on 7 July 2012
This book is a comprehensive account of the birth and slow death of 'punk' - whatever that means. To many, it means either bands of Sham 69-style Rottenalike bawlers and sneerers, or mohicaned tourist magnets in Central London. To Jon Savage, punk means primarily the early dynamic, revolutionary style and music of the Sex Pistols and their fellow travellers, during their brief flowering.
This is a weighty book, physically (c. 600 pages) and textually. Savage isn't a writer who knowingly under-intellectuallises his subject, and this book treats the subject with high seriousness. That it still emerges as a pacy and exciting read is tribute to Savage's passion and stylish writing.
The book charts the antecedants of punk, in the music of the early 1970s, and in the association of Malcolm Maclaren and Vivienne Westwood, punk's strange parents. It describes the rapid rise to fame of the Sex Pistols and the rise of the British punk rock movement, and its messy and depressing fall into cliche and exploitation.
Savage's take seem to be that 'punk' can be split into two eras - the imaginative early fashion movement centred round the Pistols, from formation in 1975 to nationwide fame in 1977. During this period, punk attracted rebels and mavericks, and encouraged individualism and creativity. The early Pistols sound fantastic - sheer speed-fuelled outrage with a gleeful glint in its eyes. This changed midway through 1977, with a series of physical attacks on the Pistols (which meant they became more reclusive), their banning from most venues in the UK (which increasingly meant they couldnt play live), a fallout in the band between Glen Matlock and the rest of the Pistols (which meant the band lost their most musically creative member and gained Sid Vicious, a creative vacuum), and the rising popularity of punk, which demanded a rigid formulaic approach which was the antithesis of the energetic early years.
This book is really an elegy for those heady early times, and charts the later years diligently but with sadness. Savage clearly loves his subject very much, and was there at the time. This shows - this book is extremely vivid, and includes a series of jotted comptempory accounts of the early punk gigs that Savage attended. It is the definitive book on this subject.
on 26 July 2001
If, like me, you missed the first wave of punk (hey, I was only born in 1973!), but fell in love with the music later, you gotta read this book.
Savage tells the tale of English punk (with some reference to what was happening in the USA, but as the title says, this is _England's_ Dreaming), starting from the backgrounds of those involved, through to the end of the 70's, after the collapse of the Sex Pistols and the death of Sid Vicious.
As you might guess from the title (which is of course from a line in the Sex Pistols' "God Save The Queen"), it is the Sex Pistols that are the primary focus of all this. But there's plenty here about The Clash, The Damned, The Buzzcocks, and plenty of less famous but essential bands, like The Slits, X-Ray Spex, Siouxsie & The Banshees, etc. And I should add that there is an extensive index with discographies of many, many groups.
I'm not sure exactly what Jon Savage was doing at this time, but he was certainly there and involved. He even appears in one of the photos in the book (police herding punks off the boat after the infamous Jubilee cruise down the Thames, if I recall rightly). His recollections and interviews are interspersed with snippets from his diary from the time. This really is a vivid account, and one that made me curse all the more loudly that I missed the action.
One warning - I thought there was far, far too much about Malcolm McLaren's pre-Pistols activities at the start of the book. This was boring. But fight through it, or skip ahead, you'll really miss out if you get bored and quit in the first couple of chapters.
Also, after reading this book, try to check out Julien Temple's film "The Filth And The Fury" - you'll see footage of a lot of the events described herein.
on 18 July 2006
'England's Dreaming - Sex Pistols and Punk Rock' by Jon Savage is first and foremost a story about the formation of the Sex Pistols. The book starts with a young and ambitious Malcolm Mclaren - inspired by the Parisian student revolts of 1968 - and Vivienne Westwood who, together with Mclaren, created the 'Sex' shop which provided the backdrop to the formation of the Sex Pistols and delivered the aesthetic which symbolised and communicated most directly what punk stood for. A story which, in this case, ends in effect with the predictable demise of Sid Vicious, who in the end came to symbolise more than anything else what Punk Rock meant in the eyes of the mainstream (and to paraphrase Shakespeare) 'a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.'
