THEY MEANT IT, MAAAN… Jon Savage’s England’s Dreaming Tapes

The raw materials of the UK punk upheaval – and its
documentation – get excavated.

 

BY WILSON NEATE

 

It’s been almost two decades since
the publication of England’s Dreaming,
Jon Savage’s brilliantly historicized magnum opus on British punk’s roots,
genesis and its all-too-brief genuinely vital phase in 1976 and 1977.
Contextualizing his subject matter in cultural, economic and political terms,
Savage focused primarily on London and the rise and fall of the Sex Pistols, tracing
the repercussions around the UK and beyond as this initially localized,
underground scene quickly turned into tabloid fodder, its anti-establishment
sounds co-opted by the record industry and its DIY clothing and accessories
packaged as weekend fashion items.

 

Punk would become, arguably,
Britain’s most significant post-war pop culture event, exerting a
paradigm-shifting influence on style, attitudes, art, music and media, and
Savage’s groundbreaking book treated this epochal moment with the seriousness
it demanded. For all its depth and analytical rigor, however, England’s Dreaming never lost sight of
the fact that punk spoke directly to young people on an instinctual, gut level:
Savage examined the aesthetic and intellectual motivations of punk’s founding
ideologists and architects but always communicated the excitement, chaos and
irreverence of the period and its music.

 

Although it’s not necessary to
have actually lived through a historical moment to write about it
authoritatively and insightfully, Savage did witness punk’s emergence in
London, documenting it in his fanzine London’s
Outrage
and as a journalist for Sounds. But while his credentials as the author of England’s Dreaming were unimpeachable, that book’s success owed
much to the contributions of others: alongside his own perspective, both from
old diary excerpts and his incisive theorizing of punk, Savage incorporated —
from interviews conducted in 1988 and 1989 — the perspectives of 100 or so
diverse characters who were also immediately involved (the musicians
themselves, producers, fellow journalists, assorted band and club managers,
record label employees, graphic artists, designers, DJs, photographers and
filmmakers). This eclectic gallery of voices was absolutely central to the success
of England’s Dreaming as a vibrant
archaeology of the punk era.

 

The England’s Dreaming Tapes, published recently by Faber & Faber, compiles roughly
two thirds of the interviews (“edited for sense and libel”) conducted
for England‘s Dreaming. They’re grouped in chapters covering the diverse sites
where punk happened and the individuals associated with those
“sites,” which were either literal locations or events or clusters of
people (for instance, Malcolm McLaren’s King’s Road store, SEX, subsequently
renamed Seditionaries; the music press; London’s Roxy Club; the Sex Pistols
management team).

 

The book opens, appropriately
enough, with a look at McLaren, his art-school background and his store, as
told by McLaren himself, people who knew him in the ’60s and early ’70s and
those who worked and hung out in SEX; the closing chapter, featuring a grim
interview with Sid Vicious’s mother Anne Beverley, focuses on her iconic son,
whose death symbolized one of punk’s many possible ends. Savage also speaks to
each of the original Sex Pistols (even erstwhile guitarist Warwick Nightingale,
their own Pete Best) and to members of all the major bands to come out of
London in ’76 and ’77. Nevertheless, while an emphasis on the London scene, the
Pistols and their elite orbit is inevitable — since the activities of McLaren
and co. were undeniably British punk’s immediate catalyst — some of the book’s
more interesting accounts of punk are told by those who were, geographically or
philosophically, on the periphery of that scene and, in several cases, at a considerable
distance from it.

 

The Pistols played some of their
early gigs on the outskirts of London and outside the capital as McLaren sought
to develop the band away from the media. Consequently, they garnered a hardcore
following that wasn’t from the city proper. Take members of the so-called
Bromley Contingent such as Siouxsie Sioux, who, in spite of strong connections
with the Pistols, recount a suburban experience of punk. At a greater
geographical remove, Pete Shelley, Howard Devoto, Tony Wilson and Buzzcocks
manager Richard Boon present the view from the northwest of England, which, in
turn, would spawn some of the post-punk era’s most creative artists. Savage
looks even further afield, sampling American — specifically New York —
perspectives on British punk: for example, Heartbreakers manager Leee Black
Childers, who found himself in the UK in December ’76, accompanying Johnny
Thunders on the Anarchy Tour, and the photographer Joe Stevens, who documented
the early goings-on in Britain and also witnessed the Pistols’ ill-fated 1978
US odyssey.

