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Punk As Sociology 101: England's Dreaming
on January 11, 2000
Punk Rock is an oft-misunderstood musical genre, usually seen as one-dimensional, inarticulate, and musically incompetent, made by angry young kids who have no regard for anyone but themselves. This all may be true, but to dismiss it as such is to miss a vital element of rock'n'roll. 'England's Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock and Beyond' stands as the best book on its subject, and as one of the finest books on the sociology of music in general.
Jon Savage was prescient enough to have kept his teenage journal from those long-ago days of London in the mid-to-late-70s, he is able to present us with a thorough, first-hand account to spice up his in-depth journalism. Throughout this work he quotes from it, giving us impressionistic, colorful glimpses of the time:
"30.10.76: I go 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; everybody I talk to says they're the best.... Within ten seconds I'm transfixed; within thirty, changed forever.
23.11.76...fascism here won't be like in Germany. It'll be English: ratty, mean, pinched, hand in glove with Thatcher as mother sadist over all her whimpering public schoolboys.
25.12.76: A party... in the kitchen downstairs, members of the Damned, the Clash and the Sex Pistols sit around a large table.... Halfway through the evening, the Heartbreakers arrive, and install themselves in a tight corner near the telephone, which Johnny Thunders uses to make hour-long calls to the US. Not collect.
25.12.78: Public Image Ltd, Rainbow Theatre, London. this, as expected, is mainly Rotten's show. Except now there is a new element of whining and self-justification...."
Savage goes so much deeper than just his own observations, deeper than any writer on British punk ever has or ever probably will. First he examines the British pop/youth cultural movements after World War 2, like the Mods and the skins and the Teddy Boys, before coming to that little shop at 430 King's Road. We get some myth-destroying insights into the origins of Malcolm McLaren's relationships with the burgeoning Sex Pistols; namely, that it originally was 18-year-old guitarist Steve Jones' band. Savage debunks the notion that the Pistols were--as is the common, popular perception today--the *NSync of their day. McLaren was great at hindsight, saying "Oh, I meant that to happen" when really it was all out of control. Quite a bit of the book deals with the utter contempt and frustration with which Johnny Rotten and later Sid Vicious felt towards this Fagin-esque character.
Savage also looks the punk scene in surrounding towns, such as the Buzzcocks in Manchester; the difficulty in getting clubs to book the bands; the sudden liberation (but not quite) young women felt, resulting in "stars" such as Siouxsie Sioux, Poly Styrene, and the Slits; the (sometimes fake, sometimes real) competition between the Pistols and their rivals the Clash; the utterly disastrous tour of southern American states by the Pistols; the fashion, the art, the impact the movement had on the rigidly structured British class system. His account of the Jubilee summer (1977 was the 25th year of Queen Elizabeth's reign), and the attendant boat ride up the Thames--the Sex Pistols performed "God Save the Queen," their inflammatory anti-royalty statement just as the boat passed Parliament--makes you realize that Punk gave a new meaning to "civil disobedience."
The self-immolation of the notoriously doomed Sid Vicious (and McLaren's ultimate exploitation of it) is dealt with by Savage tenderly:
"What happened next will always be a blur. In an account given by Vicious shortly before his death, he woke up from a Tuinol stupor in the light of the morning to find a trail of blood leading from a soaked bed to the bathroom.... he found Nancy lying under the sink with a hunting knife sticking in her side... Vicious went into complete shock--from which he would barely recover for the rest of his life. As the realization of what had occurred sank in, he panicked totally: the only person had ever cared for him was dead, by his knife, and he couldn't remember a thing."
Another interesting aspect of the book are the analogies made between Punk--Savage capitalizes the word--and the major art movements of the 20th century. Sometimes this comes off as intellectual puffery, and yet in my thoughtful moments I think Savage is quite right to link McLaren's ideas with Dada, Surrealism, and Situationism. Rotten is compared to the young Rimbaud; the Clash wore Army fatigues splattered with colored paint a la Jackson Pollock; Subway Sect and other bands created music that seemed defiantly anti-music; and one cannot deny the primitive, art brut beauty of Xeroxed 'zines like Snffin' Glue, the flyers and the record sleeves.
Now more than ever punk is my favorite music--'70s punk, let me clarify--the Clash, the Pistols, the Buzzcocks, etc. just don't ever seem to lose their edge or their aura of chaos narrowly avoided. England's Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock and Beyond is, ultimately, an inspiring testament to the creative powers of oppressed youth everywhere--may that flame never die.
Contrary to what the Pistols said, there IS a future: you just have to know how to throttle it with your bare hands....Rrrrrright--Now!