The greatness of this book is that while ostensibly this is a book about the Sex Pistols (and it is) it is much more than that. As someone born in 1980 it is easy to forget that Britain in the 1970s was such a Politicised place, today apathy rules ok, but thirty years ago things were different. The Post War consensus was crumbling, the age of Thatcherism was dawning, the promise of full employment was exposed as a lie as unemployment figures grew, the once proud ruler of most of the worlds surface had to go with begging bowl to the IMF for a loan, union power was rampant, strikes ubiqutious, the far right increasingly evident and, in the words of Savage 'political and social (even behavioural) extremism seemed very attractive as a way out of this impasse.' In other words the time was ripe for Punk.
The history of the Sex Pistols in the 1970s is the history of the U.K in the 1970s, this is what Savage conveys, Punk grew in fertile soil. The word most used in this book is NIHILISM. Nihilism is a philosophical position which argues that that the world and espiecally human existence is without objective meaning, purpose or comprehensible truth or essential value. The nihilism of punk was a reaction to the idealism of the hippies who had preceded them and to many proved frightening, but while the life of Sid Vicious showed one obvious consequence of nihilism, Savage manages to convey the less obvious flip side: only by negating what has gone before can one create afresh. The concequence of the Sex Pistols was that in this country, musically, things were never the same again.
Music journalist Jon Savage's 1991 account of the rise and fall of punk rock (with its focus on the Sex Pistols) is certainly the best book I have read on the subject, and indeed is one of the impressive music books per se that I have come across. Savage's book presents a comprehensive history of UK (and, to a lesser extent, US) punk (and its near indistinguishable sister, new wave), featuring commentary on the subject from a whole plethora of contributors (musicians, journalists, social commentators, etc) and concluding at the point of the death of Sid Vicious and the legal battle that ensued between Malcolm McLaren and John Lydon (early 1979).
The book initially charts the life story of arch opportunist McClaren, his early influences (the situationist movement, Edwardian fashion, etc), his King's Road shop incarnations (Let It Rock, Sex, Seditionaries), his relationship with Vivienne Westwood, his flirting with the early US punk scene (New York Dolls, etc) and the formation of the Sex Pistols. From the point that the movement began to take off during 1976 and thereafter, Savage's book contains quotes from pretty much everyone who was anyone in the nascent scene including members of The Clash, The Damned, X-Ray Spex, Buzzcocks, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Eater, Penetration, The Adverts, The Heartbreakers, The Saints, Subway Sect, Generation X, etc. There are also compelling sections on the Bill Grundy TV episode (and its violent aftermath), the links between punk and anti-racist politics (RAR, ANL), the inter-band rivalries that existed and the final implosion of the Pistols in the wake of the disastrous US tour.
Savage's book provides a brilliant dissection of the causes and potential legacies of this key period in youth culture and music. For me, there are many key events and themes arising from England's Dreaming, including Savage's account of the devastating regret still felt (some 15 years after the event) by erstwhile Television front man, Richard Hell, following his decision to turn down McLaren's offer of fronting the Sex Pistols, and McLaren's absolute obsession in the pursuit of controversy, such as in his decision to focus on venues in the redneck south of the USA for the Sex Pistols tour, rather than those in the more accommodating north of the country. As well as the more serious passages, the book also has many hilarious moments, including the account of Steve Jones' previous burgling career during which he (allegedly) stole David Bowie's entire PA system (having hidden overnight in the Hammersmith Odeon) and the priceless quote from perennial joker Captain Sensible, who, on discovering that The Damned's manager Jake Riviera was concealing the truth about the Sex Pistols being banned on various dates on the Anarchy In The UK tour, quipped, 'We came out of it looking like a bunch of tossers, which we were, but not in that sense.'
Essential reading for anyone interested in this key period in the UK's musical and cultural history.
on 29 May 2011
John Savage wrote his brilliant revisionist tale of punk in the early 1990s. The dust had truly settled on punk by this point, the participants were all now in early middle age and ready to look back nostalgically on their youth and it is remarkable just how much punk nostalgia was around in the early 1990s. The Clash finally reached number one via a jeans advert in 1991, the Sex Pistols released a greatest hits compilation in 1992 which made the top 10 and serious rumours of a Pistols reformation began to circulate; the rumours it transpired were true and in 1996 they did just that. So in the midst a renewed interest in punk, if not a full blown revival, John Savage released the definitive tale of UK punk.