 

Wire’s Graham Lewis and Bruce
Gilbert offer a particularly interesting point of view, their distance from
punk an intellectual matter rather than a fact of geography. Despite drawing
early inspiration from the Pistols and gigging at the Roxy (at the time, the
capital’s only dedicated punk rock club), Wire consciously separated themselves
from London’s burgeoning scene: as Lewis and Gilbert explain, they had no
desire to be part of an increasingly orthodox, stylistically homogeneous
movement, preferring to approach their work with a conceptual, arty orientation
that set them apart from their contemporaries.

 

One of the most compelling aspects
of England’s Dreaming was Savage’s
close attention to the important structures and discourses surrounding the
music itself: that is, the activities of filmmakers, photographers, management
personnel, designers and journalists — those who were engaged in framing punk
in different ways as it was unfolding, playing leading roles in constructing
the spectacle of punk and perceptions of it. In The England’s Dreaming Tapes, Savage talks to a number of these
individuals. Especially noteworthy are the parts played by journalists like
Neil Spencer (responsible for the first published piece on the Sex Pistols in
February 1976 — an NME review of a
gig at the Marquee Club) and Jonh Ingham of Sounds (who wrote the first feature on the band in April that year). They reflect on
the once-in-a-lifetime experience of observing a pop culture revolution at
close quarters, as well as negotiating how to convey that revolution to
readers, as representatives of the music press. The significance of this early
press coverage is highlighted by several interviewees whose introduction to
punk came via the music weeklies. TV Smith of the Adverts, Howard Devoto, Pete
Shelley and Penetration’s Pauline Murray remember the catalyzing effect of
Spencer’s article, which ended with the now-legendary Steve Jones quotation,
“We’re not into music, we’re into chaos.” Their imaginations fired,
Shelley and Devoto trekked from Manchester to High Wycombe the following week
to see the Pistols play; Murray came down from Newcastle, making McLaren’s
King’s Road store her first stop.

 

Jonh Ingham’s memories home in on
a watershed moment in British music journalism, when a new breed of writer
began to spring up, inspired precisely by the developments of punk. For Ingham,
the Sex Pistols gig at the Nashville Rooms on April 23rd, 1976, was an epiphany
as it dawned on him that it was futile to write objectively and analytically
about this music. Convinced of the enormous cultural importance of what he was
witnessing and believing punk rock was an absolute necessity — something that
young people had to know about — he
felt his role should be that of a fervent advocate, not a disinterested
observer: “That was the point… where I said to myself… the point is to
encourage this, because we need it… I saw it as propaganda, far more than
analysis.” Shortly after, he quit journalism to manage Generation X.

 

Another of the discourses crucial
to punk’s impact on the British consciousness was the unique visual language of
its clothing, record sleeves, poster art and band logos. Against the grain of
progressively more glossy, epic and overblown ’70s artwork, punk’s graphic
artists ran with the DIY ethic: immediacy, rough edges, recycling and collage
replaced craft, sophistication, slickness and high production values; genuinely
provocative and unsettling imagery replaced traditional rock and pop
titillation. Linder Sterling in Manchester (creator of the Buzzcocks’ notorious
“Orgasm Addict” photomontage, among others) and Pistols designer
Jamie Reid are two of Savage’s interviewees. Reid, punk’s most iconic graphic
artist, stresses that he considered it completely unnecessary to present images
of the band on his record covers — after all, the tabloid press was providing
that kind of exposure in abundance. Rather, he felt that his work’s purpose was
to encapsulate the band’s attitude and to represent visually what the songs were about.

 

The visual language of fashion
also helped construct the scandalous, confrontational spectacle of punk rock,
and SEX employees Alan Jones and
Jordan recall their experiences as some of first people to wear Vivienne
Westwood and McLaren’s clothing and accessories around town: bondage trousers;
PVC, leather and rubber fetish gear; dog collars; garments bearing provocative
wording and obscene images (such as shirts depicting the
Cambridge Rapist
or featuring a Tom of Finland drawing of two
trouserless cowboys
. All of this was immensely shocking in mid-’70s
London. Outraged reactions were common on the street; Alan Jones was even
arrested and convicted of gross indecency for sporting the lewd cowboys shirt
in central London.

