England’s Dreaming: Anarchy, the Sex Pistols, Punk Rock, and Beyond. – book reviews
Jon Savage. St. Martin’s, 27.95. Since punk rock’s demise–arguably on January 14, 1978, when the Sex Pistols’ lead singer, Johnny Rotten, walked off stage for the last time in San Francisco muttering, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”–punk has been analyzed by countless sociologically inclined pop critics. Greil Marcus’ Lipstick Traces took an ambitious, if occasionally preposterous, stab at linking punk to every disruptive impulse since the sacking of Carthage; Simon Frith and Howard Horne’s Art Into Pop picked apart the naive myth that punk was an “eruption from the gutters of inner-city recession” and showed instead that it was instigated mainly by middle-class art school students. A colleague of mine at The Economist, Michael Elliott, went so far as to suggest that by unleashing a teeming generation of artists and street-bred entrepreneurs, punk did more to resurrect the British economy in the eighties than did Margaret Thatcher. Not only that: It had a better beat.
Like the movement itself, the best writing about punk has been intellectually audacious. Sadly, Savage’s book isn’t. I say sadly because in its best moments, England’s Dreaming hints briefly, frustratingly, at answers to the hard questions about punk and the social/political circumstances that gave the movement its force–circumstances that, in some ways, called punk into being. Sadly because it is clear Savage has at least some sense that these issues are the ones his colleagues have yet to sort out. And sadly because England’s Dreaming is so obviously a labor of love, a devoted fan’s failed attempt to make sense of the passion that has fueled his life’s work.
Savage says, for instance, that “the Sex Pistols can be seen as a last gasp of youth culture as a single, unifying force–that sixties ideal which all those concerned with the group both hated and loved.” An intriguing claim. But he leaves it at that, never identifying which forces, whether corporate (global media conglomerates) or consumer (fragmented teenage audiences), came into play after punk to destroy this unity. To back the idea, Savage would also need to explain Madonna, Michael Jackson, and Bruce Springsteen–three superstars who arrived in the post-punk epoch and meant more to the world’s youth than Johnny Rotten ever did.
Often, what bits of analysis there are in England’s Dreaminng consist of little more than a few declarative sentences lined up in a row. “All pop movements have started with elites–and none, to that date, more self-consciously than punk–but there is always a point where the elite loses control. That point is reached when the mass market and mass media take over, a necessary process if a movement is to become pop. . . . Punk was a living exemplar of the subcultural process: The dispossessed gain cultural access, but at a price. Pop music is the site of this sale and the record companies are the auctioneers.” These are assertions, not arguments–and predictable, incoherent assertions at that. Was Chuck Berry an “elite”? Elvis Presley? Do elites drive the “subcultural process,” or do “the dispossessed”? Whichever it is, it can’t be both.
It’s a rich subject, and Savage tends to get carried away, but at least he gives it a shot. Unlike some pop critics, he knows that punk’s history only makes sense as part of a bigger story–the story of Britain, especially London, in the mid-seventies. And a grim story it is: unemployment at record postwar levels, double-digit inflation, a toppling currency, and plummeting living standards. The dominant symbols of the time were shabby grey council estates–tenements–and ever-lengthening dole queues. The Callaghan government seemed unable to govern. Strikes, race riots, rising street crime–a whiff of apocalypse was in the air. A 1975 editorial on the state of the nation in England’s most popular tabloid, The Sun, opened with the words, “Already the vultures are darkening the skies.” Britain in the mid-seventies was, in Christopher Hitchens’ phrase, “like Weimar without the nightclubs.”
Savage summons up these ghosts, describing a milieu in which punk’s appeal to the young–frustrated, angry, or simply bored–was natural. The music may have been made by the middle-class art students, but its nihilistic (or negationist, if you like energy and revolutionary intimations were resonant nonetheless. As rock critic Lester Bangs wrote, punk rockers were “authentic because their music carrie[d] such brutal conviction, not because they [were] Noble Savages.”
Of course, punk music may have been just another commodity. The managing director of the Clash’s record label at the time said, “I wasn’t interested in looking at the Clash as a social phenomenon; we were just making records.” But it was a commodity that managed to threaten a large group of people who, as a matter of course, write off pop as frivolous, irrelevant, and inconsequential.
It’s easy to forget just how unnerving punk was to that group–the British establishment–which was trying desperately to hold together a society on the verge of disintegration. But recall: In May 1977, in the midst of the rather desperate national celebration of Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee as Queen of England, the Sex Pistols released a single called “God Save the Queen.” In it were the lyrics;
God save the Queen
The fascist regime.
It made you a moron
A potential H-Bomb.
God save the Queen
She’s not a human being.
There is no future
In England’s dream.
Within days, the tabloid press had headlines reading “Punish the Punks.” People obliged. The Pistols were attacked by the police and by citizens with razor blades. The song was banned from radio by the government. A member of the Labour Party (the left wing, remember) said, “If pop music is going to be used to destroy our established institutions, then it ought to be destroyed first.”
Looking back, all this seems hysterical. Punk was never going to destroy anyone’s established institutions. Like every great pop movement before or since, punk would have its zenith and then fade, leaving society’s foundations intact. This is a basic point that Savage never quite comes to grips with. Instead, he wrings his hands over the potential implications of punk’s politics, which were always more than a little opaque. As he points out, the Sex Pistols and other bands were often accused of harboring neo-Nazi sympathies. That many punkers displayed swastikas prominently on their clothing did nothing to dispel this notion. And if such insinuations were ambiguous–the swastika more a shock-tactic symbol of defiance than a coherent political statement–Savage, a good liberal, still frets over a latent right -wing, even Thatcherite, subtext in punk’s libertarian, do-it-yourself rhetoric. (Few punks, and certainly not the Sex Pistols, would have denied being capitalists.) “As it became clear that the country had to make a choice,” he worries, “which side would the punks be on?”
There is rich irony here. Savage’s reading of punk’s politics is as literal as that of the people he scorns–the smug, insular British establishment that saw a bunch of black-leather-clad kids with spiked hair and safety-pin earrings and thought them a genuine menace. But it’s precisely pop’s political ambivalence that makes it interesting. When rock musicians become responsible, worthy spokesmen for right-on causes, churning out PC lyrics and performing in endless charity benefits, they become impossibly boring–just look at Sting. Punk seemed dangerous to some in Britain in 1977 for much the same reason rap seems dangerous to some in America today: It’s “program” was radical, sometimes troubling, but more than that, it spoke in tongues that parents just didn’t understand. This is nothing new to pop–think of Elvis. But the fact that pop music can continue periodically to make so many so nervous says more about us than than it does about the music.
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