Friday, August 3, 2012

Jon Savage's "The England's Dreaming Tapes": Book Review

I admired "England's Dreaming," the essential study of punk's birth from music critic Jon Savage, who watched. For me, it's the best account of its rapid rise and, post-Grundy interview with the Sex Pistols, fall as the small vehicle of artists, intellectuals, students, toilers at dead-end jobs if they were "lucky," and I suppose even a few bonafide working class kids turned into a media-hyped bandwagon where many leaped on, eager to cash in on by what after that TV appearance by the Pistols and pals the end of '76 transformed into a cynical case study in capitalism harnessing an "alternative" subculture. Not that some who were there, alongside Savage, resisted the lure to sign with big labels and reach wider audiences, but this conflicted among purists with the art-school, hermetic, and countercultural (often reflexively anti-hippie, but many older punks had dodgy pedigrees in other bands, in the days of flared trousers: "sub-heavy metal played badly" in Pete Shelley's phrase shows up along a love for Iggy, Bowie, and Roxy) suspicion of selling out.

I write this review the day manufactured publicity rolls out for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, and I reflect on how little protest occurs compared to the punks the summer of the Silver one in '77. The final section of these conversations deals with the post-Jubilee Pistols, the major labels, the drugs, the tours, the fatigue, and it makes dispiriting if necessary reading after earlier idealism. Savage in this compendium provides perhaps a fans-only companion to his own narrative, but the tapes-- transcribed here from his interviews edited with those featured in the original "England's Dreaming"-- convey nuance and offer necessary testimony on what I find are three reiterated, key issues.

First, the Grundy interview: this marks a before-and-after moment for the fledgling punks. Marco Pirroni sums it up with Sham 69 as "an excuse to be stupid" (359); Steve Jones separates the music before the publicity with the media; Paul Cook charges Malcolm McLaren's manipulation of the band's tensions that sapped its musical energies. As many repeat, after Glen Matlock was sacked, the Pistols only wrote four songs in their Sid Vicious stage. Matlock himself explains how the earlier band emphasized a slower power, not a Ramones speed. The Who and Small Faces influences gave the trio of musicians a less strident, but forceful foundation for Johnny Rotten's sneering vocals.

Second, this leads into how well the Pistols could play, and why that mattered--or not. Jordan notes how Rotten developed the authority "to sing with conviction, those sorts of powerful words every night, words that were black and white, not clouds and rolling hills." (51) But, she thinks he lost that "need"; John Lydon regarded himself in Malcolm McLaren's hands as "Jack-in-the-Box" figure who could be wound up and taken out for an onlooker's shock or a staged surprise--unlike Cook and Jones, Lydon resented this pose. To be fair, Lydon acknowledges his own faults in furthering this pose, but he does not dismiss the culpability of many others in what became extended legal battles and personal betrayals of trust. He increasingly rebelled against his public image, limited.

McLaren's partner Vivienne Westwood questions the shock value of another symbol, the swastika. Many mention its presence in early punk iconography, and it's disturbing for me that some interviewed still take its presence in their own stance so lightly; Westwood notes the strain of supposedly devaluing the crooked cross to take out its rigor, aggression, and puritanical associations, and how the principles of punk were challenged by contradictions of feminism as well. Captain Sensible takes another view: punk meant neither a thing nor a sound, but an attitude. For some, this act could be constricting, and the compassion underneath the exaggerated despair or cartoonish anger might unsettle those next to them, as the desire to upend expectations took its emotional toll on punks. Those who could project their voices, talents, or music adapted, but others gave up and/or conserved their energies for what they yearned to find as more expansive approaches for fulfillment.

