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

 

Originally published
in Britain
in 2009, the punk chronicle now gets a Stateside airing. It’s still an
essential read.

 

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 a 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
actually to have 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 in Britain in 2009 by Faber & Faber and
now available stateside via the University of Minnesota Press – compiles the
complete transcripts (“edited for sense and libel”) of over half the
interviews conducted for England’s
Dreaming.
They’re grouped in chapters covering the disparate sites where punk happened: 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, by people who knew him in the ’60s and early ’70s and
by those who worked and hung out in SEX; the closing chapter, featuring a grim
interview with Sid Vicious’ mother Anne Beverley, focuses on her iconic son,
whose death symbolized one of punk’s many possible endings. 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 hard-core 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 (the capital’s only
dedicated punk rock club at the time), 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 and on their process of negotiating how to convey that revolution to
readers. 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 all 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 believed 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 create punk’s scandalous, confrontational spectacle, and SEX employees Alan Jones and Jordan recall
what it was like to be among the 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 adorned with highly charged
symbols, 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 and 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 numerous interviewees’ Damascene moments
in relation to the Pistols and their entourage: 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 Black
experiences 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.”

 

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.

 

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, perceptive commentary on that period.

 

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.

 

 

Leave a Reply