Jon Savage interview

Jon Savage: England’s Dreaming. The Sex Pistols and Punk Rock – interviewThe new edition of England’s Dreaming is out now via Faber & Faber and Rough Trade as part of the bundle including two other pivotal Savage’s books – Teenage and 1966.

Among the variety of works on the history of punk, England’s Dreaming: The Sex Pistols and Punk Rock by Jon Savage remains one of the most meticulous and striking accounts of 70s music. Its groundbreaking quality was perfectly summed up by Charles Shaar Murray whose quote adorns the cover of the first paperback edition: ‘A hole-in-one, grand-slam knockout of a book’. Marking the 30th anniversary this year, the book presents a multidimensional image of the era that resonates impressively with the current moment, defined by the hunger for change.

With its resonating quality, the book continues to trigger a response from younger generations of readers. The new edition is supplemented with a novel introduction by the graphic designer Scott King and the artist Jeremy Deller who discuss the impact of this phenomenal work on their lives and cultural context in general. Both were in their early 20s when England’s Dreaming came out. The sense of urgency the book evoked in them was, perhaps, similar to the feeling that many attendees experienced after seeing The Sex Pistol’s performance. “I immediately thought I’ve got to at least try and do something, rather than get a job in advertising, selling spaghetti hoops”, Scott King underlines the beguiling effect of the book. The emotional overtones of his words, indeed, do not seem far from what Howard Trafford and Peter McNeish (who would later be known as Howard Devoto and Pete Shelley) were musing on the night following the gig of The Sex Pistols in High Wycombe in 1976.

They returned with an increased sense of urgency: ‘After we’d seen them, Howard and I were sleeping in the living room,’ says Peter, ‘as we were going off to sleep Howard was quizzing me, like if we got our band started, what was my commitment. Would I stick with it? Was it a hobby or was I into living the life? And I said: ‘ Yeah, I’m into living the life”.’

(England’s Dreaming)

Constructing the narrative with voices of key figures witnessing the formation of the movement, the book channels the idea of punk as a shaking action causing offbeat patterns in the kaleidoscope of life. This also means that it gave many people the opportunity to be what they wanted to be. “That was the punk genius really”, says Jon Savage. “For a lot of people it had that effect of whatever they wanted to do, whether it be to design record sleeves or become a musician, just to be involved in pop culture, they easily realized they could do it. And then suddenly from being isolated you are all together. And that was a fantastic feeling. But it didn’t last long. It was a revolutionary moment. People talk about 1968 in that way”.

As a historian and researcher, Savage presents the era with chronological precision. The book is divided into five parts corresponding to periods that altogether cover an eight-year span, starting from December 1971 and finishing in May 1979. However, placing Malcolm McLaren/ Vivienne Westwood narrative as a centrepiece for the first chapter, the author dives deeper beyond the time frame: inevitably, the 60s come to the fore as the time when the couple met and started playing with volatile ideas. Various incarnations of their shop on King’s Road, from Teds-oriented Let it Rock to forward-looking SEX, are described in such detail that can be easily conjured up in one’s imagination.

Relying on intertextuality, England’s Dreaming mirrors the postmodern context of the decade that addresses both the Rock’n’Roll drive of the 50s and the edgier garage mood of the 60s. Each new chapter contains relevant epigraphs and quotations, embracing sources as diverse as Mikhail Bakunin, Carl Jung, Arthur Rimbaud, punk fanzines, lyrics etc. Compiled together (not to mention the archival images), they provide the book with a solid sense of interconnectedness and visual quality.

Supported by a strong theoretical framework, the narrative reveals the socio-cultural background of punk – from ideas manifested by Situationist International to anarchism. Having emerged from several avant-garde movements, e.g. COBRA and Lettrism, the SI employed various art practices that attempted to inject one’s imagination with a dizzying sense of possibility. Indeed, later one learns how, being aware of these tools for creative conversion and fired up by the demand for the impossible, Malcolm McLaren carefully constructed his own society of the spectacle. ‘I have the idea of the singer looking like Hitler, those gestures, arm shapes etc. and talking about his mum in incestuous phrases’, he declares at the end of the first chapter. What follows is known as a part of British history these days. Introducing the decade, the catalogue of images from the Daily Mail archive displays a portrait of Johnny Rotten, performing during the UK tour, shortly before signing with EMI.