 

A significant aspect of punk,
underscored by Savage’s oral history, is the fact that just a relative handful
of like-minded people were responsible for launching and shaping this
phenomenon in the UK: punk definitely embodied and articulated what thousands
of teenagers were feeling, but it’s no exaggeration to suggest that its British
origins really can be traced to the activities of certain individuals and to
specific sites. This is emphasized by the numerous Damascene moments related to
the Pistols and their entourage, as experienced by interviewees: Derek Jarman, director of the
first and greatest British punk film, 1977’s Jubilee, encountering an outrageously attired Jordan for the first
time at Victoria station in 1975 (she was wearing a transparent miniskirt); Devoto et al reading Neil Spencer’s review; Joe Strummer watching the Pistols open for his pub-rock group
the 101ers at the Nashville Rooms in April ’76 and deciding, there and then,
that it was time to find a new band; Tony Wilson attending the mythic June ’76
Pistols gig at the Lesser Free Trade Hall; X-Ray Spex’s Poly Styrene seeing the
band open for Welsh heavy rockers Budgie at the Hastings Pier Pavilion a month
later; and so on.

 

While The England’s Dreaming Tapes makes it
clear that a comparatively small group of people set everything in motion, the
book also covers some of the peripheral figures who have frequently been
overlooked in accounts of British punk. For example, lip service is often paid to the movement’s alignment with
reggae but beyond the oft-repeated assertion of an alliance between punks and
Rastas in popular narratives — and outside of academically oriented writing
like Dick Hebdige’s Subculture: The
Meaning of Style
— there’s been little substantive coverage of the black
experience of punk. Savage redresses the balance somewhat by having
photographer Dennis Morris and Roxy Club DJ Don Letts tell their stories.
Similarly, although there was a pronounced camp flavor to British punk, few
histories have adequately accommodated gay perspectives. Savage pays attention
to this lacuna by including the voices of Berlin of the Bromley Contingent and
Alan Jones.

 

For all of punk’s apparent
accommodation of difference and outsider-ness, the display of Nazi symbols by
Sid Vicious and others has always been a fraught issue. Savage doesn’t shy away
from the subject in these interviews, broaching it with Siouxsie and Jordan,
for instance, both of whom infamously wore swastikas. Speaking to Savage more
than a decade later, they might be expected to take the opportunity to distance
themselves from their earlier, highly dubious choice of fashion accessories.
Disappointingly, they fail to take that opportunity, maintaining that their
appropriation of Nazi iconography had nothing to do with fascism and functioned
simply as a means of generational antagonism, with no other negative
resonances. Jordan digs a deeper hole for herself, praising some of the Nazi
artifacts she owned as “beautifully made” and describing Hitler as a
“genius.” (Not that it helps much but, in the same breath, she also
characterizes him as a “loony.”) Also disappointing is the response of
Alan Jones, who was once physically attacked by a stranger who objected to his
swastika armband. Asked if he has any regrets, he naively persists: “No,
no not all. It didn’t bother me. I saw it as a fashion. I never saw it as
making a statement for or against anything.”

 

The England’s Dreaming Tapes is undoubtedly
the best interview-based book on British punk published thus far. It’s an
indispensable documentary resource that offers panoramic insight into UK punk’s
most innovative and influential stage; it manages to immerse the reader in the
visceral rush and the sheer creative energy of the period at the same time as
it provides measured, incisive commentary on that period. Just as there’s no
such thing as a definitive historical narrative compiled by a single author, an
oral history is no less problematic. It’s not a simple, unmediated account of
events: it’s shaped by the interviewer’s own interests and by the questions
he/she chooses to ask, as well as by the interlocutors’ agendas and their
possibly flawed or deliberately selective memories. An oral history of this
magnitude is all the more tricky: the range of different sources and viewpoints
might be greater, but then so are the witnesses’ biases and blind spots, their
differences of opinion and their competing versions of events. Still, neither
in England’s Dreaming nor in The England’s Dreaming Tapes does Savage
entertain the illusion of narrative closure — on the contrary, he gives his
work over to the complexities and contradictions, to the anarchy of the moment:
the “chaos” that Steve Jones famously identified as punk’s essence.

 

By way of a footnote, it’s
important to recognize that The England’s
Dreaming Tapes
demonstrates how great writing is often grounded in
extensive, painstaking research: as a prequel of sorts to England’s Dreaming, the present volume lays bare the foundations of
Savage’s earlier book, in terms of the extraordinary amount of raw material he
assembled and the particular questions and ideas he pursued throughout these interviews.

 

 

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