“A modern democracy is a tyranny whose borders are undefined.”
– Norman Mailer
There is a line in the Introduction to Jon Savage’s exceptional history of the Sex Pistols and punk rock, “England’s Dreaming”, which neatly summarises the underpinning philosophy of the movement and marks its protagonists with the certainty of tragedy:
“The central problems thus remain for those who want to question the basis of society: how do you avoid becoming a part of what you are protesting against? If everything exists in the media and you reject it, how do you exist?”
The questions are essentially the same as Albert Camus’s “The Rebel”, where he preaches the caution necessary for any revolutionary action. Overthrowing and system and usurping the power is to make yourself the dictator against whom you rallied; is to contradict the pure motives of the uprising once assuming the burdens and freedom of the newly gained power. One is thus forever locked into a cycle of revolt.
Savage also makes reference to a haunting quote by Joseph Campbell, from the essential book “The Hero with A Thousand faces”
“If the hero, like Prometheus, simply darted to his goal (by violence, quick device or luck) and plucked the boon for the world he intended, then the powers that he has unbalanced may react so sharply that he will be blasted from within and without – crucified, like Prometheus, on the rock of his own violated consciousness”
The Sex Pistol revolt is clearly complicated. Their album contains the track “E.M.I.” written about the record company who famously dropped them after releasing the “Anarchy in the U.K.” single, with the lyrics:
“and you thought that we were faking
that we were all just money making
you do not believe we're for real
or you would lose your cheap appeal?”
Yet the knife cuts both ways (sic: see below). John Lyndon, for example has recently given a mixed message about the recent “Never mind…” deluxe edition perhaps still all too aware that the mere presence of Sex Pistols product, and worse in luxurious “wealthy” version, somehow undermines the authenticity of the groups struggle. Anti-capitalist lyrics were rife in early punk and became the foundation of post-punks philosophy. Lyndon himself played the game to great effect with Public Image Ltd and their carefully designed releases. Incidentally, for those who may have missed it, PiL have a new album out as well:
As he unravels this conundrum, Savage also joins the gap between punk and Nirvana, who followed the same path in many ways, only in a different media landscape. He also draws in the imagery of Nicolas Roegg’s “The man who fell to earth”, where David Bowie, playing the alien Thomas Newton is confronted by walls of TV screens emitting white noise and imagery that is both “simultaneously exciting and terrifying”, the two polar extremes of punk. Savage also invokes the “blank generation” of replicants in Blade Runner, quipping “They don’t have feelings, but recognize their necessity.”
The source of the blankness is as fascinating as the violent upheaval that broke its control. “Britain’s postwar decline began in wartime British dreams” Savage quotes. The end of the post war boom in England saw rising unemployment (particularly in youth), a collapse of the financial system that nearly triggered an IMF bailout and the aforementioned rise of media saturation which only enhanced the extremities between consumer desire and consumer reality. The psycho-geography of the time also is paramount as he reveals in this short interview to accompany an exhibition of some of his photos from the period. His poignant last words here are “J.G: Ballard: High Rise and Crash.”
At the heart of the book then is this terrible anxiety and nervousness, the terror of watching John Lyndon, Steve Jones, Paul Cook and variously Glen Matlock and Sid Vicious, and those who entered their slipstream, unravel society by confronting it with taboos, by breaking the 20th Century’s symbolic language and undermining the power of authority by holding up a mirror to its hypocrisy and denouncing its commercial materialism. Indeed, the commercialization and thus the disempowerment of the hippy ideal and its setting in the voided landscape both within and without meant that only direct confrontation would do. The real horror comes when society turns back, its bluff called and the thin veneer of “civilized society” broken. The group are frequently attacked in the streets, particularly Lydon; the debunking of fascist imagery somehow spirals into a rise in fascism and the National Front; anti-authoritarianism becomes the iron rule of law and eventually Thatcherism. All the while, the media makes its money turning their lives into a soap opera while banning performances of the group, appearances in the charts and essentially trying to erase the official mark of the group on the unfolding history.
Malcolm McClaren in particular comes across rather poorly, doing his best to encourage the conflict (which in the end was the product). In particular, his intentionally poor planning of the US tour was what broke the band already falling to pieces after 18 months of aggression, drugs, failing relationships within the group and media pressure. Rather than choosing marquee venues to milk the fame and reputation of the band, he instead chose to send the group to the south where conservative attitudes were more likely to provoke violence, which is what happened.
Watch Sid swing his axe at the end of the set.
The death of Nancy Spungen and Sid Vicious are also worth bringing up again as one of the great rock n roll stories. Depending on your territory, you should be able to watch this documentary “Who killed Nancy?”
The differences between the findings of the film and the book are startling.
“[Rockets] Redglare’s [a policy informer and methadone addict who apparently dealed to Nancy] policy testimony conflicts with the account given to journalists immediately after Nancy’s death by Neon Leon, a black guitarist who lived down the hall. In this version the pair came over at midnight: Sid showed him a five inch knife Nancy had bought him on Time’s Square, to protect himself from frequent beatings. Then Viscous gave Leon his leather jacket and his newspaper clippings, repeatedly saying that he was nobody, that he had no self-confidence. A few days after the story Leon disappeared.”
Leon has in any case has not disappeared in the documentary and is almost the main testifier. Parts of his story ring true and consistent down the years, although his excuse of having a tooth ache and having to return to the Chelsea Hotel on the fateful night seems somehow improbable. In the documentary, it is an unknown dealer form the hotel who did it and who did disappear never to e seen again. The books conclusion seems to fall more with the hypothesis that it was Sid who killed Nancy, using a knife that he was known to possess. In one version of the story, the knife is identical to one given to Stiv Bators of the Dead Boys by Dee Dee Ramone. The procurement of an arm was not, apparently, strange at the time, especially amongst junkies who had seen a tough and often violent intrusion into their world of deals and hits. Ironically, it was a fight over drugs and Nancy’s failure to score that is the lasting impression given by Savage, although he treads a careful non-judgemental path around the evidence. It is not Sid’s death that is the subject of the book, but the death of punk and, in a way, the death of society itself.
Sid and Nancy were clearly in a very poor state by the end as this sometimes funny and sometimes heartbreaking “heroin” interview shows.
Heroin had apparently entered the popular mythology of the scene via Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers and the New York Dolls (Nancy would come to London where she would meet Sid as the girlfriend of the Dolls Jerry Nolan).. While Keith Richards will attest to heroin’s availability before this time, it was the more brazen projection of the myth in lyric and lifestyle that softened the inhibitions.
“Somebody called me on the phone
They said hey, is Dee Dee home
Do you wanna take a walk
Do ya wanna go and cop
Do ya wanna go get some chinese rocks”
If there was any more need of evidence of Johnny Thunders potent ability to act as a gateway for the drug, then look no further than a banned Swedish broadcast from 1982.
“Punk is dead, Disco is what is happening now…”