 

Although initially inspired by American punk, the British analogue managed to break the boundaries between niche and mainstream. As a metaphorical stone, the Sex Pistols caused the ripples on the water of a slumbering pond. It is this disturbance and arousal out of which the Manchester sound and other notable groups emerged. Apart from names that take over lengthy entries in Encyclopedia of Popular Music, England’s Dreaming pays homage to bands whose commercial success was more limited. The pages about the early (and brilliant) Subway Sect describe their music as “coming in at the oblique angles of a group like Television”. The arty approach of the New York scene was exercised.

Despite the brief lifespan of the Sex Pistols, their high-octane existence turned on irreversible processes. Saturated with turbulent events, both from the life of the band (death of Sid, court battles between McLaren and Lydon) and the political context of Britain (victory of the Conservatives), the last part of the book comes up with a reassuring statement: “Punk was beaten, but it had also won. If it had been the project of the Sex Pistols to destroy the music industry, then they had failed; but as they gave it new life, they allowed a myriad of new forms to become possible.”

In the conversation with Louder Than War, Jon Savage told more about England’s Dreaming as well as his approach to writing.

Louder Than War: Teenage, 1966 and England’s Dreaming seem to have one common motif – youth subcultures in the context of the history of music. Was there an idea to create a series of books that would develop one theme?

Jon Savage: No, I didn’t set out to write a trilogy but they all have consistency. I suppose everything I do has a consistency which I think is good for an author. It’s not planned, it’s just the way it has turned out really. I know all about different periods so, Teenage covers a period from 1875 to 1944, 1966 is about 1966, this book tells a story until 1977 – all the doubles. There is a consistency there which I didn’t really realize until my publisher suggested doing so. It’s part of the ongoing relationship with Faber & Faber. I’ve been published by them since 1984.

LTW: Is there a feeling that England’s Dreaming obtains a new interpretation these days, considering all changes the society has undergone since both the late 70s and 1991 when the book was originally published?

JS: It was already historical when it came out, it was published nearly 20 years after these events. The period I’m writing about is 45 years ago, it’s a long time. People ask me “Is punk rock relevant now?”, I say “No, it’s historical”. It’s become a youth archetype. It’s an off-the-peg thing that people could wear. There are elements of punk outside Europe, outside North America, people still find that culture interesting and inspiring enough to be doing something new with it. In England, America and Europe, I think, it’s pretty much dead. And that’s OK, it’s a long time ago. But I don’t know how younger people see it. And it would be up to them to tell me really.

LTW: To me, it feels like a homecoming. The discovery of music from the past. It’s something subconscious. Maybe akin to the hauntological aspect of nostalgia – when you were not there but have an unexplainable urge to go back in time. There is something that triggers us to explore things that we are not conscious about.

JS: Yes, and in a way, that’s how music works. The initial impact of music is on a non-intellectual level. It’s a physiological thing, it’s an emotional thing. But I get really bored with a lot of nostalgia in pop culture. I can’t stand it, I think it’s very tedious. To me, there is a difference between nostalgia and history. These works are history [Teenage, 1966, England’s Dreaming], they are not works saying “I was there, wasn’t it fantastic?” There is a lot of music writing like that. And I find it really boring, to be honest. I’m not interested. But I’m interested in a well-made history.

LTW: Isn’t nostalgia a feeling that music writers in magazines such as MOJO attempt to evoke in their audience? Isn’t the audience craving for this sort of feeling?

JS: Up to a point, the audience of certain ages, harking back to their youth. But you know, there is so much one can indulge this and certainly in my books I don’t. I do regard them as proper works of history. So they are not necessarily feeding that. In fact, they are designed to make people think about something familiar in a different and new way.