John Savage was a early convert to the punk cause; he saw an early Clash gig and in the words of his journal which he quotes throughout 'England's Dreaming' he was 'changed forever.' Savage, like many first generation punks, soon became involved in the fanzine scene; running off his own 'zine illicitly on the photocopier of the stuffy law firm where he worked as a clerk. Many rock writers of renown got a leg up into the music biz this way and the DIY ethos of punk changed much in the UK music scene.
Savage sets the scene brilliantly; the UK he depicts and from which punk emerges is a fly-blown land living off past glories, a place of decayed capitalism and urban squalor. Savage is a first class sociologist and his approach to punk is an intellectual one. Not all punks saw it that way of course, Steve Jones and Paul Cook clearly wanted to be rich rock stars like The Faces and they embraced their own low rent version of the rock and roll fantasy by stealing equipment from their heroes and stealing clothes from Malcolm McLaren's boutique. Such are the origins of UK punk. Had the Pistols not been a band of startling uniqueness punk rock would never have taken off; underneath it all were four working class kids from deprived or dysfunctional backgrounds and somehow they changed rock history. You can't really theorise about that or even explain it! This is perhaps the only criticism I would make of the book: Savage should have said more about working class London. The Pistols were real kids from Shepherds Bush and Finsbury Park who were trying to escape poverty, they had their own reasons for doing what they did.
Savage follows the Pistols from formation to break up. He clearly understands their appeal, their context (there is a brilliant line for line dissection of the lyrics of 'God Save The Queen' about half way through the book) and he also understands their contradiction: they sang about autonomy and control and yet they were ripped off and manipulated like all their clueless teenage pop star contemporaries. Lydon's bitterness over this issue was not resolved during Malcolm McLaren's lifetime; though the court case of 1986, documented extensively at the end of the book at least gave the band some money-at last!)
Punk rock was a complicated social phenomenon. Mainstream society hated it-staff at the pressing plant in Hayes, Middlesex walked out on strike rather than press Pistols records; their records (although bona fide hits) were completely ignored by all radio stations (apart from John Peel)and they had to incur the sort of tabloid ire that is normally reserved for serial killers. Since the late seventies however, the Pistols have undergone a process of commodification; their music is much more socially acceptable as society has changed. Many people would go so far as listing John Lydon as a 'national treasure!' It is very easy for the contemporary listener to forget what a shock the Pistols were in 1977.
The Britain of the 1970s was a scary place: picket line violence, IRA bombings, NF marches, football hooligans, violent armed robberies...this violence inevitably seeped over into the music scene and the Pistols were very much in keeping with the spirit of their troubled age. The idea that a band can challenge society and be genuinely subversive just doesn't exist any more. All of this comes out in the book and I'd recommend it to anyone who wants to better understand that troubled decade now long ago.
on 1 March 2010
The most erudite account of the rise and fall of punk ever written. Gives the phenomenon its just place in 20th century pop culture--and underpins why punk music attracted more than just the young, drunk and stupid.
The funda-mental problem with the histories of punk is akin to the men and women parading with medals, attending reunions and other services whose conduct was not remembered at the time. Many climbed aboard, like those who "saw" action in WW2. This has created a particular problem in creating a definitive history. The reasons why people make these claims is to cling onto a piece of glory. Usually because their lives have no existential meaning they incorporate an event, place or activity into their being and live within it. They may be so deluded they actually believe their own fabrication.
Jon Savage was an original protagonist, on the outside in. Remaining sober enough to recollect events taking place. With enough time and distance he produced a brilliant, lucid, intelligent and comprehenive page turner.
For people born after the events, he documents an important piece of social history. For those who lived through it Jon has assembled all of the jig saw pieces and arranged them to provide coherence. It is a remarkable study akin to Beevor's "Stalingrad" in writing skill.
At the time in 60's/70'/80's young people's social history was completely rewritten out of the cannon, deliberately ignored. Young people were patronised as feeble minded, their worlds not worth anything, valueless. The grubby hands of power were all held by those in their 30's going on 60 in belief. People looked older, thought older and behaved like old people, absorbing all the worst possible aspects of hatred, bitterness and condesencion backed with violence to anyone who challenged their myopic view.
