Chez Savage, their conception and dissemination were no less significant than the music itself in the construction of punk’s willful mocking of everyday perversity. The clothing mirrored the era’s recessionary and reactive tenor in all its Thatcher-motivated bleakness and paranoia. As glam rock waned and disco had yet to wax, punk style provided the perfect cultural jolt, a new kind of “No!” that brought together fashion, music, press, and politics to tell the world a story England still can’t be too eager to bear.
More self-conscious than any popular music ever, and postmodern to the max, the Pistols and punk operated at the level of iconography, spectacle, and low-to-high concepts rather than mere sonic signifiers. McLaren’s genius was to exploit boredom with rock as institution, and then to sell a brutalist version of the same back to the kids under the guise of something completely different, which it wasn’t. The Ramones, the Dolls, and a generation of New York art-school bands preexisted as role models from which McLaren took the ball and ran in the wrong direction, disguising his Warholian commercial inclinations behind naive appropriations of anarchist, Situationist, and Lettrist fantasies.
In this regard, England’s Dreaming also functions profitably as an extended gloss on Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces (wherein Savage is acknowledged as a “co-conspirator”), and that’s a compliment. Marcus’s wild analysis recuperates the Sex Pistols phenomenon as a hot and gnostic coda upon Dada, Situationism, Lettrism, etc. But where Marcus interprets the Sex Pistols as the mythic tale of John Lydon’s negation of the negation, Savage avoids apotheosizing McLaren, Lydon, or even Sid Vicious as a prime mover of this particular cultural blip. If punk is the subject, the Sex Pistols were its object. At times Savage sounds like a closet idealist, as when he quotes Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell in hopes of making this confusing era reverberate mythically; but his analysis always returns to the fresh bedrock of modem music sociology as pioneered by such writers as Simon Frith and Dick Hebdige.
For a fly-on-the-wall perspective, it’s at least worth skimming Glen Matlock’s whinging I Was a Teenage Sex Pistol for a brisk reality check. The group’s original bass boy and primary songwriter was expelled from the group in favor of Ur-punk Sid Vicious, so his bitterness, if not his syntax, are to be expected: “We created a lot of talk and a lot of pie-in-the-sky theorising, but what was the end result of it all? When you cut right to the chase, The Pistols — and the whole punk phenomenon — were an inoculation for the music business which has enabled it to survive in its current depressingly flat state … The Pistols have become one of history’s big So What?’s” And of course Matlock’s absolutely right and absolutely wrong at the same time. Punk rock’s recuperation by big business surprised only the most credulous believers in pop art as a revolutionary activity.
Charles Shaar Murray offers a different report from the front in his embarrassingly titled Shots From the Hip, an uneven collection containing what seems like every syllable scribbled by the veteran hack between 1971 and 1990, gaffes and all. For example, amid a somewhat prescient overview of the New York punk scene circa 1975, Murray notes that “Blondie will never be a star simply because she ain’t good enough.” And then, a couple of months prior to the show that would change Savage’s life forever, Murray appraises the Clash as being “the kind of garage band who should be speedily returned to their garage, preferably with the motor running.”
Beyond proving that John Simon has at least one British fan, Murray’s observations on the punk scene back then illustrate how much what we think of as punk rock is a journalistic construction after the fact. Punk was not particularly subtle as music, yet it threw open the doors to endless theorizing. These days, amid an almost inslilutional “punk revival,” it seems nothing less than the most immediately nostalgic pop style to come down the pike. Abject nihilism is still in fashion and, as Murray wrote in 1986, “The punchline is this: most people don’t want things changed to any fundamental degree, but they do like a little bit of excitement now and again.”
You can’t get much more reductionist than that, but in that whimper of defeat there’s an element of the conclusion Savage draws in England’s Dreaming. Everything changed after the Pistols’ infamous appearance on Britain’s Today show in December 1976, during which allegedly intoxicated host Bill Grundy provoked Steve Jones into a volley of live-on-the-air curses. “From that day on,” Jones tells Savage, “it was different. Before then, it was just music: the next day, it was the media.” According to Savage, the subsequent backlash forced the Pistols into a reactionary trajectory leading to stasis, and worse: it reduced them to being an ordinary rock band and transformed punk from movement into cult. “They left the creation that was to follow destruction unstated and unresolved: as very few people had the courage to see nihilism through, this negation curdled into the nullities of dogma, cynicism or self-destruction.”
Punk’s death was inscribed in its birth, of course. Born under a bad sign and swathed in basic black, London punkdom fought to overturn an overexposed city in which speed, both chemical and cybernetic, had subsumed space. The movement even had the audacity to present the swastika as its über-icon, which may have been its most unforgivable transgression. Punk’s dark liberation suggested what writer Nick Kent early on termed “Rock’n’Roll Fascism,” but Savage tends to take swastika usage at face value, as mere shock therapy. More than a merry détournement, punk’s fascination with fascist symbolism betrayed a somewhat less than healthy interest in authoritarianism and a decidedly masculinist sexography, while suggesting that punk rock, despite Rock Against Racism’s utopian rhetoric, was always more interested in exclusion than inclusion. And while Savage lauds the Crass as an example of a group that transcended punk’s political limitations, he neglects the battles of punk ideology still being waged in the pages of such fanzines as Maximum Rock ‘n’ Roll.
But that is now and this was then. Culturally, nothing has happened with quite so much velocity and spunk since (William Burroughs’s recipe for riot — “Record, instant playback, fast forward” — becomes a nervous mantra for these events). Punk was a fabulous meaning generator, and Savage’s book is the movement’s most finely tuned reading so far. By the time you hit the 45-page discography that concludes England’s Dreaming, however, you might be less eager to reimmerse yourself in the music than in such responsive texts as Lipstick Traces and Simon Frith and Andrew Goodwin’s 1989 collection On Record: Rock, Pop, and the Written Word. Punk lives in these traces, these theories — and in a million bands— even more than in boxfuls of decaying singles and CD reissues. In its own way, punk is as dead as Elvis. Histories such as Savage’s, however, ensure that the zombie movement will stumble on for the diversion and edification of its believers — by their rainbow Mohicans and steel-tipped boots ye shall know them — at least until something badder this way shambles. ■
ENGLAND’S DREAMING: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock and Beyond
By Jon Savage
St. Martin’s Press, $27.50
I WAS A TEENAGE SEX PISTOL
By Glen Matlock with Pete Silverton
Faber and Faber, $12.95 paper
SHOTS FROM THE HIP
By Charles Shaar Murray
Penguin, $10.95 paper
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 21, 2020