LTW: Do you picture your audience when writing a book?

JS: No, I’m not self-conscious about my writing and I’m not self-conscious about what I do, I’m just trying to do the best I can. And of course, it is a great source of wonder when people like your books, and you have to keep that a source of wonder rather than anything else. But you can’t write for people, it just doesn’t work that way. I tend to realize that enough people like what I do, so I’d rather just continue doing what I do. To be honest, I find a lot of music journalism – I mean I quite enjoy it – but I find it magazine-esque, it’s not really with much depth in it. I mean there are a few pieces but if you are trading in nostalgia, it’s going to be fairly superficial.

LTW: As a historian and researcher, you have a different approach to writing compared to that of a journalist. Your presence in the book [England’s Dreaming] is reduced to diary entries.

JS: Diary entries are there just to put myself in the book. But they are pretty minimal. And the thing about the book is that I talk to a hundred people. There is plenty of stuff that is not about me. So there is a disguised thought of biography, that is not overt autobiography.

LTW: In one of those entries you mention your experience of seeing a first proper punk band – the Clash. Throughout the book, many speakers mention the sense of urgency that punk emanated. When did you realize the importance of what was happening?

JS: I was primed by the first Patti Smith album and very much by the Ramones which I was obsessed with during the spring of 1976. So I knew, I knew that something was going to happen. And I was very isolated and very angry at that time. So when I saw the Clash I realized that like that (snapping fingers – ed.). And again it wasn’t an intellectual feeling, it was just like – press the button, and you are there. And I just knew that I had to get involved, sometimes you just know things. And I suppose I was trying to understand what that moment meant by writing a book actually. Because it was a very very powerful moment. I saw the Clash a week later, then the Sex Pistols and the Damned a week after that. By the end of November, within a month, I’d seen the first three British punk bands. I knew that this was happening. I was doing a fanzine [London’s Outrage – ed.] which was the first step in me becoming a writer which is what I wanted to do. I made that decision to be a writer that summer in 1976.

LTW: Reading England’s Dreaming sometimes feels similar to watching a film – documentary or art house. You have quite a lot of experience in visual arts. Does it have an impact on the way you write?

JS: My approach in visual arts is always montage and collage. I’m not sure whether that translates exactly into the books but I’m very interested in the way things look and so I often write about the way things look or the way somebody looks. I’m always thinking about visual images while I’m writing. It isn’t just about the writing itself and the text on a page, it’s about how the book is going to look. How it’s broken up, how you see it on a page. Mainly how to break the book up. What are the pauses, what is the structure. Because if it’s just one long text, no one’s going to read it. I’d like people to know where they are in the book. And for there to be definite chapters.

LTW: There is an obvious difference between the American and British punk scenes. Whereas the former is predominantly middle-class, the latter had a lot of working-class people involved. Would it be right to say that in America punk was a response to the boredom of consumerism, while in Britain the action was caused by political circumstances?

JS: The thing about the British scene is that it was a class mix of people being involved. So look at The Clash. Actually, Joe Strummer was a middle-class/upper-middle-class dropout. It was a mixture of classes. And it’s powerful. If it had been just the working class, it wouldn’t have been so powerful. A mixture of the classes in a very class-stratified country like England is very very powerful. And that gave it its power. The thing about British and American punk, particularly the CBGB’s punk, is that all musicians, the Sex Pistols, in particular, were half a decade younger, maybe more, and the American groups were more conceptual, they were artier. By the way, I have to say that I really like Television, the Ramones and Talking Heads, it’s just that they are different. They came from that downtown culture. You know, Warhol, New York Dolls, all these fed into that. Whereas English punk bands were – you know, it is a difference between Television’s See No Evil, where Tom Verlaine says “I understand all destructive urges”, and Johnny Rotten’s “get pissed, destroy”. So the English version is much more direct and the people involved are younger. And it is because of the nature of England as the country of a centralized media, unlike America where it is very difficult to break a record nationally. The English punk bands were plugged into the music press and the national press very very quickly. And they could get record deals. That took American groups a lot longer. So it’s a completely different situation. I really like both. I really like West Coast punk. I really got annoyed with how England tried to kind of playing punk for its own. Punk was interesting because it was an idea, it was trying to create proper 70s music that had no 60s hangovers. That was the idea.