These events, documented by Jon, provoked a huge reaction and counter reaction. This self satisfied smug world of the older generation began to fragment under the challenge. Unfortunately the liberation from one set of ideologies entailed the unleashing of a deluge of dross tumbling from the heavens to silence these provocateurs.
The continuing importance of the Pistols was to highlight how refusal can be transformed and incorporated into everyday living. The class alliance between middle class refuseniks and working class visionaries, alebit all trapped in other personal psychological dimensions, shook the sterile vacuous foundational myths of the British establishment. It was a one fingered salute to everything held dear and precious by the social climbing elite. Self satisfied smug little Daily Mail/Express/Telegraph worlds essentially based on hypocrisy as evidenced by the numerous scandals pouring from the cupboards of infidelity and power crazed abuse of those without self knowledge. The people who undertook this attack were young and were placed under enormous social and psychological pressures.
Jon Savage captures all of this and more within his book, locating the music, the ideas, social and political events as they unfolded. The writing is clear and has a momentum of a spy thriller, cleverly crafted and brimming with energy and ideas. If you ever want to read one book about life in the 70's then this is it. TheFilth and the Fury also documents the 70's malaise.
on 17 April 2011
This book deserves every one of the accolades it was awarded at the time. It is a meticulously researched and lucidly written account of the genesis, development and ultimate demise of the late 70s "punk rock" movement spearheaded by The Sex Pistols, a group of working class urchins from London, and their street hustler manager Malcolm McLaren. The casual reader will be more interested in the narratives dealing with McLaren's activities on the avant garde fringe of the sex fetish/fashion industry and the Pistols' rise from a bunch of talentless roughnecks hanging around London's pub rock scene to global notoriety as purveyors of snarling 2 chord nihilism, social antagonism and aggression.
Savage presents near definitive accounts of the early bust ups with law enforcement, the Bill Grundy show expletives episode (which made the Pistols tabloid fodder for the next 2 years), EMI's dumping of the band (which actually hurt the company more than the band), the controversy over "God Save The Queen" (the true No 1 record in the country during Jubilee week in 1977), the chaotic tours, mutual loathing of John Lydon and McLaren and the demise of Sid Vicious from a vulnerable, impressionable teenager to a self-destructive manic depressive hooked for life on hard drugs to the extent that one morning in October 1978 he finds himself charged with knifing his junkie girlfriend in the stomach after a row about their latest smack deal.
However, I was most interested in Savage's eloquent passages about the historical and cultural context of the Pistols and punk rock generally. Early in the book he talks about how post-war mass consumer enfranchisement was exposed as a sham by the 1970s and how the country's social life had degenerated into warring factions. This was the cradle where punk was born. On the Pistols' music he observes that at a time "when songs generally dealt with the pop archetypes of escape or love, they threw up a series of insults and rejections, couched in a new pop language that was tersely allusive yet recognizable as everyday speech". Later he argues that the band were "the last gasp of youth as a single unifying force", that they "reasserted the primacy of pop as the divining rod of the times at the very moment when they predicted its loss of power in the 1980s, weakened by power politics, cynicism and demographics" and that they "said "No" so forcefully the world had been forced to listen". And on that theme he concludes his wonderfully intelligent book writing thus "History is made by those who say "No" and Punk's utopian heresies remain its gift to the world".
on 9 August 2015
An excellent telling of the story of punk, especially the rise and plateau of the Sex Pistols. Set in its correct socio-economic and historical context, this is an exceptional read, explaining both the rise and demise of punk as a music and a sub-cultural youth movement. For those who lived through these times it evokes clear memories, of both the good and the bad. It gives a clear indication as to why the Sex Pistols were punk and the Clash were not. It is clear on the part played by those behind the scenes--although Maclom McLaren has a lot to answer for--as does Eric Hall, who shares some responsibility for the Grundy incident, which ultimately led to the decline of the Pistols. Savage is an excellent writer, who portrays the life and times of punk with a keen eye, yet somehow maintains a high degree of objectivity.
on 10 August 2013
Read this on hols and can remember the events as if it were yesterday. Jon Savage's brilliant behind the scenes account of the rise and fall of the Sex Pistols (and other related punk bands) as they emerged from the avant garde scene in New York, superbly put into the context of anarchist political theory, and then onwards to the sad fate of Sid Vicious. A great read and you don't need to be aged 50 or so to enjoy the tale of the best band ever