Siouxsie says the brandishing early on of such a potent symbol as the swastika might be one way to express this frustration with identity and meaning among a new generation. Those coming after the hippies sought a platform or a voice. Putting on an armband, for her, was getting back at the values unthinkingly clung to by an older, postwar generation. Poly Styrene counters that a "lack of vision" led punk into a dead-end, without a "positive solution" to the "hellish planet" it delighted in peddling. Steve Walsh agrees that punk's futility overshadowed idealism. Nils Stevenson has a last word on the Pistols and their role as the vanguard as their prowess proved anyone could not imitate them, and that the Pistols were not the same but better than the rest. (The Clash, The Damned, and The Jam by the way all come off the worse for wear among many interviewed from within the sympathetic Pistols contingent.) McLaren has his say, before sixty-one others, and none here might think that unearned!

Third, the debate over art vs. commerce, finding a wider audience to play to and to sell to. As one who heard delayed this nearly "unheard music" 6000 miles away, from pricy import vinyl and scant airplay even in L.A., I had to glean what I found intriguing from hints in reviews in the mainstream press or the emerging fanzines I read at record shops before I risked my pocket money as a teenager on the "Punk-New Wave" section often found tucked away at the back of the store. So, unless bands found distributors able to place their product, and get stores to stock it, great music languished.

Certainly, the struggles, as Howard Devoto and Pete Shelley tell from their Mancunian predicament, left punks away from the London scene more at odds in how to make if not a living than a few pounds playing in places that were repulsed, confused, or ignorant of the new music trickling out from the capital northward. These regional differences, first in Manchester, spawned small indie scenes. It's intriguing to hear of Morrissey and Ian Curtis slowly joining in to find their own niche.

Journalist Jonh Ingram stresses the loss of the artistic and the easy indulgence as punk turned a fad. Buzzcocks manager Richard Boon agrees but acclaims as does Shelley the media's pioneering role (Ingram and Caroline Coon notably) in popularizing punk beyond its cult, as Linder and Devoto addressed in their "The Secret Public" art-pamphlet. Devoto in typically aphoristic form observes: "Pretentiousness is interesting. Your ambition has to outstrip your ability at some point." (525)

The ambitions often were fueling egos enticed by what, for once, the Americans had done first. While as the title promises, most of this book recounts the English leaders, their New York predecessors are also heard from. Politics, perhaps perversely or tellingly here, gains little attention and anarchism no index entry. John Holmstrom equates punk with an "old" sound, and Legs McNeil defines it as failure. He finds Manhattan's version filled with humor and satire vs. the British political anger. Mary Harron links her Warhol-era bohemianism to mid-70s boredom by a celebration of junk culture that ignited the proto-punks, eager to find an escape from American complacency even as they revelled in its consumerism and trashy 50s and 60s t.v. shows, comics, films, diversions, and marketed poses.

A few of the interviews flagged by comparison, but this is inevitable over more than 700 pages. It's a sign of how skillful Savage's editing and direction is that so few were less interesting. The regional tilt's telling, as the provinces get less attention, but they (as with Simon Reynolds' books on post-punk--he like Savage has a study "Rip It Up and Start Again: 1979-1984" and a later interview anthology, "Totally Wired" also reviewed by me) took time for the initial impact of New York and then London to echo northward and westward, the next few years, across Britain and then beyond.

A helpful appendix, similar to the discography that makes the original text so engrossing (yet here the photos are scarce and smallish), gives brief "where are they now?" wrap-ups and often links to websites (although I fear they may be outdated as some are MySpace--one sign of again how no media remain secure in this changing era....). Cheap speed appears to increase, while thrashing wears players out--see The Adverts as cautionary tale. Music mellows or simmers, as the years progress those interviewed make less music, or inevitably music that endures. Wire appear late on herein, exception to this rule: Graham Lewis locates the "desire to be in the future rather than in the place where people were" as punk's spirit. (621). A thorough index eases fact-checking and topic-hunting, and enhances the value of this as a "director's cut" of the shorter narrative history from nearly two decades ago that remains the standard source on punk.

(Amazon US 6-2-12; see also there from 7-22-12 my Punk Rock: An Oral History review of John Robb's interviews. Compare my longer PopMatters 7-3-12 review of Robb with a link to my take on Nick Rombes' intriguing collage A Cultural Dictionary of Punk:1974-1982)

No comments: