Back in high school, I was a “new waver,” but most of my friends were “punks.” I had spiky, colored hair, wore thrift shop army jackets, and rode a skateboard (although never very well.) I LOOKED like most of my friends, but while they were listening to Dead Kennedys, Butthole Surfers, and Henry Rollins era Black Flag, I preferred The Cure, Depeche Mode, O.M.D., and Yaz. However, the very first “punk” song that I listened to and actually loved was “Submission” by the Sex Pistols, played for me by a friend who brought a copy of Never Mind the Bollocks on L.P. up to my fake cobweb and black-light enhanced lair. This would have been somewhere around 1988. With that entry point, that one silly song by that one silly band, I GOT IT! I connected with punk, and a whole world suddenly opened up for me (and now I love Butthole Surfers, and I can enjoy a few songs by Dead Kennedys—but I still don’t care for Henry Rollins’s run on Black Flag. The Keith Morris era, however, “Wasted” and “Nervous Breakdown” and such, I absolutely love…) Like so many folks before me, the Pistols are what brought me to punk, although this was a full decade after they’d imploded and become history… And if you want to know that history, you NEED to read Jon Savage’s book.
Jon Savage – England’s Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock, and Beyond (1991/2001)
This is the third time I’ve read this book, and my first time reading the newer “expanded” edition, which came out ten years after the first edition, and included such shocking events as the REUNION of the Sex Pistols in 1996 and their subsequent “Filthy Lucre” tour. Who would have thought, as ugly as their breakup was—and the eight year court battle that followed the dissolution of the group—that they could ever share a stage together again, but it ACTUALLY HAPPENED! All four original members of the group (Lydon, Jones, Cook, and Matlock) played together again… (Sid Vicious is still dead—and he wasn’t an original member or the band, just their #1 fan…) Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s take a few steps back.
Jon Savage is a brilliant author and a music journalist, who also happened to be THERE, ground zero for the British punk explosion, and his book includes diary entries of his actual reactions to some historic moments, chronicling his thoughts as these bizarre events where happening in real time. This book is brilliantly laid out, supremely well researched, and you can absolutely tell that Savage is a massive fan of punk from page one on. I also appreciate the thorough exploration that Savage provides of the precursors to punk, the early subcultures and art movements and political activists, as well as the social climate of the time, all of which swirled together to shape the uniquely British experience of punk.
The early chapters focus heavily on Malcolm McLaren, the brilliant (or ridiculous) Svengali who either orchestrated the entire punk “put-on” or perhaps was the hapless victim of his own prank, carried along by the shockwave of a blast he sparked after miscalculating how much powder to use. McLaren was undoubtedly an influence in all this mess, even if he wasn’t the ORIGIN, as he so confidently croons in his cursed film, The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, when he says he “created the punk rock.” Punk would have happened, with or without McLaren (or clothing designer Vivian Westwood, or Sex Pistol vocalist Johnny Rotten, or doomed mega-fan Sid Vicious), but punk wouldn’t have been the same without them. Without McLaren, there wouldn’t have been a “Sex” shop (one of the many names for the fashion shop that he and Westwood ran,) and there wouldn’t have been a Sex Pistols band (which McLaren put together and managed and ultimately destroyed), and without the Pistols we wouldn’t have had so many brilliant bands that either formed in the wake of seeing the Sex Pistols play or who transformed themselves completely after that experience. In this book, Savage shows us, in excruciating detail—sometimes almost day by day—how each piece of the Pistols’ puzzle came together to shock, influence, and (undeniably) enrich the entire world. It seems lofty to suggest that one band could have had such a significant imprint on the entire planet, but Savage makes a compelling case.
If you are at all interested in punk as a musical style or in culture jamming as a phenomena or political tool, then this book will give you a lot to think about. It’s a HEFTY book, 600+ pages, but a very entertaining read, and Savage includes several appendices and supplemental materials where he lists the publication histories of numerous “classic” punk records, including singles and live concert recordings and bootlegs, as well as his personal picks for music outside the genre that he argues had direct influences on the development of punk as a style.
For those looking for DRAMA, this book has enough convoluted scheming, backstabbing, and doomed personalities to compete with Game of Thrones, especially in the saga of Sid Vicious, which Savage covers thoroughly. There’s even a sad interview between Sid and Punk magazine’s Roberta Bayley, right after the Sex Pistols self-destructed, as Sid sits, alone, in a hospital bed recovering from an overdose. It’s touching, and it shows how twisted the perceptions had become of what the Sex Pistols had actually accomplished in their short existence as a group, even for a member of the band. Were they four kids trying to be creative in the face of an indifferent society? Or were they a demonic force attempting to DESTROY everything that decent folks held dear? (All Sid really wants is to read some Marvel comics…) In another odd note to the interview, Sid says, “John is completely finished…He’s finished as a person as well, he’s just not what he used to be” (p. 466-467). John Lydon went on to form Public Image Ltd. in 1978, a band that produced ten albums (ten times as many as the Pistols,) and the band still tours and performs to this day. Not exactly finished…but Sid…
Final word, this book is practically perfect in every way. (I wonder who’ll get THAT reference!) England’s Dreaming is funny; it’s thoughtful, connecting a number of cultural elements that undoubtedly influenced punk, which most folks probably wouldn’t have suspected had an impact on the movement; and it’s an exciting history of the music of the 1970s and 1980s. If you like Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Damned, Buzzcocks, Siouxsie and The Banshees, The Jam, The Stranglers, The Slits, The Adverts, X-Ray Spex, Wire, Crass, The Screamers, The Avengers, Ramones, The New York Dolls, The Heartbreakers, Throbbing Gristle, Adam and the Ants, Joy Division, or any of a hundred other brilliant bands—they’re in here, ALTHOUGH, Savage has opinions about these groups, and those opinions are not always flattering. (I’m not bothered by this. If he doesn’t think The Jam were punk, that’s fine with me. “Town Called Malice” is still a nearly perfect song!) Anyway, I really can’t say enough good stuff about this book. It does have some foul language in it and sexual situations and a couple of naughty images (reprints of punk era artwork) and drug use—LOTS of drug use—but its not as gross as Please Kill Me was. (That book was DISGUSTING but fascinating.) Some of the historical and political exploration might not be as exciting to some folks as it was for me, but I think these elements are essential and sometimes overlooked in punk narratives. I’m also very pleased that I bought the expanded edition because it covers a number of developments that hadn’t happened yet in the original 1991 edition (like the Pistols reunion.) For fans of punk or youth cultures, this book is completely essential. I have yet to read a book on the history of punk that is anywhere near as exhaustively researched or as entertaining. If I was giving grades, this would definitely be an A++ or an 11 out of 10. One of my favorites books, still.
—Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Supreme Bunny Lord of The P.E.W.)
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