In America, one of the reasons that punk happened was that the late 60s won. I remember going to Los Angeles in 1978 to visit punk bands and the radio was just full of Fleetwood Mac, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. That generation had won and was dominating the media. And in fact, would shut punk out. I think it was just a response to the times. It was an economic downturn. The great energy of the 60s had blown itself out. There wasn’t any over political engagement. I think it’s a mixture of all these things.

LTW: In the book, you describe 1978 as the year when “pop’s linear time was shattered forever: there would be no more unified “movement” but tribes, as pop time became forever multiple, postmodern”. The same process was happening on the verge of the 60s and 70s, which was catalyzed by The Beatles’ split. Did the end of the Sex Pistols have a somewhat similar effect on the cultural context?

JS: I’ve never really thought about this in that way really. To me, the Sex Pistols after the Jubilee were almost an afterthought. I had an opportunity to go and see them in December 1977 and I didn’t go because I couldn’t be bothered. I thought they were over and everything was moving so fast that the punk scene seemed to me to be over by autumn 1977. I was interested in synthesizer groups, I Feel Love, Heroes by Bowie, I was interested in West Coast punk, I wasn’t interested in English punk anymore. It did happen very quickly and then it was gone. When The Sex Pistols split up I didn’t really see it as significant at all. I was more interested in Devo and Pere Ubu. So I didn’t see it that way at all.

Jon Savage: England’s Dreaming. The Sex Pistols and Punk Rock – interview At the Screamers video shoot at Target Video, Oakland, August 1978. Jon Savage in centre, right of V. “Valhalla” Vale. The Screamers Tomata Du Plenty blurred front centre. Picture by Ruby Ray.

LTW: England’s Dreaming came out in 1991. What was the attitude towards punk around that time? Why did you make a decision to write the book around that time?

JS: I haven’t read any account of punk that came near my experience on it. So as the first book, it does relate to my personal experience. The interesting thing for me about writing Teenage is that it doesn’t relate to my personal experience. One of the ways in which I could get a handle of Teenage is to think of my grandparents, my older relatives who were born in the first years of the 20th century and that helped me locate myself in the book. I think it’s a mistake to write about something you’ve experienced – you ought to be using your imagination. But with England’s Dreaming, I hadn’t read anything that matched my experience of punk rock and people weren’t very encouraging when I was writing it. They were saying “all that’s over now, it’s boring, it’s not very interesting”. And that was exactly the time that I should have done this and did do this because the responses I got in the interviews were quite candid, there wasn’t an established narrative of punk at that point. That was a very good time to do it.

LTW: How long did it take to compile all materials together and write it?

JS: I did the bulk of the interviews between 1988 and 1990. And then the book took me six months to write, which is a young man’s feat. I couldn’t do that now.

LTW: You dedicated this book to your grandfather.

JS: Because when I was writing it, I felt his presence very strongly. My grandfather was very into music, he was a jazz fan, and went to see the Original Dixieland jazz band. It was the first very successful jazz band. They played in England in 1920 when my grandfather went to see them at the Hammersmith Palais. So I have a history with music and love for it through him. And he died in the middle of the whole period [1977] and didn’t really mourn him. So it was a way of saying “thank you for everything, I should have mourned you more but I was too young”.

Bundle of England’s Dreaming, 1966 and Teenage by Jon Savage can be ordered online via Rough Trade.

All words by Irina Shtreis. More writing by Irina can be found in her author’s archive.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. Never mind Bakunin and Jung, do The Stranglers get much of a mention this time?
    Any reliable history of punk needs to mention all the key players without any revisionism.

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