England's Dreaming Jon Savage

Who Owns Punk History? On Jon Savage’s England’s Dreaming

Though academics have lauded Jon Savage’s book of music history and interviews, England’s Dreaming, as a nimble intellectual text, others equally detest it.

England's Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock, and Beyond
Jon Savage
St. Martin's Griffin

Undoubtedly, punk still exists as a tantalizing music subculture that has expanded, mutated, and doubled back, like a snake eating itself, in routine redux over the last 30 years, turning three garage rock chords and the so-called truth into nihilistic newer variations like D-Beat, crust punk, powerviolence, grindcore, and screamo. Recent anniversaries of Frontier Records (label to TSOL, Circle Jerks, and Suicidal Tendencies) and melodic punk stalwarts Bad Religion testify to long-term trajectories and traditions; meanwhile, interpretations of the pose, language, style, and attitudes of punk have infected multiple academic disciplines from sociology and folklore to musicology and women’s studies. In purely commercial terms, punk has long been subdued and harnessed, reshaping retail commodity culturescapes. Faux-hawks, patches, studded bracelets, and skulls stitched on T-shirts have become common fashion accessories in bland suburbs and edgy barrios alike.

The telling, not the mere examination – acts of theory and conjecture – of its convoluted history, grounded in memoirs, magazine exposes, blogs, and films, remains unstable, partial, thorny, and riddled with gaps. Certainly, seminal books have risen to the top of the heap. Many brim with oral history, which some readers believe fosters candor and authenticity. We Got the Neutron Bomb (Three Rivers Press, 2001) surveys West Coast punk, while Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk (Penguin, 1997), by former PUNK fanzine editor Legs McNeil, helped by co-editor Gillian McCain, represents hard-boiled New York City. These quasi-journalistic romps featuring iconic talking heads reminiscing about their roles and first-hand experiences without much writerly fluff proved to be quite popular.

That modus operandi essentially makes this epic 752-page collection of compiled interviews by Jon Savage feel weighty and pertinent, even if one has already read his much-lauded England’s Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock, and Beyond (St. Martin’s Griffin, 1992), which almost 20 years ago examined the zero hour of punk, mostly in England. Representing just a portion of his impressive archives for the text, these transcripts make readers feel like they are sitting at Savage’s side as he finesses rock ‘n’ roll rebels and forgotten helpers alike, though don’t expect many WikiLeak profundities dug from the minefields of memory. Plus, interviews with the likes of Ed Kuepper from the Saints and V. Vale, editor of vintage San Francisco Search and Destroy fanzine, remain available on jonsavage.com only.

The template formula is quite breezy, off-the-cuff, and anecdotal. More recent Do-It-Yourself texts, such as the reference books American Hardcore: A Tribal History (Feral House, 2001) and Going Underground: American Punk 1979-1992 (Zuo Press, 2006), both written by ’80s scenesters, attempt to reflect a vast landscape of punk, but also have been heavily critiqued for their shortcomings; for instance, Randy “Biscuit” Turner, singer of the Big Boys, told me that the sections in American Hardcore… blurred and distorted details, relied on gossip, and misrepresented bands. Meanwhile, although “Biscuit” was featured on the cover of Going Underground…, he was not interviewed. He exists as an embellishment only – a mute icon – unleashing a protruding middle finger in the photograph akin to similar outlaw images of Johnny Cash.

Though academics have lauded Savage’s England’s Dreaming as a nimble intellectual text, others equally detest it. Punk writer Stewart Homes dubbed Savage a cultural elitist who “shores up their theory by appropriating punk rock” while legitimizing Au Pairs and Gang of Four and ignoring street punk, which he seemingly judges as both laddish and loutish (Cranked Up Really High – Genre Theory and Punk Rock, Codex, 1995). In 2003, Captain Sensible of the Damned told me, “England’s Dreaming … is a ripe load of shit if you ask me. I much prefer Johnny Rotten’s No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs (1995).” Additionally, Andy Czezowski, former proprietor of The Roxy, one of punk’s most prominent early clubs, aggressively admitted to the online journal 3: AM Magazine: “The guy’s a total wanker, constantly re-writing history to suit his own purposes… Just a shallow journalist really… totally peripheral guy. Always intellectualizing” (2003).

This new transcript-based format might be an avid antidote to such charges, for Savage doesn’t interpret, preen, or prettify. By avoiding rabbit holes of theory and pontification, he simply allows readers to indulge in these moments, like a fly on the wall. In that sense, these pages may offer up a common ground to all sides – a rich, interwoven series of conversations, unadulterated and sculpted only by his own keen and casual questions, including lengthy bits with both Sensible and Czezowski in raw, not boiled, form.

To be fair, no account of punk is bound to be error-free, without gaps, or even fully democratic. Don’t look for the likes of Chelsea, UK Subs, The Jam, and Slaughter and the Dogs in this volume. The old stand-by stalwarts, however, do offer scoops: Joe Strummer wholeheartedly illustrates the rundown, inner-city, squat-ridden, pre-Clash London era of the 101ers; wise and wily Johnny Rotten dispels the artiness of it all, reminding readers the Pistols were studio mongers akin to stadium rockers, layering a staggering multitude of guitar tracks on “Anarchy in the U.K.” (not that Bad Religion isn’t equally guilty); while Adam Ant flagellates the ludicrous pretensions, ala Rocky Horror Picture Show, of the Derek Jarman film Jubilee (1978), which featured an early line-up of his band, Gene October of Chelsea, gender bender American rocker Wayne County, and female iconoclast Jordan.

As for the Pistols, Johnny Rotten is cast as the aggravated androgyne, Steve Jones as the illiterate trad-rock sex machine, Paul Cook as the blank-faced unknown, Sid as the sweet kid swallowed by Nancy Spungen in a mythic downward spiral, and Glen Matlock as the effete middle-class popster. Part leftover fans of Small Faces, part Bay City Rollers boy band gone wild, part consumer warriors and art saboteurs, they staged their hit-and-run media blitz, and we’re still debating their worth.

True Progenitors of Modern Art Trends

The tantalizing interviews tend to be the lesser lights who have fallen off the radar a bit, like Marco Pirroni waxing nostalgic about SEX clothes, Berlin recounting the heavy gay scene antecedents to punk, and Leee Childers, earnest manager of The Heartbreakers and Iggy Pop, describing the loneliness he experienced in mid-’70s London, which led him to scrawny Sid Vicious. They slumped down together, crying as a Jim Reeves album crooned on a bleary Christmas day. Not exactly the postcard of punk venom and bile, huh?

When constructing any narrative about a diverse, trans-local (scenes that sprung up and networked across regions), syncretic (converging styles and influences) genre that inhabits a volatile time, place, and genre, prime questions immediately surface. Who owns this history? How will prejudice and slanted points of view affect the shape of the narrative – the vehicle of ‘truth’? How does this narrative become normalized, or canonized, within pop culture?

Savage views punks as true progenitors of modern art trends that rehashed and recycled the past in post-modern gestures. In England’s Dreaming, Savage compares British punk activities to Warhol’s factory-meets-Factory method, or the European avant-garde of the ’20s, a time rife with freedom and experimentation, from smoke-drenched cabarets to Constructivism. The Roxy, which launched Wire, the Vibrators, and Slaughter and the Dogs, is imagined as a contemporary Cabaret Voltaire – the centre of Dadaist events around 1917. Decades later, Dada pokes up in flyers, gig posters, and ripped and re-assembled clothes; painterly Piet Mondrian flourishes filtered onto Buzzcocks shirts and Generation X 45 singles; Jackson Pollock style was inscribed into the clothes of the Clash via hectic splashes of paint; while heady Situationist theory was imbedded into Sex Pistol manager Malcolm McLaren’s gestalt, which Stewart Home has decried as inaccurate.

Revisiting these trends, Savage promulgates a righteous replacement of the New York-centered definition of punk as working-class cartoony goons (Dictators, the Ramones) or wonky geek chic aesthetes (Talking Heads, Television). In fact, “Early punk wasn’t proletarian or even protesting,” he once exhorted. ” It was an art movement, English version of (Andy Warhol’s) The Factory” (Street Style: British Design in the 1980s, 1987). In this light, the scapegoats for the demise, de-evolution, or dumb facelift of the first wave of punk are bands like the Damned and Sham 69, whom most participants decry in these interviews. Even more so, the recounted artfulness and aesthetics of 1976 feel much more accidental and spontaneous than planned and purposeful.

No doubt, vivid actors like Malcolm McLaren had a keen interest in media manipulation, avant-garde fashion trends, and a sense of living history, but no master plan to meld radical pop and political discourse, vitriolic visual styles, and lipstick traces of socio-economic rebellion, seems to exist. The Clash might have stopped by the corner auto body shop for a quick spray of paint on their rumpled clothes on a lark or donned bondage trousers, but in England’s Dreaming, Jon Savage waxes it up, extolling punk’s rampant:

…polysemy of elements drawn from the history of youth culture, sexual fetish wear, urban decay, and extremist politics. Taken together, these elements had no conscious meaning but they spoke of many new things: urban primitivism; the breakdown of confidence in a common language; the availability of cheap, second-hand clothes; the fractured nature of perception in an accelerating, media-saturated society; the wish to offer up the body as a jumble of meanings… (1993: 230)

This resembles a top-down model, in which Savage acts as the wordsmith engine of authority. The compiled interviews, however, kindle a generative and bottom-up approach – I was there, listen to me – that feels more inclusive, participatory, and inevitably less theory-driven, as well.

No longer do the transcripts represent a public oral history project intended solely for the special collections at Liverpool John Moores University, later to be examined likely only by a handful of researchers. Now published by a major university press, the interviews blossom anew, likely re-shaping public discourse about punk rock itself, becoming a useful everyday reference text for casual observers and fans alike. The final section detailing the demise of Sid Vicious from the gripping insight of insiders, including his own mother, is disturbing and forthright, a blunt way to both demystify the terrible events and set the record straight as the long shadow of films like Sid and Nancy, and the recent song “Chelsea Hotel ’78” by Alejandro Escovedo, keep carving the legend anew.

A folklorist ponders a writer’s cultural authority over the topics, not to mention their professional flair and skill sets that shape such projects. Even though we may be lulled or lured by the exciting availability of troves like this, readers should not let down their guard. The interviewees, or partners, might have reacted to Savage in several ways, including withholding information and/or harboring suspicions regarding the profit motives, ego, and self-promotion of the writer. Some, like Johnny Rotten and Glen Matlock, wrote their own books, as well.

Secondly, they might have provided lengthy input meant to carve a deep niche for themselves in the narrative of punk, scoring a place in history that Savage could legitimize. To what extent we should consider these factors remains debatable. For now, let’s read on.